Omagh singer Donna Taggart on global success, grief and grasping opportunities

Donna Taggart gained worldwide attention when her recording of Jealous Of The Angels, with its poignant lyrics about grieving and loss, chimed with millions of people. The young mother tells Lorraine Wylie about following up that success while staying firmly grounded in her native Co Tyrone

Donna Taggart outside the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh Picture Matt Bohill
Donna Taggart outside the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh Picture Matt Bohill Donna Taggart outside the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh Picture Matt Bohill

CO TYRONE singer-songwriter Donna Taggart is proof that, in today’s world, you don’t need a record label to find fame. Two years ago the young mum became an overnight sensation when her single Jealous Of The Angels took social media by storm, clocking up a staggering 25 million hits in its first week.

Following a series of sell-out tours, including one in America where she was accompanied by Derry singer/songwriter Phil Coulter, Donna has made the transition from cyber star to one of Ireland’s top live female performers.

Now, with a new tour on the horizon, she's taken time out from a busy schedule to tell me how she is coping with life in the spotlight and why she doesn’t take success for granted.

“I see my career as being very much in its infancy,” she says, her Omagh accent soft but instantly recognisable. “Yes, we’ve had a huge boost and massive success but I still feel I’ve only been at it for a very short space of time. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever really get going. I really do think I’m still at the building stage. Things come and go, opportunities pass and you have to take all the breaks you can get.

"When Jealous Of The Angels went global, it all happened very organically; it took off on its own. We had to decide whether to ride the wave for a few months and let it fade or to work hard and do it right. I decided to work and do it right.”

Donna Taggart – I really do think I’m still at the building stage Picture Matt Bohill
Donna Taggart – I really do think I’m still at the building stage Picture Matt Bohill Donna Taggart – I really do think I’m still at the building stage Picture Matt Bohill

Donna first came to prominence in 2011 with her debut album, Celtic Lady Vol 1. Her distinctive voice and emotionally charged ballads proved a winning combination, especially for the late BBC Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Anderson who predicted a successful career. Five years later, Celtic Lady Vol 2, which featured the track Jealous Of The Angels, proved him right.

“Gerry told me he’d listen to my music and if he liked it, he’d play it. He must have played it over 40 times,” she laughs. “He’s irreplaceable really.”

Considering its success, Jealous Of The Angels – which Donna recorded at a time of grief in her life and which struck a chord with people grieving elsewhere, especially in the US – is a natural choice for her new double-A side single. The other track, Guiding Light, was written by Northern Ireland singer-songwriter Foy Vance and guest stars Ed Sheeran on the original release. But does it have the same winning formula?

“It’s a beautiful song,” she says. “Following Jealous Of The Angels was always going to be a lot of pressure. It was important to find the right song but also I had to feel a connection. Guiding Light just felt right. It’s the kind of song I like to sing and, yes, I think it has something very special.”

Over the years she has recorded some beautiful ballads and when asked to choose a favourite, has no hesitation.

“Well, I have to admit, I really love Lifetime in a Year she says, sounding excited. “It’s the title track of my new album which is very much a work in progress so the song hasn’t been released yet. But I just love it. Maybe the fact that I’ve been involved in its creation makes it extra special.

"The title is very poignant – it’s kind of sums everything up. Basically the song is about that period in everyone’s life where, you know, everything seems to happen at once. It’s when every possible emotion you can experience is condensed into a small space of time. For me [that period] was around the time when Jealous Of The Angels took off. We went from pinnacles of joy to some very dark times.”

What was happening?

“There was a lot of sickness and pain. To put it bluntly, it was terrible shock when my 23-year-old sister was diagnosed with cancer. Just weeks later, we had the joy of [now three-year-old son] Matthew’s birth, then, suddenly the whole music thing took off. It was just so overwhelming. When I started writing, it felt so therapeutic.”

If 2016 was a mixed bag of emotion, two years previously – 2014 – was a time of unadulterated grief. Back then, Donna and husband Colm were looking forward to welcoming their Christmas baby but in August that year, when she went for a scan, doctors couldn’t find a heartbeat.

“I gave birth to Michael the next day,” Donna recalls. “It was a tough time and a terrible shock for all of us. My faith was a great comfort to me and helped get me through.

"You know, as a child you learn about religion but then as you grow up, you challenge things. It’s only natural to question what you’ve been taught. Everyone finds their own spiritual journey. I don’t agree with everything religion says and I’m by no means a perfect Christian. But when things go wrong, you can go back to that basic foundation and lean on it for support.”

Donna has multi-tasking down to a fine art. As well as recording and performing, she takes on the important but less glamorous necessities such as admin, make-up and hair. At the same time she looks after five-year-old Grace and her aforementioned brother Matthew.

How does she fit it all in?

“It’s like anything in life, it’s all about perspective. If you really want something, you’ll find a way to make it happen. You could complain about things but I just thank God for everything I have. A lot of people would love my life and I’m so thankful. I think it’s simply a case of finding balance.”

At the end of the day, family will always take priority. Donna's decision to decline an invitation to perform Jealous Of The Angels at last year’s National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service in Washington DC, is a case in point.

“Oh I’ve been meaning to address that,” she says, sounding frustrated. “I know there have been many media reports saying I performed at the event but, the truth is, I wasn’t there! I mean, it really was such a great honour to be invited and as much as I would have loved to have gone, I simply couldn’t. We had a family event and we just couldn’t fit it in the schedule. Sometimes, things happen and you just have to prioritise.”

With both her parents accomplished singers, music is obviously in Donna’s DNA but initially her career took a very different route. Following graduation from Liverpool University, she returned to Omagh to work as co-ordinator of services for a local refuge. As well as helping young people traumatised by domestic violence, Donna also worked on the children’s autism team within the health service. Considering her previous and present professions, does she think music has a therapeutic role?

“Listen, it’s a very individual thing. For some youngsters, music is certainly very calming and relaxing. For many of the children I worked with, it was used as a form of self-expression and relaxation. So yes, in some cases it absolutely has a role.”

How does she herself relax?

“I just love being with my children. They live in the moment; they aren’t worrying about mortgages and all the things we worry about. Just last week, we spent 50 quid on a paddling pool and honestly it was the best money we’d ever spent. They played in for hours and the other night I just sat with them, relaxing in the sun and enjoying the moment.”

At one time, she did admit to being a Coronation Street addict. Is she still a fan?

“No, I don’t get time to watch Coronation Street,” she laughs. “Our evenings revolve around the children, bath time and bedtime. Although, I have to confess, we are into Netflix now. Well you need something, don’t you?”

:: Guiding Light is out now. For dates and venues of Donna's upcoming Irish tour see donnataggart.com