KIRSTY MacCOLL: TALENT “GALORE,” GONE TOO SOON
By Paul Freeman [1995 Interview]
She was on this Earth for far too short a time. But her songs will live forever.
Kirsty MacColl, daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl and dancer Jean Newlove, was born in Croydon, England, in 1959. After a couple of singles on Stiff Records, the singer/songwriter moved to Polydor and the label released her acclaimed album debut, “Desperate Character,” in 1981.
Despite great reviews, Polydor dropped MacColl. She headed back to Stiff, where she reached the Top 10 of the U.K. singles chart with a cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England.” Bragg had written a couple of extra verses for her.
Tracey Ullman had a smash with MacColl’s “They Don’t Know.” Ullman subsequently had success with several more MacColl tunes.
Stiff’s bankruptcy led to contract hassles that stymied MacColl from making more records of her own. However, she was busy as a session vocalist, singing on many tracks produced or engineered by her then husband, Steve Lillywhite. Among the artists she backed were Robert Plant, Simple Minds, Talking Heads, The Smiths, Alison Moyet, Big Country and ABBA’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad.
MacColl was welcomed back to the British charts with a huge 1987 hit, “Fairytale of New York,” a duet with Shane MacGowan that became a holiday perennial. Her solo career went into top gear again, with 1989’s “Kite” album, which included collaborations with Johnny Marr and David Gilmour. MacColl dissected life in Thatcher’s England in the song “Free World” and insightfully jabbed at the nature of fame in “15 Minutes.” Another of the album’s popular tracks was a cover of The Kinks’ “Days.”
For Virgin Records, MacColl released a greatest hits package titled “Galore.” But she was becoming frustrated with the music industry. Having delved into folk, country, New Wave, pop and rock over the years, she explored world music. Following travels to Cuba and Brazil, she recorded 2000’s “Tropical Brainstorm.” It included the song “In These Shoes,” which was covered by Bette Midler. That tune was later used by Catherine Tate as her BBC TV show’s theme song.
MacColl was frequently seen on U.K. TV, on such shows as “French and Saunders” and “Jools Holland.”
In 2000, vacationing in Mexico with her two sons and her significant other, musician James Knight, MacColl was killed. In a designated diving area, while trying to shield her sons, she was struck by a recklessly driven speedboat. She died instantly. She was 41.
Controversy surrounded the details of her death, centering around who actually was piloting the boat, the millionaire owner or his employee. This led to the founding of a Justice For Kirsty campaign. A BBC documentary was aired, titled “Who Killed Kirsty MacColl?”
MacColl’s music has been rereleased in several forms over the years, including the three-CD set “From Croydon to Cuba.”
A memorial bench was placed by the south entrance to London's Soho Square. In her song, “Soho Square,” MacColl movingly sang, “An empty bench in Soho Square, forgotten, now I turn away... Just save me for a rainy day... One day you'll be waiting there, come summertime in Soho Square... And I'll be painting stars up in the sky.”
MacColl will never be forgotten. Each year on the Sunday closest to her birthday, October 10th, fans from around the globe gather at the bench to sing her songs.
If you haven't heard of Kirsty MacColl, you're forgiven. Her previous albums went relatively ignored in the United States. But if you miss out on her latest effort, “Galore,'' you should be ashamed of yourself. I.R.S. Records is doing its best to promote this remarkable pop talent.
“Galore'' features 18 of the best songs from MacColl's 15-year career. Among the highlights are the single “Caroline,'' and the rockabilly “There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis.'' Well known in the U.K., MacColl is overdue for recognition on this side of the Atlantic.
She's happy with “Galore.'' “Having had so many record companies along the way,'' explains the 35-year-old redhead, “I've had records put out without my even knowing about them. Sometimes they don't care about making it a good package. It was nice to have the power to actually be able to choose the tracks that went into this one. I had control.
