Living the perfect life

When not living a quiet, home-centred life in Scotland, Eddi Reader loves performing before an audience. They are two sides of a contradictory personality. Family, children and her home life are incredibly important to her and she mentions them at least a dozen times during the interview and yet she delights in being out on the road, meeting people and playing before an audience.

Her touring schedule for the beginning of August is an illustration of just how hectic life can be. Yesterday she was playing a gig in Ireland. On Monday she’s with us in Suffolk, playing the Snape Proms, then the following day she back on home turf in North Berwick in Scotland. Then she’s off again to Denmark for a single gig before returning the following day for a show in Kilmarnock.

She says its not always that hectic and the shows are not always that far apart but on the other hand it’s not that unusual either.

“You have to take the gigs when you can get them,” she says.

After her days riding high in the late 80s with a number one single Perfect and a BRIT-winning Best Album of 1989, The First of a Million Kisses, Eddi Reader has happily returned to her singer-songwriter roots. She has 10 solo albums to her name all of which embrace her eclectic taste in music.

“I hate being tied down by genres,” she explains. In our conversation our topic of discussion ranges from the smooth sounds of Dickie Valentine and Matt Munro through the wild-hearted Elvis Presley Heartbreak Hotel years to the adrenaline-fuelled highs of the Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks.

For someone who is essentially a folk musician at heart Eddi Reader covers a lot of ground. Throw in some country and Americana, in addition to her abiding love of setting the words of Robert Burns to contemporary music and you have a performer who inhabits an entirely original musical landscape.

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She says that for her both music and performing is all about communication. “Even those big stadium acts, with the big special effects, smoke and ice, lasers and moving scenery, at the end of the day it’s all about communicating with your audience. Myself I prefer something more intimate, me, my voice, some songs and an acoustic guitar.”

Communication is another common theme in our chat. It’s obviously something she feels strongly about. Talking about her approach to songwriting, it’s based on how she sees the world. On feelings, on things she sees or has experienced. I venture to suggest that a lot of her songs are narrative stories, she’s not so sure.

“I don’t set out to write narrative stories deliberately. I write what I write. It’s things I want to talk about or share common experiences. To be honest I try not to look at myself or analyse what I do because then I’d end up trying to fix things I don’t like about myself, so I tend to just leave well alone.”

Although born in Glasgow, her family moved to Irvine, Ayrshire in 1976. The daughter of a welder and the eldest child of seven siblings, Eddi was always a performer. She began as a busker and started frequenting folk clubs before landing a part-time job at the Sirocco Recording Studio in Kilmarnock.

Her solo work has a strong sense of Scottishness running through it. I ask: Is this something which is important to her?

“It’s like you guys, you feel that you belong somewhere. You come from somewhere that has a culture, a past, it has music, tunes, stories and a history. For me, it’s not specifically about being Scottish but certainly there are bits and pieces about the place in which I was born which is very interesting to play with and explore musically. There’s a lot of traditional culture that seeps into mainstream culture without you realising it. The traditional song provides very fertile ground for song ideas. I love Burns, it’s a very fine poet, so it doesn’t matter if he is Scottish or from Wisconsin, I would be attracted to someone like Burns because of the way he thinks.

“He’s an inspiring character. I say he’s a bit like Johnny Rotten. He’s a bit of a rogue but he comes in and he makes you think. For example, many of the songs he’s written, the lyrics make sense of a lot of things that we still worry about – A Man’s A Man For All That – is a moving poem about how we all have to live together and as he says in the song: “We will be brothers yet”. It’s rooted in socialism, it’s rooted in community living and Glasgow, where I come from, is a very community-led town. It’s about sharing. Burns’ poems explain that to me. There’s a lot of passion, a lot of romance, egalitarianism – just beautiful ideas really.”

In terms of her own songwriting she says she just tends to empathise with whatever her characters are thinking – “I go where the poetry takes me”.

She said one of her favourite songs from her new album Love Is The Way is entitled I Won’t Stand In Your Way which she says having just seen Toy Story 3 brings together a lot of the same feelings and manages to convey many of the same thoughts and experiences. “It’s about my children growing up, helping me understand the feelings I’m having, having to cope that I’m fast approaching the time when I am going to have to give up my kids. They are going to leave home and go their own way – as I did. That theme is part of my life and it’s part of my music. So when I perform that song I Won’t Stand In Your Way, I put everything I’ve got and everything I feel about the situation into that song. And it’s quite possible audiences may pick up that it’s not something that I feel comfortable with.”

She said that she can’t imagine a time when she wasn’t writing or performing. The steady flow of albums over the last 20 years is testimony to her passion for music and the way albums are formed is that they are recorded in blocks so similar ideas naturally fall together. “If I have some ideas for songs I tend to group them together, hire a studio and we can then bulk buy, so to speak. So we get in there as a group and lay down several songs together and you have about six weeks to get your album together, printed and out there.

“But, it tends to depend on what sort of artist you are. In the old days a record label would put an album together, they would market it and you would tour to promote that album. That does still happen but not to the same degree. The internet has changed all that. People can now get your stuff for free and I’m fine with that. For me that means that my music spreads. It’s getting your music heard and your name known.

“For me it’s great if people are getting turned by your music and sending it to their friends – it’s adding to my audience. But maybe larger bands, more successful artists like U2 or Sting maybe take a different view. I’m looking to attract audiences, people who want to see me. I’m touring quite regularly and I am earning enough and hopefully will continue to earn enough to survive. I had my short moment of famousness, if that’s a word, which gives me that slight recognition factor and the music then adds to that and hopefully entices people to come out and see the show.”

