Cliona Hagan tells Adam Shaw how her training as an opera singer prepared her for country and Irish music
First Tyrone, then the world. It is a variation on the classic phrase usually uttered by some sort of evil genius on a quest for global domination. More often than not, their plans are scuppered by the glamorous hero but this is not before they have at least gone some way to achieving their goal. Cliona Hagan definitely isn’t evil, but she’s still got the world in her sights.
A classically-trained singer, she has always been surrounded by music – whether it was in the car with her parents or on a stage in front of hundreds of people. She’s since moved on from the world of Puccini and Bizet, mixing now with the likes of Nathan Carter and Philomena Begley. This, she believes, is a more natural environment.
“My first love has always been country, it’s what I was brought up on,” she says. “I’m always singing country music and listening to it around the house. And as long as I can remember I’ve been humming all the old songs.”
Destined for stardom
When Cliona was nine she made her first appearance in the media, singing Down by the Salley Gardens to George Jones on BBC Radio Ulster. A few years later a video of her performing was broadcast on The Late, Late Toy Show. It looked as if she was destined for stardom, and country seemed like the most appropriate route.
However, she ended up going almost as far away from the genre as you could go – the rhythmic, warming songs of rural Ireland were replaced by the dramatic, elaborate waves of classical music. “It’s certainly very different, and all the songs seem to be in another language.
“But I’m glad I did it as it taught me a lot and gave me a lot of skills which I might not otherwise have developed. The training put me in good stead; it showed me that my voice is an instrument and should be treated as such. And it also helped with breathing, posture and things like that.”
After stints in the spotlight as a youngster, Cliona was once again in front of the camera when she took part in the inaugural series of The All Ireland Talent Show aged 19. Representing the North, her operatic talents saw her make it all the way to the final show where, despite a beautiful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, she narrowly lost out to The Mulkerrin Brothers.
“Again, I was delighted I did it. It was a good competition and, although I would have loved to have won, I was happy to have got as far as I did.
“I was mentored by Dana who was so insightful and I learnt so much from her. You can’t buy an experience like that. “Being surrounded by all these experts has helped me with my future career – even simple things like knowing what to do on stage and performing in front of an audience.”
During the competition, Cliona explained how she had entered because it could give her the opportunity to do what she loves in singing. And while she might have closed the classical door, this attitude – a love for singing – has enabled her to make inroads into the country scene.
“I’ve had to work at it and really push myself but, then again, I love doing what I do, visiting new places and meeting new people.
“I want people to get to know me and my music. I’m always in competition with myself, looking to better myself and make people proud of what I’m doing.
“It’s a lovely environment; I know it’s a cliché but it really is like one big family and people look out for one another.
“And I love that I get to dance and give really high-energy performances – this was something I could never really do with classical.”
One big sacrifice she had to make to focus on her music was giving up a potential career in teaching. She went to university, got her qualifications and, “gave it a shot” but, with conflicting schedules she was forced to choose. It’s likely that she would have forged a very successful, very enjoyable career as a teacher but there’s no denying that she is happy with her decision.
It’s given her the opportunity to travel, work with her own band and bring joy to many people across the world.
“I don’t think I’d ever have seen so much of Ireland if I hadn’t done this; going round the country to dances and festivals. When people are coming back to your shows as well, it’s the best feeling in the world because it means you must be doing something half right.
“I’m hoping to get over to Germany and Spain and of course America, the Holy Grail of country music. And I’d love to branch out into the UK – there’s such a thriving country scene over there and we need to build on it.”
Given the success of her debut album Straight to You, which topped the iTunes chart in Ireland, it is likely that she will make her way across the water in the near future.
For now she’s “shocked and happy” to be doing what she is, travelling around and performing with her band – a “group of lads who have all become her friends”.
But, typically, Cliona has set her own bar high. She wants to emulate her friend Nathan Carter and the success he has had with Irish country.
“Nathan’s a good friend of mine and it’s fantastic what he’s achieved. And no-one deserves it more than him, he’s absolutely brilliant. They’re big boots to fill but it would be great to have just some of the impact that he’s had.”
She also wants to continue “flying the flag for Ireland” at events around the world, showing that her competitive spirit hasn’t diminished. And neither has her classical training – incorporating yodelling into her sound, Cliona can display her extensive vocal range. She wants to display her talents by getting out there and showing people her passion for music, something which was drummed up when she was a child.
Her plans were set into motion during her formative years listening to hours of country. She introduced herself to Ulster on the radio, then Ireland on the television. Her homeland has been ‘conquered’, now she’s studying a worldwide map.