Adam Shaw talks to Lisa McHugh about how moving from her native Glasgow to Ireland was the best thing she ever did – making her one of the country’s top acts before 30
It would be fair to say that country singer Lisa McHugh took an almighty gamble seven years ago. With just a four-track EP in tow, she headed over to Ireland from her native Glasgow with the aim of advancing her music career. Not devoid of self-confidence, she was missing just about everything else but this didn’t halt her ambitions to make it over there.
She drove up and down the country, visiting radio stations and asking them if they wouldn’t kind playing some of her songs. Pretty soon, a lot of people knew who Lisa was.
“I had no work, no band and no management – it was just me and this EP,” she says. “Some radio stations kindly played it for me and then they started getting more and more requests from listeners.
“Things just sort of snowballed from there and I haven’t looked back; I’ve been touring ever since.”
Lisa has won Female Vocalist of the Year awards five times as well as her Outstanding Achievement on the World Stage in 2012. She has built up a loyal legion of fans, and consistently packs out halls around Ireland.
Thousands of tickets sold
Her latest tour takes her from Belfast to Cork and everywhere in between as thousands buy tickets to see her shows. She also takes in Scotland, looking to attract even more followers and giving her the opportunity to return to her birthplace.
“We try and visit as many places as we can but change it up each year in an attempt to grow our fanbase. At least twice a year we head over to Britain and the aim is to increase it over the next few years.
“But I would say that it’s more like performing at a concert over there. In Ireland, things are a lot more rowdy.
“It’s louder, a bit more like a party and everyone gets up and dances. Everywhere’s different though which is something I like.”
Lisa also wants to branch out even further, claiming that she would “grab the opportunity to travel with both hands”. Continental Europe, Canada and even Australia are in her sights, as is the United States, a place she has fond memories of.
“In 2012 I was asked by Gene Watson to record a duet, so I went over to Nashville to record my part. “Gene was very kind and was always asking if there was anything he could do for me. Then he called me up and said he’d like me to play at the Grand ‘Ole Opry – it was a phone call and an experience that I will never forget.
“It was so surreal to be on that stage and it’s what every country artist dreams of. Fingers crossed I’ll get the chance to do it again.”
Lisa admits that while she used to sing songs from all genres when she was growing up, country was always her favourite.
Not the ‘Cool’ option
It might not have been seen as the ‘cool’ option but it was almost unavoidable, given that it was all she listened to when she was younger. “Ever since I was a baby, we had country music on in the car, on the radio or on the telly. I fell in love with American country and I’m still a huge fan, while Irish country almost became second nature. I love that they tell a good story, because that’s what I think makes a good song. Plus you’ve got wonderful harmonies which is a big thing for me.
“My dad is from Co. Tyrone and my mum is from Co. Donegal and we always used to go on holiday to Ireland and, of course, we’d listen to country.
“It was one of the reasons why I moved over here – there’s a bit of a call for it over in Scotland but it’s nothing like in Ireland.”
Never fully secure
While Lisa has enjoyed a successful run in the industry, she is under no illusions that she suffered an uneasy beginning and that things are never fully secure. But she is a focused and driven individual who, from the get-go, has been willing to put her full weight behind her career.
“I realised that if I was going to do it, I had to do it properly and that meant throwing myself into it in Ireland.
“It’s been an absolute whirlwind and the best time of my life but I appreciate that it’s not always rosy.
“The first three years were tough and it’s a cutthroat business. I knew that things would take time but it’s getting better each year.”
This year has already got off to a great start, with Lisa securing a host of tour dates and putting out a new single. Taken from her live DVD #LisaLive, Play Me the Waltz of the Angels is a sentimental, easy-listening track involving two harmony singers, a piano and her own voice. In keeping with her own musical tastes, the song’s lyrics tell a touching, relatable story. She is also pleased that it is a “stripped back and relaxed” number and has more of an acoustic feel.
It is bound to feature during her tour performances as well as on radio playlists throughout Ireland but Lisa is well aware that she cannot let up. “It is tough going, I must admit. The schedule can be really gruelling but, at the same time, it’s so much fun.
“People often call me a bit of a workaholic but I only work so much because I love doing what I do.”
And one of the reasons she continues to be successful is the support and commitment of her parents; the people who got her into country in the first place.
“They were nervous and a bit apprehensive when I decided to move to Ireland. “But they could take comfort from the fact that I knew the country, it wasn’t as if I was heading off to somewhere completely alien.
“They’ve always supported me and they love coming over to see me or popping down whenever we’re performing in Scotland.”
Lisa is clearly extremely talented and possesses an excellent singing voice. But what perhaps separates her from the crowd even more is her willingness to grind things out. She certainly did take a gamble by upping sticks and moving from Glasgow across the Irish Sea, even if she did have a close connection with her new home.
Months of clocking up miles and hoping that the public would take to her music must have been an unsettling period. But she kept producing material, got herself a band and a manager and continued to tour the country, gracing stages in every possible corner. Now she’s reaping the rewards, and loving every second of it.
• Play Me the Waltz of the Angels is out now. For more information and latest tour dates, visit www.lisamchugh.com