December 11, 2015
Why do I read things that wind me up late at night? First, some Milo Yiannopoulos and then the new Roger Scruton interview in Spiked. The whole thing can be read here. God, he gets up my nose.
Here he is on homosexuality:
‘What I say in my book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (1986), I still think. But it’s much more dangerous to say it now. My view then was that first of all – oh why not say it, you know, I’m old now – homosexuality is not one thing. Lesbianism is usually an attempt by a woman to find that committed love that she can’t get from men any more. Because men exploit women and move on. So it’s very often a reaction to that sort of disappointment. Whereas male homosexuality, because it’s not constrained by a woman’s need to fix a man down, is hugely promiscuous – the statistics are quite horrifying. And there’s also the obsession with the sexual organs rather than the relationship, this vector towards phallicism, the obsession with the young, all kinds of things like that, which mean that, as I see it, homosexual desire, especially between men, is not the same kind of thing as heterosexual desire, even though it’s not a perversion.
‘This doesn’t mean you’re condemning people or that they should be discriminated against. But nor should we old-fashioned, sad heterosexuals, minority interest though we might be, be deprived of those institutions that we have built out of our self-sacrificing forms of love. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say now between you and me, but it isn’t a perfectly reasonable thing to say or a possible thing to say in public any more.’
Here he is on gay marriage:
‘The arguments in favour of offering something to a previously disprivileged group are all very well and they do have weight. But much more important is the effect of this on the institution of marriage. My view is that here we need some serious anthropology. You have to recognise that rites of passage are not personal possessions, they are possessions of the whole community, they are the ways in which the community defines itself and defines its obligation towards the next generation. So you don’t make these radical, metaphysical alterations to an institution such as marriage without there being long-term consequences. And nobody seemed to want to talk about the long-term consequences. And my marriage means my children as much as my wife, and those children are the product of our union and our whole being on this earth is vindicated in them. That, of course, can’t be reproduced now in quite the same way.’
These days, he’s much more mealy-mouthed, disingenuous and timid in his anti-gay screeds than he used to be, but it’s all there, starting with his statement that lesbianism isn’t real; it’s the last resort of the woman so pathetic she can’t jolly well get it together and keep her man, the flimsy feminist statement of the failed woman. Then, forgetting to mention that when he was 27, his wife-to-be was a one-year-old, with staggering hypocrisy he declares that gay men are obsessed with the young (yes, he’s still doing the ‘homosexuality = paedophilia’ routine, and anyway, that’s news to me, having only ever had boyfriends my own age). We’re obsessed with the genitals rather than the person (if he thinks this is a gay trait, someone should tell him about Page 3, Penthouse, Parade if it still exists, Spearmint Rhino and the hardcore heterosexual porn industry – it ain’t gay men who came up with the idea of reducing a person to his or her sex organs), and our very alliances diminish the sanctity of his marriage, affecting even his children’s welfare (yes, really).
So the statistics regarding our promiscuity horrify him. But why should they horrify him? What is so wrong with him that the he feels violated by the promiscuity of a gay man he’s never met? Why is he not inclined to look inward and ask himself this question, instead of laying all the blame for his horror on the promiscuous gay man? And why on earth does he think that gay men should curb their appetites in order to protect him from unpleasant feelings like horror? Why do gay men’s sex lives concern and interest him so much that he feels compelled to go into print about them, again and again and again, using absuredly hyperbolic words like ‘horrifying’? And why doesn’t heterosexual promiscuity horrify him? He doesn’t even mention it. And that points to something. It points to the fact that he glosses over or ignores information, ideas and statistics that don’t support his viewpoint – they’re simply not there. They don’t exist.
When discussing gay men, a hobby which seems to obsess him, he almost always manages carefully to sneak in the idea of a connection between homosexuality and paedophilia. When he speaks of the gay man’s supposed infatuation with the ‘young’, you and I know what he’s trying to come out and say. But any evidence suggesting that this trait, this worshiping at the fount of youth, is shared by heterosexuals – evidence such as his own marriage to a barely post-adolescent child-bride 28 years his junior, the legions of married men who trade in for a younger model (Scruton saved time by going straight for the younger model without suffering the indignity of spending time with someone his own age first) or the inexhaustible abundance of ‘woman dressed as schoolgirl’ porn – is ignored.
Perhaps the nastiest volley he lobs at gay men (or ‘gays’ as he would have it) is that their love is not self-sacrificing, presumably because it doesn’t produce children. Let’s leave aside for now the gay couples who’ve either adopted or conceived children with the help of women (I dread to think what mean-spirited things he might have to say about that). Doesn’t he have any memory of the AIDS crisis, the time when gay men died in the arms of their fellows in droves while quite a lot of our straight brothers and sisters turned cold backs on us, pausing only to mention that our deaths were richly-deserved, divine punishments for our moral failings (a stance it is hard to imagine Mr. Scruton being at odds with)? When I, with the help of two friends, nursed my boyfriend through the final stages, was I not putting someone else before myself, even though, like most people who’ve gone through the experience, I will always look back and curse myself for the clumsiness of the care I provided? Some, but by no means all, heterosexual parents slip into a belief that parenthood is the only meaningful or significant self-sacrifice, when in fact it can sometimes be one of the most irresponsible, flash, glib, and narcissistic ones, prompted by the vain desire to see one’s own genes running around in another human. And it can be argued that there is more dignity, less ostentation, and more selflessness in one man or woman providing palliative care for another one, to whom he or she is not obligated by a blood connection, than there is in a couple brashly foisting a bevy of sprogs on an overpopulated world.
The glib convenience of Scruton’s arguments irritates me. It’s all so transparently self-serving. Having become a parent late in life, he decides that parenthood is a virtue in and of itself. Parenthood is not a virtue. Only good parenthood is that. And talking of virtues, Scruton never tires of pointing to his own in a way that the genuinely virtuous never do. He gets married, he then says that marriage is virtuous. He has children, he then says that parenthood is virtuous. He takes up hunting, but his way of hunting has, conveniently, nothing to do with anything as gauche as social climbing but everything to do with a virtuous and wholesome love of the land and horses. Anything he does automatically becomes a virtue. How convenient.
I don’t know what to make of the strange, pasteurised fantasyland that he’s painted around his life, refashioning himself as a bogus country squire in Wiltshire while decrying snobbery and professing concern for working class people. I stumble and back away a bit from people whose artifice is so pathological that they invent themselves instead of being. I don’t know what to make of the way Scruton wants the press to know that his children go to boarding school. One can only conclude that it is important to him that other people know this.
The Spiked interview ends with some bizarre product placement for his wife’s artisanal cheeses (it’s hard to think of anything as self-consciously New Notting Hill as that – it’s a fashionable pose to strike, and one that she shares with Alex James of Blur).
There are so many other ways in which I find Scruton’s ideas unpalatable. (He presents himself as a staunch defender of free speech, but on free expression, he’s another kettle of fish, believing that women should be modest, unthreatening to men, with genteel, diminished sexual appetites – figuratively veiled, rather than literally.) For now, though, enough.
October 9, 2015
At some point in early adolescence, I began to realise that a person’s fame was not necessarily commensurate with her talent. And never has this been more the case than with singer/songwriter/author (and occasional actress) Catherine Howe, whose music beggars almost all available adjectives. Since first appearing in album format in 1971, she has been creating work which, thanks to her alchemical abilities, sounds as if it has already had a long existence and been absorbed into the national culture. But owing to a combination of distribution and promotional hiccups, and perhaps also her own reluctance to present herself as an ‘image’, during her stints on major labels in the 70s, she didn’t rack up the kind of sales or the degree of name-recognition that she deserved (and continues to deserve), despite bagging an Ivor Novello award along the way. We spoke on the occasion of the release of her new album (a Catherine Howe album on the spine of the CD, although each band member is given equal billing on the front cover), Because It Would Be Beautiful.
Photo: Sue Kirby
Catherine’s early childhood was spent in Yorkshire. “It was filled with older brothers and sisters and their collections of 45s and 78s,” she recalls. “Our parents came to Yorkshire from Essex during World War II so the feeling of not quite fitting in at school might have been due to our southern strangeness in a northern industrial town”. Her first experience of music-making was inauspicious: “I reacted badly to piano lessons,” she confesses. But when her singing voice was discovered, everything changed and at the age of twelve, she was sent to Corona Stage School in Hammersmith, London. Since Corona wasn’t a boarding school, this meant lodging with a foster family. “Corona was good because everyone there was sparky and open-minded. Bad because it was two hundred miles from home. The adjustment from a happy home to an unhappy one was interesting in the difficulties and miseries it presented. I am left with a small insight into why children who go through institutionalised care can find life so hard”.
The emotional hardships aside, Catherine’s talent for singing and drama were nurtured in a creative environment she shared with Judy and Sally Geeson, Susan George, Sheila Young, Dennis Waterman, Richard O’Sullivan and Helen Worth. “Those were the days when drama schools weren’t expected to put their pupils through GCEs so we left with no academic qualifications whatsoever. No chance of university”. In any case, Catherine felt a certainty about the path she wanted her life to take. “Music was the thing. Music brings us something no other art form can. And I knew from early on that I’d been born with the songwriter gene”. It wasn’t going to take her long to find a record company willing to share this conviction.
By the late sixties, Catherine’s parents had moved south, so London was no great distance. Although Catherine found work on stage and in television (Z-Cars, Doctor Who, Dixon of Dock Green and more), acting was never going to be more than a Plan B. “It was an accident that happened when I went to Corona,” she says. After shopping her music around the capital, she struck a deal with a smallish label called Reflection Records, much of whose output was distributed by CBS. She was paired with a brilliant American producer, Bobby Scott (co-writer of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’), and the result was What A Beautiful Place, recorded at Trident Studios in Soho. The album’s nine songs – whimsical and highly poetic, some inspired by the beauty of coastal Dorset, others by Catherine’s first home in the north – were luxuriously arranged, with help from the London Symphony Orchestra, and the cover depicted Catherine gazing mystically across sunlit waters at Kenwood House. This was also the first time her lovely, glistening, yet thoroughly unpretentious singing voice was unleashed upon the world. There was at least one potential pop single in ‘Nothing More Than Strangers’. Radio reaction to promo copies was encouragingly positive and everything seemed set for a decent commercial breakthrough. Then, as rapidly as it had come together, it fell apart. “The English and American producers argued with each other over property, so the recording was restrained under a legal injunction and withdrawn”. Catherine kept a remarkably sanguine head on her young shoulders: “I had no idea what anyone thought of the album, so its disappearance didn’t shock me too much. I just took it as something unavoidable and carried on keeping body and soul together through odd jobs”.
The ‘lost classic’, What A Beautiful Place (1971) Photo: Kings Road Music
It required only a few more years for Catherine to re-emerge on record, this time with the support of a bona fide big player – RCA. “RCA was great. Happy times,” she remarks. The first fruits of this alliance was the album Harry, which came packaged, perhaps unwisely, in a cover that made it look a bit like a trad folk collection rather than the adult pop/singer-songwriter album it really was. Nevertheless, it got considerable press and the title track, a romantic ballad with Catherine on piano and vocals, was a resounding success on radio, winning her a coveted Ivor Novello award and making her – after Lynsey de Paul – the second ever female recipient. “The Ivor presentation took place at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane in 1975. It was a good day. The sun shone,” she says, her memory apparently unwilling to yield any other details.
But there was a problem. Turntable hits such as ‘Harry’ were not translating into sales hits. At first, Catherine thought she must somehow be the problem. It wasn’t until some time later that she discovered the blame lay elsewhere. “My manager said we were performing in towns where none of the record stores had my albums on their shelves. And a well-liked A&R executive was kind enough to whistle-blow on the feet-dragging of some departments”.
Photos: Giuseppe Botteghi / Roy Round
Undaunted, Catherine pressed onward, and her second RCA album, Silent Mother Nature, was a remarkable leap forward and an accurate capturing of her own artistic vision. Catherine mentions a “difficulty in maintaining creative principles in a male-dominated world” when it comes to explaining the rather tentative qualities of the first RCA album, which was a mix of covers and originals. The second, on the other hand, opens with a bang and, over the course of twelve original Howe songs, takes in elements of soul, pop and folk with aplomb. The album beat Kate Bush by two years in being the first singer/songwriter release to feature a track prompted by a Bronte novel (‘Lucy Snowe’, inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Villette), a feat that Catherine brushes aside with characteristic modesty: “There’s nothing to compare between them, apart from the fact that they’re both inspired by a Bronte sister. Kate Bush stands quite alone and I can’t see any logic behind a comparison”. Regardless of that, in a recent, glowing reappraisal of her work, The Guardian called Catherine a “Kate Bush before her time, an English girl with a pretty face and an artlessly pretty voice” and, indeed, some of her early ballads would not have sounded out of place on Bush’s first two albums.
Silent Mother Nature, 1976
When Catherine says, “RCA was terrific and they nearly pulled me through the lumbering corporate machinery”, it’s the ‘nearly’ that is telling, because despite three years of positive press and radio support, the elusive sales hit did not materialise. Another attempt to get her into the national consciousness, seemed promising – Catherine was invited to join the cast of the BBC’s magazine show, That’s Life, to perform topical and humorous songs. But the ruse backfired. “I shouldn’t have agreed to it, for their sake as well as mine. I followed Victoria Wood, which in itself was an impossibility. I felt excruciatingly uncomfortable and inadequate and they, quite rightly, got rid of me as soon as they could”.
