Interviews 1999-2000 – Tropical Brainstorm

Photo by Rocky Schenck, for Tropical Brainstorm
Photo by Rocky Schenck, for Tropical Brainstorm

The Independent

“I think some of my work is quite well known, but people don’t necessarily know it’s me.” Kirsty explained to Fiona Sturgess for The Independent (12 November 1999), “And I haven’t been particularly prolific. Towards the end of the eighties I did a lot of stuff with other people because I had small children and I couldn’t go out on the road. It was a way of staying in touch with the music world without letting it take over.“

However MacColl’s recent absence from music has had less to do with family commitments and more to do with the gathering of ideas. Over the last seven years she has travelled extensively in Cuba and Brazil, drawing inspiration from Latin music.

Photo, The Independent
Photo, The Independent

“My first visit to Cuba was in 92, though I’d already recorded with some Latin musicians in New York before that. After visiting Havana a few times I started travelling all over the country, getting increasingly immersed in the music. I went to Rio and Salvador and then a friend set me up in a studio in Recife. I wanted to do an acoustic thing – just a guitar and a couple of percussionists – but when I got there I realised that the guitarist wanted to be in Dire Straits. They’re very into rock in Brazil and I had to spend a lot of time bullying them into being more Brazilian. I was travelling alone for two or three weeks at a time, picking up the language as best I could, and just soaking up a whole new culture. There was so much to take in. The mambo is one particular rhythm that comes from Cuba but cha-cha, salsa and son all originate from there. For an island that small it’s produced an amazingly important amount of music.”

Indeed, MacColl was so taken with the place that she considered giving up the music business altogether. “I do think I could be happy making a living doing something else. I could teach English to foreigners. If I didn’t have commitments here I would be quite happy to travel and spend more time abroad. There wasn’t any music that grabbed me over here. I wasn’t interested in techno or britpop or whatever else was coming out at the time. English people can be closed to music from other countries. I’m just not into that little England thing.“

“I was very unhappy when I did ‘Titanic Days“. I think it was a good record but you have to be reasonably strong to listen to it. I made a conscious decision after it not to do another album until I was feeling more happy about life. I did it (travelling) really for the experience, thinking, if we can’t use any of it when we get back then so be it, but I would at least have had a go.”

Straight No Chaser

Amazonian, Straight No Chaser
Amazonian, Straight No Chaser

In the event, ‘In These Shoes’ became a huge Euro-hit and adorned an Adidas campaign. Taken from the ‘Tropical Brainstorm’ album, her first album in seven years, it’s an earthy mix of wit, wisdom and Latin licks. Max Reinhardt wondered why it was so long coming, published in Straight No Chaser magazine.

The highway to musical hell is strewn with debris, especially those albums made in exotic climes and aimed at rescuing the maturing rock star from a faltering career. Not surprisingly, Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Tropical Brainstorm navigates its way effortlessly and gracefully through those rock star cliche quicksands and stands tall as a 21st Century triumph of lyricism, wit, magical realism, melody and rhythm.

For a start, she never was a rock star with all the trimmings, trappings and an ego that wont fit through the doorway. She has been a unique presence in UK music for two decades: a pop diva/laureate, with a soulful distinctive voice, an acerbic wit and a bagful of original songs with tunes that get under your skin and lyrics that can blister the paint, make you laugh, cry and see life from fresh perspectives. And secondly, this is not “Kirsty’s Latin album“. What she’s created is a hybrid, deliberately and dextrously filled with ambient/digital sounds as well as Brazilian and Cuban influences and samples. And that’s the way that she wanted it to be.

“I sang on David Byrne’s ‘Rei Momo’ (early ‘90’s) “and it’s an album I still enjoy listening to. David had approached it by recording it mostly in New York but with really great Brazilian and Latin American musicians. But I didn’t want to try and recreate an authentic sound with just me singing. I couldn’t really see the point ‘cos first of all I’m not Celia Cruz and I’m not going to suddenly appeal to millions of people who don’t speak English, seeing as a lot of people like my music mostly because of the lyrics. And also I didn’t have a record deal when I started recording the album anyway, so I couldn’t have afforded to go off and find a top Latin producer in Miami or anywhere else. And I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to try and fail at being the Buena Vista Social Club. I wanted to succeed at being Kirsty MacColl.“

“There was no way it was ever going to be an authentic record, because I’m not Brazilian and I’m not Cuban. It wasn’t going to be purist because I wanted to use elements of music from different countries — Brazil, Colombia and Cuba — and not be limited by the rules. The fact is, I deliberately recorded the album with two people who I’ve worked with a lot before and who have no history whatsoever of playing Latin music. If you don’t know what the rules are, then you don’t have to stick to them which is very liberating. If it sounded good we could do it.”

