Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader has three BRIT Awards to her name, fronted punk outfit Gang of Four, harmonized with Annie Lennox touring with the Eurythmics, and topped the UK charts with Fairground Attraction.
But when I caught up with her at Cambridge Folk Festival she revealed a bit of her more private side as she reminiscing about getting old, Cambridge men and travelled around Europe with a circus!
This is the one with Eddi Reader…
C: The first thing I've got to ask you Eddi...what on earth have you done to your foot!?
E: Oh, well I came down on Thursday and my sister has a trampoline in her garden and I decided to have a go on the trampoline and I've done something really bad. I don't know what I've done but it was painless today, so it felt OK. I think it's because I put the elastic bandage on it but there's bruising everywhere. I don't even know what's gone on!
C: Oh, I hope you haven't broken a little bone or something. Done a David Beckham metatarsal trick?
E: Someone said that, you could very easily do that and not know. But I can't play football anyway so I'm alright! [laughs] But it was great 'cause I was dancing and didn't feel any pain and then I came off stage and went 'Ohhh'.
C: That was probably the adrenaline.
E: Yeah, a total pain killer.
C: Blitzes it all out! Do you get nervous before you go on stage?
E: Yeah, especially here! Everyone's so smart at what they do and you they're used to good top notch music.
C: But you're great at what you do to and have such a good reputation, they just love you here.
E: Well, I absolutely adore coming here because it's the friendliest [festival]. As a mother it’s wonderful for kids and they love it, as soon as I say: “I'm going to Cambridge this year,” they go: “Yeahhh!” So this year my sons have brought some school friends as well.
C: I've seen you here a couple of years when you've not been performing. Do you come here often when you're not playing?
E: I have a real romantic relationship with Cambridge. Well, the first time I left home and came down, I was in the 4th year, and two guys in the 5th year had tickets for Cambridge Folk Festival. And we had a little band called Errol Flynn's Resurrection and we were playing blues and some Rolling Stones things on acoustic guitar and we decided we'd come down here.
The older guys knew about Cambridge, but we'd never heard of it, looked at it in the back of the music press and we saw what it was and it was the 14th festival and I came down and couldn't believe how good looking the men were in Cambridge! It was suddenly, there were healthy men, rather than the ones I knew in Glasgow who were all peelywally, toothless and beer-bellied! [laughs] But, I don't know what it was, I suppose they were the 'exotic' of the outside of your own environment, and these people were just gorgeous.
And I'd come to the festival and we had a tent and everything but there was a camp fire and people were singing and one of the songs we did was Don't Think Twice, It's Alright, which was a Bob Dylan song, and I sang it in a key that was good for my little quiet, little girl voice.
C: You were shy and retiring then were you?
E: Yeah. Then this guy who was playing it said: "Do you sing?" and I said: "Yes, I sing" and, of course, I was just jumping, someone with an English accent was talking to me, I was so shy.
And then he said: "Well I play it" and he played in a key that was far too high for me and I had to belt it out.
So, I sang it really loud and all these people started coming round the camp fire! I saw acts there like Joanna Carling and I was totally. I couldn't believe a woman could stand up with an acoustic guitar like that and not be kinds wimpy or...y'know...be quite strong and Joanna Carling just blew my mind.
I still remember everything she sang, I saw the three gigs that she did at Cambridge that year and I followed every one and then I tried to see her again, kissed a boy for three days and then I went home a total different woman! It was lovely. So I have a really big kinda romance with it [Cambridge Folk Festival] and I came back here and it just feels a wee bit like: 'Ooohh.'
C: Do you get that?
E: Well the years are passing and they pass so fast and I just know that people like Ken [Woollard] have gone and his ashes are underneath Stage 1 and I just think: "oh my God! This place will go on even like a hundred years after my death and all these people will generate through it and we'll just be myths!”
C: Don't know about me, but you'll still go down in history books.
E: I hope so! Maybe I'll be a little mention somewhere. [laughs]
C: Well, I've been covering the festival for about 6 years now and caught your performance in 01 and even though you've not been officially here since then, the media team always say: "I wonder if Eddi's going to be on this year?" So, you've almost been here every year despite the fact you haven't!
E: I didn't know that! Well, it was kinda strange 'cause the '80s were terrible for acoustic music and I was still in love with it and when I got Fairground Attraction together it was kinda that was my kick against what was going on in the '80s. It's weird now 'cause people say that was an '80s band but it wasn't, it was a total rejection against something like that!
C: People still have a fondness for the '80s don't though?
E: It was very strange. I mean, it was a strange period and I look at old pictures now and of course like everybody else you go: "Oh my God!" But it was about re-inventing yourself, cause really, y'know...I was doing...nobody wanted acoustic music and I was pretty good at busking and jamming and nobody wanted to jam, nobody wanted to improvise. It was all about haircuts and clothes and I was absolutely lost in the world around about that time but Fairground was a good result of it.
C: It was meant to be a kickback but ended up a commercial success.
E: Exactly and we didn't want it. I was like: "I don't care," and "Let's do this, let's make this busking band that nobody's gonna buy," and of course it went to number 1. And then of course we were 'it' for a minute and then...um...that minute went and I just continued to hopefully have a name. At least it gave me a good ticket to get playing places. You know, I loved that band and Roy [Dodds] still plays with me, and then I met Boo Hewerdine who's from Cambridge, he’s the Jimmy Webb of England, I would say.
C: Oh absolutely.
E: I just can't get away from him [laughs].
C: Keeps following you around? [laughs].
