LAURA MCMULLAN meets the queen of country music this side of the pond, to talk about life on the road, winning over female fans - and Nathan Carter
I’m sitting back stage at the SSE Arena in Belfast with Lisa McHugh, hours before she goes on stage to entertain 8,000 fans at the Farmers’ Bash - the biggest indoor country music event to ever take place in Ireland.
Aside from the occasional knock on the door from a photographer or a member of her crew, it’s not nearly as rock and roll as you would think.
No diva demands for white lilies, Jo Malone candles or bottles of Evian from this Glaswegian girl, who’s sitting opposite me dressed in casual navy and white bottoms and a white sweater, looking almost nervous at the thought of the show ahead.
The 29-year-old award-winning country singer has been touring and recording for seven years now, having performed at the Grand Ole Opry as a guest of the legendary Gene Watson, and subsequently raked up a number of accolade, from Female Vocalist of the Year five times, to Outstanding Achievement on the World Stage in 2012. She has even hosted her own TV show - On The Road with Lisa.
But each and every time she steps on stage to perform her hits, she feels that pressure to please and entertain the people whose opinion mean most to her - her grassroots fans.
And that pressure is soon replaced by euphoria as the adrenalin kicks in, and Lisa does what she does best - sing her heart out.
“You just can’t describe the feeling of walking on stage,” she says, her soft Glaswegian accent low and lilting.
“Tonight I am nervous. I have butterflies because this is a huge show, and we are doing something which we have never done before.
“But there is no better adrenalin buzz than walking on stage and having a huge audience singing your songs, cheering for you, and just having a good time. Unless you are an artist or a musician, you really can’t describe the feeling.”
However as Lisa reveals, it’s no mean feat to win over scores of fans of both sexes.
I wonder whether the likes of Derek Ryan and Nathan Carter - handsome, talented young men - surely find it easier to clinch the hearts of female country fans all over the nation, in a trend that has applied to other brands of popular music for generations?
Lisa agrees that she has had to work that little bit harder than her male counterparts - whom she of course has the ultimate respect for - to build up a fanbase.
“There have been so many males on the scene for quite a while, so the female audience tend to follow them, and then the men follow the women along to the shows,” she says.
“So my job was to make sure that the women didn’t see me as any sort of threat, that I was just a girl up there, singing and having fun.
“It’s not an easy task (to win themn over) by any means, but I think once they actually got to know me, and realise I was just a normal person, that guard tended to come down, and they came on board a wee bit more.”
Indeed, like any industry, Lisa says that the music one can be a particularly tough nut to crack for women.
“The entertainment business is heavily influenced by men in all areas; whether it’s artists, musicians, management, presenters, DJs, promoters, it is very much a male business, so it has taken a while for me to be taken seriously,” admits Lisa.
“I’m not a rude person and I’m very laid back, but when it comes to my career and something that I want to achieve, then I’m not going to let someone tell me no. I’m going to push and stand my ground, and say that I’m just as willing as the other artists to put on the best show I can - so give me a chance. Then it’s up to me to prove I can actually do the job.”
Lisa draws on her own personal experiences, plus those of friends and family in order to write her lyrics and music.
Just that morning, she had woken up to the news that her brand new album, Who I Am, was sitting at No 1 on iTunes.
A mixture of old classics and new material, this offering, she says, reflects the year she has had to date - a busy one, that’s involved a lot of time on the road, and subequently, the opportunity to mull and to think, and let her creative juices flow.
“You’re never guaranteed that people are going to love your songs, so I just think that if I try and write from the heart, and believe in what I’m singing, then hopefully some people might enjoy it as much as I do.”
As a teenager, she loved the music of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks, and now, she adds the likes of Dolly Parton, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire to that list, as well as some of the top names in Irish country, such as Philomena Begley and Susan McCann, whom she praises for having “paved the way for artists like me to come along years later.”
I press her to name her all-time favourite singer and song, and she pauses, before settling on the legendary Dolly, and her classic 1971 hit, Coat of Many Colours.
Back to the present day, and Lisa is as delighted as her peers to see the resurgence of passion for country music amongst Ulster’s young people in recent years. And she believes that “younger blood” in the form of her counterparts - and herself - is responsible for making the genre popular again.
But she is quick to acknowledge that country music has always had a special place in the hearts of those of us here in Ulster who live in what it is a very naturally rural community.
‘‘Country music has always been here, even though the spotlight hasn’t always been on it,” she adds.
“This has not just happened overnight. We joined this scene, and hopefully it is going to just grow and grow. And a show like this proves that the demand is there.”
** For the rest of our exclusive interview with Lisa, see Saturday’s News Letter.