His music has been played on RTÉ, Today FM, the BBC, and regional stations throughout Ireland. His albums have been acclaimed by music critics and bloggers. The video for his most recent single features Barry Ward, an emerging name in Irish film.
The steady rise of Loughrea singer-songwriter Ultan Conlon is the result of a talented musician willing to do the hard graft, and finally seeing it begin to pay off, but his initial entry into music came via the life and death of his father.
“I wouldn’t be like many other musicians who came from houses where the record player was always on, and there were all these old jazz albums lying about,” Ultan tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “Mostly it was just the radio, but there was this guitar shop in Loughrea. When I was about four or five I first saw a guitar in the window of that shop and became obsessed with the instrument. When I was about 11 or 12 I got a guitar, and then in my teens started writing songs.”
Around this time Ultan’s life hit a turning point withe the sudden death of his father.
“Some of my introduction of music came from my father,” says Ultan. “Dad would sing unaccompanied, often when driving the car, just standards from the 1930s and 1940s and also Elvis and Tom Jones. There was a generation gap there, in that he was in his fifties when I reached my teens, but through that he introduced me to a world of older songs.
“We all write when we’re teenagers, poetry or songs, it’s a teen thing and an angst thing, but I started writing when my father passed away. I’d just turned 13 and it was a way of coping, a way of dealing with it. It was very therapeutic, and I just continued from there.”
Although Ultan never stopped writing from that point on, it would be some time before he started playing his songs in public.
“I did a couple of pub gigs in my 20s, but little else,” he says. “I was working in a warehouse and I’d hear these guys on the radio, with their guitar and their songs and it got me thinking ‘I have songs at home that I’ve never played for people. I could do that!’ At 23 I packed up the job and went into music full time.”
The mid-noughties saw Ultan take his first significant steps with the release of his eponymous EP, followed by a collaboration with Charis’s John Conneely, which in turn led to working with the late, very great, British singer-songwriter and folk-rock legend John Martyn, with Martyn appearing on Ultan’s 2005 single ‘Really Gone’. “When I heard him singing my song, that was the moment I thought ‘I really am a songwriter now’,” says Ultan.
From there Ultan released his debut album, 2009’s Bless Your Heart, which Hotpress’s Olaf Tyaransen described as “the best Irish debut since Damien Rice’s O” and recorded John Martyn’s ‘Back To Stay’ for the Johnny Boy Would Love This tribute album which also featured Paolo Nutini and Snow Patrol. Last year saw Ultan contribute five songs and co-composed the score for the award winning and critically acclaimed independent Irish film Songs For Amy. He also released second album, Songs Of Love So Cruel. “An impressively simple but classy album,” said Music-News.com; Whisperinandhollerin.com called it “deep and meaningful, bristling with emotion and passion, not a duff track”; while Hotpress declared Ultan “a real talent at work”.
The album and its singles enjoyed extensive airplay on RTÉ, Today FM, and Newstalk, as well as on various BBC radio stations.
“The album has been out a year and it was hard to get it out there and onto radio,” he says. “There is so much stuff coming into journalists and broadcasters and singer-songwriters are not always welcome, but you just have to get out there and keep at it and it’s paying off. The album is gathering momentum and I’ll keep pushing it.”
Ultan’s most recent single ‘The Golden Sands’ is accompanied by a wonderful video, directed by Oisin MacCoille, with Kamil Krawczak (the man behind the Galway Get’s Happy ) as director of photography, and starring Barry Ward. The actor appeared in Songs For Amy, had the lead role in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, and played Northern Ireland footballer Jimmy Quinn in Shooting For Socrates.
“I know Barry from working on Songs For Amy,” says Ultan. “I had the idea for the video with Oisin and I texted Barry to ask if he would be interested in doing it. He texted back saying he was in Galway for two months, shooting with Brendan Gleeson and he agreed to do it. Making a video is a nervy and expensive process. A lot can go wrong, but on that shoot everything fell into place.”
A new phase in Ultan’s career looks set to being when he takes to the stage of Kelly’s Bar, Bridge Street tomorrow [Friday November 28], where he and his band will be accompanied by vocal harmony trio The Bluebirds - Laura Lynn, Jenny Groarke, and Lorraine Flanagan.
“We had our first gig with them recently and it was amazing, it works really well and adds something different to the sound,” says Ultan. “Singer-songwriters are 10 a penny, but The Bluebirds add a whole other palette and a new flavour.”
Ultan is also interested in recording with the Bluebirds in the near future. “Both of my albums have had a big, fully produced, sound, with guitars, drums, strings,” he says, “but I’d like to do something more broken down and stripped back, maybe revisit some of the songs from the first album and re-record them with The Bluebirds, for an album that would come out ahead of the third official album.”