Una Healy reveals 'Foden is my real name, but it doesn't suit me as a singer'
Ahead of the Voice of Ireland final, coach Una Healy tells Andrea Smith that the contestants aren't the only ones hoping to launch a successful solo career this year; Photography by Mark Nixon
When Una Healy took to the stage of the Helix last Sunday to perform during the semi-final of The Voice of Ireland, she was simultaneously excited and apprehensive.
After years as a member of popular girl band The Saturdays, she was delighted to finally get a chance to showcase her own solo material. But at the same time, she felt a flutter of nerves as she faced the four red chairs, where so many singers' dreams have either flourished or withered before herself and fellow judges, Kian Egan, Bressie and Rachel Stevens.
As a mentor on the show for the past two seasons, there was an added weight of expectation on the petite singer-songwriter, but she carried off her debut solo performance with aplomb. There was an up-tempo country feel to Una's song, Staring at The Moon, which was written about her daughter Aoife Belle. And the fact that the performance came with a guitar in hand rather than a girlband dance routine meant we saw a whole new side of Una Healy.
"Lots of my songs are about my kids, but I actually wrote this one for Aoife," says the 34-year-old. "She has been always obsessed with the moon, so if I'm away and she looks out at the moon, she knows I see it too and will be looking back at her. The songs on my new album are personal, and it's a bit like sharing your diary.
"Some people might interpret a lyric to be something else and make it into a headline, so it's scary revealing a lot of my private feelings, although they're general feelings that anyone can relate to. I loved performing and singing with The Saturdays, but in the back of my mind, I always wanted to go back to my roots and do the music I used to do. I'm loving it but it's not always easy, as music is a tough old business to get into, and you can never stop working hard if you want to stay in it."
Una's new direction already made headlines in recent weeks - when she reverted to her maiden name on social media it sparked a flurry of stories that her marriage was in trouble. Both Una and her adored husband, England international rugby player Ben Foden, were quick to put paid to the speculation.
"Healy just suits my music better, which might sound a bit weird," Una says by way of explanation. "Foden suits Ben and rugby so well, and it's my real name and on my bank details and anything to do with the kids, but it doesn't suit Una Healy the singer. I just felt I needed my own identity and my own thing, but it was inevitable that the media were going to think the worst when I said I was going back to Healy.
"It's like a stage name and it has nothing to do with my marriage or my relationship with Ben. He is very supportive about it, and even tweeted making light of the situation, saying, 'Just to clear things up further, my stage name (when my album drops) will be Ben Healy! #benuna #supportingthewife #alwaysproud."
Una first met Ben seven years ago. It all began when the rugby star was having lunch with his management, and they asked him about his love life. "He said it wasn't great, but then he started talking about The Saturdays and said he loved 'the Irish one,'" says Una. "His management went behind his back and called our label and asked for my number to give to Ben. My PR told me he wanted to go on a date with me, but I didn't know much about rugby and had never heard of him. I Googled him and liked the look of him, so I said 'Why not?'"
At the time, Una was single because the band was constantly travelling and working, so there was never an opportunity to meet anyone. On their first date, Ben called to Una's apartment to pick her up and they went for food and a couple of drinks, and by the time she said goodbye to him that evening, she knew she liked him.
The couple married in Tipperary, in June 2012 - and Una recently revealed that Ben had converted to Catholicism ahead of the ceremony. Remembering the day, she says that her new husband found it hard to understand the local accents. "He hasn't got a clue what anyone is saying with the thick Tipperary accent plus we all speak so quickly," she laughs. "I think I have a really strong accent, but he doesn't think I have one at all."
They already had daughter Aoife Belle, now four, and she was joined by brother Tadhg in Febuary 2015. Today, the children are at home in Thurles with Una's parents Ann and John. Fresh from our photoshoot, Una tucks into a carvery lunch with gusto to fuel her for the trip back to Tipp as we chat. She's been there for the past few weeks while filming The Voice of Ireland. Ben, meanwhile, is back in their Northampton home - he plays for Northampton Saints - so there's a lot of back and forth and juggling going on.
"It's hard with our schedules, because when I'm over here for the show, Ben is in the UK and it's a long stretch of time to be apart," she says. "We're used to it because when he was in the World Cup, I was pregnant and on my own for nine weeks, but you just have to understand the demands on each other. When we're together, we're together all the time, but we can actually manage being apart as well.
"We get on really well, although we're like chalk and cheese in lots of ways and are very different. I'm a worrier and a stress-head, and he calms me down and just laughs and eases the situation. He's really laid-back, so I put a bit of drive in him and give him jobs because otherwise he would do nothing!"
One thing that Una genuinely does get worried and stressed about is her role as a coach on The Voice of Ireland - she tells me that she felt very emotional and almost physically sick when she lost contestants during the series, particularly when she was forced to choose between her own acts. "It's a nasty business having to break someone's heart, and I'm so glad that the finale is a public vote."
Una had the winning act, Patrick Donoghue, in 2015. She will be hoping to reprise that success tomorrow night when this year's show reaches its finale, and is naturally hoping that her singer, Athboy's Nigel Connell, will take the prize.
"Nigel is such a nice, quiet guy, who is really appreciative and works hard for everything he has achieved," she says. "He has been a drummer for years and is a seasoned performer, and you can see the admiration and support he has from everyone he has worked with in the past, like Daniel O'Donnell, Nathan Carter and Linda Martin. He's a little bit older than some of the other contestants but it is definitely his time now, and this experience is going to be of such huge value to him."
While she has loved being a mentor, she doesn't know if she will be back for another season as her next ambition is to pursue her solo career. "I don't really know if I would have the time to do another Voice. I've really loved it and everyone on the show has been great. As mentors, we get on really well, but we do we get a little bit competitive, of course. I think Kian is really going to go for it this year because he hasn't won it yet."
Una has just signed a record deal with Universal in the UK, and her album is due out later this year. She loves to co-write and collaborate as well as sing. She is very good friends with Amy Wadge, who co-wrote some of the songs on her forthcoming debut album, and won a Grammy for co-writing Thinking Out Loud with Ed Sheeran.
Sheryl Crow was Una's idol growing up - and she's the niece of Irish country singer Declan Nerney. She was always singing and playing guitar at the local Presentation Secondary School. She wasn't a wild teenager, she says, although she was a bit cheeky at school just to liven things up. She studied hard and got good points, and performed her own musical compositions for her Junior and Leaving Certificates.
While her mum was a nurse and her dad is still a full-time GP, Una originally thought she might either become a teacher or a nurse and gave both a shot. She did three months' primary school training at Mary Immaculate College followed by a year of nursing at the University of Limerick, but the music business continued to call her.
"I loved all the friends I made in nursing and was enjoying the course, but my heart wasn't in it," she admits. "I was in a band called Unreal and we used to do covers and gig all over the pubs in Thurles at weekends. I realised eventually that I just wanted to do music and didn't want to study any more, and my parents were very supportive. They helped me with my equipment and would check out what bars were looking for a performer. I would ring around bars and ask for a chance to sing, and would drive to them in my Honda Civic with all my equipment and speakers in the back. I would only make a few pounds but I loved it. Sometimes I would be playing to an empty bar, but when it was quieter, I got a chance to do my own material and it was like a practice ground for me."
Una recorded an EP called Sorry and used to sell it for a fiver at gigs, and she made a living doing corporate gigs, where she sang covers of everything from jazz for restaurants or pop for parties and also had a weekly residence at Citywest Hotel. She auditioned for Irish shows like You're a Star and Popstars but didn't get very far. "I don't think I'm the kind of singer who does well on shows like that," she says. "It wasn't my time and I was inexperienced, but those knocks encouraged me even more because I had to go and work for it rather than becoming an overnight success."
Una was living with her sister, Dee, in Cabinteely in Dublin at this point, and decided one day that she was going to go to London as her career here wasn't really taking off. She Googled keywords like "auditions in London," and "female vocalist wanted" and came across an ad looking for a female vocalist aged between 18 to 28. Incredibly, it turned out to be an audition for The Saturdays.
