Arts

Singer Amanda St John on bouncing back from a near fatal car accident

Having survived a near-fatal car crash, Glenariff singer Amanda St John knows a thing or two about bouncing back. She talks to Gail Bell ahead of her concert at the Eastside Arts Festival next week

Amanda St John shows off her powerful vocals
Gail Bell

NEXT to music, a holiday in Co Wicklow must rate high up the therapeutic 'chill list' for Co Antrim singer/songwriter Amanda St John, who has just enjoyed a sunny break camping in the great outdoors of Rathdrum.

Swimming in lakes and rivers proved just the tonic for the revitalised and restored performer – despite the fact her phone also took an unscheduled dip, leaving her temporarily out-of-touch with the 'real' world but enjoying every minute of the forced seclusion.

"We have been here for a week and we have been outdoors all the time, walking and swimming, admiring the waterfalls," she enthuses down the phone belonging to her partner – her own was still 'drying out' in a bag of rice.

"Camping is a great way to unwind and forget about stuff."

And forgetting about 'stuff' is something the 37 year-old Glenariff-based soul and blues singer has trained herself to do, as the journey towards her current equilibrium has been anything but smooth.

She has survived a near-fatal car accident and painful marriage break-up, suffered serious damage to her vocal chords and coped with family illness – all while battling her own inner demons of never feeling "quite good enough" for the career she has pursued since early teens.

But now, things have never been better: the singer – compared to Dusty Springfield and Paloma Faith by one Nashville producer – has just signed up for a major advertising campaign for Woolworths in Australia, featuring the Australian Olympic team.

"The ad campaign features my song Grow and is based around children training at sports, falling down, failing and then getting up again," she explains.

"The lyrics, 'I will not bow down, I will not be defeated, I will grow' reflect the athletes' determination not to give up on their dreams."

Unsurprisingly, these words were written about her own darkest days, drawing on personal stories of heartache and salvation – the culmination of which is her debut album, also titled Grow, released in May.

Amanda will be showcasing songs from the album during her show at the Eastside Arts Festival next week.

An autodidact despite study at Bangor Music College in Co Down, the mother-of-one says the real grounding in her craft took place on a solitary beach during school holidays at Glenariff.

"That was the best inspiration any songwriter could have," she says.

"I come from a big, country family and sometimes the only way to escape was to walk along the beach and make up tunes in my head.

"I did have some piano and guitar lessons, but I never had any vocal training, so I would say I am mostly self-taught."

She was gigging at 14, but her first paid job was at the age of 16 at a bar in Ballymena, where she was accompanied by protective parents – "who acted like bouncers all night and wouldn't let me talk to anyone in case they were drunk".

A 12-year stint "on the circuit" followed, working with some of the region's best known musicians including Ciaran Gribbin (INXS), Duke Special and Ben Glover – although at that stage St John lacked the confidence to perform her own songs.

"I don't know why, but after college I sort of 'lost it'," she recalls.

"I was still this shy, country girl who could sing with cover bands, but I stopped doing the original stuff. I thought I wasn't good enough and that I wasn't strong enough to cope with the industry."

However, following the discovery of nodules (non cancerous, thankfully) on her throat from over-performing, Amanda was forced to re-evaluate her career path, as she explains.

"I took a break from singing for a few years and in that time I got married and had a baby (Sophia, now aged eight), but my marriage didn’t go very well and I had a painful separation," she confides.

"But I was determined for something positive to come out of the experience, so I poured myself into my song-writing."

Retraining as a music coach – she still works three days a week with a Belfast agency, tutoring the long-term unemployed – in 2012 Amanda's car plunged 300ft down a mountainside near Ballycastle.

"I was unconscious and had no pulse initially and suffered quite a severe head injury," she says, "but I recovered and they said it was a miracle. I think it must have been because I had this supernatural experience, like a battle within me to live or die.

"It was a very liberating feeling and I knew at that moment I had to 'come back' to life and start singing again.

"Some of the songs on my debut EP were very raw, very personal, but it was cathartic. People contacted me to say they they had found solace in the words, so it was great to know my songs were helping others as well.

"Now all I want to do is sing – there's nothing more life-affirming that connecting with a live audience. That's when I'm really in my happy place."

:: Amanda St John, Tuesday August 16, Park Avenue Hotel, Belfast. For tickets and full festival info, see Eastsidearts.net

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