'You couldn't have an ego because they'd quickly destroy it' - Nathan Carter talks criticism, his career and his search for love
He's written his autobiography at just 28, but Nathan Carter insists that he has plenty of life experience to fill the pages
You know you're in the company of music royalty when Nathan Carter walks into the room. The megawatt smile and cheeky chappie personality are all there in spades. Before he can sit down to talk, two female fans have already approached and asked for a picture with him. He graciously accepts. He's made their day.
This is not unusual. Everywhere he goes fans ask for pictures with him and it's something he says that comes with the territory. The hit song Wagon Wheel which led to a number one album of the same title in 2012 changed the game for Nathan and was, he says, a ground-breaking force in his career. The song was everywhere and, all of a sudden, so was Nathan. And yet he's not some jaded star bemoaning the attention. He genuinely appreciates the fans. "Most of them have 100 pictures with me but they still want more. I often think are they not fed up looking at me? To me if they weren't coming back to the gigs we wouldn't be on the road. They make it happen," he says.
His is not a story of overnight success. It's one of hard graft and tenacity. Nathan Carter has been singing and playing music since he was a small child. He jokes that at one point he totted up the amount his mum and dad paid for his lessons and it came to about £20,000.
Now, at the young age of 28, he has written his autobiography Born for the Road. Funny and self-deprecating, Nathan says he was dubious when first approached about doing a book. "I laughed originally when they said to me about writing an autobiography - I'm 28! What am I going to fill it with - pictures?" But the more he talked it through with the publishers the more he felt at ease about telling his story so far.
And so far that story of a young boy from a semi-detached house in Liverpool who became one of the best known faces in Irish music has been pretty amazing.
From reading the early chapters of his book, it's clear that the professional you see on stage and on television spent much of his young life honing his craft. He was playing an accordion with the local céilí band and deeply involved with the local branch of Comhaltas in Liverpool from early childhood. Every year the Carters - mum Noreen, dad Ian and their children Nathan, Kiara and Jake - along with maternal grandparents Nan and Grumps, would take the ferry to Ireland and holiday wherever the All Ireland Fleadh was being held.
In 2005 on a stage in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, Nathan won gold in the solo singing competition in that year's Fleadh. The year before he had been made head chorister of his school choir, singing on Top of the Pops with a version of All Together Now. Singing in bars and pubs all over the north of England gave him more experience. And so at the age of 18, with the words of his beloved Nan to "keep practising" in his ear, he moved to Ireland to form his own band.
His Nan's friends Ann and Jim McClay gave him a home from home as Nathan began to try and break into the Irish market. His background of hard work stood him in good stead as he gigged around the country with his band. He wouldn't change a thing and believes that it's probably harder for young singers or musicians who become famous after coming up through a reality TV show.
"I always think it must be tougher to do it that way. If you have even a slight bit of success overnight, you probably don't know how to deal with it because you haven't done any major grafting and work to get to that point," says Nathan. "I would advise anyone starting out in the music industry to go to the gigs in the pubs and clubs. A lot of people like Ed Sheeran did busking in the streets to try and hone a craft and a way of performing. You can't buy experience and that's the bottom line. I've made a lot of connections and had a lot of experiences from being in a choir, to entering Fleadh Cheoils, to playing in folk clubs and pubs. It's life experience," he says.
That broad musical experience means that the country music tag doesn't really fit. "The 'Irish country' thing - that whole title is to me a little bit strange. I would record folk songs and Celtic songs. I would probably consider myself a little bit broader, and that's not to knock that genre. I do a lot of different stuff," says Nathan.
Despite his hard work ethic, Nathan is a self-confessed night owl who loves to party. "I'm going on a stag do to Vegas in the morning. There's good shows and the bars stay open all night. I like to let the hair down. I work hard and I play hard," he says.
The singer is also known for his love of fast food and while he's a big fan of McDonald's, he's all about moderation. "I go mad for a weekend and then I'll cut back. Normally I don't gig Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and I'd be in the gym every day. I do circuit classes, some weights and a bit of running. Any days that I'm off I'm in the gym. It's polar opposites. I will eat rubbish and have nights out. Then I rein it in and eat healthily for a few days," he says.
Being in the public eye and using social media to share what he's up to - including posting the odd Instagram in the gym - does come with its drawbacks and in his book he confesses that he tried not to read tweets after television appearances.
"It can't help but get to you. Nowadays it only gets to me for about five minutes and I move on. Years ago I'd think, 'I need to change myself' when I'd read something online. I could take it badly, particularly at a younger age. That's the worst part of social media, especially with kids. Young kids take it a lot worse than adults," says Nathan.
"Criticism can affect people very badly. For me, I've just got used to it. You get thicker-skinned and broader shoulders when you're in the business for longer. I do feel for anyone starting out in the business. It's keyboard warriors. You'll never meet those people. They'll never buy a ticket. They'll never come in to see a show so why worry about them? That's what you have to get in your head and I guess I have that in my head now," he says.
"The only time I get stick online is by men. I'm guessing it's because they're feeling jealous because their partner is a fan. I can understand it. If I had a partner and she was mad about another fella on stage I'd be thinking, 'Who does he think he is?' I get it," he says.
And so the conversation comes around to relationships. In his book Nathan talks about the first time he met country singer Lisa McHugh. He says he instantly fancied her and while they did have a relationship it ended six months later because neither of them was looking for anything serious. On a Late Late Show appearance last week, Nathan was jokingly asked whether he'd consider taking part in TV contest Dancing With The Stars to find himself a girlfriend, since his younger brother Jake is now in a relationship with Karen Byrne, who was his dance partner from the last series.
