Interviews 1990-1993 – Electric Landlady

The first time Suzie Mackenzie (The Guardian, 17 July 1991) saw Kirsty she was a reluctant pop star, sitting disconsolately in the conservatory of her Ealing home, head in hands, slagging off the music business. “I don’t want to be presented as something I’m not. The pop world packages women. You’re either a dolly bird bimbo or a soap box sociologist. So many songs are written by men for women to sing and they obviously have a pretty strange string of women around. Dopey cows in frilly dresses singing Oh Baby I Can’t Live Without You. It’s capitulation. I’ve done that shit for years. Now I know what I want. I am 31, the mother of two children, no longer a teen ballad writer. I want to be me.”

Outside the rain beats down and a mad squirrel barks at us through the glass. Her mood swings constantly between abject vulnerability and wild attack. At times she just dissolves into tears. Jamie, her six-year-old son, “the tortured intellectual in the family”, hurls a boomerang at his mother which she, with remarkable restraint, does not hurl back. Her theme is consistent and relentless. She wants to be honest: “Why should I pretend? What’s wrong with who I am?” The best advice she ever had was given by her mother: “Don’t be limited by other people’s narrow-mindedness.” And so she pushes herself. “It’s like walking around with no skin half the time.”

All her life she has been held back by others’ low expectations of her and so now she sets her own agenda. The aim is nothing less than to be herself in public. Her tone is pitched somewhere between the anguished cry of the maimed adolescent and the maturing artist struggling to find an individual voice. Echoing Hemingway’s claim that the best training ground for an artist is an unhappy childhood, she tells me, “As a child I was misunderstood. I couldn’t express myself which is why most people become artists, we’ve all been to the same concentration camp.”

Creativity substitutes for intimacy and all relationships turn inward to the solitary need for self-expression. The central relationship is with yourself and through your work. No wonder she says she felt lonely: “I’m not as lonely now as I was. Life’s a lot more bearable. I’m happily married, I’ve got two lovely kids. But I’ve known what it’s like to be lonely, to be broke. To sit in the bedsit with the payphone by your bed waiting for it to ring. And I’ve known what it’s like to be happy, to be rich. Where most people may have known one thing, I’ve known them all.”

You can quibble with this, you can call it arrogance, ego, self-absorption. Put bluntly like this it may not even seem particularly endearing. It’s a quality you notice in vulnerable people, this ability always to be one up. But there’s a sense of danger surrounding these people with no skin. They get under your skin. It’s as if their terror communicates itself to you, draws you in. And this, of course, is what she puts into her music. Her influences, she says, are diverse – Latin, folk, classical, rock. And, “Everything you hear influences you. You think: why don’t I like that? Because it’s got crap lyrics, it doesn’t sound like they mean it, it sounds like everyone else. I don’t want to sound like anyone else. And I don’t have to.”

Her new single, ‘My Affair’, epitomises her attitude which she would probably call defiant but which I’ll call existential bravado, principally because I hope it will make her laugh. It’s a song about a woman who has to prove she can do anything and survive. Playing on the ambiguity between my affair, as in my business, and my “love“ affair, it traces a pattern through childhood rebellion, adolescent sexual awakening, the misery of faithlessness: “Who I see is up to me/It’s my affair.” To the final resting place of all individualists – free and alone. “So if the phone should ring and there’s no one there/Then it’s my affair.” All set against an upbeat Hispanic romp. “Life’s a bitch,” MacColl says, “but that doesn’t mean we have to play it as a dirge.” Ultimately the song turns on itself. Defiance, it says, can sustain you only so far. The trick is not simply to survive but to be happy. Her songs, she says, are all about contrasts and opposites, humour and misery, “flipsides“.

The flipside of her new single is called ‘All The Tears That I Cried’. “Too much reminiscing is bad for the soul/ It screws up your life and it makes you feel … “ ’

She has no doubt where her melancholy comes from. Her father, the folk singer Ewan MacColl, left her mother, the choreographer Jean MacColl, for Peggy Seeger before Kirsty was born. He would visit on Sundays. “I can’t say I looked forward to it, I won’t say I didn’t.” At Croydon comprehensive, schoolfriends who had seen her famous dad on telly would ask her about him. But she never knew him. She can’t talk about him even now, except indirectly.

