Cliona Hagan on her love for Dolly Parton, fashion and country music

Jenny Lee talks fashion, life-choices and Dolly Parton with Irish country music star Cliona Hagan

Cliona Hagan pays homage to Dolly Parton in her new stage show
Cliona Hagan pays homage to Dolly Parton in her new stage show

FROM music teacher to Dancing with the Stars finalist and winning multiple country music vocalist of the year awards, Cliona Hagan’s motto in life is “go for it”.

The Tyrone singer is one of the best female singers to emerge on the country scene here in recent years. Her talent was spotted at an early age, having performed on a BBC Radio Ulster Christmas special at the tender age of nine, and guested on The Late Late Show at the age of 12.

She went on to represent her county in the final of the RTE All Ireland Talent Show in 2009, but despite her love of performing went on to study music at Queen’s University Belfast, followed by a PGCE at Edinburgh University.

After teaching music at secondary schools in Edinburgh and Lurgan for a few years, she decided it was time to follow her musical dream - and in 2016 launched her career with the iTunes hit We’re All Gonna Die Some Day.

“You only live once. I try to take every opportunity," Cliona tells me.

"If things don't work out the way that you want them to work I would never look upon that as being a failure - I always look upon that as being a lesson which you build upon.

“Whatever your age and goal in life, my advice is to learn every day, try your best and go with what is in your heart, so that you look back upon your life and say ‘thank goodness I went for that’.”

Cliona Hagan pays homage to Dolly Parton in her new stage show
Cliona Hagan pays homage to Dolly Parton in her new stage show

Following the success of The Dolly Songbook album, Cliona is reprising her Dolly tour this spring, including dates in Belfast and Derry.

Together with the six-piece Sheerin Family Band, she will perform hits including 9 to 5, Jolene, Coat Of Many Colors and I Will Always Love You, to name a few.

Cliona describes The Dolly Songbook Show as a celebration of her music, rather than a tribute.

“Dolly is just so creative and never pigeonholes herself which I love, and that reflects within her music and the songs that she chooses not only to sing, but to cover as well," she says.

“There were just over 3,000 songs to choose from, which I had to whittle down to two hours, which is about 25 songs. Of course I wanted to get all the fan favourites in there, but I also wanted some of her rock ‘n’ roll and bluegrass ones as well.”

It will be Cliona’s second performance at Belfast’s Grand Opera House – the first time was as a 13-year-old, for the BBC television show Hearts & Souls when she sang Silent Night, accompanied by a classical choir.

“I’m so excited, it will definitely bring back lovely memories, I'm so excited,” says the 33-year-old.

It was at her home in Ballinderry where Cliona was first introduced to country music and fell in love with the music of Dolly Parton at a young age.

“My mum was a huge Dolly fan, so my sisters and I were always exposed to her music. When I first saw her perform on television I was blown away by her image and charisma, not to mention her musical talent.

“She’s also an inspiring woman in terms of all her charity work and I hope someday to meet her,” adds Cliona, who has twice seen Dolly perform live at Belfast’s SSE Arena.

“She was so funny as well and could be a comedian as well as a singer-songwriter. What she can do at her age is just phenomenal.”

Tyrone country music star Cliona Hagan
Tyrone country music star Cliona Hagan

When it comes to choosing her favourite Dolly song, Cliona is drawn to Coat of Many Colors.

“It’s just the simplest melody, yet the words are so true - you don't have to have a pile of money to be happy. I always perform that one acoustically on the guitar by myself and you can hear a pin drop.”

Just like her heroine, Cliona refuses to pigeonhole herself, performing many styles of music and always being willing to try something new.

Following on from her original song Thank You Mother, releasing more of her own writing is also in the pipeline.

“I've so many songs that I've written over the past two or three years, but the timing hasn’t been there as I’ve been doing so many other things with The Dolly Songbook, oh and getting married as well,” laughs Cliona, who wed her musical director and drummer Simon Sheerin last May.

“Either at the end of this year or the start of next there will definitely be some of my own songs thrown into the mix for sure.”

Having hosted her own Celtic Country Show on Sky in the past, she is keen to do more television presenting.

“You can't be picky, no matter what you do in life. That's the beauty of being creative; nowadays there are so many options. I love doing so many things. You only live once, right?”

In 2019 she wowed television fans when she was runner-up in RTE’s Dancing with the Stars, with her professional dance partner Robert Rowinski.

“I absolutely loved the experience, it was such a wonderful show,” beams Cliona, who admits the show has helped her professionally – though she didn’t apply any of the moves to her own first wedding dance.

“My husband definitely wouldn’t describe himself as a dancer, so we didn't do anything special for our wedding,” she laughs.

“Being on stage as a singer isn't just about standing there singing. You are giving an overall performance and the show helped me be mindful as to what I'm actually doing with my hands and feet on stage and made me more aware of using all the space.”

Cliona is also renowned for incorporating storytelling, comedy and creativity into her music videos, such as in The Cowboy Yodel .

“My videos all come from my own head. I love storyboarding and creating them. I have some wacky visions as to what I want to do, but I’m not afraid to have some craic and poke fun at myself too. I’m looking forward to getting my video thinking cap on soon.”

One of her most popular hits has been a cover of the old Bridie Gallagher song Let Him Go Let Him Tarry.

“Truth be told, I never heard the song before it was suggested to me. When I did I absolutely loved the swagger and really wanted to put my own stamp on it. It's a no-nonsense kind of song and a little girl power in there as well, but also a great one for dancing to.”

Quite a style icon, Cliona confesses to “having too many clothes”, and as we chat she is in her mum's spare bedroom having an early spring clean through one of her many wardrobes.

“I am an OCD organising freak, hence why I said I'm doing spring cleaning in winter. I've clothes everywhere; they are coming out of my ears. I could open a shop selling cowboy boots as well," she laughs.

“As well as my own house, I store a lot of my costumes in my mum's house and have converted one of her bedrooms into my own kind of walk-in wardrobe. I've got my glitzy attire, rhinestones and outfits for The Dolly Songbook in here,” says Cliona, who lives just 10 minutes from her parents.

Never one to turn down the opportunity to shop, she reveals she even managed to add to her collection during her honeymoon in Nashville, picking up a green Dolly Parton jacket during a visit to the Dollywood theme park in Tennessee.

Off-stage Cliona has an eclectic style based on her mood.

“I like to wear tracksuit bottoms, but dress it up with some high heel boots and a crop top. Sometimes I like my long maxi dresses, other times I love short dresses and I'm fanatical about 80/90s style light-denim oversized jeans.”

Cliona Hagan - The Dolly Songbook Show comes to Belfast’s Grand Opera House on March 1 (goh.co.uk) and Derry’s Millennium Forum (millenniumforum.co.uk) on March 23. For full tour information visit Clionahagan.com/dolly-songbook.