irishnews– COUNTRY singer Derek Ryan is hoping to bring festive cheer to his many fans with the release of his first Christmas album.
“I hope it will provide the perfect antidote to the sometimes frenetic pace and stress of the festive season. And I hope this collection will remind everyone of why we all love Christmas,” says the Carlow-born singer.
In what has been a challenging and anxious year, he also hopes the 10-track collection The Road to Christmas will provide pleasant escapism from Covid-19 which has caused turmoil in people’s lives and seen the cancellation of live music events.
It’s been a year of both frustration and opportunities for Ryan, whose 11th album was mainly recorded remotely.
Produced by Kent-based Mark Kingswood, it also involved musicians based in Nashville, Quebec and Macedonia, while Ryan sang from the studio in his Fermanagh home.
“It really was a worldwide production. It was one of the most exciting and fulfilling recording experiences I have had despite not being able to be in the studio with the musicians due to social distancing practices,” says the 37-year-old.
The Road to Christmas includes a mixture of contemporary and classic versions of Christmas hits such as Last Christmas, Blue Christmas and Winter Wonderland, as well as his own self-penned title track and a few tracks thrown in for his masses of country fans.
“Two Step ‘Round The Christmas Tree will get folk jiving and I’ve included Belleau Wood, a beautiful song that was on Garth Brooks’s seventh album,” he tells me.
Despite the wealth of Christmas songs to choose from, Ryan found the song selection came quite easily.
“Funnily, Last Christmas was the first on the list. It was the first Christmas song I remember. When I was about three or four my dad came home with a double Now Christmas cassette and we just played Wham’s Last Christmas over and over,” he reminisces.
Another song with personal memories is O Holy Night, which he has been performing with his father Pat and brother Adrian in his home church of St Lazerian’s Church, Drumphea, Co Carlow, every Christmas Eve since he was 11 years old.
“That’s my favourite Christmas hymn. Daddy’s been singing on Christmas Eve for about 60 years or more. Some years there are local school choirs joining us, other times there are just the three of us. Sadly, I doubt it will happen this year due to Covid restrictions,” says Ryan, who hopes to travel back to Carlow this Christmas to be with his family.
December is usually the busiest time of the year for performers like Ryan, but just like the majority of 2020, this Christmas is going to be very different.
“We usually do about 25 gigs in December and it’s work, work, work, with just Christmas Day off. This year is just going to be about spending time with loved ones.”
After nine exhausting years on the road gigging, Ryan welcomed the break that the spring lockdown enforced, though he did confess he put on some “pandemic pounds”.
“I used to dine out a lot, so I really got into cooking instead. Then when the gigs for the Farmer’s Bash drive-in gigs in July were announced I knew I needed to lose a few pounds and started working out.
“I also bought a bike and got hooked on cycling. I love it and I’m definitely going to keep it up,” he adds.
Ryan also used his time to up-skill and invest in his home music studio. “Instead of learning a new hobby that I may never use I delved more into the technology side of things, learning video editing and all that kind of things.
“It was also great to have so much time to work at the Christmas album, to nit-pick and perfect the arrangements,” he explains.
As well as being an established recording artist, with 11 successful albums behind him, Ryan has won acclaim for his songwriting, having written for many artists including Daniel O’Donnell and Jimmy Buckley.
Over the past few months he has been setting aside one day a week to collaborate with writers and musicians via Skype and Zoom.
“I do prefer to write songs in person with people because of the buzz you get. It’s tiring and it takes a bit longer online, but it’s all we’ve got at the minute,” he admits.
One artist with which he has developed a particularly good rapport with is Queen of Country Philomena Begley.
In May they teamed up together to write and record the duet It Won’t Rain Forever, with proceeds going to the charities Age NI and Alone. And Derek has also written Philomena’s most recent single, Half A Chance.
“She really is a mother figure, who looks out for us younger musicians. It’s obvious when you work with her why she has been at the top of her game for so long. Of course her voice is magical, but what I admire about her is her energy and get-up-and-go attitude to everything. She’s just fantastic to be around,” enthuses Ryan, whose highlight of 2020 was singing with Philomena at the Farmer’s Bash event in Ballymena.
“The response when we sang the duet was surreal. Everyone was in their cars and they were beeping their horns and flashing their lights. We were singing the words ‘it won’t rain forever’ when we didn’t know where this pandemic was going to go. It was so emotional and was one of those times I will never forget.”
Ryan has also recently collaborated with folk duo Foster and Allen, writing the song The Good Old Days.
“They loved it and said they wanted me to be on it as well. So I did a vocal and we did a video recently. It’s been a tough year, but it’s not all been doom and gloom. To work with legends like them and Philomena has been a privilege.”
Humble and kind-hearted, Ryan’s other highlight of the year involves his impromptu decision to spend a day phoning and singing down the line to his older fans during lockdown.
“Back in July I went through our database and got the phone numbers of the older generation that follow us and give them random calls. It was the best and most satisfying thing I did throughout all lockdown,” recalls Ryan who has arranged to do a Zoom concert for a local care home this Christmas.
Trying to keep positive, he has gigs booked for May 2021.
“Music is still alive. Music survives everything and helps lift the spirit. Live music will come back, but for now we want everyone to be safe and I’m thankful for everyone for their support, for streaming and for connecting on social media,” says Ryan who had a series of Facebook Live duet sessions with the likes of Sharon Shannon and Lisa McHugh.
He is perhaps best known for his hit Hold On To Your Hat – a song he “never tires” of performing.
And does he follow his own advice on a windy day?
“Funny enough I was on holidays in Cancun in 2018 on a speedboat when one of my favourite caps flew off,” laughs Ryan, who has already started working on his next album, which includes his latest single Wherever You Are Going.