“Children are happy if their parents are happy. They shouldn’t have to feel responsible for the cock-ups of grown-ups. I felt guilty about a lot of things that were nothing to do with me.” And, “Loving is not saying, ‘I love you’ to someone, it’s giving them what they need. I’m not sure what I needed but I don’t think I got it.” And, “I don’t want to make my mum unhappy. She wanted it all to be all right. She didn’t turn against my father, she loved him and she never loved anyone else. I wish I’d been closer to him, but he was a sad man and it made him close up. Childhood was just something I had to get over in order to get on with my life.”

She could never, as a child, listen to his songs. Ewan MacColl, incidentally, was an outspoken critic of the spread of pop music in the fifties. He died two years ago. Death, she says, catapults you into an awareness of mortality and now she’s started to get help, started to feel better, even her asthma has cleared up since her homeopath told her it was all in the head. And she has written a song about her father on the new album, with her older brother, Hamish. It’s called ‘The Hardest Word’ and one line runs, “Forgive our indignity as we forgive yours.”

So it’s over now, she says. But he still casts a long shadow. “They say, her dad’s a famous songwriter, no wonder she’s in the business. And now they say, she’s married to someone who’s a successful and famous music producer, Steve Lillywhite, no wonder she makes records. But why shouldn’t I marry him just because it’s going to ruin my credibility with a couple of assholes? I love my husband, and he’s a wonderful father.” They have been together eight years, having met when she was doing backing vocals for the group Simple Minds. “They say you shouldn’t hang around with other musicians or you become rent-a-pop-singer. But I like working with my friends. And I knew Simple Minds would be mega, though I would have done it if they weren’t going to be mega because they’re good.”

Lillywhite is a perfectionist and so is she. He has produced her last two albums, ‘Kite’ in 1989 and now ‘Electric Landlady’. “He gets a better vocal performance out of me than the others.” The last two years, she adds, she has felt better than she’s felt in her whole life. “At last it feels as though I’ve got things sorted out.” The second time I see Kirsty MacColl, she is suddenly, vibrantly, ecstatically, irrepressibly alive.

Her new album has soared into the charts at number 17 and she’s off to the States to promote it. We sit in the blue drawing room and sip champagne. Nothing can dampen her zest. Not the fact that Virgin, her music publishers, have forgotten to send word of congratulations. Not the miserable fungus infecting her carp in the custom-built reed bed she has constructed in her garden to “put rhythm” and purification back in the water. “At least it’s not being transmitted to the goldfish.”

The sun has come out and she laughs. “I’m a more successful person than when you saw me last. A little success has gone straight to my head. What does success do? It makes you horny.” I can see what she means about Lillywhite being lovely; he’s one of those people who when he walks seems to bounce and now he bounces into the room. What’s she like, I ask, to live with? “She’s brilliant,” he says, “and sometimes she’s not very happy.” Which seems a fair summation.

“You forgot to tell her,” says MacColl, “how great I am in bed.” “Ah yes,” he replies, reeling visibly. “And she’s a great lay.“ “Mutual,” replies MacColl. There’s just one more mountain to scale. It is 10 years since Kirsty MacColl has performed live in front of an audience and the thought still terrifies her, makes her physically sick. The last time was in 1981, touring her first single, ‘They Don’t Know’, around the Irish ballrooms. “It wasn’t easy, those places are huge, they hold over 2,000 people, all farmers looking for a wife, lined up, plastered, giving each other the eye. But I was crap. I came home bruised, mauled, with everything ripped off. And it served me right.” In October, however, she plans a live tour. “I’ve got to do it. If I don’t, I’ll think I’ve failed as an artist. You have to have total faith. I want to write better songs, make better records. I want to do everything better.”

Melody Maker, 1991
Melody Maker, 1991
Dave Jennings interviewed Kirsty for Melody Maker and found her in bolshie mood. “The Times and Rolling Stone have both got me down as an Irish folk singer which must have made ‘Walking down Madison’ very confusing for them … ” The folkie tag which remains attached to MacColl was never really appropriate – working with the Pogues and getting in the Top 10 with a Billy Bragg song was the nearest she ever came to justifying it. ‘Kite’, the 1989 album was a glossy, thoroughly contemporary sounding piece of literate adult pop.

Even so, it’s strange to think of that clear, precise funk-free voice floating over club dance floors. ‘Walking down Madison’ with its firm pulse and angry rap break is the furthest either MacColl or the song’s co-author Johnny Marr have publicly ventured into the dance arena – though Kirsty did, she says, attempt a similar step some years ago, only to see the record company of the time shelve the results. “I was listening to Kite for the first time in a while”, she says, “and I thought, that’s really good, but I could make the next album even more enjoyable for myself if I could actually dance to it without being paralytic! But I didn’t want to make an album with computers. A lot of people think that dance means you have to have the beats per minute on the sleeve but to me a waltz is a dance.”

