First Published September 2020
THE ART OF RAISING EXPECTATIONS
Every so often an artist suddenly crosses your path out of nowhere. And when they do, you wonder how and why it took you so long to ever hear of them in the first place. What also happens every now and then, is that you meet an artist like that and as well as wondering why it took you so long to hear of them in the first place, you feel a sense of certainty that you – and the world – will be hearing a lot more about them in the years to come.
And that’s exactly what happened with this week’s featured artist in OTRT, the magnificent singer/songwriter VICTORIA JOHNSTON. Already hailed as the next Enya, something we discuss during our chat, Hot Press have already noted that, “The tunes turn out to be as impeccable as her credentials.” The tunes in question are her double-debut releases, TAR LIOM and YOU ARE THE PEACE. And they’re not merely her first releases either. They’ve also become her first number ones. Not bad for two songs released on a Friday the 13th as the country went into ‘lockdown’ during a global pandemic!
The songs were released back in March, topping the overall iTunes Chart in Ireland, with Tar Liom also reaching the summit of the iTunes Ireland World Music Chart, and You Are The Peace doing likewise in the Christian/Gospel Chart. As for the credentials Hot Press referred to, well, there’s the fact that both songs were produced by Grammy nominated producer Denis Woods, who has previously worked with a few people you’ve probably heard of, artists like Clannad, Moya Brennan, U2, and AC/DC. And then, of course, there’s Victoria herself. The Dubliner began her classical training at the prestigious Royal Irish Academy at just nine years of age. She holds a BMus Degree in Composition from DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, and also an MPhil in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship from Trinity College, also receiving a scholarship to sing with the Trinity Choir.
So as you can see, there have been many moments in Victoria’s musical life and career so far which have been amazing personal achievements and milestones, from her studies to some of the famed venues where she’s performed, like the National Concert Hall. But what sets her apart from the many who may have shared experiences similar to those, is that now Victoria also has those two number one singles to celebrate and be proud of. And that’s a dream that millions grasp, but only a very lucky few ever get to reach. So, when I had the pleasure of spending some time with Victoria last week, I began our chat by asking her what those moments felt like when she saw her name at the top of the charts…
“Well I always planned to do a digital-release for both singles, and I actually decided that rather than release the two songs separately, that I would release them the same day. Which, I suppose, maybe is just slightly unusual! [laughs]. So it was a double-debut single release. But actually, what happened was that Ireland came into lockdown on the very day that they were released, so I was very grateful that I had just decided to do a digital release. I didn’t have to cancel any ‘live’ launches. But they both actually went to number one on their release day, and they each spent different amounts of time at number one. I think I was also a bit lucky that Niall Horan released his album that day, because he was top of the album charts but I was top of the singles chart [laughs].”
Whatever about the same day as your songs being released also being the day a whole country goes into lockdown during a global pandemic – you can’t really plan for that, in fairness – it was also a Friday 13th! So Victoria is obviously not superstitious, I take it?
“[Laughs] It crossed my mind! [laughs]. But it all worked out! [laughs].”
So because that turned out to be the same day that Ireland went into lockdown, did that turn out to be a very strange day in Victoria’s house? On the one hand, a global pandemic changing life as we know it and bringing the entire country more or less to a halt…but on the other hand…two number ones for Victoria!
“Yeah, in some ways I suppose! I was kind of afraid that with people shutting down all their offices, and schools closing and everything, that maybe the single would get lost amongst all that, in terms of media swell. But no, they went to number one at around 11am, and we couldn’t believe it. We were all at home. My dad is in the very high-risk category, so we had been fairly careful for the few weeks leading up to that. So to be honest, it was just a great boost, and it has been a great boost and focus for our household for the last few months.”
