Now Janet's bringing the ex-factor to her music
Ahead of her Belfast gig this weekend, Tyrone girl Janet Devlin tells Edwin Gilson how everything from a painful relationship break-up to her happy childhood here has inspired her new album...but whatever you do, don't ask her about a certain TV talent show
As X Factor audition sob stories go, Janet Devlin's was pretty weak. Over a soppy piano line, the then 16-year-old Devlin told of her 'bleak' home in "literally the middle of nowhere" (aka the small village of Gortin in Co Tyrone).
"Because of where I live, I spend a lot of time by myself in my room," she lamented, as the piano dropped into a minor key and Devlin appeared at the window of her house, staring melancholically at the cows grazing outside. There was no family to feed, no school bullies, not even a sick dog. Just a lot of greenery and cattle.
She was an anxious soul back then, in 2011, or so the programme made out: "You're making me scared," laughed presenter Dermot O' Leary.
Indeed 'nervous' was Devlin's response when quizzed by O'Leary about her disposition. Upon walking on to the stage for her audition in front of the panel, she could barely talk to judge Gary Barlow, such was her charmingly overawed state.
Even after she belted out Your Song by Elton John, received a rousing reception from the crowd, brought the judges to their feet and earned glowing critical comments (including Louis Walsh's token "I don't think you have any idea how good you are"), she still resembled a rabbit caught in the headlights. But then, as judge Tulisa Contostavlos put it: "I love the fact that you're shy; it's so endearing."
The singer seems a completely different proposition now, however. She's business-like and occasionally abrupt over the phone from Cork; no more so than when talk turns to her big break on the X Factor two years ago. It's understandable for an artist to want to look to the future, but fundamentally the reality programme is the reason why her current tour, which calls in at Belfast's Oh Yeah Centre tomorrow, has come to be. When she says, then, that she's "been told to only answer one question about the X Factor," it appears she has been instructed by the higher-ups at her management company. That said, Devlin stubbornly sticks to her apparent brief to keep mum.
Why did she enjoy the perceived advantage of a more fulsome audition in front of the panel while, every year, others are made to audition in what are far less glamorous surroundings?
"I have no idea."
Was she disappointed to go out when she did, finishing in fifth place?
"No, why would I be disappointed?"
Surely she must have wanted to win?
"I got to where I wanted to get."
Was she told to trump up her back-story in Northern Ireland to lend her audition added drama?
"I don't know what you mean. No."
Are the judges there to support the contestants when the cameras are turned off?
"Errrm ... I can't remember anything, really. I have to go and pick my guitar up from the airport now, so I can't talk anymore."
Before hanging up, she offers some advice to this year's Northern Irish X Factor hopeful, Andrea Magee, who is flying high in the competition currently.
"She just has to be herself and not take it too seriously. But I haven't been watching it, I've been busy. I'm not good at giving advice on anything. She's probably completely different to me."
At 18, Devlin no longer goes to school or college, but "reads a lot". If it had not been for the X Factor, she says, she probably would have been a psychiatrist, or maybe a cartoonist. Of course, dropping out of education at a young age means a lot hinges on the singer's debut album Hide & Seek, which is available for purchase through PledgeMusic, the online outlet that lets fans effectively fund their idol's music.
"That meant I didn't have to show the album to an A&R guy first just for him to tell me it was wrong," Devlin explains. "Nobody was telling me what to do, which was great. I kept my fans very updated on what was going on with the recording and it was a very intimate process."
She says lyrically, the album is split between her experience of the hectic post-X Factor life and a quieter previous existence. Oh, and there's a fair bit of heartbreak included too.
"Before the show I was in a relationship and then a whole year after that it had all ended," sighs Devlin.
"It's really mean and bad, but I was pondering breaking up with my boyfriend and wondering if he was right for me, so I wrote a few songs about it."
The album is also influenced by a sense of nostalgia for her upbringing in Co Tyrone, as she now lives in Sheffield.
"The title of the album comes from a song idea I had when I was seven and the last song on the record is called When We Were Young, which is basically me just reminiscing about the good times I had in Northern Ireland when I was a kid." So it wasn't all 'bleak' then. She adds: "I guess I've had to grow up pretty fast and nobody really tells you how different being an adult is to being a kid."
Part of this process involves learning to adapt to her rather sudden fame. She's had to get used to people recognising her in public and young girls (especially from NI) making a role model out of her.
"When I was on the show I had red hair and walking out in public was quite hard. Then I went blonde and less people noticed me, which was quite cool. Then I went back to red recently and it's started all over again. Of course there are days when I'm like, 'Please just let me get on with my business', but then other days it's all cool.
"As for the role model stuff ... I don't really like to think about all that too much. I don't think I'm a bad role model though. I'm always fully clothed, that's a start! I've got strong morals and my fans have strong morals too, so there's a good bond there."
Devlin clearly has an independent streak, proven by the nature of her album release – although she flatly denies that this was a deliberate attempt to move away from the control of major record labels and the commercialism of the music business.
It's understandable that Devlin doesn't want to be known solely as 'That girl from the X Factor', but at the same time she must acknowledge the programme's imprint on her life.
Will she soar like former X Factor contestants Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke or become the latest reality star to be consigned to the pop scrapheap?
We'll soon find out. In the meantime, one hopes Devlin will follow her own advice and just be herself.
the big winners...
* Alexandra Burke – the London girl rose to fame after winning the fifth series of X Factor in 2008. Her debut single Hallelujah became the top-selling single of 2008 and was Christmas number one that year. She's since released two albums and appeared as a guest judge on the eighth series of the show. Her net worth is today estimated at £8m.
* Leona Lewis – the stunning singer's debut album Spirit sold 8m copies worldwide after she won the third series of X Factor in 2006. Her song Bleeding Love was the top-selling single worldwide in 2008. Lewis (left) has been nominated for a total of seven Brits and three Grammys and her talent has often been compared to Whitney Houston
* Cher Lloyd – despite finishing fourth in the seventh series of X Factor, Lloyd was signed to Simon Cowell's record label Syco. Her debut single Swagger Jagger reached number one in the charts in 2011 and she's also worked with a host of different rappers