Angels on my shoulder

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CAROL KIDD IS ONE OF SCOTLAND'S best-loved singers. She is a superstar in the Far East, where her signature song When I Dream topped the pop charts. She is the winner of several prestigious British Jazz Awards. And she can count among her most illustrious admirers two of her heroes, Frank Sinatra, who personally selected her to open his 1990 Glasgow concert, and Tony Bennett, who came to hear her two nights in a row, when she performed at Ronnie Scott's Soho club in the 1980s.

Kidd is an extremely accessible singer with a fiercely loyal following both here and abroad. Some are from a jazz background and relish the chance to hear a singer who doesn't hide behind a veil of vocal pyrotechnics. Some just love a good song, beautifully sung. Others have been drawn by Kidd's ebullient personality - when she's performing she kicks her shoes off, lets her hair down and parties with the musicians onstage. It's impossible not to have a laugh at a Kidd concert; her delight in entertaining is infectious. As is her lust for life.

At least it was. For the last three years, Kidd has barely performed. Where has she been? To hell - but she's on her way back, with a trio of high-profile concerts next week, and some exciting projects planned for the coming months. When we meet to catch up, it's clear that however much the bubbly 60-year-old may have been battered and bruised by recent events, she's champing at the bit to get in front of an audience again.

The event that triggered Kidd's near-disappearance from our concert halls was the death of her partner of 13 years, and her consequent meltdown. John Mackay, the man whom Kidd describes as her "soulmate", died a month after falling gravely ill following a hip operation, in June 2003. "He was 76 going on 46, and I think that's partly why it hit me so hard," says Kidd. "I knew he had health problems, but he never told me the risks of that operation."

Kidd withdrew to the Cambridgeshire home they had shared for 12 years. Nobody could persuade her to come back to Glasgow, where her family could look after her, and nobody - with the exception of the youngest of her three grown-up children - was allowed to visit. "It was hard-going to be there on my own without him, but I wanted to be there," she explains. "I didn't know how to cope. I had coped with the deaths of my mother, my sister and my brother - all within a two-year span in the 1990s - but it was John who had helped me get through those. And of course, everyone else in the family had been feeling the same way. With John's death, I was the only one having to deal with it and I completely caved in."

Alone in her house, Kidd wasn't eating and she certainly wasn't sleeping. "I was up walking the floor all night. I was taking my dog out at midnight, wandering about a park in the dark. I had notes pinned up all over the house to myself, reminding me to do this and that. I couldn't think straight."

This went on for a year. And then came a turning point. Two things made Kidd realise that she'd better snap out of it. One was her worried ten-year-old granddaughter asking her, "When will you be back, Nana?" and the other was what Kidd likes to call "the poo incident". Not for Kidd some deep, spiritual awakening which brought her back from the brink; instead, it was a blackly comic experience which opened her eyes to the state she was in.

With all the dramatic flair and impeccable timing of a seasoned stand-up comedienne, she launches into the story. "I took my poor dog out for a walk. I always take my poo bag and my purse with me when we go out. So we go through the park, she does her business, I bag the poo, put it in the bin, drag her - she doesn't want to go anywhere, she's so depressed - to the local supermarket and sit her outside. I go in, get the milk, get to the checkout and what do I have in the bag - poo! I've got poo to pay for the milk! Not only that but I have to run out and drag the dog back to the park and go through all the poo bins to find my purse ...

"That was when I realised, 'Aw, wait a minute, I've totally lost the plot.' We get back to the house. The dog's crying her head off, I'm crying my head off. I thought this is it, I've had it. And that's when I phoned my kids."

Bundled into a car and brought back to Glasgow, Kidd took up residence in the West End flat she had bought as a pied--terre a decade earlier. Her health - which had begun to play up in the days just before John's death - was suffering. "My new doctor up here took one look at me and said I was in a bad way," she says. "I hadn't eaten properly in such a long time. I had bronchitis, then an ear infection, then I lost my voice for two months. I was so scared, because not only could I not sing, but I couldn't speak. I had it all checked out and was told: 'You're so stressed, it's gone straight to your throat. You need to sort your head out - it's all up there."

Determined to work her way through what she is now convinced was a complete nervous breakdown, Kidd refused to take the pills prescribed by her GP.

"I put them in a drawer because I couldn't stand the thought of taking drugs." Later on, however, she was so "desperate to feel 'normal' again" that she agreed to take the now-controversial anti-depressant Seroxat. "I tried them after refusing all the others," she says, "but they made me so ill. I couldn't stop shaking and, at one point, I couldn't even stand up. I was also verging on suicidal; I did want to die - all the stuff in my head about John became so overwhelming."

Kidd had only been on Seroxat for four days at this stage and already its effects on her were clear.

