Tony Wright on life after And So I Watch You From Afar and the 'magic' of releasing his debut solo album
When Tony Wright announced that he was leaving And So I Watch You From Afar back in September 2011, it came as a bolt from the blue. The Belfast band were at the peak of their popularity, touring hard in the wake of the release of second album Gangs and taking their inspiring blend of epic, instrumental rock music and relentless positivity to new horizons, Russia and the United States included.
So why would he leave? His parting message was typically upbeat but suffused with ambiguity. It cited 'one reason and many others', and called the decision 'agonising'. At the time it seemed so unlikely that a band whose appeal was so entwined with notions of 'solidarity' and a 'gang mentality' could fracture in such a way.
Those fractures become all the more apparent with the release of Wright's debut solo album under the VerseChorusVerse moniker. For a time, VCV was a side-project, an outlet for Wright's love of traditional songwriting and singing – two things largely absent from the ASIWYFA formula – but shortly after the split, it became his main focus.
On the self-titled album – available now to those who contributed to the Pledge campaign that Wright used to fund it, and to everyone else early next year – Wright lays bare his soul on many things, and particularly on the circumstances behind his split from ASIWYFA. Over a pint in a Stranmillis pub, he says: 'Tensions were being created. In order for that band to survive, something had to give. For one reason or another, that was me.'
While not a break-up album as such, references to the split are dotted throughout VerseChorusVerse. 'Some of those songs were written at the point where something was very, very raw,' Wright says. 'No More Years', for example, features the line 'I won't wait no more years so I won't waste no more tears', and ends with a defiant refrain of 'No going back to year zero'.
Meanwhile, 'Big Red Van' looks back to the band's early days of touring with fondness, but contains the rather loaded comment, 'All I asked when I said goodbye was that you'd tell no lie. I'm no fool'.
Most eye-opening, however, is the devastating 'Three', a haunting lament that unflinchingly examines the circumstances leading up to Wright's departure. His emotional vocal performance and lyrics lay the rawness bare: 'Three against one ain't no fun / Unless you're the three and that ain't me.'
'I wrote that song in five minutes after I got a really disappointing, heartbreaking email from people representing the band,' Wright recalls. 'I was visiting my dad in Mayo at the time, hiding away from the world. I couldn't believe that certain things that had been agreed on had now been compromised so much. I couldn't comprehend how it had got to that.
'How did we get here from this solidarity thing [ASIWYFA curated a mini-festival entitled A Little Solidarity in 2008, and the concept was and is a key tenet of their appeal]? I felt slightly hypocritical with the whole solidarity thing for a good year or two before I left the band, because we didn't have that within the band. And yet we were preaching it to people.'
Wright admits to having been nervous about recording and performing the song, and even about talking about it now. But he has the support of his producer Iain Archer, and his live band, and he feels galvanised by the reaction from fans, including the large proportion who are also still fans of And So I Watch You From Afar. 'Some people have said, "I love this, it speaks to me about situations I've been through".'
To get to the root of VerseChorusVerse, however, we need to rewind. Most music fans familiar with Tony Wright knew him only as a member And So I Watch You From Afar, the guitarist with the shock of ginger hair, the man behind the spiralling riff of 'The Voiceless' (still a live staple two years after his departure), and the endearing, if potty-mouthed, onstage exhortations to the band's audiences.
Before that, he contributed vocals to a series of north coast punk bands, but few people had actually heard him sing or play an acoustic guitar until launched VCV, while still a member of ASIWYFA.
He first learned to play guitar thanks to his mother, who taught him the songs of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and John Denver, and he cites people like Joe Strummer, Peter Gabriel and Bjork – all creative minds who know the power of the song – as his heroes.
When it came to thinking about a new project, he had some strong ideas of how he wanted it to be. 'I didn't want to repeat myself. What the four of us made was unique, so there was no point in me trying to do that again. And I wanted to challenge myself, musically. I wanted to start off as far in the opposite direction as possible, and see where I could go with that.
'I'd had some of the best times of my life at the exact same time as I was having some of the most personally horrible periods of my life, for one reason or another. So I guess I wanted to do that to grow as a person, as well as a musician.
'What I'm doing is not as complex, but it's about taking things back to the most basic principles [of songwriting] and exploring those, and really mastering those. That was something that we always circumnavigated.'
The sound he ended up with – one which draws from traditional American folk music, as well as the classic rock of Young, Springsteen, Strummer – required him to truly sing for the first time.
'I was terrified,' Wright admits. 'Any bands where I'd sung before it was very much a shouting affair. I realised that a lot of people would go, "What's this guy from this instrumental band doing singing?". I certainly felt that from certain quarters. The majority of people were very welcoming but at the back of my mind, I had that paranoia.'
Did he ever consider it too much of a change? 'Yeah. But I would never do it in front of people. I would always present a calmness and an assuredness. But of course. If you don't question yourself, there's something very, very wrong.'
Now, he's glad he gathered the strength to do it. In hindsight, the idea of managing to fit in any kind of regular side project in a band as committed to touring as ASIWYFA sounds insane, but it's a measure of Wright's commitment to his craft that he even attempted it.
'The other guys had personal lives, but music has always been my personal life,' he says. 'It's the thing that has always consumed me, for want of a better word. So that was the plan, and then for one reason or another it became the main thing, and now it's all-consuming. It's both my hobby and career.'
The last year or so have seen much progress for the VCV outfit. There was solo tour of Spain organised by some fans, which Wright describes as 'the greatest tour I've ever done in my life'. There was the launch of VerseChorusVerse as a full live band, featuring three members of LaFaro and Stuart Bell of General Fiasco, Panama Kings and Desert Hearts fame. 'They blow me away every time I'm in a room with them.'
Then there was the recording of the album and the successful Pledge campaign to ensure it could finally find its way out into the world. All in all, and after the turmoil of 2011, Wright seems to be in a pretty good place.
'I've learned that I don't have to be scared of the legacy of And So I Watch You From Afar. It is a bit overbearing, especially in Belfast at times. But I learned that that's what it was. It was the past, and something that I helped create. It's a band I put together and they're still out performing songs that I wrote. That's amazing. And now I'm out doing this and planting seeds in different ways. It's an entire new world of opportunities just lying there, waiting to be tapped in to. It's magic.'