Northern Ireland's rising star in America Gareth Dunlop on making his new album in east Belfast
Ahead of his hometown gig tonight, singer Gareth Dunlop tells Ivan Little why he left Nashville to record his latest album in Northern Ireland
He's just had a song recorded by two of America's top country and western artists; he's been courted by Disney to re-work one of their all-time classics and his tunes have been popping up in movies and major US TV shows such as House.
But while Gareth Dunlop is happy royalty cheques from stars like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw are 'keeping the lights on' in his east Belfast house, he's also excited about his plans to re-focus attention on his own career as a singer-songwriter back home.
Gareth, who has spent parts of the last few years consolidating his songwriting credentials in Nashville and Los Angeles, will tonight showcase himself as a performer again at his biggest ever solo gig at the Mandela Hall.
Many of the songs he'll be singing are from his latest album which was recorded in his own home with the title No. 79 - inspired by the number on his front door.
Gareth says he drove his family to distraction for a couple of weeks getting the house ready and sound-treating the rooms but it turned out to be an ideal home for the recording.
"It was great to have musician friends round to make the album. It's an old house from around 1850 and we lit the fires and opened a couple of bottles of wine to help the ambience," says Gareth.
"If somebody had handed me the keys to the Abbey Road studios in London I would still have opted for my house."
Bringing it all back home to Northern Ireland was perfect for the Bob Dylan fan even though he was in big demand across the Atlantic.
He first went to the States seven years ago as part of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.
He says: "They took me to Nashvlle to learn a little bit about the music industry. I had absolutely no knowledge of how it all worked.
"I played a few showcases and met a publisher at the famous Bluebird cafe and signed a deal with her before writing songs during a second visit to Nashville."
As well as TV shows like House and One Tree Hill featuring his songs, Gareth has also worked on an advertising campaign for Subaru cars in the States before Disney came along with a fairytale offer.
He says: "I was asked to come up with new contemporary versions of old Disney songs for ads for a new channel they were launching in Germany.
"I created a new take on A Whole New World from Aladdin."
A whole new world then opened for Gareth in 2013 when his song Wrap Your Arms Around Me was part of the soundtrack for the movie Safe Haven, based on a romance novel by Nicholas Sparks.
The author asked Gareth to write another song for follow-up film The Best of Me.
But he soon appeared in front of the camera in another movie called No Postage Necessary not just as a singer but also as an actor, playing himself.
He says: "It's been the oddest thing. A director I had met in LA asked me a couple of years later if I would like to sing a song in a bar scene in his film and then he mentioned that he wanted me to say a few lines that had been written.
"I was really nervous because I'd never acted before but I was in Nashville at the time with my family so we set off on a road trip to Florida to do the filming."
In the meantime Gareth was still beavering away writing songs which were being pitched to leading American singers - mostly on the lucrative country scene.
News that country icons Faith Hill and Tim McGraw had recorded a song called Sleeping in the Stars for an album was a game-changer.
Gareth wrote the song with two people he'd never met before and adds: "I got together at a co-write in LA with Mark Irwin and Jaida Dreyer, and after the usual pleasantries, we set about writing something with Faith and Tim in mind.
"After about an hour we had come up with Sleeping in the Stars. And that was it - a total collaboration between the three of us.
"It sort of fell out like a conversation with us all coming out with the words.
"I had my guitar with me and I think there was a piano in there too.
"We all felt pretty good about the song after we put it down on our phones and sent it to the publisher."
But Gareth says he had forgotten about the song until he got an email eight months later saying Sleeping in the Stars had made it onto the Hill/McGraw album.
Tim has written with Mark and Jaida since their first encounter but he says he's taken a back seat from Nashville to concentrate on his career as an entertainer back in Belfast.
He adds: "I was getting a little frustrated writing for other people as opposed to writing for myself.
"You might write for 50 TV shows and if you are lucky get two who take your songs.
"I think when I was under contract with a company in LA I might have written 200 songs in a year and I felt it was all happening so fast on a creative level that I wasn't allowing ideas to marinate"
And so Gareth came home and the album No 79 was the upshot.
"I wanted to find out what I had to say rather than having all those years wondering about what everybody else had to say.
"It's been absolutely great to have time to work on a song instead of having to rush against the clock," says Gareth who was brought up in the Cregagh area of Belfast.
He was from a musical family and fancied himself as a rock 'n' roll guitarist but he was later exposed to a wide range of influences like Paul Brady and other Irish traditional artists.
He says he wasn't initially a singer in his youth because it wasn't "cool", but after studying music in Bangor he blossomed into a more committed performer playing in pubs and at weddings.
Gareth says: "I knew I wanted to make music my career and if that meant playing covers of other people's songs I was happy enough with that."
However, slowly but surely, Gareth began writing his own songs and released a number of self-produced EPs which he sold at gigs in places like the Rotterdam Bar in Belfast where he had a residency.
But things then moved onto a different level after an engineer friend let Snow Patrol hear some of Gareth's songs while they were touring with U2.
"Snow Patrol invited me on stage with them at the Waterfront in Belfast to sing one of my own songs," he says.
"And that did great things for me with the invite to the Belfast Nashville Festival for example."
Along the way father-of-two Gareth has opened for the likes of Van Morrison and the Stereophonics.
But he laughs as he recalls that global megastar Ed Sheeran was once on a bill before him.
"We were both playing at an Arthur's Day gig in a pub in Dublin around 10 years ago in front of about 80 people and he was on first with his acoustic guitar.
"He was just starting his career."
Gareth says he isn't in the least envious of Sheeran who is recognisable in even the remotest corners of the world.
"I don't think I would cope well with that level of attention," he says.
After his Mandela Hall gig, with a seven-piece band including a brass section, Gareth is planning a tour with the band before going solo again to do a 28-date European tour, where he will support singer/actor Michael Malarkey who starred in the Vampire Diaries TV series.
Asked if he preferred a one-man show or a band gig Gareth says: "I think I would always say it had to be the band. It can get lonely on my own."
Gareth Dunlop plays the Mandela Hall, Belfast tonight, 7.30pm