Arts

Country star Niamh McGlinchey back with new album following health scare

After fearing she would never sing again professionally, Niamh McGlinchey has something to celebrate this Christmas with a new album and tour. Jenny Lee speaks to the south Derry country music singer about her battle with dysphonia and her plans for the future

Derry country singer-songwriter Niamh McGlinchy is back to full vocal strength and has just released a new album

AFTER two years of struggling with a sore throat and fearing her career was over, Derry country singer Niamh McGlinchey has reason to smile this Christmas. The 26-year-old has just released an album and is making plans for an all-Ireland solo tour in the spring. It's something she feared would never happen while she struggled with vocal stress and throat pain.

Niamh knew for some time that there was something abnormal affecting her singing. Her voice was starting to sound husky and her range was decreasing.

"I couldn't sing for any longer than half an hour without being in pain and there were times I would go to sing and not know what was going to come out in terms of pitch and tone," she recalls.

While she started recording her fourth album in April 2015, Niamh knew that she couldn’t ignore and decided to seek medical advice. Numerous visits to doctors followed, with conditions such as vocal chord nodules and polyps ruled out.

"It was really a difficult time for me as singing was all I had ever known. I really thought it was the end of the road," says Niamh, who started applying for various 'normal' jobs.

From a young age, Niamh took part in fleadhs, winning on the tin-whistle, and picked up the All-Ireland Title in 2008 for solo singing in Scór na nÓg with her performance of On Raglan Road. The following year she represented the north, mentored by Dana, in RTÉ’s All Ireland Talent Show.

It was while studying psychology at university that Niamh released mini-EP Rainbow Days, which quickly made its way on to the airwaves , marking the start of her professional singing career.

"I remember going up to Radio Foyle and giving it to the late Gerry Anderson. He told me 'if it's good I will play it and if it's not I won't'," recalls Niamh, who three days later was performing Christie Hennessy's song Roll Back The Clouds live in Anderson's studio.

Just before Christmas last year, Niamh was given hope regarding her failing voice when a medical consultant told her she had silent acid reflux. She was also diagnosed with dysphonia, a neurological disorder affecting the voice muscles in the larynx, a condition she shares with American bluegrass-country musician Alison Krauss, who similarly had to take time away from the microphone to recover.

Medication, combined with changes to her diet, speech therapy and singing lessons followed .

"They actually say that we in Northern Ireland talk quite far back in our throats and we are naturally quite harsh and sore on our voices and vocal chords. So they taught me how to pronounce and make the sound resonate more in the mouth, rather than pushing it from the throat," Niamh tells me.

Her other secret to sounding good is daily steaming with a vocal steamer: "You pour boiling water into it, suck it up and [the steam] goes straight to your lungs. It's so good," laughs Niamh, who was delighted that 14 months after abandoning her album, was able to return to the studio.

While her roots are in the folk and traditional music, Niamh has ventured into country music, catapulted into the limelight with her collaboration with Nathan Carter in TG4's country programme Glor Tire in 2014.

Known for her soft delivery and song lyrics that tug at the heartstrings, she has been compared to American country singers Emmy Lou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and even a young Dolly Parton. She admits she has never lost those folk roots.

"Whereas most country females have loud, belting strong voices, I would be softer and deliver a more acoustic set, with storytelling a key part of my performance," she says.

Niamh also bucks the trend by having more female than male followers on social media.

"I'm delighted as it's very hard being a female and cracking the female market," she says.

As well as enjoying her music, the girls enjoy following her trends in fashion. Niamh describes her style as "warm and comfortable", though she loves getting dressed in sparkly outfits for the stage.

"I've been very lucky that Crystal Boutique in Armagh have been sponsored me with some glitzy clothes over the past few years, but I love shopping in H&M, New Look, Zara and River Island," she says.

Niamh's new album, aptly entitled At Long Last, features three of her own songs – the most meaningful of which, Golden Wings, was penned in response to the death 18-year-old Omagh lad Conall McCrory, who lost his battle to cancer in 2016.

"I met Conal through the music. He was a great follower of mine and my music helped him during his cancer treatment. The opening lines of the song talk about needles, pain and sickness – stuff you wouldn't hear in a song. But cancer is a reality and it's not glamorous. I wrote it to help me at the time, but I'm delighted it's now bringing comfort to others."

Another of her original songs, All That You Are, was written for a friend who is a missionary priest in Burma/Myanmar.

"He's devoted his whole life to the people of Burma in bringing them food, water and education. He gets very lonely out there and I wanted to let him know we appreciate the work he is doing."

Other tracks on the album include a rendition of Ralph McTell's Streets of London (the first song she learnt to play on guitar) and a cover of The Pogues' Love You To The End, used in the film PS I Love You.

Niamh has just finished supporting Nathan Carter on his Christmas tour, where he favourite festive songs to sing were Silver Bells and Fairytale Of New York.

Christmas this year won't be spent worrying about her throat – instead she will be round at her grandmother's house singing the night away with her family. She will start the new year with a three-week trip to Australia, before planning her largest ever solo gig. She has also been approached about some musical theatre work later in the year and she would like to release an album of sacred songs.

"Nothing will stop me now my voice is back," adds the bubbly singer.

:: Niamh McGlinchey's album At Long Last is out now. Niamhmcglinchey.com

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