Irish pop sensations The Corrs ruled the charts in the 1990s. But behind the fame, glamour and multimillion album sales, lead singer Andrea reveals she was nursing a deeply private world of grief and heartache.
For most of the 1990s and 2000s, it was pretty much impossible to pick up a magazine, turn on your TV or tune your radio without being assailed by the angelic face and voice of Andrea Corr. She was, of course, lead singer of The Corrs, the Irish band composed of herself, her elder sisters Sharon and Caroline, and brother Jim, whose folk-rock hits such as ‘Breathless’ and ‘Runaway’ helped sell more than 40 million albums internationally.
Once voted ‘Most Beautiful Woman in the World’, Andrea, now 45, appeared to lead a charmed life, hanging out with Bono, Mick Jagger and Robbie Williams. But behind the glamour, she was often suffering deeply. First, aged 25, she had to grieve for her mother Jean, who died aged just 57 of a rare lung disease. Then, in 2015 – shortly after the band had reunited – for her father, Gerry, who was 82.
While the world knew about these losses, no one outside Andrea’s inner circle had any idea about the other bereavements that were tearing her apart. Having married Brett, the son of Irish billionaire Dermot Desmond, ten years ago, she was eager to become a mother, only to suffer five miscarriages. ‘There was a lot of suffering in silence,’ Andrea says of that bleak period. ‘Every time, no matter how often it happens, as soon as you discover you’re pregnant, you so quickly go into the mode of hoping and dreaming for this child – and then suddenly it’s all gone. Every time I’d feel so sad for a life that wasn’t there any more and also really frightened that this was it. That I’d always miscarry.’
All this pain is recorded in Andrea’s new memoir Barefoot Pilgrimage, which, she stresses, ‘isn’t in any way a pop star’s biography’. Sure enough, while the book touches on The Corrs’ stellar achievements (being the first Irish band to receive MBEs from the Queen for their charitable work; supporting U2 and the Rolling Stones on their US tours; playing for Nelson Mandela five times), it’s far more a homage to Andrea’s carefree childhood. Growing up in Dundalk, near the Northern Irish border, she was the family baby: ‘I just let everyone else look out for me. Caroline would cry because I was going to be late for school – it was so funny.
‘The Corrs are an ordinary family that extraordinary things happened to,’ Andrea continues. ‘Music just happened to be the thing we did and when we were in the middle of it none of it seemed strange, though obviously it was. It’s hard to be showbizzy when you’re working with family. There’s no opportunity to kick off, or get ideas above your station; you’re all far too intimate with each other to try it on.’
Now mum to Jean, seven, and Brett Jr, five, Andrea is still performing (The Corrs, having reformed four years ago, released two subsequent records). Yet – shoes off and slumped on a beanbag after the Youphoto shoot – she couldn’t come across as more down-to-earth. In her surprisingly husky voice, she chats away about everything from her shock at the overuse of swearing in contemporary music (‘I know I sound prudish, but what is the point?’), to the horrors of the London school system (‘People are tutoring five-year-olds to get into schools – I hate it!’), which prompted her and husband Brett to move from London back to Dublin.
Only when she pushes her famously raven hair back from her elfin face do you remember the ‘Most Beautiful Woman’ tag. ‘All that attention made me so uncomfortable,’ Andrea says. ‘I was very self-conscious. It was like living in a room with mirrors on every wall, constantly seeing yourself from every angle. Thank goodness we didn’t have social media then, or I wouldn’t be here talking to you now – I couldn’t have coped.’
Having written most of The Corrs’ lyrics, the ‘deep, deep sadness’ that engulfed Andrea about a year after the death of her father Gerry, an electrician, who used to sing with Jean in local pubs, was her spur to start the book. ‘There’s a real shift when your parents die; you’re now the top layer of the family and it makes you aware of your mortality,’ she says. ‘It left me with this overwhelming need to write everything down, so as not to lose our strange family story.’
Though lyrical in style, Andrea doesn’t flinch in recalling the family’s various tragedies. First was the loss of Gerry and Jean’s youngest son Gerard, who, aged three, four years before Andrea was born, was knocked down and killed by a car. ‘Our parents could never talk for more than three minutes about Gerard before the pain became too much for them,’ Andrea says.
Then, in 1999, at the height of the family’s world domination, Jean died. ‘Mum had been a completely healthy, vibrant woman in April and in November she was gone, so it was fast and frightening for her,’ Andrea says. ‘As a child you only think of things from your point of view, but now I’m a parent I realised she must have been so scared to be leaving us all without her to guide us. I find it heartbreaking. I can put myself in her position of being in her hospital bed and really looking at us. I remember she asked Caroline to move round so she could see her properly, because she knew it was the last time.’
