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Belfast singer Stuart Lunn on personal traumas influencing his songs

As he prepares to launch his latest album, Belfast singer Stuart Lunn tells Stephanie Bell of the personal traumas which have influenced his songs

Life experiences inspire the very best songwriters and Belfast artist Chase the River, aka Stuart Lunn, had a vast well of personal tragedy to draw from for his latest album Recycle Your Regrets.

Life has dealt the Belfast singer-songwriter a tough hand, which shows in the honest and heartfelt style of his latest collection of songs due to be released next week.

But don't expect a depressing theme here. Despite a string of heartbreaks - the death of his father, his mother being diagnosed with cancer, breaking his back while playing rugby and coming through a long divorce - Stuart's outlook on life is surprisingly positive, which shows in his writing.

The 31-year-old has played with a number of bands over the years, but it wasn't until he went solo with his acoustic guitar under the name Chase the River two years ago that his career really took off.

He now tours the UK and Europe and has performed at the Copenhagen songwriters festival, Sunflowerfest in Hillsborough and the Pure M music awards show, where he was shortlisted for 'best Irish act' and 'best EP'.

He had just turned 18 when his dad Brian, an engineer with NIE, died suddenly from a heart attack aged 62. The shock of his loss was a defining moment for him, which finally made him decide to pursue his dream of becoming a musician.

He says: "Dad was my biggest musical influence, yet he would have told me to get a real job, and it may seem strange, but after he died I did the opposite.

"Dad was very musical and had me playing the piano from the age of four and then the viola. Dad was a classical fan. When I was about 17 and teenage angst had kicked in I decided the guitar was the way forward and I taught myself to play it.

"About a week after my 18th birthday my father died suddenly from a heart attack. It was a real bolt out of the blue. He had seemed perfectly well and there was no warning.

"Dad was my major musical influence and definitely the guy who got me into music.

"Yet while he wanted me to enjoy it, he also very much wanted me to get a regular day job and after he died I no longer felt encumbered to do that. Everything I have done since then seems to all feed back to that point when for me music became more prevalent and I just thought then: 'If I am going to do it, I might as well do it now', and I did."

He played with various bands over the years, gigging in local pubs and clubs, mostly performing cover songs.

A desire to travel prompted him to set up Chase the River just over two years ago, initially with a female vocalist and then on his own.

He enjoyed almost instant success when his first EP - Chase the River - was widely acclaimed and shortlisted for two Pure M music awards.

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Stuart Lunn performing

He has continued to hone his craft, despite continuing to face major challenges in his personal life, most of which he deals with in the new album.

As well as his love of music, he was a passionate rugby player when studying at Methodist College.

He continued to play after he left school, but his sporting career came to an almost catastrophic end when he was 22 and suffered an accident while playing a match for Grosvenor Old Boys.

Hurt during a tackle, he walked away thinking he was fine, only to wake up the next morning and to his horror discover he was paralysed down the left side of his body.

He recalls: "I knew I had hurt my neck, but I didn't know how bad it was. The next morning I woke up and couldn't move the left side of my body. With a proper stiff upper lip I called my mum and told her she needed to get me to the hospital. I refused to let her call an ambulance, as I would have been mortified leaving the house in one.

"It was some sight, my wee mum trying to get her big son into the car to take me to hospital and I couldn't move.

"I had X-rays which showed hairline fractures in my C6 and C7 vertebrae in my upper back, which thankfully were fixable. I was able to move again after a month, although it took three to four years of treatment for me to make a full recovery.

"I did go back to rugby and played about five more matches, but I was conscious there was a weakness there and I didn't want to do it any more."

A couple of years later, aged 24, he got married, but says his music career impacted on the relationship, which ended after just three years. He then faced a long-drawn-out divorce.

He says: "The challenge of being a musician is that you are not always around, as you have a lot of gigs and late nights and lots of travel and it is not easy to maintain a relationship. We just grew apart and had a slightly long divorce, but I am a lot happier now."

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Stuart Lunn with his father Brian

Then, two years ago, just as he was finding his feet as a musician having launched Chase the River, there was more tragedy when his mum Liz, who is now 65, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Despite a good early diagnosis, complications followed surgery and his mum faced a tough battle, as he recalls: "It was a rough couple of years. It was caught reasonably early and was never completely life-threatening, but instead of one operation she ended up having five as things repeatedly kept going wrong and she had a difficult time.

"Thankfully mum is doing all right now, but it is not necessarily the physical effects that are hard to deal with, the emotional side takes a bit longer to heal. She keeps her head up and is doing great now."

Emerging stronger as a result of the challenges life has thrown at him, Stuart found a wealth of material to work with for his new album.

He used crowdfunding so that he had the finances to produce it exactly how he wanted and he is both proud and pleased with the end result.

His collection of nine introspective songs is full of captivating melodies and lyrical prowess with a raw and natural sound, which is exactly what he wanted.

When it comes to his musical ethos, he believes that "music is there to be consumed and enjoyed by everyone. There needs to be a story with it, rather than just words that rhyme. If it can't be played solely on an acoustic guitar by someone at their friend's house, what's the point?"

Having been described in the past as falling under the category of 'neo-folk', he says he relates to the likes of Leonard Cohen and Passenger, while taking inspiration from other acts including Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Joe Purdy and The White Buffalo.

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Stuart Lunn

Despite the traumas he has come through, he remains upbeat about his lot and has an appreciation for life, which comes through in his songs.

He says: "Everything was written around that time of my life with my mum going through lots of stuff and me being in the middle of my divorce, when there was a lot of stuff going on.

"I don't think I made a purposeful decision to focus on it. The music is reflective and I did my level best not to really personalise it, but it was more about trying to reflect the emotions surrounding that time. It would be very easy to write a series of incredibly depressing songs, but that wasn't the idea.

"It was like putting some sort of completeness to my experience and looking at it more positively than maybe it could have turned out. All the bad things that happened put me where I am and have given me a new sense of trying to be thankful and realising there are still a lot of positives.

"It was the first time I have written about the death of my dad and I wasn't able to vocalise those emotions for a long time.

"I've written about what he would be thinking of me now.

"To me, there is no such thing as good news or bad news but it is about how you react to it. If you try to react positively you can make everything a learning curve. I can't change what happened, but I have to move on and I am a stronger person for it."

  • Recycle Your Regrets will be launched at The American Bar in Belfast at 7pm on June 17.

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