Eddie Reader already had two Brit awards and had topped the singles charts by the end of the 1980s. But if you suspect this story’s merely a retro affair centred on big hit, ‘Perfect’, think again.
The Glasgow-born singer-songwriter has recorded 11 studio albums as a solo artist since coming out of the shadow of one-album wonders Fairground Attraction, with her first, Mirmama, setting the tone in 1992.
Along the way she picked up a third Brit award, was nominated for an Ivor Novello award, received an MBE in recognition of an award-winning 2003 project feting Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, and the following year sang at the opening of the new Scottish Parliament building.
What’s more, she’s now celebrating four decades as a professional performer, moving from busking and folk roots – via UK and US tours with Leeds post-punk band Gang of Four – to session work with several big-name artists before carving out that solo success.
Last September’s Cavalier LP was the latest instalment of a career also including brief forays into acting, TV and radio presenting – including BBC Scotland music programme, No Stilettoes – and writing. And was she pleased with the praise for her latest LP?
“Yeah, although I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. I’m just concerned about making records best as I can, letting them fly out into the world. But certainly I’ve nothing to be ashamed about. I really love it and I’m glad that there’s nice words said. Thanks for letting me know!”
If you’ve missed out on Eddi’s more recent output, you’ll find an assured maturity there that’s been building for some years. And to highlight just one track on Cavalier by way of an example, ‘Go Wisely’ is a thing of beauty, her words to a loved one setting off on life’s journey, built around sage Scots advice, ‘Be good to yourself, go wisely; But always have the bus fare hame.’ Is that an old Reader family saying?
“Well, I’m at a stage where I have adult children and it’s a different world from when I was young, but there’s things that are still quite pertinent. I wanted to say things to my children that my adults told me when I was leaving home.
“This list just came to me in the middle of the night. All these things I remembered, like ‘be good to your health’, and the most pertinent, ‘always make sure you’ve got the bus fare ‘hame’ in your pocket. I just wanted to tell them the door will always be open, that sort of thing.
“The adults I grew up with were from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a lot of Beatles records around, like ‘All My Loving’, and also the Rolling Stones ‘ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ … ‘but you get what you need’. I wanted to get a wee bit of that too, those sounds as my backdrop.
“With ‘be good to your health and be good to yourself’, that was my Granny. My Dad, Grandad and the men in my family would be more concerned about making sure you had the money for the road ‘home’.
“My Mum and all those housewives were more concerned about getting enough food and always having some pal you could rely on. I didn’t manage to get it into the song, but my Dad would always say, ‘If you get lost, just look for the pub, because the pub never changes. There’ll always be a pub on every corner.”
If only that was still the case. We seem to be losing so many, not least music venues.
“Yeah … but you have churches turning into music venues, which is a better thing probably.”
On the back of last year’s Cavalier, There’s a five-song EP, Starlight, out now. And somehow the years have crept up, this being your 40th year as a live performer, I understand.
“It’s actually more, but 40 years ago I sat on the side of a river, while busking every day in the South of France, deciding to come home and do something much more serious with my abilities. I’ve been 30 years as a professional, but more than that as I lived off my busking money before.
“Going back even further, when I was eight I sang in front of the class at school for the first time. A major breakthrough. It’s been a long time manipulating my throat, making sure I get across an idea.”
Eddi began playing guitar at the age of 10, her busking days following some years later, initially in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. And I put it to her that from Steve Harley to Joe Strummer, many music greats similarly found their way via busking.
“Yeah, there’s a lot you learn. Firstly, about projection – not mumbling, enunciating a little easier. That’s a massive learning curve, doing that without microphones in an open street, and also picking areas of a street where your voice will reverberate.
“You also toughen up the cords, learn stamina and learn what works with passing trade. I was really lucky I had good equipment, but it’s also about the songs you pick. I could tell for example that Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ would make me enough money for my dinner rather than a song about the boyfriend dumping me, y’know – that track I wrote last night that I got from my diary.”
Back in Scotland after her early career took her to France, Eddie was working in a factory in Irvine and part-time in a recording studio in Kilmarnock when she answered a music press advert, consequently heading to London to audition for Gang of Four, who were after a backing singer in time for an appearance on for BBC 2 TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test and a UK tour.
She stayed on with the band for a US tour, then became a session vocalist in London, going from radio ad jingles to work with the likes of Eurythmics, Alison Moyet, Billy MacKenzie, John Foxx, Sting, The Waterboys, and The Clash’s Topper Headon. But she never really lost her initial love of folk. In view of her spell with Gang of Four, was she also into punk?
“Well, I was a child of that era. I was 17/18 in the late ‘70s, so that was all around me. But I was a massive folk music fan, and what I liked about folk was that it was a brilliant alternative to Amanda’s Wet T-shirt Night in the local disco, y’know.
