On the eve of her November tour, Eddi Reader gives Folk Radio UK exclusive insight into her new album, Vagabond, due to be released by Reveal Records on February 3rd 2014. We also première the video for the single Baby’s Boat.
Once again recorded in Eddi’s Glasgow hometown with Mark Freegard, the album features familiar, friends and collaborators and a few new faces, handpicked for what they can bring to Eddi’s music. They include many of her long-term musical collaborators, John Douglas (Trashcan Sinatras), Alan Kelly, Ian Carr, Ewen Vernal, Roy Dodds (Fairground Attraction), John McCusker and Boo Hewerdine, but also multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren and pianist Steve Hamilton.
Amongst the 14 sublime tracks, there are several new songs written with her partner John Douglas and regular co-writer Boo Hewerdine, but also two songs from the tradition, which celebrate Eddi’s Scottish roots. This is Eddi’s first new recording since 2009’s Love Is The Way and it seems the cork is well and truly out of the songwriting bottle, resulting in a wealth of new material to choose from. Eddi’s introduction sets the scene and bellow she talks exclusive and in more detail to Folk Radio UK about the creative process in the making of Vagabond…
“I have been on a journey with this set of recordings. Two years ago, I began writing and playing with ideas on John’s new piano. Well, I say “new” – it’s a second-hand, small Zender piano. I’d never heard of that make, but when we got it tuned, the fella said that they use this kind of piano to train the piano tuning students. Often, if they got bad marks, the saying goes that they had to ‘return to Zender’. After I kicked him out of my house for that terrible joke, I sat down and began falling for its sweet tone and I attempted to learn my way around it. The guys in the Edinburgh music shop who sold it to me told me that Tom Waits had been in the shop earlier and sat playing on it for a half hour then bought another one. Mr Waits was playing Edinburgh that night, so it seemed plausible. It’s a lovely piano nonetheless. It took me all the winter of that year to become acquainted with the idea that I was writing and that I should start recording. I did, but only the odd day here and there. 2012 was a wonderful and weird one. John and I got married on 8 June. With that we are both blissful, but in other things we were challenged. John developed an incurable illness and we were distracted by health issues and family troubles. I took a while to steady my feet about all of that. Then by the end of the year, I knew I needed to pull the fellas together and try recording live – if only to bring myself back to land. The good news is John is walking the road to recovery and will get better. No fear or doubt! Buíochas le Dia! The recording sessions progressed throughout January 2013, (it’s the best time to grab everyone as most are at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival) and they were amazing. We all squeezed into Mark Freegard’s Kyoti studio with Roy Dodds (drums) and Ewen Vernal (double bass) creating an engine for Boo Hewerdine’s steady rhythms (guitar) to steer through the songs with me (singing) sometimes playing guitar or piano, Ian Carr (guitar) soloing and Alan Kelly (accordion) floating in and out of everything. I recorded around 26 songs and had to choose 12 as 26 won’t fit on a CD. This new album was supposed to be 12 songs that flowed well together but I couldn’t bear to leave some off. So I got John to choose. When I protested he would say, “Those songs are on the next record”. We compromised on 14.”
Video Premiere: Baby’s Boat
You’ve produced yourself again, Mark Freegard at the controls. Is it like getting the gang back together? It’s clearly something that worked for you with Love Is The Way, what did you learn from that experience and how has it changed the approach to this record? That album was also done quickly, did you take the same approach with this one?
“I spent more time on my own writing prior to this recording session than the sessions for LITW, Some of the demos for Vagabond were started in 2011!! I was shocked when I noticed how long I was sitting incubating these sounds in my head.
“The desire to pin stuff down always comes with a need to have the musicians in the room playing ‘live” with me, and me singing in some cupboard for some separation if I need to redo vocals or complete the words or vocal expressiveness later. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I’m left with the little ‘accidents’ recorded over the drum overhead mike and I have to ‘leave it’, then finally hear the non-analysed sense of the, so called musical ‘accident’.
