Andrew Strong: 'The Commitments was a real albatross around my neck - it held me back'
Irish singer Andrew Strong found fame in the hit movie The Commitments but says he won't watch it now. Ahead of his performance at the Dalriada Festival in July he tells Ivan Little how his family roots are 100% in Northern Ireland
Gravel-voiced Andrew Strong, who in his teens took the world by storm in the Oscar-nominated movie The Commitments, has talked of how the film which made his name 25 years ago also held him back from pursuing the musical career he'd dreamt about.
And 42-year-old Andrew, who never watches the Alan Parker-directed blockbuster, says he isn't interested in taking part in an oft-speculated follow-up to The Commitments - the story about the rise and fall of a Dublin soul band.
But Andrew says he will be singing soul classics from the movie in July when he headlines the Dalriada Festival in Glenarm not far from Larne, where he once lived along with his mum and dad, former showband star Rob Strong.
Andrew, who was nominated for a Grammy and a BAFTA award, says: "The Commitments was something of an albatross around my neck in my younger days because it pigeon-holed me as a soul singer.
"And while I loved soul I was also very influenced by what was going on in the music scene at the time like grunge. I wanted to go down that path but unfortunately my record label were having none of it because the soundtrack of the film had sold 14 million copies.
"So the movie held me back a little bit and, in hindsight, I wish I'd stuck to my guns and that I'd done what I wanted to do."
Slowly but surely in recent years, however, Andrew has reconciled with his Commitments past, adding: "I'll be singing more of the old songs at Dalriada than I usually do because it's the 25th anniversary of the film. It will probably be 70% Commitments and 30% my own stuff and covers.
"In a way it'll be me showing my gratitude and appreciation to the millions of people who watched the film and bought the album.
"But normally when I'm touring with my own band I only sing three or four songs from the movie including Mustang Sally - which I suppose is my signature song."
Even now, Andrew is constantly amazed to find youngsters approaching him in the street to tell them how much they like The Commitments which keeps re-inventing itself as a cult movie for successive generations.
At his concerts, too, the audiences' ages range from 16 to 60.
"I think kids like the music because their parents have passed down their love of it and so it goes from one generation to the next," says Andrew, who was plucked out of boarding school at the age of 16 to play the role of Deco Cuffe in the film which proved a hard act to follow for its young stars.
But even though Andrew has never recaptured the same massive profile he enjoyed 25 years ago, he hasn't exactly been twiddling his thumbs or resting that amazing larynx of his.
He's been gigging all over the world with some of the biggest names in music and making albums which have sold well, particularly in Europe, and he has also based himself in America at times.
However Andrew, who has also been involved in a rock duo called the Bone Yard Boys, is almost unrecognisable from the film. He's thinner around the middle and thinning to the point of baldness on top. So much so that one tabloid said he looked like a young Dara O Briain.
Andrew has admitted that he lived on the wild side of life for a time but as well as his music, his major passion nowadays is his three-year-old son Athan who is still oblivious to his father's hit movie.
And that's partly because the toddler has other musical and celluloid commitments.
Andrew points out: "Like thousands of other youngsters, Athan is obsessed with the musical Frozen and he has it on the DVD about 20 times a day.
"But at least he does appear to be musical. He likes singing but whether he follows me down that road, it's obviously too early to say."
Andrew isn't itching to replace Frozen on the DVD with the movie that brought him fame if not exactly a fortune
"I don't watch The Commitments," he says. "It was on the telly recently but while my partner and her parents watched it, I didn't bother. I wouldn't be able to see it as others do because all I would be thinking about is the process of filming and all the segments which would make the whole thing very disjointed for me."
The Commitments, of course, had barely been reviewed by the critics before speculation started about whether or not there would be a follow-up to it.
And over a quarter of a century later, the rumour mill is still churning out stories that this Hollywood studio or that one is planning a Commitments 2 and that author Roddy Doyle, who wrote the original book, is penning another novel.
Andrew has heard it all before and he says he's not interested in a "whatever happened to the Commitments?" sequel.
"I feel it was something that I did back then. And while I am very proud of having been involved in what is one of the top three movies ever to have come out of Ireland, there's nothing that would excite me about a new Commitments.
"Besides if there was going to be a sequel it would have been done a long time ago and I can't see me in the role of Deco Cuffe at 42 years of age"
But the movie business is even bigger business than it was back in the day and Andrew admits that a multi-million pound pay cheque might tempt him, but he quickly checks himself. "To be honest, I'm not that interested in the money. That's not why I got into the business and I wouldn't want to tarnish the legacy of the film for money," adds Andrew, who took part in Commitments reunion shows in 2011 after years of stonewalling any such idea, though it wasn't a re-match made in heaven.
Andrew lives in Co Kildare but his roots are firmly in the north. "My dad is from Derry and my mum is from Fermanagh and I have loads of relatives up north and not one down south. So the blood running through my veins is 100% northern."
The gig at Glenarm will be an excuse for a family party.
"Many members of my family haven't seen me live, so it will be a great opportunity for a get-together. And when I was up there for a promotional day I couldn't believe how well-maintained and how warm the castle is. Most castles I visit aren't in that condition and I was fascinated by the history of Glenarm."
An added bonus is that Andrew's father Rob is still going strong and will be performing at the Dalriada Festival the day after his son.
Rob, who played bass guitar with Andrew's band for a year, was a massive showband star in the Seventies when he was the singer with one of the best outfits on the circuit, the Plattermen.
Biased he may be, but Andrew is a huge admirer of his dad's singing. And the feelings are mutual.
Indeed the two Strongs often share the same stage as and when the opportunities arise.
But Andrew has also appeared on the same bill as some of the world's most famous stars including Elton John and Bryan Adams.
He supported Prince in the RDS in Dublin, adding the late superstar was one of the top two live acts he'd ever seen. "When I was watching him I thought that I should just pack my bags and choose a different career. ZZ Top were another band I played with who just blew me away."
Andrew also toured with the Rolling Stones in front of tens of thousands of fans but they didn't quite make as big an impression as the aforementioned Americans and another highlight for him was meeting one of his all-time heroes, Ray Charles.
"He presented me with my first ever gold record in my dressing room when he and I were on the same bill in Denmark. It was a real honour," he says. "But I'm still as passionate about my music as I was back in those days. I've toured the world and I've done a bunch of different work. I make a pretty comfortable living and I can't really ask for more. I'm comfortable in my own skin."
Andrew is disappointed however at the way the magic has vanished from modern-day music. "The romanticism is gone. I remember years ago as a kid going into Dublin and coming home with up to four LPs. I was fixated at looking at them on the bus back to my house where I would spend the whole weekend listening to them," he adds.
"But nowadays it's all digital and downloading music has never interested me."
Andrew Strong plays the Dalriada Festival at Glenarm Castle on Saturday, July 16, at 5pm. Tickets cost £28.50 for general admission from ticketmaster.ie. More details about the Festival can be found at www.dalriadafestival.co.uk