Ciaran Gribbin has experienced months of touring and coping with jet-lag – he's just flown in from Australia via New York – but the Castledawson-born musician says he's never felt healthier or happier. He looks it too, with a sun-tan and lean physique he attributes to living beside Northern Beach in Sydney, where he has re-located with wife Donna and baby son James.
'I've been spending a lot of time training there,' he says. 'The last few years before I joined INXS were spent cooped up in a dark studio. The weather in Sydney makes all the difference. I'm eating better, taking more exercise. I just feel fitter generally. But the shows we've been doing are pretty energetic, so I have to be in better shape.'
Since joining the Australian rock outfit eight months ago, Gribbin says he's been asked many times if he's undergone an image overhaul. 'God no,' he laughs. 'I don't have a stylist. I did get my hair cut though, if that counts?'
While relishing his role as lead singer of INXS, Gribbin is adamant that he will never fill the shoes of the late Michael Hutchence. And he admits he knew it wasn't going to be an 'easy gig' when he agreed to join the band last year.
'I grew up listening to the songs of INXS and I remember when I was about 14 or 15 trying to learn all of their songs,' he says. 'Every night now when I go out to perform as part of INXS I talk to the fans about Michael and tell them what a huge fan I was. They're not just words either, I'm being totally genuine. I had such great respect for the man.
'I always say that I hope he is listening and smiling down on me. I'd like to think that I'm doing him proud. But there'll only ever be one Michael Hutchence. He was a sex god, a rock star, an inspiration and amazing song-writer.
'I went into this with my eyes wide open, I knew it was never going to be an easy gig. But the fans have been brilliant. It's been the most wonderful year of my life.'
The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter previously performed under the moniker Joe Echo. He was invited to join INXS after meeting keyboard player and main composer, Andrew Farriss, through mutual friends at a party in Sydney around two years ago.
At the time, Fariss wasn't looking for a frontman — a number of replacement singers had stepped in over the years to replace Hutchence, the charismatic lead who had died in his hotel room in 1997. But when Fariss heard Gribbin sing one of the band's hits 'Mystify', he was intrigued and the pair later met up to co-write new material. After composing a few songs together, Fariss made the call.
'He rang me up and asked me if I'd like to join INXS as their singer,' Gribbin recalls. 'That phone-call has changed my life in so many ways. The last eight months have been crazy, just unbelievable. I've played in three continents, performed to crowds of around 30,000 people, played in some amazing venues. It's been everything that I'd hoped for and more.'
His first gigs as frontman were in Peru and Buenos Aires, nerve-wracking experiences for a musician used to playing to a packed Duke of York pub in Belfast. The real test for Gribbin, however, was playing INXS's home ground.
'Playing those first few gigs in Australia was really emotional for me,' he says. 'I had no idea how the audience would react to me. But so far, so good. The Australian press and the fans have been really supportive of me.'
The adulation of his admirers is still something of a novelty for Gribbin. In Perth, one female fan was particularly enthusiastic.
'We were playing a gig in Perth and there were all these girls in the front row,' he says. 'We were doing the encore when suddenly this girl cleared the bannister and came diving towards me, screaming. It was like something out of a karate movie. I've never seen anything like it before.The security men managed to grab hold of her before she got hold of me. Donna just looked at me in amazement and we both burst out laughing.'
Gribbin is back home in Northern Ireland now for a few days, catching up with friends and family after taking part in Tuesday night's Great Northern Songbook gig at the Ulster Hall.
En route home, he stopped off in New York to visit his younger brother John. The 26-year-old is following in Gribbin's footsteps and Gribbin is immensely proud. 'He performs under the name Building Pictures and is doing really well at the moment. Who knows, maybe some day we'll get him to open for INXS. That would be amazing.'
INXS are currently working on new material and Farriss credits Gribbin with reigniting the band's creative spark. 'There are two things I really want to do with this band – release a new album and bring them to Belfast. If it all goes belly up after that, at least I will have achieved those ambitions.'