An additional strategy to lift her profile was to pair her on tour with some of the era’s stars, including David Soul (“A delight! Just a really nice bloke and a great singer”), Chris de Burgh (“less approachable, very private. I loved his songs”), Andy Fairweather Low and Randy Edelman (“gentlemen”). “Everyone finds these tours a slog,” she remarks. “Travelling all day, performing at night and trying to sleep in a different hotel room each night, with an ice-making machine clanking in the corridor on the other side of the wall, three inches from your head. I saw David not long ago. Still lovely”. There was also a TV show with Judie Tzuke, which, says Catherine, “turned out well for both of us”.
Next came a new partnership, with the German Ariola label, and a project with classically-trained producer, Mike Batt, who masterminded her 1978 single, ‘Sit Down And Think Again’. “Mike was a really nice man. He promised to stay for a whole album if the single was a hit. It wasn’t a hit, so the album didn’t get made. The highlight of that session was hearing ‘Bright Eyes’ [written by Batt] the day before Art Garfunkel recorded his vocal. I told Mike I thought it was beautiful, which it is”. Work then began with a different producer (Richard Hewson) on the album that would become 1979’s Dragonfly Days, but by this point, the grind was getting to Catherine. “I’d reached the end of my emotional tether when that album was conceived and recorded. I abdicated all responsibility and turned up at the studio only because it was happening. It was a very bad time for me and my feelings about the album are ambiguous”. This despondency is not remotely audible on the record – the album is a self-written, pop masterpiece that stands comfortably alongside Silent Mother Nature. The menacing energy of ‘Mark My Word’ recalls Laura Nyro’s ‘Eli’s Coming’ and a dignified sadness informs the ballads, in particular ‘It Isn’t Really Loneliness’. As work got under way to promote the album and its three singles, the label attempted to give Catherine a Carly Simon-style makeover, and the accompanying promotional photographs bear this strategy out, depicting her striking fashion-mag, hair-tossing poses. “It was embarrassing and slightly depressing. There’s a knack to successful resistance which, sadly, I didn’t have. I think was considered awkward but the photos were still shot, albeit by a clever photographer who could catch unguarded moments, and I colluded.”
Catherine’s recording career quietly wound down at the turn of the decade. Ariola attempted to keep it going with some non-album singles, the last of which was an interpretation of the Goffin/King classic, ‘Going Back’, issued in 1980. “It was produced by lovely Pip Williams. I remember its release and radio plays. That’s about all I do remember. I wasn’t well by that point. Distribution was poor, both then and earlier”. There couldn’t have been a more apt song with which to bow out, since it’s a wistful examination of childhood and a yearning to rediscover its purity and simplicity, which is exactly what Catherine set about doing. “All I had in mind was to get back to Yorkshire. In retrospect, I see that this was me going right back to the time before I left for Corona. It was the start of linking up again with the person I would have been had I never left home when I was twelve years old”.
She came out of an industry notorious for corrupting and breaking people relatively unscathed. “The 60s and 70s had a lot going for them,” she reflects. “The music industry was spectacular but not easy for young women to navigate, and it never will be for anyone who doesn’t have a good business head on their shoulders. It was good, but it required shrewdness and not everyone has that”. When Catherine recently saw the biographical documentary, Amy, it struck a considerable chord with her. “The industry is still destroying talented people,” she says. “The film was a testament to the beautiful talent of a vulnerable woman. It’s the terrible moment when creative souls and business pragmatists come together. The opportunity for users of all kinds to use others was well in place when I was a young woman. It looks as if we’re only just beginning to deal with it”.
After 1980, having made her own bid for freedom, Catherine spent the next quarter-century out of the public eye. She married and had a daughter, Jenny, in 1990, completed an Open University degree course, and moved to the Midlands. “Jenny and the late education were life-changing, horizon-expanding experiences and made me ready to write and record again”.
Around this time, I came across Catherine’s RCA and Ariola output in the much-missed, utterly chaotic Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho. It was 1999 and the idea of searching for people online was still an amusing novelty. But a search for Catherine Howe revealed absolutely nothing. It was as if she had disappeared. Still, over the next few years, I made repeat searches from time to time – and then, in 2003, there it was; a small entry on the BPI website with what looked like a recent photograph of Catherine and mention of an album called Princelet Street in the works. “My friend from the seventies, Kevin Healy, and I started work on the recordings in about 2000,” recalls Catherine.
Princelet Street came out in 2005 and picked up sonically where ‘Going Back’ had left off, very much in the pop/singer-songwriter vein. Among its highlights were the hymn-like ‘Say The Word’ and two ballads looking back on love with the perspective of a more mature head, ‘You Never Know’ and ‘C’est La Vie’. But really, it was a whole album of highlights, all of which merit further description. Catherine’s raised profile led to renewed interest and within a matter of years, her first three albums had made it on to CD (where, along with the digital download format, they remain available). In particular, the re-emergence on to the market of What A Beautiful Place (via luxury American reissue label, Numero) led to a flurry of good press, hailing the album as a lost classic and manoeuvring Catherine into the pantheon of cult geniuses, alongside Judee Sill, Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs.
Recent years have seen her form a band with veteran guitarist and singer Vo Fletcher, an alliance that spawned 2010’s acoustic folk album, English Tale, with accompanying live dates around the country. Now, on Because It Would Be Beautiful, they are joined by electric-violinist Ric Sanders (Soft Machine, Fairport Convention) and percussionist/drummer Michael Gregory. “Vo is one of the most intuitive musicians I have ever worked with,” remarks Catherine. “He gets the songs unfailingly.” And although the bulk of the new songs are Catherine’s, the foursome took a democratic approach in the studio: “The tracks are live events, including Ric’s astonishing violin solos which take off on waves of ecstasy through his echo unit. The recording is cooperative, intended to get away from the songwriter/producer/session musician routine in favour of everyone bringing their own, unhindered brilliance to it. It’s going to be hard to place in a genre, but we’ve ended up with something quite interesting”. Not only interesting, but also diverse – with elements of bossa nova, Americana, folk, pop and roots coming together.
Photos: Annie Edwards / Sue Kirby
Catherine’s second recording career has been without the benefit of a major label. “Being independent has some good points. It’s novel to be in charge of everything, artwork and manufacture as well as writing and recording. The disadvantages are isolation and tireless administration”. After issuing Princelet Street and English Tale herself (with a distribution deal), Because It Would Be Beautiful is coming out on Talking Elephant, a label known more for its high-quality reissues. “It’s nice to be working with others, but nothing compares with a big label – that was a great and mystifying experience”.
Without being derivative or self-consciously retro, Catherine’s songs still have that uncanny quality of sounding, on first listen, like something you’ve already known and loved for a considerable length of time but – like many songwriters – she’s a little reluctant to deconstruct and describe her process. “I can’t really analyse it,” she says. “Let’s say that it goes something like this: I taken an idea or a feeling to the piano and let it come back to me. If it comes back true then I continue until it’s finished. I never leave a song and think I can come back to pick it up later because in the interim its essence has returned to wherever it came from. There have been moments when I’ve had to pull on to the hard shoulder of a motorway to write something down. I would never do this for any other non-emergency reason,” she adds. “I will just say that one vital role of a songwriter is to know when to jettison a song which isn’t reaching the mark. When I’m functioning properly, I’m fairly ruthless in this regard!”
Because It Would Be Beautiful, 2015
Over the years, certain characteristics of Catherine’s material have given way to others, and the new album is notable for a number of what could be best described as period-songs (‘This Old Peg’, ‘Mayfair Cot’, ‘Charlie Bender’). Catherine explains, “Having been born with the songwriter gene and the historian gene, I’ve been aware from early on that I was combining the two and the habit’s grown stronger over the years. It’s my habit to walk through towns and cities because I love to commune with the traces of those who have lived and worked there. I draw on this all the time – along with stories and images which are strong and moving. ‘Charlie Bender’ comes straight from the records of Coram Fields Foundling Hospital. Most of the babies left there never saw their mothers again, but Charlie’s mother came back for him after ten years. ‘Mayfair Cot’ comes from a striking, nineteenth-century photograph of a young patient, sitting up in her cot at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Both songs follow the folk storytelling tradition”. The ‘historian gene’ is something that Catherine has also taken the time to demonstrate in prose, with Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis and George Jacob Holyoake’s Journey of 1842, and she is now at work on her first novel.
Outstanding ambitions include “an international hit”, “circumnavigation of the earth in a space rocket” and “growing into someone who’s a bit more useful to society”. Catherine’s also in talks to issue a collection of demos. “They were recorded between 1975 and 2015 – a number of good songs which never made their way on to albums. It would be nice to see them fledged and away”.
The great strength of the singer/songwriters who emerged in the 1970s was their refusal to fit the straitjacket of a single genre. But this was also what made so many of them hard to market. And this double-edged blessing is very much one of Catherine’s. “I can’t claim a genre and I wonder at the purpose of it. Rockers in the 60s thought of writers like Brian Wilson as pop artists. But I doubt Brian Wilson thought he was writing pop when he produced Pet Sounds. It’s all too muddy and confusing for me. My early influences were Buddy Holly, Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Carole King, Hal David, Burt Bacharach and Bob Gaudio. Almost entirely American and entirely reflecting the music that was available to me at the time. The thing is, when writing I don’t feel espoused to a particular style. I suppose it’s pop. Or is it? I used not to think so. Some of the lyrics are a bit dark. Maybe dark pop might be a useful description. I know identification is important commercially but I’m afraid I don’t identify with any particular genre because I enjoy them all. And besides, the creative process is dynamic. Everything influences everything else”.
The idea of everything influencing everything is never more apparent than when one traces the fascinating arc of Catherine’s career so far. Seven albums in, with more to follow “when the songs come”, it’s possible to hear how each one holds clues as to the direction and content of its successor (for example, Princelet Street’s ‘Yorkshire Hills’ is a foretaste of the albionesque folk of English Tale). It’s a journey of feelings, stories and experiences married to exquisite melodies and chord progressions that uninitiated would be well advised to embark on.
July 2, 2015
Tucked away among the legends who graced Island Records in the 1970s (Bob Marley, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn) was a songwriting teenager from Teeside called Claire Hamill. Though she may not have set the singles chart alight, she is a genuine rock ‘n’ roll survivor and has made impressive albums in every subsequent decade, exploring musical forms beyond folk, rock and pop. Some of her songs make excursions and detours into musical hall, rootsy Americana, jazz and pre-rock, theatrical styles and she also made a splash in the New Age market during the 1980s. As we chat on the eve of her 11th album release, When Daylight Arrives, she is charmingly candid about all the ups, downs and in-betweens of her five-decade career.
Photography: Graham Lowe
“I felt like I was walking on air. I had literally gone from the classroom to the recording studio,” she says, recalling the moment in 1971 when, after successfully auditioning for Chris Blackwell, founder of Island, she came to London and began work on her first album. “I was taken into a huge, cavernous room and told to sing into ‘this microphone’. My abiding memory is the feeling of hearing my voice through a beautiful sound system for the first time. It was indescribable. I felt that the world was mine to conquer, that I was on my way to the top. It was just fantastic. And then getting all those wonderful musicians to play with me? Mind-blowing!”
Among the wonderful musicians was label-mate, John Martyn, who – after they’d shared a brief romantic liaison – became a friend of Claire’s. “I had a lot in common with John,” she recalls. “He was younger than his contemporaries, as I was. He was signed to a rock label but was essentially a folk artist. And I don’t think he came through Joe Boyd [legendary producer] either, but I might be mistaken about that. Most of the Island folk acts were attached to Joe Boyd in some way but I was from Teeside and hadn’t made it to London when I got my deal. I don’t think Joe Boyd was a fan of my work, from what I can gather. Oh, and John also had a Glaswegian father like me”.
The first album was called One House Left Standing – a wistful, wintry-sounding collection of self-written material cloaked in lovely, pastoral arrangements, some of them by Paul Buckmaster. Claire accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. The cover and sleeve photography depicted her sitting amid (and strolling around) a deserted industrial wasteland in the North. The album also included a Joni Mitchell song, ‘Urge For Going’, which had the added cachet of not having appeared on any of Mitchell’s own albums. Island took out a full-page ad in Time Out, heralding the arrival of the album and its single, ‘When I Was a Child’. In what now seem like astonishingly sexist tones, it read, “When most girls are frantically hunting husbands, starting work in Woolworths or learning to type, Claire Hamill has finished her first Island album”. “The world was extremely sexist in the early 70s”, Claire sighs. “The music business was misogynistic. I remember being on tour in the states and overhearing one DJ tell my minder, ‘Hey man, what’s wrong with that girl? She’s not coming across man, know what I mean?’. I was astonished.” Ever the free-spirit, on occasion Claire had to resort to some drastic action to nip rumours in the bud: “My label manager let it be known that the crew thought I was gay because I hadn’t pulled anyone on the tour. I promptly slept with the lighting guy to put that to rest. Yes, I did fancy him, but really!”
