Donna Taggart: 'My faith was of great comfort when we lost our baby Micheal - without it, you have nothing to lean on'
Singer Donna Taggart on the amazing success of her hit Jealous of the Angels and how it struck a chord with those people who, like her, are grieving
When she first heard the opening bars of Jealous of the Angels, in a shop in Omagh, back in 2014, Donna Taggart stopped in her tracks. Right away, the 31-year-old mother-of-two, who had already recorded her first album, knew it was a special song. And when her husband Colm heard it, he recognised immediately that it would suit Donna's voice and encouraged her to record it.
Roll on three years and Donna's Jealous Of The Angels has become one of the Top 50 most downloaded songs for all music genres in the USA, alongside artists like Beyonce, Katy Perry, Adele and Britney Spears.
The video for the song has had an astonishing 80 million views to date on Facebook and Donna's second album, Celtic Lady Volume 2, has reached No.1 in the Billboard World Music Catalogue Album Charts, making her a global sensation almost overnight.
Yet, the former child services and refuge co-ordinator is doing her own make-up ahead of a small gig in Armagh when we catch up with her on tour and talking about her house in Omagh being "upside down" at the moment, because she hasn't had a chance to tidy up.
"I wouldn't have the time to get my make-up done by anyone else - I'm a very busy mummy," she says lightly. "Everything's a bit crazy at the moment but you just have to go with it. It will all settle down again and things will go back to normal."
The photogenic country girl's sudden stardom has coincided with Donald Trump's rise to political power. It could be argued they share a support base in the American Rust Belt and the viral online sharing of Donna's version of Jealous of the Angels was sparked without any celebrity endorsement (The Irish singer Hozier for example, was unknown internationally until Stephen Fry went online to shared his video for Take Me To Church).
"It all happened very organically; it took off on its own," says Donna, a soft Tyrone lilt in her voice. "The Billboard people asked me the same thing - how did it happen?
"There was no-one famous behind it. It just hit a region of America where Christian music is very big, and it struck a chord, especially with anyone grieving."
Jealous Of The Angels was written by the Canadian singer/songwriter Jenn Bostic after the tragic death of her father. The song holds special resonance for Donna and her husband Colm, who lost their second baby, Micheal, in August 2014.
The child was due to be born in December, but when Donna went for a scan, she was given the devastating news that there was no heartbeat.
"I delivered him the next day. It was very tough. The shock gets you through a lot, in a way," she says quietly.
"And I have very true, deep faith - I was brought up that way and we go to Mass. My faith was of great comfort to me when we lost Micheal. If you don't have faith, you have nothing to lean on."
She describes her heartbreaking experience as very similar to that portrayed recently by Coronation Street characters, Steve and Michelle McDonald, whose baby was still-born.
"I watch Coronation Street and I thought they handled it well. At the time, you think you're the only one this has happened to. It's still a taboo subject. It's still very raw and painful, but it's good that it's all lot more out in the open now and talked about," she says.
"Micheal has a grave in Omagh, which we visit. It's important to be able to grieve the loss and to know that's okay."
Donna and Colm, a GAA team manager, were married in 2011 and their first child, Grace, was born in November 2013. Their youngest, Matthew, is now 14 months old, and described as "a blessing" by his mother, herself the eldest of five girls.
"Children are a gift; they bring so much joy, but I think I'll be taking a break from all that for a while,' she laughs. "But never say never."
Donna and her sister Sinead (30), who sings backing vocals on Donna's albums and features in the Jealous of the Angels video, get their musical ability from their father Mark Taggart, a tradesman and builder who sang semi-professionally in his younger days.
A shy child and teenager, Donna didn't start singing solo in public until she was 22. "I was in the choir at school but the teacher said I was very reserved and she didn't realise I had a voice, because I never put it forward," she recalls. "Then, my best friend asked me to sing at her sister's funeral. She'd been in a bus crash in Spain and survived, but very sadly died of a blood clot after she flew home.
"I sang a selection of hymns at the funeral, about 10 years ago, and then I got asked to sing more locally. But it really only has taken off in the last six months."
Donna Taggart first came to prominence in 2011 when her acclaimed debut album, Celtic Lady Vol 1, was played by the late BBC Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Anderson. Gerry described Donna as a 'very special singer' and predicted a big future for the Co Tyrone lady.
Her first hit single from the album, Bright Blue Rose, provided the platform for Donna to establish herself as one of the most popular wedding, hotel and concert performers in Ireland.
"I remember walking into the studio in Radio Foyle and Gerry saying, 'I'll have a listen to your album and if I like it, I'll play it'. He played it the next day, and about 30 or 40 more times after that," she says.
"Gerry really is irreplaceable for local artists. Phil Coulter has also given me great advice. There's nothing he doesn't know about the business. Touring with him was a great warm-up for my solo tour now and I'm going back on the road with him later this year."
Phil Coulter first became aware of Donna when she recorded a stunning version of The Town I Loved So Well on her first CD, Celtic Lady Vol 1.
"I knew right away that she had something special, but nothing could have prepared us for this current global break out," says Phil. "This is a phenomenal success and I am delighted for her."
It's a very different career path to the original one Donna set out upon, once working as a hospital cleaner to pay her way though college. After graduating from Liverpool University, she worked for five years with children in the field of domestic violence and was co-ordinator of services for a refuge in Omagh.
She also worked on the children's autism team in the health service, specialising in behavioural support and direct intervention with children and families. But she's taking a career break from her day job this year, given the sudden huge demand for her music.
The 2013 release of her second album, Celtic Lady Vol 2, led to appearances on Irish TV and in shows alongside Nathan Carter, and she had a hit on her hands when she recorded the song Mom, to coincide with Mother's Day in 2015. The song peaked at No.1 in the iTunes UK and Ireland Easy Listening Chart, but it took the beautifully shot video for Jealous of the Angels, last August, to bring the youthful looking Donna to international attention.
"It's all down to good lighting and Photoshop," she jokes. "I don't know how I look young - it's not down to a good diet. I love chocolate."
Since the video went viral, Jealous of the Angels has gone to No. 1 in several countries on iTunes, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Ireland and the UK, a phenomenal achievement for someone who doesn't have a record label.
Now, Donna has been invited to perform Jealous of the Angels at the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service, which is held on May 15 in Washington DC, with an audience of 35,000 police officers from all over the world. The annual memorial service honours the men and women in law enforcement who were killed in the line of duty the year prior.
The 2017 event is to be the largest to date, honouring more than 230 police officers, 70 of whom died of cancer-related deaths due to their exposures to toxins during 9/11.
"It's a great honour to be asked to perform in memory of all those people. The song means so much resonance for anyone who has lost someone. I didn't know anyone very close who died in the Omagh bombing, but it is as relevant to their families as anyone," she says.
"People have messaged me who had lost loved ones in 9/11 and the Paris and Nice attacks. I had loss in my life prior to recording the song, but nothing has come close to the pain of losing my child, so it really resonates now."
Donna plays the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Sunday, February 26 and the Ulster Hall, Belfast on October 17. Her current solo tour includes the sold-out dates: tomorrow, February 22 at Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, Co Tyrone, and Thursday, February 23 and Friday 24 at the Waterfront Studio, Belfast. For a full list of tour dates, see www.donnataggart.com