The eldest of seven children, Eddi Reader, grew up in a two-bed tenement in Glasgow. In 1976 the family were rehoused 25 miles away in Irvine, but Eddi stayed with her Grandma in Glasgow to finish school. She started playing guitar at age 10 and began her musical career busking, first in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street and later around Europe. This is where we begin…
Were your parents worried about your vagabond lifestyle (whilst busking in France)?
Mum and dad had been a bit worried about me. I was totally a child of the Germaine Greer generation…They don’t realise what they did, those older feminists. There was a generational shift. I remember [later] Jenni Murray from Women’s Hour being a bit disappointed in me for wearing lipstick and wearing a dress and doing a bit of a femme fetale thing. But that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t gonna reject my femininity, ‘I can do ANYTHING because I am equal, and I can achieve anything I want to.’
I don’t doubt her ability to do anything she wants. Talking to Eddi is like unlocking a dam and you can’t help but get swept along with the force of the current!
Not long after returning from Europe, Eddi answered an ad in the music press resulting in her moving to London to join punk band Gang of Four. After touring America with them, she started working as a session singer in London and later created the band Fairground Attraction who, in 1984, produced a number 1 selling album and a Brit Award. She continues…
It didn’t feel effortful. I bet on my instincts to win and I did. I just followed my nose. I wasn’t a straight person. I didn’t feel that anything would satisfy me in terms of the straight life – the boyfriend, the mortgage, the job. I did fall in love with guys. That was brilliant. My heart getting broke every five minutes. I enjoyed that whole experience and sometimes music took a back seat, but I was always creative. I was a very creative girl. Still am.
Were your family creative and musical when you were growing up?
My dad was a real rock ‘n’ roller and my mum was very romantically involved with music from an early age. I was given guitar lessons at school. It is something I am so thankful for. It makes me SO ANGRY that they are taking this away from schools… from kids. And the thing is, it pays dividends. I did pay tax when we got to number 1! You see! It pays dividends!
Eddi doesn’t fit neatly into boxes and neither does her new album, Cavalier, and I think both are the better for that. There are traditional songs such as Maiden’s Lament and the hauntingly beautiful Dierdre’s Farewell to Scotland, next to full on pop songs such as Wonderful and title track Cavalier. The latter written by her husband John Douglas of the Trashcan Sinatras. There are also a huge amount of friends, musicians and collaborators on this album, some of whom include John McCusker, Phil Cunningham, Kev McGuire and long time friend and collaborator, Boo Hewerdine.
It’s an on-going war with me, the genre war. Where do you fit musically and what is your niche? I’ve always rejected any kind of categorisation in that way… The title’s about freedom. Being cavalier, being free. But I couldn’t very well call it ‘Freedom’. Not now that people know my politics. They’d have thought I’ve gone the full Mel Gibson!
I read that most of this album was recorded live? Isn’t that quite unusual these days…
Yes, well, the mood of the music when it is committed to a recording, the feeling behind it, is what’s carried through. If you’re miserable, then that’s what will be carried through. You can’t make a happy song when you are feeling miserable.
We get to talking about playing in front of an audience… I don’t like having monitor sounds. I like having the ‘out front’ sound played back to me so it bounces off the walls and I can hear what everyone else is hearing. People think it’s unusual not to rely on monitors, but for me I don’t like hearing my voice coming out a wee box. I like hearing it bounce off the walls… and through into ears… travelling… I like to gestalt the experience… I like to imagine how it hits the other person so when I am scanning my head for the next song– usually before or during the applause for the song I’m singing, it’s generally the right thing. The right song. It’s about plugging into that energy.
Your music packs a huge emotional punch and has moved me to tears before. Do you ever find it difficult to sing a song? Do you ever get emotional when on stage?
Ummm… Dear John can be difficult. It was written by people in the misery of divorce then sung at the time by me, in the misery of that too! And it makes it harder that my now husband is also a John and I am not unhappy AT ALL! It is difficult for me to reach that part of myself…
Eddi tells me that before her second homecoming, this time from London to Glasgow, Robert Burns appeared to her in a dream…
He was standing on the other side of a bridge. And I could see him indicating to me to come across, ‘Come on, you’ll be fine. Come home.’
So she did. And not long after started work on her 2003 album The Songs of Robert Burns which garnered worldwide admiration. A notable omisson on the album was the famous Burn’s verse ‘A Man’s A Man for A’ That’. I tell her it’s brilliant to find it on this album.
Yes, I’ve always wanted to do it, but it’s always a bit jingoistic when I heard it in the past and I couldn’t get away from that [bursts into pretend bagpipe durdling] I couldn’t figure out how to get it gentle.. and I just started playing C and F and the boys started playing alongside me and it turned into what it is…
Leaving places and people is a theme that I notice on the new album. Eddi tells me that before she began work on Cavalier she had considered retiring. The second to last song is called Go Wisely. It begins, “Look after yourself, go wisely,” Advice she received from her relatives before she headed abroad as a young girl and now she wants to pass to her grown children. “They will ignore it, just like I did, I suppose!” She says, laughing.
What kind of advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Rely on yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t fret over dafties that break your heart. It means something better is coming… I’m not sure if it would be useful, because part of the journey is the dark times. I certainly feel like I’ve done the best with what I’ve had.
So It’s about “What You Do With What You Got? (A track from her first solo album, Mirmama.)
YES! I’m in love with that song! I might even do it at Greenock. I never have a set list. I get off on just vibing the night and seeing what comes out. I’ll be doing bits of Cavalier but I certainly won’t rest it all on Cavalier.
You never have a set list? Isn’t that scary?
No, it’s scarier the other way, because if you do the same thing the next night and the next night and the next night you are not involved in the music at all. What you are doing is presenting a marketing exercise as far as I’m concerned. I know that I’ll play bits of Cavalier, because I love the songs and they will come out. And if I love it, you will love it. If I relied on a set list, I am eliminating that whole process, that whole feeling, that instinctive beauty which has carried me nearly 60 years on the planet. I would not give that up for any sh!tty marketing ploy! [Hahahaha]
Come and see Eddi Reader live at Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre on Thu 25th April where she will be playing from her back catalogue and current album. To find out more or book tickets go to beaconartscentre.co.uk
Images by Genevieve Stevenson