Interview Janet Devlin: ‘When I work towards a goal, I’m not as fixated on destroying myself’

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Janet Devlin is only 25 years old, but she has quite the story to tell. The Irish singer-songwriter had her breakthrough in the UK version of X Factor when she wast just 16, launched her debut album independently and then worked six years on its follow up titled Confessional. She battled with alcoholism, depression and an eating disorder and on her new record and autobiography My Confessional she opens up about these struggles. In an interview with A Bit of Pop Music she discusses her road towards sobriety, what it’s like to write about her most personal life experiences and how she created the Irish folky sound for the album.

You sing the line “This is my confessional, of things that I have buried low” in the title track. What was the turning point that made you decide to not bury these things any longer and make them into an album?
“Even before I got sober I knew I wanted to talk about the things I have been going through, but I didn’t really know how. I wasn’t in a good position to do so yet. When you’re in recovery, putting the substance down is only one part of it. There is so much work you have to do on you. Through making the album, I have done a lot of work on myself and I am in a better position to talk about these things now.”

And at what point did the idea of the book come in?
 “When I started writing the album, I felt limitations to how honest I could be in the music. I felt self-absorbed and not relatable and didn’t want to isolate listeners. I realized the idea of confessing would only work if I would write a book too. I still wanted people to enjoy my music, but I also wanted them to know the truth. People can of course just listen to the record, and if they want to know more about the true meaning and the nitty gritty of the songs, people can buy the book.”

The songs all deal with different things that happened in your life. What was it like putting these together into an album?
“Writing a concept record like this opened its whole own Pandora’s box of problems. I still wanted the album to be listenable from start to finish, but I needed to include these topics in chronological order, so I ended up writing four songs in different styles for every topic. Some of the songs on the record may not even have been the best about that topic, but fitted better in the running order so that the record would still be an enjoyable piece of work. I love the idea of doing a Confessional B. Some of my favorites haven’t been released yet so I am definitely going to try my best to do something with those.”

How does it feel now that the record is actually coming out? Nerve wrecking, liberating, a relieve, all of the above?
I am excited for the freedom that comes along with this. The experiences I sing about define me as a person, but not in a negative way anymore. I have overcome a lot of stuff, but this is the truest reflection of me as an artist thus far. I am glad to not have to live two lives anymore. People do expect me to be terrified for others to know my secrets, but I go to so many meetings, I talk about myself all the freaking time. To talk about it in a small group of people in a room is more terrifying than singing it to a void.”

“To talk about these things in a small group of people in a room is more terrifying than singing them to a void”

And you already addressed your struggle with alcoholism on YouTube before…
I really wanted to get it off my chest and I didn’t want to have to lie in the press release about the meaning of ‘Away With The Fairies’. It was going to exhaust me to come up with a fake meaning. I decided to do a video in which I talk without an edit. After uploading I answered the initial bunch of messages, because I knew they were coming from my followers. After that I went to cinema, which is like a pause button for life, because I will turn my phone off. On the train that night I could see the reactions and it had been so positive, I was really surprised. I received photos of people pouring their booze down the sink realizing they have a problem, young women especially. There are not a lot of young women talking about alcoholism. It was refreshing to see their comments. I still want to do more videos with important conversations to have, about self-harm and anorexia or my addiction to benzodiazepines. I am a firm believer of opening up dialogues, even if it makes people very uncomfortable sometimes. There is a lot of shame around those topics, but for me it is all about normalizing the dialogue without shame.”

Interview continues under video.

Young women might now look up to you and how you dealt with it. Do you feel like a role model?
“I used to get angry when people looked up to me, because I felt like they wouldn’t if they really knew me. Now I don’t feel bad about it anymore and I try to get back to messages as much as possible, but I’m also aware of my own humanity. I can only take on so much of other people’s issues. I went through two weeks of messaging back every person that I could and I found myself feeling emotionally drained. I dip in and out now because I need to put myself and my own sobriety first.”