““I wasn’t angry enough to hate it all entirely. In fact, I found a lot of solace in folk music. To go in and hear unaccompanied females singing in a Scottish accent, songs of love, murder, death and life, I kind of felt I didn’t need anything else.
“My family were a bit worried – ‘what’s all this folk music?’ They didn’t really get it. But I was I was going to all the folk festivals in 1979 and 1980, when it was all dying. I was there at the latter half of the pre-folk revival and remember how well attended it was then. The first would be Inverness Folk Festival in April and I was there as a young punter. I’d sneak in the back and you’d get a floor-spot. It was a place where you could perform.
“You couldn’t perform anywhere else, unless you had sound equipment and were in a band. If you were in a folk club you could stand on stage and ask if you could sing or play something and there were a lot of people my age who did the same thing.
“That graduated to busking and singing those songs, like ‘Lord Franklin’ and Blues Run the Game’, learning about the alternative music scene. And the alternative scene for me would have been Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. All of that had been dying a death during the late ‘70s. But the folkies were all for it.”
Initially raised in a tenement slum, Glasgow-born Eddi is the eldest of seven children, her Dad a welder, reminding me of someone else who started out in that line then progressed through the Scottish folk scene before going his own way.
Actually, before I got in touch, I was racking my brains trying to recall when I’d last seen her talking on television, then remembered it was around New Year for a BBC documentary about Billy Connolly, who Eddi has worked with in on TV soundtracks in recent years.
“We came from the same place. He’s older than me, but I think if I’d been male, I think I’d have had a practically identical experience. But being female, I had a different experience, being a Scot. We didn’t get feminism until the 1990s, I think, up here! I wanted to be like my Dad’s daughter. I wasn’t particularly interested in having 20 wains.
“The other thing with the Gang of Four and all that, I would never restrict myself in terms of genre. I loved jazz music, I loved punk, I loved it all.”
She’s certainly not one to be typecast. From folk roots to pop, Robert Burns, and even 1930s’ fare for a project with Jools Holland.
“Yeah, but that’s only because I knew all those songs. He phoned me, saying, ‘You’re the only person I know who knows all this stuff.”
Talking of those you’ve collaborated with over the years, I’ve heard Boo Hewerdine sing your praises live, suggesting you’ve helped pay his mortgage through covers of his songs, most notably 1994’s ‘Patience of Angels’ (nominated for an Ivor Novello award for best song the following year).
“Ha! Well, that’s good to know.”
Do you still work together?
“Yeah. He comes with me everywhere when I’m playing.”
Including these upcoming dates?
“Yeah, he will be.”
So what’s the set-up for these live shows?
“Well, I like to have players who know how to do the folk thing and I like to have players who know how to do the songwriter thing, and I like players who are really versatile. So I have Boo, Kevin (McGuire, double bass), Alan (Kelly, accordion) from Galway, Steph (Geremia, flute) might come, and I have John.”
That’s guitarist John Douglas, Eddi’s husband, of The Trashcan Sinatras, a rather splendid melodic indie outfit – in the best tradition of Aztec Camera – with their roots in the mid-’80s in Irvine, fronted by her brother Frank (bass, vocals), and also featuring John’s brother Stephen (drums). I remember them well, first single, ‘Obscurity Knocks’, leading me to buy the Go! Discs debut LP Cake, on vinyl back in 1990. In fact, I’m revisiting it as I’m typing, and it sounds just as good nearly three decades on. What’s more, they remain a going concern, still recording and touring, as you can find out here. Anyway, back to Eddi.
“We got married six years ago, but we’ve known each other all our lives. So it was a musical partnership as well. We always got on as mates, and sort of suddenly, about 2001, realised it was more than that. John had written ‘Wild Mountainside’, which was kind of for me to come home from London. I’d been away 28 years, including time in France and having my kids, and was needing to find a home really.
“Also, a lot of people were leaving, and a few were dying, the older ones. I just felt I was removed from something that was authentically mine, and wanted to get back to that. So John had written this song, (including the line) ‘I’ll carry you if you fall’, and that kind of sparked us off really. I put it on my Robert Burns album as an example of the poetry that’s still alive on the west coast of Scotland.”
While Eddi sees the day she moved back from the South of France as key to her career development, heading home for the next part of her adventure, she was back across the Channel fairly soon, working in Paris as a singer for composer Vladimir Cosma, who wrote the music for the movie, Diva. She’s not so complimentary about him, but I’ll hold back. My legal team have yet to return from their liquid lunch. Let’s just say she’s still waiting on a pay-day.
Eddi returned to the UK again in 1984, through a contact with The Kick Horns brass section in London, signing with EMI, making two singles with disco outfit Outbar Squeek. And how does she sum up that period?
