- 21 Sep 21
Foy Vance may have had a plan for his new album, Signs Of Life, but things didn’t quite work out that way. In a powerful interview, he talks about drugs, death, art, life, music, his songwriting buddy Ed Sheeran – and a whole lot more besides. Words: Pat Carty. Portrait: Babysweet.
Loath as I am to descend into cliché, Foy Vance has one of those voices that could sing the phone book – do they still have phone books? – and have you bawling by the time he gets half way through the first page. The man known all over the place for the likes of ‘She Burns’ and ‘Coco’ – smooth soul, sweeter than a sugared nut – is about to re-enter the fray (cliché #2) with his new LP Signs Of Life after taking a step back when his last big tour finished in 2017.
That was part of the promotional cycle for The Wild Swan, Foy’s third album and his first on good mate Ed Sheeran’s record label, Gingerbread Man Records. Check the credits on Sheeran’s world-eating ÷ album from 2017, and you’ll find Vance’s name down for a couple of writing credits, including the ‘divisive’ ‘Galway Girl’, which surely paid for a few flat caps and some good quality moustache wax, and fair play to him.
Vance is on the video-phone from his home in Scotland and explains to me why he took the decision to apply the brakes.
“It was a mixture of my daughter being exam age and needing more help and attention, and my son being six months old when I stopped touring,” he says. “It was just time to be home and time to focus on family. My plan was to be like a plumber, wake up and do the same thing every morning: be at the studio at ten o’clock; six o’clock, leave the studio, go home, put the kids to bed.”
A solid plan, but where does the muse come into that? She’s not known for regularly clocking in.
“The muse didn’t turn up for a while,” he remembers, ruefully. “I stopped touring and I had all these grand ideas, I was going to go in and record an album which had the working title of Republic Of Eden, and that title song is the only one that made it from there onto this record. Everything else fell away as soon as I wrote ‘Sapling’. I had the plan – treat it like a job and get a record done, and be home. The truth of the matter is, having been on tour for as long as I was, twenty-odd years when I stopped, the residue of tour life was ingrained in me like oil in the hands of a mechanic. I was hitting codeine pain killers very hard in the morning, I was hitting drink very hard as of one in the day, hitting weed very hard the second I could get it, you know what I mean?”
I do, allegedly.
“All the shit you do to mask when you’re on the road,” he continues with a refreshing honesty. “I didn’t realise I was masking because I’m out there every night pouring my heart out. To deal with that element of it during the daytime, I was a fucking fog.”
He illustrates how serious it was.
“A friend of mine who used to be addicted to all kinds of shit – cocaine, speed, MDMA, he took heroin for a few years – he’s overdosed twice, and twice it was on codeine. I stayed in his house and I left a load of wrappers in the bedroom, because I just thought they were painkillers, it was fine, the penny hadn’t really dropped at that point. He called: his wife was freaking out thinking he was back on the codeine and was trying to hide it. He had a very open chat with me, ‘You want to smoke weed? Cool. You want to drink? Cool. But avoid that shit like the plague because it will get you. It’s insidious: you don’t even know it’s harming you’. It is fucking you up in ways that drink and weed and any of that other shit won’t.”
In order to lighten the mood, I change tack and pick a bone with Foy about the wording on his website, which lists Signs Of Life as album number four. This is just not the case. He released two great records in 2019, From Muscle Shoals and To Memphis, recorded in those fabled music locations.
“I don’t understand either,” he agrees. “When I see ‘Fourth studio record’ I go ‘No it’s not!’ They were sort of project records, if you like, but they ended up so much more than that.”
To go and record in those places is surely any music fans dream.
“Here’s what happened, Pat. I’ll level with you.”
I could hardly accuse him of failing to keep the bubble in between the lines thus far, but anyway…
“I got off the road and as I say the residue of touring hit me like a freight train. I couldn’t write an emotional song because I wouldn’t let myself feel emotion. I thought, ‘Okay, writing is not happening now, I’m clearly not at the epicentre of honesty right now, so let’s just do pragmatic shit’. I went through all the songs I’d written over the years and put them into piles: maybe I’ll pitch that to someone, maybe I could make a record with that, and so it started off."
“They were meant to be EPs – five songs in Muscle Shoals and five songs in Memphis, a soul EP and an Americana EP. But when I got to Muscle Shoals, we recorded six songs in two days and I loved being in the same room that Wilson Pickett sang in, that Percy Sledge sang in, that Aretha Franklin sang in and that Otis Redding sang in. It was fucking crazy.”
“We did the five songs and we had a bit of time left, so (we thought), here’s another song, it’s very simple, three chords and the truth, and we did it. But going up to Memphis, I sent them eleven songs thinking any five of these is good. I went into that session in the Sam Phillips Recording Studio with Matt Ross-Spang and The Tennessee Ten and it was next level."
“Studios today have taken their echo chambers and their reverb rooms and turned them into storage rooms, but out there they realise the importance of that. I would say give me more fifties and they would send my voice into the echo room and immediately you’re transported: that’s the sound of that time.”
Does an atmosphere like that bring something out of a singer that you didn’t know you had in you?
“Not to put too fine a point on it, I genuinely felt like I was at the fucking epicentre of what I needed to be doing,” he replies, putting a fine point on it. “There wasn’t a single person in that room who wasn’t twice the musician I am. I had to stretch, and it was a beautiful stretch. When I got Matt Ross-Spang in as co-producer, I told him I wanted people who eat, sleep and breathe this shit every day and have done since they were nine, and fuck me did he pick them.”
Did any of them look at Vance and go, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’
“Aye, right!” he laughs. “Who’s this wee, baldy, Irish bastard, coming in here, telling us what to do?”
Speaking of Southern connections, Vance was both wee and most likely baldy when his family moved to Oklahoma – his father, a preacher, was given the opportunity to spread the good word there.
“I was eight months old when we moved,” he says. “We came back when I was either four or five so all my memories of that are built up from pictures or stories. I definitely have a sensory memory of it. It’s kind of cooler because I’ve mystified my time in America. Growing up, we always had a sense of America as the land of milk and honey.”
Later on Foy’s Dad would teach him the few chords that got him started. He also took him around to Karaoke nights, encouraging his son’s burgeoning talent. Vance gets a bit misty eyed here, and why wouldn’t he?
“Listen, my Da was born in East Belfast in 1945, in not entirely great circumstances. He’d a tough life. What he lacked in understanding of how my world worked, he more than made up for with enthusiasm. He took me to some things and I look back now and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed you made me do that! Why the fuck did I do that? I could have an unblemished fuckin’ C.V. here!’ At the same time, if he hadn’t have done that, I don’t think it would have clicked that I could do this for a living – so I’m very grateful to the man.”
Foy has said that his father’s passing opened the door to his songwriting.
“That’s one hundred percent true,” he confirms. “I was trying to write songs. My Dad passed on the 30th of January, 1999, and the night that he passed I was playing a gig in a pub called The Jellyfish in Lanzarote where I lived for a year. I was making up a song, I used to do that to keep myself interested. I kept singing ‘Crying in the night’ and ‘Jesus is coming like a thief in the night’, that was another one. I literally did cry all that night, I was really upset and I couldn’t explain it."
“Up to that point I was writing songs on borrowed knowledge, I was using philosophies and poetry that my friends and my Dad had taught me, but none of it hit me in the soul. I had the composite parts but I didn’t have the transcendental quality of music, that sixth dimension, beyond the rhythm and the cadence and the melody and the words or whatever. The thing beyond that people understand. I didn’t understand that until my Dad died. Listen: I would give up songwriting for sixty seconds with my father. But I can’t be more thankful.”
I’ve a bit of common ground with Foy here, my Dad died around the same time, and it really does knock you sideways. It changes your whole life in ways it takes you years to realise. The passing of Foy’s father made him the artist that he is.
“Yes, sir. And that’s the fucking dichotomy of the whole thing. What a pain in the dick but life is like that, it takes death for regeneration to happen. As Nick Drake said in ‘Fruit Tree’…”
Neither of us could remember it precisely at the time, but I think we were getting at “It can never flourish, ‘til its stock is in the ground”.
“It took my Dad to die – I wish he fucking didn’t – but that’s what it took,” Foye says. “It doesn’t matter what age you are, you lose your identity for a while because you always look to your father. When he died, I got art, and I got a relationship with my own self.”
2017. Foy has retreated to his home and, as he said, had a bit of a breakthrough with ‘Sapling’, a marvellous song with which the new album opens. It sounds like someone trying to adjust back to living the normal life with people around them.
“I love that!” he grins. “That reality, when you come down: ‘Oh, wow, I’m not living in the stratosphere, I actually am just a fucking bloke with shit to cook and shit to deal with!’ The pragmatic reality of life, that is hard to deal with when you’ve been on tour. I came back and Marie would be like, ‘You treat this house like a hotel’ and I’d be thinking, ‘Darling, let’s not argue, let’s some order some champagne from room service and we’ll talk about this!’”
