Foy Vance’s emotionally gripping sophomore album, Joy of Nothing, features guest vocals from Bonnie Raitt and Ed Sheeran. We asked the Irish-born singer-songwriter about writing lyrics, staying inspired and the words he loves and hates.
Tell us a bit about your new album.
Joy of Nothing is an album that was born out of a move to the highlands of Scotland and the changes the arose in the year that followed.
How would you compare it to your last album?
They don’t compare really. I’m still happy with the songs on the first record but I don’t feel I articulated them in a way that they deserved. With this record for better or for worse I feel like the songs sound like they should.
What was working with Bonnie Raitt on Joy of Nothing like?
Bonnie is a legend in every sense of the word. A true heart. You can’t work with an artist of that caliber and not be inspired.
How about Ed Sheeran?
Ed is an exciting guy to be around. At 22 years old he has the world at his feet and he knows exactly what to do with it; that’s inspiring to be around.
You’ve played a lot of festivals. How do you win over crowds there?
Depends on the festival really but essentially it’s important to enjoy yourself. I often throw in a few covers to get them singing along, especially if they’re not too aware of my songs. The second we’re all one unit then it’s easier to go wherever you want with the set.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
There are so many! Willie Nelson, Paul Buchanan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, the list goes on and on…
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I attempted to write my first song at about 15 and continued to write from then on, but it’s fair to say that I never wrote anything worth listening to until I was 24. Oddly enough the catalyst for my writing songs of any merit was the death of my father. Since then there hasn’t been a week where I haven’t written something.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was a song called “Who Am I?” A friend had shown me some new chords he’d learned from a jazz guitar course he was on. 9ths and 11ths from memory. It was a sort of soul searching swing song. In hindsight it was excruciating but I loved it at the time.
What’s the last song you wrote?
The last song I wrote is called “Forever Marie.” The last song I started to write is one I’m still chipping away at now, waiting for it to reveal itself.
How do you go about writing songs?
It varies from song to song. I like improvisation, I’ve always been a fan of it. I’m not a good enough musician to be articulate in a solo in the way Monk, Jarrett, Davis or Coltrane could so I like to improvise with songwriting. There’s usually a nugget of an idea, so I take my lead from that and then play with it until it turns into something articulate (if ever it does).
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I try to remain detached until I have the whole lyric or until the song reveals what it’s about. Then and only then (in my opinion) is it worth employing a bit of craft.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Everything is inspiring if you look at it right. In saying that, of all the subjects that I write songs about, the ones that seem to resonate most with me are the ones regarding love, death and hope in a hard place.
What’s a song on Joy of Nothing you’re particularly proud of and why?
Proud of? I’d have to say “Guiding Light.” It became a family anthem for my close friends, the McDaid family in Derry during the passing of their father. It was sang at his funeral and is written on his gravestone. If that is the only thing that song ever achieves, it was worth writing.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of my own lyrics. What I could say is that the lyrics to “Paper Prince” still intrigue me.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Writing songs is always easy. Writing a good song is where it get’s tricky. I suppose what I’m saying is that it ebbs and flows all the time. Sometimes songs come fluently and sometimes you have to sculpt them. Which can feel like trimming hair blindfolded at times. You try to get rid of the split ends without lobbing off an ear.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I love lots of words. I enjoy saying “licorice.” It’s easy to love words but it’s hard to hate them. I really don’t like the word “celebrity” but I’m sure that has nothing to to with the word itself.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is…
I used to write songs about preferred realities and that was a pain, because for the time it took to sing it, I was there, but then the song ended and I was right back where I started. Aside from that I don’t think there is anything annoying about it. Frustrating at times, yes… but annoying? Only to those around me who deal with my constant mental absence perhaps…but sure you could say that about anyone doing an all-consuming job.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
On this record, “At Least My Heart Was Open” seems to have struck a chord judging from the live response.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I scored a feature film once but I think the results were pretty generic and it was a costly and time consuming pursuit. A steep learning curve that resulted in the realization that it wasn’t my forte. Maybe one day.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
My favorite co-writing session to date has been with my daughter. I’d like to write more songs with her.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
There’s a band here in Scotland called Starwheel Press. No one really knows about them but there songs are alluring and always interesting. Another guy in Belfast called David C. Clements is writing some really great tunes at the minute.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
There are so many to chose from. “The House Where Nobody Lives” by Tom Waits. “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell. “Downtown Lights by The Blue Nile.” I could go on here but for now I’ll say “I Believe in You” by Talk Talk. You get the essence of the song before you even know what he’s saying, it’s a beautifully articulate piece of work.