Jane McDonald on her Scottish roots
By ‘eck you’re really hitting me with them today,” says Jane McDonald, when I ask her how she might vote in the independence referendum if her family had never left Scotland for Wakefield. We’ve already covered spiritualism, and the fact her granny was a mainstay of the spiritualist church in Dundee, but that’s another topic she’s slightly nervous about discussing.
“Hey, I’ve got a tour and an album going on,” she laughs, reminding me we’re here to discuss the 40 dates that will see her singing her mix of lounge pop standards and powerhouse ballads to fans aged “nine to 90” from Aberdeen to Truro and everywhere in between.
It’s not that McDonald is reticent about current affairs; during her ten-year reign as one of ITV’s Loose Women from 2004 to January this year, everything was up for grabs with McDonald and her fellow feisty female panellists Carol McGiffin, Coleen Nolan, Denise Welch, Sherrie Hewson and crew. Literally in the case of some of the male guests.
“Yes, they were all petrified. They knew what they were in for,” she sniggers.
Since its launch in 1999, Loose Women has become something of a legend in its own lunchtime. At its height, audiences topped two million, tuning in to watch a bunch of strong women with opinions discussing the topics of the day and interviewing celebrities. However, with recent ratings plunging to 700,000 there is talk of axing presenters and revamps, with Liza Maxwell quitting last week and Carol Vorderman’s bandage dresses reported to be on a shoogly peg.
“The best thing about it was the other women. We were all very feisty and damaged in some way – you have to have credentials to be a Loose Woman. We were really good friends and used to go out socialising after the show,” she says.
“When Carol McGiffin left it didn’t feel the same,” says McDonald. “She was such good fun and said it like it was. I’m still in touch with her. I love them all and had the best ten years on that show, but over the last few it’s been having a transformation. It’s got a new flavour now and quite rightly so.”
McDonald is keen to emphasise that the decision to leave was hers, prompted by her passion for singing. “Loose Women didn’t axe me,” she says. “I had started planning the tour and album and Loose Women saw my list of 40 dates. I wanted to back out and focus on my music career. I’d never given it up, but TV had taken over and I didn’t want to look back later and regret not having done more with my voice. ITV have been fantastic and I still have a good relationship with them, but I probably won’t be back on Loose Women,” says the 51-year-old, who celebrated her birthday yesterday.
Loose Women wasn’t all chat about men and the menopause. On the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, it fell to McDonald to inject a dignified note of realism born of her own experience.
McDonald’s father, Peter, was a miner, one of Thatcher’s “enemy within”. He worked in the Yorkshire coal fields and her memories of the miners’ strike and the effect it had on her own family and community prompted her to balance some of the more hagiographic tendencies of the metropolitan media coverage that day.
“On a day like that we reflect, and I remembered what it was like in the north. It was a very southern panel that day. I thought, hang on a minute, that’s not my memory, and put my penn’orth in.
“Like everyone else my dad was on strike. It was a devastating time for the whole nation and I remember back then thinking ‘this has hit everyone’. It wasn’t just the miners. It was a knock-on effect, it was every job around them. If the workman is working everybody is rich, but he wasn’t. I saw communities die because the backbone was ripped out of them.”
Peter McDonald was originally from Fife while the singer’s mother, Jean Ferguson, hailed from Coatbridge, so McDonald counts herself Scottish, despite being born in the family home in Wakefield, where she still lives.
“I’m the only one of the family born in Yorkshire. My aunt came down first with her husband and told my mum there was plenty of work in Wakefield. My dad was going to go to Australia, but mum said no, we’ll go to Wakefield.
“I have no idea about the referendum,” she says. “I don’t want to lose Scotland because I’m Scottish and for me it’s a personal thing, but I totally understand people who do want to be separate. I’m on the fence on this one.”
Not a place where you’ll often find McDonald, who has never been shy about giving her opinion, but she does it with warmth and a laugh, plenty of “By ‘ecks” and “you what, love?”s.
“When I was on Loose Women I never thought you have to keep it light. I had my own view. It sounds daft, but I forgot that there were cameras there because I got very heated in discussions.”
McDonald’s tough-mindedness was forged in the crucible of her close-knit family. “Mine is a real working class background and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that. It teaches you good rules, like get off your backside if you want anything! I’m a woman who left school at 16, wanted to get out and work and earn my own money. I wanted a car when I was 18 but my mum and dad couldn’t afford the insurance, so I had three jobs. My dad said, you can do anything you want, but you have to work for it.”
McDonald’s father knew about hard work. Not only a miner, he was also a chimney sweep, while her mother ran a boarding house. When the teenage McDonald hit the clubs her father became her roadie, driving her to working men’s clubs where she sang.
“I’d always sung along to the radio, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and started in an accordion band. But I played that badly, so I got up and sang instead. I sat on my speakers in the back of my dad’s van, a rickety old Toyota covered in rust – he said we’ll have this one because no-one will break into it – driving for miles and hours up and down the M60 and M62. We did that for 15 years. It was great and we both loved it. That’s where the passion comes from,” she says.
