Wednesday 19 June 2019

'They stamped on my head and my mouth was ripped apart - I thought I'd never sing again' - Belfast musician Humphrey

Belfast musician Humphrey is baffled as to why he was viciously attacked at a music festival in Sweden last year, but now he's celebrating the release of his new single. He tells Linda Stewart about his recovery and what it was like to become a dad when he was 20

Humphrey
Humphrey

Linda Stewart

It's not unusual for injuries to inspire art and music - look at how Frida Kahlo turned to painting following a horrific bus accident, laying bare her medical agonies in her famed self-portraits. Meanwhile, Kanye West famously shot to stardom after releasing his debut single Through The Wire, recorded two weeks after he was admitted to hospital following a near-fatal car crash and left with his jaw wired up.

Now, Northern Ireland musician and lyricist Humphrey has become the latest in a long line of artists to transform an agonising experience into something new and creative, with his debut solo single delivering a stark yet upbeat message to the thugs who put him into hospital.

The 36-year-old frontman of blues rock band MASK has been through the crucible - and the result is a stunning and surprisingly jaunty Kinks-esque song, What Goes Around, which warns his assailants that karma is just over their shoulder.

In reality, the thugs who beat him up in the unlikely setting of a music festival in Sweden were never apprehended - and Humphrey is still baffled as to why he was singled out and left with broken ribs, internal injuries, a fractured eye socket and a serious mouth injury.

The Omagh-born singer was listening to the music at the festival late last summer when he was subjected to an unprovoked attack by four men.

"I was blind-sided - one of them punched me from behind. I'm not sure if I was knocked out, but I don't remember much other than my mouth was torn open," he says.

"They took the opportunity to stamp on my face and body, so my body went limp. It was quite an infuriating time - I ended up in hospital with stitches in my mouth.

"They stamped on the back of my head and that was what ripped my mouth apart."

Humphrey was admitted to hospital in Sweden for a day and a night.

After he was released he flew home to Dromore, Co Down - only to be admitted to Lagan Valley Hospital for further treatment.

"I had to go back to hospital because I had severe head trauma and broken ribs. I had to go in for a day so that they could stabilise me - it was quite scary," he says.

"It's why my face is on the front of my debut single - because having got to the stage where I was singing, it threatened whether I could sing again.

"Four months after the accident, every time you would go over a note it would tear open again. I was having real trouble keeping it together, literally. It was touch and go whether I would sing again.

"I did have to stop and change the way I sing. I worked with my singing coach to be able to sing again and I think my voice is a wee bit better for it - that might be part of the jauntiness!"

If he had been younger, Humphrey says, he might have been tempted to seek revenge.

"But I'm older now, and I just have to deal with this and live with it. And that is why the song came about," he says.

"Someone said to me 'What goes around comes around' and I thought that's the chorus right there."

The debut single What Goes Around has a Kinks-inspired sound, he says.

"It's a very happy song - too happy to be a revenge song. Maybe I'm happy about the revenge that is going to be coming! I'm quite happy if they do get their comeuppance," he says.

A single father to 15-year-old Presley, Humphrey (his stage name) admits he was a latecomer to the music scene and didn't take his first singing lesson until he was 32.

"I suffered from stage fright for many, many years," he says.

"But my son broke his leg at school and it forced me to quit my job, so I was sitting at home with nothing really to do and I said to myself that I should probably do something."

He did have the right pedigree though - while his mum was a shopkeeper in Co Tyrone, his dad sang in a wedding band throughout the Seventies and Eighties.

"Every weekend, he was away playing weddings - sometimes two in one day. It was a pretty hectic life for him," Humphrey says.

As a child, Humphrey describes himself as "generally cheeky and could do better". "I was always injured. I would see everything as a climbing challenge - I broke nearly every bone in my body. They knew me in the hospital - I broke my arm, broke both my legs and I was a bit sport-mad."

He admits it was scary to become a father at the age of 20, at a time when he was working away, in England and Scotland. He and his then girlfriend weren't able to make a go of it, but have an amicable relationship now.

"It was absolutely terrifying, because I kind of felt like a child myself," he says.

"I was in a constant state of worry, because nobody tells you how to be a parent. In school they were teaching us about algebra, but when I had a child I was thinking 'why did nobody teach me about this crying baby?'"

Humphrey travelled globally, wherever the work took him, and admits he never really stopped anywhere. It wasn't until 2012 that he returned to live in Northern Ireland on a full-time basis and started a property business.

"I came back to be the father I always wanted to be. I was always having to work away for money," he says. "Presley was eight years old and I'd had to get to know him again, probably every year.

