Gareth Dunlop Releases The Nashville Sessions

Soulful singer-songwriter on breaking America and his new EP with Grammy-nominated Kim Richey

If you were to ask most aspiring young songwriters what they would hope to achieve in their musical careers, presumably the majority would settle for making a decent living from what they do, be that touring their music on the road or steadily releasing new material.

They would probably only dream of having their work featured in several big-budget American television series, or the chance to spend several months a year touring stateside. But such dreams are now a reality for 25-year-old east Belfast singer-songwriter, Gareth Dunlop.

With a new EP, The Nashville Sessions, recently released, and a UK tour in full swing, it's not easy for Dunlop to find time to talk to journalists these days. But it wasn't so long ago that he had all the time in the world as he struggled to cut his musical teeth on the Northern Irish scene.

'Before the breakthrough I had probably been performing live for about four or five years,' recalls Dunlop. 'Mostly doing cover gigs and things like that. I started off wanting to be a guitar player, playing the electric guitar and playing it as fast as I could. The songwriting came a wee bit after that.'

The songwriting and the voice – that unmistakably soulful voice that television executives can't get enough of – deep, rich, made for the American airwaves. Dunlop's varied musical influences ensured that his transition from hard-rocking axe-wielder to mainstream singer-songwriter par excellence was not so difficult.

Indeed, the fact that many of his earliest musical idols were universally accepted greats has arguably helped Dunlop's style gain so much appreciation across the water. 'Growing up I listened to all the usual suspects. Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Van Halen. Guitar Hero sort of music,' Dunlop quips.

Whilst classic rock was a formative influence, it was a moment of opportunism that introduced Dunlop to the finger-picking greats of songwriting. 'A friend's Dad was throwing out a collection of vinyl along with an old vinyl player, a load of '45s and LPs, and I magpied it,' Dunlop admits. 'I took it into my folk's house and set it up and started listening to those sorts of older records, songwriters like John Martyn and Bob Dylan. That turned on the whole songwriting thing for me.'

With his youth spent immersing himself in old vinyl classics, the progression to performing covers live was an inevitable second step. 'When I was doing the cover gigs I was thrilled,' says Dunlop, who acknowledges that not every aspiring songwriter enjoys the prospect of performing other people's songs.

A lifetime of cover band monotony was not for him, however. Dunlop's big break came upon winning the Young Songwriter of the Year award at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival in 2011. Having impressed at home, Dunlop was then flown out to Nashville to perform. The rest, as they say, is history.

'Getting out to Nashville for the first time was pivotal. I played the Bluebird Café and was approached by my now publisher, and things took off from there. I've been really lucky to have been going back and forth since then, whether it be playing shows, writing with other artists, or recording. It certainly was a pivotal moment.'

Dunlop is speaking ahead of a live performance with Grammy-nominated songwriter, Kim Richey. The pair are on tour across the UK during May 2014 to promote the release of their new EP, The Nashville Sessions, a collaborative effort named after the television show that inspired the initial songwriting sessions, starring Connie Britton and Rayna James as warring country-pop starlets.

Richey herself is a seasoned performer and recording artist, having previously had two number one singles in the US, and has worked with a host of big names including Ryan Adams, Trisha Yearwood and James Morrison. Not one to be starstruck, Dunlop explains that their collaboration felt natural from the start.

'Kim and I got together just over a year ago to do some writing,' Dunlop remembers. 'We sat down a couple more times after that and songs just started to fall into place, the track 'Nashville' and 'One and the Same', which was used in the TV detective show Bones. Kim was touring over here and it made sense to jump on the tour and play some of these songs together and put the EP out.'

Other tracks from The Nashville Sessions have appeared on Nashville as well as Bones, while Dunlop has previously had songs featured on House, One Tree Hill and Private Practise – there is no doubt that there is something about his soulful voice and nuanced songwriting that lend themselves to TV. Perhaps more importantly than connecting with TV executives, however, Dunlop's music goes down with audiences.

Dunlop remains mystified. 'I'm not really too sure why, to be honest. I've been very fortunate to have a lot of my music be put on TV shows. It's definitely a great medium and a great outlet for bands and songwriters alike, but I don't know what makes it ideal for that kind of stuff. I just keep doing what I do.'

His initial connection with Nashville, forged back in 2011, still holds strong. Dunlop spends several months a year touring and recording in North America, and as such is away from his home in Holywood – County Down, that is – regularly. As of last Christmas, that also means he is away from his young daughter, the arrival of whom he describes as 'amazing chaos'.

Despite his time spent across the water, however, Dunlop still maintains an interest in the Northern Irish music scene. 'I definitely feel a strong connection with the scene. There's so much stuff going on, it's amazing,' Dunlop says. 'I think the Northern Ireland scene is just as healthy, if not healthier, than it is anywhere else that I've travelled to or toured in. It's certainly as eclectic as anywhere else.'

Dunlop has his eye on a few emerging acts in particular. 'There's a girl I was working with recently, Brigid O'Neill. Fantastic songwriter. She's just about to release her debut EP. I'd watch out for that. Farriers are an incredible band, too.'

Given that Dunlop has built his own success through determination, eclectic taste, the willingness to work with others and many hours spent on the live circuit, he knows all about being a hopeful young songwriter. And, whilst it's foolish to say that he would have done anything differently, he is now able to give some advice to aspiring songwriters with the benefit of experience and hindsight.

'I think one thing that's really important in today's scene is getting a handle on being able to record yourself. Home studios are the way to do it these days. I think having that set of skills in your back pocket is really important, and it's getting more and more vital for young acts. The earlier you can get into that stuff alongside developing your songwriting skills, the better.'

As for the future, Dunlop is content in the knowledge that his schedule is a busy one. Having only released EPs up to this point, he is looking forward to the release of his debut album in the near future. 'The rest of 2014 is going to be taken up with a lot of studio time,' he says. 'I'd like to be getting pretty far on with the album by the end of the year, and maybe looking towards a release at the beginning of next year.'

As for those dreams that became a reality, is Dunlop happy to acknowledge that his has been a success story? 'I guess being involved in music in any way and to be able to make a living from it is just amazing,' he concludes. 'It's an amazing position to be in. I don't really know what level you get to where you can say you've made it. I don't really know what that is. But being able to keep the lights on and do what you love is a great thing.'

The Nashville Sessons is available to download now. Gareth Dunlop and Kim Richey play the Sean Hollywood Arts Centre, Newry on May 29; the Strand Arts Centre, Belfast on May 30; and the Solstice at Dunluce Festival, Glenarm Castle, Antrim on June 1.