Janet Devlin on her new LP and how The X Factor offered her a chance to get help
Nearly a decade ago, a 16-year-old Janet Devlin auditioned for The X Factor with a nervous rendition of Sir Elton John's Your Song. Now the Tyrone woman is releasing her second album, titled Confessional, and a memoir detailing her mental health struggles and alcoholism. Alex Green spoke to her
EACH day when Janet Devlin sat down to write her book, she set a timer to ensure she didn't simply get up and walk away – such was the pain of revisiting those memories.
"I'm still waiting for that moment people tell you about," the young woman from Gortin, in the Sperrins, says chirpily over the phone during the first month of lockdown.
"They're like 'Oh it must be so freeing' and, well, the book's not out yet... But I know the minute people start reading it, it should start to feel good. I don't mind anybody knowing about what I've been through now."
Since making her debut on The X Factor in 2011, the Tyrone singer-songwriter, now 25, has remained largely tight-lipped about her struggles. But through an album of dark folk and pop, titled Confessional, Devlin has chronicled her battles with alcoholism, body dysmorphia and self-harm.
The album combines contemporary pop stylings with traditional Celtic music and was produced by Jonathan Quarmby, whose recent credits include Tom Walker's hit Just You And I.
Her debut album, Running With Scissors, was recorded in six months and released on a major label in 2014. Confessional was recorded in six years.
Accompanying this is a book, fittingly titled My Confessional, which "unlocks" the "metaphors" of the record.
Given X Factor's tendency to amplify contestants' emotional back-stories, Devlin's tale will be familiar to many. She grew up the sole girl and youngest of four outside the village of Gortin. Aged 12, inspired by the music of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters, she began posting videos on YouTube, mostly covers, before successfully auditioning for Simon Cowell's show.
Her rendition of Your Song has been viewed more than 40 million times on YouTube. She made it to the quarter-final, discovered she might be related to Kurt Cobain, was eliminated, but embarked on The X Factor live tour.
She released her debut album, featuring names like Newton Faulkner and Jack Savoretti, in 2014, but it stalled in the charts.
Struggling with anxiety and the pressures of success, Devlin turned to drink.
"Alcohol was my main tool of self-sabotage," she recalls. "It's a very common trait of a lot of alcoholics. If you tell someone they've got a big meeting that could change their life tomorrow they'll probably go and get drunk – even if it could change your life."
"As an artist and a musician, when you don't believe you deserve good things, you rob them from yourself before anybody else can," she adds with a sigh.
But why bear her soul for all to see?
"I could sit here and put on an Instagram blogger persona and pretend that everything's amazing and my life's great," she explains. "But also that's absolutely not the truth.
"I figure by showing people what an absolute shambles my life has been, that they might question people's online personas a bit more."
Five years sober, after becoming a regular attendee at Alcoholics Anonymous, Devlin is able to channel her desires into music.
Devlin's mental ill-health began before she appeared, nervous and innocent-looking, on The X Factor's stage.
"I was dating a toxic guy who reaffirmed my toxic thought processes. In my head I was like 'I can't sing, I suck, everyone hates me – there's a big joke that everyone's in on and everyone's laughing at me behind my back'.
"And then he would reaffirm that and be like 'Yeah your voice isn't even that good, I don't know why they're making such a big deal about you. You're nothing special'."
Conversation turns to the topic of duty of care. There has been increased scrutiny on broadcasters over their treatment of guests and contestants – especially on reality TV shows. Did she feel like she was looked after?
The answer, resoundingly, is yes.
"They gave me a therapist in Harley Street," she says bluntly. "I don't really know what else they could have done, to be honest. It was nothing to do with them. Before the TV show I was not mentally that great, which is all revealed in the book, but I was not in a good space.
"Being on the show helped me. It didn't actually pull me down in any way but it gave me a good chance to reach out and get help.
"They did give me a psychiatrist and a therapist and I got medicated during the show as well, which is hilarious because you can actually see the point in the show where I go from not medicated to medicated."
As she predicted, there was trolling and online abuse. But Devlin developed a thick skin and found a way to empathise with her critics.
"When it comes to online stuff I never get upset over what somebody says," she clarifies. "You have to imagine how much pain someone's going through to leave a mean comment to make themselves feel better. You sympathise with the person leaving the comment."
In an ironic twist, Devlin found her support network on the internet. She was one of the first artists to gig regularly online – years before the coronavirus pandemic brought the virtual concert into fashion.
Twice a month, Devlin is joined by a few dozen, or few hundred fans – the Doo Crew as they call themselves – in one of Stageit.com's virtual concert venues.
"I fell into the online thing because I didn't have the money to tour at the time," she says matter-of-factly. "At the time I was living on £25 a week. I hadn't a penny to my name.
"I couldn't afford to pay musicians because I'd just put out an album that had put me in quite a lot of debt, so I couldn't afford to hit the road. I needed to actually eat food, so I tried the online thing and it took a long time, I'm not going to lie.
"It's probably so different for the likes of a Dua Lipa who's got a massive audience."
Amid her mental struggles, Devlin has found real support in this tight-knit community.
"I know there is a lot of darkness on the internet," she says, knowingly. "Trust me I've seen it, people are just mean for the sake of being mean. But I genuinely mean it when I say it. They are the loveliest people around."
:: Confessional is out today.