Barbara Dickson: 'I think the new songs reveal things that will go across the footlights and mean something'

Having tapped into a fresh creative well during the pandemic, Barbara Dickson is eager for the momentum to continue into 2022, writes Fiona Shepherd

Barbara Dickson

Over the past two years, comfort zones have been blasted out the water and even those who could declare that they have had a “good” pandemic have done so by embracing change. Barbara Dickson surprised herself by taking up running every day in the green space close to her Edinburgh home.

“I’ve never been a physical exercise person,” says the Dunfermline-born singer. “I’m much more happy sitting telling stories and being in company than doing all that. But I have discovered the joy of it at my age and as long as I can do it I will. I find it clears my head. I tend to bubble over quite a lot. I’ve got a very fertile imagination and I can get upset by things. I haven’t felt like that. When I’m running I can think about things I want to do, I can say my prayers if I want to do that.”

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“But I’m not preachy,” she adds. “If someone wants to sit and have a Toblerone on the sofa, that’s fair enough. But for me it really worked, and it made this creative stuff much easier. I concentrated more, I didn’t sleep so long and I wasn’t so anxious.”

Barbara Dickson at the STV Gateway studios in Edinburgh in June 1972

“This creative stuff” is a batch of new original songs, the first Dickson has written in some time, which made their way on to her latest album, Time Is Going Faster – including the title track, which she previewed for the Scotsman Sessions in summer 2020.

“I have always seen myself as a singer/musician,” says Dickson. “I’ve never described myself as a singer/songwriter because I had no confidence in my songs. I always thought that they sounded contrived – and they were contrived to some extent because management and record companies would say ‘you should write your own songs’. I did try, but I wasn’t really a natural writer. I’ve always been able to write tunes, the tunes look after themselves, but I’ve always been afraid of lyrics. I could write stuff but it didn’t mean anything to me. They didn’t feel like my children.

“However, a light went on for this album and I wrote the best work I have ever written during the pandemic. You’d never have heard me say that about my own songs in the past. I always thought if I can’t write songs like Randy Newman, I don’t want to write songs at all. So I have actually improved my attitude to that sort of thing during the desperate time of the lockdown, and now I think I reveal things that will go across the footlights and will mean something.”

“Songs have lives of their own,” she continues. “This has happened to me with the Caravan Song – if I didn’t sing that song in my set, I’d be murdered! It has an anthemic quality, something about the words that people identify with, and if that happens with one more song in my whole life I will be very happy because I’ve created something that other people have identified with.”

Barbara Dickson performing her Scotsman Session at home in 2020

For Dickson – whether running or rekindling a love of songwriting – the desire to keep moving is strong, and is the creative impetus behind her varied career, which takes in folk roots in the Sixties, pop hits in the Seventies and Eighties, and musical theatre awards in the Nineties and Noughties.

Although some of her greatest commercial and critical success came via musical theatre connections – not least I Know Him So Well, her chart topping duet with Elaine Paige – Dickson has pivoted back to the former in her more recent choice of material, researching and recording The Ballad of the Speaking Heart for Time Is Going Faster. Dickson remains an enthusiastic witness to the Scottish folk scene which formed her, not least in celebrating the music of her peer Gerry Rafferty (“a gorgeous musician from the get-go”) and fondly recalling the gatherings in the back snug of legendary Edinburgh folk pub, Sandy Bell’s.

“We just stood at the back and sang,” says Dickson. “There was nobody sitting around the room playing the fiddle, unless Aly Bain was there and we’d made space for him. So it was instinctive – you got your pint, you stood with your friends and suddenly someone would start singing. That is second nature. It’s to do with the joy of sharing this experience and also the prospect that other people will join in.”

Now that her own songs are flowing, Dickson is cautiously relishing the prospect of sharing them with an audience. When proposed dates early in 2021 were cancelled, she promoted the release of Time Is Going Faster with a live-streamed concert in Glasgow’s Oran Mor, accompanied by her right-hand musician Nick Holland and multi-instrumentalist son Archie.

She and Holland were then able to head out on a short run of stripped-back shows in the autumn. “It was palpable how pleased people were to be out and in the same room,” she says. “I took my hankie out my pocket at one point and said ‘do you know what this is? It’s a hankie cos I might start greeting’.”

A full concert tour is booked for spring 2022 and at the time of our conversation was still “full steam ahead”. Understandably Dickson, having tapped into a fresh creative well during the pandemic, is eager for the momentum to continue. “I feel slightly musically constipated and I just need to get out and move on,” she says of the ongoing uncertainty affecting live performance. “When you start singing, it’s like cleaning your teeth, it’s there all the time in your life.”

Barbara Dickson plays Perth Concert Hall, 27 March, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 30 March and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 31 March 31. Time Is Going Faster is out now on Chariot Records

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