The Scots folksinger behind Russia’s Eurovision entry

Sergey Lazarev performs John Ballard's song during Eurovision rehearsals. Picture: Thomas Hanses (EBU)
Sergey Lazarev performs John Ballard's song during Eurovision rehearsals. Picture: Thomas Hanses (EBU)
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WITH a buzzing synthesiser section and a pounding drumbeat announcing an overblown chorus, it is a rousing anthem widely tipped to triumph in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

But if Russia prevails in this year’s annual spectacle of jolly if forgettable pop songs, Scotland can lay claim to having played a key role in its victory.

In what offers a glimmer of hope for the nation’s prospects in the music competition should it eventually become independent, the bookmakers’ favourite for this year’s edition has been written by a veteran Glaswegian folk singer.

On first listen, You Are The Only One sounds like a classic slice of Europop, with the opening couplet of its chorus - Thunder ‘n’ lightning / It’s gettin’ excitin’ - typically buoyant.

But in fact, it is the work of John Ballard, a singer songwriter from the city’s Drumchapel area.

If the bookmakers are proven right and the song wins next Saturday’s contest, it will represent an unlikely triumph for a man who once supported the likes of Billy Connolly and Matt McGinn on the Glasgow folk circuit. Indeed, it is those roots that Mr Ballard credits with inspiring his potentially winning entry.

“Hamish Imlach taught me a few guitar licks I still use to this day. I remember him performing an old song called Zoological Gardens where the chorus has the words, ‘Thunder and lightning is no lark’, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah’. It’s such a visual lyric.

“I had to think in pictures, because when you’re writing for a country like Russia, you have to use a vocabulary they can pronounce, which is a much bigger issue than you could ever imagine.”

Mr Ballard went through 11 “totally different” sets of lyrics before they were eventually approved by the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, which spearheads Russia’s Eurovision efforts. But he dismisses any suggestion the songs must carry a political message. “That’s all ********,” he insists.

With both William Hill and Coral offering odds of just to 2/1 on You Are The Only One winning, it promises to make Mr Ballard better known in his homeland. He emigrated to Sweden in 1974, having befriended the Stockholm-born proprietor of Oban’s McTavish’s Kitchens at a folk gig. He subsequently invited Mr Ballard to play in Scandinavia. It would turn out to be an extended visit.

The Scot went on to stay, producing and writing songs for Ace of Base, the Swedish pop group who enjoyed a string of hits in the 1990s. He now owns his own studio in Gothenburg, but insists he remains proud of his motherland.

“At the moment, I’m a bit of a traitor having written a song for Russia.” he laughs. “But the British Embassy in Stockholm have invited me to a party on Monday evening. I think they’re as amazed as everyone else.”

Mr Ballard will be in attendance at Stockholm’s Ericsson Globe arena next Saturday where he hopes to see vocalist Sergey Lazarev do his song justice. In true Eurovision fashion, the stage show itself will be just as important as Mr Ballard’s careful craft.

The Russian team has constructed a complex set featuring CGI special effects and moving perspex staging designed to give the audience the impression Mr Lazarev is trapped inside a giant television screen.

For the viewers at home, it promises to be a unique pageant, but for the young singer, it poses a stiff challenge. During the first day of rehearsals last week, he fell off a nine-foot high step, forcing organisers to cut the performance short.

It is a world away from the smoke-filled basements of the Scottish folk scene, but Mr Ballard believes the late Mr Imlach would have approved.

“If he was still around, I’d have sent him a text saying, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve pinched some of your lyrics’,” he added. “I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded.”

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