Interviews 1989 – Kite

Promo shot from 1989
Promo shot from 1989

The album ‘Kite’ was released in 1989, and Kirsty had to face the publicity circus … First she spoke to Paul W Hullah for Cut magazine (her sixth interview of the day!). “I get approximately one prat per day asking how much The Pogues drink. Scintillating! When you have one successful record every three years, you tend to forget all the promotional crap that goes with it. I don’t want to be unpleasant about it; but in the past journalists have been so two–faced to me, rearranging things I’ve told them until it’s not what I’ve said at all. I wish I could just make the records then have somebody else front it all for the media. It’s always a shock to return to public attention. Making a good record isn’t the end of it. You’ve still got to go out and flog it.“

But ‘Kite’ is certainly that – a good record. Aided and abetted by ex–Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Kirsty has put together a consistently attractive, bristling set of self–penned songs, full of jangly guitar and off–the–cuff vocals. Each number tells a story, sometimes autobiographical, often cinematic and fictitious. The tracks range from the poignant, motherly ‘Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim!’, which carries on the ‘Chip Shop’ tradition in silver–tongued style, to a beautiful ballad, ‘You And Me Baby’.

The apex of the kitchen sink drama collection is ‘Fifteen Minutes’, a tongue–in–cheek reflection on Andy Warhol’s prediction that “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes”. The first song written for the new LP, after a “two year writer’s block”, it’s a self–effacing, mocking challenge to the media circus, the whirlygig of fame with all it’s cons and contradictions. “I suppose it’s a cynical song. I don’t fully agree with Warhol’s idea, but I can see why it’s getting like that with TV and so on. People who are famous for being famous, exposés in the tabloids, tittle–tattle, anything for money. That’s part of the reason I don’t like interviews.”

Setting the record straight on her upbringing, “My father is Ewan MacColl, my mother is Jean MacColl. I didn’t grow up with my dad, I grew up with my mum who wasn’t a musician but a choreographer. I knew my dad did gigs, but I only saw him once a week so it didn’t have that much impact. And I wasn’t really that interested in folk music because I associated it with their generation, not mine. I was into pop music. This musical, folk heritage that I’m supposed to have just didn’t exist. I was probably pretty lonely as a child. My brother had left home, so I was on my own a lot. I learned guitar at school and seemed to spend my childhood listening to records. Now, when I hear a single I bought when I was eight, I can picture what I was wearing and doing then. Play me The Three Degrees and I’m back in the old school disco … “

“I remember hearing ‘See My Baby Jive’, and it made me so happy. I just wanted to make records after that. My mother told me I could do whatever I wanted to do, at a time when everyone else was telling me what I couldn’t do. She always cited Dr Albert Schweitzer as a great example – someone who explored the jungle, played the cello and did great things for mankind. I didn’t know who the hell this guy was but I thought ‘Well, if Albert can do it, then so can I!’.“

Evening Times
Evening Times
Kirsty’s songwriting for ‘Kite’ came under discussion with Roddy Thomson on the Glasgow Evening Times. “‘Free World’ is really about greed. But it’s all part of the great divide between North and South. This Government has probably done more than any other to worsen it. I don’t know if song lyrics can change people’s ideas – and I’m not saying everyone should write like that. But if they can make people think, at least, then the whole thing must be worthwhile. People have to take more responsibility. We’re all in this together.”

A more expansive look appeared in NME courtesy of Steve Lamacq.

NME promo photo!
NME promo photo!

Ten years on from her teenage debut, the erstwhile princess of New Wave pop is married to her prince Steve Lillywhite and a mother of two nursery school Michael Jackson fans. Kirsty MacColl, the impetuous girl who made the first ever Stiff Records picture disc is now your not so typical housewife. From the breathless, naive days with Stiff (“signing to Virgin was like joining the enemy”) through an unhappy spell with Polydor, which nonetheless produced her ‘Chip Shop’ hit, she’s bounced in and out of obscurity with the characteristic stoicism and delight of an earthy Londoner.

“When I was young it used to worry me that I wasn’t more fashionable,” she says. “But because I’ve never been fashionable I haven’t got anything to live down. I always stuck to basic rock ‘n’ roll, making records with guitars, because guitars are where it’s at. If you can’t busk with what you’re playing it’s a real drag. Guitars are sexy because you can move around with them. I always wanted to be a guitar hero when I was a kid, y’know. ‘I want to be that man onstage’.. . I never thought of myself as a girl.“

“I see myself now as a songwriter first, a recording artist second and a backing vocalist third. Somewhere in there I’m a mother too, though you can’t compare the feeling you get off your kids with your work – they’re both important. Obviously the children come first but I think they’re quite happy having a mother who’s happy working. They think everybody’s mummy makes records, they haven’t quite sussed it out yet. I have noticed one thing – all kids recognise Michael Jackson, Bananarama and Boy George. I was sitting in the car the other day with the kids strapped into the back seat and I’m chatting away to them trying to have a meaningful conversation and Louis turns round and goes: ‘Can you turn the radio up so we can listen to Michael Jackson.’ Charming, y’know.“

