Arts

Omagh's own musical Angel, Donna Taggart

Ahead of her festival appearances in the north this summer, Co Tyrone's 'Celtic Lady' and internet sensation Donna Taggart tells Gail Bell why her signature tune Jealous of The Angels struck a chord with her own life

Celtic singer and musician Donna Taggart from Omagh. Picture Bill Smyth
Gail Bell

WITH a worldwide fan base, hit albums, a song-gone-viral, sell-out gigs and a 'working cruise' around Florida with musician Phil Coulter on the not-too-distant horizon, Co Tyrone 'Celtic Lady' Donna Taggart could be forgiven for darting – occasionally – into celebrity diva land.

The 31-year-old Omagh mother-of-two has become something of an overnight sensation: the video for her Jealous of The Angels single has touched the souls of 100 million people and counting across social media platforms since first electrifying her Facebook fans last August.

Due to the popularity of the song, Donna's second album Celtic Lady Volume 2 climbed to the coveted number one spot on the Billboard World Music Catalogue Album Charts, a remarkable achievement for a virtual unknown.

Such success would be enough to knock even the most grounded off balance just a little, but the former child services co-ordinator with the Western Health Trust is made of stable stuff.

"I'm just am ordinary, down-to-earth Tyrone girl who still does the school run, still does all the ordinary mummy stuff that needs doing," she asserts ahead of her upcoming appearance with Nathan Carter at this year's Dalriada Festival in Glenarm, to be followed up by the Harvest Country Music Festival in Enniskillen.

"I love singing, but I've never craved the limelight, the press and all the attention that goes with it."

Donna is disarmingly gracious in her own put-down, quickly brushing aside any pretensions of glamour associated with her new life in the limelight as the Next Big Thing on the country/folk/easy listening/Irish music stage.

"People have this image that it must be a really glamorous life, but the dressing up bit and the singing bit in front of an audience is only a small part of the workload," she says.

"I love it, of course, but a lot of hard work and focus is needed, especially with a three year-old and one-and-a-half year-old who need their mummy to be full of energy during the daylight hours.

"Phil Coulter has been a great mentor to me and one of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was saying, 'Just turn up for work on Monday morning'.

"That's it really – whether it is organising the children's lunches or connecting with the crowd while singing on stage, there is a discipline required and a lot of hard graft needed to succeed."

Luckily, the Co Tyrone woman has always been a 'grafter'. Before graduating from Liverpool University with an Early Years Education degree, she worked as a hospital cleaner to help pay the bills, so no-one was more surprised than the singer herself to find a new career beckoning – although, it was, perhaps, hidden in the genes.

"My dad was a part-time singer and sang at gigs at weekends and my four sisters all sing, so I suppose it's always been there," admits Donna.

"Growing up, though, I was quite shy and didn't sing solo until I was 22. The first time was at a funeral when I was asked to sing by a friend of mine.

"I've always been the sort of person that takes things as they come, so now, with this path I've been put on, my attitude is that as the doors open, I'll just take a deep breath and walk through them and see what happens."

Having just signed to Warners in the US for the release of her forthcoming third album and currently on her biggest tour to date – over 20 venues across Britain and Ireland – it's a case of deep breaths all round for the singer, whose debut album Celtic Lady Vol 1 was championed by Radio Ulster legend Gerry Anderson six years ago.

"It really hasn't stopped since February, but the adrenaline keeps me going," she says.

"I've known Nathan [Carter] for a few years and there is some crossover with us, musically, so I can't wait for Dalriada; it will be a buzz.

"When you suddenly become well-known, it's easy to forget the long path that brought you there. It's hard to get a break and I have Gerry Anderson to thank for mine.

"He was one of the first people I approached with my music and I remember walking into the studio and him being quite direct, but with his trademark easy humour.

"He simply said, 'I'll listen to your single," – it was Bright Blue Rose – "and if I like it, I'll play it. If it's rubbish, I'll put it in the bin.

"Luckily, he liked it, so I owe him a lot. Gerry was great like that, he was always ready to give newcomers a hand up."

That breakthrough Bright Blue Rose song, penned by Cork songwriter and composer Jimmy MacCarthy and previously recorded by Christy Moore and Mary Black – to whom Taggart has been favourably compared – was pivotal in Donna's early success.

However, it was was the award-winning ballad Jealous of The Angels, written by Nashville star Jenn Bostic that really catapulted the Omagh girl to wider acclaim.

The emotive song is regarded as an unofficial anthem for the bereaved. Since having a video made for YouTube, she has received countless messages from listeners, including those who lost loved ones in terrorist attacks on New York, Nice and Paris.

Since the video went viral, the song has reached number one in several countries on iTunes including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Ireland and Britain – but it also resonates on a very personal level with Donna herself following the loss of her baby boy, Michael, who was stillborn in August 2014.

This was a devastating time for the singer and her and husband Colm, a former manager of a local GAA club in Augher, and on Jealous of The Angels she vocally crystallised how grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters could take comfort in a song.

Its author, Bostic – who performed with Donna at Dublin's National Concert Hall in February at the start of the Jealous of The Angels tour – wrote it from her own place of pain in tribute to her much-loved father, who died in a car accident while driving her to school.

"It is one of those songs; it strikes a chord with your own particular situation," reflects Donna.

"I first heard it playing on the radio while in a shop in Omagh and it stopped me in my tracks. I had already recorded it before we lost Michael, but it became more meaningful, afterwards, even though I never got to know my baby boy."

Her grief is still very raw and she finds it difficult to speak about the baby she lost, but faith has helped her through, as have her children Grace (3) and Matthew (18 months) – and, of course, her music.

"Connecting with people through music is what it is all about," she adds. "It is a privilege to reach out to people – whatever they're feeling."

:: Donna Taggart is appearing with Nathan Carter at the Dalriada Festival on Friday July 14 and Saturday, August 26 at Enniskillen Airport for the Harvest Country Music Festival. All concert dates at Donnataggart.com

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