HE’S made good on winning The Voice with a hit single, but don’t expect fireman Stevie McCrorie to be swinging from the chandeliers now his slow-burn talent is blazing a trail
‘JUST two seconds,” says Stevie McCrorie. I can hear voices, then McCrorie saying, “Thanks. Thanks very much. I really appreciate it.” He’s standing in a London street talking to me on the phone and members of the public are stopping to congratulate him on winning The Voice last weekend.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions, but I just can’t imagine this happened to Leanne Mitchell, who won the first series, or last year’s winner, Jermain Jackman. There’s something about McCrorie that people just like. He can carry a tune too, that needs to be said. But I don’t think it’s just his singing that has made people vote for him and snap up his debut single more quickly than those of the show’s past three winners.
“That was a fan,” he says, coming back on the line with a sheepish laugh. He’s going to need to get used to the attention, it seems. He’s interrupted three more times as we speak. “It’s been a crazy three or four days,” he says. “It’s like a dream.”
By the time you read this, McCrorie will have finished a round of press in London and headed back home to Scotland to see his family and friends in Clackmannanshire. There’ll be more interviews and he’ll meet some fans. The whirlwind has started and an unassuming 30-year-old firefighter from Alva is right at the centre of it. “I want to thank people,” he says, explaining why he’s looking forward to coming back home. “I need to thank people for voting for me and making me a winner.” He laughs at the word.
“I’ve been speaking to so many people, but every time it feels like I’m talking about someone else. I had a wee moment today when I got up and it was like the first time it had sunk in that I’d won. I felt so happy I could have burst into tears. But that soon disappeared and it was like, ‘Have I actually won?’ I’m sure eventually it will sink in and I’ll be able to take some confidence from it.”
The C-word. McCrorie spoke about it throughout the competition and it’s probably the word that crops up most frequently as we talk. It’s hard to believe that anyone lacking in confidence could stand up and sing live on a talent show in front of millions of viewers – more than six million of them for the final – never mind a live studio audience and, oh yes, four professionals including the mighty Sir Tom Jones, but McCrorie is telling the truth. He’s the boy who would never sing in front of any of his family even though he knew he wanted to be a singer-songwriter from the age of 15.
“I’d always just disappear away to my room,” he says. “I was pretty shy. They always used to ask me to sing, but I’d say no.” But what about when he eventually let them hear him? “It was only when I played gigs and they’d come to see me and they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was like, ‘Where did this come from?’” No-one else in the family was musical yet there was Stevie, standing on the stage with his guitar singing his own songs.
It wasn’t his mum and dad’s fault that they never heard their son play. He wouldn’t tell them what he was doing. He didn’t want to make a fuss. It was only when they came to see him launching an independent single at King Tut’s in Glasgow back in 2010 that they got a full sense of what he was about. “People were all looking at my mum,” he says, “and she was crying.” He pauses. “I don’t know what it was she was seeing, like.”
There it is again: confidence, or rather lack thereof. When he was a teenager, he knew that he was just learning and he wanted to get it right before he let anyone hear him. “I think there’s always going to be a wee element of that which stays with me.”
If you watched McCrorie belting out tracks by U2 or The Pretenders or the Beatles, you might struggle with the idea that he’s lacking in confidence, but it’s true. It’s just that when he’s singing he feels something different. “I’ve always been a different person off stage to how I am on stage,” he says. “There’s something deep down in me. I don’t know how it works. I’ve never been one of these people who super believes in himself. It’s just not me. But there’s an inner fight in me that wants to do well, that wants to impress. If there’s any confidence that comes across when I’m singing, it’s that. I want to impress people and I really want people to feel something. I want people to connect with me.
“That’s what I want to do with my album and at gigs when it’s just me away from a TV show. At the end of the day it’s the fans who are going to buy my record. It’s the fans I need, the people who voted for me. And just because I won it doesn’t mean I don’t need them any more. I need everybody more than ever to give me a career in music.”
Maybe it’s because he’s been trying to create this career for so long and the knocks have taken their toll; maybe it’s because he’s a married man with a young daughter; but there’s a relentless streak of realism running through McCrorie’s understanding of his win. I get it, admire it even, but there’s a bit of me that also hopes he’ll let himself kick up his heels and just enjoy his success, because no matter what the future holds, McCrorie won The Voice. Pragmatism runs through McCrorie like letters through a stick of rock. He’s totally committed to making a success of this chance he’s got, but he’s also hoping that the fire service will give him a career break of 12 months so that if things don’t work out as he hopes, he’ll have a job that he loves to return to.
Both Nicola Sturgeon and Gordon Brown have expressed their belief that he is a fine ambassador for the service, he tells me. “I hope the service will return the favour. It’s quite an unusual circumstance. If I didn’t make it in the music industry I would work hard to get trained up and be ready for it again. It’s not that I want to fail or that I think I’m going to fail in showbiz, but I have to be realistic because I’ve got a family. I’m taking a risk.”
I’m starting to feel a little concerned that with all this talk of back-up plans and things not working out, McCrorie’s lost out on feeling any excitement. But that’s not the case. “I could make my dreams come true,” he says. “I could give my family a better home and life experiences that they might never have had. I could get my dream home – not massive, but with a log fire. That’s my motivation. What better motivation than having a wife and a beautiful little girl and to want to give them a better life?”
