Since Westlife called it a day, all of its members have explored solo careers ranging from music to reality TV.
Nicky Byrne has kept a high profile with presenting work and a star turn on Strictly Come Dancing, but now he’s ready to return to music with the release of his debut solo album Sunlight. The album’s title track is this year’s Eurovision entry for Ireland and is a departure sonically for Nicky.
I gave Nicky a call to talk about his Eurovision hopes, discuss his debut album, and to find out if he’s feeling the pressure of being the last Westlife member to release solo material.
You’re making a return to music with the release of your debut album Sunlight. Why did you decide that now was the right time?
Basically when Westlife split four years ago, the first thing I did was Strictly Come Dancing and I was hosting a few different things in the UK and in Ireland. I knew I would return to music but I didn’t know when or at what point and for what reason. After 14 years in Westlife we felt we’d done enough and we didn’t miss it. Of course you miss the big nights and the crowds – the buzz off that you’ll never replace – but we didn’t miss consistently singing and travelling to different countries. Although that sounds amazing, and by the way it was absolutely incredible, you get to the stage where you’re happy to rest for a while.
I didn’t know in what capacity I’d return to music, whether it be a charity single or I’d make an album. I certainly didn’t have the hunger to make the album at the point. My sister-in-law Cecelia, who is an author and she wrote P.S. I Love You and many other books, she did a book called Where Rainbows End and the rights had been bought to make it into a movie. It was turned into a great British romantic comedy called Love, Rosie and she asked me to write a song for the soundtrack.
She connected me up with a guy called Ronan Hardiman, who is an Irish composer and producer that had done Lord of the Dance, and we chatted over the phone. I’d met him before but didn’t know him that well. We spoke about the task at hand and right away we both agreed to work with Wayne Hector; I knew him from Westlife as he’d written World of Our Own, Flying Without Wings, Swear It Again etc. Ronan had worked with him on a lot of stuff too. We got in contact with Wayne, flew to London and wrote a song called Finishing Line, which is on my album.
We were out at Wayne’s house in Surrey and we just hit it off. We all knew each other well but what we were creating on Wayne’s out of tune piano, which we had a good laugh about, made us think that we should do more together. About a week or two later Wayne flew to Dublin and came to Ronan’s studio where we wrote Sunlight, Some Things Always Seem to Last and Song for Lovers. We had four tracks and we were on the way to making an album. There was another guy, Don Mescall, that we got involved as well and we wrote another 6 tracks with him and we had an album.
At this point I had no record deal and no music manager. I had no plan and nobody telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. We were just making this great pop/rock album and we thought it would be good if I could front something like a OneRepublic or Imagine Dragons and go down that road. That was in 2013 and it took us 2 years to complete it.
Your debut solo single Sunlight is also your bid for Eurovision glory representing Ireland. How did that all come about?
I was hosting my own radio show so the writing for the album was taking place around that. Every year that Eurovision came round I was the person elected to deliver the votes from Ireland. I’d grown up with Eurovision and I loved it. I always had a deep hunger and wondered if I could do it one day. Even recording the album I used to joke to Ronan when I was behind the mic ‘this song would be perfect for Eurovision’. When Ireland didn’t qualify again last year, I knew RTE were going to do something different. I thought we’d approach them with Sunlight but I was a bit reluctant. I didn’t want to look like I was begging them but I wanted to do it. I said to them, ‘I’m definitely releasing this single but I’d love to do Eurovision, what do you guys think?’ They were a bit surprised. I said, ‘I know there’s snobbery involved when it comes to Eurovision but I’d like to try and change that because I think it’s the biggest show you can do.’ It’s quite brave because it’s all live and in front of millions of people. They went away and came back saying they were up for it.
A lot of people go into Eurovision expecting it to make their career. Do you think having the experience you’ve had with Westlife that you’re more realistic about what it could do for you?
Absolutely. It doesn’t catapult people into stardom in the way they think. It’s the same with The X Factor for example. Sometimes it doesn’t produce any stars, other years it produces someone like One Direction, Olly Murs or Leona Lewis. You just don’t know. It’s certainly a risk but it’s a risk worth taking if you can do a good job and stand over your song. The audience and the platform is massive. It’s the best in the world and the biggest stage and audience. There’s no expense spared with Eurovision. I think more people should consider it but you have to stay realistic and say ‘well more than likely I probably won’t win it’. The best I can hope for is to qualify then you never know in that final what will happen, and what it might do for the album and single you’re promoting as well.
