Belfast Telegraph

Songbird of the Glens Amanda to serenade Donald Trump during St Patrick's Day festivities

Amanda St John
Amanda St John
Amanda St John

By Lindy McDowell

As a way of celebrating your 40th birthday it takes some beating.

Amanda St John will be marking her Big 4-0 this week by performing in front of the President of the United States of America Donald Trump, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and over 100 members of the US Congress at a special St Patrick's Day lunch on Capitol Hill.

It's the first time an entertainer from Northern Ireland has landed what has to be one of the most prestigious gigs in the business and Amanda, a soul singer from Glenariff, admits when she was asked to appear her initial reaction was, "really, really shocked. It's very, very high profile. I was shocked, but obviously delighted too".

With a powerful, bluesy voice, Amanda has been compared by leading Nashville producer Jon Tiven (he's worked with BB King, The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison) to the legendary Dusty Springfield.

Her next album, follow-up to her debut Grow, has been recorded at the FAME studios in the US, where such stars as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Etta James recorded.

Amanda's actual birthday falls on Wednesday - the day before she entertains Mr Trump and the Taoiseach. That evening she will be performing at a gala ball to be attended by Mr Varadkar.

It's one of six events in total she will be appearing at during the week.

And while her excitement and delight is understandable and infectious, it comes at the end of what she describes as a "horrendous" two years in her life.

Just before Christmas her father Philip Jamison died after a long battle with illness.

"My daughter Sophia and I, we lived with Daddy. We moved in with him just after my marriage broke up some years back. Daddy was a very private man and I want to respect that and be respectful of the rest of the family.

"But I do know he would be very, very proud. Me and my daughter are very much still in grief for him. He's my daddy. And he's been her father figure and her rock.

"I'm very, very proud that I've been asked to perform for the President and the Taoiseach, but my first thought when I was told was for my daddy. He would just have been unbelievably happy about it. He would have been jumping off the seat.

"It's a big, big deal to play for the President of America. In a way it's come as a bit of a lifeline after the last couple of years. It's just so good to get something that shows you you're on the right track and that it's worth putting the effort in."

She added: "I feel very, very lucky. On a personal level I really have had a horrendous couple of years. I've been battling a lot of different things while trying to move forward as an artist. Trying to support my daughter while caring for my father and meanwhile having my own personal life and working while trying to build up the music.

"Last year was one of the toughest years I've had in my life. Sometimes you wonder what you're doing it for. The music industry is just so difficult and often I wonder why am I doing this.

"It takes so much energy and expense and as a single mother that's hard to justify some times."

Her daughter Sophia, who's 11, is being looked after this week by Amanda's mum Angela.

The man who set up the Capitol Hill gig is Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington.

Norman organised it through the office of Nancy Pelosi the Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

Amanda explained: "I'd received funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to help with my album last summer and part of the funding brief was that I'd have to do a couple of shows as well. I got in touch with the Northern Ireland Bureau through a friend of mine who'd done a gig with them a couple of years ago. They put on a fabulous gig for me in Washington and it got a great response, a standing ovation. Norman and the bureau have been brilliant, really, really supportive."

Some years back Amanda was badly injured in a horrific road accident when the car she was driving skidded on a patch of oil and plunged 300 feet down the side of a mountain.

When emergency workers arrived at the scene she had no pulse.

"The emergency services didn't think I was going to make it. I didn't think I was going to make it. I just remember the battle. I remember feeling like I had a choice whether I stayed or I went. I swore to myself that if I got the chance I would go on and do something about my music. I hadn't released anything up until that point. I hadn't done anything with the music."

Despite a serious head injury Amanda made a miraculous recovery. But that terrifying incident spurred her on to make music her career.

Self-effacing and grounded (she describes herself as a country girl who doesn't get above herself), she has previously worked with the long-term unemployed and now works part-time with a training programme for young people who have been excluded from mainstream education or who've left school with no qualifications.

"It's about showing them they have opportunities. I take songwriting workshops and I've done some work with juvenile prisoners."

So what will she be singing to her elite US audience? "I'll be singing a couple of Irish songs. They want it to be very Irishy and upbeat. Very celebratory. I've narrowed it down to five songs and I'm waiting to hear which ones they pick. My band are all panicking because they need to learn which songs. The guitar player Paul Tierney, who's from Belfast, is travelling over with me as well."

Meanwhile, as well as the songs, Amanda has had to pick outfits for all six events she'll be performing. "I'm trying to coordinate everything."

And while you'd expect her to be walking on air for the week ahead, she is as ever, a bit more down-to-earth. "Right now I'm walking around with socks on in my new shoes. I'm trying to break them in."

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