SINGER/SONGWRITER CIARAN LAVERY comes from the tiny village of Aghagallon, on the edge of Lough Neagh in Co. Armagh, and by tiny I mean the last census recorded a population of 824 people.
“There’s a sign saying ‘Welcome to Aghagallon’ and then 30 seconds later it says ‘Thanks for visiting’, the 28-year-old jokes.
Born in nearby Lurgen, he went to school there before moving to Belfast to attend university, but has since moved back and bought a house with his girlfriend.
Lavery started playing and singing at the age of 15 and was the frontman for the “Country folky band” Captain Kennedy for over seven years, but with seven members, there were problems of scale.
“It was a disaster,” he says laughing. “Every gig involved about three car loads [of gear] and everyone fell out all the time.” Captain Kennedy toured Ireland but getting across the water was near impossible with big equipment and tiny fees split seven ways.
One gig in Scotland, he recalls as “the worst ever”. After a heavy night drinking, they turned up at the venue to be told they had to do their own sound and the gig was a shambles.
Things are less chaotic now that Lavery is out on his own.
In 2013, he brought out his first album Not Nearly Dark, recorded in Belfast over two weekends and the beautifully crafted EP Kosher followed, made in just three days over Christmas in the freezing cold garage of his producer.
“People say it sounds like it was done in a studio but it was me sitting there with four jumpers on,” says Lavery. Making the album and the EP independently has been a learning curve.
“I thought it would be easy being the only one making the decisions,” he says speaking about the Not Nearly Dark, but in the studio he found himself looking at the session musicians for direction, only to find them looking back at him.
He didn’t make the same mistakes when it came to the EP. He went in with a more efficient, less “nicey nice” attitude, was more “exact and precise” about what he wanted and it shows.
There’s the Americana feel to his music and Lavery says that’s simply because most of the songwriters he listened to growing up were American.
“When I was younger I used to write about towns in America that I didn't know. I remember opening an atlas and looking for place names [to write songs about], because American places always sounded better.”
He remembers being given a gift of a Bob Dylan album age 15 and “that was me sold”. There was lots of Tom Waits, but he loves hip hop too.
There have been some less credible musical moments, the odd Savage Garden single bought in school and he was “a massive Green Day fan” which started a pseudo-punk phase complete with bad denim choices and a skateboard he never used.
Listening to Lavery you’d believe he was born an alt-folk troubadour.
In person he is softly spoken, cheerful, self-effacing and honest. Maybe the melting Jamie Dornan of Northern accents helps you believe what he is saying, but Lavery says most people tell him he doesn't sound the way he talks.
Regardless, his voice reels you in effortlessly, and hooks you with songs full of love, loss and loneliness.
The leaving home blues of Left For America has a Ryan Adams lilt, achy lyrics and plenty of heartache:
“Cover me up with a thousand whispers and shuffle me into the night/Whistle and hum to the traffic rum, calling us closer to the edge of the light/Tell me tales that win my faith and be my champion of dreams/I don’t want to forget the day I left for America and things came apart at the seams.”
How does he feel about putting such personal material out there? “It’s very therapeutic. If it’s true and something you know, it just comes out,” he explains.
“Once I’ve let someone in to hear them, they aren't my songs any more.” He is fine too with open-ended interpretations of his lyrics. “People come up to you and say the strangest things like ‘this song meant a lot to me’, or they tell me what they think the song is about and it’s maybe not, but their version is usually better than mine so I usually agree with them,” he says grinning.
In terms of performing live he says: “I don’t know if I'm getting better, because every time I'm just as nervous. I could talk to the hills for hours and the solo shows give me the chance to do that”, whereas with a live band behind him things can be “more experimental”.
Lavery is hopeful that his music will reach further afield in 2015. Already tipped by Hot Press, Radio Ulster and BBC Ulster, his music is gaining traction.
The plan for the year ahead is live shows in the States in February, Britain in March, and the release of “a mash up” collaboration with Derry electro musician Ryan Vail out soon.
Lavery is also “sitting on songs” and in the planning stages of another solo release, earmarked for summer 2015. He might be from a tiny town, but we expect big things.