Barbara Dickson on famous friends and music therapy

Singer Barbara Dickson. Picture: Brian Aris
Singer Barbara Dickson. Picture: Brian Aris
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SHE’S been mates with the Scottish greats, but it’s the uncanny power of the music, not the star trip, that keeps Barbara Dickson singing

IT’S not important to Matthew that the woman singing to him is Scotland’s best-selling female artist of all time. She has six platinum albums, 11 gold and seven silver. She has two Olivier Awards for her acting, an OBE from the Queen. It’s not important to the 17-year-old that she’s best pals with Billy Connolly, Eric Clapton and the late Gerry Rafferty. He just likes her voice, and the rhythm of her song, January, February, as she sings it for him in his music therapy session.

Barbara Dickson visits a Nordoff Robbins music therapy session. Picture: Tina Norris

Barbara Dickson visits a Nordoff Robbins music therapy session. Picture: Tina Norris

Barbara Dickson is playing for a very select audience. In Edinburgh’s Royal Blind School a young man called Matthew Goode, who is cortically blind with dystonic cerebral palsy, is being treated to a performance of her bestselling hit from the 1970s when she visits with the music therapy charity, Nordoff Robbins Scotland.

“He likes things with rhythm so I sang that one,” says Dickson. “Francesca, the therapist, played the guitar and I sang it. It was transformative. I’m not a hippie and I have a large cynical streak, but I saw these young people, and particularly Matthew, being taken away from their difficulties and transported to another place. There was no doubt about it. I watched it happen,” she smiles, fired up at the memory.

Not only was it transformative for Matthew, as it is for the 400 people the charity helps every week in Scotland, but for Dickson too, who saw the power of music demonstrated right in front of her.

“I felt extremely happy and joyous when I came out of there. I got something enormous out of it,” she says.

That’s why, when Nordoff Robbins Scotland approached Dickson to be their ambassador, she didn’t hesitate.

Developed by Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins in the 1950s, the therapy was originally devised for children with learning disabilities. Based on the belief that everyone can respond to music, the aim is to alleviate disability, trauma, illness and isolation. The majority of the £600,000 funding it needs each year is raised from its annual Scottish Music Awards, with the money raised in Scotland staying in Scotland.

“Music therapy is also something that works with older people, particularly those with dementia,” says Dickson. “It could be the one thing that works; it’s very important.”

The 67-year-old is delighted to discuss her work with the charity, her new album and this month’s 22-date UK tour. In a green tweed jacket, skinny jeans and Jigsaw jumper, RM Williams boots and sophisticated updo, Dickson slips anonymously into the Palm Court at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. Look closely and you’ll clock the glint from her discreet diamond crucifix and Cartier watch. She’s more class than brass, and exudes warmth on this cold winter morning after her walk through the city. Bright and chatty, our allotted hour-long interview settles down into a convivial two-hour blether in which we are joined by her husband Oliver, as she talks music, motherhood, religion and what it means to her to be moving back to Scotland.

“Many years ago I attended a Nordoff Robbins event in London and was impressed, then a few years ago I was asked if I would like to be a recipient of one of their Tartan Clef awards and I was honoured. Now I’ve been asked to be involved with their work in Scotland, presumably because I’m a Scot and a lot of people remember my music. I used to be an older men’s sweetheart, for adoring men of 50, so they will recognise me.”

She adds, “I’m raising awareness for this very important work. I’m not a therapist but I can tell you it works.”

Dickson is also aware of the power of music in her own life, as a support as well as a source of employment, friendship and inspiration.

“Music has been totally therapeutic for me when I feel a bit out of control, thinking ‘How am I going to deal with this?’ I’m a panic merchant, and sometimes I despair at myself. So I listen to something like O’er The Water To Charlie, and go whoosh! It’s so healing. Archie Fisher singing Open The Door Softly, James Taylor’s The Frozen Man, Ron Sexsmith, George Jones, Michael Marra. Music works because it’s a different part of the brain, and it works on the emotions.”

Today, with the new album and tours, Dickson is working as much as ever, with no sign of retirement, despite the tinnitus in her left ear. “I believe in the Evelyn Glennie school of thought that music vibrates in you and it’s not just with your voice and ears, but you use other parts of the body too.

“I’m busier than I’ve been in my whole life. I went on tour at the end of last year with Rab Noakes, and played in the US for the first time at a Celtic music festival in Virginia. Just me and a guitar singing traditional songs, and my own songs. They didn’t know who I was from a potato, but at the end they all stood up. I was astonished!

