Nathan Carter: I would love to meet the right woman one day
…but with a new TV show and his biggest ever gig just announced, romance is not on the cards for country music heart-throb Nathan Carter right now, he tells our reporter.
I'm in a large arena in Sligo, surrounded by starstruck women hyperventilating at the sight of Nathan Carter on stage. We're all here for the final night's recording of the country singer's new four-part RTÉ series, and the atmosphere is electric.
My sympathies lie with floor manager Janine Curran. On top of the technicalities of recording The Nathan Carter Show, Janine has to be alert for women popping up out of their seats to grab the heart-throb's hand while he's singing - as happens twice during the night. The culprits are women who are definitely old enough to know better.
Nathan is the undisputed heart-throb of country music, and is adored by a predominantly female fanbase of all ages. Sadly for those hopeful hearts dotted around the Knocknarea Arena tonight, Nathan insists that he simply doesn't have time for romance. He has fought hard to get to where he is today, he says, and as the breakout star of the country music scene, he doesn't want to take his eye off the ball at this crucial stage. "I would love to meet the right woman one day, but I'm so dedicated to the music," he says, in his deeply Liverpudlian accent. "I'm shocked to have gotten this far, so I have to keep going. You could easily lose focus and I'm determined not to do that, so I give 120pc to my career all the time.
"I wake up and do interviews, record or write, which is squashed in between gigging, so I don't have time for anything else. When I was at school I wore big glasses and none of the girls would ever have picked me, so I find all of the attention very strange."
Earlier in the day, I sat down for a chat with the Nathan during a break in rehearsals.
Having him all to myself for 40 minutes, it occurred to me that other women would kill to be in this position. I can see why, too - he's handsome and charming and humble, and there's an earnestness about him that is quite endearing.
He may be eschewing romance for the time being, but there are two very strong women that the 26-year-old adores - and both were hovering in the background as we did our interview. The first is his mum, Noreen, who had flown over with his dad and grandparents for the TV recordings.
The second is his grandmother Ann - from Warrenpoint, Co Down - who for several years now has been in charge of selling the merchandise on his UK tours. As soon as she spotted me chatting to him, she came over to check that I was meant to be there and not a fan who'd snuck into rehearsals.
Granny clearly combines her merchandising role with being her beloved grandson's unofficial bodyguard.
"My nan is 76 but she thinks she's 21," Nathan laughs, fondly.
"She's my biggest fan, and she comes and lives on the tour bus with us. She's great craic and loves a gin and tonic and is always the last to bed out of all of us.
"Everything is very positive with her, and she's really into the gigs. It was my Nan who took me to my first gig, and drove me about when I was too young to drive. She brought me to all the pubs in Liverpool and Manchester to gig, and was always so supportive."
When he's not on tour, Nathan has his own house in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and says he might also get a place in Dublin one day. He misses his family a lot; he doesn't get home much, so they try to get over to see him as often as possible.
Nathan definitely gets his good looks from his dad, Ian. And watch out for grandad John - a big music fan who had a huge influence on Nathan growing up - on the programme.
Chatting to his parents and grandparents, I get the sense that they are a bit shocked by how it has all suddenly gone stellar for their boy. However, they say they are having great fun with the whole experience. Mind you, Noreen says she would put him firmly in his place if he ever acted the diva.
"Oh, he'd get a slap on the bum," she laughs. "We are so proud of Nathan, as he works so hard and really does put every hour into it. Being on stage is the end product, but it's not all glamour. There is so much else that goes into it, and we hardly get to talk to him some days as he's so busy. It's a hard life for him at times, and all we can do is be there for him."
In person, Nathan is warm but shy. He's casually dressed in a blue top for rehearsals, and while people say that he has the looks to be in a boyband, I don't really see it. It genuinely seems to be all about the music for him, and he's emphatic that the fame and adulation are just a necessary evil.
"I hate it," he says of the palaver that goes with being in the entertainment business. "The reason I got into this was for music, so all that other stuff is surreal to me.
"I never wear make-up for the gigs, but then people comment that I don't look as good as I do in pictures. That's due to wearing make-up on a shoot and the pictures being touched up, which comes from the whole pop thing. The boybands all look pristine, so it has become a thing in the music industry."
He may not be a boybander, but nor is he a typical country singer either. There is not a whiff of Daniel O'Donnell or even Garth Brooks about him - he's not a young fogey, even though his genre of music wouldn't exactly be considered hip. Indeed, Nathan played at The Rose of Tralee this year and - despite the annual decrying of the festival as twee and outdated - he says he was honoured to be asked.
He has been credited with making country music cool for young people and is delighted about that, recalling how weird his friends thought it was when he was listening to Johnny Cash growing up.
Aside from country music, he likes performers like Bruce Springsteen, Imelda May, Van Morrison, The Dubliners and Ed Sheeran. What does he think of artists like Kanye West and Jay Z - does that kind of music appeal to him?
"Not at all," he says firmly. "I don't think that's music, because I like melody and songs that tell a story. I don't get the attitude thing either - it should be about the music and not your personality."
Nathan's own personality was formed in Liverpool, where grew up the eldest of three. He was always musical - playing accordion from the age of five - as are his siblings, Ciara (21) and Jacob, who is 18 and already beginning to do gigs of his own.
Nathan was in the St Francis Xavier Boys' Choir for six years, ultimately becoming head chorister. The choir toured the world, singing at Windsor Castle and for Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.
Nathan also used to come to Ireland every summer to compete in various Fleadh Cheoil competitions, where he won All-Ireland medals for solo singing and accordion. He became a member of the Liverpool Céili Band, and by 16 was playing solo gigs around Liverpool.