"When I realised that it might be the pills making me feel this way, I stopped taking them immediately - and the symptoms disappeared. It wasn't till after my own experience that all the publicity came out about suicides triggered by this horrible drug.

"I had a lucky escape."

Early on in her bereavement, Kidd had performed at the Edinburgh and Islay jazz festivals. "I did those because I needed to prove to myself that I could do them. But I cried my way through them - nobody noticed, though. And afterwards, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Now when I look back, it's like I'm standing here looking in and I can see myself doing the gigs but I wasn't really there.

"The next thing I did was the Glasgow Jazz Festival in July 2004, and I still wasn't in complete control. I had to switch on to being the person you see onstage and I've never had to do that before. In the dressing room before that concert, I was punching myself trying to get myself going. I was really, really having to steel myself not only to go out and do it but also to have the energy to get myself through it because my energy levels were so depleted."

What kept Kidd going through this dark period, which was compounded by enormously stressful legal issues arising from John's death, was the support of her regular musicians, fans who would e-mail her through her website, and, especially, her children - her daughter, Carol, and her sons, George and Steven.

"My daughter was heartbroken. She would come in and look at me and leave in tears - what on earth are we going to do with this woman? My kids were amazing, though. They never left me alone for a minute once I came back to Scotland."

Another turning point came while Kidd was visiting her elder son. "He put a DVD of the Eagles on. And I sat and listened to what this guy, Don Henley, was singing about. I looked at the lyrics and couldn't believe what I was reading because there was stuff in there that was exactly how I was feeling. It just blew my mind. I got back home and did my usual - got up during the night - and I thought about how I was feeling and what had got me through all this. I was thinking about my sister and my mother, these people that I call my angels, and I thought, 'they're on my shoulder, they're always there.' So there was a title - There Are Angels on My Shoulder. The minute I got a title I couldn't sleep because then a story followed and I wrote a set of lyrics.

"Then I just couldn't stop. It was like I'd opened the floodgates. I was hearing the music as well, I knew exactly how I wanted it to be played, how I wanted it to be sung. I went back to bed and suddenly thought, 'tell me how you felt when we first met.' This is me talking to John. Here was another title, so I had to get up again."

Kidd hoots with laughter as she mimics herself scribbling furiously. "Tell me once again/How you felt when we first met/I love the look of mischief in your eye/I touch your sweet mouth/And tease you with a kiss you won't forget/So once again/Tell me how you felt when we first met/ I love it when/You pretend you can't remember how we met ... and I just went on and on and on. I typed it all out and sent it to my daughter so it was copyrighted. Then back to bed and - Jesus Christ! - another one. Put Your Faith In Me. Up again. And that went on and on. For a week! Every night, every time I shut my eyes there was something else - Do You Believe, I'm Moving On ... I've written 43 sets of lyrics now."

Clearly, Kidd had inadvertently hit upon a form of therapy. "If I had been in a different profession, work could have been the therapy, but the fact that I didn't know when my next concert was going to be made that difficult." And if the songwriting helped her get herself on the road to recovery, she has no intention of leaving it behind as she resumes her performing career. Far from it - she's planning to record the best of her songs and is working on the arrangements with a number of collaborators, including her regular guitarist, Nigel Clark.

By late last summer, Kidd was ready to go on stage again. "We'd had these concerts where I wasn't really there, in 2003 and 2004, but last year I realised that I was missing performing terribly much," she says, laughing again.

"I know I've got to get back to it when my daughter gets me to sing and I go into full concert mode in the living room. I phoned my manager in tears asking for her help because I didn't know how to kickstart myself."

The kickstart took the form of a concert at the Music Hall in Aberdeen in October. "There was no publicity, I didn't care about making any money, I just had to do it, just to get me back on stage and to see how I felt," says Kidd. And how did she feel? "Fabulous."

So much so that she came offstage and gave her manager the green light to fix up concerts galore for this year, starting with three Scottish gigs this week, and possibly including shows in Shanghai - Kidd's previous gig in China was in 1995 - as well as Las Vegas and some European jazz festivals. Whether she will perform at the Glasgow and Edinburgh events this year remains to be seen - "I haven't been asked," she says. "And last year was the first time in its history that I didn't get asked to do the Edinburgh Jazz Festival."

The main priority now is "to get on with things". There's an urgency about Kidd and a need to be proactive that wasn't there before. She's aware of this.

"I think what's happening is that, because of John's death, the whole mortality thing is hitting me. I've realised that life is too short. I need to think about what I want to do with the rest of my life. What I do know is that, number one, I want to perform - I want to perform 'til I drop. I want to record, and I want to record my own songs. Basically, I want to take every opportunity I'm offered - if it's there, I'm going to take it!"

• Carol Kidd performs at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, on Thursday (0131-668 2019); at Dunblane Hydro Hotel on Friday (01786 822551); and at the City Halls, Glasgow, on Saturday (0141-353 8000).

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