Danielle Mustarde meets Janet Devlin – the real Janet Devlin
BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE
“What’s your story, Janet Devlin?” It’s with those five words that this interview begins. After all, had you not been one of the 12.6 million Brits who tuned into first episode of the eighth series of The X Factor back in 2011, (now an exhausting 15 series in) perhaps you won’t be familiar with one of the opening chapters of the Northern Irish singer-songwriter’s story so far. But is it a chapter of her life the flame-haired 25-year-old takes pleasure in sharing day-to-day?
“I normally lie,” begins Devlin, taking a sip of her drink. She’s curled up in a Big Brother-esque egg chair at London’s YouTube space where we meet (we’ll get to that).“The life that I live is too hard to explain,” she continues, speaking quickly. “I used to use Tinder back in the day – yeah, I quit. I’m okay with being single – [people were] always like, ‘So what do you do?’ I’d just lie and say, ‘Oh, I edit videos. That kinda stuff.’ I got caught out a few times. Once, I was on a date and someone came over and asked for a photograph… I was just like, ‘Ah, long story’. I [didn’t] really explain my real life. It’s nine years worth of crazy.”
According to Devlin, her life has “always been that way”. Before she became a sometime-household name after her X Factor appearance – she finished fifth in the competition, after being mentored by Kelly Rowland – Devlin’s first on-screen performances were through YouTube. “I started my YouTube channel when I was 14. For most people, they see [my story] as beginning with [The X Factor], but I was a YouTuber before that, and a drummer before I was ever a singer. After TV, life just got crazier.”
Life has since calmed down, she assures us, claiming to live a “really boring life”. “And I love it!” she smiles widely. “I get up at 6am, go to the gym, do my work and I’m in bed by half past eight. I’m living my old-lady life and I’m loving it. Partying, seriously? I don’t care. I want to be productive. I want to do the best that I can when it comes to making music. I want as many people to hear my stuff [as possible]. That’s what makes me happy.” Who knew your mid-20s could be so… wholesome?
As Devlin, who’s the youngest of four, has already alluded to, life hasn’t always been so simple. When she was a child, she eagerly taught herself to play her instruments by ear, but any dreams of becoming a professional singer-songwriter were soon dashed. “I killed that dream pretty young,” she explains, matter-of-factly. “My mum would ask me when I was a kid, ‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’ and I was like, ‘I want to sing’. ‘Have fun finding that on the job list,’ she’d say. Looking back, she was just being realistic rather than a negative Nancy, but I changed my goals. I also quit [music] at GCSE level because my teacher said my songs sounded ‘morbid’.”
There were more bad experiences at school. Devlin studied classical singing but her music teacher at the time took “all the nuances out of [her] voice”. After that, “I sounded like everybody else. [My teacher] would say, ‘Nobody wants to hear songs about this’ and, ‘Nobody will like your voice if you sing like that, it’s not controlled’. A year after, I did The X Factor. Whenever I went back into school, I had to pretend that the music department didn’t exist…”
Having entered into the realm of reality TV at the tender age of 16, for a time, Devlin found herself back at school but struggled with the attention her time on television brought her. “I kept going… But I hated it. I had panic attacks all the time. I was so shy and nervous and had no self-confidence. When people would ask me to take photographs with them, I thought they were taking the mick out of me – that was my mentality. At school, I wasn’t one of the popular kids, so turning up after the audition had aired was hell. The girl who had bullied me sat at my table and said, ‘Oh my god, I saw you on TV I loved it’. It was hard.”
She didn’t stick around for long, but was determined to continue her studies even while on the road. “[I’d be] on the plane doing my psychology homework, because I’d seen how this goes – it doesn’t always work out for everybody. [Contestants] get to judges’ houses and they cry because they didn’t get through, ‘The dreams over’. My whole life has been like that. I did TV and then, ‘Oh, the dreams over… but I’ll keep working anyway,’ and then I put an album out and it was, ‘No one’s going to care so the dream’s over – again’. And it keeps on going, and going – and I’m still here. I don’t take a minute of it for granted, because with music, people don’t have to care.”
Fast-forward to 2020, almost 10 years since Devlin first auditioned, with a rendition of Elton John’s Your Song, yet people still remember her from that time, something which baffles the remerging – and wholly reimagined – artist. “I just wonder why people still care. The number of people who’ve been on that show… It’s like having had a cameo role as a barista on EastEnders 10 years ago and people being like, ‘YOU WERE THE BARISTA!’ It’s so weird but to be remembered? It’s better than the alternative.”
Being remembered has other perks, too. As well as receiving messages from fans (some of them celebrities) who say Devlin’s appearance helped them overcome their own insecurities, she is very much still making music and has indeed “kept on going and going”. In fact, this year, long-time fans will be rewarded with the next chapter in the Book Of Devlin, her new “concept album” and book-of-the-same-name, Confessional. But what exactly is the concept behind the dual release? “It’s all about how, if you say your sins out loud, they can’t have ownership over you and you can be forgiven – as long as you want forgiveness, that is.” According to the Catholic-raised Devlin, she felt she’d always been living “two lives”. “There’s a lot of things that I went through, horrible stuff, which I haven’t spoken about publicly, but this has unlocked so many chapters for me as a person.”
