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Janet Devlin: Stage fright, insomnia, teetotal and with little prospect of falling in love - the weird and wonderful world of an X Factor survivor

By Maureen Coleman

When Janet Devlin first appeared on the X Factor in 2011, the shy, self-effacing teenager from Co Tyrone endeared herself to the nation.

Her sweetness and vulnerability, combined with a unique sense of style and a beautiful voice, set her apart as one to watch and for the first few weeks of the live shows, she topped the public vote.

But a lack of confidence proved to be her downfall as the series went on. Struggling with crippling nerves, she forgot her words during one performance and at times appeared almost faint with the pressure of performing on such a huge stage.

Three years on and much has changed in the 19-year-old Gortin girl's life. When the X Factor finished, she upped sticks from the safety of her village home and relocated to London, began songwriting with the likes of Newton Faulkner and Jack Savoretti, and earlier this summer, released a debut album which went to number one in the UK indie charts.

She's toured the country as well, performing her folk-driven pop songs to thousands of fans. But the issue of pre-show nerves has not improved any and she admits it's an ongoing battle to beat stage-fright.

Yet here she is, preparing to take part on an industry panel in Northern Ireland's largest ever one day music conference in Belfast next month.

Up to 350 artists, business representatives and students are expected to attend the event at The MAC and the Oh Yeah Centre on Thursday, October 16, to address the challenges and opportunities that the music industry presents.

Speakers at the Output conference will include Tom Robinson from BBC 6 Music, representatives from Polar Patrol Publishing (a music publishing service set up by local rockers Snow Patrol), Hugh Platt, deputy editor of Thrash Hits magazine, and Janet. It's a public speaking role and for someone so timid, a frightening proposition. But she's willing to give it a try.

"When my manager Adam mentioned it to me I really wanted to do it because it was in Belfast," she explains. "I'll be talking about my venture into the music industry, the whole fundraising thing for my album, how I interact with fans, the use of social media, and performing as an artist.

"To be honest, I'm very nervous about it. I'm not going to lie. I'm used to singing, not talking in public, but I want to do it. At least I know what I'll be talking about, but it's hard to prepare for this sort of thing.

"Mind you, I appeared on a panel on The Wright Stuff on Channel 5 and it wasn't too bad, so maybe I'm better at it than I think."

Another problem Janet faces is an inability to sleep. A chronic insomniac, she functions on just a few hours sleep a night. At times it's so bad, she can go for days with only two to three hours of sleep. But she says she is used to it by now.

"It's been going on for a while now and if I knew why, I'd be able to do something about it," she says. "But I don't know why I can't sleep. I've tried meditation, but it didn't work for me.

"I'm just used to getting by now on little sleep. It is what it is."

I ask her if it started around the time of the X Factor.

"Well, it certainly wasn't as bad before that," she replies. "But I've had bouts of it for years. It did get worse, though, after the show."

Ironically, her management company in London is called Insomnia and as she points out, her music videos all feature her waking from slumber.

"Yeh, that's funny," she says. "I mean, how can I wake up when I never really go to sleep in the first place?"

In an attempt to make light of her insomnia, Janet penned a song called Creatures of the Night with the dreadlocked singer/songwriter Newton Faulkner and his brother Toby. The single, taken off her debut album Running With Scissors, was released this week and starts off acoustically before building to eerie owl-like backing vocals and drums alongside Janet's lilting vocals.

"I decided to flip it on its head and write a funny song about my insomnia," she says. "I'm taking the mick out of it, trying to find something positive in the fact that while I'm lying awake at stupid o'clock, the rest of the world is fast asleep.

"Sometimes, when I do manage to get to sleep, I might wake up out of a dream and then write about that, too."

All the songs on her album are very personal to Janet. When she sat down to work on the record, she decided to focus on each track individually, rather than plan what direction the album would take.

The 10-track album was released in June this year and went to number one in the Official UK Independent Charts. Janet took the risk of crowd-funding and it paid off. Her fans, the very loyal Devlinators, were only too happy to help.

Given that she was tipped, at one stage, to be the 'next big thing' musically, was she happy with the outcome?

"God yeah," she replies enthusiastically. "I was delighted. Having your debut album go to number one in the indie charts is a pretty big deal."

Writing with Faulkner was a dream come true for the teenager too, though in true Janet style, she was petrified she wouldn't match up to his expectations.

"It was very strange for me because I've always been a massive fan of his," she says. "I was terrified to be working with him. I was so afraid that I might not be good enough.

"But he was so lovely. I did a gig last month in London, maybe two months ago, and he came along to see me, which was nice."

Things are certainly looking up for Janet professionally. After negotiations with several record companies in the US, she has just signed a deal with a label, though is reluctant to give too much away until everything is finalised.

"Everyone kept saying to me that I'd be loved in the States," she says. "But I held back for the right deal. I have to go over there now, which is very exciting."

Does she keep up-to-date with the goings-on of her fellow X Factor alumni?

