- 23 Aug 23
As he looks forward to making his Electric Picnic return, Cian Ducrot talks about the deeply personal nature of his debut Victory album; sharing a stage with Dermot Kennedy, The Jonas Brothers and Ed Sheeran; songwriting with SZA; and the other ‘pinch me’ moments that have been coming thick and fast.
Not only has the French-Irish musician manoeuvred himself into a position where he’s got Ed Sheeran, The Jonas Brothers and SZA on speed-dial, but he’s also managed to overcome some serious childhood trauma, as documented on the intensely personal title-track.
It’s my first time meeting Cian, an amiable, softly-spoken presence who’s resplendent today in a ‘Britney Forever’ t-shirt. Is he a true Spears believer or just being ironic?
“I’m a massive fan,” he confirms. “Despite being treated so badly, she’s one of the greatest pop stars of her generation. I just hope she’s in a better place now, both personally and professionally because she’s still only in her early 40s and could be making music for decades to come if she wants. She’s such an icon.”
Asked what his favourite Britney tune is, he shoots back, “‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ is a masterpiece. I love the story about Max Martin waking up in the middle of the night with the melody in his head and humming it into his Dictaphone so that he wouldn’t forget it the next day. The whole Max Martin/Swedish Hit Factory thing is so fascinating.”
Talking of pop icons, Cian admits that he “nearly died from excitement” when word came through that Ed Sheeran wanted him as the support act for his Manchester, London, Glasgow, Dublin and Paris shows in March.
“Oh man, I think about that every single day,” Ducrot says, still trying to process what’s happened. “The first song I learned on my acoustic guitar when I was thirteen was Ed’s ‘Small Bump’. He’s such a lovely, sweet, normal guy. Well, ‘normal’ in that he’s not arrogant in the slightest. He’s so generous with his time, is incredibly hard-working and talented and knows exactly what he’s doing career-wise. But he’s also up for fucking having a laugh with the people around him.
“From the moment I met Ed, it was hugs. I felt like he wanted to have a real friendship. I was able to ask him stuff like, ‘Hey, I’m getting sick all the time on tour, what advice have you got?’ and he gave it to me. I just sent him a message: we’re in touch a lot, just shooting the breeze about stuff.”
Cian got another how-to-become-massive-without-turning-into-a-knobhead masterclass in July when he opened for Dermot Kennedy at all three of his Thomond Park, Limerick shows. Was he able to figure out why Rathcoole’s favourite son has achieved superstar status?
“Oh, 100%,” Ducrot nods. “Having an incredible voice and being able to write songs for fun is obviously key, but you also need the determination and perseverance to succeed. There are no shortcuts. Dermot’s achieved what he’s achieved through hard graft, building things record by record, show by show. He’s at the heart of all this craziness, but always appears calm and in control of what’s happening. Underneath he could be a bundle of nerves, but he never shows it. I learned a lot from being around him and his team.”
How do you make the step up from 400-capacity club shows to 40,000 stadium sell-outs?
“I think your energy has to match the size of the space and the crowd,” Cian ventures. “There are a lot of things you have to wrap your head around. You’ve got to remember that you’re on these big screens. People are seeing you up close even though you might feel like a tiny ant on stage. It’s just the whole mental thing of achieving that energy and giving it to this huge, vast sea of people. And when you do there’s this incredible – how, I can put, this? – vibration from the audience. It just erupts and you can feel it immediately. You’ve no way of knowing what that’s like – the pure adrenalin rush – until you’ve experienced it.”
HAVING HIS MIND BLOWN
Completing a trio of ‘pinch me, am I dreaming?’ moments was Cian getting to sing with The Jonas Brothers at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April.
“As insane as it was, getting to do something with Ed Sheeran felt achievable because we’re kind of in the same musical lane. The Jonas Brothers, on the other hand, just seemed unattainable. I remember at the Albert Hall thinking, ‘Why am I onstage and who’s that guy with The Jonas Brothers? Oh, it’s me. And they’re singing the second verse of ‘I’ll Be Waiting’. What the fuck is going on?!’ It’s only afterwards when I watched the video that it felt real. Even now, it just blows my mind.”
