Although best known in the UK as one-fifth of one of the most loved girl-bands of recent times, Una Healy has been on the radar of Irish music lovers as a songwriter worth listening to ever since she won the Glinsk Song Contest in both 2004 and 2006, one of only a few double winners in the competition’s history. Now, with the release of Una’s debut solo album, ‘The Waiting Game’, we can finally enjoy a full album’s worth of this gifted songwriter’s talent. And while that wait has been a long one (for Una, too), man, has it been worth it!
From the opening moments of the first track, the statement of an intent to entertain while being true to her own voice that is ‘Battlelines’, to the last fading notes of the soul-warming and achingly personal ‘Angel Like You’, Una delivers a debut collection to match any the last last five has brought, or the next five might bring. And in truth, it’s one that outshines most other debut collections. This is the work of an artist who’s confident in both her talent and her place in the world right now.
I had the chance to chat to Una while she prepared for her big London and Dublin shows this week, and I began by telling her that one of the things I loved most about ‘The Waiting Game’, right from the get-go, is that Una co-wrote every single track on the album. And three of my favourite tracks right from my first listen through happened to be the songs she co-wrote with Amy Wadge (who also co-wrote Thinkin’ Out Loud with Ed Sheeran); the beautiful lead-off single ‘Stay My Love’, ‘All You Ever Need Is Love’, and ‘Craving You.’
I asked Una if she writes differently when it’s a one-on-one co-write, as with Amy, than when more people are involved in a song?
“Well most of the them tend to be one-on-one kind of things, with a couple where there was three of us. Usually I’ll have the bones of a song together, the idea, the melody, hook, lyrics, and you take it in [to a co-writing session]. And it’s just lovely to see how a song can evolve then with somebody else’s influence. I very often just write songs completely on my own as well. I actually had an EP out back in 2006 where it was completely my own original music, all of it self-penned, no co-writes at all. Around that time I joined IMRO, the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and they were a great starting point for me to begin co-writing. I went on various different workshops and trips away where we’d all be writing with strangers. So that really prepared me for co-writing, and made me realise how brilliant co-writing actually is. Songs become stronger when you have someone else there with you. And you’ll just connect better with certain people, too. You can go into a session where it might just be that you’re not feeling very inspired on that day, or you just might not really click with someone. But with Amy I clicked with her straight away and we had a great time writing together.”
So would Una be the kind of songwriter who is always thinking about songs and working on something in her mind, or more so the type who decides right, I’m going to sit down now and write a song…?
“Oh God, no, I can’t do that, that whole ‘I’m going to write a song today’, I think it’s very unnatural. It’s never like that for me. If my phone ever got robbed I’d be mortified because I’ve got so many voice notes and ideas, and little melodies that come into my head all the time. Even just there before I left the house I was in the bathroom singing in a new hook that I had! [laughs]. And what I’ll do with that is I’ll sit down later, I’ll get the guitar and work out the chord sequence, and the lyrics, maybe a chorus. Sometimes then a chorus will lead you into a verse, ya know. But I’m always forever writing down notes for ideas, and they’re what I’ll take with me [into a writing session]. Sometimes then you’ll play your ideas to your co-writer and they’ll go, ‘Yeah..yeah…’, but you can tell when they’re not feeling it because then they’ll start hammering out something, an idea that they have. Sometimes it’s really obvious if you don’t like each other’s ideas because you just go, ‘Yeah…’, really quickly but then move straight onto another one! [laughs]. But it’s lovely when things seem to match up, and with Amy it always seems to be like that. We’re just like that with each other, we’re on the same wavelength. We have a lot in common because she’s also a mum, of two little girls. And she’s just a really cool person. She’s been on the scene her self for a long time as a singer-songwriter, so yeah, we’ve got loads in common.”
Something that can no-one who has ever heard her sing can argue with is that Una has an utterly beautiful voice. But she’s also a gorgeous guitar player. Throw in the fact that she has, as already mentioned, co-written every track on ‘The Waiting Game’, and it seems clear that Una was placed on this earth to be a singer-songwriter. That being so, I wondered if – and without for a moment taking anything away from what she achieved with The Saturdays – this album almost feels like the real start of her career now?
“Well it’s definitely the start of a whole new chapter anyway, in that it’s coming back to the music I started off doing. But I would never take my time with The Saturdays away, that was such a great portion of my life, and I loved it. I loved performing, and I learned so much about the business, and about how tricky and difficult it is, and how much hard work you have to put in. But it is true to say that I’m going back to the music that I always really, really wanted to do.”
Going back to Amy once again, and Una’s amazing single, ‘Stay My Love’, the duet with Sam Palladio, I wondered if they’d set out to write a duet from the beginning? Or had they just realised at some stage during the process of writing the song, that it would actually make a great duet?
“Well I had the melody idea, that was what I brought to the table for that session. But all I had was the ‘my love’ part and the melody, that’s all I had! [laughs]. So I was singing that to Amy, and she just sang back to me, ‘Won’t you stay my love’, and I was like, ‘YEAH! , That’s it!’ [laughs], and it just went on from there. We ended up writing the song in about an hour and a half, like. You see Amy is really great like that, she brings a kind of a portable studio with her so we literally laid everything down and had the demo delivered that evening. We sent it out to all our people, our management, our publishers, everyone, and they all came back to us saying they loved it, that it was really good. Cos’ you’ll often write stuff but you’ll hear nothing back, and that means they don’t like it! Yeah, no news is bad news in this industry, ya know! [laughs]. But yeah, everybody was really excited and we knew it was a special song. I then went in and demoed it by myself but when we listened back to it everybody was saying, even friends of mine, that they loved it but it could easily be a duet, because it sounded like there should be another voice coming in in the second verse. It was all Amy’s harmonies on the demo, but then we realised how lovely it would be to have that as a male voice. So it was just kind of a general feeling that we should look to it being a duet. Then somebody at the label suggested Sam. And I loved his voice because I’d watched him on ‘Nashville.’ So he happened to be in town shooting ‘Humans’, because he’s an actor in that, and although I didn’t know, he’d been sent the song and he loved it. So he said he’d love to be part of it. Alongside his acting career he’s working on his music career, too, so this is kind of his first official release as Sam Palladio. So rather than him just being an actor who can sing, he’s a singer who can act. So yeah, that’s how it all came about when we reached out to Sam. But I can’t imagine it any other way now. I mean, I’ll be doing these shows this week, so I’ll be singing it on my own, but it’s always more complete as a duet.”
The shows Una was referring to are her showcase gigs in London and Dublin this week. So what can fans look forward to?
“It’s going to be a full band, and I’m actually on my way into rehearsals now. We’ve got bass, keys, and drums, with myself on rhythm guitar, so it’s a four piece including myself.”
I wondered how Una usually feels right before she performs? Does she get nervous? Or excited? What goes through her mind just before she walks out on stage?
“A little bit nervous. I think I’ll feel more nervous now about these shows. Before Christmas I did two tours supporting Ward Thomas and Maddie & Tae, and the first show I remember how nervous I felt because it was my first time back on stage on my own singing original music. But the crowd was so receptive and they listened to everything. Like, you know how sometimes you’ll feel sorry for a support act because people talk all over them! But not in this genre [singer-songwriter/country-pop], people were there to listen to the music which was really great. It really built my confidence up and I really enjoyed it. And the more you do it then the less nervous you get, you feel like you know what you’re doing again. So yeah, these first couple of gigs I’ll probably begin the set goin’ ‘Oh no…’, but in a good way. Excited nerves. It’ll be good to know that people have come to hear these songs.”
‘Angel Like You’, the album’s final track, featured in the movie, Mum’s List. Now, songs in themselves are stories anyway, so I wondered how it felt for Una to see and hear one of her stories in the context of a much bigger story, like this movie?
“Well it’s a very personal song, it was written for a family friend who died, which of course is sad. But at the same time, that sadness is not exclusive to me, because my co-writer Jez (Ashurst) had lost his father. And the other co-writer on that song, Fiona Bevan, has some great metaphors in there, too. When we wrote the song those feelings of loss were all coming into play. So it was a joint effort really, of people reflecting on their past and their losses. And we just wanted the song to be something that people could gain comfort from when they hear it. So with the movie, it was just that the right person happened to hear it and it fitted the movie perfectly. It was a very special occasion when we went to the premiere and it came on at the end, it was very emotional.”
‘Angel Like You’ also closes out ‘The Waiting Game.’
“Yeah, with the album, I think you always have to think of your track-listing, and have a flow going through the album. And ‘Angel Like You’ is that kind of song that I feel works best there at the end. Because you kind of don’t know where to go from there after a song like that. And for the show, we’ve been discussing where to put it in the set-list with the ‘live’ band, but I’m going to keep it at the end. I’m going to play the gigs as the album flows, because I think it’s got the right mix that way.”
When it comes to her songwriting, does Una put much of her own personal life and experiences into her songs? Or would they be based more on fictional characters and what she imagines happens to them in different situations?
“There’s a bit of both, actually. A lot of them are very true to me and my life, and the people around me, and my philosophies on life and stuff like that. The majority of it is very personal, but at the same time, they’re universal feelings, I think. You have to kind of flesh them out with a bit of fiction, too, like any writer would. But yeah, there’s any awful lot of personal stuff in there.”
I wanted to finish up our chat with something that took the focus a little bit away from what’s happening right now with Una, but might still offer an insight into the kind of person and writer Una is, and how and why she’s achieved so much in her career already. So, I asked her if she has any favourite quote that she tries to live by or which plays an important part in her life? Something like, ‘This too, shall pass’, or ‘Treat others how you’d like them to treat you’, perhaps?
“Oh yeah! I have a few. I remember when I was only fourteen or fifteen I wrote a song called ‘This Is Your Life’ and the whole song was literally those kind of quotes, ya know! There was one in there that was something like, ‘Don’t waste your life regretting’, which basically means to move on with things. And there was another one which was to, ‘Live every single day like it’s your last.’ It was literally a song of all those feelings about you have to give life your best shot. And one I always love, and I think for anyone who’s thinking of getting into the music business, is ‘If at first you don’t succeed, you’ve got to try again, and try and try again.’ You can’t just walk away from it and go, ‘Oh well, didn’t work’, ya know. You have to keep at it.”
Two things that come through loud and clear in conversation with Una are her passion and her determination. The same qualities are evident throughout her debut album, ‘The Waiting Game.’ And I for one (and I’m sure I won’t be the only one) will be returning to this album over and over again throughout the rest of the year. Because when the songs are this good, and the performer is this special, there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing! And trust me, folks, Una Healy is a star seven days a week.