How Lisa McHugh and Derek Ryan made country music cool again
Country singers team up to record first duet before farmers' bash in Belfast
Country stars Lisa McHugh and Derek Ryan helped make the genre cool again.
Despite being sell-out performers in their own right, they've teamed up to record their first duet, Honey, Honey, which they'll showcase at one of country music's highlights of the year, the Farmers' Bash, in Belfast next month.
Carlow man Derek (35) came to prominence in 2001 when his boyband, D-Side, had a hit with their debut single, Stronger Together. Blond and good-looking, the then 17-year-old had all the criteria for a teenage pin-up stardom, especially in Japan.
"Yeah, we were really big in Japan," he says. "We toured there several times. It's an amazing place, very beautiful. You know, it's really strange, but the people are actually very similar to us in Ireland."
By 2006, the band had chalked up an impressive CV, including three top 10 singles and three studio albums. Unfortunately, it had also run its course, so Derek decided to return to the music of his childhood.
"My dad was a huge fan of Irish music," he recalls. "He took me to all the Irish festivals, so he definitely influenced my love of country.
"After D-Side, I decided to go to London, where I learned the importance of a good work ethic. I played all the clubs and the gigs I could find, just to make a bit of money to help with college (he was studying accountancy at the time).
"It was good for me and my career. At the end of the day, if you're performing in a pub or club and you get something wrong, nobody's going to let you get away with it - they'll soon tell you. You have to learn on your feet. It also gives you a chance to develop your craft and hone your skills. It's kind of like your apprenticeship."
When he returned to Ireland in 2009, it was obvious that his skill with numbers was eclipsed by his talent for words.
With songs such as A Song for Carlow, The International Peace Song, and God's Plan, he rapidly carved a niche in country's hall of fame.
Last week, he picked up two awards at the Irish Post Country Music Awards, including Best Country Male and Best Country Songwriter.
Now, Derek feels the time is right for a duet, and he's always had one person in mind for it.
"I wrote Honey, Honey with a friend of mine, Eoin Glackin, and immediately knew it would work as a duet," he says.
"Lisa was the first person I thought of asking. She was perfect for it. We'd known each other from being on the circuit, and I'd always thought we'd work well together, so I sent her the song. Thankfully, she loved it. We got together to do the song and just clicked."
The price of fame usually means loss of privacy, but does he ever find the constant attention intrusive?
"To be honest, people are generally brilliant and great craic, so mostly I've no problem," Derek says. "Sometimes, it can get a bit annoying, especially if I'm out for dinner with my family and someone starts filming without asking me, or Snapchatting behind my back.
"I don't like that, but at the end of the day, it's the nature of the business and I can't really complain. My fans are absolutely amazing and I appreciate them. I suppose it's all about finding a balance."
With such a busy schedule, does he ever find time to relax? "I like to play guitar or just hang out with my family," Derek says. "I also like sport, especially handball."
With the new single release, a series of gigs across the country in the coming weeks and The Farmers' Bash at the SSE Arena, he will have very little time to relax for a while.
"Well, the song is going to be on both our albums, then there's the video to do, and then the Farmer's Bash - it's very exciting," Derek admits.
Glasgow-born Lisa knew she wanted to sing country music from the moment she appeared on Irish talent show Glor Tire. She didn't win, but three years after reaching the finals, she returned - not as a contestant, but a mentor.
"To have a career in this industry and sustain it, you need to work hard," she says. "I don't think people realise just how demanding it can be. You're always doing something - it can be exhausting. Having said that, I love it. I thrive on it. You wouldn't do this job if you didn't absolutely love it."
Since moving to Northern Ireland in 2009, Lisa has released more than 15 albums and enjoyed a string of accolades and awards, including Best Country Single for autobiographical hit Who I Am at the Irish Post Country Music Awards.
Explaining why she jumped at the chance to team up with Derek, she says: "Everyone knows he's an amazing songwriter. Apart from that, we've known each other for ever. When he sent me his song, it stuck in my head and I couldn't stop singing it. It's a catchy tune and it was obvious it had that special factor that makes it stand out. It's a great wee song."
As well as an incredible voice, Lisa has been blessed with good looks, but has she ever made a fashion faux pas? "We've all had times when we've seen something in the shop and thought, 'Wow I'd look great in that', then your try it on and it looks horrendous," she says.
"Not everything will suit all the time. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you or the outfit.
"For me, I tend to stick to my body type and not necessarily fashion. I think women can be a lot more self-conscious than men and tend to over-think things. We all have our insecurities and bits of our bodies we're not happy with. I have mine too, but at the end of the day, that's something we all need to work on."
Like Derek, Lisa has a dedicated fanbase she loves interacting with.
"Very, very rarely (does it become invasive)," she says. "I think it's just something that goes hand-in-hand with being in the spotlight. I've learned to grow a thicker skin and just get on with things.
n The Farmers' Bash is at the SSE Arena in Belfast on Friday, October 12. Derek Ryan, Lisa McHugh, Johnny Brady, Cliona Hagan and Philomena Begley are all on the bill. Cotton Eyed Joe chart-toppers Rednex are jetting in from Sweden to perform an exclusive set. Tickets are available from the venue box office and the usual outlets