Her compadres in subversion are rock drummer Dave Ruffy and rock/highlife guitar virtuoso Pete Glenister. Neither is a stranger to digital programming and Pete had just started up his studio in Bermondsey, which was handy since there was no record company backing initially.

“We started off, very unorganically if you Like, using samples from CDs that I’d brought back from my travels. I’d write the songs first and then I knew how I wanted them to sound, so I’d say to Dave, ‘This is the kind of rhythm I want,’ and he’d either be inspired by what I played him or we’d use it for the track. We added the organic stuff, the live players, after the tracks were down and I got a record deal and we could afford musicians (including Omar Puente, Luiz de Almeida, Chucho Merchán and Joe de Jesús).“

Even more crucially for that ambient edge she also invited down Lee Groves. “He provides weird samples basically. We used to work for a couple of weeks and then we’d have Lee down for a day or two every two weeks to add the weird sounds and short wave. He’d sit, working away at his little bit in the corner and it would be Like. ‘What’s Lee doing? It sounds like he’s playing video games’. I wanted it to be a contemporary record incorporating sampled sounds from 40 years ago and others from right now.”

So what is it with Kirsty and Latin music? It turns out that long before her work with David Byrne or ‘It’s My Affair — the Nueva Yorica salsa outing arranged by Angel Fernandez on her 1991 ‘Electric Landlady album — Kirsty had a big thing going for Latin American music. When she was seven she was given her own record player (“one of those square ones and you open the lid, pile up the records and they drop down”) and then her dad (Ewan) gave her three albums for a birthday or Christmas, one by Charlie Parker, one by Herb Alpert (“I don’t remember much about that”) and a Mariachi record. It was the Mexicans that hit the spot.

“It had the most fantastic sleeve with a woman in the most amazing dress and all these guys with the traditional Mariachi trousers with the coins down the sides and they’re all standing around playing these huge weird looking things. And it sounded so fantastic I just used to play it to death. I think that’s where I got it into my head that anybody who spoke Spanish was having a better time than me and I think that’s persisted throughout my life. They were all whooping it up, it was full on party time and a lot of the violins were slightly out of tune. But it didn’t matter because it sounded like everybody was enjoying it so much. You know there’s worse things in life than being out of tune.“

Teenage encounters with Santana and Fania All Stars records and Latin flavoured tracks by Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan reinforced the infatuation. Then, while she was charting, touring and recording in the ‘80’s, every time she heard Latin music (“This is like aaah! great, so exciting”) she knew she wanted to know more about this stuff, sometime in the future. “I had to set aside quite a lot of space in my life to let new stuff in. You can’t keep going at your own thing hammer and tongs and doing all the stuff that you get into a rut doing and then expect to be able to assimilate a whole load of new things really.”

That space came when she split up with her husband in the early Nineties and, since her children were growing up, she became mistress once again of her own priorities. It also coincided with a period of two years when she didn’t write any songs. “I used to worry about writer’s block — after every album basically! But I think this time it was God’s way of saying, ‘You’ve got nothing to write about so SHUT UP!’ If only more people could hear that, instead of this kind of musical diarrhoea you get with a lot of bands. I think its quite healthy to have a little break. And I didn’t want to just rush out and make another melancholy record after we’d split up and just be that woman who does those sad songs. That would have been really grim. I started to do some of the things I’d wanted to do since forever.”

And that meant travelling to Cuba and just hanging out for the first time in 1992. But she was increasingly irritated by her inability to fully understand the language in Cuba and on the songs on the vast and unwieldy collection of Latin CD’s that had started to grow on her shelves. Through a mix of evening classes, CD Roms, conversation practice and more travelling in Cuba, she spent two years intensely learning Latin American Spanish and absorbing Cuban culture. Later she got tempted by Brazil, learned Portuguese from a lodger, in exchange for accommodation and traveled to Recife. This bonding with Latin American culture has undoubtedly transmuted her songwriting style. Most obviously she now writes and sings in Spanish and Portuguese.

