Interview: Foy Vance Struggles With Vices Through ‘Signs of Life’
There's this video of Foy Vance performing his new song "Sapling" that tells his most recent story better than any journalist could write it. Filmed in the woods — the Highlands, near his hometown of Aberfeldy — on piano with just a guitarist as witness, the Irishman begins to play, almost reluctantly.
His hands take to the keys one at a time, and with a hunched back, he stares at his recalcitrant right, as if he needs to watch it to be sure it'll play the right notes. Softly — so, so softly — he pushes on D-sharp repeatedly, setting a spirited tempo with a melancholy tone. His face twists as sets his left hand into position and hits the first chord. Now, this right here is familiar and strong; Foy Vance fans worldwide know this chord.
From there he grows and swells and nearly breaks down, asking, "Am I strong enough" again and again before finishing with an awestruck gaze at green trees protecting him on this afternoon. Vance's 4-year-old son Sonny saw his father perform this song after his Hope in the Highlands live stream concert.
"He watched that when it came on and started crying when it came to that one. He said it hurt his 'choke,'" Vance says, laughing. "It made his choke hurt.”
"Sapling," Vance says, was born out of a wakeup call. "Born out of facing up to s--t I was doing. How much alcohol I was imbibing, how much drugs I was taking and the variations."
Beer, hard liquor, marijuana, codeine ... a touring artist can hide these habits on the day-to-day, but prolonged periods of rest reveal your vices quickly. The 46-year-old decided he needed to get clean for the sake of his family, if nothing else.
"I felt like I did a 180 and just turned around and faced everything," Vance tells Taste of Country. It was something like drinking from a firehose which, he'll add, is usually a bad thing, unless you're ready for it, "And I was ready for it at that point."
This song — written immediately after three days of detoxing in bed — changed the course of the music Vance was making. He may never get the chance to tell all the stories for this album, his fourth on Ed Sheeran's Gingerbread Records. And he may not want to. The seasoned songwriter recognizes that a great song can be about whatever you want it to be, and that sharing his inspirations could change the feelings a fan may have for something as simple as "Percolate," the final song on his new album, Signs of Life (Sept. 10).
With optimism and a crooner's swagger, Vance works through tortured lyrics about missing the true love of your life. At just over two minutes long, the ballad feels unfinished, but it's the perfect end to an emotional rollercoaster of an album. The singer's father — a man he'd give up everything for one more minute with — is who he's singing about.
"Every morning I woke up / You handed me a coffee cup / And poured it with a smile that filled the room / Now that room is cold and dark / And my days never seem to start / That's why I'm hoping you will come back soon," he sings from his home studio, the creaking of his piano bench as present as the notes from his keyboard.
“In a weird way, it’s kind of all for him ..." he says, 20-plus years after Dad's death. "I didn’t start writing until he died ... He went, but left me this incredible gift."
Signs of Life will challenge you, but there's a reward in finding yourself between notes of pressing songs like "Resplendence," "We Can't Be Tamed" and "Roman Attack" — songs that project depth with their titles alone. "If Christopher Calls" is another that compels questions.
"This is gonna be a really morbid interview," Vance says with no irony about 20 minutes and half a joint into the conversation. The mid-album ballad was inspired by his wife, who'd just called to share that something bad had happened to her father (Christopher), and that she was traveling in from London to check on him.
"The way she was feeling it, it was quite obvious when she got there — you know," he says during our Zoom call from his home studio, "but obviously I didn’t say that. I wanted to leave that little bit of hope alive and let the bubble burst in its natural courses."
"The fact that she held out hope killed me."
The term "artist" describes Vance better than singer or songwriter. He's able to find depth and melody from the simplest interactions in life, and seems more capable than most at throwing himself into a performance with total abandon. A 2019 video shoot at the Taste of Country studio captured it all. "Cradled in Arms" was written as a Christmas gift to his mother, but man, is it ever so much more:
WIth Sheeran in his corner, new doors have opened for Vance over the last decade. He's become a low-key favorite co-writer for some folks in Nashville. Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban have cut his songs, and he's written with Devin Dawson, Brett Eldredge and Little Big Town on multiple occasions, including over Zoom just recently. As an outsider, he owes nothing to Music Row — a quality that has to be appealing to other true artists looking for fresh perspective. He's also not quite at an age (if that exists) where he's got it all figured out.
The hazy "Hair of the Dog" relies on rhythmic jazz drumming and basic solos to poke fun at Vance's vices, but the extent to which he's laughing is not clear. Sobriety is fickle and free. His response when asked if it's hard to talk about his path to sobriety is most illuminating.
“It’s not difficult to revisit because I’m still in (it)," he says. “I still struggle with alcohol. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not not conscious of pushing it back to after five. Like, 'After 5 you can have a beer.'”
Codeine is the most insidious, and the drug he most wants to stay away from moving forward. "Marijuana, on the other hand — on Joy of Nothin’ it was grass that wrote that I’m pretty sure," Vance says, finishing a thought about how drinking is bad for songwriting.
Signs of Life was written with a much clearer head. Like a tradesman he'd work a 9 to 5 shift and take weekends off, building new songs out of new emotions instead of messing with old ideas he didn't feel any longer. It started with "Sapling."
“As soon as I wrote that song, that was it. I knew the album changed lanes completely. It was just a completely record all together," Vance says.
In addition to releasing the album on Friday, Vance also announced the Signs of Life Tour for 2022. He'll spend March in the United Kingdom before spending May in America. All of his remaining 2021 tour dates are sold out, with one exception: A second show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, scheduled for Nov. 13.