Lyra: ‘I never let myself believe I had bulimia’
Now on the cusp of her big break, Lyra tells Barry Egan that she struggled with an eating disorder for years, before her family and friends helped her to recovery
‘I don’t know whether I have ever let myself believe that I had bulimia,” says Lyra. It’s early March and we are sitting in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel having dinner. “When people said to me, ‘Have you ever had an eating disorder?’ I always said no because I didn’t physically feel I did. But I did have an eating disorder. I would go out to dinner in restaurants with friends and then go to a cubicle in the toilet to puke up the food I had just eaten.”
The Lyra most people know has an explosive stage presence and a voice that has attracted the attention of producers who have worked with the likes of Sam Smith, Coldplay and Kate Bush. No surprise, then, that she’s being touted as the Next Big Thing.
She turns 30 in May, with a new single about to be launched and an album in the works. So far, so perfect.
But there is another Lyra. That Lyra was more unsure of herself. In London in the mid-2010s, with her career in the doldrums and no clear direction forward, she became convinced that just one thing needed to change to assure her success — her weight.
“I just used to binge on food and make myself sick, basically, afterwards, for a long time while I was at that point in my life when I didn’t know what I was or who I wanted to be as a singer,” she recalls.
“I was on my own. I was throwing up food to lose weight and try to be what I felt the industry wanted me to be. I don’t think I ever let it really sink in properly that’s that what I was doing.
“My sister asked me, ‘Are you throwing up food?’ And I was like, ‘No! Of course I’m not’. Then, eventually, I admitted it. I said I had been throwing up food and I was going to try and stop doing it.”
Six years later, Lyra, real name Laura McNamara, says she owes her recovery to her family, friends and a team of women who rallied around her. Now, she’s ready to embrace the success her talent promised from an early age.
“As a kid, I was always the performer. I remember making my Holy Communion with the lace umbrella and the shoes and the whole lot. The desire to perform came from an early age,” she recalls. “My sister was an amazing singer. My mum was an amazing singer. My two aunts, Mary and Margaret, were great singers. When you’re from Cork, everywhere you go there’s a sing-song.”
Her father Tony worked in Cork University Hospital as a biochemist and her mother ran a restaurant in Bandon. Her parents separated when she was 12. She joined the church choir, led by her sister Sarah, primarily for her granny, who would always go to six o’clock Mass.
In her teens, Lyra began writing her own songs. In her early 20s she moved to London and worked part-time jobs to self-fund her own EP, Wild, in 2016.
She had a voice somewhere between Florence Welch and Kate Bush but she wasn’t an ethereal waif. Lyra was a blonde bombshell, but she wasn’t a cookie-cutter pop star. And she made it clear she wouldn’t be pushed around.
“I was told I should be pale and dye my hair black and have a goth look,” she recalls.
She resisted, but the criticisms kept coming.
“I was told I’d never make it as a singer. I was told I wasn’t good enough. I was told that my voice sounded like I was singing in a football stadium. It was shocking to be told all those things. It cut my confidence for a very long time, because I believed what they said.”
Frustrations began to mount, and Lyra wondered if she had the right look for a pop star. Then things took a turn.
“Someone in the music industry told me I needed to lose weight.
“But then I was also told that I needed to learn how to dance and I didn’t do that. So [not progressing] was my own fault.”
She was 23 and living in a flat in Hackney, east London, with her sister. She became fixated with the thought that her body shape was holding back her career.
“I don’t think I was ever anorexic,” she says. “Though, to be honest, I don’t think I would have known at that point in my life whether I was anorexic or not.
“All that I knew was that I had to be skinny for these photoshoots, to fit into these clothes, and I had to look that way. I would do whatever I could to become that person. All I was thinking about was, ‘I need to get skinny. And this is the way I’m going to do it’.”
She began throwing up after meals. She was wary of friends or family finding out her secret, so she went to great lengths to keep it from them.
If her friends had noticed, they didn’t mention it. The illness, however, was starting to take its toll. “My periods stopped,” she says. “As women, we have hormones that we need to keep going. So, bulimia affected my body massively.”
Were you concerned when your periods stopped because of your eating disorder?
“I know this sounds bad but at the time I really didn’t care how it affected me. I just wanted to be accepted by the music industry. I felt I had to be this way.
“I felt I had to do this. It was set in my brain [that] to be a pop star you can’t be like this — overweight. I didn’t think of anything else. I didn’t think I had an eating disorder. I didn’t think about myself losing my periods. I didn’t think of the effect it would have on me.
“I didn’t think of maybe the long-term effect of having children,” says Lyra, who babysits her big sister Sarah’s children when she is home in Cork.
“I didn’t think that I was miserable. I didn’t think that it was affecting my vocal cords which, of course, getting sick does. So I was doing this” — vomiting food — “to have a career in music and it was affecting the thing that would really make me in the music industry, my voice. I wasn’t thinking about that.
