Londonderry tenor George Hutton: 'After sellout shows in the States I sank into depression and thought my career was over, but I've finally my found my voice again'
George Hutton tells Leona O'Neill how he recovered from personal problems and that he's excited to be touring with Phil Coulter
Several years ago renowned Northern Ireland tenor George Hutton had the world at his feet. As one of the Five Irish Tenors, the 31-year-old was living the dream and touring America. His face was on billboards in every major city and their concerts were selling out each night.
But behind the smiles and the onstage professionalism was the fallout from a failed relationship that eventually sent him spiralling into darkness and he gave up singing.
Londonderry-born George was no stranger to the limelight. He had shared the stage with the likes of Glen Hansard, Hozier, Moya Brennan and Tommy Fleming. He toured Europe and Canada with acclaimed ensemble Anuna as well as starring in the RTE2 series Exiles: Vancouver - and, as such, he had nerves of steel.
But dealing with the end of a relationship left him bereft, unable to sing for six months and questioning whether he wanted to ever perform again.
He says: "A few years ago my career was just taking off and I really had big dreams and plans for the future, but things were really not good in my personal life. It got so bad that I thought about leaving an American tour because everything had just got on top of me. I had to walk off stage during a song one night in Alabama because I broke down over it all. It was an awful time.
"An American tour was one of my biggest dreams ever and I ended up not enjoying it at all because of the problems in my personal life."
He admits as the relationship finally ended he sank to his lowest point and lost his voice and will to perform.
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"I was definitely depressed," he says. "I didn't have to take any medication but I felt depressed. I'm pretty sure that if someone was to describe depression it would be the person feeling low, with no energy, can't get out of bed, no drive - I definitely had that. And for someone who has always been an outgoing and bubbly person, it really affected me.
"Getting to tour America was an amazing point in my life. To go from what was an unbelievable high to an unbelievable low was hard. I didn't sing for six months.
"I thought that was it for me. I lost my voice. People think you just open your mouth and the sound comes out. It doesn't. I was feeling emotionally drained and I couldn't perform.
"My voice just would not come out. I have to connect with the song and the audience and believe in every word that I am singing. People will know if you're lying. You can't fake it. I think what happened to me for that period of time is that I couldn't connect with anything. It was such a low point.
"During that period I actually went back to a job in personal training. I've always had this thing where I need to help people and I had done that job before. And clients would be saying to me, what are you doing? You should be singing. They would say that they saw a video of me singing and that I was brilliant. But I would brush it off and tell them I'm done with all that. I was getting contacted about concerts and I was turning them down. I just couldn't do it."
George says that to get himself back on track, he attended counselling.
"In my head I felt guilty, thinking everything was my fault," he admits. "The whole experience really affected me. It left me feeling so vulnerable. Opportunities were coming my way and I wasn't taking them up. I lost my confidence. I couldn't trust anyone.
"If there was a girl I met that I liked remotely, the minute anything looked like it might develop into something more than just going on a date and seeing one another I freaked out. I felt really vulnerable. I'm only coming around in that aspect now.
"Growing up, my mother would always talk about St Michael being our guardian angel. I got a tattoo of St Michael on my arm. I remember when I was living in Dublin there was a monastery nearby and in it there was a bust of St Michael with a quote saying 'do not lose heart in your sufferings'. That quote and my mum talking about that saint always stayed with me.
"Everything that happens in life is a lesson.
"And thank God I have come through it all and I'm stronger for it."
George says that talking about his mental health, although often hard for men, made the massive problem much smaller and more digestible.
"Talking about it made me realise that everything was going to be alright. It's hard to talk because for guys it maybe is an ego thing. There is that fear of feeling vulnerable. That people will think you are weak or not manly enough. But you have to be vulnerable and allow people to tell you it will be alright, not to worry.
"Even if you talk to one person, starting that conversation will feel like a weight is being lifted.
"I remember coming away from my counsellor and just feeling so much better.
"All of a sudden what was becoming this huge big problem in my head kind of deflated and I saw that things were going to be alright. My confidence started to come back."
George, who has a huge following in the US, says that he is very much still one of the Five Irish Tenors, but is for now focusing on his solo career. He says his experience has made him stronger and ready for anything.
"I have an Irish tour coming up with Phil Coulter," he adds. "Phil is brilliant. He says I have talent and tenacity which I am in control of and the only thing I haven't control of is timing.
"I feel that now the timing is just right, working with him.
"Things are starting to move in the right direction for me now.
"My first album went really well and I'm doing 10 concerts around Ireland with the legend that is Phil Coulter.
"I love being on the road. It's a bit of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. It's a surreal experience. You are performing in huge theatres across the world. In the States we did 52 concerts and 49 of them were completely sold out.
"Our audience demographic was a bit older. Afterwards we would go out and meet people, and it was just mad. They were saying that they have followed me for years, they love me and my music and all this stuff. And you'd be standing there thinking is this all real? There was me, a Derry fella, in America and all these Americans know me.
"When we'd be out walking around in these cities there would be these massive billboards with our faces on them.
"They were hard to miss and people would come up to us on the street to get pictures and chat.
"So you were in this kind of bubble and then you come back home here and people are rolling their eyes at you and asking 'who does he thinks he is?' It's hilarious."
George says that after a dark few years he is now excited to see what the future holds.
"I am where I need to be right now," he says. "I have one album out and another being done now at the moment with some seriously heavy hitters.
"I am heading off on tour now for the rest of the year and have many other gigs already booked for next year.
"I think that what happened to me has made me stronger, has forged me in steel.
"I think my experiences, as tough as they were at the time, have given me strength to do all these things. Nothing fazes me anymore. I love being on stage.
"I'm buzzing up there. I think this experience has shown me that this is what I was meant to be doing.
"Everything that happened I think showed me I have to be performing, I have to keep singing and I have to keep going.
"I am very blessed and very lucky and very grateful that I get to do what I do.
"I'm now starting to perform with some really big hitters. I am excited for what the future holds."
For more information on George's tour dates, visit www.georgehuttonofficial.com