Both songs were produced by Denis Woods, a man whose reach and influence in the music world has extended all the way to some well-deserved Grammy nominations, something which, as we’ve already mentioned, Victoria now stands on the brink of herself, too. She has described how they met as being a ‘random introduction, although I think it’s safe to say that any crossing of paths which eventually leads to two number ones is probably a contender for the ‘meant-to-happen’ category in life. I asked Victoria about that ‘random introduction’, and how her relationship with Denis developed from there.
“He heard me sing an acoustic arrangement of ‘You Are The Peace.’ I’ve been invited to sing some of my songs at church services and gatherings over, I suppose, the last year. And I suppose ‘You Are The Peace’ leant itself, in style, to the Celtic, Irish genre, which he would be very well versed in producing a lot of songs for. It caught his ear, and we got chatting, and he’s just the loveliest, most down to earth man. He hasn’t been as involved in the music industry as much over the last number of years, so maybe it was just he felt this was a project he could generously give me a hand with to help launch my career. He said he’d help me take on the two songs and produce them to help give a new artist a stepping stone into the industry, which is very, very kind in this industry in this day and age! I was very humbled by his generosity through the whole process. We met a few times after that. I had written both songs, but obviously he did the production on them. I always say he kind of brought them from an acoustic setting to a 3Arena one! [laughs]. He’s just the kind of person that you’re in studio with him, you forget what a name he is and the artists he’s worked with. Obviously he was in Windmill Lane studios in the hay-day of U2 and all those fantastic bands that came through the doors there. You’d be recording your vocals, then you’d take a little break, and you’d be very relaxed. But then he’d do a name-drop or two, like, ‘Oh that time I worked with AC/DC’, and then all of a sudden you’re a bit more conscious of who you’re in the room with! [laughs].”
Speaking of things on the scale of the 3Arena, Bob Dylan is probably the artist most often referred to when people are conferring titles like the ‘next’ somebody or other on newcomers or emerging artists. But as far as I can recall, I’ve never heard of anyone being described as the next Enya. That, of course, is as much a testament to the unique artist that Enya herself has always been, and the position she holds in Irish culture. But now, however, that very title of ‘the next Enya’ has been bestowed upon Victoria. An honour, absolutely. A bit of pressure as well, maybe?
“Yeah! It was very kind to be called that! But I think, obviously she’s so established, and it took years to become established as one of the greatest artists in the world, and to have come out of Ireland. I think sometimes people nearly feel she’s even more successful abroad than here. But she’s such a cherished Irish artist as well. Just to be given that credit for the sound of my music, and my voice, was pretty humbling, to be honest! But I think I’ll have to keep a lot of high quality work going to live up to that! [laughs].”
In terms of who Victoria would have looked up to and been inspired by, would Enya be one of those artists?
“To be honest, I grew up listening to Leonard Cohen, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, U2, all the greats, really. And Frank Sinatra, that’s what was played in our house growing up. I have been asked that, in terms of my style and where that kind of came from then, the Celtic world, Irish sound. But it’s just naturally, musically, how I write. I think you can only write and sing what comes out of you [laughs]. And that style as well, it suits my voice type. I wouldn’t have the big belter sound of the likes of Adele or Christina Aguilera, those singers. You have to write what you know, and write what suits you. Certainly when I sit down at the piano that’s what comes out of me. Growing up in Ireland you’re surrounded by those great bands like Clannad, so part of it has probably seeped into the back of your brain somewhere as influences as well.”
Another major part of who Victoria is and what she does is centred around her work with Spirit Radio in Dublin, where she’s a producer and a researcher. One person she met through Spirit and whom Victoria has described as making a big impression upon her, is none other than the legendary Phil Coulter. I asked Victoria what made that particular encounter stand out in her memory…
“It was his generosity of time. When I met him we got talking about music, and it was just around the time that I had won the West Cork Chamber Music Festival’s Young Composer’s Competition, that was 2016. So I think it must have been 2017 when I met him through Spirit Radio. I was working there on an internship at the time. His response to hearing that [about the competition] was, ‘Oh, you’re a real musician, a real composer then.’ Once he heard that, I think he knew who he was talking to in respect of music, and we were able to speak on a musical level in terms of orchestration, composition, conductors that we might both have worked with. He was just very engaged in wanting to hear about me, rather than merely chat about himself. We had to usher him into the studio last minute for his interview because we could have spoken, I think, for hours [laughs]. He was just very interested in a young person trying to establish themselves in a music industry that’s very different now to when he started. But he’s such a legend. And it’s always just lovely to chat to kind, generous people. I feel really lucky in who’s been put in front of me on this journey so far.”