‘Walking down Madison’“ was written at walking speed – you can walk to it, you don’t have to dance! It was quite an observational song, I really did see a beaming boy from Harlem, even if it wasn’t on ‘Madison. It’s a nod to Bob Marley, it’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, really isn’t it! That idea of being pulled for something you may or may not have done, and that you’re more likely to get pulled if you look a certain way.“ Aniff Cousins, the Manchester based rapper whose furious commentary on the fate of the homeless punctuates ‘Madison’, is Kirsty’s current hero. “He’s the Agent Cooper [Twin Peaks] of Rap! He’s got a band called Chapter and the Verse. They made a record called ‘The Black Whip’ which I heard and thought ‘My god, this guy’s a star!’ Even if we’d never worked together, I’d really be pleased to know him, because he’s such a cool guy.”

‘Electric Landlady’ contains one more hard dance track in the belligerent ‘Lying Down’ – “it’s KWA that one isn’t it?” she suggests – and numerous more subtle variations on the theme, with fluid Latin rhythms offering fresh routes to the dance floor. One particularly boisterous Hispanic shuffle, ‘My affair’, is virtually certain to be the follow-up single – which is good news, as it’s both a vibrant dance track and an entertaining, salacious soap opera in song. “It’s very Fifties Havana, that one, Carmen MacColl doing her damnedest. The bitch is back … ”

“With ‘Kite“ I felt I had to prove that I wasn’t this bimbo girl-next-door I’d been portrayed as. That had been hanging around my neck like a fucking albatross for so long, and I wanted to make the point that, yes, I can write a fucking song, pal! I didn’t feel that I had to prove myself this time.”

It’s probably not coincidental that MacColl also collaborates with two men who’ve provided melodies for Morrissey. His current tunesmith Mark E. Nevin is involved along with Marr, whom she’d first worked with years ago when she sang backing vocals on the Smiths ‘Ask’. ‘Electric Landlady’ features the genuinely moving ‘Children of the Revolution’ which marries a gorgeous Marr composition to images of the world’s dispossessed. “It was like a load of news images flashing in front of my eyes – it seemed that you couldn’t get away from the horror anywhere. It’s like ‘Apocalypse now’“ – ‘the horror, the horror … ‘.”

There’s also a wistful, understated ecology song, ‘Maybe it’s imaginary’ where apocalyptic concerns are blended with MacColl’s customary mordant humour. But strangely, her most cheerless lines are often those concerned with relationships. True, there’s usually (not always) that caustic wit to lighten things a little, but you’d never think that these songs were the work of someone who’d been happily married for years.

“Yeah”, she acknowledges, “but maybe they’re not about relationships with your partner. Maybe they’re about relationships with your parents, or whatever. If it means something to you about your girlfriend, then it works, and if it means something to the guy down the road about his relationship with his dog, then it works. That’s what makes a song universal.”

“I hope the album’s not generally seen as more mournful than ‘Kite. The music’s not necessarily sad. After ‘Kite a couple of people said to me ‘God, you must have had a shitty life!’ But on ‘Children of the Revolution’ for instance, the music Johnny sent me was so beautiful it made me cry. Johnny’s playing moved me a lot, so I didn’t want to write something flippant to go with it.“

The same concerns that inform ‘Maybe it’s imaginary’ were spread over 40 minutes of TV recently, when Kirsty presented a BBC “By-line“ documentary on water pollution. Having graphically illustrated the unsavoury state of the nation’s seashores and cast serious doubt on the wisdom of drinking what comes out of your kitchen taps, the show went on to propose a kind of solution: a new system of filtration, involving the planting of large beds of reeds. The show illustrated how MacColl was serious enough about the subject to have a miniaturised version of the system installed in her back garden, capable of turning bath water into something pure enough for fish to swim in.

“What I’ve got is a prototype which cost me a lot of money: I’m not expecting people to copy what I did” but it’s not just a pop star’s folly, I wanted to put my faith into this method of dealing with the problem, and to put my money where my mouth is. Some people go out and buy a car, don’t they?”

