Having spent the formative years of his career as one fifth of a chart-topping boy band, Derek Ryan had as good an insight into the way the music industry worked as anyone when the time came for him to go solo.
And so he tried to. But none of them took it. The Carlow man released it himself. And the heart-tugging ballad became the song that was to launch Derek back into the limelight, and indeed on to the world stage of Irish Country music, securing his name as one of the most successful singer-songwriters of the genre of all time.
It’s hard to believe I’m actually sitting face to face with the heart throb himself in a quiet room at the Glenavon House Hotel in Cookstown, hours before he’s due to go on stage.
Dressed in a denim jacket with black scarf and skinny jeans, his dark blonde hair is impeccably styled, his accent cut-glass Co Carlow, his eyes sparking and earnest, and his infectious laugh peppers our conversation; he seems prone, actually, to laughing at himself quite a lot, and in no way seems to think he’s the huge star that he is.
“Without it sounding like an absolute cliché, it is all about the music for me - this time round anyway,’’ says the 34-year-old.
“The celebrity side of things is fine. I know it comes with the territory, but it’s not something I would strive for. Not second time round anyway.”
This “second time round” he is referring to is the current wave of success the former D-Side member has been riding for the last nine or so years.
Raised in a musical family - both his father Pat and his brother Adrian are performers - Derek joined the Irish boy band when he was only 17, and enjoyed several years of success around the world, before going back to his Irish Country roots and pursing a solo career within a genre that is presently huge in Northern Ireland; from 19 to 90, audiences of all ages are packing out venues across the Province to watch Derek and his counterparts perform the kinds of songs that, as he says himself, have “universal appeal.”
Derek himself fell in love with Country music when he was barely a teenager, after seeing Garth Brooks play Croke Park. After that he got himself a guitar and started writing songs, something which came easily to him as he was skilled at English and poetry in school, and he enjoyed “messing around” with lyrics and melodies as a way to de-stress. He eventually left school and sacrificed his other passion - sport - to pursue a career in music full time, after he successfully auditioned for D-Side. The years he spent with those other four members - Shane Creevey, Derek Moran, Damien Bowe and Dane Guiden - were all you would expect of the rollercoaster lifestyle of a pop star; frenetic, exciting, and loaded with lessons which the young singer took away with him.
“Looking back it was amazing; we were on Top of the Pops, we travelled the world, we worked with some of the best producers. We were in such a bubble. We were being told by everyone what was going to happen, and there was going to be this, that or the other. You have so much confidence, you don’t think anything can go wrong. And then you realise over time that things can go wrong! And that you have to work hard to keep the level of performances up. I always say if I got paid per hour in the music business, I’d be a millionaire. I have the diaries to prove it. If we were promoting a single it could have been 18 or 19 hour days.”
Whilst the boys weren’t encouraged to write their own material, Derek kept his ears and eyes well and truly open, and learnt all he could about the music business, as an album of his own was his long term goal. The life lessons he picked up along the way were invaluable.
I ask him if there are any he would pass on to other would-be young singers. “Stand up for yourself,” he says, without missing a beat. “There are a lot of people in the industry who want you to make it, and there are a lot who don’t. It’s like any business. So you can’t be walked over. The most important lesson is - go with your gut. And the third thing is something my dad taught me and keeps saying to me, even now. Look after your own business and don’t worry about anyone else’s.”
Staying true to himself and his style of music is important to Derek now, and he says that getting to perform his own material is the most enjoyable part of what he does. “I had been writing a lot in London when I was gigging over there and I had songs that I had nowhere to go with. Now I have that platform. That’s when I’m most comfortable. I played the Farmers’ Bash last month and to have 8,000 people sing God’s Plan back to you was unreal.” When he’s not touring and writing, Derek enjoys “regular things”, like going out for dinner and drinks, playing sport, and heading to the theatre. He tries to limit his shows to 15 a month, “so you’re at home half the month”, though as I point out, that’s still a gig every other night. But it’s a total labour of love for the singer, who admits that he’s always itching to get back to work after a couple of days off. “To me, relaxing is done with a guitar. I could work in the studio all day every day. That’s my kind of happy place really.”
Three things you may not know about Derek Ryan...
There’s a lot of nervous laughter in the room when I challenge Derek Ryan to reveal to his fans three things they may not know about him.
“Im claustrophobic,” he states, ticking off number one. “I don’t mind planes; it’s more lifts and big crowds.” He hesitates, and I prompt him by asking him what he reckons his wife would say is annoying about him. “I can be cranky when I’m tired. Very short, you know?” he says with a laugh, before admitting that he can be “pretty shy” too when it comes to a room full of people; in spite of his electric onstage presence and captivating confidence when he’s performing, he reveals that when he started out in this business, having to do a meet and great with upwards of a thousand fans after his shows was at times overwhelming. He says he loves doing them now, and really enjoys meeting all the fans.
Derek met his match when he was introduced to his hero, rock star Bryan Adams.
“He was quiet, there were just a few words here and there and I was standing thinking, ‘oh right, you’re a bit like myself!’”
‘Play in a pub and you’ll soon find out whether you’re good’
Derek stares me directly in the face, and his eyes fill with emotion, as he repeats: “I had to do to it. I had no money.”
Our conversation has moved on to the demise of D-Side, the band which launched his career, and enabled him to break into the music business, before the pop bubble finally burst after four years of success.
The dream was over, but this stoical Irish lad was made of strong stuff, and when the dust had settled, he picked himself up, and moved on with his life.
“It was a case of, you had been a star, and it’s difficult to go back when you have nothing. But I just bit the bullet and said to people, ‘look, this didn’t work out.’
“And I eventually went back to playing in pubs back home.
“People probably said, ‘ah there’s your man, he’s had a big fall from grace.’ But I didn’t care. I had to make money.”
Derek says that in retrospect, the end of the road for D-Side had been coming for a while, but the nail in proverbial pop coffin was finally hammered in when they released three singles which failed to make it to the top spots on the then-crucial chart line-up in Woolworths.
They had to sign to a new label for their subsequent album, which also failed to make the grade, and that was when the boys knew the writing was on the wall.
“Japan took us on for a while and we did a bit out there, but we knew it was the beginning of the end,” says Derek.
“When it all calmed down and we made a decision to stop, I based myself in London and I was back playing gigs in pubs. A friend of my mam’s was looking after the pubs roster in London and said to me, ‘come and do a few gigs if you’re stuck for money’.
“It was a good education; when you’re in the pop business, you might think you’re brilliant, but you’re not really! Go into a pub and you’ll soon find out whether you’re good or not! It was great.” Derek also took up an Accountancy and Finance course at a local university in the city as well.
After two years he returned to Carlow, where his humble and hardworking attitude only served to make him allies. That, combined with his natural, incredible talent, was to ensure that his musical career could from then on only go in one direction - up.
Catch Derek in concert over the next few weeks
Derek’s touring schedule is hectic, and fans will be delighted to learn he’s playing at the iconic Ulster Hall venue in Belfast on Saturday January 3, 2018. Check out www.derekryanmusic.com for ticket information. You can also catch him before then at various venues all over Ireland, including Ballymena, Moy, Banbridge and Coleraine.