Performing live, IONA is about as far as you can get from the singer-songwriter stereotypeIona Luke with permission for Varsity

It’s hard enough to find a student who can spare half an hour for a coffee during exam season, let alone one who’s building a career as a singer-songwriter and performing up and down the country, all while studying for her degree. IONA is carving out a space for herself in the Cambridge music scene with a formidable pen, steadfast determination, and the time management skills of a US marine. I caught up with her over a latte in the Locker to discuss existentialism, musical theatre, and her approach to songwriting.

The Magdalene Engling has spent her first year playing pub back rooms and May Balls in-between train rides from Cambridge to her home city of London, where she’s being courted by record labels. But, for her, industry prestige is not what it’s all about.

“For her, industry prestige is not what it’s all about”

“My main thing is that I would like to be a songwriter,” IONA tells me, although she’s resigned to the fact that listeners don’t always share the same focus. “What you realise is that most of the time people aren’t listening to the lyrics. As a songwriter, you’re writing for people who like songwriters. It’s a balance between writing a song that is accessible to everyone but then having ownership of your lyrics.”

I can tell I’m speaking to an English student and not just because she’s wearing chic glasses and has an hour spare during exam term: first and foremost, IONA is a wordsmith. “I start with the words,” she tells me, “I’m just always writing things down and then it becomes a rambling poem so you streamline it into a structure that makes sense.”

“I have a whole playlist that’s just bands with female singers”

As for her influences, it seems she’s drawn to women’s voices and perspectives: “At the moment, I have a whole playlist that’s just bands with female singers like Metric, Biig Piig, Angel Olsen.” I ask about her performance at a Taylor Swift Appreciation Society event before the Easter holidays, and she tells me that, although she isn’t a diehard fan of America’s sweetheart, she admires the singer for her soul-bearing lyrics.

In Lent term, she won Jesus’ Hook, Line and Lyric songwriting competition with her single ‘Spinning’: a swooping and wallowing ballad that is as impressive vocally as it is lyrically. “My mum found [the competition]. She sent it to me, she was like: ‘You’re not doing anything – do this.’ And I did, and I forgot about it. And then I got an email.”

‘Spinning’ includes her favourite of the lyrics she’s written: “I’ve been praying to a god I don’t believe in.” It comes at the climax of the song’s spiral into existentialism and happens to be the same line that caught my attention the first time I saw her perform. With its precision and vulnerability, the lyric is like open heart surgery except IONA is both the surgeon and the patient. “I think the more you think about God, the worse it gets,” she says, summing up the existential dread that invariably haunts the humanities student.


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Performing live, IONA is about as far as you can get from the singer-songwriter stereotype: she isn’t hunched over an acoustic guitar dissecting failed relationships in an unironic fedora. Her backing band brings electric guitars and a rock beat, which contrast starkly with her soulful voice and introspective lyrics – but it works. “I guess what I want is that, if I’m playing, it’s not ignorable. My music isn’t inherently background music; it’s quite intense. I’ve never been afraid of being on stage. I did lots of musical theatre at school. I just think it’s fun and I want people to have fun.”

I end by asking how she manages to stay afloat as a solo artist in Cambridge’s band-dominated scene and she says: “You have to make yourself a space.” After hearing her incisive lyrics delivered so captivatingly, it’s clear to me that she’s already made herself a space and is ready to take centre stage.