Last year found Cian Ducrot co-writing and producing ‘Flowers’, the power ballad that provided former American Idol contestant Lauren Spencer-Smith with an international hit. Was he ever tempted to go the TV talent show route himself?
“I tried The Voice UK, very unsuccessfully,” he grimaces. “I didn’t make it past the first round but I got to sing in front of Will.i.am, Paloma Faith, Boy George and that bloke from Kaiser Chiefs, Ricky Wilson. I was kinda pushed into doing the Maroon 5 song, ‘One More Night’, (sings) ‘You and I go hard at each other like we’re going to war/ We keep throwing things and slamming the doors.’ God, it was so bad… Afterwards, Will.i.am was like, ‘If you could have sung what you wanted, what would you have chosen?’ and I said, ‘Something that’s just me solo on my acoustic guitar.’ He was like, ‘Do that right now’, so I did and the whole audience stood up at the end clapping. Ricky came over, gave me a hug and said, ‘I would have turned for you but I’ve already turned for somebody similar.’ Paloma Faith was crying and afterwards tweeted me saying, ‘This isn’t the last we’ll see of you.’
“At this point, it was getting so intense that I didn’t want to be part of it anymore. It taught me a very important lesson, which is that as an artist you have to be true to yourself and follow your own instincts. It’s okay to listen to advice but you don’t have to take it.”
Shortly after collaborating with Lauren Spencer-Smith, an even bigger international star slipped into Ducrot’s DMs.
“I’m not a massive pop fan – I mainly listen to hip hop, rap, a lot of jazz and random French stuff – but I went through a phase where I couldn’t stop listening to SZA,” he explains. “And then one day, completely out of the blue, she follows me on Twitter. I’m like, ‘What the actual fuck?!’ Shortly after that, I’m in the toilets at Soho House in London, having a shit and checking my phone, as you do, and discover I’ve been DM’d by SZA. She was asking, ‘When are you going to be in America? Will you please help me finish writing my album?’ I was like, ‘I’ll be fucking there tomorrow’, y’know?
“I eventually made it over to the States the day before she was handing her SOS album to the label,” Cian continues. “I remember pulling up in the car and thinking, ‘You have to calm down.’ Honestly, I was so nervous about how it was all going to turn out. Anyway, I went into the studio and SZA was so lovely, telling me that she was a big fan and had watched all my videos. Inside my head, I was going, ‘Er, no, I’m the fan!’ It was so fucking surreal and got even more surreal when we wrote a song together, which she told me she’s going to put on the deluxe version of SOS. The stories and stuff she shared with me was just mind-blowing.”
Oh to have been a fly on that particular L.A. studio wall! Following his superstar co-writes, the focus is now firmly on Cian Ducrot as a solo artist who’s looking to build on the quartet of singles – ‘All For You’, ‘I’ll Be Waiting’, ‘Part Of Me’ and ‘Heaven’ – which have already made him a top 30 star in Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway and the UK.
HIS SUPERHERO MUM
When the press blurb announcing Victory’s impending arrival was sent out in April, it was accompanied by a message from Cian to fans detailing his turbulent childhood.
“To begin to understand the album there’s some things you need to know about my life, where I came from, how I was raised, and the kind of kid I was,” he wrote. “A broken home at an early age is where the story really began, my mom, my brother and I became a team and music was our saviour. It saved us mentally and spiritually but it also allowed my mom to literally put food on the table.”
Cian, who hasn’t seen his father for years and has taken his mother’s surname, went on to add: “When I dropped out of college to pursue being a songwriter, when not one person believed in me, I reflected on our past and everything my mom managed to do as a single mother to raise my brother and I in not only a system that didn’t welcome her as a foreigner but also one that was extremely patriarchal. I remember asking her, ‘How did you do it? How did you find the strength when you had no money and two kids to take care of? How did you do it?’ My mom replied simply, ‘I had no choice so I figured it out.’
“Never had I heard more inspiring words in my life,” he continued. “I carry those with me today everywhere I go. No matter how hard the road became and how much I had to fight to be heard, I never gave up. I believed in myself every single step of the way because I had a dream and that’s worth fighting for.
“This album represents that victory, the victory of self-belief, the victory of everyone around me who I love and who loved me back, the story of my brother, of my mother, of my grandparents, of my friends, and everyone who fought by our side every step of the way. This album is for all of those people and my amazing fans, we made it out alive and more. This is for us. This is Victory.”
