Una Healy’s mother has a safe full of envelopes. Each one arrived by registered post and is addressed to her daughter in the same handwriting. None have ever been opened, but Una knows what’s inside: tape recordings of many of the songs she’s written since first picking up a guitar aged 12.
“I used to send them to myself with the postmarks to establish my copyright. When I was a kid I used to worry someone was going to steal my songs, like U2 was going to discover one and have a hit with it”, she says laughing. But the idea of her work being pilfered isn’t so fanciful. Una may currently be best known as one fifth of The Saturdays, but prior to joining the band she twice won Irish national songwriting competition the Glinsk Song Contest. Due for release in 2017, her debut solo album The Waiting Game expresses her talent through assured songcraft that weaves magnetic folk, pop and rock melodies into echoes of the country music she grew up with.
Music was always around Una. Her uncle is Country and Irish legend Declan Nerney and her mother was semi-professional singer and guitar player. It was her mother who first gave her a guitar and taught her a few chords. Una learned to play Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You and then began experimenting with her own compositions. Notebooks and a dictaphone sat by her bed, rapidly filling with words and melodies that helped process the trials of teenage life: a song for her recently passed grandfather, songs about being bullied, songs for friends who’d had their hearts broken.
Around that time, she saw Sheryl Crow performing All I Wanna Do on TV. “I thought, “That’s exactly what I wanna do’,” she says. As her ambitions took shape, she continued writing through school, acing music exams by performing her own songs. She tried to get through university but dropped out twice, quitting courses in teaching and nursing because the of pull of singing and songwriting was too strong. Most evenings were spent loading her guitar and PA system into the back of her Honda Civic, performing at any Tipperary venue that would have her. Eventually, she holed up in a Dublin bedsit and relentlessly toured the city’s pub and club circuit. St Patrick’s Days were spent in Florida, playing ten-hour sets at Mickey Quinns pub in Indian Wells. “The same two-hour set over and over again,” she says, laughing. “Constantly being asked to play Danny Boy.”
Alongside those two Glinsk victories in 2004 and 2006, she independently released an EP called Sorry and sang backing vocals for Irish entry Brian Kennedy at the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. By 2007 though, she resolved to move to London. “I was asking myself, ‘Where do I go with this?’ I was playing the same circuit so much I was getting dizzy. I wanted to spread my wings and meet new people.”
It wasn’t long before an audition lead her to meet four other singers. They became The Saturdays and racked up 13 Top Ten singles and five Top Ten albums in six years. Una cherishes that time but, with the band going on hiatus in 2014, her original singer-songwriter ambitions nagged like unfinished business. “It’s like I’ve gone full circle, back to the beginning,” she says. “I’m calling the album The Waiting Game because I’ve been waiting so long for this.”
Impacting in February, her first single from the album is ballad Stay My Love, a duet with Sam Palladio, British-born star of US TV drama Nashville. Originally a melody that came to Una in the back of a car while travelling to the blind auditions of The Voice Of Ireland, on which she’s a judge, it was fleshed out with Amy Wadge, Grammy-winning co-writer of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud. Like-minded souls, the pair quickly developed a friendship over coffee – then discovered their rapport was just as strong in the studio, writing the track in just an hour. Una believes she’s also found the perfect singing partner in Palladio: “His music, his style, is a lot more in the direction of my music than what people know me for in The Saturdays. It’s a good fit.”
Lyrically, the song portrays the thoughts of two people who feel the same way about each other but can’t find the words to say it. As it developed into a duet, Una was adamant that it should still express the confusion and uncertainty of love and not resolve into a “cheesy” happy ending. Her songs are about “the tough side of love” as much as the joy. Against the uptempo pop-rock of Battlelines, she sings, “We’ll get scars, we’ll get burnt, yeah get hurt – but then in love that’s just the way.”
On the first day of recording, her producer asked where she found lyrical inspiration given that she’s been happily married to rugby union international Ben Foden for four years. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?! I’m a mother of two – I’ve got lots to write about.’” she says. “It’s an album about life – the ups and the downs. I’m not shy about talking about them in these songs… I could talk for Ireland anyway!”
Nevertheless, there’s an absorbing optimism to her lyrics – a search for resolution and repair during the difficult moments. It’s an attitude encapsulated in the refrain of roots-y title track Waiting Game: “Even when you’re living through the worst, you know the best is yet to come.”
“You have to take the rough with the smooth and stay positive,” she says. “I know sometimes you hear the words ‘singer-songwriter’ and think that the music will be depressing but hopefully these songs are uplifting – even the sad ones, I want people to feel they’re beautifully sad.”
She also has a knack for making personal stories feel universal. The buoyant, Nashville-tinged Staring At The Moon is about missing her daughter while away from home – but it will resonate with anyone who’s ever strived to make connection with a distant loved one. “I want people to take their own interpretation of the songs,” she says. “I loved learning other people’s songs and making them my own. I’d love my music to encourage young people to do the same.” Given the warmth, intimacy and captivating melodies of The Waiting Game, it’s easy to imagine that happening. Expect an upturn in sales of envelopes and safes very soon.