One House Left Standing, 1971. Photography: Visualeyes
The experience of going from a busy, multi-siblinged life in Middlesbrough to the louche, rock ‘n’ roll capital was a heady one and Chris Blackwell expressed misgivings concerning the party-hard lifestyle into which Claire might be thrust. “I was exposed to everything the music business had to offer,” she confirms. “I stayed a lot in the Portobello Hotel, Notting Hill Gate, in those days. I spent all my advance on rooms there and tickets on British Airways to Teeside. I once left all my luggage at the hotel before I flew home. At the check-in, they asked me if I had luggage and I grandly said, ‘No’. It was only when I was on the plane that I remembered storing it in the hotel’s cupboard under the stairs. When I collected it later on my return journey south, the receptionist told me that it was next to Alice Cooper’s snake!”
All this was a world away from Claire’s childhood, although it had been a musical one. “My grandmother sang beautifully,” she says. “And so did all my aunties and my mum. They sang harmony together so I learned how to do that from an early age. I absolutely loved to hear them sing at family parties. They were all very proud of me when I got my recording deal though my grandmother continued to ask me when I was going to get a proper job!”
In London, Claire’s head was spinning: “One minute you are catching the bus like everyone else, the next you are ferried around in limos”. As Chris Blackwell had feared, she was also swiftly exposed to grown-up forms of refreshment. “It certainly changed me,” she confirms, “but I managed to escape the clutches of drugs eventually when I got married. I’d already booted cocaine into touch but I was smoking pot on a fairly regular basis. I never touch it now – it’s too addictive for me.”
Since One House Left Standing was issued internationally, Claire was dispatched to North America. “I’ll never forget my first date – Ottowa in Canada. I was booked to open for Jethro Tull in a huge stadium. I was blown away when I was how big it was! I had never even been to a football match at that point in my life, and certainly never in front of an audience of more than 500 people. Here I was in front of more than 20,000. America blew me away. I had many adventures and fell in love with a surfer from North Carolina called Mike Marsh, who inspired me to write ‘Warrior of the Water’ [a track which was to appear on Claire’s second album].
From the start, Claire stood out because of her dramatic approach to singing, and her ability to move seamlessly from bird-like fragility to strident, stentorian tones. “I wanted to be an actress, which is why I was so expressive. It gives another level to your voice and your delivery. I never did act though, but my daughter Susannah [Austin] is a singer/songwriter who acts. When I went round to her drama college to see what she was doing, I felt a twinge of regret, but it’s lovely to know she’s learning great skills to bring to her performances.”
And in an era in which it became increasingly fashionable for English pop and rock singers to adopt transatlantic twangs, Claire chose to stay authentic. “I always like to hear the words of any song, so I never blunted my diction – I saw that as an affectation. It’s fashionable but it’s just not me”.
For Claire’s second project, Island pulled out all the stops, hiring Paul Samwell-Smith, fresh off the back of his success with Carly Simon’s hit album, Anticipation, to produce. Along with some of Cat Steven’s band members, Claire was ushered to Richard Branson’s studio, The Manor, located in a postcard-pretty Oxfordshire setting. “It cost the label a lot of money,” says Claire. “£17,000 – quite a big bill in 1973. My latest album cost £4500.” The album was called October and to this day it is frequently held up as the pinnacle of Claire’s 1970s output. It was a more confident record than its predecessor and Claire’s vocals exhibited a colloquial flair, looser and more relaxed than the rather formal approach to singing which characterised her first album. October was presented in gatefold format; the cover taken up by a watercolour of the sky reflected in a puddle, and the additional sides printed with photographs of Claire frolicking in Richmond park (“on a cold autumnal morning at 6 a.m.”) and staring moodily through a rain-splashed window pane. “The photographer was Patrick Litchfield who took us all to lunch afterwards at Tratoo – a trendy restaurant near his studio in Notting Hill”.
The album’s centrepiece was ‘Speedbreaker’, a stroke of musical genius that not only fused folk with r’n’b rhythms in the manner of John Martyn, but was also, in part, about him. “I absolutely love it,” says Claire. “It will always be in my heart. I wrote it for John, for whom I had the greatest respect and love. But it’s also about another wonderful man in my life, on whom I also had a big crush, Alan White [drummer and percussionist on October]. He was a wonderful friend and I think the drum solo he played on the song is the greatest thing he’s ever done.” She remains understandably proud of the entire album. “I love October for the exquisite sound of the record and the wonderful playing.”
When October turned out to be more a critics’ favourite than a bestseller, Claire moved to the Konk label, owned by the Kinks, for Stage Door Johnnies (1974) and Abracadabra (1975). The former was produced by Ray Davies. “I was in awe of him,” says Claire, “but also frustrated because he was very hard to get hold of. I wanted to get a band together to tour but he wouldn’t put up the money and I didn’t know how to get things for myself at that stage as I had been looked after for so long by managers, I didn’t know what I should do on my own”. Those difficulties aside, both albums frame Claire’s writing within a slightly more conventional folk-rock setting, with some tracks, such as ‘Forbidden Fruit’ from Abracadabra, evincing qualities of Maria Muldaur. Konk also gave Claire the freedom to co-produce. “By the time Abracadabra was made, I had toured the USA twice and was really into being a rock diva. I was hanging out with Yes, pushing my voice to its limits, smoking a lot of pot and drinking. You can hear the rock edges and graininess in my voice on that album. What a little madam I was! I was barely 21. I thought I knew it all. How wrong can you be?”
Stage Door Johnnies, 1974. Photography: Monty Coles
Wrong indeed. because Claire’s solo career was about to go into a hiatus. “Sales weren’t terribly good. Of course, I wanted to be at the top of my profession but Konk wanted me to record a cover song, a single. They were not about to fund another album and I was very disappointed. Ray didn’t want me to leave, so I just didn’t do anything for some time. Then punk happened and it was looking tricky for me”. Punk was notoriously hostile to singer/songwriters, progressive rock, soul and disco, but Claire soldiered on with live work and then a guest role with Wishbone Ash, with whom she toured and recorded into the early 1980s. Then, in 1984, having put a toe in the water with a couple of solo singles, she re-emerged with Touchpaper, a surprisingly convincing foray into synthesised art-pop. Some of the songs, most notably ‘Jump’, had a distinctly urban edge and Claire managed to avoid the trap of sounding like an acoustic singer/songwriter being pushed into an ill-fitting, electronic format – a fate which had befallen Carole King when she made the jump into electronica on Speeding Time (1983). Claire’s voice was also noticeably more flexible and confident by this point. “I have always tried to improve my singing as I’ve got older, ” she explains. “I try to give the song what it deserves, to let it tell me how it wants to express itself. Ultimately, I just want to make someone feel something”.
Since she was now an independent artist, Claire had the freedom to turn her hand to any genre she wanted, even if the days of major label budgets were behind her. Her next project was an unexpected transition to New Age. “My then-husband, Nick Austin, had just created a label for instrumental music and he invited me to make an album just using my voice. At first, I was bemused but when the engineer at the first session told me how fantastic and unique it was, I started to love what came out. It was such a liberating experience to do the whole thing myself without consultation with other people. It happened at a sweet time in my life. I’d just had my first child, Tara, and was living in the country. Life was good”. Voices, produced by Claire, was the resulting a capella album created by multi-tracking and sampling her voice.
Voices was sufficiently well-received that it led to Claire’s music being used on BBC soundtracks, but rather than churn out more of the same, she gradually worked her way back to the singer/songwriter style with which she’d first made her name, on albums like Love in the Afternoon (1988) and The Lost and the Lovers (2004). In an industry that has undergone more changes in the last ten years than in the previous thirty, she has had to conjure new ways of funding herself and for both the new album and its predecessor (2013’s The Meeting of the Waters), Claire has reached into her own pockets. “It was just time to sell my house anyway,” she says. “The kids were all living in London. I’d been re-mortgaging every time I needed money for a new car or to send them off to university. I had an interest-only mortgage so I thought, what the hell – sell now – you’ll only have to sell later anyway. So I did it.”
Claire calls her new album, When Daylight Arrives, “folk with a jazzy edge”. “I used the same local musicians as on the last one [Claire lives in Hastings, Sussex] and the same sound engineer/producer,” she explains. It features, for the first time, Claire co-writing with her late sister, Louise. “She was talented in many ways…musical, too. She played Bodhran in an Irish band. She showed me her poetry and I realised it would make great lyrics, so I offered to make them into songs and she was delighted. She heard me sing them many times before she died in 2010. It’s a shame she never got to hear them recorded and put on an album. It was a long time before I could even sing them again – they brought back poignant memories”.
When Daylight Arrives, 2015. Photography: D.J. Brass
Next up is an autobiography. “I’m halfway through. I have promised myself I will finish by October”. Considering the elements of Claire’s life – the adventures and misadventures, the famous names, the friends, managers, lovers, thrills and spills – it is bound to be one of 2016’s more interesting reads. She is fortunate enough only to have a small handful of regrets and there are two things she’d do differently if given the chance to go back. “When my manager says, ‘Stanley Dorfman wants you to do a special for BBC2’, I won’t say, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough’. And when he says, ‘I’ve got you a support slot with David Bowie’, I won’t say, ‘No, I don’t fancy that'”.
Find out more about Claire here. When Daylight Arrives is out now and available on iTunes, Spotify and other outlets.
June 10, 2015
Charlie Dore, singer, songwriter, actress and multi-instrumentalist, brings her tour (in support of Milk Roulette, her most recent album) to The Pheasantry, King’s Road, on Wednesday 17th June and it’s a chance to watch a master songwriter at work in a lovely, up-close-and-intimate Central London venue.
Over the course of a forty-year career, there is little she hasn’t done, except acquire the level of fame commensurate with her talent. But in any case, the pursuit of fame as an end in itself doesn’t seem to have interested her. “I don’t have very sharp elbows,” she confides. And since she darts adeptly from genre to genre, pulling in elements of folk, pop, country, classical, Americana, bluegrass, jazz, bossa nova and more, she’s been impossible to pigeonhole since her first album appeared on Island Records in 1979. “Every time I try and accurately describe my songs, it sounds like a casserole of indecision cooked up by a procrastinator with ADHD,” she says. Although this has always made the marketing of her work a complex undertaking, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s what I relish. I use folk instruments, but I’m not strictly folk – or country for that matter, even though I enjoy words in a way that might be considered more in the country vein. I suppose I’d love to inhabit my own category”.
Photo: Nikoletta Moneyok
The arc of her career so far should be immensely reassuring to anyone worried that they haven’t got it all figured out by twenty-five; it’s only over a series of post-millennial releases, starting with 2004’s Sleep All Day, that Charlie feels she has started making albums that accurately capture her musical identity. What’s more, the critics have concurred, and her last five sets have come out to increasingly rapturous reviews. “I want to keep at it until I drop,” she says. Her achievements as a recording artist alone guarantee her a significant place in rock history, but then there are her other careers, including writer-for-hire (with songs recorded by Celine Dion, Tina Turner, Sheena Easton, Jimmy Nail and George Harrison), actress (working with Jonathan Pryce and Tim Curry), impro comedian and club owner.
Charlie grew up in a vibrantly musical household where singing and piano-playing were actively encouraged…”but not in a bossy, stage-mother kind of way. My mother gave up trying to teach me to read music because I cheated and learned the pieces by ear, slightly wrong of course”. Hers is a true musician’s lineage: “My mother was a really gifted pianist and I remember hearing her play Chopin, Delius and Liszt when I was in bed at night but she had a fantastic ear and could knock out a Beatles tune or a Fats Waller song with equal style. She was in a dance band in the 1940s, the Tetherdown Night Owls. Her mother and both sisters were serious pianists too. Her father played the organ. My father’s mother was also a very good pianist and enjoyed telling us she was taught by Gustav Holst”.
At theatre school, Charlie’s early passion for stage musicals waned. “I went right off show-tunes and fell in love with the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan”. Her first big break came in the early seventies when, with Julian Littman and Karl Johnson, she was lifted out of repertory theatre and beamed into the living rooms of the nation for 18 months as the musical element of Thames Television’s children’s programme, Rainbow. “We recorded three shows a week and they needed a song for each show, differently themed. So we had our work cut out for us. We were all living together at the time, so by the end of three series we were clawing the walls to get out. But it was fun for most of the time, great training for future jobbing songwriting and compared to basic Equity rates, we were earning well for the first time in our lives”. She and her flat-mates became savvier about the industry in general. “Someone in the canteen said, ‘Have you joined PRS yet?’. I said, ‘what’s PRS?’. They said, ‘They pay you each time your songs go out on television’. I thought, ‘again?’. We couldn’t believe our luck!”.
After building a following on the pub and club circuit, rubbing shoulders with The Police and DP Costello (soon to become Elvis), Charlie signed with Island Records and began work on her first album, self-written with a few co-writes from Julian Littman, who remains her writing partner and integral band member to this day. The album, made in Nashville and London, had a complicated gestation. “They signed me as a sort of British Emmylou Harris. We were having the time of our lives, recording a very rootsy, real-sounding album”. But the initial results were too country for Island’s ears, so remixes and re-records ensued, designed to sweeten the sound and give it a pop sheen. The end product, entitled Where To Now, was more ‘British Karla Bonoff’, an enticing prospect to be sure but not what Charlie had first envisaged.
