Janet Devlin

Interview: Janet Devlin

by / June 7, 2020

Janet Devlin’s cloud of curly hair and county Tyrone accent are almost as identifiable as her restrained singing style. First coming into the public eye at sixteen during her success in the X-Factor, Devlin left the show in 2011 under the promise of a prospering music career. Within a few short years she released her debut 10 track album ‘Running With Scissors’. Six years on from then, Devlin, now living in London, has a new creed and a new confidence. With the release of her 12 track sophomore album and accompanying autobiographical book ‘My Confessional’ she has attempted to confront a pattern of self destructive behaviours. 

With 5 singles released, the celtic influence on this album is undeniable. ‘Holy Water’ is an account of her struggle with alcoholism and consists of 19 credited performers. “It’s the most expensive song on the album but it sounds the cheapest. It just sounds like a pub ruckus” she laughs. “I was very hands on with this album, I don’t know if my producer was ready for it at the start. I had a lot of time so we made up these very intricate demos, laying out the midi versions of instruments to prep for the real ones. I wrote pages and pages of instructions and notes, saying I want this here and that there”. 

It has been quite some time since Devlin has recorded. Aside from several singles and an EP, the years following 2014 saw Devlin fall into “old self-destructive habits” and away from her music. More because of this than despite of this, Devlin’s new album ‘Confessional’ is deeply rooted in truth-telling and coming clean. As a deeply ambitious concept album, Devlin used a rediscovered sense of direction to funnel all of her difficult experiences into a work of art. The 12 chapter book ‘My Confessional’ is an answer to the album’s call and a marker noting how far the 25-year-old has come.

► What are the notable differences you have found in  making an album for the first time and doing it again with some experience? How has your writing style developed? 

I was nineteen when the first album came out but I wrote it  when I was 17/18. It was a weird process and I document it in the book why it was so upside down. The first album was recorded in 6 weeks so it was overall a very rushed process. I put two producers in a room, who I loved and trusted, and I had to take a step back because I didn’t have the luxury of time. They made it sound exactly how wanted but I wasn’t as hands on as I would have liked to have been. Now with that experience, I feel a lot more confident in myself as a writer and as an artist. I didn’t shy away with this new album. I wasn’t afraid to ask for things I needed or to hold my hands up and say “I don’t understand” or ask why. 

When it came to the sheer writing of songs, I even felt confident enough to write solo songs. My personal life and work life go hand in hand. As I was trying to better myself I feel like that comes across in my music. I think you can tell that I have a better understanding of myself as a person from the lyrics and the meanings in the songs. I hope people will see that there’s much more maturity and depth to this record. 

► How did time in the recording studio differ?

I also had the luxury of time with this one. I kind of played it as cool as I could until I got to the studio. Recording it was lovely and we went to a studio in Dublin. I grew up around trad music and playing in a ceilidh band so for the first time in my life I felt like I actually spoke the language of the instruments and was able to verbalise what I wanted. I knew what the instruments sounded like and knew how they could sound. It was a very empowering week for me because I felt like I knew what I was doing. There are times in the studio with more pop stuff when my dialogue is much reduced. Then I have to hold my hands up and say “I don’t know what’s wrong with it but there’s something not right, that i’m not vibing with here”.

► There is a lot of religious imagery in Confessional. Do you find this sound is shaped latently by your background or do you actively seek it out?

It would be a mixture of the two. Religious language is evocative and it definitely pulls on something and is something people can relate to. I was raised religious and I always thought how there’re so many beautiful words there. It just made sense for me to put them into the record. I remember sitting and listing down 60 words of religious symbolism that I wanted to get into the album. 

► Jonathan Quarmby (who has worked with the likes of the Gabrielle Aplin, Mika and Lewis Capaldi) produced this record for you. How did that come about?

I was in a very lucky position. I was given a list of songwriters and producers and was told “whoever you like on this list we’ll try and get them involved”. [Quarmby] was one of my top priorities. I really liked everything that he’d done. 

We got in a room together and did a session together and I hated the session [laughs]. I walked into the room and he’d already written half a song and I was a bit miffed because that’s not how I work. So I said blank slate, let’s go again and we did. It ended up being a groundbreaking moment for the record. We sat up, we wrote a song, we talked about production and that brought in that element of home. We decided then to put in a few bits of celtic pop there. I remember getting the demo back a few days later and thinking “this man needs to produce my album”. 

What was great as well is that he not only produced it, but he and another writer called Fiona Bevan helped me write the songs. Working with them was so good for me – I didn’t feel judged, I felt so comfortable telling them about all the stuff I had been through. I think it’s important that when you’re writing together, the people that you’re working with know the whole story as well. That trust can then bleed through into the songs. 