“They’re just funny lyrics really — ‘cos obviously my Spanish and Portuguese aren’t up to my English so I can’t get bitter and twisted like I can in English!“ But on songs like ‘Celestine’ and ‘Us Amazonians’, her writing style has a sensuous languor, cultural references and magical realism that seem to me to be entirely at home in Latin America — and I’ve dipped into the Picador book of Latin American Short Stories, so I should know, muchachos.“

In spite of the fact that the blinkered wasteland that is “Radio 1 won’t play my singles now I’m over 30“ other radio stations in UK and throughout Europe have fallen for the acerbic storytelling and salsa groove of her ‘In These Shoes single. Currently charting and being dance remixed in Italy, it’s also been picked up by Adidas as the soundtrack to their current ad campaign (which means its going to re-released in the UK). So it looks like this could be Kirsty’s mambo summer.

And after that, where will the muse take her next? “Who knows … .I haven’t made it to Mexico yet. I didn’t plan this one in advance. But touring this album is so expensive, it might be sensible to take a smaller band on the road next time and if that involves me playing some very bad, loud electric guitar so much the better. It’ll probably be another hybrid, but who knows what the main influence will be, I don’t know … Croydon!”

Kirsty MacColl’s Top Five Latin Licks

  • TITO PUENTE – Que Lindo Es El Mambo
  • CELINA GONZALES – Mi Tierra Es Asi
  • CUNI – CHAPPOTIN – Nereyda
  • GILBERTO GIL – Ciencia E Arte

Sunday Times Travel Section

My Hols
My Hols

Demonstrating how widespread interest in Kirsty had become by this rime, Kirsty talked to Hilary Whitney for The Sunday Times on 11 June 2000 … about her holidays.

“The first holiday I can remember is going to Poland when I was four. My parents were separated and my father, who was a very active communist, had been a playwright before he became a songwriter and he’d had a very successful play in Poland. He wasn’t allowed to take the money he’d made there out of the country so, to make some sort of use of it I suppose, he arranged to take my brother and me to stay at a farm. A holiday in Poland might sound a bit grim to the unitiated but actually it was idyllic. There were fir trees and fields of the most beautiful wild flowers, not to mention wild strawberries. It probably wasn’t so carefree for my mother because I managed to have an asthma attack and cut my head open while we were there. The only downside of that holiday, from my point of view, was that we had to go by train as my mother was terrified of flying. It took a long time in those days to get to Poland by rail.”

“Most of my childhood holidays were spent at the British seaside. We used to stay in those traditional hotels where you sleep between nylon sheets and breakfast is served between 7 and 7:30am. I loved swimming, and I can remember swimming in the sea when there was nobody else around, probably because it was too cold to even stand on the beach, never mind bob around in the sea. I got a real kick out of it because I thought it was exhilirating to get into water that cold and not actually die. I still love the sea and enjoy diving and snorkelling when I get the chance, but these days it has to be somewhere hot.”

“I didn’t go on any school skiing trips or anything like that, but I did go on a day trip to France with the school. We became very excited because our coach followed a gold Rolls-Royce all the way to the ferry. We lost sight of it once we got on the boat but a bit later, when we were off the coach and roaming around the decks, someone recognised the guy from the Rolls-Royce. We weren’t exactly shy and we dashed up to him to ask why he had this fabulous car. He told us that his name was Jimmy Webb and he was an American songwriter. I was really excited because I knew that he’d written huge hits like ‘By the time I get to Phoenix. I couldn’t help bursting out, “My dad’s a songwriter too! He wrote ‘The first time ever I saw your face, and Jimmy Webb looked at me as if to say, “You sad child, what a terrible lie.“”

“In my early twenties I had several fantastic holidays in Formentera, which was still very unspoilt. On once occasion I hired a bicycle and went to meet some friends in a bar on the other side of the island. I had a fair amount to drink and somebody offered to put my bike in the back of their car and give me a lift in the direction of where I was staying. When I was dropped off it was pitch black and I had no idea where I was going, I got completely lost. In the end, I decided to sleep on the beach. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep straight away. When I woke up I could see a little fishing boat going out to sea and ecerything looked very rustic and pretty. I could see for miles down this beautiful, completely empty beach. Then I looked the other way and the beach was empty in that direction too, except for a family of nude Germans who, for some strange reason, had decided to sit about ten yards away from where I was sitting.”

