Straight to the Point
The music scene in Ireland has been dominated by crappy manufactured pop music for the last few years, but Irish r n' b talent Luke Thomas is aiming to add some quality to the mix as he sets his sights on playing Landsdowne Road.
When his peers were guzzling cheap cider round the back of the bicycle shed, 15-year-old Luke Thomas was standing onstage at the Olympia, rapping up a storm as support for US star Coolio. In transition year at school, the young r n' b performer took supporting a major name in his stride. "It was a daunting experience, but the crowd seemed to like it," he says with the nonchalant air of one who does this sort of thing on a daily basis.
Four years and one Leaving Cert later, the future's looking bright for the young singer who has been tipped as the Next Big Thing to come out of Ireland. He supported the very cred Mary J. Blige at the RDS in April, in front of 6,000 people. "It was amazing. Most people didn't realise that I was Irish until I started talking and then I got a big cheer. It was a dream come true to be on the same stage as her."
His first single "Alrite (the DJ's got it pumpin')" made the Irish Top 10 in May. The song was a-listed on 2FM, no mean feat for an Irish artist on an indie label. "We weren't expecting much and yet it was up there with the likes of Shakira and Nickelback. We did the best we could with limited budget and means." The single was released and promoted by Vibe music, a new Dublin management company who have a lot of hopes riding on the velvet voiced teenager. "They were starting out at the same time as I was and we all had the same hunger," he says. The video, which was made on a shoestring budget of €1000 and shot in The Palace nightclub, has been played on the MTV r n' b show, Base.
Looking at Thomas, you could forget that he's only 19. Friendly and ambitious, he looks at ease in the uber-trendy surrounds of The Chocolate Bar, but you could just as easily picture him helping old ladies carry their shopping home. He hails from Walkinstown in South West Dublin. "It's fairly quiet. You couldn't really say it was buzzing. Surrounding areas like Kimmage and Greenhills are busier and that's where my friends lived and where I hung out." He went to primary school in St Damiens and later, to the Christian Brothers where he was a permanent fixture in the choir. Dublin was starting to become more ethnically diverse and Thomas says that he never encountered any racism. "My school always had a mix of nationalities so I never had any problems."
His mother is from Trinidad, his dad from James's Street in Dublin. "They were pen-pals", he explains. His mother visited, liked what she saw and they married. The eclectic mix of music in the house has been a major influence. "My mam would be listening to Calypso and Ragga music and my dad, Cliff Richard and Neil Diamond. I'm half way between." He was a huge Michael Jackson fan growing up and when the once King of Pop vanished into virtual obscurity, Thomas got into rap. When he performs live (he never mimes incidentally), he also sings and dances. "I admire people like Robbie Williams: entertainers. A singer will sell out The Point, but an entertainer will sell out Landsdowne Road."
He is quite unfazed by the buzz of excitement his name has been causing lately. "Lots of people say to me: are you not excited? You've had a top ten single. When I'm at the level when I can sell out The Point, then I'll get excited. There's a lot more hard work that needs to go in."
He talks the talk of someone who knows the industry. "It's an uphill battle every day," he says. "Everyone watches what everyone else is doing. You have to really want to do it 'cos there's so many wannabies out there and so many people throwing money around. I feel like I'm at it ages." His knowledge of the music business comes both from being immersed in it and also from studying Media Management in Ballyfermot Senior College. He was doing his end of year exams when the single was released. "Hopefully the music thing will work out and I won't have to go back!"
So, while his classmates go on post-exam sun holidays, Thomas will be hard at it, doing two or three gigs a week, sometimes, in the one day. He does two sessions of rehearsals with dancers and choreographers a week, as well as working out at the gym. And all the time, working in Korky's shoe shop, where Ronan Keating earned his pocket money before taking up crooning fulltime. "The manager's delighted," he says.
He is also enjoying the trappings of being a "Famous Person in Ireland". "One guy came up to me and said that his little sister loved me - I didn't know what to say!" And more recently, he was recognised outside of his native county. "When I was in SuperMacs in Navan, the person behind the counter asked me if I wanted free food! That was cool."
Thomas plays much of the same circuit as the likes of Six and Bellefire, but he also adapts his show for an older audience. "The set changes when I do nightclubs. Under 18s boybands would have bottles thrown at them if they tried to appeal to an older crowd." He tries to tread a fine line between neither being too pop or too r n' b.
"Pop bands like Six will find it hard to stay around. If I don't get a number one single for another year or two, it's not the end of the world. If I go in at number eight or five, at least I have somewhere to go." But if Louie Walsh were to have him headhunted, what would he think? "There isn't just one good manager in this country. Louis is great at what he does, but I believe in my managers, and given the proper chance and backing, they could do just as good a job."
His recent success would seem to confirm this, and it looks far from ending. In July, a French film crew will be following him around for three weeks as part of a series on up and coming talent. "I'm a bit excited about that," he beams. The finished product will be aired on TV3. Then the second single will be released in August. There have been offers of a record deal from some significant label, but Thomas is playing his cards wisely, and close to his chest.
His expectations are higher than your average teenager. "I'd like to crack America," he says without blinking. And he might just do it. In the States, teenybopper pop has temporarily stopped fizzing and the popularity of acts like Jennifer Lopez, Destiny's Child and Usher indicate that r n' b is the average American's new genre of choice. For the moment though, he's happy enough to play here. "I wouldn't mind selling out Landsdowne Road in five years time," he states, "but failing that, I guess The Point would have to do."
by Anne-Louise Foley.