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.