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Speaking for himself  

Gareth Dunlop told David Hennessy about his new album, touring with massive names like Bonnie Raitt and his big upcoming support dates with Damien Dempsey and James Blunt.

Belfast pop artist Gareth Dunlop releases his highly anticipated third album Welcome to the House of I Don’t Know this week.

It will be accompanied by the single, Just in Case.

The album’s release coincides with his UK tour and comes ahead of big support dates opening up for both Damien Dempsey and James Blunt.

Dunlop’s talent has been endorsed by a remarkable list of legendary artists that he has had the chance to perform with, including Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, James Morrison, Stereophonics, Bonnie Raitt, Foy Vance, and Jeff Beck, among others.

Dunlop’s previous releases have featured on both the big and small screens. His songs have found their way into the hit TV series Nashville, among other popular shows such as Lucifer, This Is Us, Bones, and Suits.

Gareth got his break writing songs for other people before deciding to focus on what he wanted to say.

His debut album, No. 79, captured the hearts of listeners with its raw fusion of folk and soul, even securing an Album of the Week slot on the RTE1, while Animal, his sophomore album, showcased a vibrant blend of synth-pop influences, reflecting his evolving musical style.

What inspired the album’s title Welcome to the House of I Don’t Know? I know the lyric comes from opening track Church…

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“I kind of feel like Church is a bit of a cornerstone of the record and when I finished writing that, I was starting to see kind of a larger picture for what the next record could be.

“Like a lot of people, I was dragged to church kicking and screaming as a kid probably because that was just what you did: You went to church on Sunday.

“And I never want to be questioning anybody’s faith. I think that’s such a personal, personal and important thing.

“But for me, I think in later years looking back, I just got more okay, with when I was in conversations about faith and about what comes after all this.

“I got more and more comfortable and almost excited with the notion of just being like, ‘Well, I don’t know’.
“Whatever comes after all this, whatever that mystery is.

“Whether it’s something, whether it’s nothing. I live in that land,

“I will put my hands up and say, ‘I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea and I’m okay with that. I’m good with that’.

“That’s kind of what Church was about, that song in particular is just finding your tribe and trying to, I guess, live for the moment, not looking too far ahead into what may come after this.

“It felt like a sentiment that I could hang the rest of the songs on for the record.”

Speaking of church, you come from a Belfast that has been torn apart by religious hatred and of an age to remember some of it, is it a much better city now though would you say?

“I definitely grew up with the hangover of the whole thing.

“I had a great childhood.

“I lived on a quiet street.

“You couldn’t ignore what was coming up on the TV screens at the time.

“Looking back, I have nothing to compare it to but I would call it a very happy childhood.

“Belfast, to me, is home.

“I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in a lot of cities and I never get as excited as when I’m coming home.

“For me it’s an incredible place to live.

“It’s funny but when I started hanging out with musicians, the furthest thing from anybody’s mind, or certainly the people that I was hanging out with, was, ‘What side of the city are you from?’

“It just didn’t exist.

“I guess my path never wandered through too much of that stuff.”

Your most recent single was Go Down Swinging which was inspired by your daughter…

“Yeah, she had taken a knock (to her confidence) and I guess it’s hard as a parent to work out when to speak and what to speak sometimes.

“You’ve got to let them find their own way.

“But yeah, I guess I wanted her to have her own anthem, this kind of defiant thing.

“I wanted the verses to be very much about how we see her: Just as this amazing, amazing person.

“And I wanted her to have a chorus where she could lift her arms up in the air and be like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this’.

“That’s pretty much the starting point for that song.”

And she got to lift her arms up in the air in the video for the song, didn’t she?

“Yeah, when we were going to do a video I was like, ‘God, I’d really love her to be in it’ even if it was for a second, even just with her back to the camera. Just to be involved in it.

“And if she wasn’t comfortable, that was cool. We would figure something out.

“But no, she took straight to it. Like, ‘What? No, I’ll be the star. I will be the focal point of this.