Charlie’s band circa 1976 (L-R Stewart Johnson, Bruce Simpson, Julian Littman, Garrick Dewar, Charlie, Karl Johnson) Photograph: C. Hickman
What no one anticipated was that ‘Pilot of the Airwaves’, the bouncy, harmony-laden single, would soar to No.11 on the Billboard Hot 100 with almost no promotion. And although in hindsight, it’s possible to see why a song about DJs would have inbuilt, enhanced chances of airplay, effectively serving as its own PR, the song was not written with that possibility guilefully in mind. But if Charlie thought she’d be whisked across the Atlantic to capitalise on the accidental hit, Island had other ideas. “There were some weird politics going on between Chris Blackwell [head of Island] and Warner Brothers and they decided they weren’t going to pay for me to go out to the US. And I didn’t have the funds to be able to do it without their help.”
The ‘accidental’ hit. Photos: Norman Read
Although the song has had an extremely long shelf-life, Charlie describes it as a “blessing and a curse”. “It became a calling card in certain areas,” she says, “and also gave me a basic income which in turn gave me a chance later on to pursue other strands of work, like improv, that were interesting but didn’t pay much. I’d be churlish to complain about its success, but in truth I’ve spent years trying to convince people that those very glossy pop records didn’t really represent me. I was a folk-country-singer-songwriter who played roots-acoustic music. Back then, the producer was king and if you were as green as I was, you presented your songs in their raw form and the record sort of took shape under the direction of the producer and the A&R guys. I thought, ‘Well, they know more about making records than me’ – and they certainly did, but not always what was right for my songs”.
Charlie interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, 1978. Photo: LWT
The musical misrepresentation continued with her next project, which began in what seemed like auspicious circumstances. “Island forgot to pick up the option so when it lapsed we had a chance to shop around. As I’d had the US hit despite a complete lack of help, I thought it would be good to look elsewhere”. Soon, she found herself in the enviable position of being haggled over. “Island woke up and offered another deal but Chrysalis were keen, so I signed with them.” This time, instead of the partial re-record she’d endured with Where To Now, the project, produced by Glyn Johns, was completed and then scrapped entirely and Charlie was sent to L.A. to record from scratch with Stewart Levine, backed by the Porcaros and Steve Lukather of Toto. “I chose Stewart because I liked his attitude and because he’d produced two artists I admired, Minnie Riperton and BB King. He was a musician himself and I felt I could communicate with him”.
The difficult second album. Design: Alexander Vettiers
Somehow, though, something got lost in translation, and the album, Listen, was even smoother and more blemish-free than its predecessor. In fact, it has a very similar sound to Brenda Russell’s second album, Love Life, another Levine-helmed project that came out around the same time. While there is much to enjoy about both of them, their turn-of-the-decade, studio-perfect sound occasionally lapses from smooth and polished into sterile and listless. “It turned out very slick,” Charlie concedes. “My English voice on top of all the fabulous playing and somewhere along the line I felt I’d completely lost my identity. My fault. I felt very isolated. Looking back, I wonder why I was so mousey about the whole thing, but as it was a re-record anyway, frankly I didn’t know which way was up. I still think Stewart’s great but I don’t think the songs are my best and I’d rather that album was forgotten as all it represents to me is a time when I was creatively floundering. I was really pissed off when someone re-released it! [Charlie’s first two albums were issued on CD in the mid 2000s].
Listen also included one song by an outside writer, something insisted on by Chrysalis – “They were nervous that there weren’t enough radio-friendly singles on the album”. ‘You Should Hear How She Talks About You’, written by Tom Snow, became a huge hit by Melissa Manchester a couple of years later but didn’t go anywhere for Charlie. “It was a good pop song and obviously very commercial, but I felt it was completely wrong for my voice and I didn’t want to do it. There was a lot of pressure and, especially as the album was being made for the second time, I didn’t feel in a strong enough position to argue my case. I caved in. Never liked the result”. When it became apparent that her label was going to continue pushing the idea of ‘radio-friendly singles’, Charlie walked away. “I just lost the desire to jump through those particular hoops. Also, I was offered a part in a film.” Not just any film, this was The Ploughman’s Lunch, a political drama directed by Richard Eyre, with Charlie cast alongside Jonathan Pryce, Tim Curry and Frank Finlay. “It re-awoke my interest in acting. It was my first ‘proper’ movie, so I was secretly terrified as it was quite a big role”.
A year later, although her career as a singer/songwriter was in a period of decline, her name began to pop up in the songwriting credits of other people’s records, and she made her second appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 when Sheena Easton reached No.4 with ‘Strut’ (a co-write with Julian). Soon, this third career was well underway, although it was notably at odds with her own preferred sound, perhaps most obviously in the case of ‘Ain’t No Doubt’, the New Jack Swing-style song that reached the top of the UK singles chart for Jimmy Nail in 1992. “If I’m writing specifically for an artist, I want it to sound right, coming out of their mouth,” Charlie explains. “It shouldn’t sound like some world-weary songwriter in an office somewhere, honing slick little phrases and bon mots”. Still, Charlie found she was able to slip some of her quirky qualities under the radar. “‘Rain, Tax (It’s Inevitable)’ got cut by Celine Dion. That surprised even my publisher, who told me it would be hard to get a song covered with the word ‘tax’ in it. Not sexy, she said”.
In the mid-nineties, buoyed by the success others were having with her material, Charlie made a second foray into the recording industry with her third album, Things Change. “It was a toe in the water of performing and writing for myself again,” she says. Although it didn’t quite achieve lift-off in the UK, it was unexpectedly big in Italy and Israel where its accompanying single, ‘Time Goes By’, hit numbers 6 and 1 respectively. The album itself was very much a nineties pop production about which Charlie remains ambivalent. “There are some songs I like, but I was still looking over my shoulder with an ear on the commercial. I was very much in the world of trying to write hits. In retrospect, I think this didn’t serve the songs well”.
By now, Charlie had both acting and comedy to fall back on. In 1990, she co-founded The Hurricane Club, a comedy-impro venue on Oxford Street, and also worked with Eric Idle on Behind The Crease, the BBC cricketing radio show. “It was such a buzz to pluck a scene out of the ether and make a roomful of people laugh. We were nervous about filling the place with just impro, so we always booked a couple of stand-ups – Jo Brand, Harry Hill, Mark Lamarr, Alan Davies, Stuart Lee et al. Robin Williams turned up one night and joined us onstage, which was one of the most exciting nights I’ve ever had as a performer”.
The impetus to record again came from a BBC TV assignment. Charlie and Julian [Littman] were commissioned for two series of a drama set on a Scottish island. “They didn’t want slick, orchestral loveliness. They wanted it to sound more like the music that might be made by a little band from the island. So I bought a little Indian harmonium and Julian and I wrote melodies we liked. The only criterion was – did it help the scene? I loved it and it seemed to flow naturally. Some time later, I thought, ‘Why not just do music like this, using a palette of instruments, acoustic guitars, mandolin, harmonium – and make it into songs? Hang the idea of being commercial – I’ll just write what comes out'”. Thus, over a series of five (so far) albums, Charlie is, for the first time, making records that reflect her own, unadulterated vision. And despite the dizzying array of styles and influences, each one is a cohesive whole. The Guardian, The Telegraph and Mojo have championed her with renewed enthusiasm, penning liberal amounts of stellar reviews.
Milk Roulette – Design: Tom Climpson
Milk Roulette (following Sleep All Day, Cuckoo Hill, The Hula Valley Songbook, and Cheapskate Lullabies), is arguably the best so far, a moving and intricate mix of pop crossed with Victorian parlour songs, drawing room ballads and a sprinkle of folk and country. The work of Kate and Anna McGarrigle springs to mind, although Charlie’s supple singing voice is less warbly and therefore an easier taste for the uninitiated to acquire. One also senses the presence of a sardonically-raised eyebrow reminiscent of Kirsty Maccoll. The story-songs include tales from the viewpoint of a couple undergoing IVF and the parents of a newborn child before, before a dramatic change of pace occurs and songs about alcoholism and the defiant resisting of one’s own mortality play out. The album concludes with a wistful, melancholic piano piece written by Charlie’s mother at the tender age of six. “I found the manuscript hidden in an ancient book of piano exercises,” says Charlie. “My mother’s mother, Dora, wrote it out for her and at the top she added, ‘By Betty, aged 6”.
Another of the album’s highlights is ‘Three a Penny’, which subtly mocks the current culture of free or nearly-free downloadable music. “There are now two generations of people who expect music to come out of a tap for nothing, whatever the CEOs of Spotify say,” says Charlie. “All I know is that when I look at my royalty statements, there are too many zeros the wrong side of the decimal point. There’s a lot of talk about monetising streaming properly, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen now that the genie of cheap, easily available, all-you-can-eat music is out of the bottle. If we can change that mindset we might be some way to making a living out of it again, but I don’t know how we do that”.
I caught Charlie live last year and couldn’t help but notice what a starry crowd she attracted – at one table, Eric Idle, at another, folk royalty (and fellow Island alumna) Linda Thompson. It was a stunning show, with a three-piece band (including Charlie on assorted string and keyboard instruments), held together by consummate poise, humour and musicianship. It also confirmed that Charlie’s creative rebirth, begun ten years ago, is still in full swing. As she explains, it has been founded on the principle of not second-guessing what the audience might want. “I just felt that there was no point in me trying to consider writing and performing anything with a view to it meeting approval by some mythical taste-maker somewhere. It had to feel authentic and personal. I’ve spent too many years trying to fit some sort of mould and I finally decided just to do whatever felt right – and if people don’t like it, they don’t have to come into my shop!”
There’s also no chance of Charlie slowing down or drifting into soft-focus projects (e.g. Christmas albums or re-heated hits collections). “I want to keep making better albums,” she says of her future plans. “I’d like to write a book, a film and a play…and learn to relax. I may do all of them, but possibly not the last one”.
November 18, 2014
Prior to 2003, you’d have been forgiven for scratching your head had someone asked if you’d heard the singer, songwriter and pianist John Howard. His sole album (at that point), Kid in a Big World (CBS, 1975), had been unjustly overlooked and a similar fate greeted the series of singles issued in its wake. But thirty years later, when RPM, a division of Cherry Red – a reissues powerhouse – brought the album back to the marketplace, the timing was right. The music monthlies and colour supplements got on board, reappraising the album very favourably and, after toiling in other areas of the music industry, John was back in business as a performing songwriter and recording artist. Since then, a further twelve albums have appeared, and the next one, Hello, My Name Is… arrives later this month. John, whose exuberant and theatrical style is sometimes thought to bridge the gaps between glam, Broadway and singer/songwriter, plays the Servant Jazz Quarters in London on November 26. He spoke to me at length about his past incarnations and his new album.
John in Baker Street, London, clutching a copy of his first album. Photo: Brian David Stevens
Charles Donovan: Kid in a Big World was reissued circa 2004 and this led to you becoming an active singer-songwriter again. Prior to its reissue, it had become a collector’s item and growing cult favourite. Were you aware of this? And did you foresee your resurgence as a recording artist or did you think you were through with it?
John Howard: I first became aware that Kid In A Big World mattered outside of my memories of recording it when I got an email from a chap called Mark Luffman from Australia in 2001/2 where he raved about it after finding the LP in a car boot stall. No-one had ever said such nice things about the album before. It was considered a complete failure by my record company and management in the ’70s and they saw it as an experience best forgotten about. Then around the same time, 2002, there was the In Search Of The Lost Record illustrated book being sold at the Tate Modern shop, which producer Steve Levine, with whom I’d recorded in the ’80s, told me about. It featured the KIABW sleeve as one of the ‘classic album sleeves’. Then over the next year or so I started becoming aware of internet blogs being written about the album, “who was John Howard?”; “Is he still alive?” etc. It seemed to have a genuinely enthusiastic following. That’s what excited and interested back catalogue specialists RPM Records, the unsolicited activity surrounding the album.
In 2001, when my partner and I had moved from Oxfordshire to Pembrokeshire and my father bought me a baby grand piano as a housewarming present, I had messed around with writing a few things which I quickly demo’d and soon forgot about. But it was knowing that Kid would be reissued by RPM in 2003 and realising that my music actually mattered to people, which I was taken surprise by, which really opened my creative drawer again. This time there was a reason to write songs again, with a potential avenue for them to be heard, my music was finally in demand by music buyers.
I was playing on the cruise ships at the time, 2002/3, and each time I lay down in my cabin new lyrics and songs started appearing in my head, which I’d write down, work out in my breaks between performing, and slowly an album of songs began to emerge, which eventually became Same Bed, Different Dreams, an album I started recording in early 2004 but which wasn’t actually released until summer 2006. Before 2003 I’d had no inkling that I would start to record again. What took my by surprise was how comfortable I felt in the studios, rather than trying to get re-used to being in that environment, it immediately felt like I’d come home.
Kid In A Big World, John’s belatedly celebrated debut, 1974. Photography: Mike Nicholson
CD: Why were two in a row of your projects (Technicolour Biography and Can You Hear Me OK?) cancelled? Was someone at CBS lobbying against you?
JH: It wasn’t a case of being lobbied against, not by CBS anyway, but the hostile reaction by BBC radio to my music – more to my being Out Gay – and the fact that in spite of the record company’s initial excitement about my potential to be A Star their interest was waning with each flop, all went to ensure that by 1976 I was without a record deal and all but washed up, at 23! Technicolour Biography was begun with much anticipation by CBS in late 1974 (just two months after we’d completed KIABW), they were expecting an album full of hit singles, but when they heard the basic demos and their expectations were dashed then the project was shelved, unfinished.