“I work with Troy Donockley too, he’s a musical master. We do Gerry’s songs, my songs, folk songs, ballads, rock, pop, and I’m devoted to Bob Dylan, the greatest living American. I don’t do I Know Him So Well, because, well, it’s a bit of a karaoke classic these days. I’d call what we play symphonic folk, multi-layered interpretation of what is loosely termed folk music. It’s got layers, it’s not just gussied up.”

So who is her audience these days?

“My fans are a great mixture of people who have come to me through my folk music legacy, pop hits and through the theatre. And there are young people who like me because I’m a groovy old woman who wears Dr Martens – well they’re Marsell [an upmarket version], but look like them. I’m interesting because I’m older, independent, play the guitar and piano; and I’m an instrumentalist, not just a dispensable pop star. I’m not a woman in a long dress with a pile of music singing in an orchestra; that’s nothing to do with me.

“I was never that comfortable being ‘a star’ and always felt really weird on that stratosphere. I used to get drunk and fall over because I was so scared and didn’t know what to say. Now I know what to say, and I don’t drink. I was saved. With fame you are always in danger of losing your identity and going bonkers and demanding green M&Ms. That’s totally obsessive, mental nonsense. There’s hardly anybody I can think of who has been a success for a long time that hasn’t got some sort of tick.”

Does she?

“No, because I got rid of my manager about ten years ago and only do what I want. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, like representing Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest or a Royal Command Performance. I never wanted to do that, be the woman in the Bentley in the fur coat. I wanted to be left alone to do proper songs in a proper way. I’m still what I always was. I have fought to remain the woman with the same principles.”

Born in Dunfermline in 1947, Dickson is the child of a “spunky Scouser” and a former policeman who worked at Rosyth docks. Her parents bought her her first guitar for £3.50 when she was five.

“It was terrible, the strings used to cut my fingers,” but she persisted, and from the age of 12, played the piano too. When her music teacher gave her a prize of 101 Scottish Songs, she began singing them in Fife folk clubs, then further afield.

“I had a civil service job at the Admiralty in Rosyth but I wanted to get away, and I moved to General Register House in Edinburgh when I was 17. Then I was offered some singing dates in Denmark, so I resigned. My dad said I was mad, but I had to have a go at singing. I went for six weeks, then when I came back I was unemployed and struggled for a while, but Hamish Imlach got me work in folk clubs. They produced people like Rab Noakes, Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly and me.”

Club work in England followed and she turned professional, then folk club pal Willy Russell signed her up to sing the Beatles songs in his 1974 hit show John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert.

“After that, I signed to a record label and for the next decade I was a ‘pop star’,” she says.

Chart hits in the 1970s and 1980s included Caravans, Answer Me, Another Suitcase In Another Hall and I Know Him So Well (with Elaine Paige) and for a decade her name and hair got bigger and bigger.

She also became an actress, first in another Russell production, Blood Brothers in 1982, which won her an Olivier Award. Her portrayal of Viv Nicholson in Spend, Spend, Spend in 1999 won her another.

“I was always more Brecht than Broadway. I understood the characters, Mrs Johnstone and Viv Nicholson. They were powerful, morality tales. I loved doing them.”

Stage work led to TV and ITV’s prostitute drama Band Of Gold and playing an off-the-rails folk singer in Taggart. Gongs include an OBE in 2002 for services to music and drama, an honorary doctorate of music from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, The Pride of Scotland Award at the Scottish Music Awards, and, of course, the Tartan Clef.

Being a child of the 1960s Scottish folk revival, it is no surprise her new album, Winter, which features 11 new tracks including one by Abba’s Benny Andersson, and reinterpretations of her back catalogue, is a return to her folky roots.

Music was where Dickson made some of her firmest friendships, and since Gerry Rafferty died in 2011, she has made two tribute albums with Troy Donockley of his songs.

“I still sing them. I want to keep the flame of his brilliance alive. Every time I sing a song of his I offer it up to him. He’s keeping an eye on me. He was lovely, extremely complex, very intelligent, irreverent and funny – ask Billy Connolly about what he used to get up to – and incredibly spiritual, religious in the true sense of the word. He never lost his beliefs.

“When he died there was a huge requiem mass. Billy couldn’t come, then later said, ‘I’m awfully glad, really, that I didn’t come. I would probably have started greeting and made a fool of myself’. We were all greeting. I’m so sad he went when he did. He went too early, because if you look at Rab Noakes and me, we did a tour this summer of 22 dates. But for Gerry, life got in the way. It’s just the way you are. You can’t save people,” she sighs.

As for Connolly, the pair are still close. “Billy is a dear person and I love him to bits. I love the fact he’s really grounded and kind and that he’s a massive star but has never lost his reality or personality. Rab is lovely. And Gerry was. I loved Jack Bruce too.”

