Una Foden’s Voice of reason
HOW THE NEW RTÉ TALENT SHOW COACH’S POP CAREER HELPS HER EMPATHISE WITH CONTESTANTS’ STRUGGLES
A man in his late twenties takes to the stage at the Helix in Dublin, takes a deep breath and stares vacantly at the backs of four brightly-lit swivelled chairs. The band kicks into gear and the longest three minutes of his life begin as he attempts to nail a version of All Along The Watchtower.
As the song progresses bum notes become more prominent than the much loved melody and the mood in the Helix changes. The 300-strong audience and the singer both realise that none of the four Voice of Ireland coaches are even close to pushing their buttons. As the song ends so too do the musical hopes and dreams of another wannabe finalist. The final ignominy for the contestant comes when his performance is dissected by the four coaches. His song choice, pitch and nervous tone is eagerly savaged by both Kian and Bressie. But in the end comes a soft voice of reason from newbie coach and the warm, motherly face of The Saturdays, Una Foden (née Healy). ‘Look, nerves just got the better of you’ she says with genuine warmth. ‘I know how you feel, I have had bad days at auditions myself but you have to go away and use this experience to become stronger. You have the talent which is the hardest part of the journey, you can go away and be bitter or you can use this to become better. That’s what I did so you know I am speaking the truth.’ The singer walks away with a slight pep in his step.
The Voice of Ireland returned with a judging panel makeover. It’s out with Jamelia and Dolores O’Riordan and in with Una Foden and Rachel Stevens alongside Bressie and Kian.
The Tipperary pop star has given the show new life and energy. She says she is delighted to have finally taken to the now iconic spinning chairs, having turned down the show’s producers on several occasions.
‘It was something that I had always dreamed about doing but I suppose I had to feel ready,’ she says. ‘I never felt ready until now because I guess when you are in the position of being a coach you have to have a lot of experience. Seeing it from both ends, and coming from a background where I auditioned for many shows like this and never made it, I am empathetic. Plus now I have been in the business professionally for seven years and I just felt the time was right.
‘This time around I just felt that I had come that bit further professionally and made the call to go with it.’
Una has no fear of the spotlight. Her time with the Saturdays has given her a strong work ethic and a sense of individuality. She refuses to back down during the blind auditions when challenged by both Bressie and Kian. More often than not when a singer has to choose between Una and another coach, Una gets the artist. She admits that as a mum she finds giving bad news difficult, but says she was never going to go down the nasty route of the X Factor.
‘ It’s not easy, it is much harder than I ever thought it would be,’ she says. ‘But I always told myself that I would be fair. As long as I always give constructive criticism I feel that I am being fair. Because everyone who comes out on that stage can sing. I have been in that position before where nerves just take control of you and cripple you. I think what I prove is that perseverance and hard work triumph. I know what it is like to be standing off the side of a stage having not performed and thinking that your world is over. If I can convince those people who don’t get through this year to go away and practise and come back next year fighting then I have done my job.’
Watching Una take part in the blind auditions you would never believe she is a rookie. She has a great ear for music and is almost always the first coach to buzz in. The other noticeable factor is the petite bump that almost always has a hand tapping on top, gently protecting her unborn second child, due next month. Una, who already has a two-year-old daughter Aoife Belle with her husband, English rugby player Ben Foden, says that her bump helped her on The Voice.
‘I was pleasantly surprised at how great the talent was,
especially since this is the fourth series. I know that Ireland has such a great tradition of producing international music stars. My goal is to find one from this process and nurture them through the process and into the music world. I think all the coaches get emotional. It’s hard not to be. It is always hard when someone who has talent has a bad day and you can’t push your button. I went with my gut instinct a lot of the time. The baby enjoyed the live audition and was kicking away with the beat of some of the songs so that was a great indicator.’
After the auditions end I have lunch with the 33-year-old mum at the Gibson hotel. Despite having just finished a 16-hour shift, she is in good spirits and is glowing.
‘I have been very lucky with the pregnancy,’ she says fondly rubbing her tummy. ‘We have recorded the blind auditions in one run and then I got to go home and rest for a month before coming back and filming the battle stages. So I am due in February and then I am not back for the live shows for over a month so I will hopefully be in good spirits for the live shows.
‘With the Saturdays I have become used to really long days and stints where I was pregnant and standing up in heels the whole time so at least this time I was sitting down. But I had no complaints and there wasn’t any hiccups recording the blind auditions or the battle stages. When you have kids you don’t sleep anyway and I have a strong work ethic from the band so I actually really enjoyed it.
‘ We’re celebrat ing vocal ability and talent and looking for a great talent. A lot of the X Factor is searching for great novelty acts as much as great artists. We don’t do that although we are a TV show as well and I am well aware of that. But I do think the X Factor focus a lot on the early stages when the people come in for a laugh.’
Don’t be fooled by Foden’s soft demeanour. A former national swimmer, she is fiercely competitive and is in it to win it. She has zero tolerance for time wasters and has promised her team that if they give her 100 per cent she will work with them after the show finishes.
‘I want to win. Of course I do, but of course that is down to the artists that I have because there is only so much that I can do with them. I want to mentor the contestants and pick the right songs for them but also to get to know them as people. In order for me to be a good coach I need to know their personalities.
‘I know that previous winners of the show haven’t gone on to have big careers but there is no guarantee with a show like this. What it does is opens a door that the artist has to use to push on to bigger and better things. I want to help them do that and if one of my acts wins I will help them after the show.’
While Una is able to call upon the support of The Saturdays, her husband is her main sounding board.
‘The girls are great and are behind me all the way,’ she says. ‘Yes, I will be going back and forward to them for bits of advice maybe when it comes to song choices but it is something I want to do myself. If I am honest, I think Ben is more excited about me doing this than anyone else. He is totally up to date with who is on my team and how everything is going. He said he would love to do it himself. I suspect that if he wasn’t a ruby player then he would have wanted to be a pop star, in his head anyway. Ben has just been an incredible support and he is always on the phone to me and talking through the day’s performances and what I like and didn’t. He will definitely be coming over to the show when it goes live. I will be bringing the kids over with me but it is only for seven weeks or so, it won’t be that bad.’
The next time Una appears on live televisions it will be the end of March for the Voice finals. By then she will have a one-month- old son and all eyes will be on her return to the limelight – not that this bothers her remotely.
‘I have a bit of time, but no, it doesn’t bother me too much. I will be in whatever shape I am but I am used to being in the spotlight with the Saturdays so I don’t let these things get to me. Look, it is not about me and how I look, it is about the artists and how they perform. Of course it was something I considered when I decided to sign up to The Voice but it is an incredibly positive part of my life as is The Voice. People get caught up in body image and as long as I have a healthy baby and my team are doing well I will be happy. I will have plenty of support as well. My family will be up every weekend to give me a hand.
‘We spent Christmas in England with Ben’s family,’ she adds. ‘We had a big traditional day with all the trimmings but obviously it was quiet enough for us. Last year we were in Ireland so this year we did England.
‘It was all about Aoife this year and she knew Santa was coming so it was just lovely to be around. Ben is a professional sportsman so he isn’t going crazy at Christmas. And I was pregnant, so it was nice for it to be all about her because she will have a little brother coming soon which will change things a bit. But Christmas is all about family for us so it was just a great time.’
‘The baby was kicking away to the beat in the auditions’
The Voice of Ireland, tonight, 6.30pm, RTÉ One
Opposite page: Una with Kian Egan, Bressie and Rachel Stevens on the set of The Voice of Ireland in Dublin’s Helix Theatre. Above: on holiday with her husband Ben and daughter Aoife Belle in Jamaica in 2009 and, right, at The Voice blind auditions