Can You Hear Me OK? was very much the album which was supposed to put things right. The CBS MD Dick Asher told me in no uncertain terms in the Spring of 1975 that I had to change my producer (Paul Phillips went, replaced by Biddu), alter my style of writing, and come up with a hits-packed album. I tried to do as they asked, came up with lots of hook-laden songs, summery catchy things like ‘I Got My Lady’ and ‘Play Me A Love Song’, Biddu and his arrangers Gerry Shury and Pip Williams wrote great orchestral scores, and we delivered the tapes to CBS expecting them to love what they heard. Instead they bemoaned the loss of their ‘Kid In A Big World’, the very artist they had rejected just a few months earlier, and refused to release Can You Hear Me OK? as well. One single from it, the summer love song ‘I Got My Lady’ saw the light of day in warm, summery January ’76 and it sank without trace.
With Johnny Mathis, outside Broadcasting House, after filming segments for The Musical Time Machine, 1975
CD: What was the effect on you, professionally, psychologically etc, of this?
JH: I don’t remember being particularly affected by being dropped by CBS, probably because the rot had started to set in shortly after Kid was released a year earlier, the label having ‘enjoyed’ seeing me have two flop singles (‘Goodbye Suzie’ and ‘Family Man’) by the time it was issued, and there was after that a slight sense of desperation around me in terms of ‘what do we do now?’, which pervaded through the offices of my management and CBS. I expected to be dropped, told my manager it would happen, so when it did I kind of shrugged my shoulders and moved on to getting live work at London fashionable eateries like April Ashley’s in Knightsbridge and Morton’s in Berkeley Square. I did that for a year, rather successfully in fact, no-one at the restaurants having a clue about my ‘former life’ as a budding pop star, and enjoyed the whole well-dressed busy-ness of it all.
However, when I had my accident at the end of ’76 breaking my back and feet and spent a lot of time in hospital and once home on sticks, then I had the time and the solitude to think about it all. That’s when a kind of quiet depression started to set in which finally surfaced in the summer of ’77, when I found it hard to sleep and would discover emotional comfort listening to Dory Previn albums! It was the fact she’d been through the mill and had survived which helped immensely when playing her LPs at home in the early hours of the morning. We became, in my mind, fellow emotional survivors.
I also found the pop scene of ’76 through to 1980 quite depressing. I hated Punk, though I know I’m in the minority amongst my contemporaries on this one. Its hard, angst-ridden, spit-in-your-face anarchy was alien to me, and I think deep down I simply didn’t believe it or in it. I had sought and found succour in my pop music of the ’60s and early ’70s, it had always made me feel alive and positive. Now this totally negatively-skewed bunch of snarling pop stars made me feel even more detached from the world I’d loved and felt part of. It all added to my sense of isolation at the time.
Punk probably did give the pop scene a well-deserved kick up the arse, it had all become rather flabby and self-obsessed, stadium concerts making millions for the limousine-driven rock idols. But in the end, Punk was as much about making lots of money for the powers behind the safety-pin constructed thrones as the rock scene had been about making big bucks for the same record company moguls in well-cut Italian suits. It was all a mirage and fooled many, especially the music papers. As they did when T.Rex took off in the early ’70s, they were full of headlines about The Sex Pistols or The Clash, they went out of their way to ditch and diss the rich mega-stars who they’d previously raved about. Again, it was all about money in the end.
CD: After a few years as a singles-only artist, you moved into different areas of the music industry. How did you make this transition?
JH: After the brief respite of being re-signed to CBS in 1979 to make two singles with Nicky Graham – later Bros’s producer – I was once again in a bit of a pit by the end of 1980. My new deal at CBS which had given me a new lease of creative life, had not produced any success once again and I was dropped by the company. With little money and a flailing career I got a temp job at a Mail Order record company called World Records, which was based in Richmond, just over the bridge from my Twickenham flat. John Lennon had just been killed in New York which meant World Records’ Beatles Box collection of eight LPs which had proved a surprisingly slow seller through the autumn, was suddenly flying off the shelves and they needed extra staff to cope with the thousands of orders coming in.
While opening the coupon orders in the post room one morning the company’s Managing Director walked in, saw me, came over to me and asked me why I was working in a post room? “To pay the rent,” I answered. He asked me to go to his office that afternoon where, after quizzing me about my past and finding out how much I knew about music and the music business, he offered me a permanent job in the company’s Repertoire Department. There I got to learn about licensing deals and contracts which stood me in good stead for later jobs in the industry.
By the early ’90s I was made Head of Strategic Marketing at MCA/Universal. It was a fun time, those twenty years ‘on the other side of the desk.’ For the first time in my life I was being paid a good salary, and got to travel First Class and stay in fabulous hotels all round the world. Doing presentations to rooms full of people fulfilled my ‘performance’ need and, honestly, at no time during those years did I ever really miss being a recording artist, that career seemed like a gone time to me, never to return. It shows how wrong we can be.
CD: Since resuming recording, you’ve kept up the formidable work-rate of an album a year, which is remarkably industrious. What determines the pace of your output?
JH: As I’m no longer signed to a record label, releasing all my material on my own imprint via an online distributor, I can decide when I make a new album and when I’ll put it out there. I enjoy that sense of control over my work. I’m not very good at doing nothing, so after a brief rest-up period of a couple of months after I’ve completed an album, I find new songs start to suggest themselves to me, and very soon I’m back at my piano working them up into finished compositions, complete with the arrangements for the backings and vocal harmonies. It just seems to work out that an album is completed within about six months (I play and sing everything on my albums so it does take time to get all that recorded!) and then a release date of around a year since the previous album is about the right time to put it out.
CD: It’s also reminiscent of the 1970s when groups and artists were expected to make an album every year (sometimes issuing two in one year). As someone who’s worked behind the scenes in record companies, do you know why this gradually changed in the 1980s, when albums started coming at the rate of one every two to four years?
JH: I think the reason album release dates started to get more spaced out by the late ’80s was because touring became the way to make the money. Major record companies were ploughing so much into an artist’s career that any money from record sales were being swallowed up by large advances and video production costs, so the artist had to get out on the road and ‘tour an album’. They became like hamsters on marketing wheels, touring constantly in huge venues to sell albums and promote singles the record companies released to promote the albums, ad nauseam. This meant that creativity for about two years went out the window, there was no time to sit and write or go into a studio to record a new album, and the record companies were happy about this as they wanted to squeeze as much as they could out of the album which had cost them a fortune to record and promote.
And on and on it went. I think it served many artists badly, in that by the time they’d recorded a follow-up, four years had sometimes passed and record buyers had moved on, bored with waiting for that follow-up. It did get ridiculous in the ’70s when, as you say, some artists were recording two albums a year – Elton John was one – and quality suffered, but having said that, The Beatles produced two albums a year during their heyday and each album was a gem – and they were constantly on the road as well. The attitudes were different then, of course, it was less of a hungry marketing machine and the industry was still learning how to make the most out of their protégés. By the ’80s it was all about money, get as much out of an expensive artist as you could before their time was up. Ironically, the record companies often speeded up their artists’ demise by touring them so much, but they’d made their money back by then so that was all they cared about.
CD: Some of your albums feature songs that are thematically linked. Is this the case with the new album?
JH: It’s not always intentional but themes tend to develop organically during the writing and recording process. When I was writing songs for the new album, Hello, My Name Is, I realised the recurring theme which was turning up in the lyrics was identity, i.e. how we see ourselves, how others see us, how we’d like to be seen, and the extension of that, how some of us don various personas with different people, believing certain factors in our characters would please or impress some people so we enhance those when in their company and hide those we think may upset them or put them off.
I think the only time we’re ever truly ourselves is in the early hours of the morning when we’re lying awake and going over our lives or things that have happened to us years before or recently, trying to make sense of it, trying to work out if we did wrong or could have done better. That’s probably the nearest we come to being a child again, though now we’re burdened by doubts and worries of which certainly I as a child had few. As I say, these linked themes are never planned but tend to evolve during the creative process because that’s probably what’s in my mind at the time. The only time I’ve actually planned an album from start to finish before beginning recording, with a definite storyline sketched out, was when I did You Shall Go To The Ball in 2012, which was a musical journey through my revisited past songs linked by soundscapes which had elements of the song about to follow interwoven.
CD: Which musicians have served as inspiration to you over the years?
JH: It’s more songwriters who have inspired me than musicians. I’ve never considered myself a ‘musician’s musician’, I could never jam with other musicians, for example, I’m much too much of a stickler for perfection, or my idea of it, for that, and I don’t actually think of myself as a pianist, I am a singer-songwriter who plays piano. One goes with the other in my head and I find it hard to split them. So, in answer to your question (!), the obvious ones would be The Beatles, Brian Wilson and Dylan when I was growing up in the ’60s, they’re the ones who made me want to be a singer-songwriter; producers like George Martin and Phil Spector made a big impression on me, giving me the ambition to record my music, and Burt Bacharach’s compositional style always fascinated me;
Noel Coward certainly was an influence, when he died in 1973 I bought an album by him and played it to death, such a clever lyricist; Terry Riley, the avant garde composer with his astonishing pieces like ‘In C’, had a huge effect on me in terms of breaking musical rules and seeing what happened with a song when you did that; then as I was getting more into writing my own material by the early ’70s and going out to folk clubs to perform them, artists like Roy Harper, The Incredible String Band, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and off-the-wall artists like Frank Zappa, started having a big effect on me. But also there were the childhood influences which came from my father’s musical tastes and record collection, such as Dave Brubeck and Peter Nero, and stage musical writers like Lerner & Lowe, Cole Porter, Rogers, Hart and Hammerstein, their internal rhymes and clever use of words affecting words had quite an impact on me. The first song I remember loving to bits and listening to all the time was ‘On The Street Where You Live’, from My Fair Lady. I still love to hear it today. And of course, Bowie’s Ziggy period in the ’70s was very inspirational, along with bands like Roxy Music and Mott. I have always admired Stars, those artists who transcend simple success and make it something magical through their sheer charisma and talent.
I think that’s where being inspired by other artists stopped, once I began my own recording career in late 1973 then I’d reached the point where I didn’t feel I needed those detached heroes any longer, I was on my own and doing my own thing regardless of what was big at the time. Pop music, per se, ceased to amaze me from the mid-’70s onwards and I became more of an interested bystander than an involved fan. Those early influences have stayed with me, of course, and will always be there in my musical DNA. I’ve admired artists like k.d. lang, Prince, Rufus Wainwright in more recent times but I can honestly say that they haven’t had any effect on my own musical output. There were other great singer-songwriters around in the ’70s, like Nick Drake and Shelagh MacDonald, who you may think were an influence on my writing, but I only actually first heard their material in recent years. I remember seeing Drake’s Five Leaves Left album in a record shop in Manchester in the early ’70s and considered buying it but decided to invest my £2 in a Dylan bootleg instead. It was only in the ’90s that I first heard Nick’s music and I immediately bought a 4-CD Box Set of his recordings. Beautiful stuff. I was introduced to Shelagh MacDonald’s material by my Dangerous Hours co-writer Robert Cochrane in about 2005, really very recently, and I so liked her song ‘Canadian Man’ that I covered it for my 2008 EP Songs For The Lost & Found, which Shelagh heard and sent me a beautiful email about, and we’re now in regular touch.
CD: What are the most pronounced ways in which your second recording career differs from your first?
JH: I’m enjoying it this time round. That’s the main difference. I didn’t really enjoy it back in the ’70s. I’d be dressed and made-up up for photo shoots and concerts, record at places like Abbey Road and Apple, be wined and dined and told how fabulous I was, and then go back to my tiny bedsit, flat broke, wondering if the next single I’d just finished would sell, and fearing it wouldn’t, “so what then?”. One regret I have is that I wish I’d been more impressed with everything that was happening to me back then. I should have felt amazing walking into Abbey Road studios, where my heroes had recorded; I should have loved shopping for clothes at Biba and Herbie Frogg; doing concerts at The Purcell Rooms and The Marquee.
But my main memory of that time is just getting on with it, doing what I did as well as I could and hoping it would please the people who mattered to my career. One always felt on approval, trying to impress, hanging on to every compliment like a lifeline. I was very young, didn’t know how to handle being in the midst of such expectations. It probably all happened too quickly for me too. When I’d arrived in London in August 1973, I was planning to spend a couple of years gigging, making a name for myself as I’d done up in the North West, and then looking for a record deal, the right record deal. Instead, I was spotted playing at The Troubadour within a
month of my arrival in London and had a record deal with CBS a couple of months later. It should have been exciting but I just remember wondering when it would all come to an end. None of it ever felt quite real.
Now, I love writing, recording and performing, this time it is fun. I’m making albums I’m proud of, which sound exactly as I hear them in my head when planning them, I’m in control of how and when they’re made and released, how they look and sound, and can make my own decisions at my leisure. I’m also 61, so have no expectations or ambitions for a future career. It is what it is now and I love it. When I no longer love it, I’ll stop. I’m very lucky to have been given a second chance by a chance reissue.
CD: You seem to have embraced the new music platforms (e.g. YouTube, streaming services, downloads). Do you have any misgivings about them or am I right in thinking you’re all for them?
