Eddi Reader, one of popular music’s most thrilling and affecting performers, returns to the Town Hall Theatre next month. Having first hit the limelight in the 1980s with Fairground Attraction, Reader’s subsequent solo albums, most recently 2014’s warm and deeply personal Vagabond, have cemented her image as a powerful figure in British music with beautifully raw vocals and an unparalleled romanticism.
It is fitting Reader should be playing here in the year of the 1916 Rising centenary, and as it turns out she has a personal link to that seismic event; her great-uncle Seamus Reader was involved in the preparations and met some of the leading figures.
“I didn’t know the extent of his involvement until three years ago when I found hundreds of his files and diaries which were about to be thrown in the skip,” she tells me over an afternoon phonecall. “They’re full of information about things historians weren’t previously sure of. He wrote about John Maclean’s involvement in trying to get Glasgow workers better pay and offers proof that James Connolly and Maclean were closely connected. During the Dublin Lockout my uncle was sent over from Glasgow, aged 15, with £9, collected by Fianna Alba, to give to Countess Markievicz for the striking workers. He also became involved with delivering munitions to Ireland. Maclean’s miners were enlisted to help the Irish cause by filling their lunchboxes with detonators that my great-uncle then took to Ireland.
“There are lots of beautiful scenes in this story. He writes about getting on a carriage in Glasgow Central en route to Ireland with detonators packed in one cigarette box and he had another box full of Fianna badges. The police stopped him and opened his suitcase and picked out the box with the badges, they looked at it and left it down. Seamus then distracted them by arguing and he swapped the boxes as he did so. So the detective ended up searching the box with the badges a second time and my uncle got away with the detonators.”
Reader has immersed herself in her great-uncle’s papers and is planning on bringing out a book about the story. “I’m hoping it will come out as a book but I have no idea when,” she says. “I thought it would all be quick and easy but it’s turned out to be three years of my life. What will hopefully be published this year is my own take on it and scenes in my own life, for example me playing Vicar Street on the very same date in 2015 that my great-uncle, in 1915, was walking through Dublin with a haversack of explosives to James Connolly in Surrey House in Rathmines.”
'Our community politics was always left wing'
With a Republican activist among her forebears, was Scottish nationalism part of Eddi’s own family upbringing? “Not at all,” she replies. “We’re Glaswegian so we were industrial, my dad was a shipyard worker, so was my granddad. My mother had an Irish Catholic mother and a Protestant father and he ‘turned’ for her. What we have is a community and our community politics was always left wing. A lot of the Scottish culture I got was when I went to folk clubs when I was 18, I loved the folk scene in Scotland when I first started out, it gave me confidence in what I did and it also taught me a lot of things about my own culture. My mum and dad were into pop culture, they were Elvis fans.”
Eddi goes on to list some of the songs that were staples of the Reader household when she was growing up; “You had to be a singer in my grandma Reader’s house, everyone was judged on their singing,” she recalls fondly. “Auntie Mary would sing ‘Because of You’ or ‘It’s Magic’, my mother would sing ‘Friendly Persuasion’ and Peggy Lee’s ‘Mr Wonderful’.
"Sometimes my mum and dad would sing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’. Dad would always sing ‘Let’s Have a Party’ by Elvis, or ‘Teddy Bear’. Uncle Frank would sing ‘Birth of the Blues’, and Uncle Matt would sing ‘Little Ole Wine Drinker Me’. ‘You Made Me Love You’ was one that everyone sang along to. I remember being very young and hearing that, it was so thrilling hearing a chorus of voices sing that in a two-bedroom Maryhill flat around a coal fire, it was full of swing and love and everybody was happy.”
In Galway, Eddi will be performing with her husband John Douglas and Boo Hewerdine on guitars, Alan Kelly on piano accordion, and Kevin McGuire on double bass. Boo Hewerdine is her long-time writing partner and I ask how they hooked up.
“When Fairground Attraction broke up I was incredibly beaten with insecurity about my own song-writing,” she begins, candidly. “At the end of Fairground Attraction there was a lot of snippiness about who was allowed to write and who wasn’t and that made me feel insecure about what I had to contribute.
"People think everything should go smoothly once you get success but once you get it the pressure is on, these other people who think they created your success tell you ‘without this money you won’t be able to do this or that’ so it gets taken out of your hands and I was very scared about that. Then the writer left, taking his songs with him and suddenly I was bereft. I had no songs, no confidence in my own ability. Also I had a new family so I was in a terrible place and I didn’t know what to do.
"I went to a gig and saw Boo Hewerdine singing songs that were from my heart, one was called ‘Divorce’ and it was about that very thing of deciding to invest in something and people only using it to throw it away in the end. I immediately got his number and he was producing an album in Dublin and he wanted a singer and I said ‘I love that man, I’m gonna come over’ so I went over and me and him started writing immediately. I started playing guitar and he was standing beside me playing his guitar, then he started humming tunes which he does even now today, that was about 1990. Not once did he ever make me feel not good enough and that was really important.”
Hear my song
As an added bonus for Galway audiences is that her forthcoming new album, the career-spanning 30-track double CD, The Best of Eddi Reader, will be available at the gig. Eddi shares her thoughts on the new retrospective.
“Now that these decades I’ve passed I wanted to just remind myself who I really am and I really am this girl who loves singing and music and communicating on that level” she declares. “It is interesting to hear myself singing ‘Perfect’ in my little girl voice of 20-odd, then all the way through my 30s and 40s. I always thought that by the age of 39 I’d not be able to hit the high notes, so I’m really glad I’ve still got a full spectrum of musical ability, coupled with the fact I’m emotionally connected with everything that I do, so I’m completely honest in what I want to say. I’m coming at you with a little platter and here it is, this is the way I felt about everything, this is where I was in my marriage, this is where I was in my marriage breakup, this is when my band was happy or unhappy, this is where I am now. I’m really proud of it. I don’t listen to things that I’ve done usually so listening back has really thrilled me.”
She concludes our chat by professing how much she’s looking forward to her upcoming gig. “I’m really happy to be coming back to Ireland. Eventually I’d like to have a wee place over there, just sit and paint and write songs with my husband. His family is from Connemara so we’re looking over there!”
Eddi Reader plays the Town Hall on Wednesday February 10t at 8pm. Tickets are €20/18 via 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie