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Using her Voice for others

Andrea Begley chatted to David Hennessy to look back on her victory on The Voice in 2013, why being visually impaired was never going to stop her from following her dream and why disabled people need to be given more understanding and compassion day to day.

You may have seen a new winner being crowned on The Voice recently. It was in 2013 Andrea Begley, a visually impaired singer from Tyrone and a niece of country singing legend Philomena, defied the odds to win the reality TV series.

Andrea, who has just released a new single, One More for the Road, told The Irish World: “That’s nearly seven years ago now, would you believe?

“I look back on The Voice very fondly. It was a great platform for me. I was doing music on a small scale before that but it really propelled me into another level.”

Although she blew the judges away with her version of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel, Andrea says she didn’t foresee anything further than the initial audtion when she took to the stage.

“I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to do my best. I didn’t have any huge expectations about what would happen so anything more was a real bonus and winning was certainly a big surprise.

“It’s definitely enabled me to do lots of great things like performing in Windsor Castle and the Royal Albert Hall, going to Beijing and performing here locally in places like the Ulster Hall and The Waterfront. They’re places I never would have imagined I would have got to.

“I look back on my Facebook at posts from back then and YouTube videos. For a long long time I couldn’t even watch some of them because I could hardly believe it had happened. It’s only been in the latter years that I’ve watched things like the audition and the night of the final performing with the Script and everything. It is a strange thing that it ever happened. It almost feels like a bubble in time. I do look back on it with great memories.”
Although Tom Jones and Danny O’Donoghue of The Script turned for her Andrea was not able to see and had to ask the judges if anyone had turned for her.

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“It was sort of funny in a way. I had hoped that if anyone did turn I would know because on the show there’s a noise. You don’t hear that in the studio but I didn’t know that at the time.

“I thought, ‘If I’m lucky enough and someone does turn, I’ll at least hear it’. I had to actually ask the judges if anyone had turned. It was quite comical in ways. It’s mad to believe it ever happened and it’s lovely to be able look back on it now.”

Andrea chose Danny as her coach and they worked well together through to the very end when she was proclaimed winner.

“We definitely got on well. I admired his songwriting and the Script and I think that lent well to what I wanted to do: Write songs.

“Then we produced the song The Message, the title track of my first album, together so it was lovely to have that experience of working in the studio together on original material. Danny was a great support to me.”

Andrea would waste no time after her win, moving to London and putting her debut album out the very same year. She would follow up her debut with Soul of a Songbird last year.

“The show is a great opportunity to put your name out there but beyond that you have to put the work in.”
Andrea was diagnosed with glaucoma at five years of age. She has lost 90% of her vision. Music has always been her passion and something she can do independently.

Although she looked for no special treatment and chose the show because she could be judged purely on her voice, she has seen how much her win meant to others who have disabilities or limitations.

“I still get nice message and I certainly got a lot at the time from parents of children with disabilities or indeed people with disabilities themselves.

“I never necessarily set out to be an ‘inspiration’.

“My whole reason for wanting to participate in the show was because I wanted to sing and I wanted to be treated the same as others. It was a singing show and I was singing like every other contestant.

“We have seen greater representation of people with disabilities on TV and in the media, more than when I was doing the show seven years ago. That’s only to be welcomed.

“Something like one in five people in the UK have a disability so it’s a big proportion and yet we don’t alawys see that represented. If in any small way I contributed to people feeling that they could go and do something similar, that’s no bad thing and I’m glad to have played a small part in that.”

Growing up did Andrea ever fear that she may not get the opportunities to be a singer on account of her visual impairment? “Not so much. Growing up with my condition I have had to find ways around doing lots of things in life whether it’s cooking, using a phone or whatever it might be. It does make you a little bit more resilient because you have had to find other avenues but I don’t think it’s ever necessarily put me off singing.

“If I decide to do something, I’m fairly determined. It wasn’t going to put me off.”

Asked if more can be done to help disabled people, Andrea says it is just about people’s attitudes: “What I’ve experienced is a lack of understanding and awareness and it’s not necessarily people want to be hurtful or say things wrong.

“For some people it’s probably the recognition that some disabilities are visible, some are not so visible. It can be tricky if you have a hidden disability trying to maybe justify why you’re using a disabled parking space- not that you should have to.

“It would be to just raise that bit of compassion, understanding and awareness. That’s one thing I hope maybe will come out of this stuff to do with coronavirus and lockdown. Maybe it will. We’ve seen a lot of good things going on in local communities. It is bringing out people’s compassion and had people realising that others are in a difficult spot sometimes and if you can help out you should.”

Andrea, who works in a voluntary role with the Royal National Institute for Blind People, has seen that lockdown has been tough on those with special needs.

“Most people can go down and queue up at the supermarket and go in and get what they need to. When you’ve a disability, that can be more difficult. It can be quite hard to tell if you’re keeping social distance from people sometimes if you can’t see how far away they are.

“With the extra things brought in like screens and whatever else it does make it that bit harder to get out and about and do the things that you used to do.

“We’ve hopefully been a shoulder to lean on and RNIBP has done its best.”

Although she had been living in Belfast, Andrea moved back to her home in Pomeroy near the start of lockdown.

“I’ve stayed here with my mum and dad and my sister. I’m likely to be here for the foreseeable. It’s just easier. It would have been a bit isolating on my own and just better for getting out and everything with my vision impairment. I find it’s easier.”

Andrea relocated to London following her massive win on the reality TV show that was then screening on BBC. She says she loves London.

“This time last year I was performing at a couple of Christmas shows there. It’s hard to believe now that I was in a room with a couple of hundred people. Nowadays the thought of being in a room with a couple of hundred people is kind of scary.

“Hopefully one day soon we can get back to feeling normal and being out there doing gigs and interacting with people again. That’s all the things that make music worthwhile. Your audience is your life blood, that’s what keeps you going.

“We will definitely get back to that.”

Andrea has also shared the stage with her well known aunt with the two singers from the same family embarking on a number of joint tours.

“In more recent years I’ve been doing a few tours with my aunt, Philomena which has been lovely too. It’s been great to be able to share the music and enjoy the music as a family as well. It’s been a good few years. I’ve certainly enjoyed it.

“She’s just had a phenomenal longevity in the music business: Over 55 years now. I look at that and can only hope to do something similar.

“We’ve done a few duets onstage together and it’s just lovely to be able to share that. It’s the family connection. It is special.”

One More for the Road is out now.

For more information, click here

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