Arts

Amanda St John returns from singing for US president for special Belfast concert

Songwriter Amanda St John has suffered her fair share of ups and downs in a career that last month took her to Washington DC to sing for President Trump. Despite such dizzy heights, she tells Gail Bell why her feet will always be on the ground in Co Antrim and why her next gig with friends in Belfast is more important

Amanda St John performs for President Trump, right, at a St Patrick's Day event in Washington DC when guests included the taoiseach, front left, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nanci Pelosi, centre

GLENARIFF singer-songwriter, Amanda St John, is musing over the fortuitous, sometimes tortuous, twists and turns of her career thus far when she casually throws in a recent experience in Washington DC – where she made a new fan in President Donald Trump.

She's not saying if this experience falls into the 'fortuitous' or 'tortuous' camp, only that it was slightly "surreal" and yet another example of how you never really know where life is going to take you.

The soul, blues and R&B singer, who is holding a fundraising gig at the Cresent Arts Centre this weekend to raise funds for Macmillan Palliative Care Unit in Antrim, was performing at a Friends of Ireland lunch to mark St Patrick's Day at Capitol Hill when she caught the president's ear with her soulful version of Danny Boy.

The gig, attended by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and several northern Irish politicians and US congressmen, came about "last minute" after the singer – compared to Dusty Springfield and Paloma Faith by one Nashville producer – was asked by the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington to add a third date to two already pre-booked performances in the US.

"The gig was about St Patrick's Day and the Irish connections and I was there to represent my country – I was the first from Northern Ireland to do that, so I was very proud to be asked," St John says, modestly. "The president wanted me to do a couple of Irish songs, so they asked me to sing Danny Boy, which isn't a particular favourite of mine, but I did a soulful version. I wanted to represent myself as an artist as well and, thankfully, it went down a storm.

"The funny thing was, I was only a few feet away when he [Trump] leaned over to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the house, and said, 'I don't really like that song, but that girl's great.' I just happened to overhear the comment – I'm glad it wasn't the other way round and he thought I killed the song."

Her next big date in Belfast won't have a president in attendance, but it will have some of Northern Ireland's best singers, songwriters and musicians on stage – Gareth Dunlop, Anthony Toner, Brigid O'Neill, Matt McGinn and Ciara O'Neill.

"My dad – Phillip Jamison – was so grateful for all the care he received from Macmillan that I really wanted to organise this as a fundraiser in his memory," she says. "I lived with Daddy throughout his illness and the last three years, when we knew his cancer was terminal, I was his main carer. The whole way through, the Macmillan team was fantastic.

"He was always a great supporter of my music, from when I was a young teenager, and in later years he would look after my daughter, Sophia, when I was working or on tour. Dad was a very quiet man and that's why I never really talked about him much in the press, but I told him I would be doing this for Macmillan and he was so happy about me giving something back."

During the special evening, Amanda and her band will play some songs from a soon-to-be-released second album, aptly named The Muscle Shoals Session, after she recorded it in the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

"I had the chance to record in Muscle Shoals last summer and it was so exciting to be in the same studio where Aretha Franklin recorded," she says. "It was a really special project and is a follow-up to Grow."

Her first album, Grow was launched in 2016 and took its genesis from real-life heartache poured out in words and music. Coincidentally the writing of the second also landed during "not a very happy time" in her life.

The singer, who combines singing and songwriting with mentoring teenagers in the government-funded TFS (Training For Success) and being mum to her 11-year-old daughter, had a "very serious" relationship end and then her father's cancer returned.

"I was in a very low place," she says, "but, just as with Grow, hopefulness keeps breaking through. My music always tends to have a message of hope, of pushing through, of truthfulness and being the best you can be."

Certainly, the inaugural album burst out of a dark place and was the creative product of a painful marriage break-up, a near-fatal car accident, her own health scare from damage to vocal chords and an ongoing battle with inner demons which made her feel "never quite good enough" for the career she has pursued since childhood.

"After all that, I was determined for something positive to come out of the experiences, so I just poured myself into my songwriting and took my chances," she says. "Some of the songs 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."

:: Amanda St John and Friends, Crescent Arts Centre, Saturday April 13. See crescentarts.org

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