JH: I know it’s currently fashionable to bitch about streaming sites like Spotify. Taylor Swift has, I believe, taken all her recordings down from streaming sites. That’s of course up to her. My feeling is I’ll never make a lot of money from my recordings, I’m not a big enough artist, will always be ‘niche’, so what the hell if I just get pin money from Spotify? Every streaming of one of my tracks means someone out there is listening to it and hopefully enjoying it, every download means someone has taken the time and money to buy something of mine. It’s all completely unsolicited, no-one has advertised my recordings and suggested they buy them, people find them by various word-of-mouth Tweeting and Facebooking, the Social Network has had a huge effect on my career. It’s very complimentary and I feel rather honoured about it. I have some musician friends who complain bitterly about Spotify and the like “ripping them off”. And I always say in reply to them, be grateful someone wants to hear what you do. Recently, my track ‘Believe Me, Richard’ from my 2013 album Storeys had the most streamings of anything I’ve ever released. To me that’s like having a hit single. It certainly feels a whole lot better knowing that, than forty years ago knowing my record company couldn’t get anyone at BBC Radio interested in playing ‘Goodbye Suzie’ .
After performing at Glam-Ou-Rama, London. Photography: Brian David Stevens
CD: Your concert in November is the second London show you’ve done since moving to Spain (I think). What should we expect and might you continue coming over to sing and play every year?
JH: I never plan doing a show, I wait to be invited! Seriously, it’s great that the Gare Du Nord label of artists have taken me to their hearts and want to help promote my music via shows in London and various other projects they’re discussing with me. They’re a very proactive and massively creative bunch of people. I really loved doing last year’s gig at the Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston and look forward to returning there on the 26th of this month. I’ll do a few old favourites, some more recent songs and a couple of brand new ones. Part of the show will be done solo, some of it with my band for the evening (Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis) and it should be a blast. I don’t know when there’ll be another show, we’ll see. I’d love to do one next year, of course, but ask me next year! I don’t have the energy levels any longer for constant touring, even a series of gigs might exhaust me! But occasional ‘poppings up’ on the live circuit suits me very well.
May 19, 2014
When I wrote about my friend Pamela Polland last year, in a desperate search for her lost 1973 master tapes, I entertained little hope that we would find them. After all, Sony, the tapes’ actual owners, had searched in 2006 without success. I too had tried a number of avenues, including approaching the Gus Dudgeon estate (Gus being the noted English producer who worked with Pamela on the record).
Pamela – a celebrated American singer/songwriter and protégée of Clive Davis – recorded her second solo album (for Columbia Records) at Trident Studios in London. Musicians included Taj Mahal, Joan Armatrading and Elton John’s band of the time. Pamela was a priority at the record label and, after a moderately successful first album with sales of 25,000, her second outing was due to get a huge promotional push. It was fully mastered and ready to go when disaster struck. Clive Davis left the record label under a cloud and interest in Pamela’s project evaporated. The album was shelved and she was left in limbo. Never one to dwell on misfortune, Pamela took the knock then kept going, reinventing herself as saucy jazz diva Melba Rounds, enjoying local success in San Francisco. Instead of repeating myself, I will direct you to my original story here and here.
Two days after my feature went live, I received an email from Richard Bowe at Sony UK. He indicated that he’d read the piece and asked me to call him. He was friendly and personable and – to my astonishment – said that the master tapes were sitting on his desk and that he was looking at them while we were speaking. The power of the written word. Where emails and phone calls had failed, a well-timed article sorted everything out and I remain grateful to The Huffington Post for facilitating this crucial break-through. I put Pamela and Richard in touch and sure enough, when Richard emailed her scans of the tapes, she confirmed that they were the real deal. My humble, unremunerated article, a true labour of love, had won through where Sony Japan’s own trawl through the archives had been fruitless. Victory was made all the more sweet by the fact that a little troll had remarked on Facebook that Pamela needed a ‘proper journalist – like the one who helped Eric Andersen’ to help her find the tapes. My career may have suffered a number of blows but I have never been anything other than a proper journalist.
I remember the day, a year ago, when I contacted Pamela to break the good news. She professed herself "shocked and delighted," telling me, "It felt like a tragedy when I was told the tapes were nowhere to be found. It was around 2006 that Sony Japan told me that they wanted to reissue the album [strictly speaking, not a reissue, since the album was never issued in the first place]. They were told that the masters were nowhere to be found. In retrospect, I think it’s because they approached Sony in LA and nobody thought to ask the London office. Doh!". We both remain grateful to Richard at Sony in London for stepping in when it seemed every line of enquiry had been exhausted. "That was a year’s work with a lot of incredibly talented people," says Pamela. "It was an enormous relief to discover that the music was still available, although now there’s another concern – and that is the tape-deterioration factor, forty years on".
If only I could say that Sony decided right there and then to issue the album, perhaps as a two-on-one with Pamela’s first album. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Pamela and I stayed silent for a year about the rediscovered tapes, because we hoped that Sony Japan might make good on their promise to issue it. Alas, as Pamela explains, "the man at Sony Japan who reissued my first Columbia solo album has since retired, and the new guy is non-responsive, so that ship has sailed".
Now we need help. Masters deteriorate. Time is of the essence. It may be that the tapes will need baking. This music – a wonderful collection of orchestrated, show-stopping ballads, intimate piano-and-vocal meditations, and up-tempo folk-rock mixed with soul – is among Pamela’s finest work. Had it seen the light of day at the time of its intended release, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that it would have elevated Pamela’s profile to Laura Nyro levels and beyond. It must have been heart-breaking, even for someone with Pamela’s optimistic disposition, when the album was cancelled. It even had finalised artwork and the confirmed title of Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? (a reference to the track ‘To Earl’, a trembling ode to a romantically unavailable petrol station worker).
"I was hoping for it to be a commercial success as well as an artistic one, mostly because commercial success is what fuels a career and allows it to progress," says Pamela. "It’s not as easy to move forward without that, but I seem to have managed". In fact, when assessed a different way, Pamela’s career is far from devoid of success. She provided backing vocals on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and appeared in the consequent film, and has released an album in every decade from the 1960s onwards, with the exception of the eighties (a ruthless era that was not kind to singer/songwriters whatsoever). From Jackson Browne to Bonnie Raitt, if they’re good then Pamela’s worked with them. Her career as a recording artist has, however, suffered due to what should have been viewed as an asset, namely the fact that she can’t be pigeonholed into a single style of music. "I remember some record companies who refused me as an artist saying, ‘we don’t know what bin to put you in’. In other words, my eclectic artistic nature was looked upon as a hindrance by many on the business side of the music business. But I just didn’t have it in me to stay in a box. I love music and I want to taste as much of it in my mouth as I can while I still have a voice."
Now we’re planning our next move, which is to work out how to shop the album to a sympathetic reissue label who could enter into a licensing agreement with Sony (it should be noted that every time Pamela’s earlier Epic and Columbia work has appeared on CD, its initial print-run has sold out). It simply isn’t right that only myself and a select few have heard this magnificent piece of work, every bit as much of a lost gem as the exhumed albums by Vashti Bunyan, Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs which have had critics frothing with superlatives. "I actually think it’s some of my best work," says Pamela, "which is why it’s been sad for me that it was never released. Even forty years later, I still think the songs, arrangements and performances all hold up. I tend to be my own worst critic, but mostly, I’m very proud of this album and still hope to see it released".
May 18, 2014
Doing some house-keeping and noticed that I hadn’t posted a link to this slightly snotty article about the supposed unfriendliness of Londoners…
Shelagh McDonald, the singer/songwriter feared dead after a thirty-year disappearance, is alive and singing…
January 10, 2014
In 2005, flicking idly through one of the glossy music monthlies, I spotted a tiny box copy item about a singer/songwriter called Shelagh McDonald who had vanished. No one knew her whereabouts, nor had they for over thirty years. Her two albums (from the early seventies) were being reissued on a two-for-one collection (I later discovered that there had been earlier CD reissues, but that this one had a bit more promotional muscle behind it, courtesy of Sanctuary). I saw the tiny piece and thought – this deserves more. I set about contacting all the people associated with Shelagh so that I could write a more substantial article. I discovered that while a minority of them feared that she was dead, most insisted that she wasn’t. Rumours abounded, most of which suggested that she’d had a bad, one-off experience with narcotics.
I also immersed myself in her two albums. 1970’s Shelagh McDonald Album was a very pleasant introduction – the accompanying photographs showed a lovely, delicate-featured woman and the songs were full of enigmatic self-expression. The music was that of a young writer navigating her way through pop, classical and folk, and coming up with beautiful odes such as ‘Ophelia’s Song’, whose extraordinary pastoral feel was clearly understood and emphasised by Robert Kirby, provider of string arrangements for both Nick Drake and Shelagh.
Shelagh’s first two albums. Photography: Keith Morris
My feature eventually appeared in The Independent in 2005 which in turn prompted the Scottish press to run similar articles. To everyone’s astonishment, one of these pieces eventually reached Shelagh herself. She was alive and had been living an itinerant lifestyle, camping in Scotland in all weathers with her partner Gordon. It emerged that one of the numerous theories was true – Shelagh had indeed had a terrible experience with LSD, finding it impossible to come down weeks after taking a substance that should have worn off in 24 hours max. She had retreated to her parents’ home in Scotland and then voyaged into the wilderness, living off the grid as a free spirit. She and Gordon posed for a photograph to accompany an illuminating and sympathetic newspaper feature by Grace Mackaskill after which Shelagh promptly went underground again, to the dismay of fans. But then, following Gordon’s death, she gradually emerged in 2012, this time armed with a guitar and a renewed singing voice. To the folk and singer/songwriter fraternities, it was as if Richey Manic [Edwards] had returned from the abyss.
Now, forty years on, Shelagh’s third album is here. Parnassus Revisited finds her interpreting some traditional folk material, plus nine originals, with an open, free-form, jazzy quality to her guitar playing. She has yet to return to the piano, though I remain hopeful she will. Two re-workings of songs from her first two albums complete the set. I caught up with her as the album was emerging as a ‘soft’, independent release, with possible changes to come as momentum is attained. Contemporary photographs reveal that Shelagh’s looks have withstood the passing decades. It is impossible not to warm to her candid and direct answers. She is well aware that layers of mythology have been constructed around her and is keen to draw a line; not to regret the past, but simply to stop dwelling on it at the prompting of journalists.
Shelagh in 2013. Photo: Heather McLennan
“Yours will be the last interview I do about my past,” Shelagh tells me. “My past is merely a framework upon which others can weave their own fantasies about what actually happened and they’ll continue with their re-inventions, no matter what I say!”
CD: How is the recording process forty years after Stargazer came out?
SM: Recording studios look superficially the same, until you see the computer screen on the wall above the sound decks. It lends an almost Orwellian touch to the whole room. Sound engineers are no longer dependent on their hearing alone; now they need good eyesight as well as the patience of a saint to endure the foibles and tribulations of the recording process. The computer must be consulted at all times. The abandonment of analogue has reconfigured the quality of present day recording, but I believe that the reliance on computers to tell us how to listen is removing something basic and instinctive. Certainly, it was amazing to realise that, if I’d fluffed a line here and there that they could be erased at the touch of a button. However, a few of these mistakes that we did erase actually sounded better when left as they were, in some obscure way they had become integral to the performance. Others will judge, of course, and it’s all a matter of taste. One thing is for sure – recording is every bit as nerve-wracking as it was forty years ago!
CD: The album is sparsely arranged compared to your first two albums. Just you and guitar. How was that decided upon?
SM: Budgetary and, therefore, time constraints, did influence the way Parnassus Revisited was produced. From conception to completion, it took a mere six weeks. On the other hand, it concentrated the mind on how best to record music stripped down to the essentials. There’s no space for overlaying any kind of “mood” or anything that would coerce the ear into listening out for the sounds that have become so familiar to us that we no longer register them. To some this could be considered an uncomfortable album, but it has the rawness that I was looking for. My sound engineer, David Gray, instinctively knew this I believe and created the sound that was in my head.
CD: Were you asked to make an album? How did it come about?
SM: Pressure was put on me to make an album. Bearing in mind that I’ve been away for forty years and that the cost of recording has sky-rocketed, my original plan had been to make an album of songs that reflect the musical influences on my work. For example, I love jazz and it has seeped into my guitar playing quite unconsciously….although alas I’ll never play like Anthony Wilson! My piano playing is definitely classically based. And last but not least, I have some happy songs up my sleeve which should add an extra dynamic to the album I originally had in mind. We’re talking about quite an expensive production here because it would take a variety of other musicians to support me on this.
CD: You mentioned to Grace Mackaskill that your voice had at one point been shot. You simply couldn’t sing. How did you coax it back?
SM: The voice, when it returned, took some time to strengthen. There were periods when I didn’t have time to sing. Gordon, my late partner, encouraged me but the impracticalities of returning to the folk scene during the years before his death could not be justified. At the end he said to me “you must sing”. With this kind of endorsement how could I do otherwise? And recently I’ve been working with Nigel H Seymour who knows all there is to know about singing. He’s put my voice through its paces and, thanks to him, I feel a lot more confident about it. As for performing again, I most definitely have Ian A. Anderson to thank. He nagged me until I agreed to do a gig with him and Ben Mandelson (The False Beards). Ian knows my weak spot – pride! He told me to “Come out from behind the sofa”, so I said to myself, “I’ll show him!”
