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Foy Vance: The Soul of a Man

20/03/2013 13:19 GMT | Updated 20/05/2013 10:12 BST

Foy Vance stands out back in the yard of the Islington Assembly Halls and rolls a cigarette. It's two hours before showtime and he's in a ruminative mood. 'When I was a kid, singing was second nature to me,' he says, as we clink bottle necks.

With the bevelled face of a man who has long been walking a singular path, his eyes are shot through with the wonderment of a seer. 'When I was young, music was always a private joy, but we all made music together as a family.'

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Vance's dad was a preacher, whose church prohibited musical instruments, so when parishioners visited their house he'd never play his guitar. 'He'd just sing old hymns which had weight and depth, and which were lyrically and melodically interesting.'

Foy Vance makes for an enigma in the music world, for he seems not to be playing by any rules other than his own. Content to tour and play to his own timetable, his unique voice can range from a lament to a beautiful howl, soaked in a melancholia and spirituality begotten of a Northern Irish upbringing.

Born in Bangor, County Down, Vance, 38, conveys a restlessness as he speaks, his cap pulled low over one eye. 'The Irish are ancestrally spiritual and I was always aware of that. We were proud to be Northern Irish, my family and I, and there was a sense of connecting to a thousand years of song, dance and art.'

After seven years of living in London, Vance beat a spiritual retreat for Aberfeldy in Scotland. 'I needed that landscape and silence because I felt the world had become one big city, connected by flight paths and motorways. And I had an epiphany in Aberfeldy.' Which was? 'I needed silence. And the ability to piss outside,' he laughs.

There's a gravitas to the man, but as if sensing the darkening of his own mood, he has broken it with a flash of Irish humour.

When asked if being born a Protestant Northern Irishman has coloured his world view, he's candid. 'I lived in East Belfast when I was young, and come marching season on the 12 July, it was mayhem. People would be at each other's throats.'

So he escaped the powder keg atmosphere through his art. His father taught him how to play guitar and to finger pick. 'He was also a fine singer. By the time I was born, everyone in my family was well-versed in singing and performing. That was the big thing in our house.'

Vance, it would seem, has been travelling a one-way road from the beginning. 'Music I loved back then was what my brother listened to, like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson or The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned. My other brother was an avid record collector, picking up everything from Michael Jackson to Meatloaf and everything in between. Subconsciously, I thought these artists were somehow born stars. For me they weren't ordinary people.'

But via his father the penny dropped. 'When I first got into Van Morrison at 14, I mentioned him to my dad, and he said he knew him! They'd bought a car together years before. But even then it didn't click that a performer like Van was one of us.'

Vance speaks of a disconnect between the reality of his life then and the truth that only he could be the author of his own fate. 'I never made a connection between my life and any local scene I could get involved in. When I left school I sold TVs, then worked in the store room in a chemist and in a post office for a day. I was hired at 9 and fired at 5. I worked these jobs and that was what I thought I was.'

But this man could play music, learning early to drop-tune his guitar to make it hum. Today one only has to listen to songs like Gabriel and the Vagabond, Indiscriminate Act Of Kindness (which he wrote while suffering from a fever), Hold Me In Your Arms and Guiding Light to realise his ability as a songwriter of emotional depth is nothing short of breathtaking. His is a blend of Celtic blues, soul, gospel and folk which belongs uniquely to him.

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But does writing come hard? 'Writing songs is easy. It's the writing of a song that will stand the test of time that's difficult.'

Vance's star is rising out of a slough of despond, his reputation preceding him in the US where he has built a solid following. 'It's hard work, but you do need to serve an apprenticeship. I joined my first covers band when I was 17. Then I joined a soul band comprising old school session heads, and I was gigging within two weeks of joining them. I was in that band for two years. Then I realised I could make money from doing this,' he laughs. 'As soon as I realised that, I dropped everything.

'Much later, after I got married, we moved to Lanzarote to clear my head. And that's when it all took off. I knew what I had to do, and that was to be articulate in my writing. Working now with David Holmes on writing and recording has allowed me to realise that it's not just the writing of songs that is important, but the articulation of their meaning by ensuring my sound is unique.

'It took me a long time to realise that what Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were doing was creating something unique. Which is the antithesis of what the music industry is about today. I only want to do this if I can do it the way I want. If my audience gets what I'm doing, I'm overjoyed, but there's no point in having a hit record, if, in my mind, it's a shit record. There's no joy to be found there.'

And with a nine-year-old daughter to keep him in check and rooted to the real world, Vance, cigarette welded to his lip, appears a man of purpose. 'I've returned to what I instinctively knew as a three-year-old, and that is to sing with complete abandonment.

'When I was a young man, I just wasn't quick enough on the uptake with regards to my life. I wasn't paying attention to things. And I couldn't articulate it back then, but I can now: which is that singing is transcendental. The sense of unity and community I felt singing with my family kept me going. And now, well...now I know that music is my life.'

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Photographs courtesy of www.foyvance.com

Listen to Indiscriminate Act Of Kindness here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=uL8A-b9XZaI

For more införmation on Foy visit: www.foyvance.com