Irish acoustic musician Foy Vance has managed a highly successful career, not only as a recording and touring musician, but also as a provider of memorable acoustic songs to equally memorable television series, starting when his debut 2006 single Gabriel And The Vagabond was featured in an episode of the world-wide hit TV series Grey’s Anatomy. Foy joined Andy Hughes for an outdoor coffee in the summer sunshine to talk about the first lucky break, ‘selling out’, and his long friendship with Ed Sheeran.
Foy, getting a song onto a TV series is the ‘holy grail’ for a lot of musicians, and it has led to frequent uses of your songs on television.
Apparently, it is yes, and I was surprised to have my song chosen because I was completely unknown back then. It was my first single, Gabriel And The Vagabond, which came out in 2006. The really surprising thing is, the version that was sent to Alex Patsavas who chooses the music for a load of great films and TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy, is that it wasn’t even the finished version of the song, it was a demo copy that she received. Alex is known for picking different music for shows and films, not always mainstream artists like U2 and Coldplay. She received the demo on Sunday, and called to ask if she could use it. We told her it was just a demo, and she wasn’t bothered, it was in the show by the next Tuesday, it was amazing! We got a lot of flack at the time because loads of people heard the song and wanted to buy it, but it wasn’t even finished yet, there was no proper completed track to buy, and my management then were a bit ‘old school’ and I didn’t even have a website at that time!
You said that your definition of success is being able to play your music and pay your bills, and not compromise, nothing more than that.
Personally, I think that’s a good approach for any musician. I wouldn’t want to be a superstar for love or money, but it can happen to you without you looking for it. Sometimes a song just takes off around the world, and you are there, in the spotlight, but I wouldn’t have it from choice. I don’t know what I would do with millions of pounds to be honest, I don’t have many needs really. I’ve bought a house and got a recording studio, I don’t really need anything else really.
When your third album was released, The Wild Swan, you said that you were a big fan of lo-fi, and the approach of your producer Jacquire King. Isn’t all acoustic music ‘lo-fi’?
Jacquire is an artist in sound. He doesn’t spend ages working out where to place microphones, he just knows. Sound is like a language to him. We could work so quickly, we could do five or six songs a day because he works on the principle that things don’t turn out you thought they would, so go with how they are, and work with that. The alternative is to spend a year making an album and I’m not up for that.
When you write a song, how easy is it to be objective about what is right and wrong with it?
For me, it’s actually quite easy. I don’t have any problem listening to recordings of my songs over and over again and figuring out the strengths and weaknesses, and then altering them to get more of one and less of the other. I guess I’m just lucky in that way. Of course, you do get fed up with it sometimes, everyone does, so you just go out and have a walk, get some fresh air, and come back and start listening again.
What is your acoustic guitar of choice?
I have quite a collection of acoustics, and my favourites are Lowdens. My first ever guitar was a Flambeau, and I didn’t know it was actually designed by George Lowden for a Japanese manufacturer. They put the brand on it, but it’s George’s design. My dad bought it for me when I was about fifteen. There was a guy where we lived, the man who could get everything, and I knew his nephew quite well, and he told me there was a guitar for sale, for twenty pounds. My dad’s a guitarist, so he went down and had a play and decided it was fine, and he bought it for me. A good guitar is just a fabulous thing, a good guitar and a good microphone, and you are well away. Even a good guitar with a lousy microphone is OK, it’s the instrument that matters.
Do you write from experience, or observation?
I think for me, it’s just everything. You have an idea, they come from either seeing or hearing something, or thinking about something that has happened, and if you are a songwriter, you soon know if it’s got DNA, if it’s going to go anywhere. If there’s a song that needs to be written.
Which means more to you, ticket sales or album sales?
To be honest, neither really. For my booking agent, it’s tickets, for my label, it’s album sales. For me, it’s working with great people and doing good work. As I said, I don’t need a lot of money, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t take it if it came along. People say that when your music is used on television, or in films, you’ve ‘sold out’. What does that mean? Who have I ‘sold out’ to? I’m a musician, I make music and I need money to be able to do that, so if someone is going to pay me for my music, I don’t have a problem with that at all.
You’ve enjoyed success as a co-writer, do you enjoy working with other musicians?
I do. I only started really seriously co-writing when I started working with Ed Sheeran. Before that I had done a few bits with friends, nothing too serious or formal, but I’ve known Ed since before he started out on his career. He used to come to my shows with his dad, I found out he’d been to see me about forty times, and when he invited me to go out on tour with him, we started writing, and we did a lot of stuff together, He had tried to interest me before, but when I heard his songs, I didn’t think there was anything I could add to what he was doing. I’d been out touring with a few blues players, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, but the thought of going on a ‘pop’ tour was too good to miss.
Does Ed write in a similar way to you?
No, not at all. I will think about ideas, record them, and work through them. Ed just throws ideas at a song until something sticks. He has amazing energy, and he can write several hits on a day, and he has done that before now. I think co-writing is valuable, with anyone at any time. It’s never wasted time, you will always get something out of the experience, even though it may not feel like it at the time.
Are you a technical player, or just an accompanist for your songs?
I always think that technical skill on an acoustic guitar is pugilism, and I am rather more of a street fighter! I work out what I need to be able to do that works for the songs I write and sing. In a way I embrace my limitations, because it makes me more inventive. If you have less technique to work with, you have to think of other ways around the obstacles that stop you getting to where you want to go with a song.
I guess if you see yourself as more of a nuts-and-bolts guitar player, that you won’t be keen on effects?
Actually, I am, I am perfectly happy to enhance my sounds to increase the variety of sounds, and make the experience richer for the listener, either on record or in concert. I have couple of Strymon pedals for reverb, and a Strymon Flint pedal for vibrato as well. I remember, when Ed played Glastonbury, he got a lot of flack for using a loop pedal, which is ridiculous. It’s still live guitar playing, and playing with a loop is playing by the seat of your pants, it can go wrong very easily. I have played with a loop and if you drop a wrong note in, you either try and cover it up, or you simply own up and start again, depending how much of a disaster it is. My answer is, don’t listen to what people say, it’s a waste of time.
Do you ever think who your audience is?
That’s a question that people who work with me ask, the publicity people, the label people. I’m not sure I really hold with music having a ‘demographic’, music is something you like or you don’t like. What’s Paul Simon’s ‘demographic’? or Joni Mitchell’s? And who cares who ‘fits in’ and who doesn’t? I am delighted to be ‘demographic-free’, everyone is very welcome. I did a show once for a typical ‘Radio One’ audience, and they just stood around waiting for someone to tell them if they ought to like it or not! I remember I was doing a small festival once, and the promoter was stressing because one of his bands was stuck in traffic, and he needed a twenty-five-minute slot filled, so I offered. He told me it was in the Death Metal venue, and I said, no problem. So I played Back In Black using my looper, and then I did Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, and then I did my set which was quite soft and ballad-ish, and I went down a storm! Never underestimate an audience, ever, you never know what they like until you offer it to them.
Have you got a career plan?
I’d like to say I have, but it changes all the time. My management are the people who think about long-term plans and things like that. I really do just love being able to play my music, and record it, and make a living doing it, I am so very lucky. I remember the advice Robert De Niro gives, listen to everyone’s opinion and then do what you think is right, especially if it’s your name on the ticket.
ANDY HUGHES – Acoustic Review