"I wasn't nervous at all because I felt I wouldn't get it so I didn't care and had nothing to lose," she says. "There were girls there doing back flips while others had gone to stage school, but I was just a singer-songwriter and didn't come from that background. I kept getting through all the rounds though, and they called me aside and said they liked me. They thought I could bring a lot to the band and make it more credible, even though I wasn't a typical girl band member. They gave me a chance, so I moved over to London and that was nine years ago this summer."
The other members of the group were Frankie Bridge, Rochelle Humes, Mollie King and Vanessa White, who would later become Una's bridesmaids. The group was very successful and sold over five million records in the UK and Ireland, with huge hits like What About Us, Up and Ego.
"People always asked me if I felt a bit weird being older than the girls, which really annoyed me," says Una, who was 25 when the group started while Vanessa was 18. "We all got on so well and had a great laugh, and it was amazing and a huge experience for me. As the years passed, we all started settling down, getting married and having children, so we went from a girl band to a woman band and we kind of felt like we'd had enough.
"We haven't split up and are still a group, but we wanted to put it to the side and do other things for now. Rochelle loves TV presenting and wants to do that, for example. We will probably come together again when the nostalgia kicks in as nearly every band is doing that, but we will have to wait for that time."
Right now, Una says that her children, Ben and her family and friends are the most important things in her life. Having children really gelled herself and Ben together as a couple, she says, and they adore being parents. She is also very happy that the children have Irish names - even though people never know how to pronounce them.
"Saoirse Ronan is going around explaining pronunciation all the time, so between us both, we will spread the word on Irish names! It's so nice having one of each, because I know what it is going to be like when Aoife grows up, and Ben knows for Tadhg. I love doing girlie things with Aoife and have just found this class on a Saturday morning in a local stage school, so I'm going to send her there for fun to see if she likes it. She loves to dance, and while her singing was atrocious about a year ago, she is really getting better. I'm not pushing her because she can do whatever she wants, but I think it's good for kids to be part of teams and classes for social skills. Aoife goes to nursery three days a week, and they did a nativity at Christmas. She was a star and didn't even have anything to say, but it made me so emotional and I was so proud of her."
Tadhg is only a baby, but Una says that Ben can't wait for him to play football and rugby. She'll be the nervous mum on the sidelines, particularly as Ben has had a few bad injuries in recent years. Did she put her short-lived nursing training to good use with him, and has she learned more about the sport now that she's married to a player?
"No, I still don't know half of what is going on," she laughs. "I just follow the crowd and cheer when they do. I get so scared and anxious watching the matches in case Ben gets injured, as he had two huge operations in the past three years and has been out for ages. My nursing skills have come in handy as I'm good at looking after him, but he's good too if I'm not feeling the best. I don't think I want Tadhg to play rugby, because as a mother, it will be even harder to watch your young son on that pitch because the collisions they have are brutal."
While she has been gone from Thurles since 18, Una is over and back the whole time and is very close to her family. Her mum is retired and is a great help with babysitting, while her sister Dee, a pharmaceutical technician, got engaged to fiancé Joe earlier this month and Una is looking forward to the wedding. "She was my bridesmaid and I'd better be hers," she laughs. Nonetheless, the singer says that her future lies in the UK, as she loves it there and has amazing friends. The Saturdays are a big part of that, although she is sad that she lives so far away from them now. "I don't see them as much as I used to since we moved up to Northampton, but we're always chatting and trying to meet up," she says.
Una says she wouldn't consider entering the Eurovision like Nicky Byrne, because she feels she has already been down that path having been a backing vocalist in 2006 for Brian Kennedy.
"The Eurovision is scary stuff," she says. "Going up on that stage with a billion people watching is a lot of pressure.
"There's a lot of pressure going out by myself too, as I don't know how it will go, but I believe in myself. I think I've done a really good job on all of the songs I've written so I hope people like them too. I have another track called The Waiting Game, which is exactly what I'm doing now, so we'll see what happens."
The finale of 'The Voice of Ireland' 2016 is on tomorrow, Sunday, April 24, at 6.30pm on RTÉ One