► Have you found being a Northern Irish artist away from home challenging? 

I think a big hindrance to Irish musicians – and I don’t think I even quite fit into this category – but Irish musicians barely get any radio play in Ireland or Northern Ireland until they make it in America. It’s not even about making it in the UK but even further across the water. It would be useful for radio stations to just play local music without pandering doing this ‘local hour’ or whatever.  If you go to Spain or Italy and listen to radio, they always have local artists thrown into playlists with the rest of the world’s hits. There’s even times I meet Americans and they’ll give me a list of Irish musicians they like and I haven’t even heard of them. 

One of my reasons for not living at home is because everyone is so talented. There’s people playing in pubs and bars who are more talented than I am. I thought I can’t cope with this, I need to move somewhere else. 

► How do you think that early exposure to the public eye has affected you personally and how has it affected your music?

I was a baby when I was on X-Factor but I was already very broken. I had already suffered from anorexia and self harm. I remember meeting people and they would say I was so mature for my age and now looking back I’m like, yeah, that was the trauma. People always ask me how did X-Factor change your life and it actually taught me one of the biggest lessons that I still use to this day. That is whenever I am preoccupied and when I have a goal, especially when it is music related, I am far less likely to self destruct. That is something I carry with me now. I am really glad I did the show. I know I was young but I knew what I was signing up for. I knew that my life would never truly be the same, be that for better or worse.  

► You have a YouTube channel which you use to talk about mental health and body image as well as doing covers and Q&As. This is where you first spoke explicitly about your struggles with alcoholism. Do you think already being so open online aided in your decision to release a book along with your album?

I think for me I have always wanted to be honest. I know I am not the only person who has struggled with the things I have struggled with. One year I made it into a YouTubers’ list as a mental health advocate and I hadn’t even realised that’s what I was doing. Maybe it has to do with me growing up on a reality show that I am chill with everyone knowing everything about me.

On the channel I am semi-honest, I talk about things but I don’t go into too much depth and I think that’s because I knew the book was going to come out. It was a big step to put the alcoholic video out there – it was a way of warning everyone who watches me on there of the issues that will be coming out in the book. It was met with so much love and even the hate was oddly encouraging. People would write “this girl could never be an alcoholic” and that just makes me feel grateful that I have come so far I can pass as a fully recovered person. Likewise the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t see myself as having much of a platform but if being able to use the influence I do have to share what I’ve been through helps people, then I am happy to continue doing so.

► Did you write your book side by side with the album or how did the idea to release both solidify?

I knew I wanted this album to be honest. I wanted to tell people what I’d been through. But when I did an initial few songwriting sessions I realised it was very self-absorbed and unrelatable in the songs. I didn’t want to isolate listeners and I still wanted to make a good piece of work and a good album that people could just listen to. That led me down the road of writing a few more heavily metaphorical songs. So I was left with this personal conundrum because I’m not being honest if I am burying everything deep under 10 layers of metaphor. 

I’d always been told by people throughout recovery that I needed to write a book. So then it hit me, I can go ahead and write this metaphorical album and just put out the book alongside it, explaining what is meant in each song in a chapter. This then led to the whole thing becoming more conceptual – the whole album is in chronological order and I had to write various songs for each chapter so the album could still have its own journey and I could still craft a listenable album out of it all. 

I wasn’t even expecting to get published and to sell as many books as already have is so cool. The fact people are actually interested in the concept is great. As a stand alone, the album can just be a collection of songs but with the book you really buy into the notion and the concept. 

► You also have very compelling music videos. With such metaphorical songs how do you decide which direction to go with the visual side of your music?

I suppose it’s just another layer to this big concept cake. I found this amazing director called Katia Ganfield, who has done all the music videos for this album bar the title track. I’ll send her a song and I tell her the vibe I want, then we’d back and forth on a phone call and work off each other. There’s imagery in my music that I will really want across in the music video and then she is so uber creative that she’ll bring this big bundle of other ideas of things she thinks could be included. We just work together and try and see how all these ideas fit with the whole project.

► What plans do you have following your album and book release?

When lockdown is all over there will be a tour. But until then my main priority is just working on the next record. I want that album to be bluegrass country vibes. I love that music, I grew up with it and I find it easy to write, even on my own. I love the simplicity of that genre and after doing such an arty-farty album, I’m excited to work on something more simple. 

‘Confessional’ is available to stream now. Physical copies of the CD hold a 13th bonus track.

‘My Confessional’ is available from all major book stores also from 5th June.

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