First Published June 2020
THE DREAMER WHO DARED
What use is a heart if you don’t listen to it? Or a dream if you don’t chase it? The answer to both questions is the same…no use at all. And it’s an answer that singer/songwriter LISA McHUGH didn’t need anybody telling her. She knew it full well herself. Always has done, in fact. That keen awareness of what her heart has always wanted and the inner strength, belief, and vision to chart a course in its pursuit was what first saw Lisa leave her native Glasgow, bound for her spiritual home here in Ireland. Over the course of a decade Lisa became known as Ireland’s Young Queen of Country, a title hard-earned and well-deserved. And for many, that in itself would be a dream fulfilled. For many…but not for Lisa.
When it’s your natural instinct to follow your heart, and to dare to follow your dreams, to almost literally chase them down come what may and to give your all in doing so…that’s not just a tough mind-set to abandon, it’s impossible. And so it’s been with Lisa. As much as she’s loved the last ten years as one of the biggest names on the Irish country music scene, there was a constant whisper in her heart that she couldn’t just ignore. A dream so potent that it drew her in, body and soul. And not for the first time in her life – and my bet would be that it won’t be the last time either – Lisa became the dreamer who dared.
Not only was the Apple Jack singer fully aware that she had reached a crossroads in her career (an awareness not always present in every artist), Lisa knew the next part of her journey had to be the road less taken. Stepping out of the limelight completely to catch her breath, recharge her batteries…and plan… a new course was charted.
It’s just over a year ago now, back in April of 2019, since Lisa posted a photo of herself at the Warner Music Ireland office to her social media accounts. Moments like that, of course, seldom happen overnight or even over a week or two. So I asked Lisa from how long back was it actually on her mind to move in this new direction, and in the end, what was the actual catalyst for it finally happening?
“I’ve been kinda working towards this moment in my career for quite a number of years now. I was over in Nashville three years ago, for three weeks, and the reason for my trip was to work on songwriting and to gain as much knowledge and experience in the best place in the world as I possibly could with regards to songwriting and country music. When I was over there it really opened my eyes in so many ways. I learned so much about myself. I learned so much about music, about songwriting, and about performing. And also about the American country scene and the way things are done on a bigger scale over there. I don’t know what it was over there, but I just felt really relaxed and I really, really enjoyed my time going through the whole process of meeting new people, and meeting new labels, songwriters and artists, seeing what they were doing and how they were doing it. From that point, I really kind of made myself a lot more determined to make it happen. I’ve not been shy in saying over the years that my ultimate dream has always been the chance to do an arena tour around the world. I’ve said that from day-one. But there’s one thing in just saying it, and there’s another in acting towards making it happen. So I just thought that if I continued doing what I was doing, three-hundred shows a year, continuously touring around Ireland – which is fantastic, and if you’re able to do that I take my hat off to you if you can continue doing that and enjoy yourself because people make an incredible living, and a life, from doing that – but for me, I just wanted a lot more. I wanted to challenge myself a lot more. So I went to different conferences, one being in Cork which was all about how to spread your wings and make things happen on the European market and further afield. I went down there myself and it was full of record labels, management, lots of people from within the music industry, but not necessarily any artists. I was kind of the only artist there myself. I randomly bumped into my manager, Brian (Whitehead), who is my manager today. He was there as a manager, not for myself at the time obviously, I’d never met him before. But he was very impressed that I took the initiative to go myself in order to try and make something happen. So he was interested then in helping me. From that day, we’ve been in touch every day and he has helped me incredibly. From putting me in touch with so many record labels, producers, people in the music industry, and we’ve put a brand new team around myself from that day to now. So I think from then really was a turning point for me, because I realised that I wasn’t only trying to make it happen myself. I had somebody there who actually knew what I wanted to do and was willing to go out of their way to help me and wasn’t looking for something in return. He wanted to invest his time and his money, and his help and experience into making it happen for me.”
To me, Lisa right now is a singer/songwriter, and she’s a pop/country artist. And I’m more than cool with that. In the same way that I liked Taylor Swift when she was still a country artist, and still liked her when she made the decision to go straight up pop because I liked her as an artist, I still like Lisa as much as when we would have first spoken six or seven years ago now. And clearly, given the response to Lisa’s new music – Lisa’s own music – I’m not the only one who feels that way. But I wondered if that was a worry for her, thinking about how fans might have responded? Or what was the biggest worry for Lisa as she entered this new phase of her career?