CD: Have you completely recovered from the after-effects of your LSD experience? Do you wish it had never happened?
SM: I’m completely recovered from what happened back then and it’s a miracle my voice has been restored. Only one lingering side effect – my mental arithmetic sucks! I’ve no regrets. It’s made me who I am today and has taught me that you only get out of life what you put into it.
CD: How was it to discover that old and new listeners had kept exploring your music during your absence?
SM: I could hardly believe it when I learned people had been listening to my music. Sometimes their children have come up to me at gigs and said that they had known my music since they were young! Really incredible that, and very, very touching. No one from the music business approached me through all those intervening years and to be fair, it would have been impossible for them to find me if they had been.
CD: Presumably there are funds due to you from album sales.
SM: I still have to be reimbursed by the record companies but we are in contact as this goes to press. As for being consulted about reissues and liner notes. No one made a move in this direction. And again, they could well have tried to find me for all I know. When I learned (in a newspaper article) about the reissue of my music, it was a complete puzzle to me how this could have come about. I had no inkling of the resurgence in interest in all things folk and had never heard of the collectors’ market, the popularity of old 70s vinyl and the like.
CD: The return to live performances must have been daunting.
SM: The Green Note in Camden Town, London last January was my first gig for forty or so years. The audience was fantastic!
CD: You re-emergence in 2005 was documented by the press but then you seemed to go quiet again. What was life like at the time?
SM: After my reappearance Gordon and I were still living in tents and the occasional B&B or hotel. By 2008 we’d had enough and moved into a flat, which was bliss! Unfortunately within five months of this Gordon’s health deteriorated. He died in 2012.
CD: Do you miss living in the wilderness? On other hand, do you miss London? What is your ideal living space –the wilderness, cites, villages, suburbia?
SM: I don’t miss the tents – it’s enough to have memories of the good times, and there were plenty. As for London, I miss it as it was in the 60s and 70s when it was cleaner and a lot more relaxed. My ideal living space? Definitely the countryside but within reach of a city on the odd occasion duty calls.
CD: Were you signed to B&C for more than two albums? ‘Spin’ – a new song which appears on the two-for-one compilation – sounds fully produced rather than a demo. Was it planned for the next album? ‘Spin’ in particular shows a new confidence and pop sensibility. Can you tell me whether a third album was planned then abandoned? Are we likely to hear any more of it?
A third album at that juncture would not have been on the cards anyway because the recession of the 70s had already begun to bite and the music business like everyone else was affected. To be honest I’m not sure how many albums I signed up for with B&C. That third album was planned but what label it would have gone under is anyone’s guess.
CD: One glaring omission from the new album is your piano playing. As a pianist myself, I thought you had a lovely style, which added poignancy to a number of your songs. Do you plan to resume piano playing?
SM: I agree with you about the piano Charlie. Before I returned to performing I’d actually planned to concentrate on piano-based songs and to play guitar occasionally during my sets. I suppose I was persuaded down the guitar route by the numerous guitar enthusiasts in the folk scene. I don’t regret doing this but also feel now that that particular avenue has been explored. Already, since working with Nigel [Shelagh has an album in the works, collaborating with Nigel H. Seymour] there’s this feeling that I’m back on track with my original musical vision. It seems to be in tune with his (although on the face of it our music differs widely).
CD: A nice and noticeable touch on the new album is that the guitar playing has a jazzy quality that mixes very well with the folk music. Is that you playing or did you use a mix of players for the album?
SM: The jazzy guitar? All mine I’m afraid, guilty as charged. As I’ve already mentioned, the album was done on a tight budget and time was at a premium. So, barely enough time for rehearsals with other musicians, let alone the money to pay ‘em.
CD: Are you back in touch with musicians who appeared on your early albums, like Keith Christmas [a singer-songwriter contemporary of Shelagh’s]? Sadly, the brilliant arranger – Robert Kirby – died, though I did speak to him for my original article and he had lovely memories of you, as did all the people I spoke to. They all missed you a lot.
SM: Yes! I am in touch with the old gang: Keith (and Sian who’s an angel), Sandy Roberton, Ian (A) Anderson, Maggie Holland, Jerry Gilbert et al. Sadly there are absent friends who I would so much have wished to see again – the wonderful Robert Kirby who transformed base metal into gold with his beautiful orchestral arrangements and who was the nicest person in the business. Al Jones who was uniquely talented and destined, I believe, to move beyond folk-rock to a multiplicity of musical genres. Likewise Dave Mudge (of Mudge and Clutterbuck) – Tim Clutterbuck is around somewhere and it would be great to hear from him. Perhaps he’ll read this!
Find out more about Shelagh at her official website.
Thank you to those who wrote about Shelagh before I did…John O’Regan and Peter Moody.
August 15, 2013
Forgive me. I’ve been in such chronic pain that for twelve weeks it was simply impossible to sit upright and type. But right now I’m experiencing a rare reprieve. I don’t know how long I have before the torment returns, but I’ve got time to tell you about the singer/songwriter Harriet Schock (love the name). There’s a photograph of Harriet that, to me at least, captures her essence. It appears on the cover of her third album, You Don’t Know What You’re In For, from 1976 and was taken by Ethan Russell, noted for his dramatic shots of The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Beatles. Harriet appears to be gently staring down the photographer, fixing him with an exquisitely self-possessed gaze and a Mona Lisa smile. I am glad that it has been preserved because it helps me describe this complex and enigmatic songwriter. About two years ago, I tentatively explored the possibility of getting her first three albums reissued despite knowing little about the process. Her four most recent works are, I’m glad to say, readily available both as hard copies and download. But the three albums that established her trademark witticisms, melodies and chord progressions are currently unavailable to the wider public. Many people enjoy 1970s production values – the string and horn arrangements that don’t exist any longer in quite the same form, the vocals that aren’t excessively treated, the prominence of the piano, the intimacy. Harriet comes from this golden age of singer/songwriters – an age that has never been surpassed.
Harriet’s third album, You Don’t Know What You’re In For (1976)
Photos: Ethan Russell
Until the 1980s, 20th Century Fox had its own record label, 20th Century Records. Among its extravagantly talented stars-in-waiting was Harriet, along with Patti Dahlstrom and Rita Jean Bodine. Harriet had moved from Texas to Los Angeles in her early twenties, having married an actor she met at the Dallas Theatre Centre. When his work took him to Hollywood, Harriet agreed to follow. "I was very close to my family and that’s probably the only way I would have moved away from them," she says. "The marriage fell apart and he moved back to Kentucky. I stayed in Los Angeles and briefly worked as an advertising copywriter". Someone as creative and musical as Harriet was never going to be satisfied working in advertising for long, and she began acquiring a following playing the gay bar circuit, accompanying herself on the piano. "They were the only places I knew where a singer/songwriter could do original material, so I played them a lot, week after week". Word of Harriet’s talent spread quickly.
“Roger Gordon, who was a publisher at Colgems (EMI) came to see me perform. Shortly thereafter, Jack Gold signed me to Columbia but there was a payola scandal and all the acts signed by anyone at that label in L.A. (in other words, not by Clive Davis) were dropped. As I recall I got a car, which was really important because my ex-husband got our one car in the divorce. Then Danny Davis from Colgems took me to Russ Regan who headed up 20th Century Records. That’s when I got signed to the label I would actually record for.”
I first heard Harriet’s music after stumbling upon her albums at Music & Video Exchange, the second-hand outlet with the most surly and uncharismatic shop assistants in London. It was the Notting Hill branch. I knew I’d seen her name before and, within minutes, the information surfaced in my mind. This was none other than the same Harriet whose song-writing credits I’d spied on albums by Syreeta, Smokey Robinson, Roberta Flack and Helen Reddy. I knew I’d found something special. I clutched all three albums and rushed back to my flat near the Post Office Tower (like most native Londoners, I can’t bring myself to call it the ‘BT Tower’). Minutes later, what emerged from my record player were nothing less than three-minute romantic masterpieces, filled with the kind of flourishes and subtle tricks that today can only be found in musical theatre; deft use of internal rhymes, gorgeous melodic lines, sardonic humour. Instantly, I was a life-time member of the Harriet Schock club, whose members, it turns out, come from every corner of the world. Much to my delight, I noticed at least two Sondheim-esque traits running through the albums – Harriet never allowed the stress to fall lazily on the wrong syllable of a word, so her songs sounded uncontrived and intelligent, and she made only minimal use of melisma. Of course melisma (when a series of notes is sung for one syllable of lyric) was practised masterfully by lots of 1970s soul artists, but is now so gaudily overused on TV talent shows that it has become embarrassing and passé.
If Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell (not to mention Buffy Saint Marie) formed the first wave of singer/songwriters, then Harriet led the second, which came a few years later and included Melissa Manchester, Wendy Waldman and Karla Bonoff. To this day, her songs manage to balance the specific with the universal. No matter their subject matter, there is always space to allow listeners to overlay events from their own lives on to the material. Her first album was 1974’s Hollywood Town, produced by Roger Gordon, and it thrust her straight into the spotlight.
Harriet’s first album: Hollywood Town (1974)
Photos: Mike Paladin
“It was an exciting time but I had no “compared to what”, so I thought this was just what happened when you wrote songs. During the seventies, there was a station out here called KNX FM. They played album cuts. And according to my ASCAP statement, every cut on all three albums got played. I couldn’t go to the grocery store without hearing myself on the radio. That was the single most thrilling thing of all. I’ve been known to roll down my window and tell the stranger in the car next to me to turn a particular station on because I was on it. Okay, I did that only once before I realized how crazy it was. I also walked up to a group of very mean looking bikers in a restaurant when I was being played over the P.A. and told them. I’m not sure they were impressed but at least they didn’t hurt me. My first album cover was up on the outside wall of Tower Records and I had a picture taken of me standing in front of it with my so-seventies patchwork jeans on.”
Harriet with her Tower Records billboard (1974) and, years later, in Amoeba Records, L.A.
Photos: Mike Paladin and Mark Giffin
Hollywood Town was the launch-pad for a career that has remained buoyant to this day. Those who only engage with music at surface level, who think it’s a nice thing that gets played in shops, might hear it as a light pop confection and miss the point. “I had a disc jockey tell me when he heard my records that he thought they were a polished sort of Anne Murray until his wife made him take them home and listen closely. He then discovered I had something to say. I mean no disrespect to Anne Murray here. It’s just that my album sounded less like a “singer/songwriter” record than a pop artist’s album and in those days that determined the kind of airplay you got.”
The album is a seamlessly cohesive statement in which the narrator goes through a number of social and romantic rites of passage and shares the experience with sometimes barbed, sometimes touching observations. It introduces Harriet’s piano-playing style, which flows from the same influences of blues, classical and pop as Carole King. Supporting musicians are of the highest calibre – Leland Sklar, Larry Carlton, Russ Kunkel. These are the names you see stamped over the very finest offerings of the 1970s and give you some idea of just how important 20th Century Records considered Harriet’s career. ‘Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady’, which was to become Harriet’s signature song, opens with a conversational line that neatly encapsulates her bracing and intelligent approach: “I guess it was yourself you were involved with/I would have sworn it was me”. She manages to place a melodic and lyrical hook right at the start of the song and it’s not hard to imagine how this must have ensnared people hearing it on radio.
But just as ‘Ain’t No Way…’ was about to go stratospheric, events beyond Harriet’s control conspired to hinder its progress. “I came very close to having a top forty hit with it. The promotion people from 20th Century are still talking about it today. A music director of a major top forty station in L.A. was poised to start playing it but he wanted it sped up. I think he was moving faster than normal because of some chemicals rolling around his system. Russ Regan recalled the record, sped it up and reissued it. There was another station, in San Francisco, which promised to play the record if the L.A. station did. A few days before they were due to play me – which would have made it a hit because they were huge stations – the music director had a fight with the program director and quit. We lost the L.A. station which made the San Francisco station pull out. I didn’t quite understand what a disaster this was when it happened. But decades later, when I heard them retell how close we were and how heartbroken the label was, the severity of it became even clearer.”
Harriet had to adjust to success of a different kind; other artists and acts swiftly recorded their own versions of her songs. From Hollywood Town alone, her songs were covered by Manfred Mann, The Partridge Family and – most notably – Helen Reddy, who took ‘Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady’ well into the US Top Ten. “I was anonymous all the way to the bank,” remarks Harriet drily.
Harriet’s second album, She’s Low Clouds, came out later that year, created by the same team. It kicks off with ‘Go On And Go’, a startling break-up song, and also includes ‘Play It Again’, a soulful and beautifully arranged tribute to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Harriet’s piano-playing is gorgeously prominent and the album stands as a sonic extension of the themes first put forward in Hollywood Town. The songs are crammed to burst with witty remarks, internal rhyme, hooks upon hooks upon hooks, and memorable rhetorical questions, including, ‘What’s the good of new love/That’s too graceful to grow old?’ (from ‘Brooklyn Can Hear You Bragging’). The front cover makes it look as though Harriet is asleep – a better choice would have been to use the bright, engaging photograph on the back.
