Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Son of a preacherman

Bangor singer Foy Vance isn't interested in chasing stardom but, after being discovered by Joss Stone's people, the limelight beckons. Una Bradley speaks to him about his extraordinary childhood and the influence of his preacher father

If your early years are as formative as they say, then it's little wonder Bangor man Foy Vance ended up singing intensely emotional songs, with a highly-charged delivery to match.

If your early years are as formative as they say, then it's little wonder Bangor man Foy Vance ended up singing intensely emotional songs, with a highly-charged delivery to match.



The 30-year-old's earliest memories are of church gospel choirs 'lining out' in the southern states of the US: "There was this big black guy called Matthew who would lead the singing in this one church, I remember him vividly," he recalls. "He'd sing, 'Come and see the baby Jesus' and the choir would repeat the line, and so on, until they rounded off with 'Amen'."

It's a long way from Kenton, Oklahoma, to Bangor's Bloomfield estate, but that was the span of Vance's early life.

When he was a baby, his father, Hugh Bailie Vance, a pastor with the evangelical Church of Christ, moved his family from Northern Ireland to the US, where he preached all over the Deep South for six years. The family then returned and settled in Bangor, Co Down.

Because he was so young, Vance's memories of America are splintered and kaleidoscopic - "old Miss Moreland, who lived on a corner, the handle of a particular cupboard" - but he's convinced the music in his father's churches had a profound effect on him: "There are tapes of me singing one of those hymns, You Light Up My Life, at the age of three."

Indeed, Bailie Vance seems to have been a towering figure in his son's life. As Vance talks about his late father with evident adoration, a picture emerges of a deeply-spiritual man, but one who became increasingly at odds with organised religion.

His father's church was, remembers Vance, "fairly strict - you wore the tie, you wore the hat". Vance says his father, who was from east Belfast, could not have been more different.

"Dad was a square peg in a round hole. He was extremely jolly - he would embarrass the hell out of me by kissing me on the lips, in front of my mates, when I was 14.

"He would recite poetry to us most nights, usually Robert Frost. He had a passion for language and literature, and always knew bits of Spanish and German."

Bailie Vance's differences of opinion with his church eventually became a rift and, after 20 years of preaching, he walked away from the ministry. Sadly, his later years were plagued by alcoholism.

"He had major guilt about leaving the church," says Vance. "He didn't know how to deal with it; I think that's why he turned to drink."

The low period affected the whole family. Even though, as a teenager, Vance's musical talent was evident, he lacked confidence.

"At 14 I didn't give a damn about myself," he recalls. "I didn't try at school, I didn't turn up to exams."

After leaving school early, he gigged with a couple of local soul and funk bands, but his expectations remained low until he met Belfast artist Joanne Shaw, now Joanne Vance, his wife.

"Through her I met so many artists and being in that environment was an eye-opener for me. I thought: 'These people have plans, they're passionate and enthusiastic'. I suppose it woke me up."

Taking the plunge, Vance went solo and threw himself into songwriting with renewed heart, but the ultimate release was yet to happen ... that took the form of a "majorly weird scenario" in Lanzarote where Vance and his wife lived for a year.

Vance had got himself a regular gig in a local night-spot and was in the habit of improvising grooves. "This night, this line just came out of my mouth: 'Jesus is coming like a thief in the night'," he explains.

"I kept singing it, over and over, and when I got home that night, I felt so emotional, I was in tears until dawn.

"Early the next morning I got a phone call letting me know that my father had passed away the previous night, back in Northern Ireland.

"I lit up a Marlboro, picked up the guitar and the rest of that song just came out of me like a raging flood. It's called Cryin' In The Night and it was the song to break the dam. Since then, the songs have been gushing out."

An abortive studio recording of Vance's soulful, disciplined voice - he favours spare arrangements that really show off his vocal command - came to the attention of Freshwater Hughes management, the people who launched Joss Stone. With their push, Vance has been gigging constantly in recent months, including supporting Taj Mahal at the legendary Ronnie Scott's.

What was it like stepping onto such a hallowed stage? "It was sensational. The tablecloths were on, the candles were lit, and you could've heard a pin drop."

There was another reason why the gig had resonance for Vance. Of all the jazz greats to have graced Ronnie Scott's, one has special meaning for Vance and his wife - Ella Fitzgerald, whom their baby daughter is named after.

It seems fitting that fatherhood should remain such a strong thread in the Foy Vance story.





Foy Vance supports Joss Stone at Glastonbury Abbey tonight. The EP, Live Sessions And The Birth of the Toilet Tour, is out on August 22. Info from foy@funkybus.co.uk

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