“I listen to pop,” says Niall Breslin. “I love pop. I write pop.”
Breslin has to talk a lot about his love of pop these days, which must be at least a little annoying for him. The Killers don’t have to justify their pop leanings. Neither do the Script. But Breslin has baggage. Once a professional rugby player, Bressie, as he’s now known — looks exactly like the kind of tough guy who might front a Queens of the Stone Age-style rock band.
And for six years, with his band The Blizzards, that’s at least somewhere in the region of what he did. Breslin made two albums with The Blizzards. They had a hit single in Ireland with Trust Me I’m A Doctor and entertained thousands at festivals like Oxegen. Brash, tuneful and rhythmic as they were, however, The Blizzards struggled to flip their small-time success into a big-time career.
In January 2010, the Mullingar-based outfit called a halt to proceedings. Breslin moved to London to chase the bright lights, pursue a songwriting career and make his first solo album. Hats off to him, he’s managed it in jig time — it’s a matter of days before his first, defiantly pop-oriented album Colourblind Stereo is released by Sony Music.
Sitting in a hotel in Temple Bar, Bressie is half cool indie musician (the freshly inked tattoo stretching up his forearm, the trendy sideburns) and half Big Friendly Giant, a handsome man so large and tall (6’6”) that it seems like no chair will ever comfortably accommodate him — and certainly no tabloid newspaper would ever miss him emerging from a nightclub.
As his kaleidoscopic musical approach might suggest, Bressie is an interesting bunch of guys. Chatty, down-to-earth and direct, he’s confident in himself and blissfully relaxed about what people know about him. Not for him the anxious denials or refusals to share opinions on anything more controversial than the price of cheese.
His Facebook page has more than 2,000 friends on it, and he’s perfectly happy to have fans see pictures of him in a kilt at a family wedding (his mother is Scottish and his father Irish). His Twitter page, meanwhile, is as revealing of his foibles as his tunes — he’s as likely to talk about himself accidentally bashing his head off the oven as he is his new single.
It’s important to Bressie to be one of the lads — he lives with three Irish friends in an apartment in Hampstead Heath in London. “Our entire direct friend group in London are all Irish. Irish people aren’t funny, but when we’re together we’re fucking hilarious. The English are like, `I have no idea what you’re talking about’, but we’re pissing our pants laughing.”
But Bressie is also climbing the pop industry ladder — and with pop music comes pop gossip. In recent times, his name has been linked in the papers with everyone from MTV presenter Laura Whitmore to the model Caprice. “It’s just hilarious,” he says. “The Caprice rumour, I got a call off my mum about that. She said: `I thought you didn’t like blondes.’ ”
Bressie laughs. He understands the pop game and he’s perfectly content with the deal he’s struck — at least if it helps make him successful. I’ve met Breslin several times over the past five years and he has always struck me as one of the most searingly ambitious Irish musicians we have. “It’s not a cocky thing,” he says. “It’s a self-belief thing.”
That ambition and passion is writ large on his debut album Colourblind Stereo. It’s a record that ricochets wildly in terms of its subject matter — Bressie talks about love, the Celtic tiger and the dancefloor.
But from a musical perspective, the album is rooted firmly in the land of vocoders, feel-good keyboards and sparkly, David Guetta-style production. If this album could, it would wag its tail frantically at you.
While Blizzards fans may sniff at Bressie’s new musical direction (even if they still find themselves dancing to the beautifully fizzy Breaking My Fall in nightclubs), a younger audience is lapping it up — his uber-catchy debut single Can’t Stay Young Forever reached the top spot in the Irish airplay chart — and Bressie happily mentions that students have emailed him to say they’re playing it as their official debs song.
This is music tailor-made for an international, as well as domestic, audience. Ireland is the test run. “They say the key is to nail it here in Ireland,” Bressie says. “If you create a big story here, they’ll creep it in there [in Britain]. But they might turn around and say: `We need three more big songs’.”
“They” are the record company, and if their attitude sounds a bit clinical, well, that’s because it is. Bressie eats, sleeps and breathes music but he’s very concerned to make sure he creates for himself a safe, high-up nook in the tree of pop.
