Performing online has helped these singers cope during the lockdown. They tell Leona O'Neill how they've made the most of the free time - and about concerns for their industry's future.
Country music’s reigning king Nathan Carter says he’s made the most of lockdown to keep fit and tackle some DIY. He’s been making the most of downtime at his home in Enniskillen, along with his brother Jake and his girlfriend Karen.
“I’ve been trying to keep busy,” says the 30-year-old Liverpool-born singer, who had a huge hit with Wagon Wheel.
“I’ve got a pretty big garden and I’ve been busy tidying it up and painting fences and doing general maintenance work around the house, which is keeping me busy.
“I’ve also been writing a few songs, and I have some gym equipment in the house and am sticking to a daily regime of fitness.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly what Nathan has missed most is the buzz from performing in front of his legion of fans. “I really miss the live shows,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to getting back to that hopefully in the near future again.
“In the meantime we’ve found ways to reach our audience through Facebook live events. I did one with the band in the studio at the beginning of lockdown and more recently Jake and myself did a Facebook live event for local charities. It was good fun and raised some money. It’s not easy at times — it’s always a challenge when you’re working with dodgy WiFi. And I also recently have a new recording system which I am just getting to grips with, but I have a long way to go with it.”
Nathan has recorded a TV show, Keeping Er Country At Home, which is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer and which he says was “a lot of fun to record”.
But, like many musicians, the financial hit is proving difficult. “There is not really any feasible way to earn a living at the moment as a musician and we just have to wait for the storm to blow by,” he adds.
“Hopefully we will get back to work again soon.
“It’s tough for everyone in the music industry but the restrictions that are in place are totally understandable. I guess if everybody plays their part we will get back to doing what we do best sooner rather than later. Maybe we will get back to work in the autumn, perhaps even before that. We are trying to reschedule events and are hoping for a very busy 2021.
“We’re hoping that concerts will soon return, hopefully with attendances being allowed to sit as normal, but that could be some way off as yet.”
And what else would a singer/songwriter with time on his hands do but pen some new music. “I released a song entitled #StayAtHomeStayAlive, which is about social distancing,” he explains.
“I greatly enjoyed working on the track with a number of Irish artists including Johnny Logan and Brian Kennedy.
“In a situation like this you have to remain positive. The main thing is staying healthy and hopefully we will all come out the other side of this pandemic.”
Margaret Keys has also had her jet set lifestyle completely curbed by the lockdown, but the Londonderry-born classical soprano says she has found slowing down has had a positive side.
“Just before lockdown I was travelling between London and Derry,” she says.
“Thankfully, since then I’ve been able to stay at home. That’s certainly been unusual for me as I’m used to always being on the go and travelling a lot for work. However, to be honest I have found it really therapeutic in many ways.
“I have been able to spend time with my family and do things that I never seemed to have the time to do, like decorating, baking, catching up with people — albeit on Facetime or Zoom — and generally upskilling. I could be a Jack-of-all-trades by the end of this.
“In addition to streaming my own online concert series Song And Conversation I’ve been getting into DIY. I have managed to decorate quite a few rooms at home. It’s become a little passion that I never knew I had. And I have always enjoyed keeping fit, so I have been walking and running daily and doing online Zumba classes.”
Like Nathan, she misses playing to the crowds. “I am very much a people person and I really enjoy interacting with audiences both during and after my concerts,” says Margaret (35).
“Prior to the pandemic I had never really experimented with virtual shows. Everything I did was within an audience-filled theatre but now all my live performances are streamed on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
“To be quite honest, I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it before. One of my concerts had over 150,000 views, and I now feel a part of something that has gone mainstream. Thanks to increased audiences, limited resources, closed venues, and more than likely a spot of boredom thrown into the mix, we seem to have unlocked something during lockdown that everyone is a part of and will most certainly be the way for musicians for the time being.”
To her surprise she has been able to continue interacting with fans, just in a different way.
“The benefit of live streaming is the instant interaction with the audience. It’s giving them the chance to participate. They ask me questions, suggest songs, and we can celebrate together special moments such as birthdays and anniversaries. It certainly has its pros and it’s bringing my audiences together in a way I have never experienced at a live venue setting.
“Thankfully, so far I haven’t experienced any major technical problems, but I am literally running the whole show. I have to wear a lot of hats. I am looking into upgrading my equipment and experimenting with the technical side of it all. This really could be the silver lining, though, as when we do get back to some sort of normality these new-found skills could prove to be very useful.”