When he left school, Nathan was working on a building site during the week with his dad Ian, who's a joiner, and gigging at weekends. As the demand for his music increased, he packed the building site in with his parents' blessing. "They told me that if I didn't try to make a career in music then, I would probably never do it. I knew music was definitely what I wanted to do anyway, because I was useless as a joiner."
Was it always country music that interested him? "Always. The Irish country bands would come over to play and I used to be fascinated by them, which my friends thought was so random. My grandad, John, was a huge country fan and he loved Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, so their LPs were always on. I was surrounded by Irish music too, so it has been a blend of all that."
At 17, after meeting his now manager John Farry while singing at a charity event in Donegal, he moved to Ireland. Nathan lived in Donegal for the first three years and stayed with his grandmother's best friend, Anne.
He jokes that it was great there because he "couldn't iron, cook or clean". He moved to Fermanagh after that, partly because John lives there.
The first three years were difficult, and there were plenty of occasions where Nathan found himself playing to 60 people, which meant he couldn't afford to pay himself a wage.
"It was totally disheartening because we lost a lot of money at first. I had a band to pay and a crew, so every penny I made had to go to pay them. Those years were really difficult, but I kept going because I believed in what I was doing."
The turning point came with the release of the Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor song Wagon Wheel, which gave Nathan his first number one in Ireland. The biggest commercial success of any country and Irish release in 2012, it was a crossover hit that spent a year in the charts here. Its success took the singer by surprise, and he began writing more of his own material. He has now had four number one albums, beating One Direction and Michael Bublé to the top spot in the charts. He has recorded songs in Nashville and intends to go there to record a new album next year. As his star ascends, Nathan says he has to pinch himself at times. "I've been really lucky that the gigs are getting bigger all the time and the fan base continues to grow.
"I always knew in the back of my mind that this was going to work, but I didn't know how or when. I couldn't have imagined it happening to this extent, but I hoped I would have enough to buy a nice car or a house some day. Now I even have a TV series, and getting it was a big shock."
The four-part TV show, which began on RTÉ last week, follows on from Nathan's Christmas special last year, which pulled in huge viewing figures. Recorded in front of live audiences in Sligo, The Nathan Carter Show sees him being joined on stage for music and chats by guests ranging from established musicians to new acts. At tonight's filming, I get to see him interview Una Healy, Margot, Brian Kennedy and Ham Sandwich.
There are also pre-recorded segments in which the singer travels around the country to surprise particular fans. In one case, he travelled by helicopter to perform at a fan's wedding, which was on the same day as a gig in Dublin.
On staget at the filming, Nathan is calm and assured, and he takes direction well and even manages to throw a few good-natured off-the-cuff quips in. It all flows very smoothly and he only fluffs the occasional line. However, he confesses to being nervous about interviewing people on the show. "I did a lot of research in advance on all the acts. TV is something I'm enjoying so we'll see how it goes after this series. It's a big platform, as it brings me into people's homes all over Ireland and further afield."
Does he worry about what the reaction might be to the show? After all, criticism can be vicious on social media, especially when you're off the radar of what's considered cool.
"I never look at Twitter because I did it once before and there were a lot of negative comments. I used to be sensitive to that but I'm not as bad now. As things get more successful, you care less about the bad stuff, and I'm definitely a little more certain of myself now!"
He may be more confident - even winning Live Act of the Year at the RTÉ Irish Country Music Awards in June - but the singer admits that he still gets nervous before the bigger gigs. Biting his nails is his worst habit, and he has been known to suffer from what we will euphemistically term "digestive distress" when nerves get the better of him.
"I have had to leave the stage to go to the bathroom on a few occasions," he groans. "The lads know now, so they fill in by playing a couple of songs while I'm gone."
One gig that is already causing butterflies is his concert at Dublin's 3Arena next April, where he'll headline with support from Sharon Shannon and band.
"Dublin was the hardest nut for me to crack, and that has only happened in the last 18 months," he says. "I could go to Galway and play to thousands at a festival, but three years ago in Dublin, I couldn't even play to 500 people. I sold out the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre a few months ago, and we were approached a while ago by producers who thought we should look at the 3Arena. We're doing it and it will be amazing, but even saying it scares me."
With 150 gigs per year, Nathan is constantly on the road. Aside from himself, there are seven in the band and seven crew members on the tour bus. With the exception of granny Ann, they're all male. How does it all work travelling with so much testosterone in a confined space?
"It's good fun on the road and we all get on pretty well, which is quite rare because we live in each other's pockets. It's quite cramped on the tour bus and we have rules - no women on the bus and no number twos! It can be hard to find the balance, as there are nights that people may want to stay up, have a drink and play cards or watch a DVD. Others might want to go to sleep and they'd be giving out if things were too loud."
Do the rules apply to you, I ask? The others surely wouldn't dare take the boss to task if he decided to have a bit of an after-hours party? "Nah, I do what I want because I'm paying for the bus," he laughs.
When he has some rare downtime, he loves to chill out and says that he's "boring really". He bought a little boat as he loves to sail and water-ski. He enjoys going to the cinema and is a fan of action films. He also goes to the gym once or twice a week.
Does he take much care over his looks?
"Although I have a gym membership, I usually end up sitting in the jacuzzi," he admits.
"I'm conscious of my diet, as I was a little bit heavy before, but I've lost about a stone in the last year. I've tried to keep it that way but it's a constant battle in my head because I love food.
"It's hard on the road because you get back to the bus at all hours after a show and you're starving, so it's easy to just eat crisps and chocolate. I'm also a chocoholic, and I particularly love Lindt."
I can already see the boxes of Valentine's chocolates arriving in their thousands.
'The Nathan Carter Show' airs on RTÉ One on Sundays at 9.30pm. Nathan will play The SSE Arena Belfast on March 31, and the 3Arena Dublin on April 1; see ticketmaster.ie
Portraits by Fran Veale