"I am terrible at communicating," she says. "But we all follow each other on Twitter. I don't compare myself to anyone though. If everything was about competitiveness, it would be meaningless.

"And I haven't had a minute to tune into this series at all. I don't have the time to bless myself these days."

She's keeping busy writing at the moment and hopes to squeeze in a few more songs next month, when she comes home for Output.

"I'll be going down home to see my family so hopefully will get to write a few songs there," she says.

"I like living in London, it's not too bad at all. But it's good to get home. There's a lovely contrast. And I'll be back in Northern Ireland, playing a gig on December 23, which I'm really looking forward to."

Much of Janet's life is taken up with writing music, though she's also a part-time poet as well. She says: "I pretty much spend all my time writing. I carry a lyrics book around me, though there's some poetry in there too.

"A lot of the fans have been asking me to write a poetry book, but I don't think I'd be confident enough.

"I've always enjoyed writing poetry although when I was younger, I didn't even realise that's what it was.

"I've been doing it since I was a child. But I'm no Heaney."

She cringes at the use of the word 'fans', preferring to call them 'friends' instead.

"They've been great," she says. "I like to keep in touch with them if I can. Social media is good for that. I try to answer all their questions."

She would consider self-funding a second album, but again the doubt creeps in.

"I'd need to ask people if they wanted another album," she says. "But yes, I'd love to release another one."

The flame-haired singer, who spoke openly last year about having been bullied at school, is too busy with her career to consider romance. After splitting from her long-term boyfriend Brendan Sally, she threw herself into writing her album, drawing on the break-up to pen a few tracks.

Since the split, there's been no one else, she says. And she doesn't expect to meet anyone soon. Being teetotal, she's not really into bars and clubs, and is too focused on her music to give much thought to a new relationship.

"Do you know, I've never even been on a date in my whole life?" she says. "When I was with my ex-boyfriend, we met at school and hung out so I never did the dating thing. Anyway, I'm too socially awkward."

Socially awkward and insomniac Janet Devlin may be, but in the choppy waters of the music industry, she's quietly and confidently paddling her own canoe. In the course of this interview she seems much more relaxed and comfortable in her own skin and she's been brave enough to sign up to Output to face her own fears of speaking in public.

Perhaps Miss Devlin has come a lot further in the last few years than she gives herself credit for. And with just a bit more self-belief, she may finally learn to sleep easy at night.

  • Creative Belfast presents Output at the MAC and the Oh Yeah Centre on Thursday, October 16, organised in partnership with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and Invest NI music industry development programme Generator NI. For details, visit www.creativebelfast.info

What became of her X Factor pals?

Little Mix were the first group to ever win the X Factor, bagging a £1m recording contract with Simon Cowell's record label Syco in December 2011. The four-piece is made up of Essex girl Jesy Nelson, Leigh-Anne Pinnock from High Wycombe and South Shields students Perrie Edwards and Jade Thirlwall. The band were put together by former judge Kelly Rowland at bootcamp, after they auditioned as soloists. After winning the X Factor, their debut single, a cover of Damian Rice's Cannonball, topped the UK singles chart while their debut album DNA went to number two in the album charts. Little Mix have sold over 5m records worldwide, with over 3m single sales and 2m album sales. Band member Perrie is engaged to One Direction's Zayn Malik.

Frankie Cocozza was the teenage hell-raiser of series eight, who was booted off the show after he was overheard boasting about cocaine-fuelled sex romps. He later admitted his life had "gone out of control" while taking part in the show. He has released two EPs, had a sell-out tour, and a crowd-funded album, The Telescreen. Despite his bad boy image and unpopularity with X Factor viewers, he went on to take part in Celebrity Big Brother, finishing in second place to actress and television presenter Denise Welch.

Misha B found herself at the centre of a bullying controversy during her stint on the X Factor following accusatory remarks by judges Tulisa Contostavlos and Louis Walsh. Her big voice matched her big personality and when she left the show, she signed a record deal with Relentless Records. While on the X Factor tour she spent time working on her first mixtape, which became BBC Radio 1Xtra's mixtape of the week. Her debut single Home Run charted at number 11 in the UK singles chart. Her second single Do You Think Of Me? peaked at number 9. Earlier this year she left her old record label and set up her own label and brand, Emboom. During the summer of 2014 Misha B appeared at Rock Assembly 2014, Love Without Borders (UK Black Pride), and several UK and Irish city and regional festivals and LGBT Pride events.

Amelia Lily finished third in series eight of the X Factor, after being mentored by Kelly Rowland. Her debut single You Bring Me Joy was released in 2012 and reached number two in the charts, while her follow-up singles Shut Up (and Give Me Whatever You Got) and Party Over reached the top 20 and the top 40 respectively. Plans to release a debut album in 2013 were put on hold because she wanted it to be 'perfect'. Her latest single, California, only peaked at number 83, her poorest result to date. Lily was the the main support act for the Girls Aloud arena tour, Ten: The Hits and was also the main support act for Olly Murs' gig at the INTRO festival.

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