“After the Berlin Wall came down, I decided to go to Cuba in 1992 because I realised that I hadn’t been to a Communist country since my trip to Poland and that opportunities to do so were diminishing. Also, I’d been mad about Cuban music for years and I wanted to experience it first-hand. Another reason I wanted to go was that I associated it with my dad, because he’d visited Cuba in the late 1960s and met Raoul Castro (Fidel’s son). I’ve been there many times since, but I went alone the first time because I knew it would force me to interact with people. There weren’t many tourists then, so the locals were intrigued by visitors and were always coming up to find out what I was up to. I stayed in hotels during my first visit but, since then, I’ve tried to stay with families as often as possible because you’re so removed from the heart of things if you’re stuck in a hotel.”

“It’s very easy to get a room in a family home, you just stop and ask anyone you meet and they’ll know of someone with a room to let. I’ve found some fantastic places doing that and you’re made to feel so welcome. One place I found was a finca, a little farm, where they produced some of their own food, which sounds odd but, thanks to the US sanctions, it’s quite hard to get hold of proper food in Cuba. This couple kept goats and made me this amazing dessert, which was a bit like cottage cheese with a quince jam. I’d never had anything like it before and it was absolutely delicious. Cubans are incredibly poor but they are very generous and tremendously dignified.”

“After I’d been to Cuba a couple of times I decided to learn Spanish so I could understand song lyrics and chat to people. I met this Brazilian guy at my Spanish class who became my lodger in exchange for Portuguese lessons. In fact, he really didn’t have the time to teach me very much but when he went back to Brazil I took up his invitation to go and visit him. I ended up travelling around the country and got completely immersed in the music. My new album is heavily influenced by my experiences in Cuba and Brazil.”

“In the past 14 months I’ve only been able to take a couple of short breaks. Last summer I went to Seville, which must be one oft he most beautiful cities I’ve been to; every time I turned a corner there would be a grander and more ornate palace than the last. I stayed at the Hotel Alfonso XIII, which is an amazing hotel and perfectly located for walking around the historic parts of the city. There was a wonderful park where the smell of jasmine was so strong it made me feel faint. In November, I spent a weekend a One Devonshire Gardens, a favourite hotel of mine in Glasgow where I always feel completely pampered. Although it’s really plush, the staff are young and don’t judge you just because you’re not dressed head to foot in designer gear.”

“I’m not a great one for sunbathing, but I’ve been working so hard recently, at the moment my ideal holiday would be just to lie on a warm beach and do absolutely nothing.”

London Evening Standard, June 2000.

‘My London’

  • Living – Ealing
  • Eating – A tapas bar called La Copita, Shepherd’s Bush, is really great. And the best curry place (which everyone thinks they know is at Monty’s, the Mall, Ealing.
  • Drinking – The North Star, a pub in Ealing. It’s one of the few pubs left without a bouncer on the door. Basically, it’s normal.
  • Dancing – I love dancing but I do most of it at home. I like Seventies funk clubs as opposed to house stuff.
  • Exercising – I go to a local gym but just to get there is quite time consuming. I like gardening – good back breaking exercise.
  • Working – At the moment we have a hit in Italy so I keep going there to do TV shows. This YouTube clip has Kirsty performing ‘In These Shoes?’ on an unknown TV show in Italy. Footage from Peter Checksfield, uploaded by Ruby Pepper.