“My whole singing life seems to be about learning to accept ‘what God puts in the room’ , if you get my drift. Learning that what’s not perfect is, in itself, perfect. (That song was in my life for a bigger reason than just being a fast number one. It was the start of learning about singing and arrangement on a much deeper level, learning to trust it and myself.”
There’s a neat balance between different approaches to each song and a holistic feel of a complete work. Did you have an end goal in mind before you started or is this something that grows organically? You are surrounded by some very talented musicians, do they chip in with advice? How do you keep the ultimate focus and know when something hits its Goldilocks moment?
“I would play something only I could hear, the fellas have various degrees of ability to ‘let go’. Some get very caught up with construction and others just need to know the key. Most takes I used were the most instant expressions that the players came up with.
“Ian Carr constantly gave up riff upon glorious riff over the original idea.. For example, with Baby’s Boat. Ian’s riff was so familiar to me that when Boo began being inspired on the top I could hear it changing in a direction I didn’t recognise. Not wanting to stop the party I have to pick my moments to ask for it to remain in a plateau place while I sift it around in my head.
“This lead to more ‘accidents’ like Ewen the bass player feeling a little drunken exploration on the piano, later, while we all relaxed listening to what we captured that week, which of course, me and Mark GRABBED on record before he realised he was freely playing…”
If I was going to pick anything out of the sound, it might be an eeeeasy swing! There is something about the way the accordions and what sounds to me like a bass clarinet are used on Midnight In Paris and Baby’s Boat, but it’s there right from the start in I’ll Never Be The Same. Where does this come from? It’s probably been part of your musical makeup over the years, but is perhaps more pronounced here.
“My travelling came through music. Without doubt when those drunken angels at the decades of parties in shipyard-builder-hard-masculine-working-women and men sung I was taken out of Maryhill Glasgow and floated in whatever glamorous Hollywood landscape they painted. I was in awe of that popular songbook. Grandad’s Glasgow pub songs and flapper romance tunes, Al Jolson through to uncle Frank’s Bing Crosby or Gene Kelly, older aunty’s Doris Day to my mum’s sweet Ruby Murray and Peggy Lee, my dad’s rockin’ Elvis and the younger adults with their Beatles posters getting annoyed that the records where shut down to let the older ones sing. I adored it all. It was a right of passage when I was allowed to stay up and lead a song to sing with them when I was very young.”
Is it fair to say that you’ve put yourself, your personal history and identity at the heart of this record? There seems to be family history and to some extent you reassert your Scottish identity too. I know the latter is something that you seem passionate about, but reading the notes and thanks, the former is too. I don’t wish to stir a potentially controversial pot, so feel as free to say as much or as little as you like.
“I came ‘home’ 12 years ago and made a Robert Burns’ album. I’d been away 28yrs and Scottish culture was as distant to me as it would be to someone who’d travelled so far for songs to sing. I had no idea of the politics, some of the in jokes I didn’t get. A lot of those people I loved were leaving this life. I ached for a home that I felt owned me.
“My sons and I managed and I made good friends outside Scotland. But I was imagining a music world were I would not flourish or survive. I thought if I did a cd of songs that came from my culture I would find my way home.
“Bizarrely it worked. I’ve been here, and happy since 2001. Two years ago, by chance, I discovered my great grandfather, Charles Reader (died 1916), sang Robert Burns unaccompanied all over Scotland. And battled with John McLean for decent welfare for unemployed and sick. I now am fully engaged with telling those here who think Scotland’s a good place to put down, how wrong they are.”
I’ve already mentioned the talented guests and Boo and John (with whom you share much of the writing) seem to be your main creative foils.Are most of the guests friends, regular collaborators, etc? Gustaf Ljunggren seems a handy fellow to know. I know he was also involved with State Of The Union.
“It’s the first time recording with Gustaf.. I knew what I wanted to hear but it’s hard to know in advance of hearing someone play, what they might do. I played Married To The Sea to him and he came up with such brilliance.. I sang ‘ ..for each star above me…’ And Gustaf gave me stars in his lap steel.
