Northern Irish singer songwriter Ryan McMullan may not yet be a household name, but with Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightboy already singing his praises, it’s just a matter of time.
Having toured with Sheeran and Foy Vance, and with his own headline tour on the slate for this September, Ryan is fast becoming one of alt-pop’s brightest hopes.
His songwriting nous and bare bones approach takes no prisoners, with most songs meted out on just solo piano or guitar for maximum emotional wallop.
Having first come to light at leading Northern Irish showcase Belfast Nashville a couple of years ago, Ryan has been grafting hard ready for his moment in the sun.
Now back from a month of intense writing in the Scottish and Northern Irish countryside, he’s armed and ready to go.
We sit down with the rising star to learn more about his beginnings and what’s to come…
Where are you at the moment?
I’m up in the hills of Scotland in Aberfeldy. I’m doing a bit of writing. I’ve been here since Saturday. Today is my last day up here, and then I go home. Well, I don’t even go home. I go up to Donegal to do a bit more writing, so…
How did you first figure out you could write songs?
I didn’t know I could. I just knew that I respected people who created stories and wrote songs. I thought, ‘I want to start trying to do that and see how far I get’. It was a lot of trial and error, and started off very bad.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
I can! It’s online. It’s a song called Mary – it’s an Irish jiggy kind of thing, but it’s not great. It was on a live internet thing called Balcony TV. If you do decide to watch it, flick it on to one minute 20 and look behind me. You’ll see a skateboarder fall. It’s the only reason you should watch that video!
What has been your biggest inspiration along the way?
Probably songs. Have you ever heard a song Paul Brady does called The Lakes of Pontchartrain? It’s my favourite song. The storytelling in it is just so beautiful. I chase that song. I want to get a point where I could write something as beautiful as that song.
When did you first find your vocal style?
When I was 15, myself and three of my friends decided to form a band. I played guitar, one of the guys played guitar, one of the guys played drums, and the other played bass.
We didn’t have a vocalist so we all decided to sing a song each in front of each other and pick the best!
How have you taken to the performer’s life?
I absolutely love it. It’s my addiction. People find it quite daunting, whereas I find it serene, because for however long I’m up on stage, all I’m thinking about is being there in the moment. It’s so surreal.
You toured with Ed Sheeran last year – what was that like?
Amazing, that’s what I would call an A grade tour. Everything about it was phenomenal, from watching the production, the stage being built every night and then taken down again, all in such a short space of time. It was a well-oiled machine.
In terms of the crowd , it was incredible. They’d be queuing up seven hours before the gig, just so they could get close enough to the stage where they could get near Ed. It was very, very inspiring. In a way, it’s something to look forward to. It makes you set your sights a bit higher.
What else have you taken away from the experience?
Hunger mostly. That tour was incredible, but at the end of the day, it was an Ed Sheeran tour. It would be brilliant to be able to do my own tours, maybe not even as big as that, but hopefully as proficient.
You’ve got a big tour coming up in September. How do you prepare for something like that?
I’m very excited because it’s my first ever headline tour. I just have to make sure that I’m ready, so I’m trying to write enough songs. I want to keep people entertained.
I’m looking forward to seeing people’s actual reactions to me, wondering whether the fans are there because they came to an Ed show once.
What can people expect from the tour?
It’s just going to be myself with a piano and a guitar. They’re going to be very intimate shows. They won’t be really upbeat, but I’ll try to keep it as upbeat as I can. I don’t want to just have real, dreary evening of singing sad songs.
How is your songwriting coming along?
Aberfeldy has been a great place to write. I’m heading to Donegal next, it’s my favourite place. I’ve written most of my songs up there.
I’ve been touring for so long, I feel like I’ve a lot of writing to do. Writing songs can be really hard when you’re touring because you don’t have a lot of time.
What’s inspiring your new songs?
Possibilities, optimism. I’m all about positive, feel good songs at the moment, I guess because that’s how I’m feeling and I’d like to express that through my songs.
Are you working towards an album at the moment, or are you more focused on the tour?
I’m kind of doing both, I guess. I want to be prepared for when I’m ready for an album. I want to have about 20 songs that I have to bring down to 10, or something along those lines. I also have to think about the tour and what songs to play, and I’m just trying to keep it interesting, keep it all entertained.
What else is keeping you busy this year?
I’ve been writing throughout June and in July I’m off to LA to do a bit more. Then, come the end of July, it’s festival time. The tour starts September/October, and then I think I might be doing another tour in November/December.
You performed at Belfast Nashville a couple of years ago – how important you think showcases are for new artists?
I played an EP launch there, and ever since, my life changed. It was through that gig that I got to go on tour with Foy and Ed. It’s a great festival and it’s a great showcase – a brilliant opportunity. They gave me the chance.