Born in working class Northern Ireland, Ricky Warwick has spent more than three decades honing his craft in bands such as New Model Army, The Almighty and as a solo artist with his band The Fighting Hearts. He is also currently the singer for classic rock legends Thin Lizzy and the spin-off band Black Star Riders. Ricky talked with 519 about his latest project and the road that would one day bring him to the band he admired as a kid growing up.
“The last time I played Windsor I opened for Cheap Trick at Caesar’s playing solo acoustic,” he opens up with. “That’s going back about ten years. I have a good friend, Jay Ruston who’s from the area as well. He’s a producer who produced a lot of Black Star Rider stuff. I opened for Def Leppard in Canada a few times, Thin Lizzy has been there a couple times and Black Star Rider opened for Judas Priest a couple of years ago as well, so yes, I got to spend some time in your beautiful country.”
You’ve worked with a real pedigree of musicians in your various projects. Is that a conscious effort to seek these musicians or does the cream just rise to the top?
I think it’s one of the perks of doing this for thirty years and meeting artists that inspire and artists I admire and becoming friends with them. Obviously I’m in a fantastic position now where I know these people and I get to work with people who are extremely talented and successful doing what they do. First and foremost they’re my friends now which is wonderful so victim of circumstances but in a good way.
You and Scott Gorham go way back, how did you meet?
I met Scott back in 1990 I think it was. My ex wife and his wife worked together at MTV in Europe so I met Scott’s wife before I met him. So she said I’m working with Christine Gorham and I was like, wait a minute, you work with who? Thin Lizzy was my favourite band and I said, can I meet him? We ended up meeting at Donington, MTV were working there that day and Christine and my ex went up to the festival to work and I was going to meet Scott at the hotel bar and ride up with him later and we hit it off and have been friends ever since.
There are obvious similarities between your vocals and the late great Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. Did Scott know of you before you met?
Oh yeah, he knew about my old band The Almighty and then when I did my first solo record back in 2002, Joe Elliot produced the record in his studio in Dublin and Scott flew over for the weekend to play on a couple of tracks. He heard the solo record and was really blown away by it and I guess when he was putting Thin Lizzy back together he talked to Joe and Joe was, why don’t you call up Ricky, he sings in the same sort of vocal range as Phil and you know each other and Scott said that’s a cool idea. I think that’s really how it came about.
I like how Black Star Riders plays to a new audience and still carries the Thin Lizzy torch. I like how it’s done out of respect to Phil’s legacy.
I think playing Thin Lizzy songs live is one thing and writing new material was a step too far, I think it was the elephant in the room. We were getting a little bit carried away with the success of the live shows and then being in a band with writers there was the talk, let’s write some new material. Suddenly, hang on a minute, making a record without Phil, it’s sacrilege you know and I think when the penny dropped, that was a weight off everybody’s chest.
I think it was a matter of letting your head rule your heart and when everybody realized the enormity of what that would be, we decided, we’ve got these killer songs, what are we going to do with them? So I sort of said to Scott, we should just put a band together, come up with a band name and put them out and let people hear them and judge them. It might be one album, they might not dig it but we like the songs, let’s get them out there and lo and behold here we are nine years later and ready to do the fifth Black Star Riders album. People have to realize people die but the music doesn’t.
If it’s done with sincerity, integrity and played from the heart and delivered with a passion and a power that’s true to the idea the original artist set out to do, I don’t have a problem with that. You can tell when people are phoning it in or doing it for the money, it stinks. When people do it respectfully and with grace, I think it’s great to keep the music alive. Turn on people who maybe never got to see the original band, maybe never heard of them that can then go back and check out how great the original guys were.
Absolutely, some bands just go through the motions but you’re a really prolific writer. You seem to have several irons in the fire most of the time, how do you keep motivated?
I just love to create music. I love to write, I don’t take it for granted. I’ve got the greatest job in the world. I get to write songs every day for a living and that in itself is amazing and inspirational. I try to treat it like a job because it is one and I give it the respect it deserves. I’m consumed by music, I’m consumed by what I do. I think about it 24/7 and it’s part of who I am, I don’t really know what else to do.
So the pandemic hasn’t had an affect on your output?
It’s had an affect on touring obviously, which was a huge part of my life, touring as much as we did. Once you accept the realization of what it is, it’s out of your control and it’s a matter of deciding, how am I going to live in the new norm? Is it I’m going to write more, I’m going to read more, I’m going to exercise more, I want to do online shows once a month? How can I be proactive, how can I keep pushing myself and that’s what I’ve done.
It’s great because not only is the next Black Star Riders album written and demoed and the new solo album is coming out in a couple of weeks but the next one is written and demoed. It’s given me the opportunity to spend a year at home with my family which I’ve never done before and that’s been wonderful. There have been a lot of positives, I’m very blessed. There’s a lot of people who are a lot worse off out there who are having a really hard time and I really have nothing to complain about. Everybody has days where they ask is this ever going to end but I try to stay positive and active.
Tell me about the new album. When did you start it, what was the timeline?
The pandemic didn’t affect this album at all. It was demoed in 2018 and recorded in April of 2019, and it was always scheduled for release in early 2021. The last year we thought we were going to be touring all year with Black Star Riders. I refer to Black Star Riders as the day job so everything else we schedule around that. We put a Black Star Riders album out at the end of 2019 and we were able to get one European tour in before we went into lockdown but all 2020 was going to be Black Star Riders and promoting the album and 2021 was going to be put out the solo album so the timeline hasn’t changed.
