Home boy Ultan Conlon makes his musical mark

ULTAN CONLON has no idea how it happened. “A friend mentioned my music was on Spotify, so I checked. Sure enough, there it was,” he says with a phlegmatic shrug. “Seeing my songs up there was certainly news to me. I don’t actually know how the process works. It’s a mystery.”

Home boy Ultan Conlon makes his musical mark

The Galway artist is proud to call himself a luddite. He tends to listen to music on the antediluvian medium of CD and was only dimly aware of the world’s most popular streaming service, when it was pointed out that several of his records were on it.

“I did get a royalty cheque,” he smiles. “It was hilarious. There were so many zeroes after the dot. You literally could not buy anything with it. I won’t be getting rich quick, that’s for sure.”

A laidback chap, Conlon doesn’t seem much like anybody’s idea of a troubled artist. However, as a songwriter, he channels an apparently bottomless well of angst. Just released, his second album, Songs Of Love So Cruel, is a long dark night of the soul soundtracked by crooned vocals and dexterous guitar. “I think maybe I’m a glass half empty kind of person. On the other hand, I would like to believe that my songs have a positive side. They can start out sounding as if I’m on a bit of a downer. I try to make sure I end on a note of hope. It’s important that it isn’t all doom and gloom. You have to have some optimism.”

Conlon obviously has a sense of humour to go with the miserable streak. Several years ago, he and friend John Conneely sang as a duo called Ultan John. In hindsight, Conlon regrets the moniker. Then, it wasn’t his choice in the first place.

“It started literally as a joke,” he remembers. “We were trying to think of a name and I blurted out ‘Ultan John’ and everyone present said ‘Great , fantastic!’. All I could think was, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’. After that we were sort of stuck with it. To be honest, it didn’t have anything to do with our music. We specialised in vocal harmonies.”

The duo eventually petered out — but not before notching up at least one major achievement. In 2006 they toured the country with iconic British singer John Martyn, who was so taken with one of Conlon’s compositions he committed it to tape. Conlon has to pinch himself whenever he thinks about the day he recorded with Martyn.

“I am a huge John Martyn fan. Going into the studio, I thought he was just going to play guitar on the song. To have him sing it — well, it was astonishing. I was only 24 at the time. What an amazing experience.”

Conlon still lives in his home town of Loughrea, Co Galway, and says he can’t imagine leaving his home county. However, he feels it may place him at a disadvantage in terms of building an audience in other parts of the country.

“It’s fine as you can get to everywhere in Ireland reasonably easily. Dublin is only two hours down the road. What I’m really keen to do more of is gig abroad. Ireland is very small and you can only go back to the same place once a year. You have to look further afield. I’ve done some stuff on the continent, which has gone well. I’d like to tour America.”

Conlon wrote Songs Of Love on and off over the past three years. Channelling his passion for country music and his facility for sweet melodies, it sees him making impressive advances as a songwriter. He cites Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson as influences, alongside contemporary crooners such as Richard Hawley.

“There was a lot of work involved. Sometimes it gets to the stage where, really, you can’t see the wood from the tree. You need to step away for a while, come back with a fresh perspective. That’s the way I work anyway. ” There were also technical hitches.

“The producer I’m working with [Richard Hawley engineer Colin Elliot] is a great guy. Unfortunately that means he is in high demand. So I had to wait for his schedule to clear. There are a few guys I work with and they had things coming up as well. Making an album can be quite an involved process, just in terms of logistics.”

In 2011 he put the album on hold to write the soundtrack for Galway-shot independent movie Songs For Amy. The romantic comedy was a hit on the festival circuit and has helped enhance Conlon’s reputation.

“I had an album out in 2009 called Bless Your Heart. The people making the movie heard it and asked if I wanted to come on board. I was on the set as a consultant, as one of the characters is a musician. It was a nice job and a strange experience. You get an incredible insight into the process of making a film. To my surprise, it’s quite boring. From what I could see, there’s lots of standing around.

“We’re actually going to American with it shortly. It’s going to be shown at the Hollywood Film Festival. I see it as a huge opportunity. You never know who you might meet.”

* Songs Of Love So Cruel is out now

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