From recording EPs on an 8-track in his bedroom in his hometown in Northern Ireland, to the diverse streets of Crown Heights, it is something he has been working towards all his life.
Called West Orchard, Gribbin and the band could not be more proud of their last year of songwriting, recording and dedication to making something truly original and their own.
I met up with Gribbin at the Glass Shop coffee house at 766 Classon Ave. in Prospect Heights last week to discuss his Irish roots, influences and the new album.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from a small village called Castledawson, which is in rural Derry. Derry is a county in Ireland.
So what’s it like living in the opposite of a small village like Castledawson?
I currently live in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. It’s a big difference. When I moved here, I suppose the big thing was the sheer culture shock. I couldn’t believe that you would sit in a subway car and every race in the world is represented in one subway stop. That’s just something you don’t see growing up where I’m from. It’s just Irish people. Coming here totally blew my mind.
Were you in a band back at home?
Yeah. This band, Building Pictures, started I suppose when I finished college. I went to the University of Belfast, and Building Pictures kicked off at home. It’s always been my baby. I’ve popped people around at certain times to fill out the sound, but it started out mainly as a solo project.
It could be a full band, it could be me with a cello player, it could be a two-piece; I’m writing a lot of music in different genres. Back in Ireland, I was afraid of calling it John Gribbin because people would expect a Damien Rice or a Glen Hansard, or expect the David Gray, or a singer songwriter. That’s kind of what’s expected of you when you write your stuff by your own name.
In what way does the culture play into the music in Ireland?
I think it’s in your blood man. And we’re not talking a couple of generations, we’re talking tens of generations. My family, we can trace our heritage in Ireland back to the saints of Ireland. We’re talking the high kings, and the four provinces of Ireland. This is when Ireland was a place that resembled Lord of the Rings and I can trace my family back to that time.
I grew up in a house where the music was in the house at any minute of the week. It didn’t matter if it was a Monday evening or a Tuesday evening, the neighbors and their instruments would be playing in the living room.
What kind of music did they play?
They played the traditional Irish music. My brother is an Irish fiddle player, my uncle Larry is an Irish accordion player, I had neighbors that played the banjo, I play acoustic guitar. So I grew up with that influence, and that was around me all the time.
How did you first get into playing acoustic guitar?
I actually didn’t lift the guitar until I was 17.
What was it that got you interested?
To be honest, I think it was my big brother Ciara. He was in a band as well. He was in a band for like seven or eight years and I used to go on tour with them. I used to change their strings, I used to carry gear, I used to do anything so that I could get on the road with them. I suppose I got that taste for touring and I got that taste for music.
My brother helped me out a lot. He was able to give me instruments, he was able to give me my first eight-track. I’ve had his record collection at home to draw influence from and there’s no doubt he got me into it. I got my first shot singing in public at a pub in Belfast with my brother. I got up and I played a couple of covers. I don’t think I would be in music if it wasn’t for my brother.
When was all of that?
That kicked off in my first year of college (2004). So I was 18.
When did you start the band?
Really about that time I had an eight track, and I was sitting in my damp and cold accommodation in Belfast and late at night, I just started demoing up tracks. It was nice having my brother, because I would bounce these tracks down, and I knew that he would be completely honest with me. I would send him one track a week. I can barely listen to those recordings now because it doesn’t even sound like me. The genre doesn’t even sound like me.
How has it changed?
I think I just sound a lot like the people that I was listening to then.
Who was that?
I was listening to songwriters like Damien Rice, I was listening to another Irish singer songwriter called David Kitt – I don’t think he broke in America but he was very, very good – I was listening to The Frames. They were one of my favorite bands growing up. I guess I get a smile because it sounds like a lot of these bands; like it could be a track from their record.
When you write a song, and your up on stage when you’re playing for somebody, is there something as an artist that tells you this is going to connect with them?
I think I learned after making a couple of EPs, that the way that the music industry is right now, unless you’re chasing the pop theme, or you’re chasing writing songs for other artists or “America's Got Talent” where you get some real dough, I don’t see the point in writing songs for other people. I’ve taken this view, I don’t know if I’m crazy or what, but I literally write my records for myself and I have this belief that if you make an album that is honest and is passionate, and that you believe in, that I believe the people that see it live will latch onto it. They will see songs that you believe and are performing, that means something to you, and then they’ll go, “This guy really means this and I want to be a part of it.”
Was there ever a moment when you thought that you needed to branch out of your early inspirations to playing music?
People ask that dreaded question of “what are your influences?” But, like I said, I grew up listening to traditional Irish music with my family to my brother’s record collection that was as varied as U2 to the Cranberries to Metallica. So, I saw Metallica twice, I love Metallica, but my music is anything but Metallica. I suppose part of me can listen to them and say, “ this is a rockin’ band” and their melodies are really strong, and I think for me, I’m really swayed by melody. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cheesy pop song, if there’s a really great melody in it and it sticks with me, I’ll be walking down the street all day with it.
Then when melodies come into my head, and I hum them in my phone. Sometimes people see me in the subway and they think I’m a lunatic, because I’ll hold my phone close to my mouth and I’ll just hum something into it and then I can’t wait to get home.
What is that kind of phenomenon you think when something like that just hits you?
I don’t know. I think you just get addicted to the feeling of creating something and the joy is creating it. For me, I create something at home, I bring it to my New York band, and have their input on it, and I don’t like to tell them what to do.
Who is the band?
Well, all my bandmates are from upstate. Kenny on the drums, Jacob on the piano and Rob on the bass. They all went to Purchase College, and they all have a jazz background. For them, I think being in a band with me is fun because they have to hold back a little and not play as fancy and not play as intricate. It’s just really fun for them because for me, I can walk into a room and write a song the day before and go, “Guys the rehearsal’s tomorrow, can I try a new one?” And they’re like, “ yeah man, go for it.”
I just start to play it. I’ll just play one pass at the verse and all the guys are in on it, and they’re on the money. Then I’ll stop and I’ll go, “Can we try that once more?” And then we usually play it right through once more, and then I’ll be like, “Can we play that tomorrow night?’
That’s kind of how it goes. And for me to be lucky enough to play with guys like that, I never had it back home. It’s really inspiring because it means whenever I perform live, it’s giving me such confidence. I go out there, and I know the guys are going to just rock.
How long were you here by the time you formed your band?
Two weeks. I came here in 2008 on a three-month vacation. And then I came back two years ago with my current visa.
And so, now you have been here for a couple of years, and you are ready to release your debut album. What does this mean for you as an artist?
My debut album, I am very proud of it. I knew that I wasn’t ready to make it until now. You want to be judged by your albums. Your EPs, they’re only a step to an album. They’re fun, I make them in my bedroom, and this I was like, I’m going to really go all out. I was really hard on myself on the writing process. Michael (John’s lawyer/ manager) actually helped me with the writing process, whereby he set a goal - even if we weren’t going to keep them - where for three months before we started the album, I sent him four songs a week for three months, which was hard for me. I was coming home late from gigs and getting up first thing in the morning exhausted.
How many songs from that did you pick?
In that I picked eight, and two songs were from old EPs.
Building Pictures releases their debut album West Orchard on November 12.