‘Kite’? “I don’t think the record’ll surprise people who know me. It’ll surprise people who’ve only heard ‘Chip Shop’ but time goes on you know, values change. It’s better than anything I’ve done before, It’s bound to be more more mature, because so am I. Your life changes when you have kids. I feel more politically aware since I’ve had the children because you’re more conscious of the effect everything has on the future. I’m not saying you should go away and become Mother Theresa but there are ways of bringing about change without burning down the House Of Commons.“

‘15 Minutes’ could be about Pamella Bordes, or the girl from the Burton boss sex scandal whose name nobody can remember anymore. It could be about Sam Fox’s crap videos. We’ll never know. “It was written after a specific incident which I don’t want to expand upon. But it could be about anyone really. The song was a big breakthrough for me, because I hadn’t written anything for about two years and then this almost wrote itself. It gave me the confidence to go on and write the next lot. Before then I was getting really worried … ‘Am I going to become a housewife, SHOCK, HORROR’.”

Are you? Were you?

“l am now and again, but I don’t get a big fulfillment out of opening the junk mail and doing the washing. I don’t mind cooking; cleaning’s quite therapeutic but I try and avoid it. I like gardening! Anyway, I don’t think you really work for NME because we’ve been here half an hour and you haven’t mentioned Morrissey yet.” In fact, while Kirsty was worrying about tumbling into domesticity it was Johnny Marr’s polite badgering on the phone that helped her start song writing again. He was really encouraging – saying ‘Why aren’t you doing anything, get off your arse’. He’s a very energetic, up person to be around. With ‘Interesting Drug’, Morrissey just phoned up and asked me to go along. I think it’s a really funny song, he’s a very humorous writer, very articulate. Wit is essential because if it ceases to have any fun value – and you can be fun and intelligent at the same time – then people think ‘Oh sod it, give me Kylie instead!’“

Kirsty wears Johnny
Kirsty wears Johnny
Speaking to DJ at Melody Maker she added, “Morrissey’s my favourite lyricist since Ray Davies. Morrissey had written me a postcard, because I’d said I liked them in interviews. He said they were into what I did, too, and would I like to collaborate with them. Johnny rang up just after they’d recorded ‘You Just Haven’t Earned it yet, Baby’ – he’d given me a tape previously – and said ‘Do you fancy doing a cover of that?’”

“‘Free World’ is very direct and simple; hopefully it’ll make people think a bit. The subject matter is Thatcherite Britain – you know, grab whatever you can and sod the little guy. That’s a fashionable way of looking at things, and I don’t agree with it.” One of the songs chosen for the CD single was ‘Closer to God?’ “Most organised religions seem to be very good at keeping women in their place. They seem to suggest that man is closer to God, and woman is down the line somewhere with the pigs and the chickens.”

“I did a tour in 1981 which put me off ever wanting to do it again. I was terribly nervous and under-rehearsed — it just got worse and worse. But I did a lot of gigs with The Pogues after ‘Fairytale Of New York’ and that was a great way to learn that side of the craft – having to go out and do it every night, but with a great band. I’m still very nervous, but I think I’ve got to have a go otherwise I’ll always wonder what it would’ve been like. I’ve got ambitions! I’d like to write lyrics for Brian Wilson! He’s been a great influence on my vocal sound. I really like his album, but I don’t think the lyrics are great. I think he needs me!”

Photo from Q Magazine, 1989
Photo from Q Magazine, 1989

Talking of Brian, Kirsty told Phil Sutcliffe (Q) that, at age six, hearing ‘Good Vibrations’ changed her life. “My brother had the single and to me it was, That’s it! I knew that that was what I wanted to do” Now, with a bold and characterful solo album, she threatens to move centre stage. She has hardly stepped on to a stage for eight years now because the last time she did, it scared her to death.

“When ‘Chip Shop’ was a hit in 1981, I did a tour of the Irish ballrooms. The audiences were nice, they just wanted to hear the single, but all I felt was fear. When that happens I throw up and I gabble. Our set was supposed to last an hour and a half and the first night I got through it in 35 minutes! I remember all these bemused faces in the front row staring at me. I came off and while I sat in the dressing room shaking, the band went into a couple of blues standards. I could hear my manager shouting at them, ‘Drag it out! Drag it out!’ I had to do the whole set all over again to fill in time.”

“Doing a few gigs with The Pogues gave me the chance to get back into it without being the star who’s got their name up over the building. I still shake at the prospect but, God, nearly 10 years on, I should be able to deal with it. After having two kids you ought to be able to do anything. The hardest thing is reproducing my harmonies live. I’m interested in hearing from people who sound like me – asexual, deadpan, no bleeding all over the carpet. Boys or girls. It doesn’t matter as long as they’re not trying to do the big warm thing like Aretha. It’s more Hank Williams I aspire to, like cheese wire going through you. That would be brilliant.

Always happiest in the studio though, recording the groundwork for ‘Kite’ in their home studio in Ealing was key. “Studios are usually enormous, womb–like places where you can’t tell whether it’s day or night. At home the studio has window, you can actually look out at real life.” They wrapped their day around the children’s needs and got stuck into the album from bedtime into the small hours. “It’s easy working together because he knows what I want and I know he knows and he knows I know he knows, although I must say when I do a session for him I always think I should be louder. But then, he’s responsible for the overall sound and I’m just listening to me, me, me. Given the choice I’d always want him to produce my records because I think he’s the best”.

International Musician article
International Musician article
International Musician magazine carried a fine profile of Kirsty written by Tony Horkins, also in 1989.

The moment the young Kirsty MacColl opened her mouth and sang in harmony with 300 others, she knew the sound that would shape her career. Taking the sound of massed voices out of school assembly and into the studio, Kirsty found a small niche for herself as a singer/songwriter in her own right and session singer to the rich and famous. Of course, Kirsty picked up a few other influences en route; the odd Requiem Mass here, the odd Beach Boys song there, and scored a few hits with ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ and Billy Bragg’s ‘New England’. After a lengthy period of having babies and doing sessions with the likes of Robert Plant, The Stones and Simple Minds she has her first album for Virgin, ‘Kite’, the finest collection of sharp witted lyrics blended with powerful pop melodies she’s ever written.

‘Kite’ also features an impressive musical line–up – Simple Minds’ Mel Gaynor, Johnny Marr, Pino Palladino, former Pretenders guitarist Robbie McIntosh and The The drummer David Palmer, all wrapped up nicely in a ‘real instrument’ style by her old man. In fact, there isn’t a single keyboard on the whole album. “I never want to do anything else with a Fairlight ever again,” she says, nervously lighting a cigarette. It drives me mad, you can’t talk to it – it’s got no brain. And it doesn’t understand when you say ‘I want you to sound like so and so did on that 1963 record … ”

“I didn’t write anything for a couple of years when I was having the kids, and I started writing again mostly last year. It took a long time to start up again; I was getting worried, thinking that maybe I’d never write anything again, and the block was getting bigger and bigger. And the more you think about it, the less you do, because you’re scared that the first thing you do is going to be crap. I’d always rather not draw the first word on the paper than not have it perfect from the word go, and it tends to slow you down a bit – waiting for perfection.”

“There are certain people whose work I’ve always admired; you have to go for a cross between what you really want, and what is really possible. If the person you really want is off playing bass on a three year world tour, I’m not going to wait for three years to make an album. There are good combinations of people around, and the people I chose I’d either worked with before or knew the work they’d done for others. And they’re all mates as well. Like Mel Gaynor. I’ve always loved his playing, and Steve loves his playing too, and Steve’s really good with drummers. There are lots of guitarists on the album too but that’s because I really like guitars and a lot of my friends are guitar players.”

It’s because there’s so many guitar players – sometimes four per track – that there was no room for any keyboards.

“It started that way because while I were recording I thought that if there was any keyboards I wanted, I’d put them on afterwards. Then after a while I didn’t want any keyboards – especially synths – because they’d probably be playing either string parts or voice parts that I could do myself. I didn’t want a thick wall of impenetrable sound, I wanted lots of space and gaps. You get that with real strings – the sound doesn’t sound the same from the moment you pluck it to the end of it. It goes ‘boing’ then ‘wahhhh’. You don’t have that constant sound you get with a synth.”

“The first song I wrote for a long time was ‘Fifteen Minutes’. I did the first part at home with the engineer playing guitar, and Steve playing bass, then did the bit where the hand comes in at the Town House. Then we just edited the two hits together. I suppose it was a whole year’s frustration coming out – the tune and the words just came out at once. I just sat down with the auto harp (like a Zither but with chord buttons) and wrote it. It’s not always like that. Usually I write down a whole load of words and maybe get a chord pattern going later. Then I end up flicking through the hook and going ‘Oh, yeah, I remember writing that – there’s practically enough for a song there. I’d better write a tune for it. But to me I haven’t finished the lyrics until I’ve demoed it and sung it in front of the engineer, and if he doesn’t burst out laughing and throw himself out of the window then I assume it’s all right.”

Assuming the engineer’s still in his chair when the backing track’s recorded, then begins the creation of that vocal sound.

“I hear the vocals how they are when I’m writing the song in my head. I know how I want it before we’I’ve even played it to the musicians. I’ve always got three or four vocal parts going in my head at the same time. I start off with a guide lead vocal. I find that a lead vocal takes me forever, and then 12 backing vocals takes me an hour. So I do the lead vocal first – Steve normally makes up a composite of five different takes – then do the part above and the part below, and add whatever else it needs on top of that. Then I’ll put parts in as they occur to me – it’s just the Beach Boys approach really. Brian Wilson is definitely a hero of mine – I’d love to write lyrics for him.”

In the meantime, she’s got plenty to write for herself – she’s already written enough for a whole side of a follow up album, and as if to prove that songwriting really is no problem any more, the CD version of ‘Kite’ even features a couple of songs written in French. “I kind of did that as a challenge really. Also I thought there were a lot more French people than there are. Actually, if I’d have known there were only about 60 million I’d have written it in Chinese!”

Dickins captures MacColl and Marr
Dickins captures MacColl and Marr

“I can’t see why anyone in their right mind would ever want to do an interview,” she spits. “Except a journalist … ” … this appeared in Record Mirror.