She lost her father, then her voice... NI singer Amanda St John on a harrowing year and why she's finally on song again
The Co Antrim performer tells Helen Carson about the anguish of watching her beloved father lose his battle with bone cancer, the struggle to complete her latest album and meeting President Trump
Northern Ireland singer-songwriter Amanda St John says she has "moved mountains" to release her latest and most personal album, The Muscle Shoals Sessions, following the heartbreaking death of her beloved dad from cancer.
The 40-year-old, from picturesque Glenariff, who has worked with stars such as Brian Kennedy, Eddi Reader and Mary Coughlan, says the past year has been an emotional rollercoaster filled with trauma and difficulties - which included losing her distinctive voice for up to five months.
"My music is always autobiographical, I always write about my own experiences and my life," she says. "This album is very soulful, very vulnerable and very heartfelt."
And while it's been difficult to complete the album, Amanda says its launch and the accompanying tour have been a beacon of hope amid a testing 12 months: "The album was brilliant because it gave me something worth fighting for, it was a focus. Now I can get on with what I am supposed to be doing - singing."
The Muscle Shoals Sessions, which she has dedicated to her late father, Philip, very nearly didn't happen, however, when her father died a week before Christmas last year following a nine-year battle with bone cancer.
The singer, who says that it would have been her dad's 70th birthday earlier this month, describes his loss as "more like losing a partner than a dad. He was my daughter's father figure".
That close bond developed because Amanda and her 11-year-old daughter, Sophia, lived with her dad in Co Antrim, having returned home from Dublin after she separated from her husband: "Dad was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago, just at the time that I came home. Sophia was two at the time. I was going to stay with him until I got a house of my own, but as he was sick, there was no point leaving him on his own."
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As it turned out, the arrangement worked out well for the whole family, with Amanda (right) and her dad splitting the cost of running the house and childcare. "Dad was ill and I was on my own with a child," she recalls. "We all helped each other over the years. And it was great for my dad to have Sophia around as a toddler, it lifted his spirit."
When her dad was initially diagnosed, he went into recovery. Tragically, four years ago, doctors delivered the grim news that the illness was back and his condition was now terminal.
"Dad was told he had six months to a year left to live, but he lived for over three years," says Amanda. "The last year of his life, he was in horrendous pain, he really suffered, he went through hell."
With all of Amanda's brothers living outside Northern Ireland, she struggled to keep going alone: "I had to keep working. I'm freelance, if I don't work, I don't earn money."
During this traumatic time, she had an album to write and secure funding for, as well as gigging, bringing up Sophia and running a home.
But after investing her life savings into an ambitious project to record the album in FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which would see her following in the footsteps of her musical heroes like Aretha Franklin and Etta James, Amanda lost all the money when the crowdfunding venture she'd embarked on to help finance the project went broke.
Under pressure to earn money, she recalls: "I was singing even when daddy was in the hospice. During the last couple of weeks of his life, I was leaving the hospice to sing at gigs because I had to keep working to pay the bills."
Perhaps inevitably, dealing with so many pressures took its toll on her health. "I was pushing through and pushing through," she says. "I was stressed and wasn't really present in my singing technique, so I damaged something. It hit me in February this year. Last year was just battle, after battle after battle… and my body just crashed. I was mentally and physically burnt out, then my vocal chords went and that forced me to stop singing," she explains.
With five months of near silence necessary for Amanda to recover, money became an issue: "At one stage, I thought the album would never happen. The album was recorded in May last year and when I came home from the States, daddy had gone downhill very badly, so I had to put it on hold."
She also had to take time off from her part-time teaching job in a bid to fully recover. Looking back on that period, she says: "I was grieving for my father. I had hoped to put the final vocals on the album, but couldn't because of losing my voice. It was hard to keep the album going when I'd lost all the money in the funding venture."
Despite the hardship, Amanda became the first independent artist in history to record in FAME studios, and the album is now on release.
She says: "It was a dream come true for me and my band members, and main collaborators Paul Tierney and Michael Mormecha, to get the opportunity to record in FAME along with 'Swampers' bass player David Hood, who has worked with Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon and Alicia Keys, as well as piano/keys/hammond player Clayton Ivey, who has made music with James Brown, Joss Stone and The Supremes."
All 11 original songs on the album were live tracked in FAME Studios and then led by producer Michael Mormecha, with additional horns, strings and backing vocals added in Northern Ireland using some of the best session players around.
Even now, Amanda is not out of the woods in terms of her voice: "I'm praying that it heals fully, but there is a chance there may be permanent damage." However, she stresses: "I do have a voice and I can sing, but it's just the power and the range has been affected. I'm praying that I just need time emotionally for it to heal."
Amid a testing year for Amanda, she also found herself meeting and singing for President Donald Trump earlier this year at a very select gathering in Washington to mark St Patrick's Day.
The Northern Ireland Bureau flew her over to help mark the big Irish American St Patrick's Day celebrations in the US capital by singing at a number of different events.
"One was a private function with the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who hosts an Irish-American luncheon in Capitol Hill with 100 invited guests, including the President and the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar with members of Congress and the Senate.
"President Trump was sitting about three feet away," she says. "He came up and shook my hand and told me he was looking forward to the performance. It actually pains me to say this, but he was very personable and warm. I was there to do a job and I took people at face value, I was there to represent my country."
Amanda also met local politicians, too: "There were also a lot of politicians over from Northern Ireland, but what I discovered that week was that people are very different in real life compared to how they're portrayed in the media.
"Some people said to me afterwards, 'How can you shake his hand'? I got a real wake-up call, especially when meeting some of our politicians because they were so different to their media image.
"All my perceptions were wrong, and I found President Trump very welcoming and it actually put me at ease a bit."
Now she is enjoying being back on the road: "The album has given me something positive to look forward to. I wanted to fulfil a dream, but then all these things have happened which knocked me back - and I've had to move mountains just to get it finished and get it out."
Amanda's album, The Muscle Shoals Sessions, is available on CD and vinyl at gigs and her website with a full digital release is set for March 2020. She is playing Market Place, Armagh, Oct 4; Playhouse Theatre, Londonderry (with the Inishowen Gospel Choir), Oct 12; The Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart, Nov 14, and St David's Church, Naas (with Megan O'Neill), Nov 16. To buy tickets or to order the album, visit https://www.amandastjohnmusic.co.uk.