'I was drunk and crashed into a wall at a fork in the road. My older brother Marc was killed outright'
Belfast singer John Andrews tells Ivan Little about the enduring emotional fall-out of causing the death of his sibling in a car crash — and how the time he spent in jail helped turn his life around
Up-and-coming Belfast singer-songwriter John Andrews has talked openly and emotionally about the devastation he's suffered since causing the death of his older brother in a drunken car crash six years ago.
And John, whose mother is a Free Presbyterian church organist, has said he's determined to make a success of his musical career to honour the memory of Marc, whose tragic passing changed his family's lives for ever.
"It took years for me to get any sense of mental stability," says John (31), who was also a member of Ian Paisley's church in his youth. "But I'm still struggling."
John, who was jailed after the crash, has already dedicated two songs on an album to Marc, but says the horrific crash still haunts him.
And he has also said that without the support of his family and his Polish fiancee Kasia, who is seven months' pregnant, he "wouldn't be here today".
John pleaded guilty at Newtownards court in March 2015 to causing Marc's death by careless driving while unfit to drive through drink or drugs almost exactly two years earlier at Deerpark Road in Portaferry.
Outside the court after John received an 18-month sentence, half in jail, half on licence, his parents William and Ina Andrews spoke of their heartache, saying they had already lost Marc and "we probably lost a bit of John today".
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Mr Andrews said their main focus would be supporting John and staying together as a family.
In a searingly honest interview with the Belfast Telegraph, John says he will regret the crash for the rest of his life and accepts that the judge was as lenient as he could be with his sentence.
The real punishment for John, however, was in losing his brother and realising the damage that he'd done to his family.
He explains he and Marc had been visiting a friend in Portaferry and fully intended to spend the night there after consuming a large quantity of alcohol.
"But there was a bit of a falling out in a bar due to everyone having too much to drink and I decided that I would be okay to drive home to Belfast," he says.
"But I was drunk and crashed into a wall at a fork in the road. The experts said I had been trying to go one way and attempted to correct it at the last minute.
"Marc was killed outright. I was only slightly injured. But I wrecked my wrist afterwards because I started to punch the wall whenever they told me Marc was gone. I couldn't believe it.
"Marc and I were really close. We got on the best."
In court it was said that John was three times over the drink drive limit, but it wasn't until two years after the accident that the legal proceedings ran their full course and Marc was sentenced.
In the intervening period John struggled to cope with his grief and his guilt - and with his problems with drink and drugs
"In hindsight I needed those couple of years before prison, because I was in no state to go inside," says John, who found prison a sobering experience, literally and figuratively.
But as well as dealing with the anguish of what had happened to his brother, John also undertook a huge re-evaluation of his life and his musical career.
He says: "Marc's death made me want to go all out with my music and not hold back with anything that I wanted to say in my songs, to find my own way.
"I felt I had lost so much that I had nothing left to lose. I recorded an EP in Northampton and dedicated the first two tracks to Marc."
John wrote no fewer than nine songs in jail, many of them influenced by the accident.
In prison he also availed of opportunities to study creative writing and to hone his musical skills.
"The facilities in jail were brilliant," he says. "But I also used my time to think about what I wanted in my life and what was important to me."
John had counselling after his release from Magilligan jail, but even so "there were times when my head would just go again and I would revert back to drink and whatever else".
John says most of the songs he's ever written have been about his own experiences. "It's very personal and to some people it might be too personal, but that's just the way I do it," he says.
John once gave an interview in Magilligan jail to BBC Radio Foyle's Mark Patterson in a bid to deter people from drink driving.
John also sang one of his own songs, Don't Let Me Fade Away, about his prison experiences. Another of the songs that he has written - Pray - focuses on his upbringing in the Free Presbyterian Church.
"I was a member of the church for the first 14 years of my life and my mum still plays the organ in one of Ian Paisley's churches in south Belfast," he explains. "I remember Dr Paisley coming to our house around the time of Marc's funeral."
Another song he sings, Love Letter, is about his fiancee Kasia, whom he first met through his late brother Marc.
"We knew each other for a few years before we got together," says John. "She's a great girl and I couldn't have made it through everything that happened without her. No-one understands like her. She's been with me through the worst of the bad times and she wrote letters to me when I was inside. Hence the song, Love Letter."
John says that as well as Kasia, he can't thank his family and many of his friends enough for their support during "the dark times".
He adds: "I really don't know what I would have done without them. I have been an emotional wreck at times and at other times there's been extreme anger or extreme tears, bouncing back and forward between them for years."
In October last year, after playing solo for a long time, John formed The John Andrews Band, which includes 21-year-old identical twins Shea and Michael McCrea, who play drums and guitar respectively and who are also in another group, The Fake Flirtations.
"There's been a great reaction to our band. It's far more enjoyable playing with other musicians than just by myself and I don't think the music has lost any of its clarity," says John, who's originally from the Cregagh Road and has been into music for as long as he can remember.
His father's love of musical legends like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and the Kinks left a lasting impression on John, as did his three older brothers' heroes, rockers Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams.
At school in east Belfast, John learnt the clarinet at the age of eight and he picked up his first guitar seven years later.
Before long, he had started to play with a band called Five Per Cent Milk.
"That's when I began writing songs. But we weren't really good enough to go any further and we weren't disciplined," says John, who insists he has learnt from the musical mistakes in his younger days as well as from the tragedies in his personal life.
John steadfastly refuses to pigeonhole his music, saying: "It ranges from soul and blues to rock and pop and then there's some hip-hop punk, folk, jazz, country and even some spoken word. I don't fall into just one category. You can do whatever you want. There are no rules at all. There's a whole mixture of different styles of music in there."
Equally eclectic are the musicians who have influenced him, including Bruce Springsteen, U2, 2Pac, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Bob Marley, Otis Redding, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Ray Charles.
Many of his idols are old-school performers - the sort sometimes spurned as old-fashioned by younger generations of musicians - but John says: "Good music is good music, no matter what age it is. And I love discovering the greats from the past. I have loads of blanks to fill in."
So far he has released two EPs; Steal Back the Sun, in July 2014, and Johnny Was four years later, which featured many of the songs that were written in prison.
He is currently preparing to release a full album, which will include a number of songs that he has already promoted on YouTube with videos that were recorded on a special set that John and a friend built in a barn in Killinchy.
John has a job in Dundonald, but says that he is determined to become a full-time musician, telling stories, creating characters and experimenting with music and film.
However, he is planning to take a break from his gigging soon to deal with another more pressing commitment... as a father.
"Kasia is seven months' pregnant and we are both excited. In November I will get back to playing live gigs with the band and the next objective will be to record the new album," he says.
John says he's taking his time as he sets his sights on success, adding: "I'm happy to go slowly, step by step.
"I would love nothing more than to make a living out of music. But I know there are no short-cuts."
For more information, go to John's Facebook page, John Andrews Music