“From 1981 through to 1988, just go to Zomba Records or Arista, find any singles that never did anything! One that comes to mind was with A Bigger Splash, which Sting produced. You’ll find my voice on all those.”
I recall talking to Paul Carrack about his days as a go-to session man, someone else who eventually went his own way. Were you frustrated by that experience or was it more a case of learning your craft before going it alone?
“The busking taught me so much, then the live work taught me more, and I was in all sorts of bands in Scotland before I went to France. But when I was working in the studio in the ’80s, for people like The Gang of Four, The Eurythmics, Alison Moyet, and Sting, there was a hierarchy of BV (backing vocalist) work, and I just loved working.
“I’m a real worker. I love hearing something, getting it spot on, getting a harmony right, and for years and years I was probably a bit anally-retentive about it. But I think people liked me because I was fast and I was cheap! You could carry on doing that and end up doing tours with (Eric) Clapton and the (Rolling) Stones, but attractive as that was, I knew I’d be bored shitless, so I needed work.
“The work was about falling in love with song, then turning song to other people, so they heard it through you and the way you hear it, something intangible. I could wait at the side of the stage for my moment to come on, sing ‘Ooh ooh, aah aah’, and could do that really fucking brilliantly, but I don’t think it would satisfy me.
“By about 1984/85 I was looking for writers, trying to write myself, and wasn’t very brave about my own writing. I knew I was creative but couldn’t quite rely on that. I made a few demos then found some writers. I was doing work for The Waterboys and met Anthony Thistlethwaite, who (also) played saxophone with The Kick Horns, who (incidentally) now do play with the Stones!
“I was a backroom girl and we’d go out in Anthony’s 2CV, go to gigs. He’d introduce me to anyone who wanted backing singers. One band had a deal with EMI, and another had one with Sony. I signed all those contracts, having about five at one point, all supposedly exclusive!”
Around then she also met Mark E. Nevin, guitarist and songwriter with Jane Aire and the Belvederes, asking him to write for her, the pair subsequently fronting Fairground Attraction (also featuring Simon Edwards and Roy Dodds), signing in 1988 to RCA/BMG. Soon, debut single ‘Perfect’ became a UK No.1, going on to win best single at the 1989 Brit Awards, while debut LP, The First of a Million Kisses, reached No.2 in the charts and won best album at that same awards do.
How did that story end? Well, it seems that during a break – in which Eddi had the first of her two children – there was a fall-out, ultimately leading to a split, just one more LP following, 1990’s Ay Fond Kiss, a collection of B-sides and live tracks. And Eddi still seems somewhat raw about the whole episode.
“There was all sorts of shenanigans going on before Fairground (Attraction). Then I met Mark, my biggest mistake – not that I made many – acquiescing to him to turn it into the name of the band. I just picked a name of one of the songs of his that I liked. But mostly it was my demo money. I paid for it all and was the one who got the interest from the record company. I had all the contacts.”
She added more, but I’ll leave that out. As I’ve explained before, I’m a one-man band and don’t have a team of hot-shot lawyers to go over my interviews. Some of what comes out in conversations inevitably ends up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. I’ll carry on from there though.
“I’ll still stand by it (‘Perfect’), because it was a choice of mine, it was something I loved, and the whole album was something I did with good heart. The reason we didn’t get a second album was greed and someone having a power struggle. We ended up in a place where, ‘You do as I say, or you don’t do anything’. I had to get away from that … run away from that, as fast as possible!”
And Eddi’s advice for the next generation of performers (again, I’ve left out a bit)?
“If you do it with love, you’ll attract enough people and will survive. The Jaguar, the boat in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean is not particularly the best thing to aim for, but you can aim for loving what you do, and if you do love what you do you’ll always survive. Without fail.
“I like to think that maybe in my older age I’ll get to do little workshops and teach that stuff. Because nobody taught me. I had to learn that.”
Take a page out of Boo Hewerdine’s book. He’s involved in songwriting workshops, this summer working alongside Dean Friedman and Chris Difford.
“He’s very good like that and with that. He’s a self-made man, gets himself together, picks up his guitar, gets on the train or drives anywhere to do a gig, wherever he’s asked. He’s vital like that.”
Before embarking on her solo career, Eddi tried her arm at acting, highlights including her role as singer/accordionist Jolene Jowett in BBC Tv comedy-drama Your Cheatin’ Heart in a career that has also seen this outspoken advocate of Scottish independence working on a book about her great-uncle, Seamus Reader, who headed the Scottish Brigade of the Irish Republican Brotherhood when the Irish War of Independence broke out in 1919, later becoming a founder of the abortive Scottish Republican Army, which attempted to replicate the Irish struggle in Scotland between the wars. But I ran out of time to get on to that.