Harrowing, heartfelt and eventually triumphant, the full version of the letter, which appears here in abridged form, can be found on his Instagram.
Asked today to paint a picture of his childhood, Cian says, “I grew up first in Douglas in Cork and when I was four or five, we moved to Passage West. My Mum had left my Dad for her own reasons, so it was that typical breakup thing of alternating between parents. And then eventually what was happening to me and my elder brother came out. And then it was probably ten years of almost weekly court cases and battles. We were going to therapy when I was in primary school and just constantly dealing with it. It didn’t end until basically I moved away. It was tough but my Mum was so amazing – somehow she gave us this amazing life.
“My childhood is made up of so many difficult times and dark memories, and things that have affected me so much, but Mum always managed to find ways to make life beautiful and meaningful and always reminded us that it could be worse,” he continues. “She’s a tremendous woman. She’s like a superhero, really.”
Starting with a child’s happy laugh but then noting that, “Ever since I was little kid I was never a favourite/ But I dreamt of growing up and maybe one day I’d change it”, the Victory title-track is as poignant an album opener as you’ll hear this or any other year.
When was it written?
“Not long ago, probably this year,” Cian recalls. “There was no name for the album yet, so it only became the title-track a bit later. I went for a run and, pretty much as I always do, was listening to Eminem who I’m a huge fan of. The run and his music got me so pumped up that when I got home, I went straight upstairs to my studio and spent seven hours making that song.”
Is it something he’d tried to write before?
“That’s a really good question… I don’t think so,” he considers. “There are a lot of things I wanted to write about that I held off on, until the album. The fourteen songs I wrote are the fourteen songs on Victory, which is quite rare. I was speaking to some guys who were working on Lewis Capaldi’s album and they were like, ‘We’ve written four hundred songs!’”
I assume that one of the first people he played the title-track to was his Mum.
“To be honest, I’m not sure Mum’s heard ‘Victory’,” Cian admits. “I sent her bits ‘n’ bobs like ‘Stepdad’ because I wrote it for her new partner, Paul, and he hadn’t heard it. And I wanted her to hear it too. She’s definitely heard ‘Blame It On Me’ because at an outdoor show in Coventry, the audience made me FaceTime my Mum and play it for her live. That was an incredibly moving moment.
“So, yeah, I’m not sure if she’s heard ‘Victory’. I actually get quite embarrassed sharing songs with my family. I’d rather not play it for them in case they say something and I don’t put it out because I think they don’t like it. So I’m just going to wait until it’s out, and then it’s too late!”
EMINEM TO THE RESCUE
A line that jumps out from Cian’s message to fans is the one about music being his and his family’s saviour.
“My Mum, who’s French and a concert pianist and flautist, would play piano every single night and I’d fall asleep to it,” he smiles. “It was so beautiful and moving that it brought me to tears, genuinely. Later on, me and my brothers were in bands covering stuff like Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC. I was playing drums and identifying with this punk rock mentality, which was such a release. Then I discovered Eminem and Michael Jackson. I related so much to Eminem’s lyrics about the difficulties in his life. That made me feel not alone and heard. And then Michael Jackson just allowed me to be myself. I’d stand in front of the mirror every night in my Michael Jackson outfit, learning his dance moves and going into the kitchen and showing my Mum.
“I got into a performing arts school in Cork called CADA – we did High School Musical, Grease, Snow White, Cinderella, all different types of shows – which I loved. I was playing flute at the weekends in an orchestra and eventually got a full scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London.
“No matter what we were going through, life always felt normal in a way. But our normal – spending every car journey talking about a court case with your Mum or whatever – wasn’t normal.”
The lack of empathy shown towards her during this period by the courts is shocking.
“Yeah, it was awful and my Mum had a horrible time,” he rues. “We were lucky and had people like my primary school principal who went to court and spoke on our behalf. My brother’s violin teacher was in bits getting off the stand after being interrogated. He said to my Mum, ‘I don’t know how you’ve done this every week for the last ten years of your life. It was horrible, horrible.’
“I had huge resentment towards Ireland because of it,” Cian confides. “For a long time, I didn’t identify as Irish. There was nothing that I liked about myself or this country, but now I love being here.”
