Back on dry land

Emerging Tipperary pop artist Johnny Bourke told David Hennessy about the worry he had when he was on a cruise ship stuck at sea for months during the pandemic, launching his new single in times of lockdown and working with the well known producer Jackson Dimiglio-Wood.

“There was a stage the last two weeks before I got home where I was starting to worry whether I would get home at all,” Tipperary singer-songwriter Johnny Bourke says of his time stuck on a cruise ship, unable to get off due to the spread of coronavirus and panic.

Princess Cruises ships became the focus of international attention when two were struck by outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Johnny and the other 2,000 passengers were locked down at Station Pier in Melbourne.

After letting the passengers off, Johnny and the other crew were left at sea with nowhere to go with borders closed and no country especially eager to take them.

Johnny told The Irish World: “I am quite a positive person. I like to look on the bright side but there was a period of about two weeks where I was starting to worry and for a lot of other people on the ship there was a month, two months where they really started to panic. It was a strain.

“They couldn’t get anyone home because the borders had closed and from what we could tell, and we weren’t told much by the company, we weren’t too sure if they were even trying to get us home because obviously it would be a big expense to them.”

Johnny was at sea from around St. Patrick’s Day until the middle of May.

“We did not touch land for about 60 days. Sometime before Paddy’s Day was the last time I saw land. 

“After we got rid of the guests, we were there in Melbourne for about two weeks just docked. Then coronavirus started to spread and they (Australia) absolutely closed the shop and pulled the shutters down. They completely closed the borders to everyone. We had to just stay on the ship.  We knew that no one on our ship actually had it.  Thankfully it all worked out well.”

Luckily for Johnny he was not on the Ruby Princess which is alleged to have set sail with at least one passenger already showing symptoms and where 158 passengers eventually fell ill.

“With the other ships it didn’t go as well. They ended up dropping off  a lot of passengers who had coronavirus. Now they’re having a criminal investigation brought against them by the Australian government. They’re under criminal investigation for letting them off without checking if anyone had coronavirus. 

“We weren’t checked. It just became apparent after a couple of weeks when no one got sick. Theoretically we could have been in the same situation because we let off 2,000 people. 

“We were in the Philippines docked there for a long time.  It took 36 hours of travelling to eventually get home. I got home eventually. Fair dues to ’em in that regard.”

A seasoned live performer, being stuck at sea was frustrating for Johnny as he was eager to get home to launch his debut track, Can’t Do Without.

How does it feel to be all set to launch your music when a pandemic throws a spanner in the works? “It’s not ideal at all. I’d like to be gigging for starters. The main feedback you’re going to get on whether a song is good or not is live. With streaming, people can be liking them on Facebook or Spotify but you don’t really know if they’re actually listening to the song or if they liked it. You can play a song live and see people clapping or not, that’s the real test. 

“It’s a benefit from a promotion aspect in that literally everybody is at home, everybody is on their Instagram and Facebooks 24/7. A lot more people are going to see the promo than would in normal life. Of course there is the downside, I can’t do any live work. I can’t reach people face to face which is something I do personally prefer. I like talking to people face to face not behind a screen.

“When live performances return, I will gladly take them up. There’s nothing I can do about it now. 

“We just have to remember that it could be worse. Most of us have the health and we’re safe. That’s what I’m trying to tell myself. It definitely could be worse.”

The uplifting track Can’t Do Without saw Johnny recording in London with renowned producer Jackson Dimiglio-Wood, who has worked with Shawn Mendes among others, and mastered by multiple Grammy winner Randy Merrill who has worked with names such as Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift. 

Johnny counts himself lucky to have got home when there was still plenty of summer left. 

“I knew this particular song had to be released in the summer because it has a very summery vibe, it’s a very summery track. We finished it last September. It’s not a song you can put out in winter so I said I would wait for summer 2020.

“I actually recorded the song last summer and I wrote it the summer before so it’s been two years in the making. 

“The cruise was actually a last minute thing. They offered me a contract. I said I would do it for five months. Then I would come back in May but then with coronavirus, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be home at all. 

