Nathan Carter: ‘I drove older people away from dance halls’

Photo: James Connolly

Nathan Carter needs no introduction to Irish World readers. A decade on from his debut at the Irish World awards in Cricklewood the Liverpool-Irish singer and bandleader is one of Ireland’s most popular domestic acts. He tells Michael McDonagh about looking to break beyond just Ireland into the UK, the US and Europe.

The Irish World: Ireland is a small country and you can’t keep going around and around so you need to break out. Any plans to expand into Europe or even America?

“That’s what we are doing now. I’m trying to break into America at the minute, and then Germany and Holland, and other places in Europe.”

IW: You have quite a big band and crew, is it hard to keep that overhead going?

“There are six, plus myself, and we have a crew of five people. It can be hard at times to keep it going. Some people seem to think I’m a millionaire making loads of money every night but that isn’t the case. The good gigs pay for the less lucrative gigs, which we do to build the fan base and it is a constant investment back into it to build it up.”

“Like, we are going to America on Monday for near enough a month and each gig has sold between 3-400 tickets, which is fantastic for us. It is a great start but it costs a lot for us to be away for so long.

“We are basically over in America for the guts of a month, which is the longest tour I have ever done outside of the UK and Ireland and the longest we have ever been away. There are a lot of miles to cover.”

IW: Did you use PBS to help get your name known, as it is such a big country to break into?

“Yes, I did. This is our second time as the first time it kind of flopped – it was screened at 1 am in the morning on certain stations and that is no use to us. Who is watching TV at that time? This time it has worked better as it got prime time TV slots at nine or ten o’clock at night and it has clicked with a lot of the places, which is great.”

“We give them the tickets and they make money off the tickets, where they publicise the gig, so PBS TV has been a big help.”

IW: Daniel O’Donnell obviously broke out of Ireland to become a concert attraction here in the UK through albums then America through PBS but the record business has changed so much in recent years do you think it is harder to crossover now?

“Without a doubt. If I had a specialist Irish label like Ritz/Rosette behind me at the beginning it would have probably happened a lot sooner and it would be a lot easier. Nowadays you are doing it off your own bat so you have to go out and meet people, meet the TV executives, take them to dinner and the usual wining and dining to try and impress and get them on your side.”

IW: You did sign to a major label Decca but that did not seem to work out for you.

“It didn’t, no, they did not seem to know what to do with me.

“I signed a £750,000 deal with Decca and the first album they released was a compilation, like a ‘Best Of’, from my earlier tracks which they remixed and remastered but that was not the right place to start. I did not want to do that and did not want that stuff to be my introduction to the UK market.

“They just did not get the Irish scene at all. They are good at jazz and opera singers and other ‘middle of the road’ (MOR) stuff and I had hoped they would be good for me but they spent a load of money on TV advertising and did get me a good few interviews but they just did not know what to do with me and did not understand where I was at.

“Their Radio 2 pluggers at the time could not get any Radio 2 play and that would have helped tremendously. Wogan did play me a couple of times as he had always supported the Irish, but then, sadly, he passed away, so it was hard.

“The problem with major labels is that a lot of the people who work for them are not really music people.

“I have absolutely no doubt if I had been on the scene about twenty years ago it would have been a lot easier. But I’m not complaining.”

IW: Of course, in those days there was money to be made from record sales.

“I have definitely come to realise now that it is all about the gigging as the money from downloads is ‘sh*te’. It is crazy and it really has changed even in the eight or nine years I’ve been on the scene. It really is all down to gigging as there is no money in the records anymore.

“When we had Wagon Wheel out we got about five million hits and there was an advert put on with it on YouTube and we got excited but when we got paid my share from it was only about £100 quid and we thought it would be worth £50,000, for f***’s sake, it is crazy.”

IW: There are some who say that you are responsible for the revival of Country Music in Ireland and that it was you who made it cool and brought in a younger crowd but others say that you are not really doing country so you have not helped the country and Irish scene. How do you feel about that?

“Well, I suppose I have seen a massive change even since I was doing the dance halls four or five years ago because we stopped doing them then and started doing concerts. I have seen it go from the adult dances with the more senior people going to them to the young teenage kids, especially in Northern Ireland, all coming to dance halls.

“I was only 21-22 at the time and they were 18, 19 or 20 and they started coming into the dance halls and we packed them out.”

IW: Did that drive some of the older regulars out?

“It did because I was getting daytime play on the local stations, which the older country bands had not been able to get, so that got me to a younger audience. The songs I was doing were mainly covers of Green Day and stuff that appealed to them and they came to the dances in huge numbers and that changed the dances from the people in their ‘50s and older who had been going to them.

“We were now getting the doors closed at 7pm, because there were 700 people in, which had never been seen before because those places were never really for teenagers.

“Then I left that scene and the funny thing then was that the teenagers by then were now getting married and having kids so they did not really want to be going to the dances anymore, so we lost a few of them until we built up the concert scene. Now they are older they come to the concerts.”

IW: Mick Flavin says the whole Nathan Carter–Derek Ryan country revival in the dance halls was a fad.

“He’s right, and then RTE came to the country scene, a bit late, and made it cool by doing a country special but what they were doing was so ‘three years ago’ and it has all moved on, it has kind of faded since then. So, I think it was a fad yes. But don’t get me wrong. The dance halls are still very important and people are going to them in big numbers for for Derek Ryan, and Lisa McHugh, and people like that – but not to the same extent as it was when I was playing them.”

IW: You played the Feis in Liverpool, working with people like Imelda May. Do you plan more collaborations and do you plan to go more pop?

“I had two shows with RTE and I did a lot of collaborations on those shows with the guests we had on singing with the likes of Imelda May or the boys from Westlife. I was doing duets from lots of different genres from pop songs to rock, with a bit of country, of course. There was trad, there was folk and for the first time ever I was singing different stuff with big stars from the past.

“It was great fun and I really enjoyed it and it pushed me to become better and, as they say, if you work with somebody really good then you get better yourself. Imelda May was incredible and for me she will be one of the acts that will be here for the next thirty or forty years.”

IW: Not many people realise that your big breakthrough hit Wagon Wheel was actually a cover of a Bob Dylan song. Will you be doing any more by Dylan and how do you pick your songs?

“Yes, it got laughed at when it came out first but when we said it was a Bob Dylan song all the ears picked up. I’m always looking for new songs.”

IW: The material you record has changed since you started. What direction are you going in now?

“When I started I was recording material that would be good for dances, like quick steps and waltzes, but for the last five years we have moved it on from that. I have always loved country stuff and Cajun stuff but I also love Irish Celtic folk stuff, and growing up as a kid we would see The Dubliners, Mary Black or Christy Moore and I loved that sort of stuff.

“To be honest, for my next project, I am going to record a Celtic Roots album drawing on those influences. You don’t have to be Irish to like Celtic influenced music. I am always looking ahead.”

BORN FOR THE ROAD, Nathan Carter’s UK 2019 tour tickets, on sale now and his new single “UNBELIEVABLE” is available to download or stream.

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