Getting (tentatively) back to Fairground Attraction, it was inevitable that at some stage I’d get on to that song, and here’s as good a place as anywhere to drop it into conversation, mentioning to Eddi her Gaelic take on ‘Perfect’.
“I did that for the Barnardo’s charity. It’s called Coel, and they get successful musicians in Ireland to do their hits in gaelic, so I donated that. It was great learning it. It’s in Irish Gaelic, not Scottish. I’ve betrayed my Scottish roots! It would be good to try that though. I’d like to find someone who could teach me. Honestly though, it was like ‘listen and copy.”
While that song takes me back to that late ’80s era and mostly good memories, it was somewhat played to death, and still gets lots of local radio spins. Are there nights when Eddi takes a deep breath at the mere thought of having to sing it again? For all the songs she’s recorded, people probably still think first of that 1988 No.1. Does that frustrate her?
“Never. No, if I don’t want to do it, I don’t do it. I’ve never felt beholden to a set. I don’t have sets. I just do whatever I feel like on the night, and every gig is different in that way. On this tour I’ll be wanting to sing some of the new ones, because they need an airing and I want to show people their beauty, but beyond that I’ll do everything and anything that comes to mind.
“But ‘Perfect’ comes out more now than it did. For 10 years I didn’t sing it ever. That was only because I was broken-hearted, giving my whole energy for something that … I kind of ended up feeling abandoned and didn’t want to look at any of those songs. But that was way back in the ‘90s. Since then I’ve been singing it because I love it. I love it the same way as I loved it when I first heard it. I don’t have a problem with it.
“It’s great when you go to places like Prague, Japan, Spain, or America, sing it, and someone says, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that!’ There’s no connection to me and only that. I do two hours of everything else as well.
“And it’s such a ticket for getting in doors, soon as you mention that song. It’s an odd thing to carry about. It’s not like I’ve got it tattooed on my head or anything. But it feels like I’m responsible for it, like a child or a doggy I’m looking after in the park.
“The only time is if people say there was only one hit. But I know there was ‘Find My Love’, ‘Patience of Angels’, ‘A Smile and A Whisper’, ‘Clear’, ‘Town Without Pity’ … I also know Mirmama, my first solo album, won an award in 1996 in America for best alternative independent record.
“Nobody sits in a crowd in front of me when I’m singing who ever pressurises me to do anything other than what I want to do. I find real affinity with people who haven’t seen me before, haven’t seen me for 30 years, or bring their Mum, Dad or Granny and their wains. Lots of people just want the experience of someone singing to them and it being a unique and personable experience. And I enjoy the connectiveness and humanity.”
It’s been 30 years now since that initial Brit award double, Eddi adding another in her own right – best female – in 1995. And where does she keep them?
“My sister’s got one, and the other’s under the kitchen sink. I use it to hammer in nails sometimes. But I need to start looking after it a wee bit.”
She adds at that stage something about her MBE too (the mobile phone reception wasn’t great at that stage), that accolade awarded for ‘outstanding contributions to the arts’ in the New Year’s honours list of 2006, in light of her Robert Burns project. I also mentioned how Eddi has a big birthday coming in late August – her 60th. Any plans?
“I might go down South and see my friend Angus, from Kilbarchan.”
That’ll be Angus Aird, with whom Eddi toured Scotland – along with fellow guitarist Dave Dick – under the name Pigmeat in the early days. In fact, he added guitar on 2014’s Vagabond album.
“I left him in the South of France, at the side of that river 40 years ago when I decided to get up and walk away. He’s still down there, fixing tractors and playing his guitars. So I might get down there and reconnect.”
And of all your recorded work, which album are you most proud of?
“Mirmama, my first (solo album), because I had to be very brave. And nobody mentioned it. RCA swallowed it and didn’t promote it, but it was me coming out, and I adored my bravery. And when I listen to that now I think it’s still a completely beautiful album.
“Beyond that, the other ones are great, but there’s something about the first time when you stand up and say, ‘I don’t care what happens – this is me and I’m going to do it!”
Eddi Reader’s five-song EP, Starlight, is available via Reveal Records, featuring three unreleased songs from 2018’s Cavalier sessions, plus double-A single ‘Starlight’ / ‘My Favourite Dress’, released as a limited-edition gatefold CD or digitally via this link.
Meanwhile, Eddi and her band are touring throughout this month, having started out back on May 24th at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre and reaching Stamford Arts Centre tonight (June 15th), followed by Taunton Brewhouse Theatre (June 16th), Cardiff Tramshed (June 18th), Manchester Stoller Hall (June 19th), London King’s Place (June 21st), Harpenden Public Halls (June 22nd), Cambridge Junction (June 23rd), Bury St Edmunds Apex (June 25th), Coventry Warwick Arts Centre (June 26th), Pocklington Arts Centre (June 27th), and Durham The Gala (June 28th). For ticket information head here.