Country star Lisa McHugh: 'Although I broke up with Nathan Carter we're still the best of friends'
Ahead of her Ballycastle gig later this month, country music star Lisa McHugh tells Helen Carson how it's been the best time of her life after finding fame and a firm friend in singer Nathan Carter.
When country music star Lisa McHugh moved from Glasgow to Ireland six years ago, all she brought with her was a few self-penned songs and big dreams to make it as a singer.
Now, the 27-year-old, who lives in Enniskillen, enjoys performing at gigs province-wide where she plays to packed houses with thousands of fans. She has also won 15 awards, including Female Vocalist of the Year four times and Outstanding Achievement on the World Stage 2012 after an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in the home of American country music, Nashville.
When Lisa first arrived in the province, she also found a soulmate in fellow country singer, Nathan Carter. The pair had a lot in common, both travelling from their home towns - she from Glasgow, him from Liverpool - to find fame singing the country songs they had both grown up with, and they briefly dated.
Now, Lisa says they are great friends touring the same circuit and both coincidentally living in Enniskillen.
Lisa, who is currently in the studio recording, is also gearing up for her next big gig in Ballycastle at the end of this month, when she will perform during the opening weekend of the Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival.
And while Lisa has become something of a country music sensation here and one of the few women in the scene, being in love with country wasn't always something she wanted to shout from the rafters - especially not when she was growing up in Glasgow.
"My dad Joe is from Co Tyrone and my mum, Sally is from Co Donegal and when I was growing up they would play both American and Irish country music in the car.
"Artists such as Dolly Parton, George Jones, Philomena Begley and Hugo Duncan are the singers we listened to. And, I have to be honest, there were times when I wanted to tell my parents to turn it off."
But having found her singing voice at the young age of seven, Lisa sang and played the guitar at primary school, dabbling with all types of music.
She adds: "While I sang music from all genres, secretly country was my favourite. However, when you are a teenager and go to high school, it's not always considered the coolest thing. Thankfully, though, many of my friends had connections to Ireland where they had family and they understood."
She was also a big fan of the TV talent shows such as the X Factor and Pop Idol, which she watched and studied dreaming of one day being as famous as the successful hopefuls.
"I would watch how the singers performed on the shows and try to learn what made them good."
And pop has also featured in Lisa's repertoire, too, albeit briefly: "When I began to take my singing more seriously I would sing lots of songs by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera ... but I always went back to country."
And the world of country music has certainly embraced Lisa's talent, and she got the opportunity of a lifetime when American country singer Gene Watson asked her to record a duet with him.
"Gene had asked me to sing on his record with him, so rather than putting the track down here, I decided to go to Nashville for four days and do my part over there," she says.
"He called me later and asked me if I had any plans for the Tuesday evening and I said 'no' - he said 'good' because I would like you to sing at the Grand Ole Opry."
It was a dream come true for Lisa who says: "It is the biggest stage in country music and there are many, many singers, not just country singers, who would love to perform there.
"From the moment I walked through the door I was treated as well as the top stars. I had my own dressing room and was made to feel as though nothing was too much trouble.
"On stage, I sang a Kris Kristofferson song Help Me Make It Through The Night - it was surreal and the most incredible experience of my life."
While there she also got a rare chance to see country legends Joey and Rory Feek perform live - Joey (Julie Zamboldi) passed away earlier this year from cervical cancer.
"I was a huge fan of Joey and Rory and when I came into the Grand Ole Opry they were rehearsing," she says. "It was so amazing to get to see them as they had been my heroes for so long."
Since then, Lisa has had to get used to being centre stage and she admits she loves the roar of the crowd.
"There is no feeling like going onto a stage and an audience shouting out your name. It's hard to describe," Lisa says.
She says the more solitary studio experience is also one she relishes too as an artist.
"I enjoy being in the studio too - it is totally different. You can come up with hundreds of ideas - 99% of which could be rubbish - and no one cares" the singer says.
"But it is all part of the creative process and I love it."
She's the first to admit, these days, it's all work and very little play, adding there is no man on the go ... for now.
Of her relationship with Nathan she speaks lovingly of her fellow country music singer.
"I met Nathan at an awards show in Ballymena and we had a lot in common with each other," she says. "I had come here from Glasgow searching for a career in country music, and he had come from Liverpool for the same reason. Neither of us really knew anyone else and we got on so well together.
"We did go out for a short period of time and it was our careers which meant we broke up. We are both as determined as one another and we both knew what we were here for."
And with both their careers flourishing, Nathan and Lisa both realised having a relationship wasn't going to work out.
She adds: "Nathan and I are both friends and our relationship ended amicably and I see him all the time. We both knew why it had to end."
Currently single, Lisa says she would love to meet someone, but realises her hectic gigging schedule could be off-putting to a new man: "For me to meet someone not in the business would be incredibly difficult for them. When you are gigging five, six, seven nights a week - even when you're at home you're still working - that is tough.
"If the roles were reversed I would find that difficult to understand."
That's not to say she doesn't have lots of support with her mum and dad regularly travelling over from Glasgow where they still live to cheer her on whenever they get the chance.
Lisa says: "They have grandchildren now in Scotland, but come over at the weekends to see me. Wherever I am heading out they jump in the car with me and come along. They love coming back here and touring round the province."
Despite her Scottish heritage, Lisa has become a native of Enniskillen now: "I love living in the town, it is lovely and very central for me when I am travelling to gigs.
"Initially when I came over here, I was based in Letterkenny but there was too much travelling when I was working. My manager lived in Enniskillen as did Nathan, so I moved there."
Now, Lisa feels she is very much living out her dreams, having crossed the Irish Sea.
She adds: "When I came here I had no management and didn't know anyone. But I had always wanted to be a singer. It's the sort of thing I never talked about because it seems so fantastic when a teacher asks you at school what you want to do in the future.
"But when I realised what I wanted to do I knew I had to make it happen and try - because if I didn't even try, how would I know if I could succeed or not.
"So much has happened in the six years since I left home to come here - and it has been the best six years of my life."
Lisa McHugh will play the Marine Hotel, Ballycastle on Sunday, May 29 at 9pm. Tickets cost £15 from Ballycastle Visitor Centre, tel: 028 2076 2024 or the hotel, tel: 028 2076 2222. For full festival details about the Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival, which runs from Friday, May 27-Sunday, June 5, visit rathlinsoundmaritimefestival.com