“Yeah, it was a massive worry for me, to be honest. There were decisions and things that have happened over the last couple of years that certainly weren’t made overnight. Because I have enjoyed the last ten years so much and have made, not only fans, but friends. So the last thing that I ever want to do at any time is to let anyone down, or to disappoint anyone, or to make them feel like they’re not good enough anymore. That was always, and will always be in the back of my mind. I want to bring everyone along on this journey with me. I don’t want it to seem like a case of it being, ‘Ok, I’ve had enough of that, now I’m gonna try this and see how I get on’, almost as if I’m forgetting my roots, because I would never want to do that, or come across like I’m doing that. So it was a huge worry for me, to actually take that step back and almost take a leap into the unknown. As exciting as it is, it’s also very nerve-wracking to leave behind what’s so familiar and has been so exciting and successful for me for so long. And you know it wasn’t as if anything had gone wrong, or anything was going bad. It was all going great. Which also, on the one hand, probably made it harder to make that decision. But I just knew in my gut that if I didn’t do it now, I would never do it, and I would always wonder. And I’d never want to live my life with any regrets. So from that time of making the announcement and then bringing out the new music, the support has been incredible. My fans, they just never cease to amaze me every single time. No matter what I release, they’re always there, supporting and downloading, and streaming, and sharing, and sending lovely messages. I’m incredibly lucky to have them.”
Jumping away from music for a moment, I wanted to ask Lisa about something that she’d experienced recently because of the fact that she’s a celebrity. Something which a number of other artists on the music scene in Ireland have had to deal with of late too…something pretending to be her online!
“Yeah, that was a strange one! To be honest, over the last few years I have had some people setting up accounts on Instagram or Facebook, whatever it might be, and ninety per-cent of the time they don’t mean any harm by it. They might just be a fan and putting up pictures, and they don’t necessarily pretend to be me as such. If anyone asked them, they would normally say they’re just a fan who had set up a page and is putting up pictures or whatever the case may be. But this one in particular, I don’t know why, but it just stood out for me. I started to get messages from people saying they had been contacted from this page and was it legit because they were asking for money. As soon as I heard that someone was pretending to be asking for peoples’ money, I immediately just jumped straight on it. I didn’t want anyone to fall for it and believe that it was myself, that I would be on asking for people to send me money for a ticket to my show. I just felt that the quickest way to address the matter was to send out a video on all platforms and try to get the message out to as many people as I possibly could, and try to prevent people from falling from it. You just wonder sometimes what goes on with people, why they’d think that it would be ok to do that, and that they’re gonna get away with it. The unfortunate thing is that most people wouldn’t believe that goes on, so they’d believe the person sending the message quicker than think there was something to it. And that’s the sad thing, because I would never want people to be taken advantage of. But thankfully I addressed the matter and we got the whole thing taken down and investigated. As far as I’m aware, it’s all under control again, thankfully.”
My last question for Lisa consisted of two parts, the first – I admit – being very difficult to answer for anyone right now. But, in as much as she could answer it, I asked Lisa what does the remainder of 2020 hold in store for her? And secondly, has the whole experience of ‘lockdown’ helped her to learn anything new about herself?
“Well the rest of 2020 will definitely include a lot more music being released from myself. And I really, really hope that it’s going to include some form of ‘live’ shows. I have everything crossed that my Irish Tour is still going to happen in October, and the Farmer’s Bash as well. And hopefully some more too before the end of the year. I just want to stay healthy and for every one of my family and friends to get out the other side of this horrendous pandemic that we’re going through. I’ve been very lucky in my own circumstances, I’m so fortunate to be in the position I am because I know that it’s been absolutely horrendous for so many other people. So the most I can ask for is that we all get out the other side. And hopefully that’s not too far away. With regard to have I learned anything about myself…I’ve probably learned that…[sigh]…that’s a tough one! [laughs]. I don’t actually know what I’d say about that one. Probably that I can actually have patience! [laughs]. That’s something that I was never really good at before! Because when I want to do something, or I want something, I normally just want it now and I have no patience to wait for it [laughs]. But the fact that I’ve had to have patience to wait to see my family and friends – and not through my own choice – yeah, I’d say I’ve learned to gain more patience!”