'I thought I'd a migraine but it was meningitis ... doctors said if I'd left it any later to get to hospital it might have been a very different outcome'
Country singing star Lisa McHugh tells Stephanie Bell about the health scare that changed her life, her move to NI and how working in her dad's firm taught her so much about business
Stunning country star Lisa McHugh has an exciting project up her sleeve for 2018 which remains top secret but which she assures fans they will be delighted with. The singer, who lives in Enniskillen, enjoyed hosting friends and her parents for a big bash at her house on Christmas Day before hitting the road again for a series of new year concerts.
Life continues at a hectic pace for the popular young artist who released two albums in 2017, both of which made it to number one.
She also recently launched a new live concert series on her Facebook page aimed at her growing international fan base.
The site on which she performs live requests was only launched a couple of months ago and already has had over one million views.
Life is good for Lisa, who took a gamble to leave her job and home in Glasgow seven years ago in search of a career as a country singer in Ireland.
She settled in Enniskillen where she found a good friend - and briefly dated - fellow country singer Nathan Carter, who had also left his home town of Liverpool to set up home in Northern Ireland in search of a country singing career.
Both are young, successful and single, something they both believe is due to the hectic pace of their careers and, while their own romance was short-lived, Lisa says they did find an enduring friendship.
With her parent's love for country music, Lisa was introduced to the scene at a young age. She grew up listening to everything from Daniel O'Donnell to Alan Jackson and quickly learned how to play guitar.
Lisa says that upping sticks and moving to Northern Ireland was made much easier by the fact that as a child she spent most of her holidays here. Her dad Joe is from Castlederg, in Co Tyrone, and her mother Sally hails from Co Donegal.
Her parents visit her in Enniskillen every month and this time round it was Lisa's turn to host Christmas for them in Northern Ireland.
"We usually have a big family Christmas at mum and dad's house, but now that my sister and two brothers are married they would spend one year with their in-laws which was this year for them," she says.
"So mum and dad came to me because I was back to work on Boxing Day and we spent it with a couple of local families that we are very close to. Everyone helped out and did a different course. I did the starters which wasn't too bad.
"We always have a huge crowd on Christmas Day if we spend it at my parents' house as there are 16 of us in total including grandkids. It's always good fun so it was nice to have a crowd here too."
While she says she enjoyed an indulgent Christmas Day, the festivities were short-lived for the popular star who was back on the road on Boxing Day with a full week of concerts.
Over the past couple of years the pace of Lisa's life has been hectic with sell-out tours in Ireland, the UK and further afield in Europe and, while she wouldn't have it any other way, she admits that it did take its toll on her health.
Two years ago she faced a major scare when she was admitted to hospital with a serious strain of meningitis. Lisa blamed her lifestyle and made immediate changes, following a strict healthy eating and exercise programme ever since.
Looking back, she admits: "That was a real scare. I thought it was a migraine, which was something that I used to suffer from years ago. But the symptoms just seemed to linger no matter what I did. Nevertheless I carried on working and doing shows.
"Then one night I came home from a show feeling terrible. My parents were in Donegal and my manager rang them to tell them I wasn't well. They came to my house, took one look at me and said they were taking me to the hospital.
"I was admitted and they did a lumbar puncture test and told me I had meningitis. The doctors said that if I had left it any longer it could have been a very different outcome.
"Thankfully I have good family and friends around me. I was in hospital for about a week. I had no energy and lost a lot of weight. I was off work for two weeks after that and probably wasn't back to normal for three or four months."
Determined to get back to full health, Lisa started going to the gym. "Initially I started working out because I wanted to build up my energy levels and strengthen my immune system, but then I discovered that once I got into the swing of it I really enjoyed it," she says.
"I now train with a personal trainer as often as I can - usually at least three or four times a week - and I make a point of trying to have as healthy a diet as possible."
When she first left school, a teenage Lisa worked in the office of her dad's building firm. Although she had been singing since she was a child it wasn't until she won a country music competition in Ireland in 2009 that she decided to follow her dream of being a singer and moved here in 2010 aged 22.
