Child act to boy band to new country star
Keep It Country: Phil meets the Omagh singer who released his first album aged 8, shared a line-up with Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel and Neil Diamond at 13, joined a couple of US boybands, rapped with Snoop Dogg and formed an electropop duo with ex-Libertine Pete Doherty.
All a good solid grounding for his new career as an Irish Country and Western music rising star. Meet Lee Matthews…and he still has a few years to go before he turns 30.
Omagh man Lee Matthews is a young man going places. A few weeks ago he scooped the Irish TV Country Music Award Single of the Year for his version of Cotton Eye Joe, to add to his Hot Country Award.
Earlier this year he won Best New Band at the Sunday World Country Music Awards It’s probably safe to say Lee will be look back on 2015 with affection.
Lee, now 27, had a very early start to his show business career – at the age of 8 years old, as Lee Mulhern, he released an album, on cassette, Hey Good Looking, a selection of pop, country and ballads But then he grew up in a music-loving family, his song-writing mother Veronica was in Irish showbands in the 1980s, and with the radio always on, playing all kinds of music.
Lee, who became a country performer in 2013, says country music was always his favourite. As a child he loved Garth Brooks, the big country star at the time.
His family brought him to concerts and always encouraged him to get on stage and give a song, so from a very early age he got to share the stage with the likes of Daniel (O’Donnell), Hugo (Duncan), Philomena (Begley), Brian Coll and Michael English to sing songs like If Tomorrow Never Comes, I May Be Young, The River, Fields of Gold and Bright Eyes.
In 2001, aged 13, he performed in a Las Vegas New Year’s special on a bill with Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel and Neil Diamond.
Was he ever nervous or did he suffer stage fright?
“I think some kids at that age can be very shy, but I wasn’t shy at all. “It just wouldn’t bother me, even if there was hundreds and hundreds of people there, ‘cos in my head I was just having fun, ya know.
“When I look back now, it’s one thing I remember, never being nervous. I’m probably more nervous now than back then.” He kept singing till he was about 13, then took a short break from doing what he loved most in life to concentrate on his school work, returning to music aged 17.
Lee then travelled to America and joined a boy band for a while but behind the scenes he was always listening to country music’s Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. On returning to Ireland his family told Lee about this new lad, Nathan Carter, who was generating a buzz.
So he checked him out and realised that more and younger people were taking an interest and bringing with them more of a dance scene which just hadn’t been there before. He thought to himself ‘Why can’t I do that?’ so two years later, we have Lee with his own band and album, with a second record on the horizon.
He said: ”Unless you’re going to do something a hundred per cent, there’s no point. You have to be committed. You have to have the determination and the drive… and the right plan, and the right songs.
“There’s so much you need. You can’t half-do it. So I’ll do whatever it takes.” What was it that attracted him to Garth Brooks? “First of all, the songs but then the confidence he has as an artiste when he’s on stage. I’ve always been drawn to people like that, Freddie Mercury, Bono, those people.
“The way they have of delivering a song to an audience, but especially Garth (below). “To see somebody do what he did, making country music so big in a small country like Ireland.” As a performer Lee is fast becoming a firm favourite on the Irish music scene but he also has a talent for songwriting: “I think I wrote my first song when I was 17, and when I think back now, I don’t think it was very good,” he laughs.
“I started writing pop songs first, about five years ago, when I was in the boy band, and that was a learning experience as much as anything. “There’s no limit to what I can write, but at the moment, it’s what’s best suited to this genre, to the Irish country scene.
“Ideas can come even when I’m driving along in the car, but before I pull out the phone, I pull over, engine off, handbrake on, all of that! [he laughs]. “I sing into the phone and then leave it for a while and come back to it again.
The worst thing, though, is when you come up with a great song when asleep or falling asleep, and you think you’ll remember it, and in your mind you have it all written and produced and everything, ’til ya wake up… and can’t remember a word of it at all. All gone.”
Where does he get his inspiration?
“Usually it’s an idea. One time I was talking to a guy while we were on the road, getting ready for a show somewhere, and I was doing my hair in the mirror.
“When I walked away he looked in the mirror, and he was a good bit older than me, mind, and he goes, ‘Feck, why can’t I look like that?’ So I wrote a song called, Mirror On The Wall, a bit of a funny twist on what happened.
“Then there’s That Country Girl, about how when I first went out on the scene there was all these young and goodlooking country girls coming to the dances… so I got another song outta that. [laughs]. Irish In Your Eyes, too, same kind of thing.
“I’ve travelled around the world a bit and lived in America, and basically you’ll find the Irish everywhere, America, Berlin, the local, the gym.” Lee has also worked with international stars far from the country music scene, as Lee M with rappers Snoop Dogg, J. Pearl and Iyaz as well as with Pete (Libertines, Babyshambles) Doherty in an electro-pop duo, NXT-GEN: “When I was in the boy band in America we had a record deal with Warner Music, but one of the lads left the band and the whole deal collapsed.
“So I went home to try and find myself really, for want of a better way of saying it. “Then Paul (Tinney, Lee’s manager) got a phone call out of the blue one day saying there was a record label in LA looking for me to demo a song with IYAZ (an American rap artist). “So we went into a studio, did the vocals, sent them off and heard nothing for months.
“It must have been a year later we got another call out of the blue saying they had Snoop Dogg on the song now too and they were flying us to Milan to shoot the video. “So off we went to Milan and shot the video with all of these beautiful women around us.
“But it’s a sign of how competitive that pop market is, is that they released club mixes of the song but they never released it generally. “That kind of made me think that maybe that side of music wasn’t for me.”
On 6 September 2002 Lee performed at Ground Zero in New York, the site of the 9/11 World Trade Centre terrorist atrocity a year earlier: “I was still really young at the time, and I was asked to do this thing for the fire-fighters.
“They came over to Ireland and there was a concert for them with people like Ronnie Drew and myself. “My mum had this song called I May Be Young, that she wrote, a peace song, kind of thing. “I sang it at that concert and the fire-fighters asked me to come over and sing it at an event in New York.
“That was the original plan but before we got on the plane later that year, we got a phone call from Gerry Ryan in RTE.
“He’d seen the story in the papers. So he asked would I mind singing a song while he was doing a ‘live’ ceremony, and would I sing Fields of Gold? So I said, yeah, of course. “Even though I was young, and it was just the year after it happened, I knew how surreal it all was. It was so quiet there, nearly pure silence that day.”
Lee fills venues every week across Ireland, north and south of the Border, and is on many country line-ups overseas.
His current release is a cover of Travis Tritt’s It’s A Great Day To Be Alive, which also leads off his new album which, he says, is going to be ”the best album EVER”, featuring not just Cotton Eye Joe but songs like big ballad in Don’t Shut Me Out, written by Johnny Duhan and made famous by Christy Moore. “I’m a massive Christy Moore fan. I love how he performs songs and I really wanted to do a version of that song.
“So the new album is going to be the same, but hopefully even better. “I’m looking forward to having it out there, and that should be around October time.” Before we go, a hat tip to Anthony Sullivan, a talented songwriter who keeps an eagle eye on all the new, young talent emerging in Irish country music, for arranging this interview.