First Published June 2020
FREEING THE FIRE WITHIN
Courage. It’s something that shows itself in many different ways in life. When it comes to the world of music and entertainment, however, you might well be wondering why the subject of courage – of all things – might ever even have to be raised. But consider this…
If you’re arguably the reigning and undisputed top female star in Irish country music, and seemingly all of a sudden, you just take a complete step back from almost all public performances of note for over a year…, well, make no mistake about it, that takes courage. And if you’re profiling the career of LISA McHUGH, and you don’t talk courage at some point, then you’ve failed to recognise and acknowledge one of her strongest character traits.
Moving to Ireland from Glasgow to pursue her dream of a career in country music was one of the earliest manifestations of Lisa’s determination. Ten years on, after a decade of success that saw awards galore come her way, hit after hit top the charts, and sell-out tours up and down the country, Lisa decided that to truly follow her heart, she needed to move in a slightly different direction. And admirably, that’s exactly what she’s done.
To anyone who thinks she’s just nonchalantly decided to abandon the style of country music that first made her famous, you’re missing the point. Completely. Firstly, she’s far from nonchalantly abandoning it anyway. What she’s doing is continuing to follow her heart. Which is exactly the sense of self-awareness that helped fire her to fame the first time around. And following your heart is courage in real-time.
What we’re witnessing now, is just a different side to Lisa. It’s the next stage of the evolution of a woman who is no longer satisfied with just being a performer, when the creative spirit of a songwriter and an artist has always burned within. Now, it’s time for that fire to be seen – and heard – by the world.
Her new sound is unmistakably in the pop/country vein, and undeniably catchy from the get-go. Speaking not only as a fan of Lisa’s from when we first spoke years back, but also as a pop/country fan in general, I can’t wait to hear more! I had the pleasure of catching back up with Lisa for the first time in too long a time last week.
And where else could we start, but with the recent release of her new single, You’re Gonna Get Back Up. The track has already become a Top 10 hit for Lisa on the Irish charts, something that means a lot to the lady from Glasgow given how personal the song is to her…
“Yeah, I’m absolutely delighted that we’ve got a Top 10 with it. I wrote the song last year, and yeah, as you say, it’s a very personal song for me. As you know, over the last couple of years, I’ve kinda been going through a bit of a transition where I’ve been changing things up a little bit with regard to my music, my releases, my direction, and my sound. It’s definitely been an amazing ten years for me in the Irish country music scene, I’ve had an absolute ball, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about it. I’ve gained a lot of experience and covered a lot of ground in that time. And in those ten years I’ve learned a lot about myself, including that I wanted to release a lot more of my own music, and tell my story, my way. Instead of just doing what everyone wants me to do, and things I should be doing, I want to do it my way. So I released the first few singles last year – ‘Country Mile’, ‘Watch Me’, and ‘The Scandal’ – and now ‘You’re Gonna Get Back Up.'”
Lisa continued, “The story behind that song was that in the midst of doing the whole changing of direction and image and things, into a more pop/country sound, a lot of people from the outside looking in wouldn’t necessarily have understood why I wanted to change anything. Or why I wasn’t just continuing to do what I had been doing for so long. And not that there was anything at all wrong with what I had been doing. I just wanted to challenge myself. I just wanted to grow as an artist, as a songwriter, as a performer. And to just dip my toe in other ponds and see where it can take my career and my music. While doing that, people aren’t necessarily shy in letting you know their opinion, whether you like it or not! [laughs]. As much as the majority of people were incredibly excited with the new direction, and were supportive, there may have been some people who were a bit confused as to why I would want to change anything. But I had to take it all on the chin. I knew myself what I wanted to do, where I was goin’, and I know I’m not gonna please everyone every day of the week with everything I do. But as long as I’m happy and content and focused on where I’m going myself…That was the reason for writing ‘You’re Gonna Get Back Up.’ It was almost like an encouragement anthem for myself.”
So with You’re Gonna Get Back Up being the fourth single in this new phase of Lisa’s career, well, that’s almost half an album right there. Is there something along that line that we can be looking forward to soon, I wondered?
“Definitely. There will be an E.P. released. I was planning to release it around this time, before all of everything with the Coronavirus happened, that just brought everything in the world to a complete halt. So everything has been delayed for the foreseeable. We’re not really sure with regard to touring, we’re not really sure with regard to a lot of things just now in the world. The E.P. will hopefully be released this year, I’m confident it will be. And then we’ll hopefully be touring towards the end of this year as well, fingers crossed. and all being well. But as regards an album, we’ll be releasing the E.P. first and then working towards the full album.”
In another dimension or parallel universe somewhere, 2020 is turning out to be the best year ever for everybody! And in that beautiful place, Lisa would have been just one week away from starting her new tour. Alas, in our version of 2020, that’s not the case. But, as Lisa mentioned, with her tour now rescheduled for October, the plus side is that we at least still have that to look forward to. So, when October comes, what can fans expect when they finally see Lisa back on stage for one of her own shows?
“To be honest, I was more than ready to be back on tour this year! Because obviously I took a year off from touring last year in order to recharge the batteries, and concentrate on songwriting, and basically working towards a lot of new shows this year. There was to be the tour, the festivals…I had the likes of Electric Picnic, Kaleidoscope, and Country to Country (C2C), all of these fantastic opportunities were in the diary and I was raring to go. Then, of course, this all happened and everything is delayed, at least six months if not up to a year. But as you say, as much of a disappointment as it is, it also gives more time to prepare, more time to look forward to it, and more time to get excited. My Irish tour is rescheduled from June to October, and I’m so excited to get on stages around the country and to perform my new music for a ‘live’ audience. It’s one thing releasing the new music and having it out there on radio, which it has been, ‘Country Mile’ is out over a year. But it’s another thing to actually perform the songs in front of a ‘live’ audience and actually get the inter-action with them, and to hear them singing along, and to hear their reactions to the new music. Of course I’ll be including songs like ‘Apple Jack’ and ‘Hillbilly Girl’ and those songs that have been incredibly successful for me to date. I would never turn my back and say I’ll never be singing those songs again, that would be so silly of me. And I have too much respect for everyone who supported those releases for me to date. So it will be a bit of a mix. I’ll be concentrating more on my own songs and the new direction, but of course it will include a sprinkle of what people love from me to date.”