McCrorie has wanted to be a singer for half his life. He’s played in bands, done gigs, written songs. He’s released singles, he’s uploaded videos on to the web, but until now he never got a sniff of interest from any record labels. When he stood in front of those four chairs with their backs turned towards him, it was a last chance to make it. He was a 29-year-old with a wife and a baby. He had a new career in the fire service – it was his colleagues who’d applied for him to appear on the show. When he started to sing it was with the knowledge that if none of those four judges turned around then he’d have to give up his dream of ever having a career as a musician.
“One of my mates said that when Rita [Ora] turned around and he saw me smile he knew it was because I had been given a chance.” It wasn’t just Ora who turned though. Sir Tom turned, Ricky Wilson turned, and so, finally, did will.i.am. But it was the first judge that counted. “I think that moment when the first chair turned was one of the most special moments for me. It made me realise, my god, maybe I have got something worth putting out there.”
There has been plenty of gum-beating about the curse of The Voice. It’s been noted that none of the three previous winners have gone on to blindingly successful pop careers. Leanne Mitchell, from the 2012 contest, was dropped by her label last year after failing to crack the top 40. Jermain Jackman – who was mentored by will.i.am last year – saw his debut album get stuck at number 42 last month. Only Andrea Begley, who won in 2013, has made the top 10 with her debut album, The Message, which got to number seven that year. Things are looking a bit different for McCrorie, though. His debut single, a cover of Lost Stars, originally sung by Adam Levine, was, for the first time in the show’s history, released immediately after the final. It went straight to the top of the iTunes chart. The number of downloads is the highest yet for a single from the show. Even so, McCrorie is taking nothing for granted.
“Not everybody takes off,” he says. “It’s about getting the right mix – the person, the timing. All I can say is I’ve been writing songs for a long time, I know what kind of artist I want to be and I’m ready to get in the studio to record an album. I don’t want to wait about too long, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot. People like me enough to make me win it, so hopefully they like me enough to buy the album.”
When all four judges were sitting staring at McCrorie and he had the job of choosing the one who would mentor him, he had the good humour to say it was a problem he hadn’t really expected to face. It was the kind of self-deprecating quip that made him popular. But what might just help him survive is that he was telling the truth.
“I did think Tom would be the one I’d pick when the guys at work applied for me. But the closer I got to the competition and the more involved I got, I started to think Ricky.” It was the Kaiser Chiefs’ front man who connected with him most, and who McCrorie felt he could relate to. “I just forgot about all their achievements, I put that to the back of my mind and thought about them as people. Ricky was the kind of guy I could go and hang out with; we shared musical tastes. I wanted to be a performer like him on stage. He just seemed like the right person for me. It’s worked out too because we’re friends. I’ve got his number.”
Wilson has taught him to let go a bit, to not worry so much. And I suspect that with McCrorie that is no easy task. When he says that The Voice felt like a last chance, he really means it. “I try to tell people, but I don’t think they get it,” he says. “I’ve been singing since I was 15 and now I’m 30. It’s a long time. And I’ve been writing songs for a long time. I put my heart and soul into recording songs in small garages, trying to release stuff on iTunes on my own, never getting a bite from a record label.” Although he did manage to play T in the Park on the T Break stage.
“I knew there was something there, but I needed a platform at such a late stage in my career, especially being a firefighter, I knew I’d need something really big to take me away from my family, my wife and my wee girl.”
All of this is why when it came to that Blind Audition it felt like a final chance. And if it hadn’t have gone his way, that would have been the end of a dream that he’d been nurturing since he was a teenager. “It would have meant it wasn’t for me,” he says. “Maybe 10 years ago I would’ve kept on trying, but this time was different because I knew I was ready.”
And feeling that he was fully prepared was vital to the singer. In fact McCrorie had considered auditioning for a previous series of The Voice. A BBC producer had suggested to him that there was a new competition in which he might do well if he entered. “I said no, because I wasn’t ready. The only reason I accepted the application that the guys put in for me was because this time I felt I was ready – and if that wasn’t enough then this thing just wasn’t going to happen.”
He pauses. “Does that make sense?” It absolutely does, but you couldn’t get much further from the chutzpah you’d expect from a rock star in the making. “This time I knew I had nothing to lose. I knew I was the best I was going to get without all the professional advice and support that I’ve now got.”
While McCrorie admits his family are a bit frightened about what lies ahead after all the excitement, he’s absolutely clear about what he’s aiming for. “It’s simple really,” he says. “All I’ve ever wanted is to make albums and release singles, have a good fan base and play festivals. Sometimes people want to be stars, they want to be celebrities, but that’s not why I came into this. All I want to do is make a living from doing what I love, playing good music to my fans. I never wanted to be a celebrity or to be famous. There are people out there who are making a good living from playing music and they’re not necessarily celebrities. That’s my dream.”
He’s not going to waste a single minute. He’s determined to get his album recorded. He’s up for writing with other people, but he would also like to record his own songs. Suddenly, he really sounds like a 30-year-old who knows what he wants.
“I’ll never forget The Voice,” he says. “I’m proud of what it’s done for me but now it’s about being an artist and being a songwriter. It’s time to be Stevie McCrorie singer-songwriter with a band behind him.”
He has already been asked to play T in the Park – on a much bigger stage naturally – which he says is an “amazing honour”. And for the rest of it, he’s up for working hard. He’ll give it everything he’s got. “I’m ready,” he says. “I feel good. I can’t wait for the day that I start to feel a bit more confident, but that will come. I’m sure it will.” He’s a nice guy is Stevie McCrorie, I hope he’s right.