The Voice star Leah McFall on battling fears of rejection, loneliness and ridicule ... and how faith helps her cope
In a searingly honest interview, the 29-year-old talks to Leona O'Neill about the pressures of overnight fame and why she was happy to contribute to a new book, Fearfully Made, aimed at helping young people cope with anxiety
Northern Irish singer Leah McFall knows a little about feeling scared. The 29-year-old Carnmoney songbird reached the dizzy heights of The Voice back in 2013 - battling fears of public rejection and failure - then signed to the Black Eye Peas Will.i.am's record label, saw her dream evaporate after being released from her contract and endured several years of not being able to sing.
She is now living back in Northern Ireland with her new husband, Nathan Catterson, flying high in the independent music scene and has used her experience to contribute to a new book on fear and anxiety for youth and young adults, Fearfully Made - Positively Shaping Society.
The book, which features Christians in the public eye, delves into some of our greatest fears and how Leah's music and faith has helped her overcome them. She says she wants to, through her own experience, help the next generation of artists navigate the often tricky path to a career in the music business.
Reflecting on how she came to be on the primetime show The Voice, Leah recalls: "I was gigging since I was 16. I was writing my own music and releasing it from then. When I was living over in London I was gigging about three times a week before I was scouted for The Voice.
"The scouts basically said to me that my voice was like Marmite, that people either love it or hate it. They encouraged me to go on the show. I thought about it for a while because I had been doing so much grafting and I didn't want to take away from the work I had put in and the artistic side. And I was a bit worried about my family and the media attention and them being drawn into the spotlight.
"I decided to go for it, but I didn't expect it to go as well as it did.
"It was great for that time and it has definitely helped, when I went independent, to give me a platform. It pushed up my social media following which meant I had my own direct platform so I could go to people who were following my music.
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"I was runner-up and I got a record contract with Will.i.am. As happens to a lot of artists, you are signed and it just doesn't work out.
"It is a very political industry, as most industries are. I was released from the label and I had to wait a couple of years to be able to get out of contracts before I could release my own music."
Leah says the days after being released from her contract were some of her darkest, as she feared that her dream career was disappearing. She says she hopes that by detailing her own fears in the book, it will help others face their fears and do it anyway.
"The book, Fearfully Made, is made up of interviews with a lot of people who are in the spotlight or have been," she says. "It's about people's fears and anxieties and how they are overcome. It's about trying to encourage the younger generation that their identity is in who they are and not what they do or how successful they were.
"I wouldn't say that I struggled with anxiety, but I think that every person battles it at one stage or another. During that time when it was so heartbreaking to lose the contract - because it was my career path and my dream - everything was so up and down. You just have to cling to the people around you who love you regardless of how well you do. It was a difficult time for sure and I speak about it in the book.
"It's a book about faith and it's based on Scriptures. It is a Christian book and they interviewed various people, such as Fleur East and Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jnr who married Kim and Kanye, and a number of artists. And they basically just asked us about the fears that we faced.
"I spoke about the fear of rejection and the fear of ridicule that I had to overcome, and the fear of the media coming up with these headlines about things that you never said. You're being embarrassed by that and you come to fear ridicule from the public.
"When you're on a show like The Voice, one day no one knows who you are and the next day they do - and someone has taken a photo of your triple chin when you're travelling on the tube. You're not prepared for that and it is difficult.
"You're absolutely terrified of being rejected so publicly, and it's not rejecting your career plans, it's rejecting your dream. Then there's failure, the fear that you make a mistake or your voice fails. You want to walk off that stage knowing you've done a good job."
Undoubtedly, The Voice provided a great platform for Leah. During the show's run, she entered the Top 40 twice, with her cover of Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive reaching No 8, but lost out in the final to another Northern Ireland contestant, Andrea Begley. The experience did change her life, however, and she went to the US to work on her music.
She says: "Immediately after the show I was sent to LA and was writing with some of the top songwriters in the world - it was an incredible experience.
"In many ways, though, I don't think I was prepared for how political the industry is. I suddenly went from being a singer on a show to being a product that people would fight over. I would be sat in meetings where my body type was discussed or my vocal ability. You were told not to take it personally, but it was very, very personal. It was you.
"I was scared of letting myself and others down, but the other predominant fear was loneliness. I lived in a hotel room in LA by myself for the best part of a year."
Leah says she felt real fear going on the show that propelled her to stardom, but did it anyway, and she hopes younger artists can take heart from her experience and keep going themselves.
"In the book I talked about the ups and the downs and what helped me through," she says. "And what helped me was my faith. Knowing who I am, knowing that my identity is not about what I do and what I achieve.
"That is very hard to manage, but it is the thing that has kept me going through it all. It is a difficult industry, one minute they are telling you that you are great and the next you can't get people to answer your calls.
"When they called me and asked me to take part in the book, I really wanted to do so for the next generation of artists coming up, hoping that they could know some stuff and not have to go through the same lessons.
