Last year, Cork pop singer Lyra experienced a brand new emotion: overwhelming heartbreak. “It was the first time I sat down and wrote a ballad. I suddenly understood how Adele could do it,” says Lyra, her accent still carrying a distinctive lilt after nearly five years in London.
“It’s crazy how much going through a really big break-up influences your songwriting. You hear people saying it. And then it happens to you. And you understand that it’s a massive thing.”
Lyra is herself on the brink of becoming massively popular. Universal, the world’s biggest record label, has shortlisted her as an artist to watch for 2020, along side Gary Moore’s daughter, Lily, and Inhaler, the band fronted by Bono’s son Elijah Hewson. It is no surprise she would find herself in such rarefied company given the obvious commercial potential of her music, an irresistible mix of Enya, Ariana Grande and Florence and the Machine.
The momentum she has built up is now approaching critical mass. This month she will open for Gavin James at 3Arena in Dublin. That will be followed in March with dates at Cyprus Avenue Cork and her largest ever homegrown headliner, at Academy Dublin (it’s already a sell-out). That is on the back of a much-tweeted about set at last year’s Electric Picnic, where she packed the second stage Electric Arena.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “I’m one of those people that needs to be busy. And I’m going to be really busy in the year ahead.”
You’re probably wondering and, yes, she was christened “Lyra”. She prefers to keep her second name secret to conjure an air of mystery. “I want to keep under wraps. Once you start telling people everything the mystique vanishes,” she told me once.
Home is Rochestown on the south side of Cork, where she first sang in church. And though based in the UK she is back and forth all the time and close to her family. Which is why the cover of her recent single ‘Mother’ features an image of her own mum as a young woman.
“She was mortified,” Lyra laughs. “That picture was the first time she had her eyebrows plucked. It was either the day before her wedding or her engagement. I love that picture. She has always been a massive inspiration.”
To some it may seem as if she has just emerged from nowhere. But she is obviously no overnight success. Lyra has toiled for years. To get even this far, to the foothills of a big pop career, has required blood, sweat and steely ambition.
“On the outside sometimes it looks as if you’ve popped out of nowhere,” she nods. “I’ve thought that myself with a few people: ‘oh my god — how did that person become massive?’ You don’t release that behind the scenes they’ve been working hard. I starting out self-releasing my first EP. It was a really slow build up.”
As she has gained in profile so she has started to experience the downside of life in the public eye. For the first time this year she has started to attract trolls on social media. Someone recently tweeted about her “annoying laugh”. It sounds trivial. Still, it’s a new experience and she can’t quite get it out of her head.
“It was the first mean tweet I received and it knocked the stuffing out of me,” she says. “It’s shocking. And I’m only receiving it on a very tiny scale. What must it be like for people who get it all the time? It’s hard. Would those people say those things to your face? I don’t think so. It was like… ‘wow’. I don’t know you. And you find my laugh annoying? Yeah, sorry about that.”
The songs inspired by her recent heartbreak have yet to be shared with the world. She suspects that her ex may recognise himself in the music. She has written about paramours in the past. Her early single ‘Falling’ was about a boyfriend back in Cork.
“He knows it’s about him and he absolutely loves it,” she says. “He’s going ‘that song’s about me’. And I’m thinking, ‘have you listened to it? You’re not painted in a good light.”
She was enormously homesick when she moved to London. Lyra missed her friends and family — something she poured into the music. “I was very lonely. I was like ‘oh my god’. So I wrote about my mom, my family.”
One of the lessons she has learned since leaving home is that in music authenticity is all important. She recalls working with a producer she’d prefer not to name. He encouraged her to create a fantasy version of herself — the cool kid hanging at “the club”. She couldn’t do it.
“It was a song that was ‘oh, I’m drinking in my car… taking drugs’. All made up stuff. I was thinking, ‘who am I?’ I have to write about things that happened to me and that mean something to me. I can go back to the situation and relive it and write about it. I find it harder to write about about things that haven’t happened.”
The treatment of women in the music industry is obviously a pressing subject today and one on which Lyra of course has an opinion.
Since signing with Universal, the producers, co-writers, label bosses and promoters with whom she has a worked are almost invariably male. So far, and touch wood, she hasn’t suffered through an experience comparable to that of Sigrid, who wrote her hit ‘Kill My Vibe’ after being condescended to by two middle-aged male producers.
“I’m not going to harp on, ‘oh it’s so hard for women’,” says Lyra. “Everyone has their struggle; male and female. But as a woman it can be difficult. You feel there are a lot of boxes to tick. I’ve only recently realised I’m not one for playing these games.”
Lyra may be an artist on the rise.Yet she has had to negotiate the insecurity that is part of everyday life for anyone in her line of work. She felt a pang recently looking at an RTÉ list of newcomers to watch out for in the year ahead. She was on last year’s countdown. And now here comes another batch of contenders, snapping at her heels. If you think about it too much the insecurity could play havoc.
“I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, I was on that list last year’. I was a Rising Star for RTÉ 12 months ago. What have I done? Should I have done this or that? How are these people coming up? This is the first year I felt like that.”