Singer Amanda St John: 'The firemen had to cut me out of the car, yet I remember hearing this voice telling me I had a choice - to stay or to go'
Ahead of a series of gigs across Northern Ireland this summer, singer Amanda St John tells Una Brankin about a near-death experience following a car accident that changed her life, and how a TV appearance as a teenager destroyed her confidence.
On a bright autumn day in 2012, Amanda St John was driving along a beautiful stretch of coastline in the north west, feeling on top of the world.
The singer/songwriter was on her way home to Glenariff after attending a counselling session, the last in a series to help her overcome a painful divorce, and she was looking forward to a fresh new start.
But, an hour after bidding her counsellor goodbye, she was lying at the bottom of a ravine, fighting for her life.
Having suddenly lost control of her car, she had plunged 300 feet down a mountainside near Ballycastle.
"It was broad daylight and it was dry, but I found out later that there had been oil on the road and there were four other accidents on that stretch," Amanda recalls.
"Thankfully there had been a driver behind me, because the car wasn't visible from the road. He called the emergency services and the firemen had to cut me out of the car, yet I had the most serene experience.
"When they found me, I was unconscious and had no pulse, but I remember clearly hearing this voice telling me I had a choice, to stay or to go. I know I could have gone but I thought of my daughter Sophie, who was a toddler at the time. I asked this voice, 'what do I need to do?'
"As clear as day, I heard a whisper in my ear, saying 'Sing, sing'. I remember thinking, 'Is that it?' Then, I had a feeling; I knew I'd have wasted my life if I didn't start singing again. So, I said 'okay'. I literally haven't stopped singing since."
Amanda had suffered head and pelvic injuries. Her brain had swollen but, miraculously, she sustained no lasting damage.
"They scanned me three times at the hospital and couldn't find a brain injury. However, they had another patient, a woman who fell in her garden that day, and her brain had swollen," she says.
"Something helped me on that mountainside.
"I was raised Catholic but I'm more spiritual than religious.
"I think I had a conversation with my higher self, that divine part of us we don't often connect to. It told me what I needed to do, very calmly, in the midst of the mayhem.
"It was very pure and serene. The whole experience was incredibly liberating. I didn't feel like a victim any more. It gave me perspective. A near-death experience makes all the little insecurities and negativities you carry seem like nonsense.
"I realised I could survive people not liking my music. I don't struggle to sing or write any more, and my voice has improved in range and power."
Well-known as a gifted soul singer in local music circles, Amanda had started singing when she was young but lost confidence in her talent at 19 after a performance on a local television show left her "cringing".
Devastated, she gave up trying to write her own material and sang with cover bands instead.
She says: "My parents were disappointed I didn't make more of my talent. They always encouraged me and I had guitar and piano lessons, although I'm mostly self-taught.
"I'm the only musical one in the family - dad was in insurance and mum ran a restaurant - but I've a few cousins who are good. My parents would even chaperone me to gigs in Ballymena."
The only girl in a family of four, Amanda went on to study music at college in Bangor and for the next decade she worked with well-known musicians including Ciaran Gribbin (of INXS fame), Duke Special and Ben Glover.
Lacking the confidence to perform her own songs, she eventually moved to Dublin and married a photographer, the father of her nine-year-old daughter, Sophie.
The move coincided with the discovery of benign nodules on her throat from over-performing four or five nights a week on the cover band circuit.
"I entered a period where I didn't sing at all," she remembers. "I had a new partner, a baby, and decided to settle down and live a normal life. I joined mother and toddler groups.
"But the marriage didn't go very well. We had a very difficult break-up. I found that period particularly horrendous. It took time to get over it; a couple of years at least. I had lost all sense of self. I was so far away from me," she reflects.
"But I was determined for something positive to come out of the experience, and I started singing and writing again so the negativity wouldn't consume me. I'm happy that others can relate to that - all that heartbreak works for Adele."
Amanda and Sophie came home to Glenariff six years ago and moved in with Amanda's father. This was to help care for him after cancer treatment.
"I think the timing was meant to be - dad's such a great father and he needed us at the time," she says.
"He still does. Us being there gave him a purpose."
Previously having worked in recruitment and sales, Amanda had retrained as a music coach, tutoring the long-term unemployed, when she had her accident.
As she recalls: "I was 32 and had literally started from scratch in all areas of life. I was broke and had no job and was living with my dad.
"I had started singing cover gigs again, just as a way of earning money and in the hope of building my confidence again. My marriage separation literally left me broken but I was so determined to heal and move on.
"I always wanted to sing original material instead of covers and I started writing again at that time, which I hadn't done in years, as a way of channelling my feelings and experiences.
"I was determined something positive could come out of such a negative period and, in a way, it was therapeutic for me to help process in this way."
Five years on, Amanda has released an album, Grow, and is currently working on a follow-up. Hailed as true talent by BBC music broadcaster Ralph McLean, she has been compared to Dusty Springfield and Paloma Faith by a Nashville producer and has signed up for a major advertising campaign for Woolworths in Australia, featuring the Australian Olympic team.
The lyrics of the album title track - 'I will not bow down, I will not be defeated, I will grow' - were written about her own experience in overcoming heartbreak.
The track You Blew It, is a feisty number, while Where is the Man relates to a Jekyll and Hyde personality.
Another highlight of the album, If I Should Fall, Amanda explains, is about being single for the first time in years and feeling an attraction to a Peter Pan commitment-phobe, "and trying to keep yourself away".
"After the accident I felt liberated to try and create my life the way I've always wanted it, free from my fears and insecurities," she continues. "I was literally at rock bottom and had nothing else to lose, so it didn't feel like I was taking a massive risk starting something new.
"It was one of the most enriching experiences in my life to date. I almost needed to be broken to start piecing myself back together in a way that I wanted. I feel free on stage and not as self- conscious as I used to be. It's a gorgeous experience."
With the dark days behind her, Amanda has written with Grammy-winning songwriters in Nashville and has completed a UK and Irish tour, in which she sold out her first London gig.
She continues to work on a freelance basis as a music mentor and singing/songwriting coach, encouraging others to have belief in themselves and their talents.
"I constantly get feedback from people on how inspiring and motivating my story and my songs are. After live performances, I love hearing how people relate to the songs," she concludes, admitting there are often tears at her gigs.
"Music can bring so much healing and I'm proud that my experiences are able to help others."
Amanda St John is performing at the Dalriada Festival with Ben Glover at Londonderry Arms Hotel, Carnlough, on July 20, and at the Hills Festival, Armagh, on August 12. See https://www.amandastjohnmusic.co.uk/ and on Facebook