For years afterwards, Andrea’s memories of her mother were hazy. ‘I think when you’re grieving you don’t want your brain to press “record”, so a lot of my memories were vague – it was as if my mum was a dream and I’d forgotten what it was like to be with her as a person.’
But, to her delight, writing the book triggered a host of recollections. ‘In the first draft Mum wasn’t really there, but by the end she’d come back to me.’ The book also helped her come to terms with losing Gerry, who died after a heart attack, with all his children at his bedside. ‘I feel Dad died the best way anyone could possibly die. He wasn’t frightened at all. Anyway, in the end I felt both Mum and Dad had an input in the book, even if they were probably often laughing at me and taking the mick.’
One of her great sadnesses is that Jean never got to meet Andrea’s daughter Jean – named after her. When Andrea became pregnant with her daughter in 2012, she was understandably edgy. ‘Those first weeks of pregnancy I couldn’t relax; I couldn’t trust it was OK until the baby was in my arms.’ Jean’s birth was lengthy and traumatic, with Andrea requiring a blood transfusion afterwards. ‘In the developing world I’d have died – you just have no idea until you go through it how dangerous a process birth can be. But it was all worth it for her.’
In contrast, Brett Jr’s birth two years later was mercifully uneventful, though Andrea didn’t want to try for a third child. ‘I’d been through too much heartache, then I’d had two babies back to back, and I figured two out of seven, that’s ultimately good.’ Now Andrea relishes leading a double life, alternating hands-on parenting with performing.
‘It’s weird, but it really makes you appreciate both sides,’ she says. ‘You think, “Was it real? Last night I was being a vixen on stage with a crowd screaming at me and today I’m pushing a buggy!” I really enjoy it.’
She enjoys music-making more today than in the band’s heyday. ‘Now I feel very lucky to do this, whereas when we were doing gigs back-to-back, not knowing what town we were in, I certainly didn’t feel lucky.’ It’s not surprising that in the book she dwells on the everyday details of her childhood, since that ended the day she left school aged 16 with no option but to join the band. Jim had persuaded his sisters to audition with him for the 1991 Dublin-based film The Commitments (each of them won a part, though Andrea had the only speaking role), at which they were spotted by their future manager. ‘The others were waiting for me to finish school so I had to go with them,’ she says. ‘I would have liked to go to university, but this has been some education. I have no regrets.’
The sisters’ beauty could sometimes be a distraction, with some people snidely claiming that Jim, the eldest, was the band’s real talent. ‘There was that element of he did the work and we did the look, but it’s because we disliked that assumption that we played our instruments so much [Sharon played violin and Caroline drums and keyboard] and became very good at what we did,’ Andrea says. ‘We just happened to look the way we did, but that was not the point of what we were doing. But it was often tempting for people to photograph us not as a band, but with a model-like vibe – and that meant our music was sometimes treated as something lighter than it actually was. It was like putting a chick-lit cover on a book that isn’t chick lit.’
Still, there was definitely some glamour, with Andrea’s name being linked – usually falsely – with several famous men. I ask if it’s true Robbie Williams sent her a note quoting their song, ‘What can I do to make you love me?’
‘Yes, and I replied, “Entertain Me”,’ she says, alluding to Robbie’s mega-hit. And did he? ‘Yes,’ Andrea smiles, refusing to elaborate further. ‘It was a funny time and I enjoyed it.’
Unlike so many other siblings in bands – think the Jacksons or the Gallaghers – the Corrs were never riven with feuds, splitting without acrimony in 2005 largely because Caroline and Sharon wanted more time with their young children. In recent years, Jim, 55, who still lives in Dundalk, has made headlines with his controversial tweets claiming, among other things, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were performed by the US government, that vaccinations are dangerous and – most recently – that climate change is a hoax, none of which his sisters have supported. ‘If we only put up views on things we all agreed on, then we’d be permanently mute,’ Andrea says. ‘Jim is his own person and I’m not there to sort him out. Everyone has their own take on things and he’s absolutely sincere about his – it’s coming from the right place.’
As she points out, her strong Catholicism isn’t shared with all her siblings. ‘But it’s such a comfort to me: it provides a moment of reflection and a way to give thanks. Everyone is looking for ways to find inner peace or getting into meditation – they should just go to mass,’ she laughs.
Clearly, family ties override the odd difference in opinions. Andrea says she’d love them to perform together again soon, but in the meantime there’s a busy family WhatsApp group, and the siblings and their collective eight children, aged from five to 16, will be celebrating Christmas at Andrea’s Dublin home (Sharon lives in Spain and Caroline in Somerset). ‘I’m stepping up and I’m excited about it!’ Andrea laughs. The baby of the family is finally in charge.
Andrea’s memoir Barefoot Pilgrimage will be published by HarperCollins on Thursday, price £12.99.To order a copy for £10.39 with free p&p until 27 October, call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk
Interview by Julia Llewellyn Smith