“A lot of songs with the Blizzards I wrote when I had no worries in the world,” he says. “I was in college. I was just chilling out. With the solo album, obviously things have changed. I’ve been through a lot more. I’ve done two albums with the band. I moved from my home town. Stuff like that. I think that comes across in the songwriting.”
Growing up in Mullingar, Bressie was more or less raised by his sisters and his music teacher mother. His father was in the army, so he was almost always overseas, and his producer/musician brother relocated to Glasgow when Niall wasn’t yet five.
Being bigger than all of his classmates and his family always meant Bressie stuck out from the crowd. “My family are tiny,” he says. I raise an eyebrow. “My grandad is massive, so that’s where it came from. I put up with my fair share of milkman jokes. I was raised with three sisters, so I had to be pretty confident or I’d have been eaten alive.”
School wasn’t always easy. A Christian Brothers school, it was a tough climate, where corporeal punishment was still ongoing. Still Bressie made friends easily. He had hoped to study physiotherapy, but missed getting the 540 points he needed (he got 490). Instead, he went to UCD on a sports scholarship to study Commerce. Throughout his studies, even if certain subjects like French didn’t come easily to him, praise from his sports coaches always did.
Bressie became a professional lock-forward for Leinster Rugby from 2001 to 2004, before walking away. “I just had enough,” he says. “I walked off the training pitch and said to my coaches: `I’m retiring, I’m done’. Three weeks before, I’d nearly lost my eye. Someone had stood on my face.
“I love watching the sport, but when you become professional, it changes. My whole passion for it went. And it’s not a sport you play unless you’re passionate about it.”
If his parents were sceptical when he left rugby to play music full-time with The Blizzards, his father really couldn’t believe what he was hearing when Bressie told him, in January 2010, that he was walking away from the band to live in London and make a solo album. “My dad went: `Fuck’s sake, are you ever going to stick at something?’ ”
The criticism looks like it may have stung — but Bressie’s retort has been to work harder than ever. These days, he has so many plates spinning in the air it’s a wonder he can manage. His day job involves working at 19 Entertainment in London, whose stable includes Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, churning out hopeful hits for up-and-coming artists. The rest of the time is spent coping with the demands of his own career — for the new album, he worked with his production partner and fellow Irishman Jimbo Barry and Gomez singer Tom Gray.
“I haemorrhaged my savings,” he says. “I bought a load of studio equipment I couldn’t afford and got a big loan to do it. The deal with Sony — you get your money up front and it’s your choice whether you want to record in a good studio with good equipment or whether you want to do it in your bedroom. And I chose the good studio.”
If the first year in London proved difficult — Bressie couldn’t acclimatise to the pushiness of the city, the English sense of humour — gradually he has started to fit in.
Still, there remain problems. For all that Bressie regularly talks about what he wants to achieve with his music, he’s often faced with trying to reel in his natural instincts and accept what record company executives are telling him.
For my money, one of the strongest tracks on the new album is Animals, which has a surprisingly angry and political chorus (“Treat us like animals/That’s how we react/like animals”), and also talks about the pension plight of his father.
Bressie fought to get the song on the album. “There’s the line, ‘You robbed my father’s pension/like he ceased to exist’. Why can’t I sing about that? That’s my first political song. A friend of my manager’s said: `Ah, Bressie, singing about politics doesn’t suit you’. And I said: `What happened in Ireland in the last five years is the single biggest thing that’s happened in my life. Why can’t I sing about it?’ ”
Still, happy as he is that the song is on there (when four other “heavy” songs didn’t make the cut, thanks to his manager), Bressie has some reservations about what fans might think. “The fans who liked the first two singles might feel a bit isolated when they hear that one,” he concedes. “If you’re 17 or 18, you don’t want to know about that shit.”
There’s a fight going on within Bressie. He has a million different urges in terms of his musical vision, but his own massive ambition — to be the next big thing in pop — may mean that his creativity has to take a back seat in favour of privileging the needs and interests of the pop marketplace.
Still, Bressie is constantly thinking, drafting, reshaping and writing. For the past two weeks he’s only had an acoustic guitar to hand. “I’ve written four folk songs,” he laughs. Next stop, the folk album? Don’t bet against it.
“I firmly believe I’ll be successful if I’m passionate about it,” he says. He could be right.
Colourblind Stereo will be released on September 16. The new single, Good Intentions, is out now