Ryan McMullan: 'I'm the first person without an album to sell out The Ulster Hall – but it was never intentional'
Just back from supporting Snow Patrol on a run of US dates, Portaferry singer-songwriter Ryan McMullan plays The Irish News's Workplace and Employment Awards next week en route to a summer packed with festival dates including Glastonbury and his biggest Belfast headline show at Custom House Square. He spoke to David Roy about his music and why he's desperate to finally get his debut album out there
HAVING supported his friends Snow Patrol in Belfast and Dublin at the end of last year, Ryan McMullan was really looking forward to joining Gary Lightbody and co again on a five-week US tour this April, his first ever proper run of US concerts.
What could possibly go wrong?
"I kind of got sick after the first week and then never really recovered," explains McMullan (29), who says he managed to soldier on without missing any shows despite being basically bedridden.
"I just stopped drinking and slept for most of the day, then got up to do the shows. Afterwards, I'd come straight off and go and throw up in the toilet, then pack up and try to get an early night.
"The Snow Patrol guys kept coming in to me every day asking me 'are you getting any better?', which was awful. I like to have the craic, so I hated being the guy everyone was worrying about – that's the opposite of the craic."
Impressively, it seems the Portaferry singer-songwriter still managed to enjoy the experience of touring enormous US venues with Northern Ireland's biggest band even in spite of his ailments.
"Honestly, I know it kind of sounds hard and horrible there, but it was genuinely amazing," enthuses McMullan, who also joined the band onstage at their huge Ward Park 3 concert last month.
"America is such a big country but the audiences are brilliant, especially Snow Patrol's audiences, which they've accumulated over 20 years. They're a really listening and approachable audience, so that was good for me – because they'd at least give me a chance.
"They'd listen and decide whether they liked me or not, as opposed to other crowds who'd just talk over the support act."
And it seems the Americans were particularly fond of McMullan's latest single In The Back of My Mind, a defiant number about never losing sight of the light at the end of the tunnel whenever romantic relationships go sour.
"It's one of those songs I think everyone can kind of relate to," he explains. "Everybody's had relationships that were never really supposed to work out. I guess the purpose of the song is always to remember that it's all going to be fine, so I think it was quite easy for people to get into – and it's also got a kind of hooky part that everybody sings. I absolutely leaned on that to try and get the crowds warmed up: 'are youse all ready for Snow Patrol? Here's one you can sing along to'."
The singer and guitarist is well used to winning over big crowds who aren't actually there to see him: McMullan supported Ed Sheeran for 31 dates at the height of 'Ed-mania' back in 2017 and has also opened for the likes of The Coronas and Foy Vance.
Having warmed up the latter's crowd at Custom House Square in 2017 (he also appeared as a special guest during Vance's Ward Park 3 set this year), this summer will see McMullan taking the headline slot at the major Belfast outdoor festival for his largest top-billed 'hometown' show to date – a show for which a debut appearance at Glastonbury later this month will serve as a decent practice match.
"I was invited to go to Glastonbury two years ago," he tells me.
"When I was there, I remember thinking 'wow, it will really be something to get to play here'. I also opened for Foy at Custom House Square that year, and it just so happens that this year I'm finally getting to play both Glastonbury and headline Custom House Square, without having an album out. It's all pretty surreal."
However, the singer-songwriter has definitely paid his dues when it comes to the local circuit, ticking off sell-outs at The Black Box, The Limelight, Mandela Hall and, most recently, The Ulster Hall, over the past couple of years in-between releasing a series of radio-friendly singles including the aforementioned In The Back of My Mind, Bowie on The Radio, You Don't Dance and the Foy Vance co-write Oh Susannah.
Indeed, McMullan tells me he's currently busting to finally get his debut album out there for people to hear.
"I think I was the first person ever to sell out The Ulster Hall without an album – I'm pretty chuffed with that one, but it was never intentional," he stresses.
"I pretty much have an album ready to go, it's just taking a while to find the right partners and stuff. So in the meantime, I'm actually working on my next album to try and get a wee bit ahead of myself."
McMullan's ever-busy live schedule has also slowed the album-making process, but it's all been great road-testing for his material in front of crowds of all shapes and sizes.
"It's kind of funny looking back over the last two or three years," he says of the wide variety of headliners, opening slots and one-off showcases which have filled his live diary.
"I remember doing a gig in New York to 60 people and then the next day flying to Italy to do half an hour for 16,000 people. I also did a show in Sydney to 200 people and then the next day did a show to 80,000 people.
"So I've been very lucky to have played such diverse shapes and sizes of gigs. Hopefully, at this point I can hold my own on any stage – and, most importantly it's all fun, whether I'm playing to 10 people or 80,000 people."
McMullan adds: "I just love to play music and sing songs and, if I'm ever struggling to enjoy myself, I always take a minute to reflect on that.
"After all, if I can't enjoy what I'm doing, how can I expect anyone else to enjoy it?"
:: Ryan McMullan, Saturday August 17, Custom House Square, Belfast. Tickets via Ticketmaster.ie