  • Learning – I’ve enrolled for evening classes in Spanish. Unless you’re really daft though, you never stop learning post-school.
  • Dressing – Issey Miyake and Ischiko at Liberty. I like going to Liberty in general to look at the different designers’ work
  • Walking – Holland Park. Any green spaces, in fact, which is one of the best things about Ealing – there are tons of parks.
  • Rummaging – I’m trying not to acquire stuff. In fact, I’m trying to get rid of stuff so I do as little rummaging as possible.
  • Romance – Going into London on the Westway. There’s a strange Sixties feel when you see the BT Tower. I also like the South Bank and often go to concerts there.
  • Escaping – Home
  • Collecting – A lot of South American tat. I’ve got loads of Mexican Day of the Dead stuff and lots of religious icons. Then there’s the glow-in-the-dark skeletons in the kitchen …
  • Inspiring – The people in London. I like the diversity of culture and think that it’s really good and really healthy. I also find the Albert Memorial inspiring. It seems weird that someone like Queen Victoria was totally in love.
  • Dreaming – Things are pretty good at the moment, I just hope they don’t go horribly wrong. I’d just like this country to be more tolerant.
  • Avoiding – Public transport in rush hour


fRoots magazine
fRoots magazine

Returning to the in depth music press, Kirsty was interviewed by Nigel Williamson for fRoots. “It’s not meant to be an authentic traditional album. Who needs that from me when there’s others doing it so much better? It’s an Anglo-Latin hybrid pop record that reflects some of the things I love about Cuban and BraziIian music.”

Witty, imaginative pop songs of the kind MacColl has been writing since ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ almost 20 years ago are at a premium at the best of times. Combine them with a liberating and feisty sexuality and some sashaying mambos and cool sambas that have nothing in common with Ricky Martin ‘Livin’ la vida loca’ or Geri Halliwell’s trashy take on Latin froth-pop and you have something very special indeed.

But although MacColl has made an unashamedly popular album, her love of both Cuban and Brazilian music is profound and her knowledge of its traditions impressive. We are drinking morning coffee in her sunburst-yellow dining room and it is obvious that she has immersed herself totally in the culture. She speaks excellent Spanish and only slightly less proficient Portuguese, the house is full of folk art acquired on her travels around south America and the Caribbean and she’s an expert on the cults of santeria and candomble. When she invites me to inspect her CD collection it reveals row after row of Beny More, Los Van Van, Celina Gonzalez and other Cuban classics, many of them on the state-owned Egrem label and personally imported after her numerous visits to the island.

“I didn’t want to make a straight Latin album or even a record that sounded like David Byrne, much as I love what he does. Cuban and Brazilian music is very structured and disciplined and I didn’t want to have to follow any rules,“ she says. “So yes, it’s a hybrid. I wanted to make a record that would appeal to existing fans of my songwriting. I didn’t want to turn off people who’ve been with me for years by singing in Spanish or something. But maybe it can introduce some of them to this music and also attract a new audience that hasn’t necessarily been into my kind of songwriting before.”

MacColl made her first visit to Cuba in 1992 so it has taken a long time for her interest to express itself in her music. She had dabbled with Latin rhythms once before on the excellent ‘My Affair from her 1991 album ‘Electric Landlady. At the time it seemed merely an entertaining diversion. In fact, it had sown a seed. “I recorded that in New York with Cuban musicians and it was very organic and mostly live. It was such a joy playing with that many people all at once. Having spent years in the studio doing my own thing it was just the most fun I’d ever had. I thought then that it would be really nice to do more stuff like that one day.”

When in 1994 she split up with partner and hot shotroducer Steve Lillywhite she sought balm for the wounds of marital breakdown in increasingly regular trips to Cuba where she consummated her Latin love affair. “I think I had always had this impression of it as terribly romantic. My father had given me a mariachi album when I was four years old, which was very different musically. But after that I had this idea that anybody who spoke Spanish was having a better time than I was. It sounded so exuberant. Years later somebody introduced me to the Fania All Stars. I didn’t have any great knowledge at that point but every time I heard anything like that I was completely transfixed. Just because it was so outside my own upbringing and different to everything else you heard.”

But first she chronicled the split with her husband on ‘Titanic Days’. “I had to make my sad divorce record. Then I thought ‘what can I do next?’ I felt I was free to do anything I liked. I returned to Cuba for the second time that year and that was when I started getting intensely into it. I went back as often as I could but I probably didn’t write anything for two or even three years.”

