'People think Simon Cowell is an ogre, but I really couldn't ask for a better boss'
He's gone from singing in bars and restaurants in Belfast to working for the biggest music mogul in the business. Londonderry singer Martin John McCafferty from hit swing band Jack Pack talks to Karen Ireland about love, life... and his very famous boss.
The road to fame and fortune has certainly been a long one for Londonderry crooner Martin John McCafferty (34).
The singing star, whose band Jack Pack has just signed an amazing record deal with Simon Cowell, has had his fair share of knockbacks and disappointments.
In fact, Martin John had actually hung up his microphone for good and started on a new career path when the opportunity of a lifetime came his way.
"I had always sung since I was very young. I grew up in a very musical family. I have two sisters, Collette and Nuala, and two brothers, Michael and Patrick, and someone was always singing or playing an instrument in our house.
"My dad Michael is 74 and he is still singing in bars and clubs around the town now. I think my mum always secretly believed that one of us would make it big in the music business."
By the age of 32, Martin John admits that he had given up hope that it was going to be him so he gave up his job in sales and went back to school.
"I had been singing around the circuit with my big swing band for years, covering all of Ireland. But costs kept rising and then the recession came. It just didn't make economic sense to keep doing it."
The lack of financial reward along with the late nights, travelling and the need to constantly juggle led Martin John to decide it was time to find a "safe and secure" profession.
"For years I had worked in sales during the week and then went out singing at weekends, but I never seemed to be getting anywhere," he explains.
He enrolled in Plymouth University and studied teaching in the hope of becoming a primary school teacher. Two raucous years followed in which he admits that he spent the time playing rugby and drinking lots of beer.
"To go back to university at that age you have to revert to being a teenager again, otherwise you stick out like a sore thumb. I had a ball and felt I fitted in really well. I played hard but I worked hard, too, and was getting really good grades."
It was just as he was about to embark on his final year that Martin John got an email that was to change his life.
"I was having a cup of tea with my mum when an email came through from my now manager Anthony saying he looked after a band called Jack Pack and could I call him immediately. While Martin John knew the band had been on Britain's Got Talent, he had never seen the show.
"I had been too busy having fun and partying at university to watch Britain's Got Talent. So I spent the next 20 minutes watching YouTube clips of the band and thinking they were amazing - what on earth could he be looking for me for?"
It turned out Martin John had come under Anthony's notice and he wanted him to audition for a fourth spot in the band which had come up.
"One of the original members had to drop out and they were looking to continue as a four piece as that's what they went through the competition as. Simon Cowell wanted to sign them to his label and offer them a record deal, but it all depended on finding the right person. So, no pressure then," jokes Martin John.
The following week he was flown over to London to audition with the band and then came the terrifying moment he had to sing alone in front of the man himself.
"I couldn't believe it. One minute I was sitting in my mum's living room in Derry and the next minute I was in a room with Simon Cowell and his producers. I sang Unforgettable."
It must have been just that as the next few moments after Martin John had finished singing the song his life changed. Martin John got a nod and a thumbs-up from the Cowell camp and was told he would be signing a record deal the following week. "I had met the three guys a few times before the auditions and we seemed to gel, which I was later told was really important. They were looking for someone who just didn't sound good, but who looked the part and who would easily slot into the foursome.
"They were delighted when I was selected and it felt as though we had been on a real journey together. It did come down to the wire between me and another guy but in my heart I knew this was it. It was now or never. People like me don't get second chances at an opportunity like this, and at my age. This was it."
Martin John says from that moment back in August 2014, his life has been totally transformed beyond recognition.
"I deferred my university place - just to keep my options open - and I moved over to London the following week."
He took his place in the line-up alongside singers Alfie Palmer, Andrew Bourn and Shaun Ryder Wolf, and became the fourth member of Jack Pack.
"We signed contracts the following week and began working on the album. Simon was heavily involved in the process from the start. He knew how he wanted it to sound and there were certain things he wanted included, but he gave us a lot of control as well.