She’s Low Clouds (1974), second album in Harriet’s classic trilogy
Photos: Mike Paladin
Though She’s Low Clouds garnered similar critical acclaim and support from Cashbox (a defunct trade title not dissimilar to Billboard), it did not break through (despite yielding another Helen Reddy cover); a change of approach was called for. 1976’s You Don’t Know What You’re In For, produced by Billy and Gene Page, was an example of pop music with soul production, not unlike Melissa Manchester’s Don’t Cry Out Loud album, which was produced by Motown’s Leon Ware. Key figures of the singer/songwriter movement, including Leland Sklar and Tom Scott, are present, but the sound is a considerable departure from the first two albums. “Since Gene was a famous string arranger, he put strings on every cut,” explains Harriet. “It isn’t nearly as stripped down as Hollywood Town and She’s Low Clouds.” The collection’s high-gloss factor makes for a wonderfully indulgent listen; it has a sultry quality not unlike that of the Evie Sands albums from the same period (Estate of Mind and Suspended Animation). Tucked away amid the clever and affecting love songs (most notably ‘I Could’ve Said It All’) is a withering parody of the Lieber/Stoller perennial ‘I’m A Woman’. ‘He’s So Macho’ is a send-up of cartoonish masculinity incisive and pointed enough to stand side by side with ‘You’re So Vain’.
“When I first started writing songs,” says Harriet, “I wrote comedy songs—satire, parodies. Once I started writing more autobiographically, the humour and irony stayed but the subject matter switched to what I was hurting about or wondering about or just wanted to say. I’m from Texas and I shoot from the hip, so some things sneak in there that a more thoughtful writer might have the good sense to leave out.”
Harriet’s lyrics are often character studies with a sting in their tails but not wholly damning of their subjects. “I never feel like something is totally someone else’s fault,” she says. “That’s just an ignorant point of view, in my opinion. Also it’s boring. If there’s no realization or some understanding the song leads to, then it’s just a rant and I think the ranter looks worse than the rantee. Also, being a Southern woman, I’ve had to learn to separate the head from the body without the victim ever knowing there’s a knife involved. And sometimes that head just has to go.”
But despite the lovely front cover and the lusher production, You Don’t Know What You’re In For marked the end of Harriet’s first recording career. “Disco came in and though I was still performing, I didn’t know how to fit into what was happening without abandoning who I was completely.” Harriet bid the seventies farewell, having bestowed the decade with a trilogy of albums whose sheer beauty and quality still attracts listeners today despite languishing out of print. As a fan, of course I wonder what Harriet’s 1980s albums might have been like, had they been made. Would she have put through different stylistic straitjackets, like Melissa Manchester and Carly Simon, in search of a home? Overblown power ballads? Synthesised, new-wave pop? Reggae? R’n’b? Would a team of stylists have thrust her into lycra and leather or crowned her with unusual, lacquer-drenched hairstyles?
Rather than pursue any of those questionable paths, she side-stepped into song-writing behind the scenes, working for Jobete, the publishing arm of Motown. “It was so much fun interacting with Berry Gordy and Hal Davis. I had started writing with Misha Segal and we got signed as a team. A working day usually entailed going to Jobete and finding out what was needed, showing songs to Mr. Gordy, working with Iris Gordy (who is still a close friend) and others there. I wasn’t really employed by them. I just had a publishing deal. Ironically, Lester Sill, who had run Colgems when I was signed there, took over Jobete so I worked with him again. A number of nice projects came out of my collaboration with Misha Segal – the music for The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking and the song, ‘First Time on A Ferris Wheel,’ which has been sung by over 30 people—either live or studio-recorded. Smokey Robinson sang it in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, a Motown film, and Nancy Wilson recorded it. Many others covered it. The ultimate recording was Carl Anderson’s and it became his trademark. What a truly great singer he was.”
As the nineties got underway and ‘Harriet Schock – Recording Artist’ receded further into the past, up surfaced Nik Venet, who had not only signed the Beach Boys but also been an instrumental figure in the original singer/songwriter movement, producing brilliant albums by Dory Previn and Wendy Waldman. His influence had a revolutionising effect on Harriet. “He couldn’t see any shred of who I was in what I was doing – collaborating on R&B dance tunes. He made me realise there were people who actually got who I was and wanted to hear that. So I started recording again”. Beginning tentatively with the low-key, cassette-only offering, “American Romance”, Harriet’s renewed recording career gained momentum with the release of the concept album Rosebud in the late nineties. American Romance (since reissued on CD and digital download) was a discreet, keyboards and vocal release which contained several songs that forced the listener to stop whatever he or she might be doing and succumb. “For What It’s Worth” and “You Are” were two such moments. The follow-up, Rosebud, was more widely publicised and featured star players like Dean Parks, produced with a kind of pop chamber-group approach. Just as she had in the 70s, Harriet was able to command top-flight talent, and collaborated with no less than Arthur Hamilton (composer of ‘Cry Me A River’) on ‘Worn Around The Edges’. The album’s concept was a winning one – Harriet took the themes and motifs of classic cinema and grafted them on to stories and moments from her own life. A live album came next – a most suitable format for an artist who is very much a storyteller and whose intimate asides to her audience are always witty and worth preserving.
The come-back albums, American Romance and Rosebud
At the same time, the advent of the internet facilitated contact between Harriet and her audience in hitherto impossible ways. “It was spectacular, the way it enabled people to find me,” she says. “I heard from people saying they’d worn out their records and did I have any CDs of these albums. Of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t legally get the rights. I would hear from disc jockeys who played the records, fans… and children of fans who grew up with the records. A few years ago, a 25-year-old girl from Stockholm contacted me. Her parents had owned a record store and had brought home my first album, Hollywood Town. She took an extreme liking to it and it formed the soundtrack of her childhood. She wanted to meet me and planned a trip to L.A. with her band called Molly Ban. I showcased them at an L.A. Women In Music Singer/Songwriter Night, an event I have been hosting for 22 years. They brought the house down. The girl, Alexzandra Wickman and her partner, Mikael Back, accompanied me in a show I did a few nights later. It was so lovely to see how much the record had meant to her. She remembered songs from it I hadn’t performed in years. I’ve since added some of them to my current set list.”
It was at this point that Harriet and I came into contact. I wrote her an email, wanting her to know that I’d heard her first three albums, I’d listened to every word and marvelled at every elegant, shapely melodic line. I commissioned Harriet to write some short film reviews for the magazine I was employed by, to tie in with her surprise appearance at a musical festival in Somerset. I went to the show (as brilliant as I’d anticipated) but had to leave as soon as the last note was played; I was moving from Fitzrovia to Fulham (a terrible, terrible mistake that led to the most miserable stage of my life). In 2002 we would eventually meet in Los Angeles, sharing a stage both that year and the following one. At the time, I was trying to be a performing songwriter, getting paid gigs around London but finding very little traction.
By now, Harriet had become a teacher and her home in the Wilshire District of L.A. was the musical version of a literary salon. Initially, she’d been reluctant to teach something that she felt had to be innate. After all, you cannot teach talent. “I had a friend who is now quite well known as a classical composer—Morton (Skip) Lauridsen. He asked me to teach song-writing at USC. There was no department of song-writing at that time. I answered by telling him it couldn’t be taught. The next year he asked me again. I decided I wanted to see if maybe it could be taught. So I devised a step-by-step method of tricking the USC students into doing what I did naturally. In other words, I felt like a potter who had been throwing pots for a long time. I no longer thought where to put my thumb or how to set the clay on the wheel. I just thought of a pot and threw it. But these students needed a method to get something out of them that was what they really wanted to write about. And song-writing was a language they didn’t speak fluently yet. So I had to get them speaking English and keep them communicating until suddenly they had a song, without falling off into “song-writing”—that foreign language they didn’t yet speak well. I taught there for a few years but I found that these kids were not motivated the way an actual songwriter might be, so I stopped. I taught for the Songwriters Guild of America for quite a number of years. I honed my steps and made them work better and better. Now I teach privately, over the Internet and in classes here in L.A. It’s really fun. My students study with me time after time until they become very good friends.” Anyone interested in adopting some of Harriet’s techniques but unable to commit to actual lessons can pick up Becoming Remarkable, a print anthology of Harriet’s song-writing articles.
In recent years, Harriet’s career has continued to diverge. With Geoff Levin, she composed the theme song for Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks, the animated children’s TV show with voice acting by Mel Brooks which enjoyed worldwide syndication. “It feels great to meet children who can sing my Jakers theme song by heart or young adults who can sing the Pippi Longstocking songs because they grew up on them. I also have a song from a Little Mermaid album that’s a children’s favorite and Misha and I wrote the songs for the animated Secret Garden. I really enjoy the children’s market because it’s less strict in subject matter. I mean you can use your imagination and let it go wild. I think one of my favourite projects was writing a song for Disney’s Sing me a Story with Belle. I wrote to an old re-cut cartoon of Mickey Mouse, Pluto and Donald Duck ghost-busting. The film Ghost Busters had to have been inspired by that old cartoon. They even said “I ain’t scared of no ghost”! I also love to write for regular films and television. It’s just that kids remember every word and note of what you write and it’s so rewarding when they come up to you and sing it. I find writing for the theatre similar in that you don’t have to dumb down. Oddly, writing for children and for the theatre, you can be intelligent because in theatre, people are listening and children hear songs hundreds of times. You can also be melodic. So you don’t have to have some mindless phrase both lyrically and musically repeating over and over for a listener who is actually doing four other things while your song is playing.”
Next, Harriet forged a successful alliance with London-born director and playwright Henry Jaglom. She composed the music for Going Shopping (2005), Hollywood Dreams (2006), and Irene in Time (2009). “I met Henry Jaglom around 2005. He was speaking at an event and he found out I was a songwriter in his audience. He said, “I just make movies because I can’t write songs” and I thought to myself “I just write songs because I can’t make movies” and at that moment I knew I would work with him. He had me submit a song called ‘Going Shopping’ for his film of the same name. I submitted lots of versions. Finally there was one version of the song that his son, Simon, said he thought was good – he couldn’t get it out of his mind. So Henry sent me into the studio to record it and asked me if I would also record some cues he could use. That started a long-term collaboration. I provided the theme song at the beginning and end of that film along with cues that were used under fifty per cent of the entire film. Then later, I provided some music for Hollywood Dreams. Then his star, Tanna Frederick, wanted to do a concert with me. She had sung some of my songs when she was briefly cast in a play Karen Black wrote around six of my songs – Missouri Waltz. Tanna’s schedule wouldn’t allow her to continue in the play but she liked my songs. So I put a concert together with Tanna. She and I both sang my songs with my band backing us. Henry Jaglom came to the show and decided that night to use my band in his next movie, Irene In Time, on camera. It featured my band and four of my songs but the song that’s played in it over and over is ‘Dancing with My Father’ which I wrote with Ron Troutman. Henry called me recently and held the phone up to his car radio. Apparently my record of ‘Dancing with My Father’ was getting played on the Sinatra channel of Sirius radio. After Irene in Time, Henry cast me in a play he had written. I played one of the ensemble starring roles in Just 45 Minutes from Broadway (2012). I was also in the film of the same name that was released last October. It has now been sold to In Demand so it’ll be seen much more broadly than just major cities. It’s already led to other acting roles for me. That’s a lot of fun.”
Harriet with the late Karen Black, one of the vast number of performers who have interpreted her songs and which includes Smokey Robinson, Nancy Wilson, Helen Reddy and Manfred Mann
Photo: Andrea Ross-Greene
In between all of that, Harriet found the time to release her sixth studio album, Breakdown On Memory Lane, in 2010. The title is clearly more than just a reference to the track of the same name; a concept is there for anyone who cares to perceive it. Harriet is embarking on journey, breaking down at ten different points along a road where she is confronted by (and comes to terms with) aspects of her past and present. She conducts a delicate post-mortem of her first marriage (‘When You Were Mine’), gets to grips with the vagaries of life as a performing songwriter (‘Sound Check Song’), admits to a longing that can never be sated (‘Searching For You’) and dispenses with an unsatisfying relationship (‘You Just Don’t Get Me, Do You?’) before embracing a new one (‘It Tears At Me’). It’s a stunning piece of work, with an unadulterated and unapologetic pop production that recalls the approach of her first two albums.
Breakdown on Memory Lane (2010)
One final point: developments occur so frequently and rapidly in Harriet’s career that by the time this article is published, it will require an extra paragraph with at least one more to follow with the passing of each month. Watch this space.
June 8, 2013
A bit slow on the uptake here, but I was in hospital after all. Shelagh McDonald, the singer/songwriter whose albums came out in the early 70s, then apparently vanished from the face of the earth for over thirty years. I wrote about her in 2005 and – not longer afterwards – she reappeared only to go under the radar again. Far from being dead, she’d dropped out after a traumatising experience with hallucinogens and latterly been living in a tent in the wilderness with her boyfriend. Now she is properly back, singing and playing in territories including London. Since my original article no longer appears on The Independent’s website, I have posted it here. Click here for Shelagh’s own website. And there’s also an in-depth 2012 interview with Shelagh here.
Meanwhile, here is my 2005 feature. Of course, I’d have written it differently today. Shelagh’s piano, guitar and song-writing approach share more with Joni Mitchell (Blue era) than Sandy Denny. And compositions such as ‘Ophelia’s Song’ are not comparable to either but demonstrate that Shelagh was forging her own style.