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Rachel Dean's Big Ask: Singer Lisa McHugh on battling meningitis, changing direction and playing the Grand Ole Opry


New direction: Lisa McHugh is moving towards a country-pop sound

New direction: Lisa McHugh is moving towards a country-pop sound

First steps: Lisa recording some early songs in a studio in Glasgow

First steps: Lisa recording some early songs in a studio in Glasgow

New direction: Lisa McHugh is moving towards a country-pop sound

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to the country singer Lisa McHugh (31), who grew up in Glasgow but now lives in Enniskillen.

Q. Tell us about your childhood

A. My dad Joe is from Castlederg in Co Tyrone and my mum Sally is from Falcarragh in Co Donegal. They moved to Scotland and that's where they had my sister Celia, my two brothers Joe and Chris, and myself.


Bonny baby: Lisa as an infant

Bonny baby: Lisa as an infant

Bonny baby: Lisa as an infant

We all grew up in Glasgow, but we spent many summers, Easters, New Years and any sort of school holidays that we would have had in Ireland.

My dad has his own construction business and was very busy every day with that. My mum raised us and did all the motherly things at home.

We were always very close growing up and we still are, which is great because I don't get to see them as often as I'd like with me living in Enniskillen while they're in Scotland.

When I was younger I was an Irish dancer. I did that for 12 years and it kind of took up all my time. I absolutely loved it, but I had to give it up because of problems with my feet. I was constantly in physio.

That's when I became a lot more interested in singing, music and playing guitar.

We had a room attached to our house where we would have had family parties and things. I would have spent hours and hours out there, singing and practising on the guitar.

That's really when the love of the music started and it only grew from then.


Lisa at the 2002 Irish Dancing World Championships in Glasgow

Lisa at the 2002 Irish Dancing World Championships in Glasgow

Lisa at the 2002 Irish Dancing World Championships in Glasgow

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. Taking the leap of faith that I have over the last couple of years. For the last nine years, I've been in the Irish country scene, which has been absolutely fantastic and I've had a ball. But I recently decided that I want to try to grow as an artist and songwriter and hopefully grow my fanbase further afield, so I decided to stop doing what I was doing, which meant going from 200 shows a year to maybe five or six.

I wanted to have time off to concentrate on song-writing and on making a concrete plan for the slightly new direction that I'm heading in, which is sort of country-pop. I'm probably most proud of having the courage to be able to do that.

My previous years weren't bad by any means - things were going incredibly well - so it was a nervous decision to stop that and try other things, but in order to grow, you have to challenge yourself. Things aren't always going to be easy. I'm delighted with how things have gone and I'm so glad I made the decision to try this.

Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?

A. To be honest, I don't know if I have any regrets. I think everything that's happened to date has brought me to where I am today and I don't think I would change any of those things that might not have been great at the time because I learned from them.

Q. What about phobias? Do you have any?

A. I hate rats and mice. If one was even visible, even just through a window, I would be screaming. I just hate them. I hate the thought of them.

Q. The temptation you cannot resist?

A. Chocolate. If it's there, I can't walk away from it. I always have to have some.

Q. Your number one prized possession?

A. The older I've become, the more I've realised how lucky I am to have my family and friends. I really appreciate them. Having them around and having them happy and healthy is all that matters to me.

Materialistic things can be bought and can mean amazing things to people, but for me it's all about having family, friends and loved ones around you and having them happy and healthy for as long as you possibly can.


Lisa as a baby with older sister Celia and brothers Joseph and Christopher

Lisa as a baby with older sister Celia and brothers Joseph and Christopher

Lisa as a baby with older sister Celia and brothers Joseph and Christopher

Q. The book that's most impacted your life?

A. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. I only came across this book about two years ago. I try and live by it as much as I can and to be thankful and grateful for everything I have. It's made me more positive and ambitious, and made me dream bigger.

Q. If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A. I would find a way of stopping any form of trolling or bullying on social media outlets. Personally, I'm so fortunate that I've never had any serious backlash, but you hear so many stories about people who go through it for an awfully long time - and some people lose their life because of it.

I just think everyone should think before they speak to someone or leave that nasty comment.

If there was a way to prevent suicide, bullying and online trolling, I would certainly go down that avenue.

Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A. Laziness and people just expecting things to be handed to them on a plate without being willing to work for it. That drives me mad.

Q. Who has most influenced you in life?

A. My mum and dad. Since before I was born my dad has had his own business, which he started himself and has been very successful.

We've been very lucky as family to benefit from that growing up. Watching him and how he does his business day-to-day, what he's striving for and how ambitious he is, I think that's where I get my determination and work ethic from.

I've learned an awful lot from him, especially in terms of my own business and dealing with employees and musicians in the best way possible.

