Christmas cards from Bonnie Raitt, Lowden guitars made from whiskey barrels, duets with Ed Sheeran, and writing about the love of nothing, Foy Vance has nailed it. Joy Of Nothing is the perfect representation of the road-worn musician’s ever-evolving discovery of artistic expression, telling his tale, in his own time.
When I heard Foy Vance was gearing up to release a new album I was over the moon. Not just because this was his first album in six years, but also because I’d finally have a legitimate excuse to interview him. Joy Of Nothing is, by far, the greatest record Foy has made (he’s released eight EPs and two albums), one he’s finally comfortable with (strangely, he’s not a fan of Hope) and one that has guest appearances from Bonnie Raitt and Ed Sheeran.
Coupled with his love for gospel music Foy is, literally, the son of a preacher man. He was born in the Northern Ireland town of Bangor, although his passion for traditional music was born in the southern states of America. As a child, Foy relocated with his father to the American Midwest, settling in Oklahoma. He travelled to the South widening his horizons and absorbing the musical traditions he was exposed to. Returning to Ireland several years later, Foy began writing his own music shaped by the sounds of his youth. Since those days, he has spent a considerable amount of time on the road, touring with Bonnie Raitt, Michael Kiwanuka, Marcus Foster, Snow Patrol (Foy also sang backing vocals on Fallen Empires in 2011) and Ed Sheeran, who he supported on his recent US tour. Foy also scored Oscar-winning short-film The Shore with David Holmes, who collaborated with Vance on his 2012 EP Melrose.
Foy Vance is at one with himself, and the world. He wears the scars of a well-travelled, seasoned musician, and Joy Of Nothing is the perfect representation of this. It’s a clear nod to the poetic qualities of Ireland, and to the country vibes of the United States. It’s also clear that the extended time period has paid off. An album of joyous acoustic harmonies, juxtaposed orchestral longing and triumphant, thunderous choruses celebrate the joy of nothing – his figurative lyricism echoing his transition from the Big Smoke to the Scottish highlands; a place he now calls home.
Having just returned from touring the States and Europe, he’s talking down the phone, readying for his in-store gig at East Trade Records in London. ‘I got back last night. I’m still a bit disorientated. I think I’ve been through five different time zones in the last seven days,’ he laughs with his lilting Irish accent. Foy’s elated at the advance reviews coming from the music press. But there’s something there that suggests he doesn’t care too much about the industry’s response. He’s past that. This is a record that doesn’t need that. It’s free from the industry constraints and is, simply, his journey and constant search for artistic expression.
Foy, it’s been six years! Why the wait? We’re not sure we could’ve waited much longer, actually…
It’s often thought of as a delay, but the world is no better or worse of for my not having released a record, let’s face it. I suppose after I released Hope I looked at the state of the industry and thought that that record could have been better. It wasn’t the record that I wanted to make and it didn’t hit the mark. I’m proud of the songs – they were written with the right intentions, but how the album was addressed wasn’t really there. I started to study records that did have all of that, you know, seminal records. The things about all those records were that they came at a time when music mattered to people in a more profound way – these people had something to say. I think that’s kind of gone now, and I find it a bit depressing. I’m a touring musician and a lucky wee bastard for getting to make a living out of it! I thought it was about time I should write something and make something that was relevant, and the best work that I could do. I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, but thought I might as well say something about nothing – we might as well talk about that, right? As soon as I’d made that decision it coincided with me moving from London up to the highlands of Scotland and when I got there, writing about nothing was easy because of the stillness and the ancient qualities there.
It’s all a natural thing, then? None of this was planned as such…
Not at all. You can tell straight away when a record is contrived. Hope is one of them, in my opinion. It was overthought and it didn’t know what it was. Joy Of Nothing was effortless, articulate, and I’m really pleased with it. It’s a document of the year I’ve had and a good sonic representation of that. Whether it’s good or bad is not half as important to me as that fact that I’m happy with it.
You’ve done a huge amount of travelling, both as a child and, now, as a touring musician. Do the people you meet and places you visit inspire you?
I’ve always been inspired by that. My dad was quite nomadic and we were always moving about somewhere. I’ve always liked the whole idea of a new place means a new feeling – even learning their language. My dad always said that if you learn another language, you gain another soul. It unlocks something geeky. Travel is an amazing thing for writing music. The only thing wrong with travel for a musician is that it tends to be multiple time zones in only a couple of days!
Has Joy Of Nothing pushed you more so than anything you’ve ever done, musically?
Do you know what, I think these songs are the best I’ve done. I’m definitely getting better at songwriting. I could tell you how to write a song, but I couldn’t tell you how to write a good one! Writing songs is a piece of piss, but writing a good one is still a mystery. I think with this record, the amount of good songs that were coming through was thick and fast. I think it was due to me realising that I was becoming content with what I wanted to say. When I got to Scotland I was invigorated and I’d been doing it for many years, so when they came this time I was able to apply the craft and arrange them a bit better. Also, Michael Keeney, the producer, came and worked alongside me when these songs were being born. A lot of things had led up to this collection of songs. The one thing I do know about writing a good song is that you need to be almost unconscious – not in a drunk sense, you just need to tap into something different.
How did it feel to finally have the finished record in your hands?
I remember the night that we mixed it in London. I was with two sound engineers, the producer, and my girlfriend, and we went out, had a drink, and came back, listened to it and that was it, really. It was magical for me because we’d worked hard to get to that point and we were all very pleased with it. It was a beautiful moment. I didn’t get to the end of it and think: “This is the greatest record of all time,” I just thought: “This is great for me and where I am.”
