From being the best busker in Leeds to having one of the most anticipated albums on Amazon, Tristan Mackay is Britain's long-awaited answer to John Mayer. Blending soulful blues guitar with a unique talent for crafting songs, Tristan Mackay is the name to look out for this year. On a quick trip back to Leeds before his album launch, I managed to meet with Tristan for a half hour chat before he was due on the BBC.
Was busking important to the success of your career?
Yeah, definitely. You see the thing is when I started busking in Leeds, I hadn't done anything really at all, but people were giving me good feedback and I started recording in my bedroom and I made the Bedroom Orchestra EP. I started putting that out and people were buying it, I got a little bit of press out of it and did a few gigs around Leeds. And then one of the songs got picked up for the first series of Skins and that was my first break. And "Be All That You Can Be" got played on Radio 2 as well. But after that there was a year where nothing happened, I got a record deal but it fell through. Then I managed to find this producer who offered to make the album, Martin Levan. The thing with busking in Leeds is that people were really nice to me here, people really liked me. When I first started, there was nobody else really doing it in Leeds, apart from a few guys playing Bob Dylan songs but now there's people everywhere. But it was amazing and having done thousands and thousands of hours of it, I think that practice really helped when we got in the studio.
You were really tight and the loop pedal added a lot.
I remember buying that thing, the first two weeks I was like, 'I really can't use this thing at all.' But I was able to play lead guitar as well because I love playing lead, blues guitar as well. Eric Clapton is my great hero and that's what I was trying to copy, so the loop pedal allowed me to do that.
How does busking differ from Leeds to London?
It's warmer down there, but it's pretty much the same thing. A lot more people know me in Leeds but essentially it's the same thing, money in the box to pay the bills otherwise you starve.
What was your best experience busking?
Anytime anyone gives you 20 quid is always good and some funny things like Les Dennis gave me a quid once. Eric Clapton put some money in the box once, he hid his face, so I only recognized him when he was gone, it was sad that I didn't get to talk to him. But that was the highlight for me.
What's the worse experience?
I was attacked with skittles, someone with a pit bull terrier in Leeds starting throwing skittles at me. The sweets, not the bowling pins. I was just thought, 'this is ridiculous, what am I doing with my life, I'm being attacked by confectionary, there's got to be more to life than this.'
What a huge contrast - attacked with skittles and getting money from Eric Clapton.
Onto the new music now and I have described it as Britain's long awaited answer to John Mayer, do you agree with that?
When I first started thinking about doing things with a band rather than on my own, I wanted to fuse blues guitar with singer-songwriters that I love like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and some other popular stuff. But everyone said that you can't do that! You can't put blues guitar on top of acoustic song, it will not work, give up, go home! Then someone emailed me and said, 'have you heard Continuum [by John Mayer]?', and it was like I had heard my dream on that record. I heard Gravity and I was like, 'that's exactly it.' So I went back to everyone and said, 'what about this guy.' I went to see him at Manchester Apollo just before we made the album and that was one of the best gigs I had ever seen. Guitar playing and feel and taste, amazing songs and incredible band but he's just not had a hit over here, it's insane! But yeah there's a lot of John Mayer influence on the record, because there's a lot of Eric Clapton influence, there's a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn influence and obviously that's where he got his influence from.
Working with Martin Levan, how much influence do you have over arrangements and production?
It was a complete collaboration. It wasn't like modern pop production where someone gives you a track and you would come up and sing. We jammed it with the band and me and Martin decided which takes we liked and then we overdubbed all the guitar, over the next 6 months to a year and then did the vocals. The building of the guitar was what really added the flavor to the album, I would play and we would discuss it. He would say, 'I really liked what you did there, do some more of that.' He was more of a catalyst creating me than an autocrat, that's how I would describe him; it's more organic than people think.
How did Martin Levan first discover you?
One of his assistants, who was studying at the Leeds College of Music, saw me busking and referred him to my MySpace and he really saw something in my style. It took a long time to start making the record but we did a lot of demos and other little things.
Is the album being released on his record label?
Well it's an interesting deal, it's Battered Hat, it's owned by me and the capital investors who put the money in. So it's a completely indie CD.
At the moment it's doing really well on Amazon [in the top 20 preorder chart].
It's incredible that it's in the top 20, this morning it was 11, it was between Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and it's just little old me. I just hope that people will buy it and not pirate it and tell their friends about it and help get it out there. What's most exciting about it is, it's an old school record, all the band's recorded live, it's all written by me, we've gone for something that no one else is doing, we've done it all with our own money, so it's a real pre-X Factor music story.
Have you had much radio play?
It's been played on Radio 2 and loads of local radio and we're on Radio 2 again on Monday night on the Paul Jones Blues Show. So we're getting played on blues shows as well as pop shows. So it's going really well on the radio.
Are you hoping for something else in the future maybe like a Jools Holland?
That's the end goal. The question is, is it going to gather enough momentum because it is very much in their style, slightly bluesy, I could see that Jools would like it. It's just getting it to their attention. Mainstream Radio 2 and Jools Holland are what we are trying to achieve this year.
Is there a song on the album that you think might elevate the album to another level?
Well, it's an album of two halves, one's a commercial, John Mayer style side, stuff like "Million Little Things" is a bit John Mayer-y I guess and "Don't Let Me In" is like an old Peter Green blues, Eric Clapton Wonderful Tonight kind of song. But as you get to the back of the album you get a lot more straight blues, so it's quite a broad range. But "Last Love", we spent all our money on that, basically it's a really big seventies ballad, with strings, really big guitar solo in the middle and I think if any of them are going to break it'll be that one.
Are you doing any gigs to launch the album?
We've doing a launch gig in London which is already sold out and we're doing one at the Brudenell Social Club on the 4th March, which I see as a homecoming celebration, all my friends are coming. We've got Matt Belmont, who's still busking in Leeds now, he's a really talented guy and is playing support.
Tell us about the support gigs with Rumer and Beth Rowley.
I supported Rumer at Canary Wharf, full stage, full set up, full lights, proper rig, a sign of what the dream is. It was really funny because we went to the merchandise table and asked if we could borrow a bit of table space for my demos and he said, 'I hope it's not embarrassing, I really hope you sell a couple,' We ended up selling 92 CDs in the interval, my manager was scooping his jaw off the floor, I was scooping my jaw off the floor. We only got paid 20 quid for the gig, so I was like, 'we might actually get some money.' And Beth Rowley was pretty similar, that was really good as well.
What do you think of being a potential housewife favourite?
I keep being compared to James Blunt and James Morrison and I just think that, when you're unknown, people want to frame you with stuff that people know. And like we were saying at the beginning there's no one doing the John Mayer style in England, so they don't have anyone to compare it to. Some reviewers have said it's like John Mayer meets James Morrison which I think is closer than James Blunt. And it seems like women like the album a lot because it's a sensitive album, it's laid back, I've got quite a high voice. I wouldn't describe myself as a housewives' favourite but if they want to buy it, I'm not going to stop them.
It's been a long journey from the freezing conditions in Leeds to having one of the most anticipated albums on Amazon, what was been your driving force throughout?
An inner belief and inner fire that there was a market for these types of songs and I've still got to prove that right. Early signs are that people are ready for a bit of a comeback of the singer-guitarist and that's what I'm trying to do, write songs that connect with people, I hope it gets out there, I hope people like it.