“In some of my demos after that, I sound like a 12-year-old because I am trying to restrict my voice, so I won’t sound like the horrible things people said about me and my voice. And the demos were shit, absolute dog shit. If I kept going that way I would have gone nowhere.” Her mother Ann was clearly worried. One day she turned to her daughter and said she was “too skinny”.
At the time, though, Lyra was still in denial.
“But where I was in my life,” Lyra says now, “I didn’t think that at all. It is scary that I blindsided my friends and family or that I was being untruthful to them in any way. I didn’t want to do that. I just didn’t tell people. It is a scary topic. I don’t know why, to be honest, I have even told you because it is not something that I have even registered in my mind. It’s not something that I thought was bad at that time. And years later, I haven’t thought about it.”
How did you stop?
“Family was the main thing that stopped me. My mother and sister nearly ‘killed’ me.
“When we’d be in a restaurant I’d always be disappearing away to the bathroom or when we’d have dinner at home I’d be going up to the bathroom.”
Did you go to a doctor?
“No, I didn’t. I didn’t go to anyone.
“[Bulimia] was just something that I knew would get the results that I needed then. I know it sounds so stupid. It makes me so angry that I wasted so much time doing that. In hindsight, it didn’t get me anywhere, did it? My throat was sore, and my voice was dry all the time. It was like a very bad hangover, all the time. I wasn’t my best. So, it wasn’t great.
“Sometimes they’d wait outside to make sure that I wasn’t doing it. The final straw them saying, ‘Stop! It is bad for you’.
“Of course I knew it. It wasn’t even like I was happy. I was miserable. And my family were miserable watching me go through this. Then I decided, ‘That’s it. I can’t put them through this any more’. And I felt I physically can’t go through this any more, because I was so tired.
“I had no energy, because I wasn’t eating any food. I was wrecked. I was trying to write songs. I was going into photoshoots — and although I might be able to fit into the clothes, I was f**king haggard because I was so tired. What was the point?”
After a year-and-a-half, Lyra admitted she had a problem. But stopping was another matter.
“It was very difficult to get off almost the routine of ‘Oh, I’ve eaten chocolate, I shouldn’t have eaten chocolate, so I am going to get rid of it’. It was hard for a while to sit down and eat the chocolate before I said to myself: ‘Stop feeling guilty. It’s a bar of chocolate. Get over yourself.’
“My sister said to me, ‘Is your life worth this?’ I knew I had to re-evaluate everything. I was singing like I don’t normally sing and looking how I don’t naturally look. It wasn’t worth that. I maybe could have got there a lot faster but I would have got there half-dead. So what was the point? Because I wouldn’t be able to withstand it.
“So, I decided to leave the eating disorder eventually behind and take the long road and enjoy the long road. And if I get there, I will be in a good place, and I will be a lot happier and a lot wiser. That’s where I am now. I’m a different woman.”
That different woman is credited in part to the influence of music manager Caroline Downey. In 2019, Lyra petitioned Downey to take her on. At the time Lyra was worried she was starting to plateau and she was started to “not to love my music”.
She arranged a meeting with the manager in Dublin in 2019.
“I was shaking like a leaf meeting her. I remember my top lip was sweating. I knew she was managing Hozier, she’s an inspiration. And she’s put a great team of women around me. I trust them and they trust me.”
That trust is visible in ever more confident stage performances.
“I would class myself as powerful. It is not just the pure loudness of my voice, but I also feel like when I’m on stage that I have power, that I’m fierce.
“I’m not scared of anything in that moment of time. I’ve spent most of my life being ‘morto’. I’m not ‘morto’ about anything when I’m on stage. The second I’m on stage, everything — all my self-doubt, most of my vulnerability and insecurities — goes, and I become this person, because I believe in what I’m doing. I want to show people what I can do when I perform. I want to give everything. I want people to remember me. I give my all to try to win people over when I’m on stage.”
And off stage?
“Once you stop singing, the shield is gone. You get a little bit nervous. You get a little bit vulnerable. It’s like you’re human again. I sometimes feel that I’m a bit thick. That’s why I get nervous. I have sweat dripping down, saying all this now.” So, who is Lyra? There is a vulnerability to this young iconoclast and her music which is as inescapable as it is compelling.
“That is a good question, who am I? Because when you write songs and you’re an artist you stay in your lane.
“Now Wild, my first EP, was ethereal, a bit anthemic, with Kate Bush-like harmonies, and different melodies.
“In the world of classic songwriting it doesn’t make sense in the way it is structured. I always thought that’s the way I must write. Then I wrote Falling. When I wrote it I thought, ‘Jesus, this is such a pop song and I’m not a pop artist. I can’t release this’. Then I thought, ‘I had great fun writing that’ — it came to me way easier than trying to be this really deep, meaningful artist who tries to push boundaries.
“So, whenever I want to write a song, no matter what genre it is, I will just go with how I feel. But everything I do is confessional.”
Lyra is confessional in an almost diarist way, like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé. (Lyra has been called the Irish Beyoncé. Last March, she co-wrote, with Grammy-winner Bill Whelan, Light Me Up for the new Riverdance animation movie.) Some of her confessions are, she says, of the “heartbreak that every cat on the street and fish’s son knows about”.
After four years living together in Brighton, her first serious relationship broke up in 2017.
It was acrimonious.
“I felt a bit unlovable because the things he said about me when we were breaking up. He told me to watch the news every day and read the newspaper or a book. I told him, [Laughs] ‘Join a f**king book club, then! Talk to somebody else if that’s what you what! Just leave me out of it!’
“But I did do it for him, though. I am such a ‘heart on the sleeve’ kind of Cork girl that maybe he felt he could tell me these horrible things. I felt really thick and stupid.
“He felt he couldn’t sit down with me and have a good, in-depth, intellectual conversation. That’s exactly what it was. I did watch the news for me but I don’t want to sit down and talk about politics. It is not in me. I would love to sit down and talk about something else, like life.
“So, him saying those things and saying I lacked all emotional intelligence, it made me even more insecure in my relationship. It took me so long after that not to feel stupid or feel like I can hold an intelligent conversation.”
The accusations stung and she found them hard to shake.
So she put her feelings into a song, You.
One of its lyrics is about being “at hell’s gate”.
“I cried and cried every day,” she says. “I was heartbroken. There was no getting back together. Number one, because he wasn’t getting back with me, let’s call a spade a spade. I’m not going to say, ‘Yeah, he wanted to get back but I said no’. He didn’t want me. He didn’t want me back. I wondered if he was the one who got away.
“But he didn’t get away. He left me. Get over it. The break-up wasn’t my decision. So I couldn’t do anything about it.
“I got dumped. Dumped like a hot snot. We were living together and I had to move out. I gave myself some breathing space. I went on some wild nights out.”
She didn’t restrict herself to Brighton, however. An opportunity came up to write alongside [American musician, producer and songwriter] BloodPop in LA and she jumped at the chance.
While there, she hit the clubs.
“I had a wild time,” she says. “That will be another song. The title will change but at the moment it’s called Drink Me Up. In LA, I felt, ‘I can go out and have a great time and I can snog someone if I want to snog someone, and sleep with someone if I want to sleep with someone, but I don’t need any more than that’. “Because before I was needy kind of girl who loved love and loved having that one person but at that point, the hell’s-gate point in my life — I was so bloody hurt that I thought, ‘I want a good time without any bloody strings attached’. Everyone thought I was going to be a clinger again. I wasn’t going to be a clinger. I really enjoy myself.”
Drink Me Up is one of her favourite songs. It is so good, she says excitedly. “It has a salsa feel with weird trumpets on it.”
She sings the chorus: “Am I too wild? I never cry when my heart breaks! I never sleep in the same place. C’mon boy, let’s go for the ride. Let’s be animals for one last night.”
“It’s very sexy,” she explains, once she has stopped singing to me about her lusty nights in La-La Land.
“I found that song very empowering. It’s the kind of thing a man can sing, but if a woman sings it, she’s a slag. So when I got to Brighton from LA, I was living on friends’ couches because I had nowhere to live. My ex was in the apartment we used to share. Sometimes when he went away I would come over and stay... and sleep in our old bed. It was insane.”
Four months later, on a night out in Brighton, she met “this hot guy”.
She didn’t think anything of it. “I just thought we’d have a great night and that was going to be it. I even said to that to him, ‘I’m new out of a relationship’. We have been together ever since. We’re mad about each other and we have been for the last four years. I’m not thinking about weddings or babies…”
Where does she see herself in five years in terms of career?
“I have a vision for the future,” she says. “I see myself having two albums out, No 1 in Ireland and I would love if the second one went No 1 in the UK and possibly world-wide and got on to the Billboard charts in America. I would love to see my name up there. I’m ready.”
Later, Caroline Downey, speaking from Los Angeles, says: “She is truly a unique talent. I think Lyra is incredibly unique. It’s why I said yes when she asked me to manage her. I fell in love with her voice, songs, personality and her sheer determination to work hard.
“She has a powerful voice and sings in a contemporary Celtic way. It’s important we don’t lose that sound and every generation has songwriters and singers who keep that flame alive but also stay relevant.
“Lyra does just that. She writes songs people can relate to and it comes to her naturally.
“People can also relate to Lyra on and off stage as she is very funny and totally bares her soul.
“And once those boots go on, she morphs into this incredible entertainer... what you see is what you get. Our powerful, Irish, sexy, beautiful banshee, with a twist! She is the whole package.”
Photography: Evan Doherty; Styling: Orla Dempsey, @thatsorlatoyou; Hair: Sian Sharkey, @siansharkeyhairstylist; Make-up: Sandra Gillen Makeup, @sandragillenmakeup
Lyra’s new single You is out on Rubyworks. She headlines Rock against Homelessness in aid of Focus at the 3 Olympia, Dublin, on May 26. Tickets are €27
Bodywhys Helpline, tel: (01) 210-7906, or see.bodywhys.ie