Lilla Vargen told David Hennessy about supporting Dermot Kennedy, the power of music and how London ‘terrified’ her when she first moved here.
London-based Ballymena singer-songwriter Lilla Vargen was all set for her first ever headline tour last year when the pandemic scuppered all those plans.
She had just supported superstar Dermot Kennedy when Covid-19 saw her own shows, originally scheduled for April last year, being cancelled.
That tour with Dermot remains her last time on a stage in front of people but feels like a different life to her now.
Lilla told The Irish World: “The last proper live show I played was the 3 Arena. It’s mad.
“That was to 12,500 people. It was a good way to finish it but at the time you don’t think it’s going to be your last show you’re going to play for over a year.
“It was a big jump for me because everything I had played before that was maybe 1,000- 2,000 maximum. That tour, I wasn’t used to it. It took me a couple of shows to get used to that so it was strange going from the craziness of all that to nothing.”
However, the tour was not without drama. Lilla was cursing her luck when, having been gifted the opportunity, she was struck down with tonsillitis and was afraid she would not be able to perform.
“It was really scary because I do have a problem with my tonsils so at least once a year it will just be awful and I’ll get really bad tonsillitis. It doesn’t only affect your throat, it affects the whole way you feel.
“I was just feeling absolutely terrible and we had to get to the doctor. We were at a venue in Germany and had to get to a doctor to get me antibiotics.”
Luckily, the medication the doctor prescribed helped Lilla to make it onto the stage that night. She also remembers Dermot’s kindness at a difficult time.
“I was just crying my eyes out and Dermot was like, ‘Look, don’t worry about it. Just do whatever you can do and it’s going to be fine’.
“He helped me feel a bit better about it. I think it is a performer’s worst nightmare. When you don’t feel 100% happy with yourself and your ability then it becomes a complete nightmare and it’s just very, very scary.
“Even after that, it went fine. It was just a bit annoying because I was sick but what can you do?
“Dermot was lovely. He was great in that situation because obviously he’s toured a lot more than I have. He did speak to me about vocal stuff and different things to do so it was helpful that way to get that kind of advice from someone like him.
“I felt very lucky that that was my first big support tour because everyone was really nice and kind and patient and it felt like a big group of friends by the end of it. It was really good fun and I just wish I was going back on tour tomorrow.”
The tour called at the Hammersmith Apollo which is not far from her own front door.
“It’s about a 20 minute walk from where I live. For me it was surreal because I walk past it all the time and then just to be in there felt so strange. But it was great. It was just the weirdest day ever but I absolutely loved it.”
If it’s so near to her house, did she invite all 12,000 people back to hers for a cup of tea afterwards? “No, well the Apollo holds 5 or 6,000 but I don’t think I would be able to fit them all in my flat!
“We just had a great night and enjoyed ourselves.”
On the road Lilla was moved to see people singing along to her tracks.
“I started to play and the front row were singing my lyrics back to me. I was like, ‘This is insane’. And then on the very last night at the 3 Arena the whole crowd put their torches up for me on their phones and I was like, ‘This is too much for me, I can’t take it’.
“I was in the middle of singing a song and I could not sing it. I was crying and when I cried the crowd went even crazier.
“It was all very emotional. It was just impossible for me not to react to it because it was the last night of the tour.”
Memories of being on tour seem like a different world now.
“It feels as if it was a dream or something because it’s just so far removed from what we’re allowed to do now.
“Obviously I know that it did happen but it just feels weird because getting back to having those kind of shows again seems like something that is going to be far away.”
It was two years ago that she made the move to London. The singer- songwriter lives in the Fulham area but admits the big city was all very daunting at first.
“I was terrified when I was first moved here. It took maybe two or three months before I felt comfortable and confident even with the tubes and stuff. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I got lost every day. It took a bit of time but that’s the way it is moving from somewhere small to somewhere really big.”
Lilla’s latest single Blueprints was written partly about this move.
“It’s kind of about that and about how you can’t really rely on anybody other than yourself. That’s kind of what it’s about. It might sound like it’s sad but I find it kind of hopeful because once you realise that you realise a lot more things about yourself and about the world.”
Lilla’s own tour was only weeks away when lockdown was announced in March last year.
“Everything was planned out. We felt that momentum after the Dermot Kennedy tour and then it was like, ‘Everything is cancelled, nobody can do anything, we’re all going to have to wait around until life is normal again’.
“It was a big shock but I think it would have been worse if it was just isolated to me.
“So many other people were going through the same thing and much, much worse so it kind of put things in perspective.
“I’m just glad to be here and to be have the time and be able to use the time wisely and plan for this year.”
However, she is finally looking forward to getting back on that stage with those shows rescheduled for later this year.
“I really am looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be such a great time for everyone because they have been missing live music and just being around other people. It’s just been such a long time of being isolated in every way so I think it’s going to be so good just to have people come out and enjoy music together. I cannot wait to get back onstage.”
Still, Lilla describes going on tour with Dermot as one of the best things to have ever happened to her.
How did it come about? “I had played a show a few months prior to that opening up for a guy called Luca Fogale. He was the person who supported Dermot before me. He asked me to support him at the Waiting Room in London and what I didn’t realise was that Dermot’s cousin, who is also his photographer, was there and he messaged me after and said, ‘I absolutely loved your set. It was so good’.
“Also, I work a lot with Carey Willetts who has written loads of stuff with Dermot. I think it was a case of Carey talking to Dermot and Dermot’s cousin talking to him. I got the call four days before and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy’.
“That’s how it happened.
“It was so weird. Luca gave me his piano stool because he had a feeling it might come in useful to me and then a few weeks later, I find out about the Dermot tour and I was taking his stool with me. The stool stayed on for a second tour.”
Since she emerged on the scene back in 2018, Lilla has amassed over 30 million streams and been selected for the Virgin Money Emerging Stars Programme.
“Obviously I’m really excited about everything. It’s just sometimes it can be hard to- I don’t know how to say it- I think it’s hard sometimes to feel really happy with anything you do because you have to just keep carrying on.
“If I sit down and think about it then I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is really good’.
“I did not think that I would write these songs in my bedroom and that anybody would listen to them and enjoy them. It makes me feel happy when I think about it but most of the time I’m just like, ‘Okay, what can I do next?'”
Lilla’s ability on the piano is mostly self-taught. Although she had formal lessons, she knew from an early age that the structure of it was not for her as it took away her enjoyment of music.
“I did piano lessons when I was very young and I just absolutely hated them. I just hated any form of construct at all. I liked the piano itself but I didn’t like the way things were ‘wrong’.
“I just kind of didn’t understand that. I was like, ‘Well, I think you can do whatever you want with it’. I came home one day, I think I was about five, and I was like, ‘I’m not going back so then I just constantly practised and played my own stuff. If I heard a song on the radio, I would just have to run into the room and try to figure it out on the piano.
“I’m glad that’s the way it happened because I feel like sometimes when you know too much about the theory of music or you know too much about what’s right and what’s wrong it can limit you a bit as a creative because you’re constantly thinking about what’s right rather than what’s good and honest.
“I loved just going in there to the piano. Obviously when I was five, I wasn’t Mozart. I was just messing about. I probably sounded absolutely terrible. I would tell everybody at school that I had created a masterpiece but it wasn’t, it was just me bashing the piano.
“I was so sure of myself, I wish I had some of that confidence now that I had when I was five or six.”
Lilla frequented gets messages from fans saying her music has helped them.
“I get messages from people on instagram telling me that and I find it so strange because sometimes I forget that people can hear my songs and then I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what happens’.
“It’s crazy and it’s also a compliment and I think sometimes people don’t take music seriously enough because it really can help people.
“There are songs that have helped me a lot in hard times or just helped me feel better about things. There is so much power in music. Sometimes people are on the fence about whether they want to have a career in music or they do it as a hobby, they don’t want to release a song. They’re worried about what people think- Just do it because why not? There could be one person that hears it and thinks, ‘Do you know what? That is exactly what I’m going through’. ”
Blueprints is out now.
Lilla tours the UK in September/October.
For more information, click here.