She says that no matter how much she loves her family and her home-life, performing still gives her a special thrill and when she has a run of gigs she gets a real buzz. “I feel as if I am doing my work. I feel great. If I get a run of gigs then that’s fantastic. I’m doing something that make me feel good – my hair gets curly, my skin is clear – I love performing and I would be doing it whether I was earning from it or not.”

She says she loves meeting people after gigs who confess that they were dragged along by friends and were completely blown away by what they have seen. “That’s how people like me survive. It’s word of mouth, it’s people talking to friends and spreading the word.”

She said that she has no time for bands or artists who just come out and pretend not to care if the audience is having a good time or not. “I love performing whether I am singing and being the centre of attention or singing harmony for someone sitting next to me, it’s all about sharing an idea, sharing emotion. I really believe that life is better with music in the room.”

She says her contradictory personality rises to the fore again when it comes to which area of music she prefers best. “The physical part of me, loves performing – being up there on a stage, in front of an audience. But the grafter inside of me, my head if you like, prefers to be in a studio crafting a song, refining it, making it perfect. It’s rather like cutting up shapes in my head and editing them together again. If I am trying to invoke a feeling I have lots of ways of going at it in a studio whereas if it’s live then it’s just one moment in time and you go for it. It’s a completely different craft.

“For me performing is like watching fire-eating, a fairground attraction indeed, it’s about showing people a good time, sharing an idea, an experience. For me in the studio I am such a perfectionist that I tend to get lost in the 101 ways of doing something and yet live, after you’ve been singing that song for three years, it’s taken on a life of its own and it developed into something much more comfortable, a little bit more free-flowing, maybe the arrangement has been changed and you end up with something that can be completely different, particularly after a number of years.

“Songs grow and change and I like that. I’m not particularly good at doing the same thing every night. I like revisiting songs. I can put songs away for years and then bring them out, dust them down and see if it still fits me.”

She says that although she started out at an early age, she didn’t ever sit down and consciously decide to be a singer. “I always felt comfortable sitting on my own, coming up with strange musical noises – using my voice seemed easy and it made me feel good. Then I noticed it made other people feel good, so I ended up as this little wee thing, a three or four year old that enjoyed either listening to my family singing at parties or singing myself. I have a photographic memory for songs and music and inside my head I have memories of my great uncles singing old Scottish pub songs that were never recorded, songs that they sung during the afternoon break at the ship-building yards and they are sitting alongside the works of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley – it’s all in there.”

Another recent venture which weaves musical sounds from the past into the present was a collaboration with Jools Holland on the soundtrack of the award-winning independent film Me and Orson Welles directed by Richard Linklater.

The film tells the story of a young acting student who is introduced to Orson Welles in the late 1930s at a time when he was making his name with the Mercury Theatre Company. Welles offers the young man a role in his modern re-telling of Julius Caesar.

Jools Holland was commissioned to provide a suitably 30s jazz score and immediately made contact with Eddi to not only help with the arrangements but also to provide some vocals.

“It’s strange but Jools phoned me out of the blue just as I was reading a book about jazz singing in the 20s and 30s and talking about the start of popular singing. I feel very aligned to popular song but not to jazz, so much, I’m not a jazz singer but there again I’m not completely a pop singer. I’ve got a country sensibility in there somewhere and I love rocking out. I love acoustic folk music. I feel restricted by genres. I was reading this book thinking wouldn’t it be great to relive these eras, to sing songs through the ages, to experience all these lives from Bing Crosby to Dickie Valentine, Kay Starr to Matt Munro, Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Edith Piaff – people who were popular singing songs of their time.

“I was thinking about all this when Jools phoned me up and said: ‘We’ve got this part, we have to play a band from 1937 and you are the only one I know who does all that stuff. Do you fancy coming along and putting some songs together for us?’

“Richard Linklater, the director, wanted authentic 1937 songs which actually proved quite difficult. The biggest song of the year turned out to be Little Judy Garland singing: ‘You Made Me Love You’. The big film starred Claudette Colbert slinking around without a bra, wearing men’s trousers, pushing her shoulders forward: everything was twisting. There wasn’t a lot of female role models when it came to pop singers. It was still considered almost prostitution in a lot of ways. It was very much “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage...”

“I looked around and there was really only one big pop star and that was Annette Henshall and she was doing the Betty Boop thing, so in the end I rooted around and came up with songs that I would have done had I been around at that time and it was a blast singing with Jools’ band.

“They were playing as if they were with Duke Ellington or Count Basie, just beautiful melodies – my kind of stuff.”

Our conversation ended with her expressing her confusion over the whole new music classification Nu-Folk – music which tips it’s hat to the past using traditional songs or traditional instruments but marrying them with modern arrangements. “As I say I get very confused with genres. To me a good song is a good song. And everything can be regarded as the past. REM put mandolins on many of their big hits is that Nu-Folk? Is that the past? I really don’t know. Losing My Religion is 20 year old now is that folk? It’s full of acoustic instruments.

“For me it’s all about where you come from. Eliza Carthy couldn’t do anything else but be attracted to fiddles because her Mum and Dad put a fiddle in her hand just in the same way that my Mum and Dad their love of Elvis Presley and The Beatles. It’s all about your background – perhaps if I had been born in Manchester then maybe I wouldn’t have wandered into a folk club and my life would have turned out completely differently.”

n Eddi Reader is playing Snape Proms on Monday August 9, 7.30pm