SITTING BY a river in the south of France on a windy day in 1980, as November and the dark and cold drew in, Eddi Reader made a decision that would change the course of her life, and define it over the next 40 years.
“I remember making a decision to do something with this ability I had with my voice, this love of music, this love of storytelling, this love of singing,” Eddi tells me, looking back on that day, during our Monday afternoon interview. “I’d played the folk festivals and had little bands, I’d worked with farmers, and busked in the south of France, and it was getting on to be November and the winds were howling. I wanted to get back home and see what happened.”
And what a choice it turned out to be, not only for her, but for anyone who loves music. By the end of the decade, Eddi would be No 1 with Fairground Attraction; by the 1990s she had established herself as a major contemporary folk artist; and in the years since she has become an MBE, a three time BRIT award winner; and a position as perhaps Scotland’s greatest living female vocalist.
Eddi Reader. Photo:- Genevieve-Stevenson
Eddi is marking that 40 year milestone - or rather, as she points out, marking that decision made by a French riverbank - with her '40 Years Live' concert tour which begins in the Town Hall Theatre Galway on Wednesday March 23 at 8pm.
“Coming home forty years ago, that’s what I want to celebrate, as I made a decision that has served me well,” she says. “It’s been forty years of following my instincts, but I’ve always had that feeling that nothing could stop me.”
From Kilmarnock to Gang of Four
Of course, Eddi had to start somewhere, and it turned out to be Kilmarnock in East Ayrshire, almost 25 miles south of Glasgow, among a community of like-minded musicians.
“When I left Scotland it was the height of punk,” she says. “When I came back, ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ was No. 1. I didn’t relate to any of that. I was into Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Loudin Wainwright, but that folk element had died a death in the UK, and everything was geared towards ‘making it’.
“I was asking ‘Where was the art of enjoying it and creating something?’ In Kilmarnock, I found a community of writers, poets, guitarists, and keyboard players who loved Steely Dan and David Bowie, and were very musical. They showed me the ropes and helped me with my harmony work, and gave me confidence with my singing. I was told I sounded like Joni Mitchell, but they didn’t mean that as a compliment. I’d say, ‘What’s wrong with Joni Mitchell?’ They taught me to sing in my own voice, with my own accent.”
Eddi got her start on backing vocals with the English Marxist post-punk band Gang of Four, and working with them turned out to be another decision with lasting, positive, consequences.
“I saw an advert in the music press,” she recalls. “The ads were in the back pages, and it had a black border around it and was more than two lines, so you knew a record company had placed it. One was for Shack Attack, the other was for Gang of Four, and thank God I got Gang of Four, that was more my sensibility. If I’d got Shack Attack I would have just been singing to order and probably remained doing backing vocals.
“I toured America with Gang of Four, that was my first time going there, then I did the Sweet Dreams tour with the Eurythmics, and after that Alyson Moyet’s tour. I was earning triple what my dad earned as a welder, and he was a hard working man. I was embarrassed by that.”
‘It’s got to be perfect’
By the end of the 1980s, Eddi was looking to step towards the front of the stage, and was seeking songwriters to work with. “I was trying to find my way. I was collecting songs, thinking I could be an Edith Piaf, having songs and trying to write a few of my own,” she says.
She had begun working with a songwriter called Mark Nevin and he was about to pen the tune that would change their lives.
“I was just back from a tour with Alyson Moyet and Mark had all these songs,” says Eddi. “His songs were so consistent and beautiful and sad. They were about lost love and heartbreak and prostitutes gettig murtdered by their pimps, and they were in waltz time, I love waltz time, and then he came up with ‘Perfect’. ‘It might be nonsense,’ he said, and that was different coming from Mark, who is always very confident about his songs. I thought it was great, it would cheer everybody up at the end of the night after I singing about being murdered for the 15th time.
“I had money from the record company from doing the tours, so I paid for us to record it, and we got together with Simon Edwards and Roy Dodds, Roy was playing the drums with brushes, and that was unusual at the time, as everything was keyboards and computers.
“RCA picked us up, Mark insisted it was a band, and I suggested we name it after a line in one of his songs. I liked the idea of it being a fairground attraction - you could pass us by, or put your money in the slot and see what happens. The album, First Of A Million Kisses went triple platinum in the UK alone, and ‘Perfect’ was No 1 in about 20 countries
“If you love what you are doing, others will feel that. That’s why it was no surprise to me when ‘Perfect’ became a big hit, because to me it was a hit when I first heard it. That song set Mark up for life in terms of publishing, and it set me up for life in being able to tour and play. It’s been a good song to me.”
Sing an Irish song
Eddi’s solo career is a distinguished one. Her second solo album, Eddi Reader (1994 ), went to No 4 in Britain; 2003’s The Songs of Robert Burns won wide acclaim, and in 2006 she was awarded an MBE; between 2007 and 2013 she was awarded honorary degrees for her contribution to music by four separate Scottish universities; and she continues to enjoy critical acclaim, with Folk Radio UK saying of 2018’s Cavalier album: “Eddi Reader’s talent as a singer, arranger, and writer has never diminished, her music shines bright as ever.”
Covid put a halt to touring in 2020, and while initially Eddi found being at home a relaxing change, the prolonged nature of the pandemic eventually took a toll, but it was an Irish song that reignited her musical enthusiasm.
Eddi Reader. Photo:- Genevieve-Stevenson
“I was wandering around, feeling old, and feeling like it was the end,” she says. “I was feeling a bit despondent. Then I found my great-grandfather's collected works of Thomas Moore. He was a parlour singer and had these lyrics and music, and that song, ‘Do Not Say That Life Is Waining’ just fell out, and there was that line, ‘Do not say that life is waning, Or that hope's sweet day is set; While I've thee and love remaining, Life is in the horizon yet’. For me it was ‘Wow’, I felt like I was getting a message from my ancestor. Life and light are on the horizon. I think it’s all meant to be, and so I just went with it.”
Eddi did an arrangement for the song and recorded it. It was then suggested that, instead of recording a new album, she should look through her unreleased material and build an album from that - a move that also served Led Zeppelin well on Physical Graffiti and the Stones well on Tattoo You. The result is Light Is In The Horizon, Eddi’s 12th studio album.
Eddi Reader. Photo:- Genevieve-Stevenson
“Alan Kelly, who plays accordion for me, reminded me I had recorded a jazz version of ‘Fools Rush In’,” says Eddi. “I found a song, “Auld House’, which I had written about moving home and so many of the lines in it proved prophetic about my own life, so we recorded that. There was also Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Mary Skeffington’ which my son, Charlie, sings vocals on, and there was Michael Marra’s ‘Here Come The Weak’, which is about the people taking over from the selfish and the insane, who push us towards war and division, and how we can be the voice of love and good. We see a lot of evil things in the world, so we have to hold onto the beauty that is there too.”
Tickets for Eddi Reader in Galway are available from the Town Hall (091 - 569777 ). Light Is In The Horizon will be available at the show and is also available via https://eddireader.co.uk