Meet ROE. She has toured with Snow Patrol, played Glastonbury and is set for big things

If you haven’t yet heard of her, you soon will. The indie-cool singer/songwriter, a shock of pink hair, lithe limbs and serious attitude is one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent musical prodigies.

Friday, 13th November 2020, 8:59 am
21-year-old Derry singer/songwriter ROE
21-year-old Derry singer/songwriter ROE

At just 21, Londonderry star ROE (real name Roisin Donald) has played Glastonbury, supported Snow Patrol, Kodaline and Robbie Williams on tour, and importantly released an astonishing number of pitch perfect tracks full of emotion, edge and electronic influences dealing with everything from heartache to growing pains and lockdown.

She has written music for Northern Ireland’s only Walled City by way of a TV ad, appeared on one of Harp’s ‘Pure Here’ clips and had one of her tracks played in an episode of the reality series we all love to hate, The Only Way is Essex.

ROE started out at North West Regional College before going on to work with local MOBO nominee David Lyttle, and quickly following a trail blazed by SOAK, another musical dynamo in the making.

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She has to date released several EPs and across tracks like Fake Ur Death, Wasted. Patient, Thinking, Playground Fights and the recently released during lockdown via Zoom, Room to Breathe, has shown that she has serious musical chops, vocal range, real ability to channel raw emotion and an artistic poise way beyond her youth.

Room to Breathe, filmed in her bedroom in lockdown, with a video featuring well-known Londonderry musicians Eoin O’Callaghan (Elma Orkestra), Niamh McGowan and Laura McFadden, from the Ulster Orchestra and Jay Dickson, touring drummer for Lisa McHugh and Ryan Mack - who all recorded and filmed their parts from home - is a plaintive ballad about struggles overcome.

Since its release just over a month ago it has been receiving airplay across the UK and Ireland and racked up almost 150,000 streams on Spotify after making its way into several major playlists.

“It’s been a mad couple of years,” she laughs when I ask her about playing ‘Glasto’ and hanging with Gary Lightbody.

Snow Patrol she lauds as “massive advocates of the local music scene. Any chance they get to support local artists they take it. Gary, Nathan, the whole band are lovely and genuine and never forget about the artists struggling to make it back home.”

She grew up on a sonic diet of U2, Thin Lizzy, Elbow, Joni Mitchell and Jack Garrett. “I love music across so many different genres and take influences from so many different places. At the moment it’s BB Bridges but that could change.”

She realised she wanted to be a recording artist when she sat down to pick her GCSEs and realised that, in order to be true to her inner self, she had to pursue what mattered to her - and that was music.

By that time she was already writing lyrics, playing guitar and taking part in local festivals at the Nerve Centre. She did piano lessons; cello lessons; the house was always filled with the sound of music of some kind.

“I had that moment where I had to decide, do I pursue the joy of music or do I take that more conventional path of sitting my A-levels and going to uni? And I knew that for me it had to be the former. I knew I wanted to spend my life making music. I wanted to take the artistic leap and see where it would take me to. And it’s been so much fun. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

She penned her first song at 14: “For me the process is a very emotional thing. I use songwriting as a form of therapy really. It’s how I explain how I am feeling. So songs tend to come about through the things that have happened in my life or things that I maybe want to speak about but can’t find the words for in real life. Sometimes lyrics give you a freer space to say what you need to.

“Sometimes it starts with chord progression, sometimes it’s melody, sometimes it’s lyrics. Sometimes I wake up at 2am with a line in my head and I just have to write it down. There is definitely mystery to the process.”

Room to Breathe, her most recent track, is her favourite among an already considerably extensive back catalogue.

“It’s an open song. An honest song. It’s a part of me exposed. It wasn’t supposed to be released as a single; then Covid and lockdown happened and it felt timely to let this heavy track out there. Because the song is basically about taking care of yourself and taking time, and not giving too much of yourself away to other people whenever you perhaps need to conserve your strength.”

This weekend Causeway Coast and Glens Council, in association with Snow Water, will be bringing the Atlantic Sessions Virtual Festival to homes and ROE is, of course, a contributor.

“I recorded a couple of songs in Portstewart last week for this,” she offers. “It was lashing and windy and terrible but the Atlantic Sessions are so important for local musicians and I love being part of this scene.

“I feel like it’s a real celebration of the music being made around the North Coast and Derry. I feel like the Northern Irish music scene is very supportive of each other, it feels like a community, a family. This year was an exception because usually part of the pleasure of it is getting to hang out with all these cool people who share your love of music.”

For the online sessions a host of artists have been filmed in stunning locations across Portstewart and Portrush during the last weeks, and the festival has three one hour ‘free to view’ programmes with exclusive performances, conversations, plus messages and videos from festival family and friends.

Aside from ROE, featured artists include Anthony Toner, Conor Mason, Joel Harkin, Malojian, New Pagans, Peter O’Kane, Ports, Sasha Samara, The Darkling Air, and Tour Alaska with the programmes presented by Joe Lindsay. They feature six of the NI Music Prize 2020 nominees, local performers, plus tell the story of the rich musical heritage of the area, all filmed by the ever incredible and endlessly beautiful Atlantic Ocean.

Last year saw the largest and most successful Atlantic Sessions to date with over 7000 people ascending on Portstewart and Portrush to see over 100 musicians. Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody said “Atlantic Sessions is an award-winning four day festival with an incredible reputation for its passionate support of local talent”.

This year there will be no get-togethers, just music online, but it will be uplifting lyrics and melodies and craic nonetheless.

Presenter Joe Lindsay commented: “We’ll miss seeing you this year and we miss live music as much as you do, but we thought we’d do the next best thing and bring Atlantic Sessions to your homes! We wanted us all to be together, we wanted to experience the power and beauty of music. Together. As we’ve always done. And we will do again. Until then, keep supporting local music and venues in any way you can.”

Despite the ways in which Covid has halted the industry, ROE is defiantly optimistic about the future of music.

“I think we are very resilient in the arts. It’s been very hard for musicians as for all performers. I’ve been surviving lockdown by doing yoga and listening to music.

“At the moment I’m involving myself more in the production side of things because I feel lockdown has kind of turned my brain to mush, making lyric-writing so much harder.

“You know, you are stuck inside all the time and I am stimulated by and like to write about experiences. There’s only so much that can happen in 24 hours when you are stuck within four walls. But music will get me through this. I feel certain about that.”

Audiences are able to view all the Atlantic Sessions performances tonight, tomorrow (November 14) and Sunday (November 15) at 7-8pm at atlanticsessions.com.

You can follow the festival on Twitter @atlanticsess.