The song Clown of Misery on the new album is a great song. It has a unique sound partly due to you recording your vocals on your iPhone. Was this planned or part of a routine you have or did it just happen?
Complete accident, I got the idea for the song and grabbed my phone and guitar and threw it down quickly. I sent it to Keith Nelson who I co-produced the record with and said, I think this can be a contender, what do you think about recording this? He said, it’s done. I said what are you talking about it’s done? It’s an iPhone demo dude, really? He said no man, there’s a feel and desperation that you’ve captured here.
What if we were to make it sound like an old Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie 78 rpm and distort it and crackle it up a bit? I said that’s a great idea and that’s what we did. He said, and I agreed with him, that there was a certain angst and desperation in the way that I recorded it that suited the lyrics. He felt that if we glossed it up too much we’d lose that intensity.
It’s genius, it’s a great example of how important good production is to music. Most of your lyrics are very autobiographical, what was it like growing up in Belfast and how did that affect your writing?
I lived there until I was fourteen and then we moved to Scotland. Mostly I grew up at the height of the troubles over there but when you’re born into something and you don’t know any different, that’s the norm. I just thought that was my childhood, there’s soldiers on the street, there’s riots and bombs going off and shootings.
That’s normal to me, to me, that’s where I live, so it didn’t register a lot as a kid, we just got on with it as most people did and try to make the best of it. It wasn’t till I moved away, till later life you look back and go, oh my God, that was a dead guy we had to walk around going to school that morning. Remember that time the army came down and blocked the street off? Remember the time the bomb went off?
Remember when so and so got killed? Suddenly you go wow and then you reach back in there and all these stories and characters you met growing up suddenly came to the fore in my mind. It wasn’t until much later that I wrote about those experiences. I go back a lot to visit old childhood haunts and friends and relatives and characters that are still with us from those days. The great thing about the Irish is they’re great story tellers and they’re a great source of inspiration for me.
You write a lot with your childhood friend Sam Robinson.
He’s a friend from East Belfast, both the same age, both support the same soccer team. Sam’s a great writer, he has a beautiful way with words. He’ll send me something and I always know when I get an e-mail from Sam it’s going to be great. We had similar upbringings, working class families and he has a great way of tapping into shared experiences that we had. When I write with him he makes writing the melodies and chords so easy.
I like your solo album “When Patsy Cline was Crazy and Guy Mitchell Sang the Blues”. Is that your Brown Dirt Cowboy album?
Absolutely, you’ve nailed it. It’s our story of growing up in Northern Ireland, it’s our shared childhood and experiences growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and looking to the future and beyond. That album is predominantly all about growing up in Northern Ireland and what I like about it is you don’t have to be from there just to relate to a lot of the experiences. We specifically wanted to write about a time and an era that was very close to our hearts. It was a lot of fun working with Sam on that record.
When you were starting out as a musician, you were inspired by bands like MC5, The Stooges and Stiff Little Fingers and it was reflected in your band The Almighty. What was it that caused you to shift towards the sound you have today, a more traditional rock sound?
There’s a lot of factors towards that, through the end of the nineties I found myself back living in Dublin and through some bad choices and doing some things I shouldn’t have been doing I found myself with no publishing deal, no record deal, no management, nasty divorce and feeling sorry for myself.
It wasn’t a good time in my life and I was kind of feeling I might be done with music. I had a few bad experiences in the business side of music, the whole label politics and I was getting really jaded with the whole thing. I tried to walk away from it which is dumb because you can’t walk away from something that’s in your blood.
It was really Joe Elliot who’s a friend and who was living in Dublin who grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, “Look man, what are you doing? You need to be writing songs, that’s what you do, you can’t give up on this.” And I was saying I’m done man and he said, “You love Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, why don’t you pick up an acoustic and just write some tunes?” and I did, that’s really what started me off down that road. Suddenly here’s this new dimension and new ideas I’d never explored before.
When I was in The Almighty I never would have dreamt of playing a solo gig with an acoustic guitar. Unless I had my Les Paul and a wall of Marshalls, I’m not doing that. So I totally reinvented myself as a performer, an artist and a musician and I’m still keeping the edge that I always had but it was a real eye opener and once I got my toe in the water I just said ok and dived in and went with it.
Your music still rocks but I also hear the country influence in some of the songs. Your sound is diverse.
I just love all kinds of music, I really do, I always have. I’ve never been stuck with one genre, everything from Hank Williams to Slayer and everything in between. I love a lot of Motown, I love a lot of Northern Soul, I love songwriters that have something to say.
I’ve always tried to keep those many influences in what I do and not be tied to one thing. I still love loud electric guitars, I love it and love the fact that there’s still lots of loud guitar driven rockers on the record but you can have a song like Time Don’t Seem to Matter which is just a stripped down acoustic song as well. So to be able to cover all that is amazing and it’s really important to me to be able to do all that.
New solo music comes this month and what about the next Black Star Riders album?
Yes, February 19th for the solo album and hopefully we’ll get the Black Star Rider recorded this year, not sure about the release date yet but obviously pandemic pending and not sure when we’ll get in to record. I’d like to think that when we do get it out that we’ll be able to go out and tour.
Order Ricky Warwick’s new album here:rickywarwick.com