Clionna Hagan beat fear to swap the classroom for the stage
As Northern Ireland's biggest country music festival of the year takes place in Enniskillen today one of its most glamorous stars tells Lee Henry how she gave up the classroom in favour of the stage
She's the face of country music in Northern Ireland - the blonde-haired, blue-eyed chanteuse at the forefront of a hugely popular subculture that is fast taking over the airwaves - and Cliona Hagan is loving the attention. "I'm so happy to be a part of the scene," she exclaims, clearly excited and satisfied with her lot.
As well she might be. The 28-year-old may have been performing for a long time - her first television appearance came at the tender age of 12 - but in the space of a few years, Hagan has gone from wannabe starlet to bona fide country star, impressing in talent competitions, recording and releasing new music and making an army of fans in the process.
"She's such a hard worker," says her manager and band member, Aidan Quinn, the son of Northern Irish country royalty Philomena Begley. "Cliona is dedicated, she's driven. She knows what she wants and she's been a pleasure to work with, she really has. If anyone is going to succeed, it's Cliona."
Today Hagan takes the stage at perhaps her biggest gig to date, the two-day Harvest Country Music Festival in Westport and Enniskillen, organised by Aiken Promotions. "It's going to be huge," she beams. "On Saturday I'm going to be in Enniskillen opening the Main Stage at 1pm and on Sunday in Westport closing the Roadhouse Stage at 8pm. I can't wait. It's going to be great fun.
"There are 40 artists performing on four different stages, and some of the biggest acts in country music are playing. People like Miranda Lambert, who I just love. I can't believe I'm going to share a stage with her. I love her new single.
"Then there's the legend that is Charley Pride - anyone who loves country music loves Charley Pride - and Nathan Carter, The Shires, Ward Thomas, as well many of our own artists from Northern Ireland. I can't wait to play. It's going to be epic."
It will also be the clearest signal yet that Northern Irish country music has broken into the big time. Ten years ago, the steel guitar sounds of country were arguably the preserve of grannies and granddads hooked on Hugo Duncan and Dolly Parton. Now, however, teenagers queue up for hours to buy new releases by local acts and tickets to their gigs, and spend their weekends jiving and jigging for all they're worth.
Dances take place in community halls right across the province on a weekly basis, and now that promoters have cottoned on, huge outdoor venues including Londonderry's Ebrington Square and the Enniskillen Airport are starting to play host to homegrown country acts like Hagan, Lisa McHugh and Derek Ryan. Check out the event listings and you can't miss them - The Farmer's Bash in the SSE Arena in Belfast in October is a particular highlight.
"It's just exploded," says Hagan, who hails from Tyrone and has country music running through her veins. "We listened to a lot of country music when I was young, all the classic artists like Philomena Begley, Daniel O'Donnell, of course, and Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. I was a massive fan of Shania. I listened to her album Come On Over for hours.
"But country music today is just massive in Northern Ireland. I think there is a nostalgic element to it, yes. I guess it reminds a lot of people of their childhood, the music their parents used to listen to, but now they have their own artists to follow. Artists from the same places that they are from, Tyrone, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, right across the whole of Ireland.
"I think that plays a big part. Fans can relate to these artists. But, as well as that, the music that they are writing, the production quality on their recordings, is really world-class. You won't hear better country music anywhere in the world. I firmly believe that. The fans do too. Now, they have their own Northern Irish country music. I think that's why it's grown so much and why gigs like the Harvest Country Music Festival sell so well."
The dance element has also played a huge part in the remarkable resurgence of country music among Northern Irish teens. You won't see a lot of it in Belfast but venture further afield and it's everywhere. Sets and jigs and reels and toe tap. The cowboy country and western influence has spread like wildfire and Hagan's fans love nothing better than to stomp and spin and line dance their nights away.
"I feel very privileged that I get a front row seat," she laughs. "It's maybe what I love most about performing live, I get to look down on all these hundreds of kids dancing their socks off and it's so impressive. They love the music, obviously, but it's the dancing that they are really passionate about. It's incredible to see them all in action, dancing together. It's just amazing."
As is Hagan's approach to digital marketing. She has 25,000 followers on Facebook and is on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. The video for her version of 1-2-3 has over 110,000 views on YouTube and she posts regular quick-fire videos to most platforms while travelling to gigs or backstage before shows. Fans love it.
But Hagan is as comfortable broadcasting live to millions of television viewers as she is streaming video on Facebook. She is a regular on RTE, having represented Ulster in the All Ireland Talent Show in 2009, and during RTE's pre-Eurovision coverage earlier this year she sang ABBA's Waterloo alongside Ryan Tubridy, both all smiles, with panellists and audience joining in for good measure.
"I'm a comfortable performer," Hagan agrees, and a browse through the archive proves that singing was always a part of her life. Aged 12, she made her first television appearance, singing a ridiculously cute version of Silent Night on RTE's iconic Late Late Toy Show, that flagship family Christmas programme that no self-respecting Irish household can go December without.
