Interview with Eddi Reader
FT: The new album ‘Cavalier’ is a much fuller sounding album with a bigger band than the last couple. How did that come about?
ER: The last couple of albums, ‘Vagabond’ and ‘Love Is The Way’, were recorded in a much smaller environment, and they are beautiful, but this time I kinda wanted drums and to play with the drums in the room, and just play with the vocals. Sometimes when we’re all playing in the one room, it can create a warmer feeling on the record.
FT: You have a real variety of styles on the album. You have folk, pop, rock, big band numbers, and ballads. Is that why it’s called ‘Cavalier’?
ER: Yes. It a freedom to do that and also the idea of being stuck in one genre has always been a problem. I’ve never really liked people saying, she’s this singer, or she’s that singer. I wanted to lay claim to any genre as a singer, and anything you can do with a voice, and any kind of expressionism you can have as a musician. You don’t have to stick to any form.
There are singers that do stick to those forms and they are great at them. I just didn’t want to be boxed. I didn’t want to be master of none either, just be master of my own self. I want to able to do whatever comes to my mind to do and not worry about anything. This isn’t jazz or this isn’t folk. There’s a freedom here.
FT: Is there a payoff to being such an eclectic artist? You’re covering folk and pop songs and Robbie Burns material. Your hits ‘Patience of Angels’ and ‘Fairground’ could have seen you pigeonholed as a pop star but following albums seemed to deliberately move away from that polished pop sound.
ER: Actually I wasn’t really happy with that polished sound when I was signed to Warner Brothers. With Rough Trade, I had done ‘Mirmama’ and that was quite folky and organic, the way I like it. I had got to use musicians in a live setting but once I signed that deal with Warner Brothers, they wanted to send me to a producer and go to LA.
I felt a bit weak about it. I was pregnant with my second child and I had no band. Number one, they were paying the mortgage, and number two, they were saying you have to do it this way and they were the marketing people. So, I was in a funny place. There was a sense, that We are paying you this so you have to do it like this or we are not going to work for you. They brought in people to reproduce the sound of a piano string being hit by a little hammer on computer instead of just recording a string being hit by a tiny hammer! I loved the songs on that album. They were great but it was overproduced to my ear and then they gave me a Brit Award for fuck sake.
FT: ‘Cavalier’ is very much a melting pot of musical styles. How is that translating to the live stage. Do you have a favourite song on the album?
ER: Well, at the moment, it’s ‘Maiden’s Lament’. Live ‘Meg O’The Glen’ has turned out to be a bit of a favourite and ‘Pangur Ban’, which is based loosely on a bit of the Book of Kells. I find these songs a bit more complex than the poppy ones. I can do them but you need a drummer and you need an electric bass and I’m going around the world with acoustic instruments and so I just have to imagine a lot of the production. That’s okay, you need to be brave but if the song is strong enough, it will come across.
I have a guy Joe Thomas with me and he’s one of the best soundmen in the world but he’s hidden. He worked for Celtic Connections for years and honestly he gets me a sound live. He sends me what he’s giving the audience so I’m sharing everything they are experiencing. I’m not one of these musicians who says I want a bit more of me and nobody else.
FT: You’re a singer and a songwriter but on stage you become an actress as well. Your reenactment of the old family parties in the tenements in Glasgow is a part of the show that the audience really loves.
ER: I think that anybody that sings for a living is essentially a storyteller. You tell stories through song but you also have to be a bit of an actor because you can’t always be breaking your own heart with a divorce you had fifteen years ago. You have to get yourself into that place where you remember and that is a form of acting.
When I’m singing ‘Ay Fond Kiss’, I’m remembering the heartaches that I’ve had as it must have been for Robert Burns when the lassie he loved left and it’s over. That stuff is universal, isn’t it? It’s a human condition and so if there’s gonna be one of me feeling that, there’s gonna be at a percentage of the audience that get me and be there with me so they’re doing their own acting too in a way.
FT: What are your thoughts on recent news coming from a seemingly misogynist industry?
ER: Well is this really new? I’ve seen misogyny in this industry for 40 years. You know, from musicians saying “aye, that’s pretty good for a girl”, to lassies that were knocked back. I think it’s much better than it’s ever been. I did a Don Martin concert the other day. It was a tribute to him as he was a big old mate of mine. You’re never gonna change his misogyny. He’s been raised as a product of the 70s and the folk scene in the 60s so, you know, I forgive a lot of it.
We need to teach our girls and our boys that just because someone is rich, they are no better or worse than anyone else. Unless we teach that, we are always gonna get people using and abusing a powerful situation. You are always gonna get people that will promise you the moon and it’s all “magic beans”.
I would definitely punish people that have done something wrong but I’m into making sure that they get repaired, do you know what I mean?Repairing them is what we need because we want to be walking down safe streets. We don’t want people that are damaged walking down our streets.
FT: Can I ask about the singers you looked up growing up?
ER: It was really my mum and all the women who sang at parties and went through the American songbook. When I moved onto folk clubs, it was people like Heather Haywood that I loved, and of course, Barbara Dickson. She was the only woman with an acoustic guitar that was walking about folk clubs. There was your misogyny back then. We only had one lassie.
There were all lassie singers in front of a folk band, but then you had people like Bonnie Rait with a guitar playing skill as well. I got a guitar when I was ten years old so I was always attracted to females who could do that. Someone like Joanna Carlin singing at the Cambridge Folk Festival, I was just blown away. A single woman alone with a guitar and a can of McEwan’s best. She was guzzling from the can and singing these amazing songs. I thought, yeah that’s it!
FT: Next for Eddi Reader is a book about your Grandfather?
ER: I’m transcribing his diaries, which are all about the revolutionary times of the 1900s but I’m also trying to write a book about me coming to it and maybe my own journey as a singing girl. I do think there are interesting stories there. Whether it goes anywhere is not up to me but there are stories to tell.
It’s my great uncle who was a musician who loved the music of Ireland, and he connected the Scots and the Irish music. It wasn’t such a religious, catholic/protestant thing then. There was no deep division about the music that there is now. My uncle’s diaries give hope that there’s a time ahead when we can again love each other’s culture.