Margaret knows the music industry has been changed by the pandemic but she is philosophical about the challenges ahead. “We just have to learn to accept this, there are varying degrees of catastrophic situations right now.
“We have to adopt a new approach. There is no doubt that we will need our audiences to support us and get behind whatever new protocol is needed. But I have received so many lovely messages and gifts of appreciation, which is encouraging.
“People still need music and entertainment. It may look a little different but it could actually allow us to become closer to the audiences. They literally could have the best seat in the house.”
Co Antrim singer Amanda St John spent last year singing for the President of the United States and touring several countries. This year, like all of us, the mother-of-one is sheltering at home, in her case in Glenariffe, a world away from the bright lights of the stage.
“I found the first couple of months of lockdown the hardest. It was an emotional rollercoaster and there was so much fear about the illness and financial uncertainty. It’s definitely not a great time to be freelance or self-employed. I had to cancel a US, UK and Irish tour, so that was a big blow,” she explains.
Amanda (40) recently released her new album The Muscle Shoals Sessions. Promoting that with Press and radio interviews kept her occupied, along with home schooling daughter Sophia (12), enjoying keeping fit and tackling various projects on the home front.
“Sophia has her home schooling and we’ve been playing sports, baking and walking a lot, as well as playing cards and board games. We had a great weekend camping in the garden too. There’s something really nice about bringing it back to basics like that.
“I’ve upped my exercise regime and have been running more, as well as doing circuits and yoga in the garden.
“And I’ve also been enjoying getting more time for home improvements; I’ve been painting, upcycling and getting my garden tidied up.”
Amanda has loved having more time for simple pleasures — like chatting to friends. “Zoom parties have been so much craic and one of the best bits of lockdown is that I’ve become so much closer with my neighbours. I love finding little presents on the doorstep and we’ve been having socially distanced catch-ups and drinks in each other’s gardens, which is great fun.”
And, like Nathan and Margaret, she’s found innovative ways to reach her fans. “I started doing Facebook lives the first week of lockdown and have done weekly sessions since,” she says. “As I was about to release my album and tour to promote it I couldn’t just disappear in the lead-up to the launch.
“After the first couple of livestreams I was amazed at how connected these gigs felt, so it’s been a great learning for me to still be able to reach out and connect with audiences. Of course, it doesn’t compare with the energy of a live gig and seeing faces in the crowd enjoying my music, but in a way it’s helped me reach more people than a live gig, and with no travel or room or sound hire expenses, there have been some benefits.
“I have found the livestreaming quite challenging due to the technology side of things and also as I’ve had to do the gigs solo without my band. I’ve never been a solo performer as I don’t feel I’m competent enough on guitar, but I was forced to do it due to lockdown restrictions. It was a massive hurdle for me to overcome and I found myself spending hours every day practising songs. But that is a good thing as I can see myself getting more confident with each gig.
“I had to turn down so many opportunities as I was only working from my phone and needed a laptop to connect to other pages.
“But I did a street party for my neighbours and streamed that, it created such a fabulous energy throughout my village with lots of families sitting in their gardens and enjoying the vibes.”
Naturally, Amanda is anxious about the future of the music industry. “It’s difficult to know when we’ll get back performing in public and with so many free gigs available online I don’t know how we are going to get through this business-wise,” she says. “I do feel there will be no major events for the next year at least, so our livelihood is very uncertain.
“I’m grateful to have received some recent funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to buy a computer and the sound equipment I need to create good quality digital content from home. I’ll keep promoting my album with live performances and am about to release another music video, which I’ve made on a budget during lockdown. I actually made a video in April by Sellotaping my phone to a make-up lamp and dancing in my kitchen. I was surprised at how happy I was with it, but I did have a good editor to help.”
For now, though, Amanda is determined to stay positive. “I’ve been focusing on gratitude for the small things in life and making sure we get as much variety in the everyday things. I’m lucky to live by the beach and the local scenery is so amazing — that really helps to keep me grounded.
“I’ve also embraced this as a period of self-care after a really busy couple of years so I’m feeling better in myself than I ever have. I appreciate more than ever that health is our wealth, so if I can just keep my head above water financially everything else will fall into place eventually.
“It’s essential that I adapt to the situation or else all the money and effort I’ve invested into my business over the years will be for nothing. I’m determined to find a way of making ‘the new normal’ work.”