Kate Adie needn’t fear for her job. Kirsty doesn’t intend to pursue a career in TV – though she does hugely enjoy life on the other side of the camera, co-directing her own videos. She will, however, be carrying on her sideline as an exclusive session singer, simply because she enjoys it. Her most recent engagements have included contributions to the Wonderstuff’s ‘Never loved Elvis album, Billy Bragg’s new single ‘Sexuality’ and a forthcoming Tom Tom Club LP. Mostly, these days, such sessions are a matter of helping out mates, “but there have been some that I’ve done just for novelty – like Robert Plant! They asked me to sing on his album a few years ago. I thought ‘Blimey, I’m supposed to be doing the low notes … ‘ She acknowledges an attraction to the old-fashioned wild-man-of-rock types. “I suppose like attracts like, doesn’t it?” muses Kirsty. “I’m the wild woman of rock!”

Oh come on. You seem like one of the most sober, sensible, solid characters in the business. “Maybe. But you don’t see me when I’m out! You should come round at three in the morning … ”

The interview concluded, we retire to the kitchen, where one of the world’s most famous record producers is peeling vegetables for his and Kirsty’s dinner. We end up back where we started, discussing her severely strained relationship with some of the more wilfully witless sections of the media.

“The question I usually get asked”, she says wearily, “is ‘How do you juggle the demands of a career and a family?’ I usually just say ‘Like this!’ (mimes juggling). I mean nobody asks Sting how he juggles two families, a career and the rainforests … “

Heroes and Vaudevillians
Heroes and Vaudevillians

Meanwhile, Graham Linehan went on location with the Pogues for Select (photos by Mary Scanlon). In London’s Hackney Empire, the ghosts of past audiences are disturbed by the technological carnage of a film set lights, cameras, cranes, tracks, monitors and cables, as far the eye can see. The occasion is The Pogues’ video shoot, working with director Neil Jordan, for their tracks on the ‘Red Hot And Blue’ Aids benefit LP.

Onstage, The Pogues mime spiritedly to ‘Just 0ne Of Those Things’ as limbo dancers travel under a line of burning firelighters for what seems the 100th time. Watching open-mouthed from the balcony is a school year of children in sailors’ uniforms. Below them, a dancer in a Black Adder codpiece twirls endlessly while cancan girls smoke tired cigarettes. Spider Stacey, wearing a vaudevillian wide-boy outfit, is not in the best of moods.

Miss Otis
Miss Otis

“I’m not very interested in videos. I don’t see the point of them and few of them are any good. Nobody buys a record because it has a nice video. We are in the middle of a tour and normally it wouldn’t make much sense to come down from Liverpool to London to make a fucking video, but with the ‘Red, Hot And Blue’ thing. it’s important to get the message across in as many forms as possible. The good thing about this is that Neil’s directing it as if he was directing a film. He’s being very painstaking, so it should come out well. But, really, I just don’t like videos, and that Neil Jordan is directing this one is neither here nor there.“

Phil Chevron is in a better mood than Spider. “Neil Jordan is great, a director with a lot of imagination. He’s shooting it literally two lines at a time, except for Kirsty’s ‘Miss Otis Regrets’“, which is being done pretty straightforwardly. I don’t enjoy making videos at all. It’s usually just an excuse to go and get blotto.” Mind you, I wonder what Cole Porter would have thought of it all. He was, after all, the man who told Frank Sinatra to please stop singing his songs unless he could stick to the tune … “

Kirsty is being made-up for her role in ‘Miss Otis Regrets’. Over a black dress, her face looks ghostly. “Normally, I’d direct any video I star in, just to have a little control. I got so fed up with spending thousands of pounds and not having what I wanted on the screen at the end of the day. I produced my last few videos and co-directed them with a friend, so I’m net used to leaving it to somebody else … probably why I’m so cagey today.”

Last word with Shane MacGowan who reckoned “This is great, better than usual, a little more time in the pub. Am I happy to be working with Neil Jordan? Well, I’m never happy to be working at all, you know what I mean? But this is as good as it gets. As for the ‘Red, Not And Blue“ thing, I really don’t know how we got around to doing it. I like Cole Porter, though. I like the songs that I know.”

Red, Hot and Blue
Red, Hot and Blue

Finally, a brief Kirsty quote from late 1993 which appeared the Pause & Play music column on the fledgling web, posted by Gerry Galipault.

“It’s funny, Steve (Lillywhite) and I bought the same first single. It was ‘Keep On Running’“ by the Spencer Davis Group. That was the first thing I ever bought when I was 5. I should probably make up something really cool, but my first concert was Focus, the Dutch group. Luckily, punk rock came along and I wised up.”