Never a prolific writer, six years were eventually to elapse between ‘Titanic Days’ and ‘Tropical Brainstorm’. “I’ve got used to having long periods of writer’s block,” she says. “They come and they go. But if you’ve got nothing to say I’m a great believer that it’s better just to shut up. You don’t need to make an album a year. You shouldn’t rush these things.” And she should know. MacColl has made just five albums in two decades. Disillusioned with the state of the music industry she also found herself without a recording deal. “It was the time of Britpop. I looked around and I didn’t hear anything that sounded very interesting apart from Cuban music. Beck was doing something different but he was about the only one. Now they’ve got marketing people telling them that everything has to appeal to 22 year olds who drink lots of lager and go to lbiza for their holidays which is why it’s so incredibly narrow at the moment. I don’t know. Maybe there will be a backlash.” We can at least live in hope.

But despite her silence on the recording front, there were obvious signs of MacColl’s growing Cuban fixation. When her old label put out a ‘greatest hits’ compilation it contained a picture of her in a Castro-style military cap lighting a huge Cohiba cigar with an American dollar bill. Her name became a regular fixture at Cuba Solidarity Campaign benefits and on her regular visits to Havana she would return with suitcases full of albums. “I collected mostly old stuff from the forties and fifties. I wasn’t that into the contemporary thing because a lot of it is like pop music anywhere. There’s a lot of crap and it’s not as if everything Cuban is great. But the good stuff sounded so refreshing, especially when you turned on the radio here and heard another generation of bands trying to be the Beatles all over again. I’d lost interest in that.”

For three years she listened to nothing but Cuban music. “The kids would sit down to tea and I’d have Tito Puente blaring away and they’d say ‘please can we listen to something else?’ And I’d say ‘no you can’t!’ I guess I was obsessed with it.“ She also took Spanish lessons. “I couldn’t stand listening to all this stuff and not being able to understand it. And when I was in Cuba I wanted to be able to talk to people, not just to those who spoke English.” She cites Celina Gonzalez as her greatest musical influence. “But I was so enjoying learning about Cuba in general that it was a lot later that I thought about incorporating their influence into my own songs. I wasn’t just interested in the music. It was the whole political scene and I realised that to understand Cuba you have to understand the religion. If you don’t understand santeria then the African origins of Cuban culture are closed to you.”

When she finally decided she was ready to make another album she thought about recording with top Latin musicians in Havana or in New York, as she had done on ‘My Affair’. “Then I thought ‘what’s the point?’ Other people have gone there and done a purist thing. Which is fine. But Cuba doesn’t need Kirsty MacColl doing that. So I decided to introduce elements of the stuff I’d really enjoyed into my next batch of songs. Then the Buena Vista thing became really big and I was pleasantly surprised because I realised it wasn’t just me who was getting turned on to it.”

The parallel interest in Brazil came about via a Portuguese teacher she met through her Spanish class. “He was in London training to be a teacher and he needed somewhere to stay. I said he could have a room at my place in return for teaching me Portuguese. We had all overdosed on Cuba so then I went totally Brazilian. I love the late sixties and early seventies stuff. I rediscovered all those classic songwriters like Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil. And Jobim, obviously.“ he undertook a lengthy trip to Rio to check out all the big names, although Caetano Veloso was a disappointment. “He was playing in the basement of a shopping mail. It was absolutely massive and the tickets were really expensive. I was really excited. Then he came on with just an acoustic guitar and no band and played this dinner set. I felt really let down.”

But one of the great things about Brazilian music is it’s regional variations and she also visited Salvador, Aracaju and Recife, where she recorded the backing track for Celestine, my personal favourite from her new album. A wonderfully seductive bossa nova, MacColl wrote the song about her alter ego (“she’s hot, she’s hot, she’s hot, she’s just a wild and wicked slut”) on the flight to Brazil.

“She just turned up on the plane and I had to write her down. Then I went into this tiny little studio for two days and recorded three songs with the local Brazilian musicians. But a lot of people in Brazil are really into heavy rock. I had Jobim and nice acoustic guitars and percussion in my head. instead they had keyboards and electric guitars so I had to sweet talk them. What I hadn’t realised in my ignorance was that bossa nova comes from Rio and what they play in Recife is forro, which is mental, high-speed accordeon music and is totally different. But bless them, they worked it out and I came home with the basic track. They were two of the most educational days of my life.”