Kind of taking a little step away from music for a moment…but kind of not at the same time…there was one piece of information I found out about Victoria before our chat that really surprised me. And simply because I just never even considered that something like this could have been possible! Victoria, and her family, not only met, but had breakfast with one of the original Von Trapp family. Yes, THAT Von Trapp family…on which The Sound of Music is based! Victoria explains…
“Yeah [laughs], yeah, that’s it! [laughs]. Me and my family were on vacation in the States, in Vermont, and being the avid Sound of Music fans that we are – my parents always joke that I sang the soundtrack to The Sound of Music before I could speak properly – when we were over there my dad had heard that when the Von Trapp family had emigrated to the States during the war, they had established themselves as a musical family in America as well, and based themselves in Vermont. And over time, they turned their family home that they created there, into a hotel. And it’s still a hotel today. So when we heard that, we were like oh we have to stay there! [laughs]. When we were checking in, we were wondering if we could speak to Johannes Von Trapp, who was the youngest member of The Sound of Music family, Maria’s youngest son. The staff anyway, maybe it was the Irish mixed with American terminology [laughs], they thought we were wanting to complain! But we actually just wanted to meet him, to get his autograph. There was a lovely book shop on the grounds where we had bought some memorabilia and we just wanted him to sign it. And again, the generosity of them when they realised that we were just fans! I think maybe in America maybe people don’t ask to meet him. But being Irish, we were like well if you don’t ask, you don’t get! I live by that motto! [laughs]. Anyway, they arranged off the back of that for us to have breakfast with him the next morning in the hotel, with him and his wife. We sat down, had a lovely chat, and we got his autograph on Maria’s biography and some other memorabilia that we have at our house now!”
Going back to Victoria’s own music, when I was listening to You Are The Peace for the first time I remember thinking straight away how much it felt like a really old hymn. Then I discovered that the verses in English actually do come from an old Celtic prayer, which made all of that make sense. But what really makes You Are The Peace such a marvel of creation is that while Victoria has married her gorgeous music with that old Celtic prayer, on top of that, she’s actually written the Irish verses to the song. So for me, in every way, You Are The Peace is much more a work of art than simply a song. But how did Victoria begin such a process of amalgamation and creation?
“I had a verse in Irish that I’d sing in Irish, and then I’d sing it translated into English. But then I came across, as you said, an ancient Celtic oral tradition prayer. The words in the prayer just married really well with the tune that I was singing my own Irish and English verses in. It just came together in a few minutes. I already had the musical arrangement, I had my own musical composition done for the Irish verse. So it just fitted in perfectly with the words. That’s really just how the song came about.”
One thing we’ve all found ourselves with more of, in one way or another, over lockdown is time. I’ve spoken to some songwriters recently who were really grateful for that and embraced it, and to some others who would normally write their way through anything that was going on in the world or in their lives, but for some reason have found the last few months really difficult in that regard. Victoria has said she’s probably in the first category, so I asked her how she’s been putting that time to use…
“Well when I’m not singing and writing I’m a radio producer, and I also run my own music academy. So I suppose I was still quite busy during lockdown working full-time. But lockdown in essence, still gave me that extra time in the evenings and at weekends to spend a bit more time writing. It was obviously such a challenging time in so many aspects, but music, and writing for me is when I feel most ‘in the flow’ of myself. And I really find that when I start writing and playing and creating my own music, I just go into my own world, nearly like Peter Pan’s Neverland! [laughs]. When you’re there in the flow just writing, I would just forget that we were in the middle of a pandemic for those few hours. And that’s a blessing in itself, if you have an outlet that you can fully absorb yourself in. That’s such a blessing. And for me, that’s writing music. So I found myself writing more and more during lockdown. It’s what I love doing anyway, but I suppose I was given that gift of time to do it. I got quite a few songs composed, and I’m planning on recording one of them anyway so far at the end of this week. And hoping to release that in the autumn sometime.”
