Building sites to recording studio –now Oonagh Derby's taking time to Breathe

Singer-songwriter Oonagh Derby is taking another leap out of her comfort zone with new album, Breathe, which has been five years in the making and which, she tells Gail Bell, is a celebration of womanhood

Oonagh Derby, a project manager-turned singer-songwriter who is originally from Lurgan, has just released her second album
Gail Bell

FROM the wilds of Donegal to a house up the mountains in Greece – wherever Oonagh Derby finds herself these days, she will be wearing her creative cap and not the hard hat which was once required when building sites were her stomping ground rather than the studio or stage.

The project manager-turned singer-songwriter has been enjoying a holiday in the Greek islands before resuming promotion of second album, Breathe, attending a red carpet event in Derry for the premiere of a new Irish film (which includes her music) and then supporting Brian Kennedy on his upcoming tour.

Looking back, hard hats seem another lifetime ago for the Moira songstress who graduated as a quantity surveyor from Ulster University and then spent several years working in project management on some of the largest redevelopment schemes in Belfast at the time, including the BT Tower and Waterfront Hall.

Then, with the birth of her son came an opportune time to reassess passion and priorities and she came back in a completely different guise, helping set up Redbox Recording Studios in Belfast and starting to write, sing and record herself.

Last month the Lurgan-born singer launched her second album, marking out another brave new direction, away from the comfortable safety of folk/trad roots and taking her down a less familiar jazzy-blues path which has proved an "inspiration".

"Breathe is a completely different genre to my first album, Harmony Street, so I'm very tentatively putting my feet in the water to see how it is received," she reflects, while packing for a holiday in the Greek islands, staying in a house high in the mountains with a donkey trek to the beach. Her usual bolt hole is a "wee place" in Portnoo overlooking the sea, where there is no phone nor Wifi and is the "perfect place" to write.

The new 11-track album, which was five years in the making, reveals a more confident and mature sound, with an eclectic mix of original material and strong, emotive storytelling.

"Every song is grounded in something real," she says. "I write women's songs for women because I know how to be a mother, a sister, a daughter. Mostly, my songs celebrate womanhood and how fab it is to be a woman."

While she veers away from getting overly personal in her songwriting, there is one song – All These Things – dedicated to a friend who, after being treated for cancer, was told she could never have children.

"Ten years later, my friend rang us up to say she was pregnant – and then went on to have five children," Derby reveals. "She's an absolute hero of mine because she treats each day like it is a gift from God."

But the single mum, whose 2011 debut album, Harmony Street, picked up Best Newcomer from the Live Ireland Music Awards ('Livies') in Chicago and made it on to the shortlist for the BBC Folk Album of the Year, wouldn't want anyone to run away with the idea that her melodies and lyrics are all "woe-betide" and weepy.

"Far from it," she stresses. "I have a great group of friends, women I've known since primary school, and we're the 'Silver Shoe Gang'. When we were all having babies, every so often we would get dressed up and go out and pretend we were 10 years younger, so Silver Shoe Nights just became something I wrote about. There's fun in the songs and all the stuff that as women, we go through in different stages of life."

The Shetland Festival, Feile an Phobail, Nashville Songwriters Festival and Hammersmith, London, have all been her stage in the past, but with son, Leo, now in his teens, international touring is off the agenda – for now, at least.

However, that doesn't mean the powerful Derby voice isn't set to fill auditoriums across Ireland and Britain in the near future – one of the tracks from Harmony Street features on the soundtrack on the new film A Bump Along The Way, starring Bronagh Gallagher, which is released in cinemas this week.

Produced by Gallagher's sister, Louise, the film had its first airing at Belfast Film Festival earlier in the year and is now set for its Derry premiere on October 9.

"It has been so fantastic having a song on the soundtrack to this film and it was an opportunity that landed out of the blue," Derby explains. "I got a call from the producer who said she had been listening to Harmony Street – recorded more than eight years ago now – and would I mind if they used some of the music for the film?

"I was like, 'What?' It was a real squeal-off-the-phone kind of moment. The song is actually about my sister, the theme being, you can choose your friends, but not your family, but I would choose you anyway... So, with the film telling the story of an older woman getting pregnant and seeking the support of her daughter, the female camaraderie angle worked well.

"At the launch in Belfast, I got to do the red carpet thing and it was really exciting. It was a brilliant moment, sitting looking at the big screen and hearing my voice coming back out at me – it was surreal and quite emotional."

Coming from a "really musical family", singing at fleadhs, in school choirs and at family parties was in her DNA, so perhaps it was inevitable that Derby – who had sung in celebrated traditional group, NUA – would eventually make music a full-time career, whether working as a producer, writing songs for others or writing and singing for herself.

"People think I made a huge jump from working in the construction industry to music, but I found I had transferrable skills," she says. "When we set up Redbox and I was working as a production manager, I had to organise people, money and budgets – a lot of the same things I had been doing as a project manager on building sites."

In the modern era of digital music, Derby – and Redbox partners Cormac O'Kane, Donal O'Connor, and Liam Creagh – knew Redbox wasn't going to survive as a stand-alone music studio, so diversified into television, first working with Gifted Empire productions to produce FleadhTV for TG4.

"We now have three floors of music production and one floor for TV production, working on the music for various television advertisements and shows such as Pamela Ballentine's UTV Life and BBC Proms," Derby says. "The exciting thing is, you never know who is going to ring the bell and walk through the door.

"We had Suzi Quattro in a couple of months ago: she turned up in full leathers and just said, 'Let's get this going' before rocking the house down. I love that attitude – it make me want to just keep putting the music out there and wait to see what bounces back."

:: Oonagh Derby will be singing from Breathe, accompanied by Anthony Toner, at the Desertcreat Hall, Cookstown, on October 12 and again at Crusoes, Castlerock, on November 9. The Breathe album is available at

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