There’s a story about Bono’s missus telling him to check into a hotel for a week to calm down after he came back from a tour.
“Can you imagine what that’s like! I’m just Foy, I go out to maybe five hundred people – if I’m playing in Belfast, maybe a thousand, if I’m lucky. Imagine being Bono! People give that guy a hard time all the time: he’s this, he’s that. I know in Ireland we love to hate him, but let me go on record as saying I think Bono is a fucking legend!”
There’s a line in that song about waking in the morning and finding you gone and hoping it’s not too late. Is this the crux of it, that Vance was going to lose what he had if he didn’t cop on to himself?
“The words are ‘If I woke in the morning to find you were gone/ I know that I’d try to find the strength to move on/ but am I strong enough?’” he corrects me. “I know I’m a resilient man. I can deal with my father’s death, my wife leaving me, potentially another wife leaving me! I can deal with anything like that but I guess in that moment…"
“Let me rewind for a second here,” he resumes. “My manager called me while I was trying to do this record. I was correlating old songs because I couldn’t fucking write because I wasn’t being honest with myself, and he gave me the most loving bollicking I’ve ever had in my life. ‘You are pissing this up the wall, son. You’ve got so much opportunity, you’ve got a talent there, the desire to write, you got a family around you that love you, you’ve got a management team that will work day and night to make sure your shit goes well. What the fuck are you doing?’ And he made me go and see a therapist – well, not made me, but because he asked me, I said ‘Yes’. I hit her with both barrels: here’s everything as honest as I could tell it. She looked me square in the eye and said, ‘We can’t even deal with the tip of your life trauma until you clean up or there’s no point in talking.’”
He did it that hard way, although there isn’t, as far as I know, an easy option.
“I went home and kicked it. For the next three days, and there’s no pleasant way of saying this, I was just throwing up from every end. I was white as a sheet and my wife and daughter were changing the bedsheets three times as day because I was sweating so much. It was tough. I didn’t leave the bed for three days but fuck me did I feel good after it.”
“I feel good now, I’m back on the drink if I’m being honest with you.”
As long as you’re not drinking bottles of whiskey at nine in the morning…
“No, I’m not doing that. For me it was like a litre bottle of vodka a night, easy. Two bottles of white wine, fifteen or sixteen beers, no bother, because it had just become so normal. I’m looking after myself. I’m training tonight, a wee bit of boxing training, I’m of the age when I need to look after myself. But I am back on the drink and, as you can see, the cigarettes.”
From Little Acorns…
Getting clean proved to be the key.
“I got clean and I wrote ‘Sapling’ straight away. It just came like manna from heaven. Just like it used to and I thought, ‘Okay, you’re open again’. That’s why it’s the first song on the record, I was in search of an oak but all I found was this little sapling, and I was so fucking pleased to find it. Something had changed and every song that was on the record fell away: they were inconsequential, no longer relevant. ‘Republic of Eden’ and ‘Roman Attack’ stayed, everything else was either new or something old that was brought in because it made sense to the arc of the record.”
Vance posted on social media about another moment that formed the record, when his pregnant wife waddled in – his words, not mine – looking otherworldly and the title song came to him. A true story or is he trying to keep the other half sweet?
“Dude, I am fucking done with making shit up! Do you know what the worst thing about making shit up is? You have to remember it! That’s where the record became Signs Of Life. The little pedal on the E riff and the chords going through it for a month maybe and I was sitting with it every day – but when she sat down and the light came in and caught her eyes and our son was about to be born, I literally sang it to her. ‘Then without warning. You looked in my eyes/ I could tell that soon a son was going to rise.’”
Just as he sang to his wife that day, he sings it to me here – well, perhaps not as lovingly. If I had a voice like that I’d head for Hollywood in the morning. The muse had definitely shown up.
“That’s all I had in that moment but that was it. I guess it’s the same for you when you’re writing a story, there’ll be something, a nugget, the DNA of the story, and then you’ll know exactly what to say and where to say it.”
How very gracious it is of Vance to include me here. It’s a mark of a decent man.
“That was all I needed, the rest of it just came out,” he says. “The rest of it is, I guess a letter to my son.”
Working For The Man
Lockdown seems to have suited Foy. Was he in a better position than some of his contemporaries to ride it out?
“Yes and no, it’s not like I’ve got so much money in the bank that I never need to worry! But every single person on my manager’s roster had tours in their diary that they had to pay deposits back on. I wasn’t in that position. I was due to go on tour through America as a co-headliner with Anderson East [American chap, perhaps best known for ‘All On My Mind’] and he’s the bigger artist out there. I was going to do that and then I realised that Ella’s going through exam time, my son is three and needs a lot of attention and my wife is pregnant, I don’t need to be going on fucking tour.”