The song ‘Speak’ talks about an experience you weren’t ready to speak out about before, but now you are. What was the journey of writing it like?
“That was the hardest song on the album to write, because it talks about my experience with sexual assault, which was something that I hadn’t dealt with at the time of writing. I didn’t even know how I felt about what happened. I had to sit face to face with my feelings. I was crying while doing the vocals. I felt the song was the truest expression of the pain that I had been through and the hurt and betrayal that I felt. Writing it made me realize how I actually felt. I left that writing session feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

On ‘Honest Men’ you sing the line “Where has all my happiness gone? It disappeared the moment I sang Your Song”. I can’t help but read this as a reference to your X Factor audition. How do you look back on that time now?
“I wanted to show where my mind was capable of taking me when I get depressed. When I am in a depressive episode, I could feel like I had never been happy since I had been on television, which is absolutely not true. For years I couldn’t really talk about what the X Factor taught me and that made people think that I wasn’t grateful of the show, but I was only a few months into my recovery of anorexia when I went on tv. I lost a stone doing bootcamp and I remember that I wanted to put on weight before the next round on tv, because I didn’t want young girls to look up to me because of how skinny I was looking. I didn’t want to be the role model of some teenager’s self-destruction. I was still a child, but I understood that part was inevitable.”

Do you in hindsight wish you would have done X Factor at a later age?
“It might sound bizarre, but I am glad I did it at 16 because I was already mature from all the trauma I had been through. The show showed me that when I have a goal to work towards, I am not as fixated on destroying myself. And that is true to this day, I need to work towards something or I will hit the self-destruct button. The show allowed me to get into the industry younger and it meant I had to work harder to get people to respect me and I still feel like I do, but I was lucky to go through all the hell that I put myself through at a younger age and to get to 20, which is still very young, and be sober and ready to rock and roll.”

“I was lucky to go through all the hell that I put myself through at a younger age and to get to 20, which is still very young, and be sober and ready to rock and roll”

‘Better Now’ puts a bit of a twist on the end of the chapter. Why?
“‘Better Now’ was written as a hidden track, although those don’t exist anymore. I wanted the album to end on ‘Holy Water’ in which life seems great and then give you a punch in the kisser. My life is not going to be golden from here on out. I dissociated two years ago and ended up relapsing. I tried everything to get my feelings back and it wasn’t working so I tried drinking again. It wasn’t even a bad relapse, pretty dull to be honest. For me it wasn’t the size of the relapse, but what it symbolizes for me. I realized I can’t do it on my own, because I was tired of the repeating pattern of falling and picking myself back up again. I had to take the money I saved to go to rehab, but I think I wouldn’t have been so dedicated if I went for free. I had to basically put my money where my mouth is and get better. I had the month of my life. People expect it to be really sad, but I had a blast. I made friends and realized I could still laugh so hard it made me cry. I skipped between rooms and whistled as I walked. That changed my outlook on myself, because I thought that part of me was gone. Realizing that made me work really hard to keep that part of me alive.”

There is hints of Irish folk music throughout the record. Do you hear these production choices straight away when you write the tunes or does that come into play later in the process?
“‘Sweet Sacred Friend’ was the song that changed everything for me sonically. The record hadn’t really found its sound before and did not sound Irish. When I wrote that song I was trying to channel home. Even though it sounds like a contemporary song, we were able to add weird instruments to it. When I heard the demo a few days later I knew I found the sound for the record. I wanted it to be both Celtic and contemporary. It all made so much sense for me, because the book takes place at home and I played in a traditional music band. When we recorded the Irish musicians in Dublin, for the first time I felt like I spoke the language. I knew what to ask of the players and was confident enough to do so. For me that felt like the moment of ownership of the record.”

What do you hope people take away from the record?
“You never know what somebody is going through. People look at my social media and ask how I am so together, getting up at 5am and going to bed at 8.30pm, working, eating healthy, being a really dull human being. They didn’t know that this was through necessity. Me being open and honest breeds honesty too. I see these messages from people, celebrities and otherwise, sharing their experiences, and I think to myself: I would never have thought that they have been through what I have been through. So I think that is an eye opening thing. If they can take that away and carry that notion around that would be great because that benefits everybody.”

You mentioned that you deal better when you have a goal to work towards. What is next now that the album is out?
“My next record will be bluegrass and country because it holds a special place in my heart. After this conceptual over indulgent piece of work I just want to go for some good old simple songs that make you happy. That is basically the way forward for me now.”

Check out my review of Janet Devlin’s Confessional.

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