"I don't think I realised the magnitude of that at the time," Hagan admits. "I remember I recorded a videotape of myself singing The Snowman, playing my piano. Then they called me in to perform for three judges. I sang Sally Gardens and The Snowman again and they liked it.
"I couldn't believe it when they got in touch to say that they wanted me on the show. I was delighted. I loved every second of it. It's lovely to have the footage to look back on. The only thing is, my mum dressed me up as a snowman, but it was a very magical time for me. I'm very happy that I was part of such a huge programme."
Hagan currently lives in Ballinderry on the Tyrone/Londonderry border and has spent all of her life in the same townland. Her eldest sister Teresa and younger sister Nicole were always "big supporters" of her singing, as were her parents, Clare and Joe, and Cliona was later dubbed "the golden child".
"Country music was always a part of our childhood. It was always my favourite kind of music. It's relaxing and we always loved listening to it. I sang in primary school too. I remember getting to sing Shania Twain's That Don't Impress Me Much at school. To sing that country song on stage was so exciting for me. Neither my sisters or my parents sing, really, but I always remember singing country music at family events and get-togethers. It was part of me from a young age."
It was also clear to all that Cliona had talent and because, as she humbly has it, "I could sing high", it was natural that she should receive classical training. "Every school that I went to, the teachers taught me classical, and I'm delighted that I learned to sing that genre of music. It's a very challenging type of music to perform and it takes a lot of training behind the scenes before you even walk onto the stage, but it taught me a lot regarding vocal technique, the dos and don'ts. My heart, though, has always been in country."
Hagan studied music at Queen's University and subsequently travelled to Edinburgh, where she qualified as a teacher and primary school music specialist. Two years teaching professionally followed, in Edinburgh and Lurgan, and Hagan enjoyed the experience. The ambition to sing, however, ultimately enticed her out of the classroom and into the recording studio.
"I remember taking my mum aside and saying to her, 'I do enjoy the teaching but I still have this desire to be on stage'. I couldn't explain how much I loved to sing. My mum thought that I should go for it, that I should have no regrets. I was, at that stage, quite afraid of what people might say. I was afraid of failure, and that held me back too. But in time I learned to let go and I'm so glad I did."
It was as an 18-year-old, when she was still at Queen's University, that Hagan bagged her biggest gig: competing on RTE's All Ireland Talent Show, the Irish version of Britain's Got Talent, essentially. Performers from every county in Ireland converged on the RTE studios, performing all kinds of acts. Hagan impressed with her singing and was chosen as the official contestant for Ulster.
"It was great to get back in front of the cameras," she recalls. "And it was great to meet all of the other contestants. I always used to love Boyzone when I was a kid, and when Shane Lynch showed up as a judge, I was completely gobsmacked. I've always felt that the Irish public have shown me great support ever since then."
It helps that there is now a digital radio station dedicated entirely to the genre of country music. Downtown Country launched in April 2015 and has, in turn, launched the careers of a plethora of Northern Irish country performers. The likes of Downtown Country presenters Big T and Jason Hughes have become arbiters of style, and Hagan is on rotation there. Alongside Lisa McHugh she is arguably the artist most in demand, the Northern Irish country equivalent of Katy Perry.
"Downtown have been very good to all of us country performers. We need that to get our music out there. I think my music is accessible. It's fun. I like up-tempo music and I have released quite a few quicksteps because I have a lot of energy and I like to jump about when I'm on stage. Most of the tracks I've recorded have that upbeat party feel, though there were plenty of ballads on my first album, Straight To You, which came out in 2016."
That collection perfectly showcased Hagan's versatility, featuring tracks as diverse as Cowboy Yodel, We're All Gonna Die Someday and I Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry. It set Hagan up as an artist to look out for and her highly anticipated follow up album is due to be released later this year.
So far, only one of Hagan's releases has been an original song - her current single, Little Darling, written by English singer-songwriter Gary Miller. With the country canon so vast, it is not uncommon for upcoming artists to cover several tracks in an effort to connect with an audience early in their careers. "I haven't recorded any material of my own yet," Hagan admits. "But it is on my to do list. I'm really looking forward to learning how to write music, to see if I can do it. I'm always up for a challenge."
Perhaps the greatest challenge would be breaking into the mainstream - graduating from Downtown Country to Radio 1 - finding a fan base outside of the diehard country community. It's not something that Hagan would rule out as she looks to the future.
"If I had the opportunity to reach a wider audience, to try some country rock music, for example, that would be great. But, to be honest, I'm still finding myself, still trying different things out to see if they work or they don't work. I'm trying to improve all the time. Hopefully it's the start of a long career and I couldn't be more excited."
Cliona will be singing at the Harvest Music Festival at Enniskillen Airport today and at Westport, Co Mayo tomorrow. For details, go to harvestcountrymusicfestival.com