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Ryan McMullan was booked to open Glastonbury, but what if nobody turned up?

The Portaferry-born musician tells David O'Dornan about hanging out with Ed Sheeran, touring along with Snow Patrol... and why he owes it all to his mum Nuala

Portaferry singer Ryan McMullan
Portaferry singer Ryan McMullan
Snow Patrol‘s Gary Lightbody
Ryan plays a song during a radio session

By David O'Dornan

Starring as the opening act at Glastonbury is daunting enough, but even more so when you think no one has turned up to hear you play. Co Down-born singer-songwriter Ryan McMullan had the honour of opening the Acoustic Stage last Friday, one of eight main stages at the most famous music festival in the world.

But the Portaferry man admitted that he was overcome with relief when - thinking he was about to play in front of no crowd - he realised just minutes before he was due to perform that fans had been patiently queuing up outside and the entrance to his tent had not yet been opened.

"I have to say, because I was the first on, on the Acoustic Stage, we did the soundcheck and nobody was there," he said. "And then at half-an-hour to go and nobody's there. And then at five minutes to go and nobody's there.

"And then I'm about to walk on stage and nobody's there. And then I realised that it's been closed off, it's been cordoned off until they let them in and then it filled right up.

"I was so, so relieved. I was so worried that I was going to be playing to nobody. But no, the whole tent filled up and everybody was on board - I had an absolute blast."

And he added: "I'm always the kind of guy that just loves to go and sing, but whenever nobody turns up, I kind of go, 'Oh, s***'. And nobody was there. And I was just like, 'Oh my God, my first time at Glastonbury and no one's here'. I have friends too and I was like, 'They swore to me they were coming'."

Ryan reckons around 1,000 music fans filled up the tent in the end and he made the most of the weekend by blagging himself into the staff camping area for the weekend with a 24-hour bar.

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The only downside for him was having a brand new pair of expensive sunglasses swiped.

He said: "Someone stole my sunglasses, but, bar that, I had a blast. I was joking about with people saying I was going to go onto the stage wearing the glasses and they were like, 'Ah, don't be that guy' and I was like, 'No, I'm going to do it'.

"And then I forgot that I was still wearing them and it was only as I was about to go on stage I went, 'I'm still wearing the glasses' and I set them to the side of the stage.

Ryan McMullan performing at Glastonbury
Ryan McMullan performing at Glastonbury

"And I came off and they weren't there and everybody, to be fair, has been trying to get them back for me, but I'd just bought them and they were one of the first pairs of expensive ones I have ever had."

Ryan (29) played Glasto three years after visiting as a fan and, while millionaire acts like Liam Gallagher, Kylie Minogue and The Killers played this year, he said music is not about the money for him.

"I'm not a big fan of money. I know we all need money to survive and I understand its purpose, but I would hate for money to be a focus in my life. And I've always been that way," he explained.

"But I'm huge about experience. The first tour I ever did was supporting Foy Vance, who is potentially the biggest hero to me musically. So, by the first tour, I'd already ticked the box I wanted. Then I got to do an Ed Sheeran tour, which was the biggest tour of 2017.

"I talk to Ed every chance I can. The guy is the most famous guy in the world, so I know if I need to talk to him about anything, he is there, because he's such a sweetheart. He's a great friend to have.

"And then I got to support Snow Patrol, who are, aside from The Beatles, my favourite band of all time, because of how influential they've been to my friend group and my adolescence.

Ryan (right) on stage with Foy Vance (left) and Ed Sheeran (centre)
Ryan (right) on stage with Foy Vance (left) and Ed Sheeran (centre)

"I go on tour with them again in August to Australia, New Zealand and Asia, so I'll see them pretty soon.

"I got to sing a song with them after Bono at Ward Park and I've also got to do my own headline shows and sell them out.

He added: "The first shows I ever did of a headline tour, I sold out 500 people in three different cities in Germany. I'm surprised anybody in Germany would know who I am.

"I got to play the Ulster Hall and sell it out, basically the mother church of Northern Ireland, I got to do the Ryman (in Nashville, Tennessee) and I'm getting to do Custom House Square (in Belfast) this year.

"I played that two years ago, supporting Foy, first on; now I'm headlining it. The experience of it all has been crazy and I just think every day, 'How have I ended up here'? And then my next response is, 'Stop questioning it, you'll get found out. Just let it be'."

Ryan credits his family with helping him on the road to success and, in particular, his mum Nuala and dad John.

Ryan with Foy Vance
Ryan with Foy Vance

He said: "I was more into sports growing up and then I hurt my back, so I couldn't really play so I played a bit of guitar and then I went to university and did a degree in civil engineering.

"In my last year, I needed an outlet, so I wrote a few songs and recorded them. That was 2015. I finished the degree and haven't looked back since.

"My family are so supportive. It was my dad that always stood forward, even when I was doing sports and said I wanted to do football, and he said, 'Okay, I'll drive you' and all of a sudden he's part of the coaching team.

"And then I wanted to play hurling and all of a sudden he was the manager. Then I wanted to learn guitar and he learnt it six months earlier. Then I wanted to play in bars and he started playing in bars so that he could bring me in.

"They are so supportive in every aspect of life, not just music, but my mum is a gorgeous singer, a natural ability to sing. They'll be at Custom House Square and if I can find a way to squeeze them in, singing backing vocals on a track, even if I could get a recording of them for the album, I'd do it.

"My brother Paul started playing guitar a year ago and I'm pretty sure I was not that good a year in - and he's 32. He just picked it up like a duck to water and all of a sudden he's brilliant at it.

"If he plays his cards right, he could be supporting me in about three years' time. I'd never pressurise him, but if he felt comfortable doing it, I'd have him up on stage at Custom House Square in a heartbeat."

Ryan says he is proud to be one of the music stars flying the flag for the local music scene, but told of his frustration at the current political stalemate, because he thinks it is hampering the potential growth of an already flourishing industry.

He explained: "I think Northern Ireland is, I would easily say, in my opinion, per square foot, it's the most talented place in the world.

"Isn't it funny that we can live in a world where our government can't speak to each other, but yet everybody else is all about love and peace?

"I wish our government and our politicians would take note of that and join in, join the party, because we, the people of Northern Ireland, deserve that.

"I hope it doesn't go unnoticed and I'm very proud of the fact the Northern Irish music scene is nothing but friendly and family - long may it continue.

"Everybody's looking at us going, 'You are amazing', but we're not sure if we can jump.

"If we get the right people and the politicians to agree with each other, Northern Ireland is paradise.

"I say this everywhere I go - and I get to travel to so many beautiful and wonderful cities. There is no place like Belfast, because of the people. The people make a place and Belfast has it in abundance. It is the best place in the world. I call Belfast home now. I love it."

Ryan McMullan headlines Custom House Square on Saturday, August 17. Tickets are £27.50 (plus booking fee) and admission is for age 16 and over. Tickets are on sale now from Ticketmaster outlets and www.ticketmaster.ie

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