Yet, despite the tragedy, Hardy discovered her voice as a musician, turning sorrow into an inspirational story of hope against adversity. Here she talks about her life with journalist Charlotte Rogers.
What affect did your brother's death from meningitis have on your young life and the rest of your family?
It had a huge impact. I was 11 at the time when Steve died. He was 15. My other brother Richard must have been 13. It’s slightly hard to separate losing Steve from all the other things that were going on at the time. The family home was already divided. My father had left leaving a wake of destruction behind him and the children were caught in the middle and my step-father was forcing me to live through a nightmare. Everything was already very hard at that point and when we lost Steve everyone was already so close to breaking point that I think the whole family just snapped apart. We all just broke.
Was the impact worse because the illness came on so quickly and unexpectedly?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. You’re never going to be ready to lose someone that young. Perhaps it was a blessing that it all happened so fast. My memories are all of Steve being Steve, not of Steve being sick. It all seemed very surreal at the time. I think that made it hard to take in.
How did your life change? Can you share a bit about the period in your life when you ran away from home aged 14?
After Steve everything changed. The bad things got worse and the good things weren’t there any more. Eventually I ended up in a children’s home in Taunton. At that point in my life I didn’t feel like I had a home or a family.
I never meant to run away, it wasn’t a conscious decision. If you failed to return after curfew they called the police. I remember my dad, who I still had some contact with, saying that if it ever happened again he’d disown me. We went out one night and I lost track of the time. When I realised they were going to call the police I figured there was no point going back, so I just kept going.
I was gone for nearly five months. I hitchhiked around the UK and eventually ended up in Ireland. I lived on the streets in Dublin for a while and then eventually found myself in Galway. I could fill a book with the stories of those few months. Eventually after a bad night sleeping on Galway Green I walked into the Garda Station and told them I wasn’t really 18, my name wasn’t really Stella Burn, and that I wanted to go home.
Has what happened to your brother affected how you look after your own children? Is the fear of meningitis a constant worry?
Constantly. Every illness, every rash and there’s that moment of terror. It’s never gone away. I think most people lean toward thinking people are actually invincible, whereas I’m constantly fearing the worst. I’m still learning to deal with my own fears of mortality. I was absolutely convinced I wouldn’t ever make it past my own 15th birthday. It didn’t seem possible that I could keep living past the age that Steve had died.
How did the tragedy impact on your songwriting both at an early age and now as an adult?
I learnt to play and to sing songs on the street because I had to. I was given a guitar by someone who told me to busk rather than beg and I didn’t know any music so I just wrote my own. I fumbled around and discovered chord shapes just by learning which notes sounded good together. My dad once told me that when I sang I sounded like a dying cat and those words stuck with me. When I returned from Ireland I still had my guitar, but it was taken from me.
Eventually I found my way back to music. Music was a counsellor. Music was how I dealt with everything. I wrote songs to express the things I needed to express, to deal with the things I needed to deal with, to share the things I couldn’t keep locked away. For years all of my songs were autobiographical, whether it was overtly obvious or not. Eventually I worked through my past and now I love writing other people’s stories, but I had to tell mine first.
What made you want to tell your story?
When our family was falling apart it seemed like nobody talked about anything that was happening. It was all brushed under the carpet. I saw what that does to people. If you don’t share it eats you up. By talking about things we can deal with them together. I’ve lost count of the emails, messages and conversations I’ve had with people who have thanked me for sharing my story either in person or in song. It seems to have helped others just as much as it’s helped me.
It took another 15 years before we started building bridges, but now my family is mending. We’re healing. If you saw me with my mum today you’d never know the past was as fraught as it was. I’m joyously married with two amazing children who are surrounded by a loving family and I’m now a full-time professional songwriter and musician living a life that I could never have dreamed of. There’s still scars from the past, they’ll always be there, but there’s always hope for the future.
Musically, can you tell us a bit more about the direction of your latest work?
I’ve just finished recording my fifth studio album. It’s a collection of 14 tracks called ‘Findings’. Findings are the parts used to join jewellery components together to form a completed article. It’s an album about daughters and their homelands, wives and their husbands, sisters and their brothers, children and their parents, fathers and their grandfathers, parting and joining, mothers and their families.
It also contains our own findings, traditional songs that we’ve found a love for and verses or lines from traditional material that have found their way into our songs. This is the first time I’ve recorded traditional material. The album contains three traditional songs, three songs based around traditional lines and eight new songs.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Can we expect to see you touring or at any other festivals over the next couple of months?
There are festivals and concerts lined up for the whole year! I’m keeping very busy. The big event is the album launch for Findings at The Sage Gateshead. I will also be touring the UK throughout October, playing venues like The Green Note in Camden, The Regal Theatre in Minehead, the Artrix in Bromsgrove.
Are you planning a new album? Or future collaborations with artists like Lukas Drinkwater or special projects like Esteesee?
I’m always planning a new album. I’ve already written the first song for the next album and we’ve started writing grant applications for the album after that. Better not say any more or I’ll get in trouble with my husband if I start talking about those projects before we’ve even launched the current one!
Ange Hardy’s latest album Findings has recently been released to great acclaim. The album that tells the tale of her family break-up following her brother’s death from meningitis is The Lament of the Black Sheep.
Ange Hardy is performing at our Gloucester Cathedral Christmas Concert on Monday 12 December at 7.30pm. Why not join us? Tickets are on sale here.