Simon Cowell called her “the complete package” but an ill-judged song choice led to her exit from The X Factor live finals.
Is Roberta Howett burned by the experience? Hell no, she’s back with a new single — and told Noel Mullen all about it.
When the promise of all you’ve ever wanted is laid out in front of you, only to be cruelly taken away, no one would blame you for feeling bitter and jaded about it. But try telling that to Roberta Howett.
Speaking to me under a shared grey London sky, she is singularly upbeat. Her answers are thoughtful, her wisdom earned rather than learned second hand and she laughs easily and often. She has just returned from Scotland after a number of dates singing with Irish country crown prince Nathan Carter, including a show at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
“The gigs went great.” she says in her soft Dublin accent. “Nathan is fantastic. The crowd were really into it so it was really fun to be around.”
But Roberta isn’t tempted to don a stetson and sequin shirt in her own music — she remains very a piano-based pop balladeer by nature.
How to describe her sound?
Trying to characterise someone’s music can be impossibly difficult, so let Roberta do it instead.
“Oh God! It’s so hard. I don’t know! Maybe someone like Christina Perri [American singer-songwriter who recently duetted with Ed Sheeran on Be My Forever] or someone piano-based… ” OK, then, something a little easier, who are her influences? – “I’m a massive fan of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Kate Bush — I love Kate Bush. There’s just too many. It’s like when someone asks you what’s your favourite movie, it so depends on your mood.” Diverse tastes for someone with such a diverse career in music.
Born and raised in Dublin, she regularly entered Feis Ceoil competitions as a youngster.
After coming out of the Royal Music Academy it was clear music was to be her life.
So she decided to try her luck at the auditions for a new TV show called The X Factor.
A 22 year old Roberta, in the old X Factor audition format of being alone with the three judges — Louis Walsh, Sharon Osbourne and of course Simon Cowell.
Roberta chats shyly with the judges before confidently launching into her rendition of Ain’t No Sunshine — and then awaits the judges verdict. Three emphatic yes votes. It could not have gone better…
Aside from being a talented singer and piano player, she’s also an accomplished songwriter.
Turning to the song she has written, Water To Fire, is it about someone who goes from being a drip to becoming a force of nature? She laughs, then puts me right. “It’s actually about someone setting fire to your life. It’s a relationship where you’re with someone you really shouldn’t be with but you feel something with them that makes you feel alive.”
As a piano player she usually leads her writing with the music first, lyrics second. But inspiration can strike anywhere. While you were doing a sudoku on the tube, Roberta might have been in the same carriage jotting down lyrics for a new song idea. She’s been catching tubes around London for five years now and has settled in nicely.
She shot some of her music video for her previous single Broken Wings in Battersea Park.
“We made it with a couple of good friends of mine. The whole area is so beautiful.”
The video shows Roberta “breaking up” with her partner. I tell her that a lot of real break ups happen in Battersea Park and was surprised there wasn’t a real one going on behind her as they were filming.
“That would have been perfect!” she laughs. “Get them to sign something. ‘Is it OK if we film you?’”
Just after moving to London she became a regular performer at London Irish rugby match days — with the group Fanfair which she formed with three other singers. How did that come about?
“We all worked with a manager individually, and he introduced us all and was like ‘let’s form a band!’ We all had pretty similar tastes in music so it just made really good sense.”
Apart from being an ingenious way for the manager to consolidate his work duties, it was also a successful grouping. They gigged around the UK, supported the band The Wanted, and wrote songs like Mission — which was used by Sky TV for the Collection make up ad campaign but the band called it a day in 2013.
“We are still really really good mates, but it came to a point where we were like OK, this is a natural finish. But we had a good run of it.”
Before all this came The X Factor. Watching her live performance on YouTube it’s hard to understand why she didn’t get a longer run on the show. Singing one of The Carpenters lesser-known songs, Superstar, it was a performance worthy of superlatives.
But at the end of that same show she found herself pitted against the gospel group Voices With Soul and the judges had to decide which act they would save.
They went with the trio Voices With Soul, deciding to break one heart instead of three.
But Roberta is refreshingly positive about her experience on the first series of the show in 2004.
“I was really fun. I got to meet some great people and have some crazy experiences. It was such an eye opener. No one had been on, no one knew the format, how it would go or how it would be received. But audiences got behind it and absolutely loved it.”
Sharon Osbourne was her mentor for the show, but what mentoring would Roberta now give to her younger self?
“I would probably say choose a different song! But at the time we just didn’t know. Up to that point [of the live finals] I had done really nice jazz and blues songs — songs that really meant something to me.
“I don’t think many people knew that particular Carpenters song. So when they don’t know the song and they don’t know you, they’re going to go with something a bit more accessible.”
“But I always tell myself no regrets. Your past is your past and you just move with it.” Another infectious laugh. “You know, it might not have worked out anyway.”
To those music snobs who dismiss The X Factor, Roberta says it’s time to get over their prejudices. “There are so many independent musicians doing it by themselves. The people who go on it, they want to have a shot at it.
“You can’t pass up any opportunity because you don’t know where your opportunity is going to come from. So if it feels right to you, you should do it. And if it IS right, it won’t pass you by.”
So she has no regrets and has avoided the curse of many X Factor winners who are so often plunged into obscurity and unemployment. She has a single out, another to be released early next year, more tour dates with Nathan Carter in March, and the promise of her own solo shows. And she still watches The X Factor.