INTERVIEW: “My youth has been very strange”—YouTube star Janet Devlin talks inspiration, the Dalai Lama and bullying

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At only 20 years old, Irish singer/songwriter Janet Devlin has gone from YouTube star to U.K. The X Factor contestant to now taking on the music world on her own, with the release of her album Running With Scissors in June 2014. She continues to explore herself as an artist with the self-reflection of an old soul. Substream got the chance to sit down with Devlin during her stop to New York while on her US tour.

This is your second time in New York City, right? What has the experience been like?
It’s been amazing. Like, even just getting’ up and goin’ to the shop to get coffee for me is excitin’ here. Like, never mind all the fun stuff. Like, I went up on the roof of the hotel the other day and it was just insane just lookin’ out over the whole city and just goin’, “I am such a miniature, like there’s so many people here.” It’s just been all amazing, all amazing.

Is there a particular part you’ve enjoyed the most?
I would say the workin’ parts of it, like performances and sessions and stuff which has been really, really good fun. I’ve had more time to actually like go out and see New York, as well as being able to meet up with a few people that I’ve known for a long time on the internet and they live in New York and that’s been really fun. So, I’ve actually got to see more of it and walk a bit, a bit more ’round and see everything.

You haven’t had the normal youth, to say the least. But your education has been other aspects. I mean, from the moment that you started on The X Factor to now, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen within yourself as a person?
It all started like when I was 15 and I started a YouTube channel. And by the age of 16, I had 15,000 subscribers on the YouTube channel and then went on TV. My youth has been very strange. Like, I pretty much grew up on TV in front of a lot of people and I had a, it was very strange, because a lot of people get time to figure out who they are and things, whereas I had to figure out who I was pretty fast. But it was actually very beneficial for me, because I needed to know who I was. And it’s really helped me like, just with a lot of things that people would find very stressful, I’m quite actually all right with, cause I know who I am and am confident in who I am and things. So, it really did help me discover myself, and I think by, I think I know a lot about myself for someone who’s 20. I’ve had quite a lot of experience in my life so far. Like, I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve done a lot of gigs, I’ve done so much stuff; I’m very, very blessed and I can’t forget that.

Is there one particular experience you can think back to where you realized, “Wow, my life isn’t normal?”
Yeah, there’s quite a few, but I think the biggest one was when I was asked to perform for the Dalai Lama. That was one where I was like, “That doesn’t happen to normal people.” I’m very big into my spirituality as well, so whenever I got asked for that, I was like, “What? No, no, really?’ I can’t turn down the Dalai Lama! So, yeah, that was just insane.

Did you have to travel to see him?
He came to Ireland, actually. And they asked me to sing, so I did. And then I got in the car with the mayor of the city, and we hopped in the car together, he was very nice. Like, the mayor of the city asked me, “Do you want to come and greet him at the Peace Bridge?” And I was like, “Yeah!” So, I got to walk with the Dalai Lama and he held my hand. And there is definitely an aura of that man that is, I’ve never met anyone like that in my life. Like, because people talk about it and you don’t believe it, but he really does radiate something that is just pure and amazing. It just doesn’t even feel real to this day.

You’re here physically in New York City doing all these sessions, but where’s your heart right now?
It’s quite a weird place to be in this spot. I think, not to sound too cheesy, but as soon as I hit 20, I kind of felt like I had my life together. Because for years before that, I did just feel like a teenager and I did just feel like I had no idea what was going on. But I was just riding this wave, and I needed to ride the wave because it was all just going so fast, and I survived that. But, I don’t know. I turned 20 and just kind of went, “Right.” I mean I’m kind of an adult now, you know? I feel like I got my life together, I feel like I know who I am a lot more and I feel confident that I can go out and do whatever the hell I want and own it, as long as I am in the right mind space. And I have definitely been in the right mind space since I turned 20.

What’s your secret to just understanding who you are?
It’s not to think about it. I think like most teenagers, I had a couple of spells of “Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going with my life? What is this?” And after a couple of months of just not thinking about it, and just moving on, I just woke up and realized, “Wow, I think I know where I’m going now.” It’s really just not overthinking it, ’cause that is where you get that sense of analysis paralysis where you think so much, you can’t do anything. So, that’s where I was anyway. So, I stopped thinking.

I was told you are a huge advocate against cyber-bullying. Why is that particular cause so passionate for you?
I was in the limelight when I was 16. And you’re very vulnerable at 16, you know? I was gettin’ so much online abuse. I think the funniest one, and I’m sayin’ funny, ’cause it was hilarious, because I remember Lord Sugar—he is on The Apprentice in the U.K.—so this guy is very important. He’s a Lord, obviously. And he was sending me hate on the internet. Like this old man sending a 16-year-old girl internet abuse, you know. I find it quite sad—for him,  not for me—that he has to attack a 16-year-old girl on the internet to make himself feel good. People wondered why I never responded, and that’s why: because I was happy and content in who I was. The reason I started off with the bullying thing is because on a daily basis I get mean comments. And it sucks to think that that still goes on. I got bullied in my younger years as well. I feel bad for the bullies. There’s definitely something inside of a bully that, there’s a level of insecurity inside someone that has to attack someone else, and I think that needs to be addressed. But that will be addressed if we address the whole situation. I just feel like no one should ever feel like they’re alone in that situation, because it’s so easy to isolate yourself when other people are being mean to you. ’Cause then you start being mean to yourself, whereas you should realize it’s not you, it’s them.

What measures do you think people could take to stop cyber-bullying or to prevent it in the future?
It’s a hard one. I just think, realistically, I just think it’s the society we’re livin’ in. This comes back to the bullies again: We’re all insecure. And I think it’s really teachin’ people to love themselves, because for some reason, we’re taught that that’s not okay. ’Cause if you think about the amount of billion-dollar industries that would go bankrupt tomorrow if girls started lovin’ themselves, guys started lovin’ themselves. There would be a massive collapse, but I think it needs to happen. I think people need to wake up and love themselves. And you’d be surprised at how much bullying would disappear, either on the internet or in real life.

There are a lot of themes about self-perseverance and standing up for yourself on your album. Was that the message you wanted to send?
There’s one theme through the album is that it’s all personal. It’s all about my life and everything that I’ve gone through. But I feel like it’s about my personal life, which is things most people have gone through. Like most people have gone through a bad breakup, most people have had a massive crush on someone. A lot of people have struggled with growing up, a lot of people have struggled with dealing with life which is the song called “Lifeboat” which talks about helping yourself, teaching yourself how to swim. You know, it’s pretty much just the diary of me. And I think there’s a couple of things in there that might help people, which would be cool. I’ve had people come up and say that the album has helped them, which is the most amazing feeling ever. I can’t even put that into words.

What is your next step after you go back home?
Well, I ain’t been to my parents’ house since Christmas, so first stop is actually go home to Ireland. So, I go to London for a few days, where I live, and then I fly home for a week to see my family and my dogs. So, that’s gonna be nice. But I’m workin’ on my visa for comin’ over here and playing, hopefully some more shows and things. Like that would be a dream come true, to tour a part of the States, you know. That would be insane.

Let’s say you were on the roof of this building, and all of New York City was just stopped for a second. No phones, no cars, nothing was going, but everyone was listening to something you had to say. What would it be?
Free yourself—because everyone has something in their head. When you say free yourself to someone, there is something in their life that they’re holding onto that they haven’t freed themselves from yet. Whether it be themselves that’s holdin’ themselves down or someone in their life, or something, a situation, so that’s what I would say.