The rest of the album was recorded in the more prosaic locations of Bermondsey and MacColl’s own home studio in Ealing, musicians and long-standing collaborators Pete Glenister and Dave Ruffy. “They actually knew nothing about Latin music and I’d play them stuff and watch them fail in love with the music just as I had five years earlier, which was great,” she says.

Some of the songs began life at a writing week organised by EMI’s publishing division at a country house hotel in Devon. “There were 15 of us and you worked with two different people each day. During the course of that day you had to write a song and then perform it to everybody else in the evening. I was terrified because I’d had writer’s block for three years. But on the third day I wrote ‘Designer Life’ with Kenneth Crouch which ended up on the record. I also met Graham Gouldman down there and later we wrote ‘Treachery’ together for the album.”

‘Tropical Brainstorm is clearly a departure for MacColl. Yet even at the height of her pop success, there was always something about her that was different. Listen to the songs on the ‘Galore’ compilation and they sound far less dated than most eighties pop fare. Then there was always the wit, the most under-utilised emotional weapon in music. “Vitriol and misery have always been far easier to express in song,” she says. “But a lot of people also think that humour implies you’re not serious about the music. Which is stupid. I don’t see the connection between being deadly serious and being good. There’s a lot of serious crap around and there’s a lot of people who want to be celebrities and take themselves far too seriously.”

Finally, I have to ask about her father, Ewan MacColl. For years she had denied that he had any musical influence on her, pointing out that she never lived with him as he left her mother Jean when she was very small. But she has since reconsidered her position. “I think I did learn something from him, which was that you can have a successful career as a songwriter regardless of pop fashion. If you’ve got good songs it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a crap haircut. You’re always going to be all right. I actually liked classical music a lot when I was a kid and I think he disapproved of that. Then I went pop and that was the end as far as he was concerned. He was very stern and fiercely purist. We disagreed about a lot of things. But he had a lot of integrity and he fought for his causes and I really admire that.”

Her next album, she says, is unlikely to be another Latin record. “I think there will be a ‘Tropical Brainstorm’ mark two at some point. But I don’t think I could ever make two records that sounded the same one after another. So the next one might be a heavy metal thrash album. One on which I can play lots of loud electric guitar very badly.” She also has no immediate plans to return to Cuba. “I’m still very committed and I’ll carry on supporting the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. But there’s plenty of other places I want to see. If I had three months off now I’d go to Chile and Peru.”

This sparks a conversation about our mutual love for the Afro-Peruvian diva Susana Baca. And when we have finished talking she offers to play me some of her favourite Cuban tracks, singing along in Spanish to Miguel Cuni with Felix Chapotin’s orchestra and then to Celina Gonzalez, whose Yo Soy El Punto Cubano is sampled on Tropical Brainstorm. Then she goes into raptures over a wonderful old Vinicius de Moraes track. Her enthusiasm is contagious and you should catch a dose of it while you can. Just in case she isn’t joking about that heavy metal record.

BOYZ magazine

  • Candy
    Love: Twix. I’ve always loved them. Hate: I can’t stand anything with peanuts in.
  • Movie: Love: ‘West Side Story. I watched it as a kid and I wanted to be Rita Moreno. Everyone else liked Natalie Wood, but Rita had better lines and a better dress. She was much more entertaining all round. Hate: ‘Leaving Las Vegas. I thought it was totally crap, especially that bit where he’s in the supermarket chucking any old bottle into the trolley. I know lots of alcoholics, and they still have taste – they don’t just buy every kind of booze.
  • Fragrance: Love: The smell of frying onions, but on their own, not mixed with foul meat. Hate: Bullshit: you can smell it a mile off.
  • Alcoholic Beverage: Love: red wine which I drink gallons of, but good quality, not the stuff out of a box or with a screw top. Hate: Southern Comfort. I remember tasting it and thinking it was grim. It’s like drinking medicine.
  • TV Show: Love: Stars In their Eyes. I’d be honoured if someone did me. Maybe I could go on it and be myself. I find it really moving and sweet, these people saying This is the best day of my life and it’s like Fucking hell I’m so sad. (Note: Wendi Peters, the woman who plays the apalling Cilla on Coronation Street did Kirsty singing ‘Days on a Soap Stars special edition, in May 2004.) Hate: ldquo;Most things. I’m
    not big on TV, but I especially hate anything with Jim Davidson in it.
  • City: Love: Seville. It’s fantastic. It’s the most amazing place. You can walk everywhere and it’s really beautiful, the people are friendly. It’s like being in South America but without the long plane ride. Hate: Croydon, because I was born there. I never go back.
  • Book: Love: Anything by Ray Bradbury. I absolutely love his books. Hate: I read something by Jean Paul Sartre that I thought was a pretentious
    load of old nonsense. It was about childhood, as if he was the only one who’d ever experienced it. Pretentious French bastard.
  • Item of Clothing: Love: Many pairs of shoes, even the ones that I’ll never wear. I have some that are too gorgeous to be worn. Hate: Anything that doesn’t fit. And everyone’s shared my fashion disasters …
  • Underwear: Love: Fabulous bras. They’ve got to be lacy and gorgeous. Hate: I wouldn’t wear a thong to save my life. It doesn’t smack of comfort to me.
  • Song: Love: ‘Stardust’ by Hoagy Carmichael. I used to play it while I was getting divorced, which was a very happy time.
    Hate: Anything by Michael Bolton or any horrible novelty hits sung by children. They make you gag. Remember ‘Granddad’?

