Foy Vance is showing me the tattoo on his left forearm. It’s a line from his song Guiding Light – “When I need to get home, you’re the light that guides me” – translated into Gaelic and written in Ed Sheeran’s handwriting. Sheeran has the same thing on his arm, in Vance’s handwriting. It must be serious then.
“It’s such a bromance, isn’t it? I do dote on the wee fella,” says the 41-year-old, 16 years Sheeran’s senior. Theirs is a friendship that began from afar, when a teenage Sheeran’s dad took him to see the Northern Irish singer-songwriter in concert. It progressed to writing together (Tenerife Sea and Afire Love on Sheeran’s x album) and playing together in venues as momentous as Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium. Now they’re taking things up another notch. Sheeran has signed his friend to his nascent Gingerbread Man record label, a means for this energetic music fan to give less well known musicians artistic freedom and a bigger platform. It means that Vance’s third album, The Wild Swan, arrives next month with a giant ginger stamp of approval.
“Ed has been a blessing, because he didn’t want me to feel any pressure. He wanted me to go and make whatever record I felt like I wanted to make, and he would deal with the outcome,” Vance tells me. And as if the backing of one of the biggest singer-songwriters in the world wasn’t enough, it turns out he also has the backing of a second. Sir Elton John has a credit as The Wild Swan’s executive producer, and will take Vance around on his tour of more giant venues this summer.
“He’s been a supporter more than anything. He’s been involved since the beginning, listening. I’m sending stuff to him all the time. He’s a very informative guy, quite analytical about it. He knows music inside out.”
These superstar thumbs up should mean that this time Vance gets the attention he deserves. He’s risen to the occasion with new songs that see his low, gruff voice sounding mightier than ever. The influence of his countryman Van Morrison is obvious on the nostalgic ballad Bangor Town, he’s got some New Orleans swing on Upbeat Feelgood and he does beautiful traditional folk on the title track, inspired by WB Yeats’s poem The Wild Swans at Coole.
He also sounds a little like Sheeran on the steady acoustic pulse of She Burns, but actually, they don’t seem to have a great deal in common. Vance lives in the small Highland town of Aberfeldy in Scotland, where he is the primary carer of his teenage daughter. Before she started secondary school he would take her on tour, where he educated her in his own idiosyncratic way. “She would collect the merch, count the T-shirts in and out, which is much better than, ‘If Peter has two apples and Paul has five…’”
He lived in south London for seven years, but it wasn’t for him. “As much as it is the greatest city in the world – that’s not up for debate – to do what I do and live in London, I was having to gig every hole in the wall to keep the dream alive. It was so expensive. I couldn’t make plans. I found it really hard to be in London and think clearly. You need time and you need silence.” He was invited to play a gig in an art gallery in Aberfeldy, and realised where he really wanted to be. “It genuinely was like moving from the humdrum of the music industry to the haunts of the ancient bards. There are many poets who came through those lands and wrote because they were inspired, and it takes you two minutes to see why.”
I’m tickled by the idea of this middle-aged countryside enthusiast, with a twirly moustache and a hole in his cap, getting drunk in New York with Beyonce and Jay-Z (“The pair of them were just lovely, down-to-earth folks. I kept calling him Jay-Zed.”) going to parties at the Los Angeles home of Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad and writing a new song, Coco, about Courtney Cox’s daughter. It’s easy to see why they all like him. With twinkling eyes, a lilting voice and a pencil permanently behind his ear – which he uses to write my book recommendation for him on the back of a coaster – he seems like a man who could tell stories all night and have plenty left over for breakfast. He sinks three pints of beer during our afternoon conversation and is keen for me to turn the dictaphone off and go and play pool with him.
Sheeran has said: “Every time I see him play I get annoyed that more people don’t know about him.” But I get the impression that Vance isn’t that bothered about being known. He’ll play to Sheeran’s massive crowds and drink with the celebs in the golden circle, but leave again when it suits him. “Ed’s a lot younger than me and he’s happy to work his balls off touring the world for seven years straight. I’ve got a kid, I’m not interested in that. What I have is a desire to live. I want to work a couple of months and then go home, fix the shed and cut the grass.”
We talk about the increased expectations for commercial success for his music, now that he has the backing of Sheeran the record label boss as well as Sheeran the friend. He’s not expecting too much. “I see a lot of people that have more of a desire for the world fame than they do for the music, and something is majorly lost in that process,” he says. “So I guess what I’m saying is, if that was to come – and let’s face it you and I both know that is not gonna happen – but if it was, it would be on the terms of what it is. There shouldn’t be any compromise. If this record doesn’t do well, I still know I did right by it.” By that rationale, there’s nothing at all riding on this, his best opportunity to do well. Foy Vance has succeeded already.
May 12, Hoxton Hall, N1 (020 7684 0060, hoxtonhall.co.uk). The Wild Swan is released on May 13 on Gingerbread Man/Atlantic.