He may wield an acoustic guitar and write achingly beautiful universal truths, but Ciaran Lavery couldn’t be further from the sensitive singer-songwriter archetype.
The exciting talent from the tiny village of Aghagallon in County Antrim has his own singular sound, one that assimilates myriad influences from Americana to hip-hop, articulated in a grainy delivery with a deep soul impulse over processed beats and sumptuous strings.
It’s all there on his second album, LET BAD IN , the eclectic, absorbing follow-up to 2013’s Not Nearly Dark and Lavery’s first on that barometer of cool, Believe Recordings, the alma mater of Asian Dub Foundation, Public Service Broadcasting and James Vincent McMorrow.
“Nobody wants to be pigeonholed,” says Lavery. “It’s therapeutic to move into some weird, in-between genres. I’d rather not be pinned down. I always use Tom Waits as an example. The same with Beck. Nobody says, ‘Oh, Beck moves around too much. I don’t get it’. It’s a different sound all the time. He goes from one extreme to the other and it works.”
The genesis of Lavery’s diversity – his refusal to recognise sonic boundaries – can be found in Aghagallon, a place so small “you could literally drive through it in thirty seconds”, where his uncles were part of a hard-rocking outfit that went by the name of Ezy Meat.
“You can look them up because there’s actually some of their stuff on YouTube. They were great. It was all leathers and that sort of carry-on.”
His brother-in-law, meanwhile, provided an altogether more urbane awakening, introducing Lavery to the likes of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – after which, in a move befitting his maverick character, he went off and joined a three-piece, instrumental punk rock garage band!
Then came Captain Kennedy, a seven-piece indie-folk collective who would, by Lavery’s admission, “play anywhere” – including to an audience of US Christians in Belfast at a gathering that was “two steps away from people being exorcised and casting out their demons”.
Captain Kennedy fizzled out after six years together, with Lavery deciding to embark on a solo career. After an aborted attempt at relocating to Belfast, he returned to Aghagallon, and it was here that his authentic voice began to emerge.
“Belfast scared the life out of me! It was too fast. I gave it a good lash, but I just thought, ‘I can’t live healthily here and get things done’. So I decided the best thing to do was move back home and start from scratch.”
“It took me into the guts of my twenties for me to realise who I was, to be comfortable singing about the things I actually knew. I was always trying to mask it before.”
In its perceptive and passionate mapping of the human heart, Not Nearly Dark got Lavery noticed. BBC Radio One disc jockey Zane Lowe described him as “a songwriter that is very comfortable in his own skin”, while Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody enthused over a “stunning” and “magical” collection.
In 2014, Lavery’s Kosher EP and Not Nearly Dark album went global, with the tracks, ‘Shame’ and ‘Left For America’ leading the charge , racking up more than 29 million listens on the Spotify streaming service and inspiring a raft of renditions from other countries.
“It’s so strange how people can treat you differently when you’ve got big numbers beside your name. People start paying attention. I get strange videos sent to me all the time of people covering my music in Norway and Belgium.”
The plaudits kept coming in 2015, with the release of Sea Legs, a mini-album on which Lavery collaborated with electronica artist Ryan Vail , being shortlisted for the Northern Ireland Music prize alongside Soak . And then, later in the year, he won the Big Break, a search for the brightest of Ireland’s bright young things hosted by Hot Press magazine.
It’s all about momentum. And there is a real sense, especially with the advent of LET BAD IN, his most profound statement yet, that this time belongs to Lavery, that his star will continue to soar in the ascendant just as the instinctive approach to his craft nudges him in other directions.
“I have a ridiculous fear of what might happen if I stop moving. I like to keep going,” he says.