People may make fun of country music, but Nathan Carter is a born performer who is happy to give his audience what they want (except when it comes to the details of his dating life, that is). Having overcome the lows of lockdown — when he found himself drinking heavily and seeking therapy — he’s back on the road and aiming to break the US
When Nathan Carter was a teenager in suburban Liverpool, he had three posters thumbtacked to his bedroom wall: Kenny Rogers, Christy Moore and Dolly Parton. “All of my friends would’ve been listening to what was cool at the time — Oasis, Eminem, that sort of stuff,” he says. “I was definitely the strange kid in school and I did get the piss taken out of me all the time. But I just loved it; you like what you like.
“But then, whenever I started gigging and making like a hundred quid per hour while all of my mates were making 20 quid here and there for working in shops, they kind of stopped laughing. Then, they started coming to my gigs.”
Carter’s is the kind of career trajectory to inspire a Hallmark movie. He was a gifted child, swayed by the morals and styles of his grandparents, and eschewed popular narratives, opting instead to make people smile, he says. There’s an innocence about him, so potent that its legitimacy is questioned — is this a projection of a genuinely agreeable man or the polite, public face of a brand? From conversing with him, I’m hesitant to say it’s not authentic. “I still wouldn’t listen to Eminem if you paid me to,” he says, “but that’s just me.”
He loves Ireland, where he has made his home. But, of course, he has to say that. His sights, however, are set on the States for now, ahead of an enormous tour he and his band have planned for next year. Famously, his kind are welcomed there, but the quiver in his voice suggests he knows it’s not just a case of showing up in Nashville with his guitar.
“America is on the cards all right, but who knows what the story will be there,” he says, with a deep inhale. “I’d love to break America. Having a number-one record in America, for me, would mean I’ve made it. Being asked to go on James Corden’s show, the likes of that. I know I do get asked all the time for photos and autographs and stuff but I genuinely couldn’t feel further from famous.
“I’m actually usually quite surprised they know who I am. People might know me through the odd TV or radio gig, but that’s not famous, really. Like, if I saw someone like Ed Sheeran on the road I’d be gobsmacked, but I’m neither on the same level of fame or musical ability as him, so it feels weird when people come up to me. I’m just not a famous person.”
I laugh, too, because to glance at Carter’s Instagram is to step into a deep chasm of obsession. The comments under his photos are filled with swooning women from here to Savannah, Georgia, all pledging allegiance to their hunk. No doubt the photoshoot accompanying this interview will take their temperatures up a notch.
He laughs and bats away my questions asking has he ever hooked up with fans. “I’d rather not discuss my love life, if that’s all right. Every interview I do centres around it, whether I’m seeing someone or single, and I’d rather just keep some things in my life just to myself.”
It’s an understandable take, given that a quick google of ‘Nathan Carter love life’ brings up some 13 million results. He famously dated fellow country musician Lisa McHugh for six months, back in 2015. Their courtship was a well-documented one, acting as inspiration for the fans who fill his comments section with heart emojis. It fell apart due to work commitments, he says, although the pair remain close.
He recently wished her well on the occasion of her giving birth to her first child. She had him on her podcast in early 2021, asking: “You’re talented, successful, good-looking, a genuine person and you would literally do anything for anyone. Why are you single?” He put it down to long working hours and constant touring.
To this day, he has never set a (digital) foot on Tinder; others having used his photos for catfishing cons on the dating app cemented his reason for staying away. “It’s happened a few times — an image of myself has come up on a profile. I was like, ‘Jesus, people will actually think this is me’. I’ve never been on Tinder, but god knows what people have been receiving from these profiles pretending to be me! I took it as a compliment, but people can be easily scammed. It’s happened to a lot of my fans but let this be the last time I say that if you see my picture on a dating app, it’s not me. And, no, I wouldn’t go on those celebrity dating apps, I prefer doing things the old-fashioned way.”
An impeccably quaint response from a man who has just discussed how often women’s underwear lands in his lap. “I have had underwear posted to me,” he laughs. “Used underwear, which is a bit mad. And all they have to write on the card is ‘Nathan Carter, Fermanagh’ and it still gets to me, which is weirder again.
“It made me feel like f***ing Tom Jones — like this must be for the wrong person or wrong address. A few unusual items end up in fan mail, we’ll say. It also happens at the shows, which can actually get the crowd going in itself. We did a gig recently in Waterford and two pairs of knickers were thrown up. Thankfully, they looked clean,” he laughs.
For Carter, comparisons to Daniel O’Donnell come in thick and fast. Yes, both men delve in the dark arts of country music and boast an overlapping fan base, but the comparisons stop there. “You wouldn’t get wee Daniel at this,” an anonymous Twitter account posted when news broke of Carter’s recent brush with the law.
In June 2021, he was forced to apologise after police issued fines for breaches of Covid-19 rules at a party celebrating his 31st birthday at his house in Co Fermanagh. At least 50 people were present and 16 fines were issued by police on the night, including a £1,000 penalty to the organiser, a friend of Carter’s. “I don’t have anything else to say about it other than it feels like ancient history is being dragged up again,” he says now.
“It was a difficult time,” he says of lockdown. “I’ve learned that I’m probably not as strong as I thought I was.” For someone used to constant performances — “when I first started out, it was about 200 a year, but in my later years we’re slowing down to about 150” — the shutdown was tough.