“I like the writing and performing,'' she continues. “But the business end of things is a real pain. . . . I stay away from it as much as possible, but some things you have to do yourself.''
So what did she choose? “Obviously, I wanted the album to include the ones that had been best received, but also others that represented the variety of musical styles I've tried to experiment with.''
Her styles segue smoothly from jingle-jangle '60s to Latin to hip-hop. Complementing her appealing vocals are guest appearances by the Pogues, Evan Dando and guitarist Johnny Marr, formerly of the Smiths. MacColl worked with the Smiths, as well as other groups, including Simple Minds and Talking Heads, as a background singer and vocal arranger.
She and Marr are currently co-writing a song for her next album. “He's quite prolific and very energetic,'' MacColl says. “I find it very helpful to be around someone who's more energetic than I am generally. I tend to shut down if everything goes bad. He tends to give me a kick . . . which is useful.''
Though she's an exceptionally gifted songwriter, MacColl has included several covers on “Galore,'' including tunes by Ray Davies, Billy Bragg, Lou Reed and Cole Porter. “I try to pick ones that aren't so well known. I have to feel strongly about them and make them my own. I put my stamp on them. They don't stand out as ‘Oh look, here's one she didn't write!' They fit a sort of central mood.''
Her songs have been covered by many artists. “Even if you don't like their version of it,'' MacColl says, “It's always flattering when somebody covers your song.''
MacColl's first single, released in 1979, “They Don't Know,'' became a smash for comedian-actress Tracey Ullman. MacColl sang backing vocals on that record.
“We hung out a bit, because I wrote quite a lot of stuff for Tracey after that. She's a nice girl, talented, but she's always acting. It's hard to relax,'' MacColl says, laughing.
“They Don't Know,'' like many of the songs on “Galore,'' is instantly infectious, yet contains lyrics with a deceptive edge. “If you want to get some heavy-duty thing across in a song, it's often good to present it in a joyful guitar style. You don't want to put everybody off before the idea has had a chance to infiltrate into them.''
MacColl doesn't think most listeners notice the lyrics anyway. “There wouldn't be so much crap in the charts if they did.''
MacColl herself doesn't dissect other writers' songs, analyzing the concepts. “I either like a song or I don't. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with whether the lyrics are any good. Sometimes you get a record that is incredibly banal and monotonous, but you really like it anyway. You can't put your finger on why.''
Among her musical influences are Frank Zappa, the Kinks, the Beatles and David Bowie. “I tend to like the ones who can make me laugh, the ones who don't take themselves too seriously.''
At 15, she was writing her first songs. ``I had a desperate urge to express myself through music. I was going through all the usual things that tear you up at that age. I don't think the early stuff was particularly inspiring, but it was enough to make me think I could do better.''
She was just 19 when she recorded her first single. “It wasn't massively successful. I didn't get rich or anything. But it was well enough received for me to be able to make music full time. That had always been my plan.''
MacColl always loved working in the studio, but she used to suffer from stage fright. “I didn't do any performing for 10 years. Then I forced myself to get over it. I decided to fix up a tour, and, if I didn't enjoy it by the end, I would never do it again. That was three and a half years ago and I've done a lot of touring since then, so I suppose it's OK now.''
When she finishes touring for “Galore,'' MacColl, who's separated from her husband, record producer Steve Lillywhite, and has two children, ages 8 and 10, will concentrate on the next album.
“I don't listen to hardly anything in English at the moment. But I don't think the next album will be reflective of that. It's not going to be performed all on Colombian nose flute,'' she quips.
MacColl isn't too thrilled with the contemporary pop/rock climate. “There's always going to be a few real songwriters and 3,000 other people making records who can't actually write songs.
“There's so much stuff that just sounds like everybody else. Frank Black makes me laugh and Beck is really cool. But there's not much else. There's like 15 bands that want to be the Stones, 15 bands that want to be Nirvana. I'm bored with it. I just want to be Kirsty MacColl.''