Sheer Joy for Foy

World tours with Ed Sheeran and a Rudimental feature spot are turning Foy Vance into a household name. But the Bangor-born songwriter is keeping his cool ahead of the biggest gig of his life

It’s not every day you get to play in front of eighty thousand people as Foy Vance will when he steps out on stage at Wembley Stadium on July 10 as support act for Ed Sheeran.

Fresh off the back of a North American arena tour with Sheeran, Vance has had a taste of what it’s like playing to eighteen or twenty thousand people every night. But it’s still not quite Wembley.

‘It’s plenty enough,’ admits Vance of the American arena crowds, ‘but the thought of playing Wembley and looking out at eighty thousand people…’ He pauses, trying to find the right words, ‘…is mad actually.’

You’d probably expect the Bangor-born singer-songwriter to have a few pre-gig butterflies in the stomach but Vance is surprisingly relaxed at the prospect. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

‘I love playing music and if I mess up the worst that happens is that I look like a dick for a minute or two. It’s not that big a deal.’

Vance doesn’t take himself too seriously but is genuinely excited at the prospect of the Wembley gig. ‘I thought, when am I ever going to get to play Wembley? To stand on the stage where INXS, Queen, Elton John, Michael Jackson and everyone else you can think of has played.’

Whether playing small clubs or for the Pope-sized gathering that will greet him at Wembley, the different dynamics at play are a source of fascination for the singer-songwriter.

‘There’s a colossal difference’ he laughs. ‘When you’re in a small room, which I love playing, you can get complete silence, which allows you to do something different. Everyone feels it in a different way. If there’s someone coughing in the room you hear that.’

The twenty-thousand seaters that Vance has recently played with Sheeran in America and Canada is another ball-game entirely.

It’s like playing at WrestleMania. There are people buying hotdogs, waving flags and screaming anytime you mention Ed’s name. It’s a completely different thing. But it’s enjoyable and I'm glad I had the opportunity to do it.

Growing up in America and having toured there Vance has also had the opportunity to see first-hand the country that birthed the blues, jazz, rock‘n’roll, country, bluegrass, gospel, soul and R&B. Some of it was bound to leave a mark.

‘America is a great melting pot of music,” says Vance. 'All those folk going there and bringing their indigenous music with them. Rockabilly came from mixing Celtic music with bluegrass and a bit of R&B. You can’t be into music and not be influenced by the music that’s come out of America. It transformed music.’

Vance’s own music is steeped in the great singer-songwriter tradition. On his last studio album, Joy of Nothing (2013), he sang in ‘Janey’: ‘Life’s a road that is only lit by those that you love.’ It’s from Johnny Cash.

‘It’s a beautiful line,’ says Vance. ‘Words are important and I love the cadence of words. I wouldn’t say I’m a wordsmith by any stretch of the imagination but I enjoy working with them and playing with them where they fall, their intent. I’m a big fan of poetry and writers in general.’

Vance‘s love of the poetic is reflected in his roll call of singer-songwriting heroes. ‘Johnny Cash and all those guys who make music for music’s sake are the people who inspire me. Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix the list goes on.’

The naked lyricism of Vance’s ‘Paper Prince’ could almost have come from the Neil Young songbook. And ‘Joy of Nothing’ contains the very Young-esque line:

Waking up with the pouring rain,

Same old sun and the sky again,

Calling the doves and the fighter planes,

Sharing the sky like it’s nothing strange.

Vance is a fan of the tireless Canadian troubadour. ‘Neil Young? Oh yeah,’ he enthuses. ‘Friends of mine, Promise of the Real, are actually his backing band. I’ve been watching their Instagrams: First night of the Neil Young tour, I’m thinking "You wee b****rds!" Vance laughs. ‘Getting to travel around the country with him that just must be a wealth of insight.’ 

Scottish and English singer-songwriters too have inspired Vance from early on in his career. ‘I’m a big fan of John Martyn and Nick Drake,’ Vance relates. ‘I remember hearing Nick Drake and John Martyn for the first time and I didn’t know what to do with myself. They’re breathtaking musicians.’

