Louis is on song
As they limber up to represent Ireland at the Eurovision, pop mogul Louis Walsh tells us why the contest will be the beginning of a solo career for singer Brendan Murray
For years, we enjoyed an easy reign at the Eurovision Song Contest, cruising to victory a mammoth seven times (including a three-year streak in the 1990s). We appeared so insurmountable, in fact, that the ongoing joke was that we would need to start sending belowpar entries because we wouldn’t afford to host the megabucks contest.
Since then, however, our Eurovision fortunes have waned. We finished last in 2007 and 2013, and since the introduction of the semi-final round in 2004, Ireland has failed to reach the final six times (in 2005, 2008, 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2016). In fact, last year – with formerWestlifer Nicky Byrne flying the Tricolor in Stockholm – marked the first time that Ireland failed to qualify in three consecutive years.
And when it came to breaking that losing streak, RTÉ (who pick and send our entries) decided to bring in the music big guns.
Louis Walsh has had a long history with the Eurovision. As former manager of double winner Johnny Logan and long-time friend of 1992 winner Linda Martin, he has been to more than a dozen competitions as an insider. It’s safe to say, too, that The X Factor judge knows a thing or two about pop music, so it’s little wonder that Michael Kealy, head of the Irish delegation, came knocking on his door.
But a lot has happened in the years since Johnny Logan’s glory days at the Eurovision and Louis is now part of the biggest pop juggernaut on TV, for a start, so why dip his toes back in the murky waters of Eurovision?
‘Because Michael asked me to!’ says Louis. ‘He’s in charge and for the first time in a long time, RTÉ know what they want and what they’re doing, so we have to take it seriously. We need to stand out, and when [Michael] asked me, he told me we can’t just get any singer, or any song.’ And Louis didn’t have to look too far for his secret weapon. Brendan Murray, a member of Louis’ on-hiatus boyband Hometown, was the artist that he picked for this year’s competition. ‘He’s got the most amazing voice, with a great range,’ Louis enthuses. ‘The second you hear it, you know it’s Brendan. Best of all, he doesn’t know he’s that good, and he’s the only person I thought of for Eurovision. Where is he going to score big? On the live show. Why? Because he can sing live.’
All told, the 20-year-old Galwegian is likeable and wholesome. He first picked up a guitar at 13 and was busking on Galway’s Shop Street for pocket money the following year. A cousin alerted Brendan in 2013 that Walsh was putting a boyband together. ‘I wasn’t even going to go to the auditions, because I was stuck in bed with a sore throat. But I’m glad I did,’ says Brendan.
He has scant recollection of Ireland’s Eurovision heyday. ‘My earliest memory was of Mickey Joe Harte,’ he says. ‘I caught up on all the other stuff when I was picked [to represent Ireland].’
‘I was on [RTÉ’s] You’re A Star back then!’ Louis adds. ‘Oh God, don’t remind me!’
That was job done on securing a singer. The next big box to tick on the list was to find a core-shaker of a song. Louis pulled out his hefty black book of pop contacts and scoured the far reaches of the industry. Eventually, Louis acquired 300 songs. An RTÉ panel listened to all 300, then whittled it down to 10, and presented Louis and Brendan with the shortlist. Of the 300 songs, many were delivered from some of the world’s biggest songwriters (Louis won’t say whom). The pair eventually settled on a ballad, Dying To Try, by Swedish songwriter Jörgen Elofsson and British songwriter James Newman. Elofsson in particular has a stellar pedigree: a Grammy-winning producer, he has worked with Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Celine Dion and, of course, Westlife.
‘I called him up as I know him from years
‘Years ago, you could live off the Eurovision’
ago… even though he’s Swedish, he’s never been involved in the Eurovision,’ says Louis.
Brendan is delighted with the song choice. ‘I absolutely love it, from the instant I heard it,’ he says. ‘My mam welled up when she heard it too.’
A number of Irish songwriters and producers were approached, but none appeared to make the grade.
‘It’s not a hip or trendy thing in Ireland, Eurovision, and I rang a lot of people who didn’t want to get involved in it,’ recalls Louis. ‘Some Eurovision fans wrote songs too, but what’s not the way it works. You need the professionals.
‘We won before with ballads with a key change. It’s about getting the right mix of things. You need to appeal to the housewives in Norway.’
Does he think the likes of Logan’s Hold Me Now or What’s Another Year? would be a hit with today’s Eurovision fans?
‘Absolutely,” he affirms. ‘They’ll always stand up. They still end up on the radio.’
It had been reported that Louis had reached out to his former charge, publicly saying that he would have loved Johnny to pen Ireland’s 2017 entry.
‘I never asked him about writing a song,’ counters Louis. ‘I think he’s done it, he’s a part of history and he wouldn’t want to go back to Eurovision without winning it. We’re still good friends, I like him and we get on, but I didn’t ask him.’
Ahead of the Eurovision contest in Kiev, Ukraine, both Brendan and Louis are excited, but they have tempered their expectations, not least given that Italy and Belgium are the favourites to romp home to victory: ‘I think we’ve a great chance, but I don’t think we’re going to win – I’ll say that now,’ says Louis.
‘Because of all the politics. You’ve always got these countries from Eastern Europe and they all vote for each other, and all take it very, very seriously. They send their best singers and songwriters, people we’ll never have heard of, whereas in the last few, we’ve kind of just… sent a singer. You have to be serious about it. Why don’t we qualify [for the final] for a change? I mean, that would be progress.’
Of course, the Irish public are rarely kind when the Irish entry doesn’t fare well: the glories from years past still cast a long shadow, and there is genuine disappointment among some fans. Last year’s entry, Nicky Byrne was slated online after failing to make it to the semi-final. How does Brendan think he might take all of that?
‘I haven’t thought about it,’ he states, not especially convincingly. ‘I think my main focus is looking after my nerves on the night and, who knows, it might open a few doors afterwards.’
Indeed, Louis and Brendan very much have their eye on the long game. Citing artists whose careers he admires, Brendan mentions Ed Sheeran, James May and Sam Smith. And for both of them, it’s clearly what happens after Eurovision that is of more significance. ‘I want him to get a record deal,’ says Louis, who is managing Brendan’s whole career. ‘This is the start of people knowing who he is, and he’s learning the game. Years ago, if you were in the Eurovision you could live off it for the year – you got the gigs, a hit record, and the record company took you on. It meant something then.’
As to whether Louis would ever encourage Brendan to take a punt on The X Factor, he is circumspect, and perhaps with good reason: in 2014, Britain’s Got Talent bosses had to deny that Hometown were fast-tracked through the show’s audition process. ‘He can do whatever he wants,’ he says. ‘I won’t push him into doing anything he wants.’
Whatever happens next, Louis is adamant that the Eurovision, come what may, will land Brendan firmly on the map as a solo singer.
‘I don’t want him to overdo it [at Eurovision]… I want him to show people he can sing well and play guitar. Once that’s in the bag, you don’t need the silly dancers and the gimmicks.’
‘You need to get the housewives in Norway to like it ’
Eur a star: Louis Walsh chose Brendan Murray to sing this year’s Irish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev
Home boys: Brendan Murray (second from left) with his bandmates from Hometown