By Noel Atcheson
Since the release of his debut single ‘God’s Plan’ in 2009, Derek Ryan has forged a new musical identity which has brought him to the forefront of the Irish music scene.
The Carlow singer was once part of noughties boyband D-Side, a group who found success with three top ten singles in the United Kingdom as well gaining a cult following in Asia – the group had a number one single in Japan with the track ‘Invisible’. After the band went their separate ways in 2006, the singer returned to university in London before finding success with ‘God’s Plan’.
Coming off the success of his previous two studio albums, 2014’s The Simple Things and last year’s One Good Night, his two new releases, This Is Me and Happy Man, have both debuted in the top ten Irish album charts.
Recording sessions for This Is Me took place in Nashville in January of this year at the House of Blues studio. For Derek, it was the fulfilment of a long-held personal ambition, reflected somewhat in the self-referential album name. The eleven-track set encompasses a variety of influences, and seems to represent a new challenge for him, one which he seems eager to meet head-on.
It’s a bit more progressive than I normally would do, to challenge myself creatively and in the studio and continue to learn. It’s an album I’ve always wanted to make.
Home to the legendary Grand Ole Opry and country music Hall of Fame, ‘Music City USA’ is steeped in a rich history of producing successful country acts. More recently, with the re-emergence of popularity in country music scene in America, it is where established artists such as Steven Tyler and Kid Rock have turned to in an attempt to maintain relevance amongst music audiences.
The choice of setting for the recording was not just to write his name into the annals of Nashville lore. It was also a logical evolution for his creative process, as well as a proving ground for his song-writing prowess.
“It was always something I wanted to do,” he says when speaking of recording there. “You’re not always in the financial position. It was a dream initially. Then it got to a stage where, luckily, I had the opportunity do it.
“It was the next step really, to record out there. With the writing and all the rest, I just wanted to show people what I could do”.
Tracks such as ‘Tender’ and ‘Brand New Day’ are destined to become live staples, with grooving rock rhythms punctuated by anthemic sing-along choruses. Other songs take on a measured approach, like ‘More To Good Lovin’ and the reflective ‘Some Days’, a song with the potential to bother charts with its breezy, infectious acoustic leanings marked with a lamentation on simpler times.
“I’m a big Bryan Adams fan so there’s a few songs on it that people have said that they can tell I’m into Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, that kind of stuff. There’s other songs as well, acoustic, bluegrass, there’s folk on it. It’s a mixture of everything, really.
“But I feel the album is a collection of some of [my] best songs written to date. I think there’s a nice balance to it”.
The singer worked with Grammy-nominated producer and engineer Jeff Balding on the record. Balding has recorded across a diverse range of musical styles for over three decades and, prior to taking the helm on This Is Me, worked with ex-Eagle Don Henley on his 2015 release Cass County. Henley’s album reached number one on the Billboard Country Music charts, a first for Henley as a solo artist.
The experience of working with the producer is one that Ryan describes as “surreal”. “That was his album before mine. It was so funny, it was like ‘What did you work on last?’, ‘“Oh, Cass County’.
“Jeff was brilliant and very generous with his knowledge and expertise”, he elaborates. “The songs were written before we approached him to be involved. We had very similar opinions on how things should go, for example, styles, songs, vocals. That made it a lot easier to progress and enjoy the whole process.”
While almost all of his previous solo releases have resonated predominantly with Irish country audiences, it appears he is reaching for a wider spectrum with This Is Me. “The ideal scenario is to get it signed in the U.S. That may or may not happen, who knows?” adding that he has held meetings regarding possibly releasing the album in America.
He also admits that with the release of the Nashville album another ambition would be to take his live show to North America, to see “if we can spread our wings a little bit and … broaden horizons really. It’s to take it to the next level, production-wise, and hopefully people will like it.”
Released alongside This Is Me, Happy Man “is very much back to my roots, a traditionally Irish country album, straight down the line”. The fourteen-track set encompasses the traditional mix of original songs and covers, including a riveting version of Christy Moore’s iconic City of Chicago. The album was recorded between Longford and London, with long-time collaborators Jonathan Owens and Kai McKenzie handling production duties.