If 2020 hadn’t gone rogue on us all in so many ways, it was shaping up to be one heck of an exciting twelve months for Lisa. As well as returning to the stage at Kaleidoscope again, with Gavin James headlining, Lisa was also pencilled in to appear at the Trinity Ball where Tinie Tempah topped the bill. And of course there was C2C in London back in March, too. Those are just some examples of what Lisa had to be looking forward to. Obviously as a person, I know Lisa sees the bigger picture and understands the greater good as far as the limitations placed upon us all due to Covid 19. But as an artist, I wondered what was it like to have all of those amazing moments waiting for her one day, only to all vanish the next?
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hugely disappointed. As you said, it was all there. I was raring to go one day, and the next, it was a case of nobody really knows if any of this is going to actually happen. I’ve worked incredibly hard over the last couple of years to get on those shows that you mentioned, with the likes of Gavin, and Tinie Tempah, and some of the biggest country stars in the world like Chris Stapleton and Lady Antebellum. So then to be told that they’re not actually happening, it’s definitely a kick in the teeth. To put it lightly! [laughs]. But the positive of it is that all of the shows have been rescheduled for next year, and all of them have confirmed that I’ll definitely still be on them. So there is light at the end of the tunnel to know that I’ll be able to get on those stages and perform. It may not be this year, it might be next year, but at least the opportunity is still there.”
Over the course of the ‘lockdown’ period, Lisa has done a number of Facebook ‘live’ performances, with just her and a guitar, and which I have absolutely loved. I think they’ve shown a side to Lisa that a lot of people may not have known existed. And there’s no two ways about it, not everyone can get out there and do it with just vocal and guitar. If they could, they would. But they don’t. Because when you do it that way, there’s no hiding place. I wondered if Lisa ever felt that not everyone has ever appreciated – or over the years, maybe even realised – the different sides to what she can do?
“Well that’s a lovely thing to say, I’m delighted you think that. As you say, there definitely is nowhere to hide when it’s just you and a guitar [laughs]. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous beforehand, going on for the very first couple of ‘live’ shows I did from home. And for that very reason exactly. I’m mainly a performer, a singer, and a songwriter. I get by with a few chords on guitar! It’s something that I’ve always wanted to improve on. And it’s one thing that I have probably concentrated on during lockdown, is trying to improve on that. And I think, doing the ‘live’ shows, and realising that there’s nowhere to hide, has actually given me the extra push to work harder at getting better on guitar, and different sides of music. It’s certainly made me more creative. But yeah, I do think it’s shown a lot of people a different side to me, a more intimate side. It’s all good and well to be on stage with a nine-piece band and all the sound under the world. But when you strip it all back, that’s what it comes down to. And sometimes that’s the most enjoyable part for me, to just go on and sing a song and hear nothing but the lyrics or the music of your voice, and something as simple as an acoustic guitar. So I was delighted that I got the opportunity to do that. And the reaction as well was fantastic. Hopefully I’ll get to do some more over the next few months as well.”
I mentioned this as being a ‘new phase’ of Lisa’s career, and at the beginning of our chat, she referred to the transition that she’s been going through over the past couple of years. To me, Lisa is a pop/country artist right now, and being a huge fan of American country music where pop/country is more or less the norm at the moment, I have no problem with that at all. I see what she’s doing, I know why she’s doing it, and I get it. Although she’s one of the stars on the bill for Farmer’s Bash in October, as far as the Irish country scene goes, however, it feels like we won’t be seeing Lisa back there again. Will we?
“I don’t think I would say that it’s a case of me completely distancing myself from anything I’ve done before. I would never want people to think that I’m turning my back on anything I’ve done before, or on anyone who has supported me. Because, to be honest, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m still the same person, I still want to release music, I still want to do shows. Every year for the last ten years, I’ve done concert tours around Ireland, and around Scotland, and England, and further afield. And it was a completely different show that you would have seen compared to my dance show. And probably with that in mind, I always wanted to come to this point in my career, where I’m doing concert shows and people want to just sit and listen to the music that I wanted to perform or had written. And that’s sometimes different to what would have happened at dances. The dances were more a case of performing songs that worked for people to dance to. And in order to keep the dancefloor filled, that was my job. To make sure that people were enjoying themselves that way. In a concert, it’s different. People are paying their money to come, to sit and listen to your music, to your stories behind the songs, they’re listening to something that’s different than the dances. With regard to what I’m doing in the future, I’ll still be doing concerts, I’ll still be telling the stories behind the songs that I’ve written. It just may not be on the dance scene. It may not be songs that people can jive to, or do something like that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a bad thing. It’s just a different side to me as an artist, and as a songwriter. I’m hoping that people will be as excited to come along and see those concert shows, as they have done down through the years. Because as I say, it will be the new stuff, but it will also include some of the old stuff, songs like ‘Apple Jack’ and ‘HillBilly Girl’, that they’re so familiar with as well.”
~ Lisa’s new single, You’re Gonna Get Back Up, is OUT NOW and available on all digital platforms.