Have Cian’s experiences made him reticent about starting a family of his own?
“No, it’s something I look forward to a lot,” he tells me. “I feel like being a father will be the most special feeling I could ever experience. When I think about it, it gives me the chills. The opportunity to get to love my child.
“My brother has a baby who’s like seven or eight months old and when I get to see him it’s incredible. He’s named after my Mum’s father who we were all really close to but has sadly passed. It’s not even my son but I love him more than anything in the whole world.”
Does Cian get angry when he sees the likes of Andrew Tate racking up billions of (anti)social media views?
“Yeah, it pisses me off so much. Seeing all the men in the comments going, ‘Yeah!’ I’m like, ‘Who are you? Who’s raising you?’ What 15, 20, 30 or 40-year-old man is looking at Andrew Tate and saying, ‘He’s right, girls shouldn’t speak!’? I’m an inherent believer in goodness but, oh my god, it’s depressing how many bad, messed up people there are in the world. It’s sad as well because the people relating to the likes of Andrew Tate are probably being beaten by their dad. They’re being taught all this toxic crap.”
Sadly, Tate – who’ll hopefully be residing in a Romanian prison until he’s an old man – is emblematic of a far wider problem which isn’t confined to the male of the species.
“My girlfriend was making these funny, interesting videos where she was exercising in public to promote the idea that you don’t need a gym to keep fit,” Cian resumes. “One day, this man was taking pictures of her and all this other really creepy stuff. She caught him on film and posted a video with a tag saying, ‘This is what women have to deal with all the time.’ You wouldn’t believe the amount of, ‘Serves you right, you shouldn’t be out there exposing yourself’ comments she got from other women. The misogyny levels were off the scale.”
Another of the Victory standouts is ‘Part Of Me’, a hauntingly beautiful song dedicated to a close friend of his, Philly, who not long ago died by suicide.
“Philly was from Dublin, I met him in Cork and we just became best friends,” he says. “He was a musician as well and we spent so much time travelling around together busking and sleeping in tents. The guy was like the brightest star in the room, you know? You couldn’t miss him, he made the rest of us look miserable. And he just…”
Cian swallows hard and composes himself before resuming.
“We were extremely close, like brothers. It was so shocking to me when we lost him. There’s part of me that still can’t accept it’s happened.”
David Balfe, AKA For Those I Love, spoke to us about the survivor’s guilt he felt after the death by suicide of his friend Paul Curran. The emotions when you lose somebody like that can be complex.
“Yeah, very complex,” Cian nods. “It hits you at different times and makes you question a lot of things. Three years prior to Philly, I’d lost another really, really close friend that I’d grown up with since primary school. When I heard about his death, I was not only devastated but also mind-blown. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, I couldn’t figure it out. Then, three years down the line, another of my best friends dies and my brain instantly goes, ‘Oh yeah, people do that’, which shocked and saddened me. Somebody dying like that should never become normalised but since that first friend, there are at least three other people from Passage West who’ve taken their own lives. I was living abroad and thinking, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ For all of its beauty, life in rural Ireland can be very isolating.”
With Cian having to dash off to a record shop instore, I finish by asking him for another two or three of those ‘pinch me’ moments.
“My first Electric Picnic where I sang ‘All For You’ for the first time,” he beams. “The sea of people singing it back to me was in stark contrast to a festival I’d done four months earlier where there were about eight people in the audience. That was tough! I can’t wait to get back to Stradbally to see what amazing thing happens this time!
“Another one was when I was playing the London 02 recently with Ed Sheeran. We were a couple of nights into the tour and I just remember being at the piano, going about my business, and suddenly going, ‘Where am I? This can’t be real!’ You’ve got these massive beaming lights and my piano was glowing. I squeezed my eyes, opened them, and, yeah, I was still there. I was like, ‘Holy shit, how do I take this in?’ How does 13-year-old Cian back in Cork busking every day, playing Ed Sheeran songs, posting videos on YouTube and dreaming of being a successful musician, process that? I’ll never take it in, it’s impossible.”
• Cian’s Victory album is out now on Polydor. He plays Electric Picnic and tours Ireland in December.
Read the full, extensive Electric Picnic special feature in the current issue of Hot Press: