‘I was afraid of fail­ure and that held me back, but fi­nally I knew I’d to swap the class­room for the stage ... ’

As North­ern Ire­land’s big­gest coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val of the year takes place in En­niskillen to­day one of its most glam­orous stars, Cliona Ha­gan, tells Lee Henry about the mo­ment she de­cided to change her ca­reer

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

She’s the face of coun­try mu­sic in North­ern Ire­land — the blon­de­haired, blue-eyed chanteuse at the fore­front of a hugely pop­u­lar sub­cul­ture that is fast tak­ing over the air­waves — and Cliona Ha­gan is lov­ing the at­ten­tion. “I’m so happy to be a part of the scene,” she ex­claims, clearly ex­cited and sat­is­fied with her lot.

As well she might be. The 28-year-old may have been per­form­ing for a long time — her first tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance came at the ten­der age of 12 — but in the space of a few years, Ha­gan has gone from wannabe star­let to bona fide coun­try star, im­press­ing in tal­ent com­pe­ti­tions, record­ing and re­leas­ing new mu­sic and mak­ing an army of fans in the process.

“She’s such a hard worker,” says her man­ager and band mem­ber, Ai­dan Quinn (be­low), the son of North­ern Ir­ish coun­try roy­alty Philom­ena Be­g­ley. “Cliona is ded­i­cated, she’s driven. She knows what she wants and she’s been a plea­sure to work with, she re­ally has. If any­one is go­ing to suc­ceed, it’s Cliona.”

To­day Cliona takes the stage at per­haps her big­gest gig to date, the two-day Har­vest Coun­try Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in West­port and En­niskillen, or­gan­ised by Aiken Pro­mo­tions. “It’s go­ing to be huge,” she beams. “On Satur­day I’m go­ing to be in En­niskillen open­ing the Main Stage at 1pm and on Sun­day in West­port closing the Road­house Stage at 8pm. I can’t wait. It’s go­ing to be great fun.

“There are 40 artists per­form­ing on four dif­fer­ent stages, and some of the big­gest acts in coun­try mu­sic are play­ing. Peo­ple like Mi­randa Lam­bert, who I just love. I can’t be­lieve I’m go­ing to share a stage with her. I love her new sin­gle.

“Then there’s the leg­end that is Charley Pride — any­one who loves coun­try mu­sic loves Charley Pride — and Nathan Carter, The Shires, Ward Thomas, as well many of our own artists from North­ern Ire­land. I can’t wait to play. It’s go­ing to be epic.”

It will also be the clear­est sig­nal yet that North­ern Ir­ish coun­try mu­sic has bro­ken into the big time. Ten years ago, the steel gui­tar sounds of coun­try were ar­guably the pre­serve of grannies and grand­dads hooked on Hugo Dun­can and Dolly Par­ton. Now, how­ever, teenagers queue up for hours to buy new re­leases by lo­cal acts and tick­ets to their gigs, and spend their week­ends jiv­ing and jig­ging for all they’re worth.

Dances take place in com­mu­nity halls right across the prov­ince on a weekly ba­sis, and now that pro­mot­ers have cot­toned on, huge out­door venues in­clud­ing Lon­don­derry’s Ebring­ton Square and the En­niskillen Air­port are start­ing to play host to home­grown coun­try acts like Cliona, Lisa McHugh and Derek Ryan. Check out the event list­ings and you can’t miss them — The Farmer’s Bash in the SSE Arena in Belfast in Oc­to­ber is a par­tic­u­lar high­light.

“It’s just ex­ploded,” says Cliona, who hails from Ty­rone and has coun­try mu­sic run­ning through her veins. “We lis­tened to a lot of coun­try mu­sic when I was young, all the clas­sic artists like Philom­ena Be­g­ley, Daniel O’Don­nell, of course, and Sha­nia Twain and the Dixie Chicks. I was a mas­sive fan of Sha­nia. I lis­tened to her al­bum Come On Over for hours. “But coun­try mu­sic to­day is just mas­sive in North­ern Ire­land. I think there is a nos­tal­gic el­e­ment to it, yes. I guess it re­minds a lot of peo­ple of their child­hood, the mu­sic their par­ents used to lis­ten to, but now they have their own artists to fol­low. Artists from the same places that they are from, Ty­rone, Ar­magh, Down, Fer­managh, right across the whole of Ire­land. “I think that plays a big part. Fans can re­late to these artists. But, as well as that, the mu­sic that they are writ­ing, the pro­duc­tion qual­ity on their record­ings, is re­ally world-class. You won’t hear bet­ter coun­try mu­sic any­where in the world. I firmly be­lieve that. The fans do too. Now, they have their own North­ern Ir­ish coun­try mu­sic. I think that’s why it’s grown so much and why gigs like the Har­vest Coun­try Mu­sic Fes­ti­val sell so well.”

The dance el­e­ment has also played a huge part in the re­mark­able resur­gence of coun­try mu­sic among North­ern Ir­ish teens. You won’t see a lot of it in Belfast but ven­ture fur­ther afield and it’s ev­ery­where. Sets and jigs and reels and toe tap. The cow­boy coun­try and west­ern in­flu­ence has spread like wild­fire and Ha­gan’s fans love noth­ing bet­ter than to stomp and spin and line dance their nights away.

“I feel very priv­i­leged that I get a front row seat,” she laughs. “It’s maybe what I love most about per­form­ing live, I get to look down on all these hun­dreds of kids danc­ing their socks off and it’s so im­pres­sive. They love the mu­sic, ob­vi­ously, but it’s the danc­ing that they are re­ally pas­sion­ate about. It’s in­cred­i­ble to see them all in ac­tion, danc­ing to­gether. It’s just amaz­ing.”

I get to look down at these hun­dreds of kids danc­ing their socks off

As is Cliona’s ap­proach to dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing. She has 25,000 fol­low­ers on Face­book and is on Snapchat, In­sta­gram and Twit­ter. The video for her ver­sion of 1-2-3 has over 110,000 views on YouTube and she posts reg­u­lar quick-fire videos to most plat­forms while trav­el­ling to gigs or back­stage be­fore shows. Fans love it.

But Cliona is as com­fort­able broad­cast­ing live to mil­lions of tele­vi­sion view­ers as she is stream­ing video on Face­book. She is a reg­u­lar on RTE, hav­ing rep­re­sented Ul­ster in the All Ire­land Tal­ent Show in 2009, and dur­ing RTE’s pre-Euro­vi­sion cov­er­age ear­lier this year she sang ABBA’s Water­loo along­side Ryan Tubridy, both all smiles, with pan­el­lists and audience join­ing in for good mea­sure.

“I’m a com­fort­able per­former,” Cliona agrees, and a browse through the archive proves that singing was al­ways a part of her life. Aged 12, she made her first tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ance, singing a ridicu­lously cute ver­sion of Silent Night on RTE’s iconic Late Late Toy Show, that flag­ship fam­ily Christ­mas pro­gramme that no self-re­spect­ing Ir­ish house­hold can go through De­cem­ber with­out. “I don’t think I re­alised the mag­ni­tude of that at the time,” Ha­gan ad­mits. “I re­mem­ber I recorded a video­tape of my­self singing The Snow­man, play­ing my pi­ano. Then they called me in to per­form for three judges. I sang Sally Gar­dens and The Snow­man again and they liked it. “I couldn’t be­lieve it when they got in touch to say that they wanted me on the show. I was de­lighted. I loved ev­ery sec­ond of it. It’s lovely to have the footage to look back on. The only thing is, my mum dressed me up as a snow­man, but it was a very mag­i­cal time for me. I’m very happy that I was part of such a huge pro­gramme.” Cliona, who’s sin­gle, cur­rently lives in Ballinderry on the Ty­rone/Lon­don­derry bor­der and has spent all of her life in the same town­land. Her el­dest sis­ter Teresa and younger sis­ter Ni­cole were al­ways “big sup­port­ers” of her singing, as were her par­ents, Clare and Joe, and Cliona was later dubbed “the golden child”.

“Coun­try mu­sic was al­ways a part of our child­hood. It was al­ways my favourite kind of mu­sic. It’s relaxing and we al­ways loved lis­ten­ing to it. I sang in pri­mary school too. I re­mem­ber get­ting to sing Sha­nia Twain’s That Don’t Im­press Me Much at school. To sing that coun­try song on stage was so ex­cit­ing for me. Nei­ther my sis­ters or my par­ents sing, re­ally, but I al­ways re­mem­ber singing coun­try mu­sic at fam­ily events and get-to­geth­ers. It was part of me from a young age.”

It was also clear to all that Cliona had tal­ent and be­cause, as she humbly puts it, “I could sing high”, it was nat­u­ral that she should re­ceive clas­si­cal train­ing. “Ev­ery school that I went to, the teach­ers taught me clas­si­cal, and I’m de­lighted that I learned to sing that genre of mu­sic. It’s a very chal­leng­ing type of mu­sic to per­form and it takes a lot of train­ing be­hind the scenes be­fore you even walk onto the stage, but it taught me a lot re­gard­ing vo­cal technique, the dos and don’ts. My heart, though, has al­ways been in coun­try.”

Cliona stud­ied mu­sic at Queen’s Univer­sity and sub­se­quently trav­elled to Ed­in­burgh, where she qual­i­fied as a teacher and pri­mary school mu­sic spe­cial­ist. Two years teach­ing pro­fes­sion­ally fol­lowed, in Ed­in­burgh and Lur­gan, and she en­joyed the ex­pe­ri­ence. The am­bi­tion to sing, how­ever, ul­ti­mately en­ticed her out of the class­room and into the record­ing stu­dio.

“I re­mem­ber tak­ing my mum aside and say­ing to her, ‘I do en­joy the teach­ing but I still have this de­sire to be on stage’. I couldn’t ex­plain how much I loved to sing. My mum thought that I should go for it, that I should have no re­grets. I was, at that stage, quite afraid of what peo­ple might say. I was afraid of fail­ure, and that held me back too. But in time I learned to let go and I’m so glad I did.”

It was as an 18-year-old, when she was still at Queen’s Univer­sity, that Cliona bagged her big­gest gig: com­pet­ing on RTE’s All Ire­land Tal­ent Show, the Ir­ish ver­sion of Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent, es­sen­tially. Per­form­ers from ev­ery county in Ire­land con­verged on the RTE stu­dios, per­form­ing all kinds of acts. Cliona im­pressed with her singing and was cho­sen as the of­fi­cial con­tes­tant for Ul­ster.

“It was great to get back in front of the cam­eras,” she re­calls. “And it was great to meet all of the other con­tes­tants. I al­ways used to love Boy­zone when I was a kid, and when Shane Lynch showed up as a judge, I was com­pletely gob­s­macked. I’ve al­ways felt that the Ir­ish pub­lic have shown me great sup­port ever since then.”

It helps that there is now a dig­i­tal ra­dio sta­tion ded­i­cated en­tirely to the genre of coun­try mu­sic. Down­town Coun­try launched in April 2015 and has, in turn, launched the ca­reers of a plethora of North­ern Ir­ish coun­try per­form­ers. The likes of Down­town Coun­try pre­sen­ters Big T and Ja­son Hughes have be­come ar­biters of style, and Cliona is on ro­ta­tion there. Along­side Lisa McHugh

she is ar­guably the artist most in de­mand, the North­ern Ir­ish coun­try equiv­a­lent of Katy Perry.

She says: “Down­town have been very good to all of us coun­try per­form­ers. We need that to get our mu­sic out there. I think my mu­sic is ac­ces­si­ble. It’s fun. I like up-tempo mu­sic and I have re­leased quite a few quick­steps be­cause I have a lot of en­ergy and I like to jump about when I’m on stage. Most of the tracks I’ve recorded have that up­beat party feel, though there were plenty of bal­lads on my first al­bum, Straight To You, which came out in 2016.” That col­lec­tion per­fectly show­cased Ha­gan’s ver­sa­til­ity, fea­tur­ing tracks as diverse as Cow­boy Yodel, We’re All Gonna Die Some­day and I Need Some­one To Hold Me When I Cry. It set Ha­gan up as an artist to look out for and her highly an­tic­i­pated fol­low up al­bum is due to be re­leased later this year.

So far, only one of Ha­gan’s re­leases has been an orig­i­nal song — her cur­rent sin­gle, Lit­tle Dar­ling, writ­ten by English singer-song­writer Gary Miller. With the coun­try canon so vast, it is not un­com­mon for up­com­ing artists to cover sev­eral tracks in an ef­fort to con­nect with an audience early in their ca­reers. “I haven’t recorded any material of my own yet,” Ha­gan ad­mits. “But it is on my to do list. I’m re­ally look­ing for­ward to learn­ing how to write mu­sic, to see if I can do it. I’m al­ways up for a chal­lenge.” Per­haps the great­est chal­lenge would be break­ing into the main­stream — grad­u­at­ing from Down­town Coun­try to Ra­dio 1 — find­ing a fan base out­side of the diehard coun­try com­mu­nity. It’s not some­thing that Cliona would rule out as she looks to the fu­ture.

“If I had the op­por­tu­nity to reach a wider audience, to try some coun­try rock mu­sic, for ex­am­ple, that would be great. But, to be hon­est, I’m still find­ing my­self, still try­ing dif­fer­ent things out to see if they work or they don’t work. I’m try­ing to im­prove all the time. Hope­fully it’s the start of a long ca­reer and I couldn’t be more ex­cited.” Cliona will be singing at the Har­vest Mu­sic Fes­ti­val at En­niskillen Air­port to­day and at West­port, Co Mayo to­mor­row. For de­tails, go to har­vest­coun­try­mu­sicfes­ti­val.com

ALL SMILES : from top, Cliona Ha­gan on stage, with her mother Clare and out shop­ping PETER MORRISON

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