21st Century Troubadour

Musician Andy White on drinking with Johnny Depp, revisiting Belfast and turning an online diary into a book - just don't call it a memoir

Writing about rock 'n' roll is the new rock ‘n’ roll, it seems. Heavy-metallers Mötley Crüe have redefined their career with best-selling memoir The Dirt, while tweenie stars and musical legends jostle for bookshop space with industry moguls and reality-show winners. In Northern Ireland, the singer-songwriter Andy White is the latest tunesmith to put down his guitar and pick up his pen.

21st Century Troubadour, launched at Belfast’s Black Box, is the tell-all tale of White’s life so far. From his childhood in 1960s Belfast to recording in Australia with Tim Finn of Crowded House, collaborating with Peter Gabriel and winning the prestigious Hot Press Songwriter of the Year Award, it’s all in there – well, almost.

‘I didn’t write about the time Johnny Depp bought me a beer,’ admits White. ‘And to any woman on the planet that’s the single most interesting story I have.’ White’s decision to focus on the music rather than to drop famous names is to be admired. In a 20-year career, the singer has always gone his own way, touring as a solo artist and releasing a steady series of albums. This year’s Songwriter brings the tally to ten, give or take the odd live record and compilation.

‘It’s fun to be in the celebrity world,’ White continues. ‘But I’ve done interviews where I’ve talked to [the media] about the A-list and that’s all they’ve printed. It’s not the least interesting thing about my life, but it’s down there.’

Born in Belfast in 1962, White spent his youth on Malone Road and Windsor Avenue. His father, Barry, was a newspaper journalist during the Troubles. ‘I grew up in a house where art and books were respected and loved,’ White says. ‘My two grannies were important, because one was a piano teacher and the other encouraged me to read. I saw how you could live a life with music and with writing.’

21st Century TroubadourSchooled at Methodist College, White embraced education. ‘We had a really eccentric English teacher who told the class to forget the books and to get to know each other first. The other English teacher was more dreamy and hippy-ish. She was into poetry and Leonard Cohen.’

White went on to study English at Cambridge University, but a career as a recording artist loomed. His first single, ‘Religious Persuasion’, was released on Stiff Records in 1985, followed by 1986’s Rave On Andy White album. ‘I never thought I would be played on Radio 1 or reviewed in Rolling Stone,’ comments the musician. ‘But the records seemed to strike a chord with people across the world.’

21st Century Troubadour – White’s second book, after a collection of poetry published in 1998 – examines the strange relationship between the romantic notion of a troubadour and the often-harsh reality of the touring lifestyle. ‘It’s a peculiar kind of glamour,’ says White, who these days calls Melbourne, Australia, home.

‘Driving into Liverpool at 5pm in the evening, crowds streaming out of a football match, past a place where you think one of the Beatles grew up, and then you go into the centre of town. You soundcheck in a small room, people show up to listen to you, you stay in a beautiful hotel. Then you play an island in Scotland, the sun is going down and a crazy amount of people are dressed in Halloween gear. The guy on the door is also a local journalist and the manager of the football team, who have also shown up. You get in the ferry the next day and you’ve had an amazing experience. I think that is glamorous, but in the world of gossip magazines it’s not. Glamour to them is about who’s wearing what.’

White says the idea for 21st Century Troubadour came from a tour diary he had kept on his website: ‘It started out being about the concerts and then became about the places I’d been to. There were 65,000 people reading it last year. It was Pat Ramsay from Lagan Press who said I should write a book, so I took what I’d written, collected it together and basically rewrote it. It was fairly straightforward to do, but so time-consuming. It’s not a memoir and it’s not an autobiography. I’m telling you more things about my own life here in this interview than I’ve put in the book!’

Despite having now spent more than 20 years roaming the world, armed, he says, with ‘a 12-string guitar, notebook, laptop and mobile phone’, White remains proud to be from Northern Ireland. ‘When I walk the paving stones of Belfast I know it is my city, and that will never leave me,’ he says with a smile. The feeling, no doubt, is mutual.

21st Century Troubadour is out now, published by Lagan Press.

Andrew Johnston