The whole country might well be wishing that he finds love, but Nathan tells me that he's not worrying too much about meeting someone. "If it happens, it happens. I'm not out there looking for it to happen. I think if you do, you're probably going to meet the wrong person. If you want it too badly, I'd say it's the wrong thing. Who knows who it's going to be? I'm 28. I probably do need to buck my ideas up soon," he laughs.
I ask how he manages to make sure that the people he invites into his life - be they romances or friends - are genuine and not just interested in his fame and his connections? He ponders the question for a moment. "I've made bad decisions on that sometimes. My long-term friends have helped me saying, 'You need to keep a distance there'. I don't see it sometimes. I'm probably over-friendly with everyone. I would invite everyone for a drink after a gig - fans, punters, whoever. I would buy them all drinks, which is the wrong thing to do sometimes because people just want to be there to take advantage. That's probably one of my weaknesses - sussing out people who want to take advantage."
From the outside, given his career trajectory, it could look as if Nathan Carter has been planning everything all along but he maintains that he's just working hard to write and sing good songs. "I'm definitely not methodical. I have a very short-term plan. I'm a Gemini - there's the twin thing. One is always going, 'That's probably not going to work out,' and sometimes I can be glass half-empty but then I'll always keep trying. There's always this question, 'Where do you want to be in five years?' I don't really know. I don't think anyone can plan that far ahead.
"We're trying America. We're going to do a tour in Germany at the start of next year. That's a massive market that I haven't tapped into. I did a few dates there earlier this year and they were great. There's new markets opening up all the time and, who knows, if one of those clicks it could be another Ireland that would allow me to go and do bigger shows and hopefully arenas one day. I'm happy to see what develops in the future career-wise. I'll work as hard as I can at it and give everything an opportunity."
One big opportunity that came his way recently was playing for Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families. It was the second time Nathan had sung for a pope - he performed for John Paul II as a chorister in his childhood. "I did the Pope's gig at Croke Park recently. If you'd told me 10 years ago I'd be doing that I wouldn't have believed you. I don't think back then I was ready. I've done a lot of stuff since - TV work and singing with different singers and performing on big stages which has helped me grow in confidence and helped me get better. It would be a dream come true to have my own gig at Croke Park."
Nathan even found himself a little starstruck at the event. "Andrea Bocelli was there with his wife. I was desperate to get a picture. I think he's a fantastic singer, just a massive global megastar. I badly wanted a picture but I didn't have the confidence to go and ask him because I know that feeling. I thought, 'I'll leave it'."
Is religion important to him? "I wouldn't say that I was religious. I don't know anyone my age who is. I think religion is changing at a rapid pace here in Ireland and in the UK. The Pope's visit caused a lot of controversy. The reasons behind that are clear to see."
Despite this, Nathan says he does have faith and says Fr Brian D'Arcy is someone he looks to for example. "I love Father Brian, in everything he does and says. He's a religious man but he has a very broad vision but a lot of reality in what he sees and says. He's a very good person and he sees the best in people. He says it how he thinks it is."
Treating people well is, Nathan says, key to surviving the touring life. "It's good craic to me and I get on with them all. I surround myself with good people. You couldn't have an ego because they'd quickly destroy it. I think if you do, you just lose all respect. To do what I want to do I need a team and a band and a crew. To me everyone is as important as the next man or woman. I need to treat them with the same respect as I would expect." While he is fiercely proud of his home city of Liverpool, Ireland is his home now, and he loves to retreat to the countryside during breaks from the tour. "I find it a more peaceful way of life over here. It's a slower pace. Liverpool is great but Ireland is more peaceful. It wouldn't be if I lived in Dublin or if I lived in Belfast. I don't like the hustle and bustle. The road is tough enough, being on tour buses and moving from airports to hotels. To then live in a city with noise, I would just go off my cake. To be out in the country is more peaceful.
"I've been dying to buy a house on the water for four years and I can't find one," he continues. "I'm too fussy I guess. I've looked at 40 houses. I got into a bidding war over one I really liked. I had to back out. I must be Property Pal's biggest customer. I'm on it every hour. I like Fermanagh - I love the water."
That love of the water sees him take his boat - a 24ft speed cruiser - out for a spot of boating and jet skiing on Lough Erne whenever he gets a chance. It's the only time he says he switches his phone off.
No interview with Nathan Carter would be complete without asking about his maternal grandmother, Nan. She's also Nan to his legion of fans. A chapter in the book is dedicated to her and her escapades to get him started in the music business. "She is a one-off character," he says. "She's been there the whole time. She was always there driving me to the gigs, selling the merchandise, supporting me, pushing me, taking me to lessons.
"My granddad was always there too and so were my mum and dad - they were paying for most of it."
So, what does the future hold for him? America is a huge draw, he says, but writing good songs and staying in the game is what really motivates him.
"I think Ed Sheeran is the modern-day Bob Dylan/Van Morrisson. I think he's fantastic. I love the way he's added the trad aspect, singing Galway Girl and Nancy Mulligan. I was brought up on that so I really respect that. I just respect people with longevity in the business," he says.
"That's the best thing. Forget awards and getting prizes and all that. If you can have a long career in the business and still be selling albums and still be selling concerts after 40 or 50 years that is the measure of success. I'd love to be able to do it."
For now he says he feels lucky to be living the life he's leading. He says he wouldn't change much along the way. And he jokes that hopefully there'll be plenty of material for the next part of his autobiography.
'Born For The Road: My Story So Far' by Nathan Carter is published by Penguin Ireland (€25).