When I talk to Foy Vance, the Irish singer-songwriter is in America, where he’s just done a stereotypically American thing – attended his first baseball game. “Kinda like watching cricket a bit, actually,” he says. It’s surprising Vance hasn’t seen a game before, because when he was a kid his family moved to America and stayed there for several years. But his father was a preacher and his was a very old-fashioned upbringing – especially with the music he heard in his father’s church.
“They don’t allow musical instruments. It’s quite old-school – lining up, someone at the front sings out and then the congregation sing it back. But being that it was all voices, actually I quite liked that element of it, because if it’s only voices then everyone finds a harmony or sings a bassline. The singing was really good. It was the only good thing to come out of that, really.”
Although there were no instruments allowed in church, things were different at home, where Vance’s father introduced him to the guitar and taught him to play the 12-bar blues. “I grew up in a family where there was a lot of music. My granny would sing a lot; anytime we had a family get-together, the guitar would come out. There was a lot of singing in the house. It was just something I did for my own pleasure, and then before I knew it I was doing it for a living.”
Doing it for a living meant moving again. Vance’s family had returned to Ireland, and he found himself flying from Belfast to London so often that eventually he gave in and moved there, returning to Ireland briefly to record his debut release. He calls himself “a bit of a late bloomer, I guess you’d say – I was 32 when I released my first album. I wanted it to be an experience for me more than anything else. I wanted to enjoy it so I thought about [recording] where I would find most enjoyable, and that’s the Mountains of Mourne [in the south-east of Northern Ireland], being surrounded by the mountains and the peace and the quiet.”
But the album he came out with, 2007’s Hope, didn’t live up to his expectations. “I don’t think it sounds great,” he admits. “I don’t really like it that much as a record, if I’m being honest with you.” While he says it does have some “nice songs” on it, he wasn’t happy with the release as a whole – and wasn’t happy with London either. “It’s just so expensive to live there and it’s always busy. After a while it really got to me.”
One more move was on the cards, to somewhere that had the mountains and the peace and quiet he craved – the Scottish Highlands. There, he put together his second album, Joy Of Nothing. This time Vance’s aim was to create a musical journey, as the clichО goes. The entire album builds to a climax in ‘Guiding Light’, which sounds like it could be one of those old church hymns he grew up with, only the voice joining in is that of Ed Sheeran.
“Ed had been comin’ to my gigs since he was about 13, with his dad,” says Vance. “He got in contact about writing together, actually, and that started the conversation. Then we met up one night in Dublin and did a bit of a song-sharing thing ’til about five in the morning.”
Vance also shares songs with his family, keeping alive his grandmother’s tradition of bringing the guitar out at family events. His ten-year-old daughter has written her first song, and wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps. His reaction is that of a typical parent. “I’m trying to make sure she has a backup plan. This industry’s changing dramatically, you know?” He knows it better than most.
See Foy Vance supporting Grace Potter and The Nocturnals at Oxford Art Factory on Wednesday April 23.
Joy Of Nothing out now through Glassnote