"I've always struggled with parenting - I haven't been a naturally good father and it's something that I've always tried to work on and get better at.

"I was sick and tired of saying goodbye. Every time, it ripped my heart out more and more. And as time went on, I said here was where I wanted to be, to come back home and do it properly."

The music came about, he says, because he didn't know what to do with himself back home in Northern Ireland.

"Songwriting was something I had been doing from I was 16. I'd write stuff down, get really ashamed and embarrassed and tear it up and throw it in the bin. I never kept any of it.

"Then I wrote a very personal song and it turned out to be a good one and that got me hooked."

The next step was to put together the band - and Humphrey admits that he had no intention of becoming a singer.

"The guy who I was going to get to sing the songs said I had to communicate the melody to him. And that meant I had to go and get singing lessons," he says. "It was really, really embarrassing at 32 years of age to sit outside with girls in their Frozen dresses. It seemed like every child in Belfast with a Frozen dress had turned up for singing lessons!"

But the main challenge was Humphrey's crippling stage fright and fear of singing.

"It was terrifying learning to sing at 32 years of age - I felt under an enormous amount of pressure and after six months I couldn't sing - I could just about hum.

"I was spending £30 an hour on lessons and I was so scared of doing it that I would talk to the person for an hour instead - that's how scared I was!"

In fact, it's down to Pauline Carville of Apollo Arts that MASK now has its frontman. After hearing about his plight, she insisted that she would get him to sing.

Humphrey says: "I've got to give her credit, she got me singing. She had me pushing the walls, screaming 'Na na na na na' like a baby, but I tell you, it worked.

"She was just the right person for me, because she knew how scared I was. We were both making fun of the situation by laughing at it. And the floodgates opened and I became a singer."

MASK has an unusual set-up - as two of the members live in England and the other lives in Scotland, any time they are recording an album, they all fly into Belfast and live in Humphrey's house for a couple of weeks.

"I didn't expect for anyone to listen to our music, I've got to be honest," he says.

"The first EP (The Truth) was recorded in my dining room. It was me screaming into a microphone in my dining room, trying to hit the notes."

But the music has received a massive online response. MASK began releasing music in 2017 and their last album was streamed over a quarter of a million times.

"It kind of captured people in a way," Humphrey says.

"There are very personal songs in there. The opening song is about dementia and then there was a video 'Suffer in Silence', which is about kids growing up these days in a world of social media. It's quite powerful, but simple.

"The online reaction was totally unexpected - totally humbling and way more than we thought it would be."

The band rarely gig, instead preferring to shoot videos when they are all together and release them online.

"We decided that instead of doing gigs we'd stick to songwriting, because we're so far apart," Humphrey says.

However, MASK are planning a few gigs this summer, including their first festival.

"We're all fathers, so we are doing what we can, given that we are parents," Humphreys says.

"We should have started the band 14 years ago, but we never did. We meet less and less as our personal responsibilities grow more and more - so this is a last chance for us!"

Meanwhile, he is putting the finishing touches to his solo album, Taming Demons, which is "90% there".

He insists he has no intention of leaving MASK - this is just an opportunity to try different genres.

"I love my band, but people seem to jump to the dramatic conclusion - are you leaving the band? It's very much the opposite. I just wanted to try something different," he says.

"MASK would be blues rock, whereas this is different - this is pulling in all the elements. Elements of hip-hop, elements of all different things - I threw in some psychedelia, love songs - just something different."

One song, Now and Forever, is a love song to his son - "I can't stop crying whenever I sing it!" - while another has a strong Bond theme influence.

Humphrey even enlisted a choreographer and ballet dancer to make a video for one of the tracks.

"It's going to look amazing," he says.

There's also a song about the Troubles, called Broken Hearts. Humphrey was 15 when the Omagh bomb went off and says he remembers well the impact it had on his home town.

"Broken Hearts is a song about politicians using people's broken hearts to do their dirty work for them," he says.

But he admits he doesn't watch the news much these days, "I'm a bit of a recluse. I just lock myself away and write music."

As for the significance of the name of the album, Taming Demons, he says it's almost like therapy.

"Each song is a little demon that was in my life at one stage and I've turned it into music," he says.

"It's like taking a problem, putting it up again the wall and dealing with it.

"What was crazy about writing it was that all the little stresses , betrayals and hurts that you're writing about - I'd write a song and I would feel hurt all over again and it actually made me angry.

"But they're all personal little demons of mine that I've let go - and I am letting them go by putting them into music form."

For more information, visit www.masktheband.com

Belfast Telegraph

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