Singer songwriter Ryan McMullan on his journey towards his debut album and the healing power of hurling
Jenny Lee chats movies, music and hurling with Portaferry singer-songwriter Ryan McMullan, who already has a documentary film to his name and is edging ever-closer to releasing his debut album
"DREAMS are great and all, but it was never my intention to be a songwriter [or] to make an album. My future was 'civil engineer by day, pub singer by night'. But along the way, something changed."
These are the opening remarks from Ryan McMullan: Debut, a beguiling documentary portrait of the Portaferry-born singer as he prepares to release his debut album.
Despite having played sell-out gigs throughout Europe and having performed on some of the world's biggest stages - while supporting the likes of Ed Sheeran, The Coronas and Snow Patrol - what fans and critics alike have been waiting for is an album.
Never one to 'do things by the book', McMullan has turned down countless approaches by record companies, instead choosing to retain artistic control over his work.
"Labels are always around, but they are different to my agenda. Once you sign on the dotted line there is no room for you to say 'Yes' or 'No', and you have to do what they say," says the 31-year-old, explaining his independent approach.
"I didn't see the need. I had everything I wanted around me. I'll maybe be there one day but for now I'm very happy and content with everything as it is."
McMullan is, however, grateful for the guidance of manager/drummer Paul 'Hammy' Hamilton and musician and mentor Foy Vance.
He first met Bangor-born Vance backstage following his gig in Washington DC, where McMullan was studying and "flipping burgers".
Acknowledging he had a good voice, Vance challenged him that night to try his hand at songwriting. He did just that, and after finishing his degree McMullan joined Vance on a tour of the US, playing 20 concerts in 16 states over 32 days.
"Sometimes I think I should have pursued a career in music sooner, but I also believe that everything happens for a reason," he says.
"I don't feel that doing my engineering degree was a failure because at the end of the day I have a masters in civil engineering. And what I took away most from it was discipline."
Not shy of hard work, McMullan is quick to credit his parents for his work ethic – and musical talent.
"My mum is a terrific singer and my dad sings in our local pub, but work wise my dad is a painter and my mum is a classroom assistant. It was always the case that music was our thing but we weren't really looking to make money out of it. Now things have changed," he says.
"But growing up it was always instilled in us that no matter what you do, give it everything and if you're going to start something then at least finish it."
And this includes that elusive debut album, as well as the just-released documentary film.
Four years in the making, documentary Ryan McMullan: Debut centres around a four-day recording session on Cruit Island, Co Donegal at the end of 2019, where Ryan and his team assess the songs competing for a place on the album.
After a limited cinema release, it will be broadcast on the BBC this autumn, and available on iPlayer.
The film is directed by award-winning Belfast filmmaker Brendan J. Byrne, whose previous work includes Bobby Sands: 66 Days, Gaza and No Stone Unturned.
"When I first heard one of Ryan's songs I loved it and knew he was going to be Northern Ireland's next major singer-songwriter. Mainly, this film is a study of talent and dedication," says Byrne.
"Ryan is already a success, but his team, and people like me, think he should be bigger. He deep down probably thinks that too but he isn't having sleepless nights about it and in terms of self-preservation that's an important attitude to have."
McMullan demonstrated this outlook when I asked him about his hopes for the future.
"What I am doing now is living the dream. If the shows get bigger and the audience gets bigger then great, but my ambition is just to keep living the dream for as long as I possibly can."
Having endured a period of sickness and burnout during his April 2019 US tour with Snow Patrol, McMullan also admits he has "grown up" in terms of his attitude to being a musician.
"For too long I was going to gigs and having a glass of wine and all that kind of stuff, but what I learnt is that I don't ever want to have to cancel shows because I had a night out the night before. I just want to put on the best show I possibly can," he says.
This month saw what will be McMullan's last release of 2021. Debut Mix Tape is a six-track EP featuring older songs from his growing catalogue, and which feature in the documentary's soundtrack.
His favourite? "Home Visits. It was written when I was away a lot and it's a song very much reminiscing about back home in Portaferry."
Whilst on the cusp of releasing his debut album in early 2020, of course the Covid pandemic changed everything.
"I'm holding the album back until 2022 when I can travel to Australia, America and Europe as I want to celebrate the album with the fans," says an optimistic McMullan.
"Covid had so many negatives for everyone, and for musicians we were the first to close and the last to open. But it also had its benefits - it gave me time to take a breath and sit still and put a perspective on the kind of album I wanted to put out," he says.
Whilst McMullan, who now lives in Belfast, enjoyed daily walks up Cavehill and "tried a spot at cooking", he also grappled with periods of vulnerability and depression, which are reflected in some of his new song-writing.
"My new songs reflect the truth of my Covid situation, but with the bad came the good and certainly I feel I'm a better person and better musician today."
Covid also gave McMullan the opportunity to return to his GAA roots and he goes as far as saying that "hurling was my saviour during Covid".
"It was at that point when everything locked down again and I was depressed that a few of my friends encouraged me to go to a training session in east Belfast," says McMullan, who even faced a competitive match against his home team, Portaferry, this summer.
"I didn't realise how much I missed it. It was an absolute saviour for me and I'm just so thankful for it."
Having already endured a broken collar bone during a game, the singer, who is also an accomplished guitarist and keyboardist, isn't ready to hang up his boots just yet.
Excited about gigs at Belsonic next weekend with Holly Humberstone and Dermot Kennedy, he's also looking forward to "getting back to training" after.
Does he not worry about those precious fingers?
"I think the team will do, but I'm pretty confident that I will be OK. It's definitely competitive; but it is junior level."
The rest of this year will be a busy one for McMullan, including a hotly anticipated turn in Dublin's Olympia on October 29 and two gigs at Belfast's Waterfront in November.
Happily engaged, he admits all wedding plans are on hold, however, until the album is finally released.
"It's time to get back to work first," he laughs.