“The majority of the tracks were recorded [with Owens] in Longford. He always delivers exactly what I want and he knows instinctively what I have in my head when I play a demo of a new song to him.”
He also praises the work of his “great friend” McKenzie, who helped the Carlow singer with the launching of his debut single God’s Plan in 2009. “I recorded four tracks with him. He is a top class producer and we work really well together.”
“Hopefully, between the two [albums], there’s a nice showcase of what I’m about and what I can create”.
The final track on This Is Me is a re-recorded, ‘American-style production’ of his very first single ‘God’s Plan’. He has stated in interviews that the ballad is one of his proudest musical achievements. It seems ironic then, in hindsight, that he almost never recorded the song that kick-started the second act of his musical career.
“I don’t know if many people know this, but initially I tried to get other people to record it,” he reveals. “I didn’t really have a plan to enter into country music.”
“I was gigging away, had my own wedding band, gigging in churches and pubs, had about four or five gigs a week and I was just back in college,” he says. “Everything was going grand and I didn’t need to take a risk or anything like that. I was making a living. Everything was fine.”
But with ‘God’s Plan’, he decided that perhaps there was a risk was worth taking. “I had this song, and I really, really believed in it.” He sent the track to people he knew within the music industry. But it was met with indifference and “no one took it up”.
The initial rejection of the single from record companies solidified his resolve, however, and he decided to release the song himself. “I got the cover done, a few photos in Carlow, got the CD’s burned up, envelopes. I Google’d every DJ I could find in Ireland and that was it. I sent it off.”
The singer’s award-winning live show has toured Ireland extensively, with the simultaneous release of his two new albums taking his touring commitments well into 2017. His live band also recently completed a tour of the United Kingdom, where he will return for another string of dates next Spring.
Maintaining a well-grounded relationship with his dedicated fan-base forms a pivotal part of his continuing success. After any given concert, Derek can be found amongst his audiences, posing for pictures and casually conversing with concert-goers.
“You get to know your fans, some of them by name, some of them by nature. That’s how you create the bond.
“I kick-started my band in the middle of a recession, and people spend their hard earned money to come out and see you”, he says. “So it’s actually a nice thing, to say ‘thanks for coming’”.
The escalation of Derek’s successes also seems to coincide with resurgence in the popularity of country music in Ireland. Particularly, the fan-base for country music is so intensely passionate that it could be argued that the genre is one of the few relevant styles remaining in contemporary music.
The singer seems to acknowledge this: “Country music fans, in general, are very loyal. Once they get into you and your music, they tend to stick with you.”
This is also a prominent factor amongst younger generations, for whom this new wave of country talent has become cultural barometers in Ireland.
“It’s great that young people, first of all, are listening to country music,” he enthuses with a smile. “Then, that they want to get up and sing it, it’s amazing.”
“When I grew up in the nineties everyone was listening to pop. No one was wanting to listen to country music at my age, you know? And now the kids coming to the gigs are so young”.
In February of this year, Derek was interviewed by Celebrity Radio DJ Alex Belfield, who described the singer as “a modern day Daniel O’Donnell”, and a figure who has made “Irish music cool again”. Derek has long spoken of a fond admiration for the Donegal entertainer, referring to him as “naturally, just a nice guy”.
But while the comparison made by Belfield is appreciated by the Carlow native, he is remiss to take all plaudits.
“It’s a mixture of all of us. There are a lot of young artists on the scene. It definitely wouldn’t be just me!” he laughs, going on to mention some of the contemporaries who he feels are contributing to the re-emergence of country music in Ireland.
“Nathan [Carter], there’s Johnny Brady, Jim Devine, Gerry Guthrie, Lee Matthews. Barry Kirwan is out on the road. There’s so many great guys on the scene now”.
“I always think I’ve put a lot of work into it, so I’m very proud of everything I release,” he says. “The public naturally decide what they like and what they don’t like so … You go with your gut, and that’s all you can do.”
And for Derek Ryan, maintaining his position at the pinnacle of this scene boils down to a simple template.
“Head down, work hard. Everything falls into place after that.”