Gary Lightbody, singer and songwriter of Snow Patrol, the most successful Northern Ireland export since Van Morrison, is in a pensive mood as he paces the boardroom of the plush London hotel he’s conducting interviews in.
In the 14 years of the band’s history — the first 10 spent languishing in an indie hinterland of financial uncertainty and musical obscurity – he has said very little about how he feels about his home country.
“There were always bits I loved about Belfast and bits I hated and there still are. Growing up, the clash of ideologies totally frustrated and irritated me — I guess irritated isn’t a strong enough word. I saw them both as the same, reading — often literally — from the same hymn book and I just wanted to get out of the place.
“But now I’ve moved back home and everything’s changed for the better. There are so many reasons to love the place. I think now is the right time to write about how I love my home.”
He has certainly never written directly about it before but the new Snow Patrol single, Take Back the City — the first from the new album A Hundred Million Suns — is all about an urban sprawl he clearly knows well: “It’s a mess, it’s a start, it’s a flawed work of art/ Your city, your call, every crack, every wall/Pick a side, pick a fight, but get your epitaph right.”
“Oh yeah, it’s a love letter to Belfast,” he says, nodding emphatically. “I’ve come to realise how much the place actually means to me. The confusion I had as a kid is gone.”
He has recently bought an apartment overlooking Crawfordsburn beach, but it has taken Lightbody many years to come back to Northern Ireland. He left when he was 18 “as soon as I could” and went to study at Dundee University, where he met Mark McClelland, with whom he formed Snow Patrol in 1994.
He says he was born with a “wandering gene” and was a bit of a handful growing up, adopting a disaffection he was attracted to in the works of childhood heroes like Jack Kerouac and Kurt Cobain and staging his own “very impotent teenage rebellion” (he took to writing tormented poetry about the Troubles, much of which was published when he was at school).
He moved Snow Patrol to Glasgow after a few years and found himself oddly at home there.
“When I moved to Glasgow my life started to make sense,” he says. “I always loved the sense of humour in Belfast, probably the best in the world. Someone said comedy is tragedy plus timing — sometimes the only way to cope with the most horrific things is to find something to laugh about, and that sense of humour is so evident in Belfast and also in Glasgow.
“That’s probably why I felt so comfortable when I arrived in Glasgow and, ironically, that’s what made me think I really am a product of Belfast — the two cities share such a lot of history and attitude.”
The story of how things went from near-disaster in 2001 — dropped from tiny label Jeepster after a commercially disappointing second album, Lightbody was forced to sell his record collection to pay the rent — to sensational international success has been documented many times.
The short version is that two incredible songs changed Gary Lightbody’s life. In 2002 a scorching, emotionally wrought anthem called Run was presented to Polydor Records in a bid to convince the major label to take a chance of Snow Patrol. It was released in January 2004 and went to No 5, giving the band their first chart hit.
But its impact was far greater than that — it slowly burned its way into the national consciousness, becoming a radio stalwart. It started showing up at weddings and funerals across the country. It got Snow Patrol invited to support U2 across Europe, and then on to the Live 8 bill at Hyde Park, broadcast to around 9 million people in the UK alone.
Two years later Chasing Cars — a simple, hypnotic love song — accompanied the high-octane season finale of popular hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy on American television, sparking a frenzy of downloads from besotted TV viewers. Eyes Open, the album from which Chasing Cars came, went on to sell over 1 million copies in the States and almost double that amount in the UK.
Although he says he could never be a proper rock star (“you need to be able to assemble yourself in a dignified manner, and I’ll always feel like a geeky fanboy”), Lightbody is happy that music helped him connect with millions of people, though he points out that, ironically, he did it by being almost entirely insular and writing about his usually disastrous love life over and over again.
A Hundred Million Suns, however, marks something of a departure. He’s still writing about his relationships, but this time Lightbody writes about the solace and comforts of love, rather than beating himself up for messing things up.
“I had a wonderful experience with a wonderful girl who changed my life,” he says simply. “I just wanted to write about how incredible the relationship was. If you count the Reindeer Section, that’s six albums about break-ups. That’s enough. I’ve got more and more eloquent about how inept I am so I wanted to try and flip it on its head and write about how great something was.
“I didn’t know that anyone could ever put me back together, but this one person did. So I guess this time round I wanted to write about what went right. Not what I did right – but what went right.”
Whoever she is, it’s hard not to imagine the woman in question being deeply moved when she listens to songs like the gentle, elegiac Put Your Glass Down, and the forceful The Lightning Strike (“I want to see you/As you are now/Every single day/That I am living”).
But it’s more difficult to envisage how things will go for Snow Patrol if the master of melancholy and self-flagellation has finally found himself a healthy working relationship.
“Um ...” Gary Lightbody scrutinises the floor. “I’m single now again though.” The next album could be the most fascinating of all. This journalist, for one, can’t wait.
A Hundred Million Suns is released on Monday. Snow Patrol play The Empire Music Hall, Belfast, on Sunday night. All free tickets have all been allocated via the website. After the show, the band will sign copies of the new album at HMV, Donegall Arcade, at 9.45pm. Entrance will be restricted to those with wristbands, which are available from the shop all day, Sunday, although demand is expected to be high, so get there early. There is a limit of two wristbands per person.