“If it went past the summer I knew I wouldn’t be able to put the song out until 2021. I was a little bit stressed about that but it actually all worked out. Summer release, all good. 

“I couldn’t even set a release date until I knew when I was going to be home. Within a day of me getting home, I literally launched straight into the promo. 

“Then there was the financial aspect. I was supposed to come home to 50 weddings but sure, it could be worse.”

So how did a humble wedding singer come to be working with a lauded producer like Jackson Dimiglio-Wood? “It was a pinch myself moment but when the moment came around, I actually didn’t react too much and I’ll tell you why. 

“I’ve been writing songs seriously for about two or three years. I knew that I didn’t want to completely go it on my own. I think a lot of musicians, a lot of Irish artists in particular, make a slight mistake in that the first music that they put out is often not the best quality. It can be a great song and a great idea but I don’t think the execution is always fantastic and I think a lot of that is budget and eagerness to get it out. 

“I didn’t want to launch straight into it: Put out a couple of songs and have them fade away into nothing. 

“I made the decision very early on that I wasn’t going to do that. I wanted the first song I put out to be the absolute highest quality it could be. My plan was to save up as much money as I can and then be able to make an offer to someone of top of the line quality. The target I set myself was to get five or six songs that I was very happy with and I knew were good but they just needed that little bit of magic dust. I did that and then I just bombarded every single producer that I could think of. I sent hundreds of emails, contacted hundreds of people trying to get the producer I wanted. 

“I got a lot of people interested but obviously the issue with guys of that quality is that they’re all attached to labels so it was like, ‘Johnny, we like those songs, we have an opening in three years’. 

“Honest to God, in 2019 a guy in LA told me 2022. I thought he was joking. I said to no to that kind of stuff at the start but then you start to realise, ‘If I want someone of that quality, I have to wait’. Then just by the grace of God, Jackson had a cancellation. We did it. He mixed them. Then I sent them to New York to Randy Merrill who is another big guy. He mastered the tracks. He’s worked with Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, John Mayer. He got them back to me in February and I was on the cruise at this stage. It was a two year process.”

Can’t Do Without is refreshing and is reminiscent of artists like Shawn Mendes, Khalid, and John Mayer.

John explains that he is keen to bring the guitar back into pop music.

“It’s pop music at the end of the day. I come from a guitar background but I have no shame in admitting that I like pop music. I like the music that you hear at a club and it just makes you want to dance. What I wanted to do was merge the two. I wanted to keep the guitar sound and merge the two together because I don’t think there is any pop music that is still guitar driven. When was the last time you saw a song in the charts that had a guitar solo in it? 

“I told Jackson straight out I didn’t want to lose the guitar. I didn’t want it to be just another pop song with a guitar intro and then that was it, it disappeared. I wanted to keep the guitar in there and he was more than happy to oblige. We worked together and wrote a song we were both happy with.”

Johnny comes from a very musical family. His father used to play with the local band The Fugitives. 

“My Dad played guitar so that was obviously a huge thing for me and then I took it up when I was 12. This is going to sound like a sad story like I’m looking for sympathy and I’m not. I took it up the September before he died and he died in February. I actually quit. He brought me to lessons. The lessons were absolutely terrible. I hated it. Then shortly after he passed away I took it back up again. There was a part of me that wanted to keep going for him but when I started doing it on my own, I actually realised I did have a little bit of affinity for it and I loved it. That was a better way of going about it than formal lessons. I was self taught and I’ve never stopped.”

From Rathcabbin in Tipperary, Johnny has hurled with Tipperary goalkeeper Brian Hogan while Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher is also a clubmate.  

While studying music at Trinity College, Johnny established himself as a sought after wedding singer while still honing his craft.

“I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been doing 100 shows a year since 2014. 90% of those were weddings but performing is performing. I wouldn’t be half the musician I pretend I am today if I wasn’t just playing constantly. It doesn’t matter what the gig is or why you’re doing it: If you’re playing that much, you become better. 

“I have no shame. I’m glad I did. I can attribute any skills I have on the guitar to it .” 

‘Can’t Do Without’ is available for pre-save on Spotify now and will be released on all major streaming platforms on 3rd July.

For more information, go to Johnny’s website.

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