The Times

Kirsty sings Head
Kirsty sings Head

Caitlin Moran visited Kirsty in 2000, for The Times, and suggested that her latest album is a bit of a surprise. Kirsty, you see, has gone Latin. “Well, no I haven’t”, she chides, “I made it with my old muckers Pete and Dave, and if I’d wanted to make an authentic Latin album I wouldn’t have made it with two people who know nothing about Latin music. Really, it’s a pop album. A party pop album.”

Following her divorce from Simple Minds producer Steve Lillywhite in 1997, MacColl flew off to Brazil to get some sunshine, and found it changed her life. “It was like a sudden liberation of my brain. I’d spent so long being unhappy in a very British way, and suddenly there was all this … this new stuff.” She gestures at her egg-yolk yellow dining room, filled with bright Brazilian icons and tropical flowers. “I was in Salvador on a Friday night and we were walking through the streets looking for a bar – of course – and we heard this drumming. It got louder and louder until we walked round a corner and saw this bunch of street kids. The biggest one was holding the biggest drum, and the three and four-year olds at the front had tiny drums. I stood there for 20 minutes and my mate was trying to drag me off to a bar, but I couldn’t leave because it was so exciting.”

So MacColl scraped together enough money to go into a local studio for a couple of days with some Brazilian musicians. She was expecting just a couple of acoustic guitars and some percussion instruments, but when she walked into the studio she was confronted with a full-on rock band. “I asked the guitarist, ‘Who’s your favourite band?’ and he said ‘Dire Straits.’ I thought, ‘Brilliant. I’ve flown 5,000 miles to jam ‘Walk of life“.” Which is why the resulting album, ‘Tropical Brainstorm’, although conceived in Brazil, was actually recorded in Blighty. It’s hard to convey how very non-worthy, non-‘Look, I’m jamming with the natives’ and profoundly non-Sting like it is. These are pop songs having fun with trumpets and maracas and gallons of the native brew. It’s a ‘Graceland’ as gaudy and fun as the real Graceland.

And it shows, once again, that MacColl’s only current peer as a lyricist is Jarvis Cocker. Take, for instance, ‘England 2 Colombia 0’, about MacColl’s first and last date with a cad who took her to a pub to watch the last World Cup on TV. It’s full of quotable couplets like: “I never can possess the object of my desire/ Because he’s bound to turn out to be a serial liar/ OK I didn’t mention my kids/ I thought I’d wait a bit/ But I am free and single and he’s a lying git.”

Of the seven albums MacColl has made in her 21 year career it’s very possibly the best – which, given that her 1989 album, ‘Kite’, still pops up in Best Album Ever polls, and even won the grudging respect of her notoriously hard-to-please folkie-icon father Ewan, is saying something. How does she keep her standard so absurdly high? “Well, whenever I go into a studio I always operate on the principle that I might get hit by a bus tomorrow.” MacColl explains, finishing her tea. “And I’d hate the obituaries to have to read: “And her last album was her not-very-good album.” Rest assured if she gets hit by the 271 to Archway tomorrow, Kirsty MacColl will be lauded as an unblemished genius.