Foy Vance: 'When my dad died all these songs poured out ... I had to fill the void'
Ahead of his Belfast gig, Bangor-born singer Foy Vance tells Edwin Gilson how his father inspired him and what winning the first NI Music Prize means to him
Last month, Bangor-born songsmith, Foy Vance, experienced two pretty special moments. First, on November 12, he scooped the first ever Northern Ireland Music Prize for his album, Joy of Nothing. Then surreally, the next day, with the award still sinking in, Vance was praised by American actress Courtney Cox on Twitter: 'check out my absolute favourite new artist,' the former Friends star encouraged her followers.
Vance and his band were touring America at the time of the award presentation at Belfast's Mandela Hall, working hard to win over fans across the Atlantic. Few could have predicted Joy of Nothing would attract the attention of someone with Cox's celebrity status though.
"It's an odd sensation to imagine Monica listening to my album," laughs the moustachioed Ulsterman today, referring to Cox's character in Friends. "It was very sweet and I made sure I replied to her. At the end of the day though, she's just another person I guess."
Celebrity attention is not something the boy who grew up in Bangor's Breezemount estate would ever have imagined.
One of four sons, he was just eight months old when the family emigrated to Oklahoma in the US, where his father, a preacher with the American Church of Christ, was given the chance to build a new church.
During the family's five years there, he absorbed the rich musical traditions of the Midwest and he also recalls his father – "a fine singer and a great guitar player" – sitting singing with him on their return to Northern Ireland.
His musical genes also come from his grandmother, who used to record old hymns on tape for him to listen to.
It was the death of his father 14 years ago which had a huge influence on the singer/songwriter.
Vance was performing in a bar in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands at 1am on January 30, 1999, when he had what he calls a "an epiphany".
The lyrics, 'Jesus is coming like a thief in the night', jumped out at him and he was consumed with sadness.
When he went home that night, he spent hours crying for no apparent reason, but the next morning discovered his father had died at exactly 1am the night before.
In the following eight months he penned around 40 songs. "When my father died, all these songs just started pouring out of me," he later recalled. "My father's passing had left a huge gap that I had to fill."
Many of the songs he has written since have won him international acclaim, including from fellow performers like Ed Sheeran, Snow Patrol and Bonny Raitt.
However, Vance does not appear to be the sort to get carried away by such acclaim. On the subject of winning the Northern Ireland Music Prize, he ponders: "I'm not in it for the awards. When I won, a mate of mine texted me saying, 'awards don't make albums better or worse,' and I think that sums it up in a nutshell. They're still nice to receive though! I hadn't even thought about winning."
Vance is a fan of some of the other nominated albums, including those by Two Door Cinema Club, Tired Pony and Girls Names, and believes the award will "let people know what a wealth of talent we have in this country."
"As far back as I can remember, Belfast has contained great bands and songwriters, but not everyone was aware of them," he adds. "They've always been underground, but that could be about to change."
If Northern Irish music does begin to receive more widespread exposure, Vance will surely be at the forefront of the movement.
He's not altogether comfortable dealing with the increased media spotlight on him however, apologising (rather needlessly) for his apparently "lethargic" answers and rehashing Elvis Costello's famous remark that 'talking about music is like dancing about architecture.' "It's not always easy for me to discuss it," admits Vance.
It's something he might have to get used to if his anthemic yet subtle tones continue to make waves. Vance initially moved from Bangor to London in an effort to publicise his music more effectively.
"You can't do well in England unless you spend time in England," he explains, "just like you can't do well in America unless you spend time in America. Unless, of course, you're hugely lucky and go straight to number one in the charts off the back of a MySpace recording, but that rarely happens."
After seven years of London life though, Vance decided it was time for a change. The "busy" nature of the capital left him longing for a quieter existence.
"It all got a bit much," he concedes. "I'd wanted to move away for a while; I just couldn't find the time. London's a great, great city, it's got everything you'd want from a capital, but I didn't get to experience much of that because I was always working. I was really happy to get away from that; I was at my wit's end really." So, he lugged his guitar all the way up to the small town of Aberfeldy in the Scottish Highlands, where he lives with his 10-year-old daughter, Ella. Aberfeldy is, in Vance's words, "the middle of nowhere." It was in this isolated location that Vance made Joy of Nothing, a record inspired by the tranquillity of the countryside and the simple things in life.
"I wanted to slow things down a bit, and learn to appreciate the smaller elements; the silences even," says the singer. "Aberfeldy was immediately peaceful, and completely transformative. The move to the Highlands was a massive theme during the making of the album; it completely inspired me. I mean, Robbie Burns wrote a lot of his poems in Aberfeldy; he walked those hills!
"You can't not be affected by the world around you, even subconsciously," muses the singer. "Actually, it surprises me that there are still people who go through life without ever really looking at the sky. They don't ever think about who we are and where we've come from, but these things are important to me."
That said, Vance is concerned that the title of his record could be misconstrued: "It's not that I like melancholy or sadness per se. I guess I can be a melancholic person at times, but it's more about being content with your lot." Another song on the album is Guiding Light, which was "adopted" by the family of Snow Patrol's Jonny McDaid when their father was ill. They sang it to him before he passed away. "They got it translated into Irish and it's on his gravestone", Vance says.
Vance has more than enough reasons to be happy with life at the moment; that's if he can get his head around his sudden rise in profile, heavy touring schedule and famous new fans.
"Right now, it's just important to be where I am, but, having said that, I don't really know where I am at the moment, to be honest with you. I'm all over the place. I was born and bred in Northern Ireland though, and I love the place, so I'm really looking forward to coming back home soon."