"I think fear immobilises us. Being afraid of something makes you completely stand still and think 'should I not do this?'. Going on the show was the scariest thing I've ever done. At the end of the day you are singing in front of nine million people and you are not sure if they are going to like you or not. You are setting yourself up for potential ridicule. I was so blessed because I didn't have that. I had so many lovely comments and didn't get much hate.
"I have a really good following, who are really encouraging. But I wouldn't have got that had I not overcome that fear and just done it anyway. I would say that fear does immobilise you, but you have to push past it and keep going."
Leah says she still feels that familiar fear when releasing new music, but that she does not live off people's opinions and is happy to put out new tracks because she herself is proud of them.
"I think it's the same," she says. "Every time I put up a new song or release a video you have to have a quiet chat with yourself, saying 'regardless of what way this is received I have put it up because I'm proud of it'.
"And you have to have that security, because as soon as you start to live off other people's opinion, that is when you are going to crumble.
"But I am still afraid every time I release something, it's that fear of rejection and ridicule and my biggest fear is not doing well. I am so afraid every time I do a performance that it is not going to go well.
"I released a single before Christmas called White X, and it is about feeling burnt from the industry but absolutely loving it. And the lyrics are about walking back up on stage again, getting lit up and standing on the white X again.
"It's the whole story about standing side-stage, having a chat with yourself to silence the voice that tells me that I'm not going to do well. To choose not to listen to it and just go and perform."
One of the things which has helped Leah endure the rollercoaster life in the music industry is her strong faith.
"I grew up at Glenabbey Church in Newtownabbey," she says. "And I moved over to the Hillsong Church when I was in London. They are a church that very much encourages artists within the entertainment industry. They have a thing called The Academy and it's about younger artists, teaching them that their identity is in their character, who they love and who loves them, rather than the success of what they do. I think those are really important lessons.
"Hillsong actually do my videos. There are a lot of creative people in the church. Because I am independent I don't have a budget for them, but I have just found myself surrounded by really creative people, particularly in churches. And they asked me to come and sing and speak for them at their conference at the O2 Arena two years ago, in front of 20,000 people.
"Those are the people who, when I was in a very low place after being released from my record label and not being able to sing for two years, really encouraged me.
"There were so many times that my faith was the one thing that I stuck to and knowing that my identity was in God."
Leah says she is happy to use the gifts God gave her.
"I am still asking God what His plan is for me," she says. "I just think that life has seasons. You are never called to be stuck in a stagnant place. I think He has given us gifts and skill sets and He just delights in us using them. That is where I take it from.
"If there is an opportunity to use those gifts that He has given me, I want to use them. At the minute it's really about taking every opportunity that is given to me."
The singer got married last year to her "gorgeous Northern Irish husband" Nathan Catterson, who works in the care industry. They now live in east Belfast and commute to London for work. Leah says that before she met her husband, she was "terrified" of marriage but now finds it something "beautiful and something to be treasured", sentiments reflected in her new single, Marriage.
"I moved back to Northern Ireland when I got married," she says, "so I'm based here but I'm back and forth to London once a month.
"We live in east Belfast. I was away from Northern Ireland since I was 20 years old and I am glad to be home. It's good fun, it's a different season. I don't know if I'll stay here forever. My husband Nathan has been travelling loads also. I lived in LA for a year. So who knows if we'll stay?
"My husband works in the care industry, but he also helps me with my music. When I put on my own independent tour last year he tour managed it and had to put on many hats. It was brilliant. We ended up selling out five cities.
"My new song is called Marriage and it's tackling the kind of ideas of what marriage is within the younger generation. I know I was absolutely terrified of marriage before I met my husband because you just hear of so many break-ups and unfaithfulness.
"But the song is actually about how beautiful it is and how it is something to be treasured. I love it.
"I have another song, Freckles, coming out - the video for it was shot in my church in London. It tackles mental health, embracing who you are. Basically, at times, your biggest bully is your own mind and the song is about telling yourself that you are lovely and not to let those voices be loud.
"I think your biggest critic is yourself. There is nothing that anyone can say to you that you haven't told yourself. I say to my friends that their biggest bully is in their mind and tell them to talk to me about whatever is bothering them, so that I can stick up for them.
"To write a song you have to look inward, to connect with your own emotions and tell your own story. And sometimes being so reflective all the time brings you back to those hard places all the time."
Leah adds: "Being creative is beautiful, it's such a lovely thing. My faith is that the original Creator made us to be creative. I believe that. But I also believe that we are not meant to look inward all the time so that it's good to surround yourself with other people. And that is the best advice that I ever got in the industry, have good people around you, people who love you no matter what you do and how well you do."
Leah has a UK tour, White X, coming up in April and is heading for London, Birmingham and Manchester. For more information log on to www.leahmcfall.com Fearfully Made by Carlos Darby is published by SPCK Publishing, £14.99