Barbara’s gang seems to include a list of Seventies Scottish giants whose undoubted musical talents also came with a gift for raising hell, but Dickson held her own.

“I was always a tomboy. The only girl that played guitar, and I have always worked with blokes. I always say I’m a bloke in a frock. I just don’t like stretch limos and Malibu. I’d rather have a pint of beer.”

Is she a feminist?

“You betcha. I like women like Germaine Greer, she’s a proper girl. I’m a proper girl. I’m Barbara Dickson but also Mrs Barbara Cookson. I have a really good husband, 30 years in August. I’ve done very well there. We spent a lot of time apart so when we met we had lots to say. We still have time apart,” she says.

Today the Dickson posse includes her TV producer husband Oliver, whom she met on Blood Brothers, and three sons, Colm, Gabriel and Archie, who range from 24 to 28. Now Barbara and her husband are thinking about moving back to Scotland.

“I have wanted to come back for a long time, but it’s softly, softly, catchy monkey with husbands. You have to plant a germ of an idea and wait,” she says.

Next to her on the sofa, Oliver smiles a cheeky monkey smile, his moustache lifting at the sides. It’s the smile of a man who enjoys being caught.

“Lincolnshire has never been our permanent home, and we’ve lived in the countryside long enough. We have a connection with Edinburgh. And a lot of the music I sing relates to being in Scotland, and I have family and friends here. It’s not a romantic notion, it’s something to do with age and connections.”

She has passed on her love of music to her boys. “My sons are all musical because there was always music in the house. The eldest is a songwriter and plays guitar, my middle son has a great voice and does John Martyn songs, and my youngest is a drummer. They’re all lovely blokes.”

Are they proud of her?

“I don’t know. I’ve never asked them. Because I came from a needy mother I have never been like that myself. I was more like my dad, reading the room. But I look like my mother. And she sang too.”

But not in church. While Mrs Dickson encouraged her children to go to Sunday school, where Barbara played piano, she enjoyed the peace of a Sunday morning at home.

“She always said you don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian,” says Barbara.

Dickson enjoyed the experience however, and her strongly held faith is deeply intertwined with music. She later swapped her Sunday school Presbyterianism for Catholicism.

“I think I was always a closet Catholic. I used to go in and smell the candles and when I moved to Edinburgh as a teenager, it wasn’t a giant’s leap for me. My husband is a Catholic and when I met him he was keen for us to be married in a Catholic church, and I became a Catholic around that time.

“I go to mass every Sunday. I’m old-fashioned, like the old hymns, the old liturgy, I’m not happy-clappy. The Reformation never happened for me. I’m still in 1400. I don’t want it made so accessible that you miss the mystery.”

Dickson’s spirituality is one of the things that comes across in her 2009 autobiography, A Shirtbox Full Of Songs, but it’s also full of music and memories. Looking back, what’s been the highlight?

“I don’t like that because it implies it’s something like I Know Him So Well, and being in Blood Brothers, and that gives you no hope for the future, and your career. I’m not in the nostalgia business, I look forward. But what’s next? I don’t know, it hasn’t happened yet. A duet with James Taylor? To visit Australia? Who knows?”

More songwriting perhaps?

“I struggle with songwriting, but I do it all the time. I keep a notebook with me, look…” She reaches for her bag, a smart Mulberry affair, and is seized by an idea.

“We should do that magazine thing where we see what’s in it. I like reading those. Tells you all kinds of things.”

OK. Dickson proceeds to rummage through her handbag, retrieving items, holding them aloft and describing them, Generation Game-style.

“A plastic mac from Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, a shopping bag, folded up, tissues, cheque book, the notebook for songwriting, a purse, wet wipes…”

She pauses. “I know it’s anal to have all this stuff, but …”

She delves in again.

“Wallet, sunglasses, rosary (wooden), matches for lighting candles in church. Have to be Scottish Bluebell because I like the design of the box, a sewing kit, tape measure, chewing gum, a throat sweet…”

By this stage I’m expecting the cuddly toy, as she scrabbles at the very bottom of the Mulberry Tardis.

“...a propelling pencil, an emery board, pens.... Well, I’m the mother of three children; you have to carry all that kit.”

Children who are now all in their twenties…

She laughs. “Well, you never know.”

So if you see Barbara Dickson treading the cobbles of the capital and need to borrow a tape measure, plastic mac, tissue or song lyric, just stop her and ask.

• Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy in Scotland ( Barbara Dickson, Winter, £10.99

Barbara Dickson plays Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, 21 February, 01592 611101; Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 24 February, 0141-353 8000; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 25 February, 0131-668 2019; Perth Concert Hall, 26 February, 01738 621031. Tickets range in price from £24-£30,