“There was literally nothing to get out of bed for. I was probably in a state of depression for a while because of not doing what I love. I really didn’t play any music for about four or five months at one stage. Thankfully, I started exercising and getting outdoors and doing a bit more songwriting which helped. I’d never felt down before, really. I went from radio, TV, gigs and a string of other projects as long as my arm to not being able to do it any more.
“The first few months were great, it was actually a bit of relief to get some downtime. Anyone who is involved in music will tell you that performing is like a drug. So because of that, I was always looking for my next gig — but I just wasn’t getting my fix.”
Instead, he began drinking too much. “On the road, I would’ve been out maybe Friday and Saturday night for a few drinks, but when we were in lockdown, I found myself with nothing
to do. I’d meet a couple of friends in a bubble and drink. It ended up being an every weekend thing. A lack of distraction was the problem for me, not having something to focus on. I think it was largely down to boredom, really.
“I drank every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and would then feel like absolute shit. I mean it was great at the time, but then I’d get depressed, or stop going to the gym because I was dying. It was a bad circle of habits that I’m very happy to be out of now.”
It wasn’t until he listened to a podcast extolling the virtues of mindfulness that things began to change. “I listened to Imelda May on Bressie’s [Where is My Mind] podcast and heard that she saw a therapist and it really helped her. None of my friends had ever been to see a therapist, so I really felt like the odd one out. That was the hardest part. But, as soon as I went, I started seeing articles online, where people who have therapists would speak openly about them. That changed things for me — knowing that you can tell people about your therapist and therefore tell people about feeling like shit some days. It really helped.”
Now, he urges others who are struggling to consider the same. “We’ve all got the issues that we need to deal with, and going for the likes of therapy and just chatting with someone has really helped. A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say. And I’d definitely urge more lads to go and see someone if they need it.”
It’s a side of Carter few have seen before; the reality behind the showmance. In a world such as country music, where men are men and stakes are high, there remains little wiggle room, most especially for new performers intent on shaking things up in a scene that commits happily to antiquity. Striking a balance between head and heart when it comes to a country-music career, for Carter, has occasionally been hard. There is pressure to stay in his lane.
“People expect you to be singing the old country stuff. I started out in a dance scene, where every single had to be the same tempo, so there was a bit of pressure to stay at that, and then backlash when I didn’t. I’ve written my own songs and performed slightly different styles of the music I started out with because I wanted to try my own thing, but it doesn’t always work.
“In general, I have gone back to
what I know. I had a single out just before Christmas, where I did a cover and it performed better than anything I’d had out in years. It kind of taught me a lesson, really, to stick with what you know and what the audience is looking for.
“I’ve experimented with a few different things but now I’ve gone back. I just enjoy performing, whether I’m singing a country song a pop song, or playing a few tunes on the accordion, I love it. It’s not like I dislike the songs I’m singing, but to be in this business, you have to care about what the audience likes, and that’s what I’ve gone back to.”
Despite being Ireland’s country prince, Carter oftentimes feels like the music industry’s court jester. “I know I don’t get taken seriously within the pop industry. People make fun of country music. Like it’s all cowboy hats and line dancing and jiving. I genuinely don’t care what people think though, enough of us like it. It wasn’t until the Garth Brooks thing came along that everyone began to understand how big the scene was. No one else would’ve been able to sell out five nights at Croke Park.
“The only time I felt like I’d been taken seriously as a performer was when RTÉ gave me a show. I was lucky enough to have a prime-time show on Sunday night. I got to sing and do collaborations with people like Melanie C, Billy Ocean, Shane from Westlife, and artists from all different kinds of genres. I remember thinking, if the national broadcaster is taking me seriously then I must be doing something right.”
Today, after we speak, he’s preparing for a series of gigs he and his band are performing on a cruise ship. “We’re off to the Caribbean, which is the first time I have been out of Ireland for a long time. I’m buzzing.”
He’s also currently catering to a “gap in the market” for a young Irish folk group called Ceol, the project that got him “back off my arse” after lockdown. “They supported me in Belfast recently and they were class. I think they’re gonna be huge.”
In the meantime, he walks me through his life outside of the music scene. “It’s pretty boring,” he says, “I’ve just finished Ozark, I got through the first three episodes of Pam and Tommy just there and I go to the cinema once or twice a week to see whatever’s on. It’s my total switch-off time. I just love turning my phone off and eating junk while watching a film, even if it is crap.”
Other than that, he does what the rest of us do — meets friends, attempts to get some exercise in and waits around until the concerts he bought tickets for in 2020 are fit to resume. “I’m due to see Rod Stewart and Elton John soon, but for the minute, I’m off to the Caribbean and chuffed about it.”
It’s clear to me that, 100pc wholesome or not, Carter is determined to live the life he wants, even if those on the sidelines remain dubious. His track record is also one you can take to the bank, so perhaps consider not knocking him until you try him. And maybe also consider not swiping right if you see him on Tinder. Your call.
Photography by: Terrie Burton, Noir Photique. Assisted by: Arielle McDevitt. Lighting by:
Connor Schelling. Styling by: Adam Walsh. Assisted by: Elaine Twomey. Grooming by:
Gail Miller. With thanks to Donegal Airport.