My mum is a very down-to-earth person. She always thinks about things carefully before she does them.

She'll never dive in without thinking about things. I've got that trait from her. I never get overly excited about things unless I'm 100% that they're going to happen.

So yeah, they've both really had an impact on my life.


Lisa with parents Joe and Sally

Lisa with parents Joe and Sally

Lisa with parents Joe and Sally

Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A. One would have to be Beyonce. I would love to sit down with her and find out more about her work ethic, what she does on a day-to-day basis and how she manages to stay fit and maintain a family life.

It seems that even though she is one of the biggest names around, she still manages to have a private life. I would love to hear how she does that.

I would also invite Kris Jenner because I'd love to hear all about her family's amazing life and about all the incredible business ideas they have.

I'd like to know what normal life is like for the Kardashians/Jenners when they aren't on camera.

And I would ask Kris if there is an hour of the day when she isn't on her phone.

I would also invite Taylor Swift. I have always been a massive fan of Taylor and I think that I can relate to her much more because she's around the same age as me.

I just think she's a very clever girl. She's incredibly talented and knows what she's doing business-wise.

I would love to get some tips and ideas from her about writing songs, what's worked for her and how she manages to keep her feet on the ground even though she's a global star.

Q. The best piece of advice you've ever received?

A. Don't stop when you're tired; stop when you're done.

Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A. I love going on holidays. I love going anywhere there's sun. Personally, I find that the only time I'm fully able to switch off is when I'm out of the country. When I'm at home, I'm constantly thinking about what I could be doing, even if I'm not touring. If I'm out of the country, I'm not at home to physically do something, meaning I can switch off.

I also really enjoy police and crime documentaries and programmes. I love hearing the background story and trying to figure out who the bad guy is.

My life is so consumed with my music all the time that I don't have much time for anything else.

Q. The poem that touches your heart?

A. I'm not into poetry. I know I should be for song-writing, but it's just not my thing.

The words of my new single mean so much to me. It's probably the most honest song I've written. After I stopped touring, people became very curious about why I did that, where I've gone to and what I'm doing - (maybe they wonder) if I'm just locked up at home in my bedroom doing absolutely nothing.

I deliberately took a step back from every aspect of being in the public eye, especially from social media. Naturally enough, people started asking questions. One thing led to another and there were all these different stories that people were hearing and spreading around. Some of them were amusing because they were so ridiculous. I decided to write a new song that includes an answer for everyone. It's called The Scandal.


New direction: Lisa McHugh is moving towards a country-pop sound

New direction: Lisa McHugh is moving towards a country-pop sound

New direction: Lisa McHugh is moving towards a country-pop sound

Q. The happiest moment of your life?

A. When I got the opportunity to perform on the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville because that's the biggest stage in country music - that's where every country artist wants to perform. To be given that opportunity and be able to perform there at such an early stage in my career was a massive achievement. It was an experience like no other. It was fantastic and I genuinely hope it isn't the last time I get to perform there.

Q. And the saddest moment of your life?

A. The saddest moment for me personally was when I was given the opportunity to go and sing at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville. The week before I was due to fly out I injured my back to the point I could barely walk and ended up in hospital.

I know some people may think it isn't that sad, but it was for me at the time. I was so excited that they'd chosen me to go over and it was the biggest disappointment that I couldn't.

Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?

A. When I turned 30, I started looking at life differently. I realised that the silly things didn't really matter and I became a lot more comfortable in my own skin.

For a lot of years I'd been doing what everyone else wanted me to do, but when I turned 30, I thought, "Life's too short. I'm going to do what I want to do and how I want to do it".

That was a turning point in my life and is probably one of the reasons why I am where I am today. I suffered from meningitis a few years ago and that absolutely helped me change the way I thought about things. It just happened so quickly and made me realise that life can change in an instant and there's nothing you can do about it. I didn't realise at the time how big a deal it was. If I hadn't gone to the hospital when I did, I probably wouldn't be here.

After that it registered with me and I thought "Wow, things could have been so different here". It made me appreciate my health and everything that you normally take for granted. You don't realise how many things you take for granted when everything is good until that one thing happens. It totally changes your perspective.

Everyone's got their own battles, worries and stresses, but there's always someone out there who is going through a lot worse than you. I just try to remember and appreciate that.

Q. What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A. It's been the same ambition since I started out: I want to do my own arena tours around the world. Until I get to that point, I'm just going to keep pushing and driving myself forward.

Q. What's the philosophy you live by?

A. Always be nice to people on your way up because you never know when you'll meet them on your way back down.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?

A. As an ambitious, determined girl who always wanted the best for everyone.

Lisa's new single The Scandal is out on Friday

Belfast Telegraph