Within just two years of launching her career she was given a once in a lifetime opportunity and one which every country star dreams of - the chance to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
She recalls: "When I took part in the singing competition in Galway I wasn't expecting to get very far but being on stage in front of the cameras and a live audience gave me such a buzz that I was determined to do it full-time.
"I came to Northern Ireland in June 2010 and thankfully I haven't looked back. As a child I spent my school holidays at Easter, Christmas and the summer in Donegal and Tyrone which made coming here to live that bit easier.
"Then, in 2012 I got the chance to tour with American country singer Gene Watson when he was here and we both got on really well.
"When it was over he said he would keep in touch. I had this song which I thought would make a great duet and I thought if I don't ask I will never know, so I just took the bull by the horns and contacted him to see if he would do it with me.
"Gene was working and so he asked me to go over to him in Nashville and record it with him there. He contacted me the week before I was due to go to ask if I had any plans for the Tuesday night when I was over.
"Of course, I said I hadn't and he asked if I would be his guest at the Grand Ole Opry. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.
"On stage I sang the Kris Kristofferson song Help Me Make It Through The Night - it was surreal and the most incredible experience of my life.
"It is something that rarely comes around at all and to be given that opportunity was amazing and it is something I will always remember."
Lisa's career has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Now 28, she has released six albums so far and is constantly touring the UK and Ireland playing to packed houses. She has also won 15 awards, including Female Vocalist of the Year four times.
This year she says has been her most successful yet and 2018 is already shaping up to be more of the same. "Without a shadow of a doubt this year has been my busiest yet and it has flown by so quickly.
"I released two albums which both went to number one and I've toured England, Scotland and Spain as well as Ireland."
She is especially pleased with the success of her Facebook live concerts. "They have gone incredibly well. I had so many people outside of the UK and Ireland in Europe and America following me on Facebook that I decided to do something for that fanbase.
"They are places I don't get the chance to perform in and so I set up the live concerts taking requests for songs and singing them with a livestream on Facebook to give people further afield an insight into who I am as an artist and to reach out and connect with them. The response has been absolutely phenomenal, I've had such fantastic feedback and over one million views.
"This year is going to be unbelievably busy and I am booked right up until the end of the 2018. I also have a surprise project which I have been working on for some months and which I can't say anything about just yet, other than I am really proud of it and I hope everyone else enjoys it as much as I think they will. Some parts of it are new and some not so new. All will be revealed in early spring."
Lisa may be a talented country singer but evidently she is also an astute business woman who says she learnt valuable lessons in the years she worked in her father's company after leaving school.
That period, she says, stood her in good stead for becoming an artist. "I started with dad learning the role of secretary and then moved to office manager and I picked up a lot from working alongside him," she says.
"Business-wise and accounting-wise and the goings on behind a company in order for it to function have all been vital for me now that I have my own business. It has given me a lot of knowledge which I've been able to use."
Lisa is the first to admit that her career takes up almost all of her time, but she thrives on being busy and it helps a lot that she doesn't view what she does as work.
As regards her relationship with Nathan Carter, she now describes him as a "good friend". Reflecting on romance in general, she admits that the lifestyle that comes with being a singer does make having a relationship very difficult.
"There is no man in my life but I am never housed to be honest," she says. "When I am home I am always doing something regarding work. I don't see it as work and I'm lucky because I absolutely love everything to do with my job.
"I am so consumed with my job that I haven't had the chance to meet the right man but you never know what's round the corner. I'm not 21 but I am not overly concerned about it either. When the time is right it will happen.
"Nathan is a good friend. We came to the same country around the same time and have a lot in common. We haven't dated since 2011 and to us it is just old news.
"I have a great family and my parents travel every three or four weeks to spend a few days with me in Enniskillen. I know not everyone has that and I count myself very lucky."
Despite her great success so far, it is onwards and upwards for Lisa who still has a major dream she wants to achieve.
"My overall goal is to work towards an arena or stadium tour," she adds.
"I am determined to work hard and try and achieve all of my dreams."