‘Growing up I was into football, then I listened to Thin Lizzy’

Singer/songwriter Ryan McMullan is one of the most promising new talents to emerge from Northern Ireland in quite some time. JOANNE SAVAGE meets him

Saturday, 7th November 2020, 8:00 am
Portaferry rising star Ryan McMullan

Ryan McMullan was defiantly jubilant in the midst of the silence of lockdown.

He strummed on his guitar with verve.

The dashing musician has charisma and real power when he sings. And the lyrics were poignant given how bars and restaurants have closed their doors for the next while. His lyrics are simple but effective, addictive, pop-catchy with a rocky, edgy, folk inflection: “Where the streets and the history remain, but oh how the times have changed. / I know it rains, but it’s always pretty, / I’m going back to the friends that I can’t take with me, / We’ll have a night out in Belfast City - alright.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

”I was very proud to be asked to take part,” says the humble 30-year-old of the online Sound of Belfast festival session he recorded from the roof of the Oh Yeah Music Centre.

“I think music is an extension of our souls and we all need it.”

Indeed, for many in these troubled times when the entertainment scene has all but gone up in smoke, the live gig, unless heavily socially distanced, has disappeared, and performers of all stripes are losing the chance to do and earn from what they love, being able to listen to music on virtual platforms is a form of pleasure to see us through these silent, lonely times.

Surprisingly for such a generously talented, natural and spirited musician, McMullan did not grow up dreaming of fronting live shows before adoring fans.

“I was all about sports,” he confesses. “Hurling. Football. Any kind of competitive sport and I was into it.”

Music entered his life aged 15 when his dad introduced him to Thin Lizzy and The Police and “I fell in love with them and then through friends I was listening to all kinds of different music.

“One friend brought AC/DC to the table, another brought Bon Jovi, someone else introduced me to Aerosmith. My love of melody and lyrics grew.” 

He wrote his first song and formed a band with three of his mates who he realised were also teaching themselves to play instruments. Obviously Ryan was on guitar, coming up with the lines that rhymed and establishing himself as an engaging frontman.

“We were called Purple Road. We would jam together and come out with a few songs.”

Were they any good way back when? “I want to say yes but if I were to hear us in a bar now then I don’t think so. But we did OK, we played a couple of gigs in bars around Portaferry and stuff.”

McMullan sees music as a time-stamp on the mind, this magical thing operating mystically so that when you hear certain chords “you just go right back to being in a bar with your mates when you were 19 and you remember the first time you heard that song”.

“So when I think of AC/DC I’m immediately thinking of Thunderstruck and being back in Punchestown in 2009. When I think of All These Things That I’ve Done by The Killers I’m back to 2007, Snow Patrol, I go back to 2006.

“Music makes time travel possible like that.”

He remembers his first song, penned tentatively as a callow teen, entitled Blue Bayou.

“I couldn’t really tell you what it was about to be honest, it was more just about getting different lines to rhyme. I remember it started with this guitar riff. But to this day the way songs come into being remains a mystery to me. It’s like you just pick it out of a tree by accident. And you go ‘wow, I’ve got a new song!’”

McMullan has released a slew of popular hits that straddle pop, rock, folk and roots - the music is generically versatile but the emotion is always real and raw and there is an authenticity to Ryan’s voice and style that makes it understandable why he has found such a huge following so quickly.

Tracks like the aforementioned Belfast City, In a Heartbeat, Rebellion, Streets of New York, Oh Susannah, Bowie on the Radio, Missing You, Outcry, Ruthless Cupid, In This Room and Ghosts have cemented his place as one of Northern Ireland’s most exciting new talents. Of all his releases he insists his favourite is Letting Go For A Little While which he recorded in collaboration with Irish folk act Beoga, a beautiful, plaintive, romantic ballad that is tear-jerking and sincere and really rather wonderful, displaying emotional depths that belie McMullan’s youth. He actually wrote the song not about the departure of a lover but about saying goodbye to his parents aged 19 when he decided to spend six months backpacking throughout Australia - an experience he credits with helping him to overcome his natural shyness.

“My parents and my brother are obviously supportive of my music but so long as I am healthy and well they don’t really care about what I do,” he adds. “Don’t get me wrong, they are at my shows and all, it’s just any kind of music success I’ve had is not their priority.”

Does being a star of such local fame help him get all the babes when he goes out to the once-packed bars of Belfast city, I wonder?

“Well,” he laughs. “It helped me get my fiancée Ruth. Obviously once the pandemic is over we will get married soon.” Visitwww.

ryanmcmullanmusic.com.