“I said ‘for Paris I need Sidney Bechet’ so he gave me SB.
Steve Hamilton was another new player.. I got the feeling he was great when I met him at a charity gig.. He was playing standards on the piano. But his chat to me about poker and his winning streak made me think: ‘this guy is for me’. In Never Be The Same I wanted Teddy Wilson so I threw that into his head and out it danced.”
Who is The Vagabond, or what does that mean to you?
“It’s a wee concept of me and how I’ve floated or travelled through my decades and through other decades and centuries using song to take me. My desires and hopes are all wrapped in the opportunity or peace in the moment when concerning music. Music gave me tickets to anywhere I wanted to roam. I suppose reflecting on it I see how the road will never end as long as someone is listening or singing something I recorded, no matter the times to come without my physicality in it.
With some of your previous CDs given a dusting down, this has been quite a year. I really enjoyed them all, although I guess the Burns probably attracts the most acclaim and attention. Is there a sense on Vagabond of you looking back over your life. It seems explicit in Edinah, but also maybe in some of the other song choices and stories? you can always point me in the direction of another tree to bark up!!
“Aye, it’s where I am right now… The rest, or past musical recordings I can’t think about they’ve gone.
“Ed-in-ah, my family call me that, for them it’s my name, but it’s not my name and it strange to be a little singing girl with an original name most can’t pronounce.. SADENIA. It’s supposed to be my grandmothers name, and HER mothers name.. But even that is troublesome as my parents spelt my version slightly wrong. Nowadays all the kids have names that are unpronounceable ;-).. but in the early 1960’s I suppose it embarrassed my mum to say it out loud, so I got this ‘Eh-din-ah’. Only recently fell in love with it.
Becoming an ‘Eddi’ was me reinventing me.
“Edna, or Edinah, talks to the musical outsider child trying to play normal to help everyone else feel comfortable.. It’s a common tyranny, in most families that have a ‘famous’ relative, or a relative that has their mind focus on something not of them, I’ve noticed this. When you need their love you do anything to subdue your out-of-the ordinariness. Sometimes you need a lot of medicine to cope.
‘Another ‘tree to bark up’ is Back The Dogs… I found a cassette from 1985 when I recorded some of my grandmothers conversations.. She was generally ignored by all in the house.. But I loved sitting at her knee while she told me of Tralee her home town..
“We bought an old piano and it gave me a riff.. Which seemed all about her…I can only be open about all the wonderful influences I’ve picked up on.. I just see the humour and poignancy in all.”
Finally as an addendum can you tell me about the tour that upcoming and plans for next year?
“I’m trying to leave Vagabond behind. (I’m still not clear of wanting to tinker with it), but I’m glad to be heading for the road.. Excited about what things will sound like. I can only have the musicians that the gig fees support so this time no drums except on some bigger shows. And I’ll be introducing a fair few of these new songs, also carrying a first pressing of Vagabond with me on the road if audience want to have it. But next year when the records out properly I will try and get the band out again in the spring with Roy Dodds as some will know the material and might want to hear it.”
Interview by: Simon Holland
Eddi Reader November 2013 Tour Dates
1st Manchester RNCM
2nd Cardiff The Gate
3rd Birmingham The Glee Club
5th Bridport Electric Palace
6th Pocklington Arts Centre
7th Holmfirth Picturedome
8th Macclesfield St Michael’s Church
10th Nottingham The Glee Club
11th Milton Keynes The Stables
13th London Union Chapel
14th Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms
16th Stamford Corn Exchange Theatre
17th Bury St Edmunds Milkmaid Folk Arts Apex
18th Bingley Arts Centre
20th Stockton ARC
22nd Montrose Town Hall
23rd Dunfermline Alhambra Theatre
24th Dundee The Gardyne Theatre
26th Aberdeen Music Hall
27th Hamilton Townhouse
29th Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
30th Edinburgh Usher Hall