“I may not have the stature and I may not have the look/But I can give you all you wanted, just take it from me now.” (Time Stands Still)
During this year’s Britain’s Got Talent final, one hopeful was a marked contrast to the show’s reliably entertaining magicians, performing pets and dance squads – one man, an acoustic guitar and his own songs. Performing the moving No Name, 19-year-old Ryan O’Shaughnessy was as improbable as a lion turning up on Springwatch.
Ryan’s new move appears just as unlikely – releasing a self-titled mini-album of six self-penned songs, all as sparse and beautiful as his ITV1 highlight would have his millions of new fans hoping for.
It’s a collection of hauntingly delicate songs that see Ryan comfortably sit next to the musical peers he admires, like Ed Sheeran and John Mayer. (Ed has Tweeted his admiration for Ryan, saying of No Name: “Great voice, great song.”)
But the six songs, written long before BGT came calling, also recall a time when the song was all, of singer-songwriter giants like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and John Martyn.
Explaining the reason to shun covers, Ryan says: “People know from the show that I write my own songs – it’s what they expect from me.
“The acoustic side is what I feel comfortable with. I have a few songs that are more uptempo, they’re more groove-based and bluesy, but these six songs fit together nicely.”
It’s only the outside world that will be surprised by Ryan’s haunting music, as he’s been immersed in song all his life, laughing as he recalls family camcorder footage of singing Boyzone’s Love Me For A Reason aged three at his brother’s Holy Communion dinner.
Ryan learnt the saxophone at 12, switching to guitar two years later after seeing YouTube footage of Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven “with instructions on the screen of how to play it.” Two days later, Ryan had learnt how to play along to Clapton, and Extreme’s classic ballad More Than Words.
He plays most of the instruments, including piano, on the mini-album, explaining: “I can pick up most instruments and get a good sound. I have a good ear, which makes things a lot easier. It’s been drilled into me. Like with harmonies – me and my mam were always singing harmonies in the car along to the country channel.”
It helped that Ryan grew up in Dublin surrounded by his father’s guitars and mother’s piano, writing his first songs with his brother two years ago. Although both parents are decent amateur musicians – his father played a season of gigs in the Canary Islands – Ryan doesn’t have them to thank for his love of past greats.
“There wasn’t any Joni or James Taylor at home, which baffles me,” he chuckles. “I’ve asked mam ‘How can you not love Joni Mitchell?’ I’d have loved to be around when Blue was released, listening to music so raw and so fresh. Once you hear a bit of Joni, you don’t go back.”
Ryan’s discovered the greats via YouTube and Later With Jools Holland, passionately describing how he wants his music to share an ethos with John Martyn. “If you watch live performances of John singing May You Never, you’re just caught up in the beauty of it, the stillness and the space,” he enthuses.
It’s a love that comes through in his own songwriting. “I’ve loads of influences that come together,” Ryan muses. “But I don’t try to model myself on any one person; I let whatever comes out come out. I need to be absent from my head when I write – pick up the guitar, press Record on my phone, then listen back to it to see what makes sense.
“With my lyrics, they’re gibberish at first. Bono is famous for that – I’ve seen footage of U2 jamming in the studio, and Bono’s going ‘Ra-ra-ra’ until he can think of something to fit the melody. I’m the same, I like to keep it minimal. If something sounds good in my ear, I just keep it.”
Eventually, as can be heard on the longing First Kiss or elegant Lost In You, Ryan’s lyrics are perfectly formed vignettes, tales of love and loss shot through with an ageless wisdom.
Normally an effusive, enthusiastic talker, explaining his lyrics is a rare occasion for Ryan to clam up. Not without some justification, however.
Ryan reasons: “When I listen to John Mayer, I think ‘What inspired him? What was he thinking of?’ and I hope people wonder the same when they hear my songs. I don’t want to feed it to them, I’d rather let the lyrics sit with the listeners themselves.
“Before I even started writing songs, I was trying to write poems. I’ve had a 180-page notebook for years that I’m always writing in. I still use the odd phrase from years ago in it.”
Ryan is willing to reveal that the woman who inspired No Name’s tale of unrequited love for a supposedly Platonic friend is now aware of his feelings.
“She’s delighted,” he blushes. “We’re great friends, and it’s better to have a strong friendship with someone you admire than to have nothing.”
Although it may seem an unusual move for a John Martyn devotee to audition for Britain’s Got Talent, Ryan says it’s been a win-win situation. Besides, it was his friends who entered him…
Ryan explains: “I’d just started getting the courage up to play my songs to other people. We were on the balcony one night and one of my mates said ‘Play that song of yours.’ I hadn’t named it, and after a couple of days of this the lads were just saying ‘Come on, play No Name again.’ And it stuck.
“At the audition, I said to myself that I wouldn’t be anyone else. I’d talk how I talk, wear what I wear, sing what I sing – my own songs. The worse that could have happened was they’d all buzz me out and I’d walk off the stage to chat to Ant & Dec.”
In the event, Simon Cowell, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams couldn’t get enough. “That first audition was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had; 3,000 people applauding me. It was amazing.”
By then, Ryan had also appeared on the Irish version of The Voice, reaching the live rounds. He was again entered without knowing. This time, his mother was responsible.
“As mam told me later, it was a case of ‘Where’s the harm?’” he grins. “I was only ever going to learn some experience from going on.”
Along with Ed Sheeran and Adele, Ryan wants to bring the simplicity back to music. As he puts it: “Musicianship has got lost in a lot of contemporary pop. The market for being on the dancefloor in the club is really flooded. Ed, Newton, Adele… they’re flying the flag for strong musicianship with beautiful lyrics.”
Ryan’s own songwriting has been strengthened as one of the pupils in the first year of the Irish version of BIMM, the course run by musicians which teaches vocal skills and songwriting. (Alumni of the British version include The Kooks.)
That came after a thankfully shortlived spell in Irish boyband Mission 4 – an experience which, as Ryan jokes, “involved a lot of pointing… Something inside me just said it was all wrong.”
Instead, at BIMM, Ryan began earning his gig miles, playing to “eight people, none of them there to hear some singer” at Dublin open-mic nights. Now, he wants to start gigging in earnest and eventually playing festivals such as his beloved Oxegen.
“I’d love to have a full band at my disposal eventually. I want loads of guitars, strange percussion like on Paul Simon’s Graceland… anything to give my shows that sense of fun that I have onstage.”
It’s an ambition he’s almost certain to fulfil. He wanted to call the self-titled mini-album Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish after a tattoo written on his side only to find he’d beaten to it by a few previous bands. Still, it’s clear Ryan is certainly hungry. He already has plans for a full album which, as the slyly funky Sofa Bed indicates, will feature more of his raucous songs.
“For me to have made something that has an emotional effect on people, making them happy, that’s where my satisfaction comes from,” he states. To paraphrase Time Stands Still – what more could you want?
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