The other side of it, which people forget, is that it’s a very proud honour to represent your country in anything. If you’re the chosen one this year to do it, you give it your best shot and you fly the flag. You just hope that you do your best and everyone is happy.
Sunlight is very different from the style that Westlife were known for and for a lot of people it could be the first time they’ve really heard your voice. Did you want to do something completely different?
I didn’t sit down and say ‘I want to do something way different here’. Westlife was me as well and I did love the songs. I’m not here going ‘this is what I really am’. Not at all. People didn’t know me as a lead singer apart from the hardcore Westlife fans who would have known the album tracks and seen me on many tours taking leads. I always found myself enjoying the tours the most because I like to be a bit of a showman and an entertainer. I love the big stage and I love the crowds. If you’re going to do an album then you need to do songs that are going to lend themselves well to those live arenas.
You’re the last member of Westlife to release solo music. Does that put more pressure on you and make it harder?
Actually I don’t think it does. I’ve watched what everyone else has done. Some people have got higher chart positions than others, some people have done tours and some haven’t. I spoke to Shane (Filan) last night on the phone and Mark (Feehily) and Kian (Egan) on email. Everybody has just been wishing me well. During Westlife we would talk about (solo careers) and have these conversations any way. When we went on chat shows I used to jump in the host’s chair during rehearsals and say ‘I used to be in a band with this guy, will everyone please welcome Shane Filan!’ and do a mock interview joking around. We were all prepared for each of us to try something on our own and enjoy that moment.
It’s not really pressure. I think when you put anything out there to be critiqued and judged it’s always hard. I’ve found that with Eurovision in particular; you’re critiqued to within an inch of your life which I suppose wasn’t really around 5 years ago. Singing is a profession and that’s what rehearsals are for. You get up there and get your sound right. It takes time and eventually it’ll be all right on the night. The other day we had three rehearsals and I hit one ropey note and someone somewhere managed to record it and put it up online. That’s the world we live in nowadays and you just have to try and put that out of your head and move on.
Are you confident about your chances at Eurovision?
I know we’ve written a really good song. If you take me out of the equation, the calibre of Wayne Hector and Ronan Hardiman is second to none. Ronan has done all of Lord of the Dance for Michael Flatley and Wayne has worked with Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, One Direction, Westlife and Faith Hill. I know the song has come from a good calibre and that’s why I think I was confident launching the album with this song and approaching Eurovision. At the end of the day it’s a song contest not a singing contest. Obviously you have to be able to sing well and there’s plenty of singers in there better than others but it’s the song and the whole package. It’s a bit of everything thrown in there. We’re trying to show people that it’s OK for artists that have had different experiences in their career to go and do Eurovision.
Let’s talk about your album Sunlight. What are you hoping to achieve with it and what do you want people to take from it?
Every song on this album is me, Wayne, Don or Ronan throwing ideas on the table. Some of the stuff is quite autobiographical. Pretty is about my daughter and it’s a lullaby and very simple. It’s something she’ll have forever and a fitting end the album. Song for Lovers is quite Westlife because it has pianos and strings on there and it’s a song dedicated to people falling in love.
What I was trying to do was deliver an emotional vocal delivery and lyrics that people believed in. Pop Machine is about the Westlife years talking about our time in the biggest pop band in the world at the time. We were 23 or 24 thinking we were ruling the world and now at 37 you look back and go ‘jeez we were just a bunch of kids in a pop band’. When we were in it we thought we were changing music (laughs) and now I can say ‘what a good life that was’. It’s a real throwback.
Broadway Show is about a guy in his mid-50s looking back on his life, when he was chatting people up in airports and trains, and now he’s looking back at himself and laughing.
What this album is as well is personality. I wanted to deliver the best vocals I can with bags of personality. I’ve always enjoyed a right good laugh and banter on stage, it was always my role in Westlife. I was the one that got people on the stage and you always want people to have fun and go home having enjoyed themselves. You do that by singing the songs but you also do that by doing things they don’t expect you to do. There was one night where there was a guy in the front row with his missus who didn’t want to be there. The front was jumping around and he as sat with his arms folded. We all saw him from the very first song and I thought ‘I’m going to have a laugh with this guy’. I got chatting to him, found out he was from Glasgow and his favourite band was Wet, Wet, Wet. We got him up on the big screens and got someone to get him a pint. We started singing Love Is All Around Us and all the crowd knew it. We put a smile on his face.
Nicky’s debut solo album Sunlight is available now. Watch the music video for Sunlight below: