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Out of the wreckage

Northern Irish singer Amanda St. John tells David Hennessy about how her online concerts are bringing people together in a powerful way and how a near death experience inspired her to give singing a go.

Northern Irish songstress Amanda St John should be on tour in the United States right now where she was due to sing for American President Donald Trump for the second time. However, she is launching her second album The Muscle Shoals Sessions by singing for her fans wherever they are in the world from her home in Antrim.

Amanda told The Irish World that these gigs have had a poignant effect on her: “Music connects people. I would never in a million years have thought that an online gig would feel so connected.

“There’s hundreds of comments coming through and I’m having a wee glass of wine and people are saying, ‘I’m on a guiness’, ‘I’m on a whiskey’, ‘Cheers’.”

From coming together to enjoy music, Amanda has seen them helping each other through.

“It’s actually lovely and a couple of people have requested Lean on Me by Bill Withers (speaking before the singer’s recent death) and I was like, ‘That’s it, we need to look out for each other. Seriously, check on your neighbours’.

“Then a couple of people got in touch to say they were feeling a bit isolated, that they didn’t have support. One man lives in another area of Northern Ireland. I was able to reach out to friends of my own who could support him through this.

“I know people are thinking the online gigs are just about me but it’s not,it’s so much bigger. I’m just loving the level of connection. Music is the one thing that’s going to get people through this and make them feel connected.”

Moving between genres like blues, soul, RnB and gospel, Amanda’s debut album Grow was released in 2016 to a very positive response that included the title track being used in a launched in a national advert campaign for The Rio Olympics. She would follow this by becoming the first independent Irish artist in history to record in FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Following in the footsteps of her musical heroes Aretha Franklin & Etta James she took a huge leap of faith (and financial risk) to record her 2nd studio album in this legendary studio.

Amanda with Donald Trump and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on last year’s American trip.

“I had a whole tour planned. It was meant to go to America for a very high profile tour around St. Patrick’s Day. Last year I was over there and I ended up doing a gig for the Taoiseach and Donald Trump and everything.

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“I was invited as a patron of the arts for Ireland so I was representing my country. To be an ambassador for my country was a very very proud moment.

“I had another week of that lined up. I had been invited to the White House. Then that got cancelled and then my whole April/ May/ June tour has been cancelled now as well.

“It’s kind of trying to make the most of it. Because I’ve had a couple of delays over the years with personal circumstances, I thought I’ll just push ahead with the digital release. At least if I’m doing the online gigs, it’s maintaining contact. It’s a way of staying in contact with people and checking in with people and providing a wee bit of light heartedness as well, a bit of entertainment for people while they’re sitting in their houses.”

Amanda’s sophomore album was delayed by personal loss and an ensuing health complaint: “My father died and then I was recovering from that when I had really bad vocal damage.

“I think it was just stress (that caused the vocal damage) to be honest. I lived with my daddy for the time that he was sick and he was terminal for three and a half years.

“I was working three jobs and I’m a single parent and I had daddy to look after as well. I think I was just burnt out.

“Even though I was caring for daddy, the last couple of months he was in the hospice and I was leaving the hospice to go and do gigs. That was my body just dying for a rest. I just pushed myself too much.

“I was off for five months then and they told me I probably wouldn’t be able to sing again because it wasn’t healing.

“I just invested massively into an album, went to America to record it in the same studio as Aretha Franklin: Massive, massive financial risk. To be ready to release it and be told you might never sing again, it was quite funny, it was almost like another hurdle.It’s quite laughable when you look at it.”

She has already overcome some huge obstacles. In fact, Amanda was lucky to survive a car accident in 2011 that gave her the fire she needed to launch her musical career. Unconscious and 300 feet down a mountain, Amanda had to be cut out of her vehicle and she could easily not be here now.

“That’s what started me singing actually,” she remembers. “I hadn’t been singing my own music before that. I had given up on it. I didn’t think I was good enough. 

“I had that car accident. I went 300 foot down the side of a mountain and I was unconscious with a head injury and I had no pulse or anything at the time when the fire brigade arrived.

“They didn’t think I was going to make it. I remember the battle to stay alive. My daughter was only two or three at the time. I just wasn’t ready to go.

“I remember the battle and I promised myself if I got out of it alive, I would sing. It was the best thing that ever happened to me because all the negative chatter,all those things that held me back didn’t matter anymore. It was almost like a second chance and I didn’t want to ruin the second chance. I just wanted to make something of myself. I felt like if I had died at that point, I would have wasted my life. I hadn’t left anything behind. I hadn’t done anything I was meant to do. It was actually a very liberating experience.

“Thankfullly I have no memory of it but it was quite miraculous because in the end there was very little, there was nothing lasting and there was very little wrong in theend. When the brain swelling went down, there was no issues, there was no problems. I was very lucky.”

Unbelievably this was Amanda’s second close call as meningitis struck when she was still a teenager: “I was 17 at that point. I’ve had two brushes with death. Too much drama!

“It was very serious the first two days but I was so out of it that I wasn’t aware of what was going on. I was in and out of consciousness and I was very heavily medicated. It wasn’t until afterwards that we realised how serious it was. It was viral meningitis, it wasn’t bacterial thankfully. It wasn’t until afterwards we realised that it was very touch and go the first night I was in hospital. We didn’t realise just how serious it was.

“It was a long recovery period. It was two or three years to get back to full health. I went from playing camogie to not being able to walk very far. I could barely walk around the house some days. It was a long recovery period.”

Having been through so much, it may come as no surprise that Amanda refuses to let the Covid-19 virus or the lockdown get her down, even if it has played havoc with all her plans: “I think everybody is impacted so you have to just kind of adapt and do your best and just try and push forward as best you can but be respectful of the situation as well because it’s bigger than any of us. It’s hard to go, ‘This is effecting me’ because it’s affecting the world.”

Grammy winning US producer Jon Tiven said about Amanda: “If Dusty Springfield were alive, she’d say ‘that’s my girl!’” And Amanda recorded her latest album with bass player David Hood who has played with names such as Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and Alicia Keys and piano/keys/hammond player Clayton Ivey (Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Joss Stone, The Supremes).

“It was incredible and they’re lovely, lovely people, very down to earth. Muscle Shoal is like a family. They all know each other inside out and once you’re welcomed in, you’re a part of the family almost. They were just a joy to work with.

“Everybody just worked so well together and it was a really good vibe.”

The Muscle Shoals Sessions by Amanda St John is out in May.

For more information, go to Amanda’s website here

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