We must mention your friend, Ed Sheeran. You’ve toured with him, he covers your songs, you guys duet, he features on ‘Guiding Light’… It’s not a pairing we’d expect, but it’s a good one!
Funnily enough, his dad used to bring him to my gigs – he was only about 13-years-old! When he finally became a writer he reached out to me. He was a fan of Hope and wanted to do some co-writing before he released his record and so we exchanged a few songs – I think it may have even been ‘The A Team’ at the time. I could tell that it was real, and that he really meant it, but I didn’t know what I could add to it. We met up a few times, and he invited me on the tour and we got to be really good friends whilst on the road. I love the wee guy, now! He’s the real deal – very tenacious and exciting to be around. ‘Guiding Light’ means a lot to both Ed and I. We were playing in Nashville one night and sang it together unplugged which was beautiful and we realised after that gig that we should try and record this together. I didn’t know why we hadn’t thought of it before, actually. It was important for me to be realistic because the last thing I wanted this record to be was in anyway mercenary – I didn’t want to have Ed on there just because he’s Ed Sheeran and because it’s going to draw a load of people. I think that would’ve been the wrong reason to do the song – it had to be right. I was bowled over by Ed’s vocal on it. Although, on tour with him, his fans looked at me liked Ed had wheeled out his demented uncle just for the craic! [Laughs]
Another collaboration on Joy Of Nothing is with the wonderful Bonnie Raitt, but she only sings backing vocals?
I’m a cheeky wee bastard, aren’t I? [Laughs]. I toured with Bonnie back in 2005 throughout the UK and Europe. We just always kept in contact – every year I get a Christmas card! When I wrote this song, I could almost hear her singing it. I didn’t hear it as a duet, though. So, I had to call up Bonnie Raitt, ten-time Grammy Award winner and say: “Hi, Bonnie. Will you sing backing vocals on one of my tracks?” and she agreed! I told her why I only wanted backing vocals and she was in complete agreement. She has no ego when it comes to music – she’s a genuine sweetheart.
A friend of yours documented the recording of Joy Of Nothing, capturing it on film for the Recording Of Nothing…
My manager brought up the idea of having it all filmed and it was important to me that the person to do it would be able to disappear into the background, so to speak. The whole idea, I guess, was to just document the process and what was going on. Aside from wincing every time I talk, I thought it was beautiful. It’s funny how we used to want artists shrouded in absolute mystery, not knowing anything about the recording process. We had to dig really deep to find any of the details out – like a treasure hunt. Now, everything is available. We were trying to find a way to show a bit of what was going on behind the scenes but without giving too much away – I still wanted to leave some bits down to the imagination, you know?
A longtime advocate of George Lowden, Foy makes it quite clear how he achieves his great acoustic sound on Joy Of Nothing.
Well, it’s very easy – you get a Lowden and a mic. That’s all you need! A guy I knew used to tell this story about a shitty guitar he had for forty quid that he made sound amazing – I mean, he played the shit out of it! So, sometimes it isn’t all about the instrument and it is about how the player approaches it, but with Lowden, for me, it’s the whole package. George is a real perfectionist and he’s got the soundboard resonating with all the sounds from the lows to the highs, and the mids in between, all working in such a beautiful way that comes out singing likes birds, you know? I don’t know what he does in that workshop – I think it’s fucking voodoo! Whatever he does, it works so well. My Lowden has such much range, and for me, as a solo player, that was perfect because it meant I could sound like a one-man-band if I wanted to. It was 1974 in Bangor, I think, when he made the first Lowden guitar and that was the year I was born in Bangor so there’s a little bit of nostalgia there. I’ve got a few Lowdens, actually. I’ve an old 10, a 35 custom and I have a baritone. Recently they made me a Lowden from some old Bushmills whiskey barrels! I really love old Guilds, Martins, Gibsons, too.
Let’s talk about your technique, then. Who influenced you growing up?
Well, I’m self-taught mostly. My dad taught me how to fingerpick and then I just messed around with the guitar, figuring my own way with the instrument. Which is a good way because it meant I was able to develop my own unique style. I went through phases of learning scales and all I could bare was the major scale – I just had enough of them. I spent more time detuning my guitar into tunings that didn’t make any sense and then trying to write a song from it. I need to do stuff to learn it, so sat there listening to people tell me how to do something really doesn’t work for me. I had to just go in headfirst and figure it out myself. I’ve gone through so many different influences. My first major influence was my dad – I couldn’t believe he could fingerpick the way he did, and go on to play every song he mentioned. It was like magic to me at the time. Then came John Martyn, Nick Drake, Bruce Cockburn – all the regulars, really.
Music runs in the family – is your daughter Ella going to follow in your footsteps? Ed Sheeran bought her a ukulele, right?
Well she does play guitar at the minute and she wrote her first song about a year ago. She plays the usual stuff for a ten-year-old – the ‘Seven Nation Army’ riff and ‘Smoke on the Water’ because you’ve got to learn that one, right? Ed did buy her a uke for Christmas, yeah. She’s hardly played it, if I’m honest. I think I’ve played it more than she has, so, thanks, Ed!
Foy Vance’s Joy Of Nothing is out now. Foy heads out on the Joy Of Nothing world tour later this year with dates in the UK and Ireland throughout November and December.