Niamh Kavanagh's long road to success
Singer Niamh Kavanagh, who performs at the Belfast Taste & Music Fest tonight, tells Matthew McCreary why X Factor can’t compare to winning Eurovision
Winning the Eurovision Song Contest might not seem all that cool to a modern generation of music fans brought up on a diet of X Factor instant hits — but if Niamh Kavanagh cares about that, she’s certainly not showing it.
The contest — which is still watched by up to 600 million people every year — has come in for a bit of stick over the years for the wackier antics of some of its participants but Niamh could be said to represent that other side of the show, that of the dedicated and talented professionals who are proud to represent their country on the European stage.
“I’ve always had great respect for it,” says the 43-year-old who swapped her native Dublin for the charms of Carrickfergus 12 years ago.
“On the surface people may think ‘Ach, Eurovision’, but actually you don’t often get an opportunity to sing for hundreds of millions of people and represent your country. If you do it well, regardless of the outcome, I always feel it’s an amazing achievement and an amazing experience.”
Niamh is perhaps better-placed than most to comment on the enduring appeal of the event, having represented Ireland twice — in 1993, when she won with the song In Your Eyes, and last year, when she fared less well, coming 23rd out of 25 in the Grand Final. While some might have been disappointed, for Niamh it was all about putting on a good show.
“Well, we qualified for the first time in years for a start!” she laughs. “I would have liked to have shown more points for the people around me. But if I hadn’t sung well I’d have been disappointed. I felt I did everything I could and did it well, so I’m happy with that.”
Unlike many who have faded into obscurity after their Eurovision glory, Niamh is one of the handful who have built upon their success and she is still much in demand as a vocalist. At present she is working with the band The Illegals, who will be performing at the Belfast Taste and Music Fest in Belfast tonight.
“We do Fleetwood Mac and Eagles numbers and a real cross section of music. It’s a nice balance to what I do myself, because there are four singers and copious amounts of guitars.
“And the great thing about the Taste Fest is that everybody’s sitting around eating beautiful food and drinking lovely drinks and are there for the environment and excitement of it all.”
While some performers found their first big break with Eurovision, Niamh was already an established performer, having sung on the soundtrack to the hit 1991 movie The Commitments, and was already one of Ireland’s top session vocalists.
“I was 25 when I won, but I had already been working within the industry for seven years. I had been in a band since I was 17 or 18.
“I had worked very hard, 24/7, for many years, in a bank during the day while gigging at night, learning the trade.”
While some could have allowed themselves to get carried away with the giddy heights of fame, Niamh made absolutely sure that her feet stayed on the ground.
“I had travelled with The Commitments and saw how fame can change you, because it’s quite impossible not to respond when people are telling you how magnificent you are all the time.
“The next thing you know, you’re not quite as magnificent as you once were to them. If you learn that, then it’s a lot easier to cope within the industry.”
It is a lesson which many of those finding fast fame on modern talent shows could do well to remember, it seems.
“The thing about the X Factor is there are a lot of very talented young people who are not ready for the level of exposure that they get,” says Niamh. “A lot of them forget it’s a TV programme, which is quite sad.
“We can all have a laugh at the early stages at some of the people on it, but there some whose expectations are raised to the hilt before they are really ready to cope with it, which is really a bit of a shame.”
Although she’s now married and a busy mum to two young boys — Jack (10) and Tom (8) — her love for singing is still very much alive, and she is in the process of recording new songs.
“Singing is an extremely important part of my life from the get go,” she says. “There have been times when my focus was elsewhere, especially when the kids were small. But the reality is that music has always added to my life. I’ve made choices over my life that have made me less rich but have given me more joy for my music.”
And does it still feel special to be able to call yourself a Eurovision winner, even after all this time?
“It’s 17 years in the distance, but once a winner always a winner,” she says. “Once you win, you’re forever part of that club!”
Niamh Kavanagh and The Illegals perform at the Belfast Taste and Music fest tonight. For details see www.belfasttasteandmusicfest.com