RISING STAR: Aaron Shanley

On the road to opportunity with the Nashville-inspired songwriter

As planning gets underway for the 7th Belfast-Nashville Songwriter’s Festival and International Music Conference, ties between the twin cities were further strengthened this month with a new partnership between Queen's University and Nashville’s esteemed Vanderbilt University.

At a reception held in Belfast to honour the Sister Cities Partnership, a team of US delegates was in attendance, led by Queen’s alumnus and Nashville resident, Dr Ian Brick. Three recent festival performers made an appearance, including Glenarm’s Ben Glover who told delegates that since first touching down in Nashville in 2007, he has been back an incredible 17 times. Before accompanying Glover on guitar, Anthony Toner reminicised about good times in Belfast’s Rotterdam bar in his much loved song, ‘Sailortown’.

The two friends cleared the stairs for Aaron Shanley, the 2010 winner of the Katherine Brick Award for Young Songwriter of The Year, named after Dr Brick’s late wife, who played a key role in forging Belfast’s ties with the Tennessee city since moving there in 1987. Shanley, the 20-year-old from Lisburn, showcased music from his new album, Let The Sun In.

A few days earlier, a jet-lagged Shanley met CultureNorthernIreland for a coffee, shuffling into University Road’s Bookfinders Café in skinny jeans and royal purple converse. ‘I’m not sure where they came from,’ he said with a hint of an American accent, no doubt both garnered from his recent travels.

Shattered from the ‘stupid amount of sleep’ he’s had in the winding up of his US tour supporting Kiernan McMullan, the young songwriter is tired but still on a high from the experience; which started at Kansas City, stretching across the Midwest to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington DC and ending at a ‘pretty mind-blowing’ New York City.

Not one to rest on his laurels, in addition to showcase events in Grand Central Station’s cavernous Vanderbilt Hall (another endowment from shipping and rail magnate ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt), Shanley was keen to make the most of his opportunity and crammed in extra shows where possible, even playing college dorm gigs up to an hour away from planned shows.

‘At every show there were five or six people who came up to me telling me they had been fans online and saw I was in town. Which was really weird. I didn’t expect that to happen,’ Shanley says, of what is only his third trip stateside.

With some shows a ten-hour drive apart, Shanley spent a lot of time reading, and found particular joy from Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic On The Road: ‘I bring it with me everywhere. While I’m touring, if I haven’t slept properly or if I’ve slept really rough or am just hung-over, I can just open it up and it’s always inspiring to read.

‘I love reading Charles Bukowski too but it’s not a good idea to read his books while you’re in Los Angeles,’ he laughs, recalling his time playing in Hollywood. ‘There’s all this dark LA stuff [in his work] and you’re afraid to leave the hotel for fear about what might happen.’

It was his visit to ‘Music City USA’ that Shanley found particularly inspiring, with nights filled between shows frantically scribbling down a barrage of new songs in his hotel room. Keen to get the songs down on tape, Shanley got talking to a fellow songwriter in a Nashville bar about the new material (in a city of 30,000 songwriters, they’re never far away). The fan picked up the phone and booked a studio to put down the demos the very next evening.

‘We sat up all night recording,’ Shanley recalls. ‘They ended up doing it for free too, which was really sweet.’ The Tennessee capital’s generosity knowing no bounds gave Shanley not only the songs, but the recordings too - forming the basis for the live EP bundled with Shanley’s debut album, released earlier this month.

Citing Fionn Regan’s debut The End Of History and Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker as great influences, Shanley relished the idea of an EP recorded totally live on acoustic guitar. With Cara Cowan filling the void with backing vocals, The Nashville Sessions was made, devoid of any airs or graces.

‘I love recording and the process in arrangements but there’s just something about live acoustic albums that I find really cool,' he says. 'It helps me because sometimes when I’m recording with lots of band stuff where everything’s overdubbed and done separately, I freak out and wonder could this have just been fixed up and polished? So it’s cool to play an acoustic record and say it still sounds good.’

Shanley picks up his denim jacket, throws it over a stripy t-shirt and is ready to hit the road again. More touring ahead with more flights to catch. No doubt connections will be made, great songs will follow.

Aaron Shanley's debut album Let The Sun In with bonus EP The Nashville Sessions is available from iTunes and Amazon. The single ‘Let The Sun In’ is free to download. Check the What's On listings to see when you can catch Shanley live. For information on the 2011 Belfast-Nashville Songwriters Festival visit belfastnashville.com.

Eddie Mullan