“I was like, ‘Great, your daddy’s very happy because he doesn’t have to be. I absolutely detest being on camera so you’ve pulled me out of a hole’.

“But she absolutely nailed it. She killed it and we had a lot of a lot of great craic putting it together.”

She wasn’t the first of your children to feature in a video or inspire a song as Look Back Smiling was all for your son…

“Very much so.

“It’s a strange one as a songwriter.

“You’re always on the hunt.

“I feel like I’m on the hunt for things to say, places to go, things in the past, things in the future.

“I find the most honest place to speak from for me is about the stuff that’s going on around me and that’s family. These are the people I spend the most time with and people I love and cherish the most.

“Yeah, it was a similar thing.

“It was during lockdown: School starting, school not starting.
“It was his first year in primary school and he didn’t know whether he was coming or going and he kind of went into his shell a bit.

“I saw that and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try to write him something’.”

Your track Small Talk is about feeling anxious in social situations. That’s something you have experience. Have you always felt that way?

“Yeah, I think so.

“It’s a bit of a joke in our house.
“I wouldn’t be the biggest social butterfly at the best of times but I do find myself in those moments of kind of going, ‘Sh*t, did I say that?’

“I was messing around with a piano and I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe it’s time to kind of unpack some of my personal hang ups with myself and some of my oddities’.”

If there is a theme to the album I think it is that thing of moving on and not worrying about small things.

I get that from a number of the songs.

Would you agree with that?

“That does sum it up.

“Looking back through the songs and what songs made the cut and why they made the cut, I feel like the record is quite reflective.

“A lot of the songs were written in a period of pausing and looking back, looking around me and looking ahead, the people closest to me.

“It’s strange.

“Songwriting’s still a mystery to me.

“I’m not sure how these things happen.

“You start with nothing and you end up with something that might be good, it might be bad but there’s something there at the end of the experience and looking at the songs that made the cut, I think there’s an underlying current of being reflective and also letting go.”

You must be excited for the dates with Damien Dempsy and James Blunt…

“Absolutely stoked.

“Yeah, I’m very much looking forward to getting the opportunity to play in front of that many people with a band behind me.

“Both guys are incredible performers, amazing at their craft. “Really looking forward to getting up and sharing the stage with them, it’s a privilege.

“It’s gonna be a good month.”

You also have Cambridge Folk Festival to look forward to…

“That’s a bucket list one.

“That’s gonna be another pinch me moment.

“It’s just an incredible, iconic, historic festival so really looking forward to that.

“It’s gonna be a crazy, enjoyable summer.”

You’ve been lucky enough to open for some really big names, haven’t you?

“I have, yeah.

“I’ve been really lucky.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have been asked to open up some shows for just great bands and great songwriters and performers.

“It’s always an interesting one because you’re playing a lot of time in front of somebody else’s audience and you’ve got 20/ 30 minutes to try to win them over a little bit, try to leave your mark.

“It’s always a privilege.

“Some of my favourite acts that I’m into now, I saw them opening up for other acts so I know how important that can be.

“But it’s nerve racking, you’re playing to a crowd of people that are there for the main event and you gotta get up there and do your thing for a bit.”

What leaps out as a highlight of the stages you have played and things you have got to do?

“I did a UK tour with Bonnie Raitt last year and I’ve been a Bonnie Raitt fan since I got into music and playing guitar.

“I remember watching like a best of the Old Grey Whistle Test and she had a performance on that.

“A friend of mine’s dad had the tape and I just kept rewinding her performance because it just blew me away.

“So all those years later to open up for her…

“I think one of the main kind of pinch me moments was walking out on the stage at the London Palladium just because it’s so historic. It felt like a real moment and a real privilege.

“I remember walking offstage and it was just me and Pete, my guitar player, and we just sat in the dressing room for a minute just not saying anything. Just like, ‘Did that really just happen?’”

Of course that’s what you got into music for, it all started for you when you picked up an old guitar of your dad’s and there was no turning back from there, isn’t that right?

“That’s pretty much it. Yeah, my dad had an old Yamaha guitar lying around with a few strings on it.

“I just took a notion one day to start messing around on it.”

Gareth soon wanted a guitar of his own.

“I remember badgering my mum and dad to get this guitar for me and I think they probably thought it was gonna be like the skateboard: Sat under the stairs for five years. A bit of a fad but no, I took to it and as a hormonal teenager, it very quickly became my whole identity.

“I wanted to turn it up as loud as it could go and start surrounding myself with more music.

“I guess it just kind of grabbed a hold of me and it’s been a massive part of my life ever since.

“I got the opportunity through a festival that happens here in Belfast called the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.

“Through that I got a chance to go over to Nashville and kind of learn a little bit about the industry, learn a little bit about songwriting.

“It was a strange moment.

“I was approached by a publisher out there.

“He just simply said, ‘Hey, you got any publishing?’

“At that time, I didn’t even really know what that meant.

“I found myself writing songs for other people and writing songs for movies and TV shows and things like that.

“That was something I never envisioned when I started.

“It was a great, it was a great way to kind of learn a lot more about the trade and a lot more about the craft of songwriting and sitting down with seasoned, incredible songwriters like Mike Reid- I Can’t Make You Love Me: Sitting in a room with somebody who wrote such an iconic song like that and just getting to see how he puts those big, everyday thoughts together on the page was a real privilege.”

Your initial success was as a songwriter and you wrote for big names such as Faith Hill and Tim McGraw..

“It was a great time.

“I was spending just as much time in Nashville- Well, US but Nashville predominantly and splitting time between there and here at home in Belfast.

“It’s funny.

“I kind of felt like a lot of the time I was trying to ride two horses at once.

“I had an EP, maybe put out a couple of singles and I’d pick up the occasional show but the job that I was getting paid for at that time was to be a staff writer for a publishing company.

“I would say the focus was kind of split a little bit 50/ 50 to kind of do that job but still try to maintain some form of an artist’s career.

“Now I feel like there’s been a shift in the gearbox.

“I felt it was time to really try to figure out what it was I wanted to say as an artist and not try to imagine what other folks might want to say.”

And it’s really taken off since you started doing your own albums. It must feel good.

“It does, it feels great.

“The Animal record was kind of born out of a strange period for everybody.

“It was in lockdown and I had nothing but time on my hands.

“Producing and engineering is a huge passion of mine so I thought what better time to try to figure out a record and at that time, I was producing Foy’s last record Signs of Life and he had said, ‘When the world opens up again, when we get a chance to tour this, could you come on tour with me and play bass or do something?’

“I said, ‘No problem but you gotta let me open for you’.

“So it was a strange thing of, ‘Well, if I’m going on tour, I better get a project together’.

“And that was Animal.

“I would say the majority- Bar a few overdubs here and there- Was just me kind of moonlighting as a bad drummer, as a bad bass player. Throwing all those elements together.

“It was a fun time though. Strange time but a fun time.”

Your songs have featured on many TV show and films, what is that like?

“There’s been some crazy moments because it’s the most mental thing.

“I was on the road in Europe years ago.

“I can’t remember where we were.

“I think we might have been in Poland, absolutely exhausted.

“I remember coming in, slammed on the bed and I stuck the TV on,

“I closed my eyes and I could hear myself, you know?

“I was like, ‘Oh, not that f**ker again’.

“I was kind of sick of hearing my own voice.”

The album Welcome to the House of I Don’t Know is out on 14 June.

The single Just in Case is also out on 14 June.

Gareth Dunlop is touring the UK.

He supports Damien Dempsey at Iveagh Gardens, Dublin  on 20 July.

He supports James Blunt at the Collins Barracks, Dublin on 24 August.

He also plays Cambridge Folk Festival 25- 28 July.

For more information, click here.

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