You didn’t need to do it to put food on the table?
“No, I didn’t. I pulled that tour and it’s the first and last tour I’ll ever pull and I did so because I wanted to slow down. I worked for twenty-five years and the last eight years of that were extensive touring. Thankfully, I was in a position that I could sit it out for a couple of years.”
Did you feel trapped on the record-tour-record carousel?
“Only on the last record, and this was no fault of my label. I’ve got the best deal in the history of best deals. However, I made my first record for seven grand, the second one for thirty. The one I made with Atlantic, I’m not going to tell you what I made that for. Do you remember being five years old and falling off a slide and landing on your back?”
“That’s what I felt like when I heard the bill for making that last record. Ed [Sheeran] invested in me personally and financially and I needed to work my hole off. At the end of it I had a meeting at Ed’s house and I said ‘I love you, man. I love what you’ve done for me, that you’ve helped me do this record and I’m sorry that I haven’t paid you back for it but the truth of the matter is I’m never going to work that hard again, so if you need to drop me from your label, there’s no hard feelings. You run the business but I’m just not going to put that time in anymore in touring’. He took me by the hands and he said, ‘Foy, I will release every record you ever write’. I said you’re making it too easy!”
Vance laughs with joy at this last line and who wouldn’t?
“The rest of the label have been very supportive, but they want to make money, you know this! The last person they needed on their books was me, but they still take the time and pay due diligence and I appreciate that from them because I’m fucking nobody.”
He says that – but he shares those writing credits with Sheeran. Does that smooth things over with the record company?
“Nah,” he maintains. “If I never wrote with Ed again, which is not going to happen, by the way, the label would still do what they’re doing as long as Ed is behind it. They know I’m never going to be No.1 – they know I’m never going to be a superstar – but they support me in what I do. I’ve got to give them credit for that. They’re a major label and I’m way beneath their pay grade!”
Perhaps they sweated it a bit when this record arrived on their desks? In ‘If Christopher Calls’ Vance won’t open the door, no matter who’s there, he wants the quiet time. Elsewhere he says that people are pills he can’t always swallow. This could be a hermit’s record, a record of a man who wants to go off and live in a cave.
“You have no idea how close to the truth that is!” he guffaws.
We come back around to nearly where we came in with the last song on the record. The stark and beautiful ‘Percolate’ is alive with memories of Vance’s Dad.
“By the time he came to me, my Dad had softened,” he recalls. “He would wake me up in the morning and ask if I wanted some coffee, or tea, or toast, or cereal and I’d be going, ‘Would you fuck off!’ That’s where I was at the time, that’s the God’s honest truth, but now in hindsight I’m going ‘Oh my God, every time he came into my room I wish I’d just jumped up and hugged the man’. He gave a fuck about me, he really cared. Every morning I woke up he brought me a coffee cup: that lyric is literally what he did."
“Whether you’re a songwriter or a sculptor, or a painter or a poet, or a dancer or an actor, or whatever the fuck it is, just don’t think about being smart,” he says, “don’t think about employing your craft. Just be interested, engage with the visceral shit, and that’s where art is at. That story about my dad is literally just me telling the absolute truth."
“He brought me coffee cups and since he’s gone, my whole life has been dark. And I tried to drink hard enough, I tried to think hard enough, I tried to do a lot of things hard enough, and nothing can bring him back and I had to come back to the reality that this is fucking it. I’m just gonna sit and watch the coffee percolate the rest of my life.”
There’s a circularity to the whole thing: what Foy’s father did for him, he’s now doing for his own children by just being there. That’s what’s important, that’s the sign of life.
“I’m glad you brought that up, and you quoted it, not me,” Foy shouts. “That is the signs of life, it’s cyclical. It doesn’t matter what you and I do, we were born and we’re going to die and we’re going to leave behind the people that we’ve produced while we were here. Life’s a cycle and this record’s a cycle. It starts at ‘Sapling’ and it ends at ‘Percolate’ for a reason.”
The process that began with pulling into the side of the road in 2017 and realising what’s important to him has culminated in this record.
“That’s a good summation. I wouldn’t have put it that way myself but now that you say it out loud, I’m going ‘Yeah, that’s what I was looking for. I was looking for signs of life but I was searching in the wrong place’.”
There’s a beautiful simplicity in that. Foy Vance is handy that way.
Signs Of Life is out now.