Interview: Amy Macdonald, singer-songwriter
AMY Macdonald followed two successful albums with a year off to unwind, and even with her third album, she says, there has been no pressure to do anything but write what she knows.
There comes a point in the career of every pop star from these shores when they turn their gaze westwards. Quite often the record company will do this for them, and with considerably more urgency: wouldn’t it be great if we could sell loads and loads of albums in America? Amy Macdonald opens her latest CD with a song called 4th of July and it seems reasonable to ask if she’s now going after the Yankee dollar with her strummy, husky, folky tunes, but this turns out to be my first mistake of the day.
“Not at all,” she says in a slightly nippy voice. “I think I must be one of the only people who hasn’t done the whole let’s-crack-America thing. My audience is here and in Europe. I’m not about to turn my back on the people who have supported me this far to chase a dream that might never happen.
“That song is actually about a family holiday. When I was 11 I went to New York with my mum, dad and sister. I felt like I was on a movie set the whole time and loved being over there on Independence Day. Last September I was watching a 9/11 memorial service on TV and got really upset thinking about all the devastation that had been caused to a place which had such fantastic memories for me.”
My second mistake is to assume that the next song on the album, Pride, is the 24-year-old Macdonald in a hurry to reassure her Scottish fans that, no, she hasn’t deserted them or the “blue and white of the flag”, and that she’ll see everyone at T in the Park next month – “50,000 voices singing in the rain”.
Wrong again. Macdonald is playing the festival, and greatly looking forward to her first appearance at Balado since 2009, but the track concerns another often-drookit gathering of the multitudes, at Hampden Park. Macdonald gets to perform Flower of Scotland before football internationals, and for her this is the most thrilling thing.
“As a very patriotic and passionate Scot, singing the anthem at a big football match means the world to me and I’m so lucky and so honoured that I get asked to do this. Saying that, it’s the most nervous I ever get. I’m never nervous about my own shows but there’s a brief moment before Scotland games which is absolutely horrible. I worry that I’ll muck it up. There are so many people depending on me and I want to do a great job.”
She does, and with the team beginning their campaign for the 2014 World Cup in September, Macdonald has organised her schedule to ensure she can lead the community singing once again. “Afterwards I’m on such a high and literally buzzing for days. It moves me so much.”
Really, it was foolish of me to suspect her of such naked ambition. She’s a pop artist of substance, integrity and also modesty, but the latter shouldn’t be confused with meekness: she’s nobody’s wee lassie. Back in 2007 and just out of her teens, she was battling with stylists who wanted to change her indie-kid look. No one has ever tried to tell her what kind of songs to write, and I imagine it would be an abrupt conversation if they did. Why would they? Four million sales are four million sales, no need to be greedy. And, anyway, Macdonald doesn’t want to be any more famous than she is right now.
“When I’m not performing I can go about my life quietly and I really like that,” she says. “If I’m out shopping, in Topshop or wherever, I’m never spotted. In fact, I’m usually asked if I have a student card. No-one seems to notice me, they’re oblivious to who I am even in Scotland, and I’m very happy to be able to blend in with the crowd. I never got into this business to be famous; for me it’s always been about the music.”
Cynics might contend this is music best heard in a Renault Clio, en route to Homebase. But, unpretentious and heartfelt, Macdonald’s songs are more universal than that. Today her image is slightly more glamorous, just like any other young woman who’s progressing through her twenties. She’s at the Surrey home of her managers, fresh from having informed ITV’s Loose Women that she’s not one for London’s celebrity whirl, preferring “a dirty old boozer back home in Glasgow”. The next day she begins rehearsals for the festival dates showcasing third album Life in a Beautiful Light but still featuring the songs which first got her noticed, This Is the Life and Mr Rock and Roll.
To borrow some football speak, Macdonald’s career has benefited from consistency of team selection: same label; same husband-and-wife duo of Pete Wilkinson and Sarah Erasmus who produce as well as manage; same boyfriend, the recently retired footballer Stevie Lovell. And when she writes it’s the same set-up: just her and the guitar, no need to recruit one of those gun-for-hire hitmakers.
On another of the new songs, The Furthest Star, she sings: “No need so sell my soul to achieve my goal”, which sounds like a very Amy line. “This industry is very demanding but I’ve always been surrounded by great people who respect that I’m my own person and will write my own songs. I think I’m in a good, safe place and don’t feel I’m about to be chewed up and spat out any time soon. But I know that isn’t everyone’s experience and therefore I’m quite lucky.
“Everyone just lets me get on with it. The new album was written in 2011 which I spent entirely at home. In the diary it said ‘Amy’s year off.’ No-one expected anything of me. I never got one phone call the whole time; there was no pressure. My managers said that if I came back to work having only written a couple of songs, well, they were going to have to wait a bit longer.
“It’s detrimental to my songwriting if I have to force myself to do it. For the second album there was time set aside for writing and I remember as the day approached kind of dreading it. This time I went for a whole two months without picking up my guitar.”
What did she do? “When you don’t feel you’ve properly spent any time at home since 2006, it’s the simple things that give you the most joy.” She caught up with family and friends for movie-going or nights in those dirty old pubs. “It’s amazing how busy normal life can be. My mum and dad reckon they’re busier than ever since they’ve retired. My reaction to that was always, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ But I know what they mean. I spent quite a lot of last year down the post office doing goodness knows what.”
Eventually the songs came and Macdonald, who’s previously written about Michael Jackson and James Bulger, didn’t flinch from difficult subject matter. Across the Nile, for instance, was inspired by the Arab Spring. “It’s definitely an emotional response; I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on Middle East politics. But when I watched the celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, everyone united and so happy, I started to cry. When I cry I feel inspired so I picked up my guitar and what came out was that song.”
Macdonald’s much-missed grandmother was a victim of Alzheimer’s and Left That Body is about her. “My nana died ten years ago. I was very close to her and it was very sad when she was no longer able to recognise her family. My mum would say to me, ‘Don’t worry, your nana’s left that body and gone to a better place.’ That was a hard track to write and again there were loads of tears but I’m really glad I persevered. It’s had a good response from the Alzheimer’s Society and also some close friends who are currently going through something similar to what I did.”
Then there’s The Green and the Blue which tries to the find the positive in the Old Firm rivalry. “Celtic and Rangers get such a poor press and I’m not saying that sometimes it isn’t deserved. But the clubs mean so much to so many people that they can’t be all bad.” The song closes with the line: “The green and the blue unite me and you/We’re both Glasgow through and through.”
That’s where my chat with Macdonald closes, too, just as I ask about Lovell, her fiancé of four years, and she rushes an answer about him tending a sick relative. A couple of days later a tabloid reveals they have split up. In another new track, which we didn’t get around to discussing, she asks: “How do I know when I’ve found my one and only?” Yet more evidence that this gifted songwriter tells it like it is.
• Life in a Beautiful Light is out now on Mercury. Amy Macdonald plays T in the Park on 7 July. www.amymacdonald.co.uk
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