McDonald’s dad came in handy as human shield too, when things got rough or over-friendly in the clubs and pubs.
“That’s why I never had boyfriends for ages. My dad was always there,” she laughs.
But McDonald junior also had her own secret weapons – a mouth and a microphone, and she wasn’t afraid to use them.
“If a fight breaks out and you’re on stage, well, you’re the one with the microphone. You say, ‘what’s going on here? Can we have a bit of respect?’ And humour can defuse so many things. It always got me out of trouble in the clubs.”
Sadly, McDonald’s father didn’t live to see his daughter become a household name.
“He had taken retirement because of injury. His heart gave up in the end and his lungs were so full that he just couldn’t sustain it. I spent a lot of time with him when we were on the road and I’m glad about that.”
From the clubs and pubs, McDonald landed work as a singer on cruise ships, and after a star turn on the BBC docusoap The Cruise she became a celebrity overnight at 35.
“When I was on the cruise ships, that was success for me. I was travelling the world, with a brilliant orchestra, costumes. That’s why I got a bit angry with Gary Barlow [McDonald called in to The X-Factor to object when Barlow described one of the acts as sounding “like a cruise ship singer”]. The whole industry has a downer on cruise ship singing, but they’re the people that work full-time, the professionals. Most X-Factor people wouldn’t get through a cruise ship audition!”
It was on board that she met ship’s engineer Henrik Brixen and their 1998 Caribbean wedding drew a Cruise TV special audience of 13 million viewers – match that, The Voice. With Brixen as business manager, her career took off with a recording contract, a platinum-selling album and peak-time Saturday night entertainment show that led to more TV work. When Brixen left in 2002 and the marriage ended, McDonald was devastated and lost her confidence for several months.
“I’ll never say anything bad against him,” she says. “He taught me about business. He came into my life for a reason and you can’t regret it. He lives in the States now but I don’t know where he is. I wish him well.“
McDonald bounced back after her mother told her to “get off her backside”. More albums, tours and then Loose Women gave her a new lease of life. She is still close to her big sister Janet and brother Tony and visits her 83-year-old mother every Sunday for dinner. “She lives five minutes down the road so I see her a lot. I lived with her until I was 45. Forty-five!”
It’s from her mother that McDonald gets her metaphysical bent; both she and McDonald’s grandmother were Christian Spiritualists. But the singer says they encouraged her to find her own beliefs. “They said, go off and find your own religion. I looked into everything and have taken the best bits of them all.”
But does she believe in spiritualism?
The straight-talking McDonald is suddenly hesitant. “I don’t want to talk about it because people don’t know what to think about you then. I’m open-minded and couldn’t be the artist I am if I wasn’t. I’d just say I’m a lover of people and think everyone is on their own path. I’m a believer in fate.”
Some might say it was fate that led McDonald back to the boyfriend she loved and lost when she was 19 and with whom she now lives. Walter, stage name Eddie, Rothe was a 28-year-old drummer with Liquid Gold and number two in the charts with Dance Yourself Dizzy back in 1980, when they played a nightclub in Wakefield and barmaid Jane caught his eye.
“We went out for a year to 18 months, but we were so busy... We both got married to other people, in the same week, which is weird, and then divorced. Then in 2008 I was in make-up for Loose Women, looked up and saw him on the monitor about to do This Morning with his band, The Searchers. The make-up woman said go and say hello, so I did, and he’d just got divorced.
“It was like we’d never stopped. We just took up where we left off. Twenty seven years on I look at him and he’s exactly the same person. He’s a beautiful man. He has a heart as big as anything, and he’s beautiful to look at too,” she says. You can check recent pictures of the couple in the Caribbean if you wish to judge for yourselves. “I nearly died when I saw those!” she shouts. “I thought, blimey, we’re in the middle of nowhere, nobody knew we were there, how did they get those? I never court it,” she says. “Especially when I’m in a bikini!”
This time round, the couple won’t let work get in the way of their relationship, so Rothe gave up his 250-gigs-a-year life and settled down with McDonald in Wakefield.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to lose you a second time, something’s got to give. So he retired, and now he lives the life of Reilly! Actually, he’s with me and it makes such a difference. Jane McDonald Ltd is a 24/7 operation.”
Jane McDonald Ltd has been flat out with organising the tour, writing songs, producing the show, designing the costumes, the set and deciding on the playlist.
“I’m really looking forward to coming to Scotland – all the Fergusons will be there in Perth, so it’ll be a right knees-up. If you love your job you will carry on doing it no matter what,” she says.
“I still don’t think I’m a success. All I am is a jobbing artist. It’s all about the next job with me. That’s what’s kept me grounded in these days of fickle fame.”
Jane McDonald plays the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Monday, Perth Concert Hall on Tuesday and Aberdeen Music Hall on Wednesday, tickets from £22; The Singer of Your Song, £14, is out now; www.jane-mcdonald.com