The album itself runs in chronological order of Devlin’s life, starting around the age of 12 and ending at 24. “My life is the concept,” she continues, clearly proud of what’s she produced. “There’s lots of ups and downs and everything that goes with it. There are dark places that I went to in my life but also the saving moments that brought me back. The album is a true reflection of that: you have your darker songs and you have your happy-go-lucky songs. Everything is about a pivotal moment for me.”
Alongside each pivotal moment in the album – whether dark or light – is a corresponding chapter in the book, in which Devlin “goes into detail about all the things that have happened”. “All the songs are very metaphorical. There are one or two which are literal, but otherwise, if there are people who want to know what actually went on my life, I wrote the book so you can go through and ‘unlock’ each of the songs.” Which begs the question – was Confessional written primarily for her fans or for herself? “It’s all for me!” she laughs. “Everything is about me. I felt a lot of guilt carrying around secrets. People had so many ideas of who I was, and it hurt on a level because, I get why you think that I’m like this or that – but that’s because of this traumatic event in my life – I was carrying around all of it. That whole idea of telling another person, of asking for forgiveness… I just wanted to free myself.”
Though Devlin was raised Catholic in her native County Tyrone, today she describes herself as “spiritual”. “I still love so much of the Catholic symbolism – and the words are gorgeous. It just sounds so pretty. Plus, I didn’t want all those years of Catholic guilt and shame to go to waste. It may as well be monetised,” she smiles. “But like, a lot of my family are still Catholic, and I still go to mass from time to time. I’m not doing a Madonna – I’m not trying to do anything blasphemous.”
Though much of Confessional focuses on the darkness Devlin has experienced in her young life, there are moments of great lightness to be found too. “One of the songs is so happy. It’s super duper cheerful; very anti-what people know of me and my ‘sad gal pop’. It’s about a moment when I was stood on top of the [Rockefeller Centre] in New York. It was minus seven degrees and everything was shut down: it’s freezing. Nobody’s on top of the Rock because, well, they’re sane. I was in the worst time of my life. I felt so guilty. I was close to ending myself… I had an English label who were in debt because of me and I’d just accepted an American label which was going to be in debt because of me. I was in a really horrible place. But I’d never been [to New York] before and I just fell in love – if New York was a person I’d marry it. I got to the top of the Rock and looking down at the city, the circuit board of it, I had the epiphany that life is completely meaningless – but I love it. I have to give it meaning. ‘I can do this,’ I thought. ‘I don’t have to die. Life is okay and I will make it through’. I’ve had that moment twice in my life, but that one for me was a game changer.”
As well as forging her way as a singer-songwriter, Devlin is still very active on social media and today, has a following of over half a million subscribers on YouTube (which explains our meeting place). Was part of that need to “confess” linked to the very current experience of lives lived partially in the here and now and partially online? “That’s the whole reason I’m doing it. Because people are always saying, ‘I love how honest you are and real about what’s going on and mental health’ and I’m like, ‘I haven’t even told you half of it’. If that’s me, how many other fuckers are living these two-sided lives? I meet people and I’ll be like, ‘Your life looks so fun!’ and they’ll be like, ‘I have clinical depression’. Personal is never personal on the internet. That’s the truth. Everyone has the right to share what they want to share. But when you do share it all, it’s not enough – they want more. How much of yourself can you give to people before you’ve got nothing left?”
It’s clear that navigating that private/personal sphere isn’t black and white and Devlin admits that the “two-sided” life she’s lived in the past has, in part, been a way of protecting herself. “That is my fear with Confessional. So far, when people have criticised my work, I’m like, ‘Well, that wasn’t the whole story… they don’t know the real me,’ but now I’ve put the whole of me inside a book and if somebody criticises that then…” she says, scrunching her face.
One thing Devlin has been open about is her sexuality. “Once I had over 300,000 subscribers I realised, ‘Okay. I have a voice now’.” She says she decided to speak about it “because it was still illegal to get married in Northern Ireland and I [wanted] to bring that to the surface”. Though some of her most-devoted fans already knew she identified as bisexual, her YouTube followers didn’t. “I lost so many subscribers when I [came out] but, if you are a homophobe, I don’t want you following me anyway. I have nothing to hide and I know how much I wanted that kind of content growing up. I want to make the kinds of things that I didn’t see.” Especially for bisexual visibility? “Oh, we don’t exist. What’s the difference between being a bisexual and a unicorn?” she quips. “Unicorns actually get portrayed in the media.” Zing.
How does she feel now that Northern Ireland finally has marriage equality? “Over the moon. Genuinely. But there’s still a long way to go. We have the highest rate of teenage suicide in the UK and I swear to Jesus, a lot of it’s because of people hiding their sexuality. I’ve known people who have attempted suicide [rather than tell their parents about their sexuality]. It’s very real. Yes, I was over the moon when it happened, but I can see the issues we still have left to face.”
Confessional, the album and book, are out now
This interview first appeared in the April 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!