Belfast Telegraph

Gareth Dunlop: Why writing hits is just child's play

Balancing a music career with life as a new dad is a tough job, but as Gareth Dunlop tells Claire Savage ahead of his Belfast gig, he's well up to the challenge

Sitting pretty: Gareth Dunlop is one of the stars of this year's Nashville Festival
Sitting pretty: Gareth Dunlop is one of the stars of this year's Nashville Festival

Given that Dunlop is performing at this year's Nashville Songwriters Festival in Belfast and is no stranger to the US city itself, what is rather fitting about this hot-off-the-press news is that the song will appear in ... Nashville.

It could all get a little confusing, but the TV series, starring Hayden Panettiere (of Heroes fame), tells the story of two competing country music singers, and Dunlop's song – which he co-wrote with two-time Grammy-nominated American singer/songwriter, Kim Richey – will subsequently be performed by one of the lead actors.

"It's amazing, the film and TV stuff," he says. "Sometimes you're writing everything specifically for a brief and you have to stay within those kind of guidelines. More often for me, though, it's a case of people hearing the music and asking me if they can use it. It really is nice."

Dunlop is no stranger to such work, of course, his songs having featured on shows such as Cougar Town, One Tree Hill, House and, most recently, on the Disney Channel in Germany. For this, he re-recorded the song A Whole New World, from the film Aladdin. Meanwhile, in 2013, the track Wrap Your Arms Around Me appeared in the Lasse Hallström film Safe Haven.

"I was out in LA doing a couple of meetings and we pitched to Relativity – the film company," he says. "The day before, I was told about the film and the scene. They were aware of me and just said, this is what the scenes are – do you have anything? So, I came in and played out some songs and they fell in love with that song. It just kind of worked.

"It was a really, really new song – maybe like a month old – and I had a really rough recording of it, recorded in the kitchen at 3am, so my initial thoughts were, 'I'll get back in and try to get it sounding nice' and... that didn't happen. But that's what they wanted to use!"

Having grown up in east Belfast, Dunlop – despite his myriad Stateside excursions – remains a Belfast boy at heart. Indeed, he still lives in the city with his family and recently became a first-time father, to daughter Joanie Rose Dunlop. He describes being a dad as "all still very, very new – in a beautiful way," with the obligatory lack of sleep, of course...

Whether his daughter follows her dad into the music business, only time will tell, but Dunlop will surely encourage her if that is what she chooses. His own family – at 25, he is the youngest of four siblings – have always supported his own work.

"Every now and again they'll hear something on the TV that I've done and they're quite excited and proud," he says.

"They always come to the gigs and stuff."

Saying that his father "always had a banjo" and there was usually a guitar kicking around, Dunlop admits he didn't feel inclined to pick it up until he was about 13 or 14.

"Singing came after that," he says. "I wanted to be a really good guitar player. I grew up listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton... I just idolised that, and that was what I wanted to do. I started listening to Bob Dylan and remember around that time, I started really listening to lyrics and storytelling."

Going on to study for four years at Bangor College, Dunlop also later learned about performance and technique. He subsequently put his engineering knowledge to good use when he decided to build his own music studio in Holywood.

"It's not really commercial – it's for us to use," he says. "I started that with a few friends three or four years ago and use it to record all my songs."

When he started out, Dunlop did his share of pub gigs, but it was at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival in 2011 that he got his big break.

Winning the Young Songwriter of the Year award, he was whisked off to Nashville to perform and came home with a recording contract.

"It was quite a pivotal moment," he recalls. "It pushed things on in the right direction.

"I was approached by a publisher and ended up signing a deal."

During his visit, Dunlop also performed at the famous Bluebird Café, one of the world's most esteemed 'listening rooms'.

"The Bluebird was amazing," says Dunlop.

"It's an amazing wee venue – full of a lot of history. A lot of great acts and songwriters have played there.

"After I went over the first time (to Nashville), I've been going out maybe five or six times a year since then, playing shows and different venues. I've also been spending time in New York and LA and writing for film and TV. It's very much ongoing. I never really switch off."

As a new father, will all this travelling perhaps prove problematic to Dunlop, if his busy schedule is going to interfere with his fatherly duties?

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he says. "It will be amazing if everything could happen here, at home. My family's here."

In the meantime, Dunlop is looking forward to his imminent performances at the 10th United Airlines Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.

He will appear as part of the Music City Roots Show (MCS) at the Empire on March 1, alongside music legends Donovan and Chip Taylor, before his main gig on March 6. The MCS will be broadcast via Public Broadcast Television into about 60 million homes in America, so his audience will be a little larger than normal.

"It's an amazing festival," he says. "There's always a great camaraderie between everybody performing there. The city seems to take on a really nice vibe for it.

"It's going to be nice to get playing with the band again, as I've been doing the last few gigs solo. I've played the festival for a few years now, but it's been in and around with other songwriters, so this is the first time playing with the band and doing my own gig."

As a keen follower of the local music scene, Dunlop adds that there are "a lot of people" he wouldn't mind collaborating with. He adds: "I think it would be neat to hang out and study for a day with Tom Waits."

Describing Belfast as a city "hungry for music," the singer agrees that Northern Ireland is "filled with amazing songwriters". One of these, he adds, is another Belfast artist called Morgan MacIntyre. "I heard her on the radio last week and it blew my head off," he says.

For up-and-coming performers, meanwhile, he advises them just to "keep doing it – keep writing and performing".

"We're very lucky the way that people go out and watch groups, and there's plenty of venues here," he says. "I've a few shows coming up in the UK immediately after the Nashville Festival gig and then I'm probably going to go straight back into some more writing for the next project."

Gareth Dunlop performs at The Empire, Belfast, on Thursday, March 6.

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A musical showcase ...

Since its creation a decade ago, the United Airlines Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival has become one of the key dates in the city's annual music calendar.

Previous big names to play at the event include Country star Nanci Griffith, Eighties legend Nik Kershaw and former Catatonia frontwoman Cerys Matthews.

Kicking off next Friday, February 28, this year's line-up features a whopping 100 artists performing at 50 events over 10 days.

Among the highlights are Sixties folk legend Donovan (left), Ultravox and Band AId icon Midge Ure and Chip Taylor – writer of hit songs Angel of the Morning and Wild Thing – as well as a host of local stars including Bap Kennedy.

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