"People think he is some kind of musical ogre, but he is a lovely, really decent guy and he knows this industry inside out. I couldn't ask for a better boss and someone who supports what we do 100%.
"As well as working for him, we get to hang out with him on occasions as well and he is great fun.
"He had his end of summer drinks party at Kensington Gardens and we were invited to the event alongside all his other acts. Stars such as Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Amanda Holden and Little Mix were also on the guest list.
"The night before the event he decided that he wanted us to play at the event. So we had to go to Kensington the day before to rehearse. It turned out Prince William and Kate and the children were in residence and the sound guys kept coming round with their sound meters to check our sound levels.
"We did get told to turn it down a few times that evening as the children were asleep - so I don't think Prince William is a fan."
Luckily, the band do have some Royal fans as they have played at the palace for Prince Charles and Prince Edward. "Prince Charles was tapping along and seemed to love our music," he reveals with pride.
"We also know that Simon is a big fan of the music, as when the album was finally ready apparently he burst his speakers listening to it, he had it up so loud. He had to get a new set to listen to the rest of it. That's a pretty cool compliment."
Martin John says he is exceptionally proud of the album which reached number eight in the album charts.
"Growing up, it was always my goal and ambition to have a top 10 album. When it finally happened it was the best feeling ever."
According to the singer, the only downside of his new life is that he doesn't get to visit home as much as he would like to.
"The last time I was home was very briefly to promote the album in October. My brother had just had a new baby and I managed to get round for 15 minutes to meet the new arrival before we flew out again. "I miss my friends and family, but they come over to visit me and see us play as much as possible and I know my parents are exceptionally proud of me."
Following a whirlwind year, which Martin John says he is still trying to take in, he is looking forward to a much-earned rest and a week off with his family at Christmas.
This year there will be one extra place at the McCafferty table and Martin John is bringing a special guest.
His partner Lauren Hutchison (28) will join the family for her first McCafferty Christmas. Martin John met Lauren, a therapist who works in Chelsea, a year ago at a drinks event. "We just hit it off and we have been together ever since."
The couple now share a London apartment together, but he admits being a showbiz couple does have its ups and downs.
"It is tough, particularly on Lauren as I am away a lot. When I am at home, I am out rehearsing during the day and working in the evenings, but she is very supportive of all that I do and she tries to come along to events with me as much as possible. I think the key to any relationship is trust and thankfully we have it in abundance. It is especially important in the business I am in."
Martin John admits bringing Lauren home here for Christmas is a pretty big deal for him.
"I suppose it is a big step, but I can't wait to bring her home and for her to meet everyone." However, when quizzed if there will be a ring lurking under the McCafferty tree he jokes: "Hold your horses. It's a bit early for that, let's just take it one step at a time."
It seems that things are showing no signs of slowing down for Martin John and his bandmates, whom he describes as his best friends as well as work colleagues.
"We need to get on as we spend so much time together," he explains. "Thankfully we have a great rapport and we are all really close.
"I still get nervous before I sing. I think I always will. I still can't believe we could be singing on TV's Lorraine one minute, Good Morning Britain the next. We have also been guests on shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and, of course, Britain's Got Talent."
Next year there are plans for a tour, a possible second album, dates in South America and events with Magic and Radio 2. So already the local crooner's calendar is pretty full. "Life is brilliant," he says. "I really am living my dream and I love it. I never take anything for granted and I appreciate every second. This has been a brilliant year professionally and personally, and I am looking forward to more to come.
"It's hard to pick a highlight from the past year, but playing at Buckingham Palace has to be up there, as well as supporting Katy Perry and the Jacksons.
"I also loved playing on Britain's Got Talent. I was lucky I got to be part of the show - I bypassed all the competition and just appeared as a guest. "We also went to the Ukraine to make our video, which was like something from a Bond film. That was pretty spectacular - I got to drive a rally car for the day."
He adds: "My life has changed beyond recognition, but I am still a Derry boy at heart and there is no place like home. I can't wait to get back for Christmas."