Tyrone teen Janet Devlin lifts the lid on her X Factor experience and tells Shelley Marsden the unglamorous truth behind the glitz and glamour…
Janet Devlin greets me at the Hertfordshire offices of her music label in an Adventure Time t-shirt, black leggings and white Doc Martins. It’s 10am and she only lives round the corner (she’s staying at her manager’s place) but she’s rubbing her eyes like it’s crazy o’clock.
“I’m not an early bird”, says the 19 year old ‘part-time unicorn’ (according to her twitter), collapsing into a seat in front of me and pulling her legs up under her chin. “If I could lie in bed till 4pm I probably would.”
The tattoo on the inside of her left forearm, which she designed herself last summer, is a compass, lying on the vein that leads directly to the heart. Its meaning? Be your own person – don’t be guided away from your path.
It’s the elfin redhead down to a T. The pixie-faced teen from Gortin, County Tyrone made a huge impression with her ethereal presence on the 2011 edition of the X Factor, but after a high-profile spat with her mentor Kelly Rowland (she felt she was being neglected in favour of Kelly’s other singer, Mischa B) forgetting her words was booted off the show.
She’s come far since she shuffled onto the stage to sing her audition piece, Elton John’s Your Song in her now breathily trademark style – becoming one of the only reasons to watch the show.
Live versions of two new tracks have already surfaced online, both bearing the 18-year-old’s trademark Celtic lilt and breathy singing style; the shoop-led ‘Wonderful’ is a bright and bouncy airwave-ready lovesong, while ‘Crown Of Thorns’ is a swirling, sensitive ballad in vein of Alanis Morissette. Hear: tracks from Janet’s Pledge Music-funded debut album at janetdevlin.com. See: her live when she heads out on an Irish tour in April, taking in Cork, Galway, Dublin and Belfast
There were rumours she was offered her first record deal half an hour after the transmission, is that true? She smiles sagely: “I didn’t take the record deals. I had a few labels pitch to me and it was like, oh right, so if I just change everything about myself you’ll sign me! Brilliant! No.”
The gap between what the public see and what actually goes on is vast, says Janet. She was amused by the public’s outcry after she was voted off the show – she wasn’t crying in a corner, she was sharing cupcakes with Louis in his dressing room.
“I got on best with Louis, and Gary – who was always in the house. Louis’s a real laugh. People were so upset when he voted me off but I was actually alright, I was totally aware of how the process worked. That night I went into his dressing room to say goodbye and we just hung out for ages eating cupcakes somebody from Ireland had baked and sent over!”
She hasn’t stopped since then. There were two days at home with the folks after the show ended, then it was straight into her own mini-tour, followed by the recording of her debut album Hide and Seek.
The X Factor was two years ago, but to Janet it feels like a lifetime (“in the spectrum of how long I’ve been on this planet, it is!”). Though she still comes across as a little reserved, the young lady in front of me is also assured, witty and clearly very used to giving interviews.
Has she changed? Two years ago she was finishing her GCSEs in Gortin, a village where, “ everyone knows everyone, like Emmerdale”. Very shy back then, she says she didn’t go out much, even attending Saturday school to give her something to do at the weekend. That shyness led to bullying which she has talked openly about since the show.
She says:“ My social skills have improved. If I’d had to do this, right now, back in the day I’d have been like a little ball in the corner. I’ve adapted. Things were tough when I was… socially anxious. I’m more confident and relaxed since the last time people saw me.”
She soon realised how tough the X Factor was going to be. If she felt uncomfortable with anything, producers would look at her and say, ‘You’re here, aren’t you? This is what you wanted.’
“I was like, sorry but ten minutes ago I was a schoolgirl and now I’m on national TV – give me a second to adjust, please?! A lot of adjusting needed to happen, but I got there eventually.”
Though she enjoyed singing, it was hard being scrutinised: “You would try your best but you could still get criticised for it. Not all the decisions were yours, but you’re still the face of that choice.
“I didn’t mind getting criticism from the judges, because I didn’t really like my voice or how I look, so I agreed with those people giving me the abuse. I still don’t. But it doesn’t stop me from singing, I don’t think it ever should. Singing, and song-writing, makes me happy.”
Speaking of which, she looks not unlike Saoirse Ronan, another young Irish woman who has had to grow up rather quickly. It’s a comparison Janet gets a lot, that and Harry Potter star Evanna Lynch.
