CAROL Kidd MBE may be the finest jazz vocalist Scotland has ever produced, but in times of crisis it’s painting that has saved her, rather than singing. The ebullient, pint-sized Glaswegian, now resident in Spain, is back in her home town this month to celebrate her 70th birthday and give a trio of concerts. Oh, and to show her paintings to the public for the first time, with an exhibition and workshops at iota in Glasgow’s west end.
So how did the singer who was hand-picked by her idol, Frank Sinatra, to open his legendary Glasgow 1990 concert, and who was accorded superstar status in the Far East due to her chart success, become an exhibiting artist?
“Artist?” splutters Kidd. “There’s no way I’d call myself that! When I think about people who’ve been to art school and university, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an artist – but the things that I’m doing are straight from the heart. That’s the only way I can put it.”
Kidd’s first brush with, er, the brush came in 2005, when she was at her lowest ebb in the aftermath of the sudden death of her long-term partner and manager, John Mackay, and in the midst of a court case over his estate. “I was a maniac,” she recalls. “I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I was a mess. You would come into my flat in Glasgow and have to walk over bank statements and papers. I really was so black about everything.
“Then, one day, my daughter Carol came to my flat with an easel, canvases, brushes, oils – everything I needed – and she said: ‘Mum, you’re dying before my eyes. You were always good at drawing so, there, go for it.’ I’ve been drawing since I was child. I used to draw the dogs, when we had dogs, and the kids – but always in pencil. So I was always into drawing but never took it that step beyond and actually painted anything. I didn’t have a clue.”
Kidd gave it a go. “Just putting out a bit of paint, getting a brush, putting the canvas up, and putting that first stroke on the canvas were huge steps… and once I got an idea in my head, I was off and running. It saved me, because what it did was block out everything else, I was so focused. It really was therapy.”
Relocating to Majorca in 2007, Kidd continued and developed her painting. She works with oils, and paints mostly from memory or from her imagination.
Almost two years ago, the singer was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a lumpectomy and a course of radiotherapy. The subsequent hormone replacement medication she was put on produced awful side effects in her.
“I have had a year and a half of hell, truly hell. I’ve had no energy, and just wanted to crawl under the sheets and sleep. And the depression. I just wanted to throw myself under the first bus that came along. These were side effects of these pills. I took myself off them two months ago and I’m like a new person. I’m about to try another hormone replacement therapy, but if it throws me back to the way I was a year ago then I’ll be coming off that too.”
Thankfully, she had her art to turn to. “That’s twice it’s done it for me. This time, it was a case of, ‘Right, okay, I can’t do anything else. I can’t go out, and I cannae go and sing, so I’ll carry on with my painting.’ And then I started doing things that were a wee step above what I’d done before, and having more confidence, and that’s when the gallery became interested. When they saw them, they said: ‘These are good, let’s go for an exhibition.’ And at that point I was still unwell but I kept painting and painting and painting.
“I’ve done all sorts of things. I did this beautiful woman who I met when I was having my treatment, and she was having chemo so she had no hair, but, my god, her face was outstanding. She had the most gorgeous blue eyes. And I had to come home with her picture in my head.”
One face that Kidd painted from memory – even though she could have referred to photos online or in the press – was that of Billy Connolly, who has recently been treated for cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. That painting has already sold. “It was bought by a friend in Glasgow who saw an early version of it and said: ‘I don’t care what it costs. I want it.’ I said: ‘You mean I’ll need to do it again? I’ve just scrapped it!’ It took me four months – because I kept changing it, and it got to the stage where I had to scrap it and start again, because he’s got such a complicated face and you’ve got to put an expression in.
“I had to do him. Why? Because of what’s happening with him, and I felt for him so, so much. I know Billy and it was horrifying to read all that stuff about him – I couldn’t believe it – and then Robin Williams died, and to imagine how he would feel about that because they were like brothers… I just felt I had to paint him.”
Kidd first met Connolly in the late 1970s at a party at the home of another much-loved Scottish jazz singer, Fionna Duncan. “I’ll never forget,” she says cackling. “He walked in the door with a great big long fur coat on, and the first thing he did was he took off the fur coat, threw it in the corner, and said: ‘Stay Rover!’ And I thought, who is this man? We got on like a house on fire.”
While she’s back in Glasgow, Kidd has three duo concerts with top pianist Brian Kellock, with whom she recorded a live album last summer – but her focus today is her love of painting. Does she feel more excited about the art than singing these days?
“No. No, definitely not. I’ll tell you what, I feel very lucky that at the age I’m at now I have something to fall back on if it gets to the stage where I can’t sing to a high standard any more. I couldn’t do a Frank Sinatra and just keep going on and on and on. So I feel really lucky that I’ve got this other string to my bow, and it’s something that can go on without the stress of going and doing concerts, although I don’t want to give up singing. I’ll keep going till I know it’s time to stop.”
• Carol Kidd’s paintings will be exhibited at iota, Unlimited Studios, Hyndland Street, Glasgow, on Friday and Saturday; Carol Kidd and Brian Kellock perform at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh on 30 October, at Wild Cabaret, Glasgow on 2 November and at The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock on 9 November. Their new CD, Carol Kidd Live With Brian Kellock Present Cole Porter, will be released on Thursday