Currently, Vance’s music of pleasure – and no doubt inspiration – is more roots based Irish and African fare. ‘I’m listening to a lot of indigenous music at the moment. The sean-nós of the old Irish singers. I love that sentiment in that music.

'Out on the plains of Africa there are people that struggle for food to eat yet every single night the drums are out and they’re singing. That let’s you know what music really is. It’s not a commodity at all, though it’s treated as such.’

Vance’s songs, whether intimate acoustic confessionals or anthemic singalongs, are above all optimistic, despite dealing in the currency of personal struggle, loss and heartbreak.

‘I’m a fan of hope-in-the-heart ideas,’ he acknowledges. ‘Bruce Springsteen is the king of it. I’ve always been a fan of that.’ The main source of the positivity in Vance’s pen, however, lies closer to home.

‘The eternal optimism comes from my father. He was the eternal optimist. Every single week without fail he was going to win the lottery. What do you want son? A boat or a car? I was thinking "Dad, you’re being slightly too optimistic there," Vance recalls, laughing.

After seven years in the hurly burly of London, Vance relocated to the Highlands of Scotland. ‘It was where my head was going, where my heart was going and where my music was going. A soon as I arrived in Aberfeldy the peace and quiet hit me.’

Foy Vance

The new-found tranquillity inspired the title of Joy of Nothing. ‘It helped me to enjoy putting the kettle on and to remember to enjoy the simple things like when you open the door and the cool breeze hits you – enjoying simplicity. What did you do today? Nothing. Really? You were making the tea, making lunch, having coffee. It’s the joy of that.

The joy of nothing in as much as it’s the joy of everything. It’s all we have, these moments. You may as well enjoy it no matter what the f**k you’re doing.

The move to the sticks has also helped Vance’s creative juices to flow. ‘I can write anywhere but there’s definitely a different sort of sentiment when I’m at home. It’s really quiet and there’s something about that stillness. All the dust of moving around starts to settle a bit. Ideas form a lot easier and more fluidly when I’m at home.’

Earlier this year the recording Live at Bangor Abbey came out, but those attending the Wembley gig shouldn’t expect the same set list.

‘Well, you have to do a different set-list when you’re playing in front of eighty thousand people’ Vance laughs. ‘I’m kind of there to warm them up so I’ll just go out and be punchy. Whatever works best musically I’ll do. I usually decide closer to the time, when I’m standing on the stage and looking out at the venue and think, right what will we do here?’

The Wembley crowd may expect a duet between Vance and Sheeran but they perhaps shouldn’t hold their breath. ‘Ed works these things the way I do,’ says Vance.

‘If it feels right on the night we’ll do it. He’s about to be the first man in history to do a solo show at Wembley so I’m not going to say, hey, we should do a duet. If it feels natural to him I’ll be there in a heartbeat. But only if it feels natural. I hate things that feel manufactured.’

After London there’s a chance for Irish fans to catch Vance in Cork. Then it’s off to Australia and New Zealand for more arena gigs supporting Sheeran and Sir Elton John. Vance has also been busy writing new material and expects a new album to be released in early 2016.

With the constant demands of touring Vance describes his home as ‘a house in Scotland with socks and pants in it and stuff’ and admits he hasn’t been there for a while. And the touring can take its toll.

‘I can get quite cantankerous on the road to be honest,’ Vance laughs. 'There’s a lot of driving and a lot of traveling and that can be frustrating. I can see a time where I’ll play a lot less,’ Vance recognizes, ‘but I love playing live and I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing live.’

Yet for all the joy of nothing and the joy of everything, it seems that the stage is where Vance is most at home. Maybe that’s why there are no pre-Wembley nerves. After all, who’s nervous in their own home?

Foy Vance joins Ed Sheeran along with One Republic at Wembley Stadium on Friday, July 10. For more upcoming tour dates visit http://www.foyvance.com/events/.