Victoria was due to be a part of the 1 King music tour earlier this year, but that, like so much for so many, had to be postponed. While for the remainder of this year it’s incredibly hard for anyone to plan or reschedule anything, in as much and as far as she could look ahead, I asked Victoria what was going to be happening next for her…
“Even at the moment it’s a challenge to even get into recording studios. I don’t have my own one at home, so I’d always have to go out into a recording space to get something done. In terms of that, I suppose I’m not one of those artists who has written three new albums that will all be released in 2021! [laughs]. So that, for me, to be honest is a challenge at the moment, when our household is trying to be extra-cautious with high-risk family members. But I’m hoping over the coming months, autumn and winter, to keep writing, hopefully get an EP down as well. In terms of ‘live’ performances, I think it will be ‘live’ streams for the foreseeable future. I know even the festivals for 2021 are in talks about not going ahead, or going ahead at a reduced capacity. So it’s going to be a very strange time for the industry. It’s going to really shake up the industry as well. In the last few years we’ve seen artists’ income move from album sales to focusing on having to perform ‘live’ to bring in an income, so I will be interested to track in the coming year if the pandemic does change that. I know for myself anyway, I’m hoping to do some ‘live’ streams and maybe be involved with some online festivals.”
In times like these, we all need an anchor of some sort that helps us stand firm as the winds of adversity roar around us. So, to wrap up our chat, I wanted to touch on something that fills that need for Victoria, and is clearly a very important part of who she is; her faith. She said something in a recent interview that really caught my attention when I heard it, and that was that, “God wants us to raise our expectations.” I asked her what she meant by that…
“In terms of raising my expectations, in terms of prayer, I really felt that through my faith and my relationship with Jesus, that I was being called to release these songs. And timing wise as well, they were released during lockdown which is a strange time to think of a release happening when it’s your debut. But the feedback I got during lockdown, even from people I’ve never met before, who might have had relatives pass away, and that the only comfort that they had had in days or even a week, was hearing You Are The Peace. That they had heard it on radio, or someone had sent it to them. I feel that song was placed in my heart and brought to fruition in the end, at the right time. And if my songs can give comfort and peace to people, then I’m doing my job and what I’m here to do. In terms of expectations, obviously I’ve been a classically trained musician since I was five years old, just praying and focusing that I’m all-in! And I think the evidence of the people like Denis Woods, for example, people who have been put in front of my path every step of the way, and now the news that I’ve been considered for four Grammy nominations based on these debut singles being released, I think I’m just focusing and praying on having a high expectation, and feeling very loved and blessed. One of my favourite verses from the Bible is Psalm 105:4…’Look to the Lord, and his strength, seek his face always.’ So when you really root yourself in that, and feel fully surrounded by love and protection, it really encourages you.”
Victoria is now back in the studio working on her new single, LAND OF HOPE, again produced by Denis Woods, and co-produced by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (Conor ‘Cosmo’ Lawlor in Sing Street), and Oisín Walsh-Peelo, who, as well as touring with Hudson Taylor, also opened for Hozier on his American tour last year. So Land of Hope is definitely a single to watch out for, and Victoria Johnston is definitely a name to remember.
~ Victoria’s double-debut singles – TAR LIOM and YOU ARE THE PEACE – are both out now, and available on all digital platforms as well as to request from radio.