“I’ve had my own issues to deal with”, she says, “and she’s dealt amazingly with hers. She had anorexia nervosa, and wrote a letter to JK Rowling asking to play Luna. Rowling said she could if she got better and she did. That was amazing.”
Mum Pat (or Mothership as she calls her) is “a true Irish mammy” and rings every day. Rather than worrying about what trouble her only daughter might be getting into (she has three older brothers), she encourages Janet to get out and enjoy herself.
The singer hasn’t many friends in the UK, and is still close to pals back home. She cuts a solitary but content figure. She likes being on her own, she says – when things got too much in the X Factor house, she wouldn’t have heart-to-hearts with fellow contestants, she would throw herself under the duvet with a good book.
For the first two weeks on the show, she didn’t talk to anyone. “I couldn’t bring myself to come out of my shell”, she recalls. “I was the little loner that sat on a beanbag with my laptop. It didn’t bother me. I’m still like that a bit, especially if I read. If I’m engrossed in a book, I’m impossible to talk to” (she’s currently re-reading The Fault In Our Stars by John Green).
Janet’s song choices were often entirely out of her hands, the process a “give and take”. In week 4, she was given Uninvited by Alanis Morissette and was really happy, then she was given “the bloody Police (Every Breath You Take)”.
She giggles, saying: “I took pretty much all the major notes out of it, messed around with it and made it really dark and twisted. I was quite angry. Don’t taunt me by giving me a good song and then that!”
Further in, producers convinced her to sing The Jackson Five but she drew the line at a troupe of dancers and a huge production number. She says: “It all went a bit wrong. When I chose, they went well, then it was their choice things went badly.
“I rarely complained; if I felt overwhelmed I went to my room, went under the blankets and zoned out. But one week, they actually tried to get me to sing Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and I went to my vocal coach and just burst into tears. I bawled. But I know, it’s a TV show, it’s entertainment.”
Janet’s worst moment was the week she sang Um-Bop – she’d been begging since the start of the show to sing the Chilli Peppers and they said she could if she sang that. It was the first time the contestants had two songs to do as well. They also threw her a curveball she wasn’t expecting.
She recalls: “They came into my room one night and said, ‘How do you feel about flying back to your hometown to turn on the Xmas lights?’ I said it would be nice but I didn’t have the time, to which they replied, ‘You have to – it’s already in the press.’”
They also, rather oddly, took her iPod off her for the visit home. It had the two tracks she needed to learn on it and could have listened on the flight home and back, but a researcher continually dodged her questions about why she’d taken it away.
“That still gets to me today. Turning on the Christmas lights at home was amazing;10,000 people turned out – but I would have liked some notice. I came back and had two days to prepare the songs.”
But it wasn’t all bad. Her ‘pinch-me’ moment on the show was the night she met “Gaga”: “She’s one of the coolest people. She’s so… normal. She doesn’t take her fashion seriously, whereas people think she thinks she’s obsessed about it. She congratulated me on being able to get through on a show like that, which was awesome. She’d tried for those kinds of things herself, but never got past the cattle call.”
Can we expect her to start dressing crazy like Gaga, donning white wigs or platform heels? For a laugh, maybe. It annoys her that if you’re in the public eye it’s always headline news: “God forbid if Lana Del Ray changed her style.. OMG, she’s gone and CHANGED!”
Janet chose to fund her debut album through Pledge music, where fans donate money towards the making of it. Right now, she’s at 108% of her original target so clearly there are fans want her to make it as much as she does.
Though she admits to adoring old-school grunge like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and then more modern groups like Paramour and Fallout Boy, her own sound is miles away from any of them. Leaning towards folk and pop, the new album even contains a nifty little jazz number and the closing track, When We Were Young is an epic and cinematic with pianos.
“That one is about a morning of my childhood. It’s about the fact that I’ve grown up quickly, and I have to accept that. Though I say I’ve grown up, but I’m here wearing what I’m wearing and I came with a turtle backpack. An actual turtle shell-shaped backpack.”
There’s no release date, but the album, which she describes as “a little autobiography” comes out early next year, but she warns: “You shouldn’t take it on face value as some of the more upbeat tracks have extremely dark lyrics. I thought it would be funny.”
For the full interview, buy this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 14 Dec 2013).
For more see janetdevlin.com.