Foy Vance knows how to write a song. It’s a naturally-born but dedicatedly-finessed skill that has led him to collaborate with artists as diverse as Plan B, Sheryl Crow and Rudimental, synced his music on multiple TV shows ranging from Grey’s Anatomy to the finale of Sons Of Anarchy, and caught the ears of some of the biggest players (in every sense) in music, from Elton John to Ed Sheeran. So it is that in the run-up to the release of his new album, Vance travelled to Nashville. It’s a long way from home for the Irishman, both from the place of his birth (Bangor, Northern Ireland) and the place of his residence (Aberfeldy, Scotland). But for an inveterate songwriter, Music City is an irresistible draw, a place where Vance can work with the best of the best. Not, Vance clarifies, for himself or his own material. For one thing, he’s already completed his new album, and with songs of the calibre and single-minded brilliance of the dozen that comprise The Wild Swan, there’s no need for any outside assistance.
But for another, “I’m not snobby about it, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing with other people for myself. That feels like it’s my own private joy,” adds a man who crafted The Wild Swan entirely to his own vision, in Nashville’s Blackbird Studios, aided by Jacquire King, who recorded and mixed one of his favourite albums, Tom Waits’ Mule Variations. “And I used to steer clear of writing with other people altogether until I started doing it just by chance. And then I realised that even when it goes shit, it’s still a learning curve,” Vance notes with a smile. “Every wrong path is a way to the right path. I keep it pretty lean. But when good people come up, I give it a go.” One of those good people is Sheeran. Vance co-wrote “Tenerife Sea” and “Afire Love” from 2014’s multi-million- selling X, and he wrote “Make It Rain”, which Sheeran sang over the final episode of cult biker drama Sons Of Anarchy.
“Ed’s like a wee song machine,” Vance notes approvingly. “He would always go places lyrically that I wouldn’t go myself, so he makes me think about the lyrical choices I make. Working with Ed made me a better writer.”
Now, with the impassioned, rootsy, rousing The Wild Swan – an album that makes nods to, and takes cues from, proper heroes ranging from Noam Chomsky to Ziggy Stardust to WB Yeats – the pair’s relationship moves to another level. Sheeran has signed Vance to Gingerbread Man Records, the label he launched in 2015 with Jamie Lawson and his self-titled, chart-topping debut album. But in fact, Vance and Sheeran’s relationship goes back way further than that.
“Ed’s dad used to bring him to my gigs when he was 13,” begins Vance, a born hobo-raconteur (and he has the storyteller’s hat and showman’s moustache to prove it). “He only told me this after we’d done a couple of gigs together, but he’d been to something like 48 gigs of mine before we’d ever met.”
As an up-and-coming artist always keen to honour his formative influences, as soon as he started to have some success, Sheeran sought to pay it back.
“He reached out and said, ‘do you want to come on tour with me?’ And I’m thinking: ‘When else is a thirty-something, white, baldy Irishman single father who lives up in the mountains gonna get to on a bona fide pop tour?’ So I said, ‘yeah, I’ll go and do it.’
“And that tour was tough! I thought I’d just go in and do my own show. But I realised very quickly that, even though he hadn’t fully broken through at that time, his crowd of screaming teenage girls was ferocious – I spent more time bombing than I did anything else,” laughs Vance. “They just looked at me as if I was Ed’s demented uncle wheeled on for the craic, singing about heartache and cancer.” Still, the Sheeran/Vance relationship flourished, with the pair emailing each other works-in-progress songs and Vance supporting Sheeran on the closing, Antipodean leg of the mammoth X tour. There was even a night trading riffs and rhymes with Sheeran, Jay Z and Beyoncé in the basement of Snow Patrol’s New York bar. But that’s another story for another biog.
One of the impetuses behind Sheeran founding Gingerbread Man Records was to give musicians he truly believes in complete artistic freedom, and so he made his friend an incredible offer: the chance to make a new album with an Artist-led record company, with full support and without constraint.
“Ed said, ‘go and make the record you want to make.’” Vance took him at his word. Similarly, he made sure Jacquire King was fully onboard. “Mule Variations is not only an exquisitely-written record but a wonderful sounding record. I actually flew out to meet Jacquire in person before agreed to work with him because I wanted to look in the whites of his eyes and make sure we’d be on the same page. I didn’t want something too clean and polished and commercial.”
That said, there’s no denying the infectious beauty of The Wild Swan. It opens with “Noam Chomsky Is A Soft Revolution”, a rock’n’blues celebration of a roll-call of musical, philosophical, literary and polemical insurrectionists. It stops off with “Coco”, a tender, campfire song written for the young daughter of good friend Courtney Cox (Coco is a friend of Vance’s own daughter, Ella). And it ends with a dash of uillean pipes and “The Wild Swans On The Lake”, a stop-you-in-your-tracks breath of Celtic balladry inspired by WB Yeats’ poem The Wild Swans At Coole.
Vance’s rich, rich voice also gets up close and personal on the hymnal “Burden”, then digs deep for “She Burns”, a song and a performance evocative of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel Of Love”.
There are other, equally deeply felt glories too, like the ancient-but-modern “Be Like You Belong”, Vance’s soulful rasp weaving through pedal-steel and simple piano chords, or “Ziggy Looked Me In The Eye”. The latter is a piano-based, strings-buoyed soul-stirrer that compresses anthemic cri de coeur into four minutes of dignified tribute to, says Vance, “various people who I think have been part of a revolution. I’m not talking about Che Guevara or Ghandi or even Russell Brand for that matter – I’m talking about personal revolution. I like that idea constantly revolting against your own parameters.”
This thinking no doubt informs Vance’s embracing the opportunity of a summer tour with Elton John. Ever attuned to passionate artists, and forever intent on giving audiences the best possible night, Elton has invited Vance to support him on the British and European legs of his Wonderful Crazy Tour. But Elton’s enthusiasm for Vance goes deeper, still, than that – he’s Executive Producer of The Wild Swan.
“I feel so privileged to be a part of this remarkable artist’s first album on Gingerbread Man Records,” says Elton. “He is an extraordinary writer and singer.” As seals of approval go, they don’t come much better than the imprimatur of one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
Referring to the album’s penultimate song, the “antsy”, agit-folk “Fire It Up”, this tyro-troubador sets straight his goals: “It just has to be real. You go back to ancient Irish music, or Native American music, or people out on the plains of Africa – those people who are struggling for food, sometimes not eating for weeks on end, and having to hydrate themselves by piercing the neck of a wildebeest. But every single night the drums are out, and they’re singing around the fire.”
“That tells you something about what music actually is. Whereas we’ve turned into a commodity – it’s become something to sell, a vehicle to get money or fame,” Foy Vance says with cheerful distaste. “That’s not what has ever interested me. It’s the music itself that matters. It has to be real.”
The Wild Swan will be released May 13, 2016