Tony Cummings spoke to the critically acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter FOY VANCE
The song "Gabriel And The Vagabond" on the Foy Vance 'Hope' album was recently named by Cross Rhythms as one of the 20 Best Tracks of 2007. This week coming it goes on the Cross Rhythms radio playlist. A more movingly powerful narrative song would be hard to imagine. Its opening lines instantly convey the theme of transcendent hope overcoming despair: "There's a man on the corner and his clothes are worn and he's holding out his hand/You can see in his eyes as the people walk by he knows they don't understand/See they just think he's gonna take their money and go and spend it on dope/Then a man stopped by him and I saw a smile inside him as he gently whispered 'hope'."
The writer of "Gabriel And The Vagabond", Irish songsmith Foy Vance was inspired to write the song after seeing a tramp on the city streets. He explains, "It's difficult to know what to do in those situations. You want to do something. Giving money isn't always the best thing. Like all songwriting it was also part fantasy. When I grew up my Dad was a preacher so I guess that was what was in my nature, that's how I perceived the world in those terms."
Asked about his personal faith Foy responds, "It's something that I think is hugely interesting. Definitely one of the things that drives me. I guess it's what I'm about. I don't think I could exist without trying to get some sort of grasp on my spirituality and what that means. There's a lot of stuff to dig through these days to try and find it though, to be honest. I guess I feel about that like I do about music and the music industry, that faith and religion seem like two completely separate things to me. It seems like faith births and religion kind of stifles and destroys."
Foy Best Vance was born in 1974 in Bangor, Co Down in Ireland. However, even before Foy was a year old his preacher father, along with his mother and three elder brothers, had packed up their belongings and caught the boat to America. Relocating to Oklahoma, Foy's father preached the length and breadth of the USA with his family in tow. It was in the black churches of the South that young Foy soaked up the deep riches of the southern roots and started to sing. Music was Foy's only outlet and it didn't take long for his folks to notice that their boy had a special gift. That's when Foy's father taught him how to play the 12 bar blues, a moment which proved to be a milestone for Foy. He remembers, "I was brought up hearing all manner of music and poetry. My father loved literature and music and would often initiate a sing-song when the family were together, but what stood out more to me were the times you would find him alone in a room singing and playing guitar. Eyes closed and feeling it, this was something different. He sang different. It sounded different."
Moving back to Bangor, Foy cut his teeth gigging all over Ireland and Scotland with a soul funk band. He met and married an aspiring Belfast artist Joanne Shaw and began to write acoustic-orientated songs. Foy briefly fronted a band, Columbo, who stole the show at the annual Belfast festival, Belfest. But the band quickly broke up. Then after playing a solo gig at the Dirty Duck, just outside Belfast, a punter offered Foy a regular slot at a bar in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The newly wed Vances relocated to the holiday destination. Then, at 1.00am on 30th January, 1999 Foy had what he now describes as "an epiphany". Foy was on stage in the Lanzarote bar doing what had become a regular part of his stage performance and improvising a song. At that particular moment the lyrics "Jesus is coming like a thief in the night" jumped out of him and suddenly Foy was consumed with a deep sadness. He finished the gig, went home and spent the whole night crying without any particular reason. The next morning he found out that back in Ireland his beloved father had suffered a sudden heart attack and passed away at 1.00am.
As soon as this extraordinary experience happened songs just started pouring out of Foy. He immediately finished the song he started improvising the night before, now named "Crying In The Night", and eight months later he had another 40 or so songs ready to go. He explains, "When my father died all these songs just started pouring out of me. My father's passing had left a huge gap that I had to fill. He had enough material for at least four albums and more songs just kept coming."
Back in Ireland he began gigging his new material and was soon making fans with every concert. Things really began happening for the fledgling singer/songwriter when he was spotted by Freshwater Hughes Management. Reads a management statement from the industry maestros who have also guided the career of Joss Stone, "Every once in awhile an artist emerges to shake you from your seat and touch your soul, singing as if it were the last time he would ever perform. With a distinctive, cracked, soulful voice and a skill to write profound storytelling songs, Foy Vance belongs to a calibre of artists that stands the test of time, irrespective of trends or fads, delivering heartfelt songs about the human condition that everyone can relate to."
In August 2005 Foy released his debut EP, the wonderfully named 'Live Sessions And The Birth of The Toilet Tour'. His cracked soulful voice and powerful lyrics were a winning combination and soon he was playing gigs supporting such diverse acts as K T Tunstall, Pete Townshend, Joss Stone and Taj Mahal. These led to two sold-out shows at Ronnie Scotts, which further confirmed Foy's reputation. These shows amassed a dedicated fanbase and gained Foy support and admiration from his peers, including nine times Grammy award winner Bonnie Raitt, who invited him to join her as special guest on her UK/European tour in April 2006.
A second EP 'Watermelon Oranges' was released on Wurdamouth as a limited edition in June 2006 and in the Christmas of that year the brilliant Vance song "Indiscriminate Act Of Kindness" was chosen as the soundbed to the Great Ormond Street Hospital TV commercial. But it was the TV exposure of the songs "Gabriel And The Vagabond" and "Homebird" on the influential soap Grey's Anatomy that got the American audience clamouring for this unique talent. In May 2007 Foy performed at BBC's Orchestral Manoeuvres with Ulster's 70-piece Symphony Orchestra and in the summer Foy's full album debut 'Hope' was finally released.
The recording process was very organic and spontaneous, capturing the live element and the rawness of Foy's performance. Explains Foy, "I recorded the album on the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland in a cottage I hired up there. I've used studios in the past and I've always found them a bit difficult when it comes to really getting into the vibe so I figured - I'll just buy the recording gear I need, hire a cottage, stick a piano in it and record. The whole idea was NOT TO have a design and let the album produce itself. Every night we'd get the fire burning, open a bottle of wine, put some mics up and record. A lot of what came out of that is what the album is." Musically it flows like a live session and it brings out Foy's soul, blues, gospel and jazz influences.
The reception from the critics was, like Foy's live performances, nothing short of rapturous. "The most important solo musician to emerge from Northern Ireland since Van Morrison," wrote The Belfast Telegraph; "An unbelievable voice. . .in the premier league of British songwriters," raved The Sunday Times; The Independent declared Foy was "the missing link between Richie havens and Stevie Wonder"; while In Dublin described 'Hope' most succinctly as "a real classic." I ask Foy whether all the accolades were in danger of going to his head. He responds ruefully, "Well, only if you listen to it. Never believe the hype."
I conclude our chat by asking whether Foy was surprised when 'Hope', an album pitched wholeheartedly at the mainstream, ended up being nominated as one of the best albums of the year by the Christian Broadcasting Council. "I wouldn't have been more surprised had I woken up with my eyelids glued to my pillow because to my mind it's not a Christian album. It's not what I'm about. The one thing I would say is that I truly appreciate any acknowledgement of it that I get. It's always heartwarming when something touches someone and for them to acknowledge it in that way is in essence beautiful. But, in truth, I find the whole idea of backslapping a bit weird."