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Gareth Dunlop: A Songwriter on the Rise

17/06/2014 15:31 BST | Updated 16/08/2014 10:59 BST

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Photo credit: Anthony Scarlati

Gareth Dunlop is a songwriter of uncanny ability. Listening to his records you wouldn't be able to tell that he's still only in his twenties. He has a gravelly voice and songs that shine with a confidence disguising his youth. In 2011 Gareth won the prestigious Young Songwriter of the Year award at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival and Nashville beckoned.

Gareth, who has been playing shows, writing and producing records for the past few years is the embodiment of an independent artist. Finally, through hard graft and after many years, he is beginning to see returns on his tireless work. Since splitting his time between Belfast and Nashville, he has recorded 4 EPs as well as writing songs for hit TV shows and films.

All of this has helped him carve a name for himself as a talented songwriter in Nashville, a place not short of those. His ability at creating tunes that are wonderfully melodic, relatable and emotive sets him apart from countless musicians, attempting the same, but with less skill.

I found Gareth by accident; I walked into him playing a set at The Half Moon. He was opening for Nashville legend and songwriting great Kim Richey. Setting out that night I hadn't intended on watching the support act, but after arriving early, I thought I'd best stick around. I'm glad I did as by the second song I was convinced I'd stumbled onto something very special. On record Gareth is usually accompanied by a full band, at The Half Moon though he was playing a solo set. In this intimate setting you could really appreciate the beauty in Gareth's songs with their delicate chord progressions and memorable melodies.

Gareth and Kim were just coming to the end of a tour in support of their joint EP The Nashville Sessions. Here too, a few songs on the EP have been performed on the show Nashville. Gorgeous harmonies and tales of heartbreak, The Nashville Sessions has become one of the year's standout records.

After watching his set and being profoundly impressed I knew I had to find out more about Gareth and his songs. Shortly after the tour Gareth returned to Northern Ireland and we chatted about song writing, touring and music via email.

Q & A with Gareth Dunlop

1. What was your first musical memory?

Crammed into the back of my parents' car with my brother and sisters singing along to an obscure Billy Connelly cassette, in particular a song called 'I'm asking you sergeant where's mine'.

2. How did you get involved in your local music scene and do you have any advice for songwriters just starting out?

Before I started playing my own stuff live, I was playing cover gigs for a long time. I met a lot of musicians and songwriters through doing that, so when the time came to try out my own stuff it felt like a very natural transition. Cover gigs are a great way to get started and meet other musicians; I'd recommend it to anyone starting out.

3. Are there any pivotal music moments that stand out as really vital to your musical development?

I think there's probably quite a few, but learning the basics of how to record myself in college has had a massive knock on effect to how I work now. I record a lot of my own material and even when I'm working in other studios I like to be very hands on. I can't imagine not being involved in that side of my music.

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Photo credit: Anthony Scarlati

4. You recently released an EP called The Nashville Sessions. The songs are in collaboration with Kim Richey, how did the EP come about?

Kim and I started writing together about a year and a half ago. She asked me to join her on tour this year and we decided to put the EP out to coincide. We've had two of our songs picked up and used in the TV series Nashville and another used in the TV show Bones so putting the songs together on an EP felt like a good move.

5. Talking of Kim Richey, you were just on tour together! How was the tour for you and do you have any highlights?

The tour with Kim was great! Really nice venues up and down the UK and my own set seemed to go over well with Kim's fans. The highlight for me was the show we played in Belfast. It was the last gig of the tour, playing to the home crowd. For the last song we came away from the microphones and just sang to the room. It was a lovely way to end the tour.

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Photo credit: Anthony Scarlati

6. As the EP suggests you're no stranger to Nashville. What was the decision that prompted you to divide your time between Northern Ireland and Nashville?

In 2010 I was given a chance to go to Nashville through the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. I played a few gigs and was approached by my now publisher and I've been going back and forth regularly for writing, recording and gigs ever since. I'll always be a home bird at heart, but Nashville is the hub for all things songwriting, so it's important that I get out there as often as I can.

7. For any songwriter Nashville is sort of mythicized. Does it live up to its hype and how has your experience of Nashville been?

Nashville is a very easy city to spend time in especially if you're a songwriter! The city is full of musicians, studios, engineers and producers so it's got a creative energy that's great to soak up. My own experiences out there have been really positive and the city has definitely lived up to the expectations I had built up in my own head. I highly recommend it, It has some pretty good whiskey too.

8. When playing live how do you put together your set list?

I try to avoid being too rigid with the sets. When I go out to gig I normally have a batch of songs old and new that I pull from. The songs change night to night depending on the venue, crowd, sound system, what I had for breakfast, the weather... unless its being recorded I usually just wing it.

9. You've written songs for film and tv shows. Can you explain this process, how you're approached and what it's like to hear your songs in films and on shows?

Sometimes existing songs are pitched for Film and TV spots and other times I'll be asked to write specifically to a brief. The deadlines are usually pretty tight and you have to turn in a 'radio ready' recording pretty quick so it's a different way to approach writing for me; I like the process because it kinda bleeds into the studio world. The briefs are usually quite descriptive and specific to what the film or TV music supervisor is looking for which really helps. It never gets any less crazy hearing your own music on the TV... it's a great feeling.

10. A band backs a lot of your songs on your EPs and they have great musical arrangements. How do you create the arrangements for these full band versions of your songs?

Usually when I'm writing I kinda have an idea of where I think the track will go, so its great getting into a room with great players and hashing out the parts. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

11. Your songs lyrically are very honest and raw. Is this a conscious thing when song writing and do you ever fear that you're being too open?

I've never been the most open of people, so songwriting has always been a good way of getting certain things out for me. It's always petrifying giving people an insight into your thoughts... more so live, in front of a few hundred, but I love what I do and love that everyone takes something different from each song.

Gareth Dunlop and Kim Richey - Keep Coming Back (taken from The Nashville Sessions)

Gareth Dunlop

The Nashville Sessions is out now.