Tony Wright on launching memoir and solo show Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse) at the MAC
Co Derry singer-songwriter Tony Wright launches his new musical memoir and one-man theatre show Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse) at the MAC in Belfast this month. David Roy spoke to Wright about this very personal account of his colourful musical travails and travels
TONY Wright, or VerseChorusVerse as he's often known, is a busy man at the moment. Having recently put the finishing touches to his compelling new musical memoir Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse), the Co Derry singer/songwriter is currently in the process of turning part of his book into a one-man show.
Debuting at the MAC in Belfast on October 17 before going on tour throughout the north, the songs and stories-based show will focus on the Portstewart muso's month-long solo odyssey through the USA in 2016 – a soul-searching, mettle-testing, career redefining and occasionally joyous tale which forms the bulk of the book, which will be launched at the event.
This page-turning 'have guitar will travel' adventure finds Tony navigating a rollercoaster ride of New York City dives, soul-crushing Nashville 'industry events' and triumphant standing ovations in California.
Conveniently, the ex-guitarist and founding member of And So I Watch You From Afar (ASIWFA) – who, as readers will learn, parted company with the popular post-rockers in 2011 shortly after being hospitalised in a horrific assault while on tour in Austria – is the MAC's current artist in residence.
"It's great because I can nip downstairs to the theatre and rehearse the show," enthuses Tony.
The live version of Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse) is a new departure for the Portstewart-born musician, who has spent over half his life performing in bands: his first, PepperBook, were courted by major label BMG, while ASIWYFA became quickly Ireland's premier uber-credible post-rock exports during his seven-year tenure with the group.
An embryonic version of the Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse) show staged at The Strand Arts Centre back in March got such a positive reaction that Tony immediately resolved to expand it into something more ambitious.
"I was a bit bored of the format of doing just 'a gig' and I had already written the book by then," he explains.
"I always chat a bit between songs anyway because I've always liked that kind of 'storytelling' vibe, so I thought I'd try out some of the material in the book.
"To be honest, I was s****ing myself beforehand, but after a couple of songs and readings I could tell the audience was getting into it and I was really enjoying playing the different characters while doing the dialogue.
"By the end, people were properly silent and on the edge of their seats in the quiet parts and they were roaring with laughter at the funny bits.
"Afterwards, a few different people told me they thought it was a ready-made show."
The first part of the memoir offers a highly personal account of Tony's evolution as both a musician and a person, involving several hospitalisations – including a couple of near-death experiences, one of which occurred in the middle of a gig – the struggle to re-establish himself in the wake of a literally painful split from ASIWYFA and his battle with depression.
The book is dedicated to his late mother and Scott Hutchison of Scots indie rockers Frightened Rabbit, with whom ASIWYFA once toured: the frontman died by suicide earlier this year.
However, the ever self-deprecating singer/songwriter is never shy about highlighting the more absurd aspects of his travails, mining plenty of humour from the abundance of music biz bulls**t and bizarre characters he encounters.
"It was a way for me to clear out a lot of dead wood from my head," Tony tells me.
"But I didn't want it to be a mopey, woe-is-me kind of thing. I tried to find the humour in things, for the most part.
He adds: "As soon as you have something in black and white in front of you, you can deal with it."
Fittingly, the seeds for the entire endeavour were actually sown at the MAC back in 2015, when Mobo-nominated Derry musician David Lyttle was artist in residence.
The jazz man had just collaborated with Tony on the pair's eclectic Blues Album Chart-topping LP Say & Do: as they played a show in one of the MAC's theatre spaces, Lyttle praised his musical partner's skills to the audience, adding "he leads a pretty weird life".
Wright was immediately struck by this seemingly innocuous remark.
"I'd never thought about that before," he explains. "I've been a quasi-professional musician since the age of 14. When the BMG stuff fell apart, I was only 16 or 17 – and it was tough. Then my mum [who taught Tony how to play guitar] died and everyone in PepperBook went off to university.
"I carried on to form Zombie Safari Park and then And So I Watch You. I was 21 by that stage and there was a sense of 'it's all I know how to do' – people spend that long training to be a doctor!
"But by then I figured I was pretty good at it, so why not keep going? When it came to the solo thing, it was almost like I was trying to prove a point – except this time I was carrying everything myself, both literally and metaphorically."
At first, the transition from well known band to brand new solo artist proved jarring, as Tony admits.
"I went from opening up for Dave Grohl [when ASIWYFA supported Grohl's supergroup Them Crooked Vultures] to playing to an audience of one on the day my debut album was released," he says.
"It was a bit like, 'what's happened here?!' And, as soon as I go solo, the biggest pop star in the world is suddenly another weird looking little red headed guy!"
Happily, Tony will never be compared to Ed Sheeran in a musical sense and has since gained plenty of traction on his own terms: sales of his 2018 album, Outro, have helped fund the Chapter & Verse (Chorus Verse) project and he has also continued to stretch his wings via collaboration with last year's enjoyably crazed Fawks Sake album, the bruised fruit of his blues-battering team-up with Dean Stevens, The Tragedy of Doctor Hannigan.
As the singer/songwriter explains, a defining moment in the VerseChorusVerse story occurred during the 2016 US trip, when Tony bagged a support slot with cult favourite 'gypsy punks' Gogol Bordello at a pair of dates in California.
"I felt like that was me proving to myself after And So I Watch You From Afar that I could still entertain a huge crowd that doesn't know me with just my voice and an acoustic guitar," he tells me of winning over 2,000 diehard Gogol fans in Berkeley, leaving them screaming for more.
The following night, in Napa, he received a standing ovation.
"And So I Watch You had supported Gogol in Dublin and we didn't go down that great," Tony reveals.
"I remember thinking that was quite interesting. I went out and talked to the audience and built a rapport. That felt like a real coming of age – it gave me a real sense of redemption after five years of hard work."