E: Even if I tried to do the Burns album [Sings the Songs of Robert Burns], that was my own little project without Boo and even then at the end of it I was like: "Boo you're gonna have to come and be involved in this, I know you don't do other people's songs but this is..." and he loved it, he just loved the project.
C: What inspired you to do such a traditional album as that?
E: Well, traditional songs have always been in the albums. Y'know, we did I Loved A Lad on Candyfloss & Medicine which was a Warners album and we did The Blacksmith which was on Mirmama, which was my first solo RCA record. Then Geoff Travis who runs Rough Trade, he's a massive help to me, y'know, if it wasn't for him I just don't think I would be making records at all, he got me my Warners deal and now he's paying for things on Rough Trade.
I'm so glad 'cause sometimes, y'know, as a mother, sometimes you feel a bit out of the loop on what's going down and maybe who would be interested. Kirsty MacColl said that to me once, we were sitting at the table, the two of us, absolutely depressed on some kind of liquor and she said: "The truth is Eddi, who wants to hear from a middle-aged housewife?" and I said: "Well, Ok, I don't know." And then she brought out Titanic Days and it was amazing, y'know, and I think we all go through that.
C: Absolutely, it's inevitable isn't?
E: I mean I walk round this place and some of the young men, y'know, they're like embryos to me, I'm just like: "God..." It's just a different world now, but it's wonderful. It's wonderful to be also, kinda, mature and know that you're not fussed with as many things as you used to be.
C: So true, you decide that you will just be who you want to be.
E: I am concerned about teeth falling out and all that, your hair not being too frizzy and grey [laughs] but, y'know, I think sense of freedom, being really loving...finding someone to love is important.
C: Absolutely, it makes you realise what's important in life...
E: ...your kids growing up...I was so enthralled with it...I would say that singing is like 30% of my life really.
C: At what stage was it more than that? When you started off?
E: Well, I think that I'm a two-dimensional chick, y'know, I mean I think that there is only the washing-up, cleaning, tidying housewife trained genetically designed to have 20 children from the council estate and one that likes to sing. It's quite romantic. It is romantic. I'm very romantic and I do know that where I come from it’s, kinda, totally different from where I've gone and travelled with singing.
But I'm very comfortable at home, y'know, I'm very comfortable with my family, I'm the oldest of seven and we're having a party in August and getting Betty from across the road to sing her Doris Day songs and it'll be brilliant.
C: That's great, a good ol' Scottish family gathering!
E: Do our Elvis rock 'n' roll... it's generally Elvis Presley [laughs] because we discovered that Presley's ancestors came from Aberdeenshire so...he's ours too!
C: I read that you travelled with a circus, is that true?
E: Yeah, well...that was a time...this was my first 'off the beaten track', ruining of me, festival and then my friend who was a dental technician in Glasgow divorced his wife and him and his friend Angus, they played guitar together and had a busking outfit doing the cinema queues...I just romantically wanted to join in with that and I did until my Aunty Mary found out and I get a real doin'...I mean it was totally like nobody was talking to me and I was letting the family down cause I was begging. "We might be poor but we're not that poor," you know what I mean?
E: But I enjoyed it. It was a real training ground for me, y'know cause some songs worked, some didn't you see and I could tell which ones did.
C: But that's where you learn your craft, isn't it?
E: Absolutely, and also projectionally, I was good at hitting the back of the building and I knew where the space was that would be good for my voice. I mean I've spent a lot of my professional life, although I hate that word, looking for the same reverb that you get up a tenement close. 'Cause that is the best reverb you can have on a voice.
So, y'know, the whole circus thing was just that they had a VW and then we joined up with a bunch of guys in France, who had a red double-decker bus...Zavier his name was...Zavier and Michel...and they had rich parents. Michel had a flat in Paris and he had a bed that Napoleon slept in and all that! We were totally...my first experience of Paris was Jasmine tea and a croissant and I've never forgotten it.
E: And I was just in love with this environment and learning about the world. So we went on the double-decker bus all the way to Montpellier and we busked all the way down and gathered up other people on the road. This guy was a juggler and another guy was a fire eater and we had these kids as well, who were good at acrobatics!
C: So you made a circus rather than joining one!
E: I would be the singer, really my voice was so strong I'd call a crowd around and then some of the guys would bottle, collect the money. Niemes is where we ended up, Niemes and Avion and with that money we'd buy the dinner and the breakfast.
C: Earn enough to get by...
E: It was great, fantastic!
C: No cares in the world...
E: Absolutely. I got really fed up though because it got to winter and they had this wind blow called the Mistral and it got too heavy for me and...then I joined the Gang of Four which was a punk rock band [laughs]
C: And thought: "I'm really going to rebel now!”
E: Little did they know what I'd been doin' in a big red double-decker bus with a bunch of hippies. And their advert was 'no red-heads and no hippies'! But they were great. The Gang of Four was 20 years ago now and they're playing in Glasgow next month.
C: Are they really, they're still going?
E: We just phoned each other and I saw them in Fuji Rock 'cause I was playing Fuji Rock festival last year and they were playing too. And they came in and they swept me up and I hadn't seen them since those days.
I had such beautiful time with them and they were exactly the same! Andy Gill needs a piss before he goes on stage and he's going: "Eddi, get me a Tequila, get me a Tequila"...and of course, just amazing songs, I love the Gang of Four. I think it's difficult for me because I can't pin-point my voice to any mast...I'm a jazzer really.
C: You have a unique voice, Eddi, and it's far wider than just jazz.
E: Thank you for that.
C: You're recording an album at the moment aren't you?
E: Yeah, well John's producing, John McCusker, and I've never kinda done it with John before so it's a new experience and he works in a different way to me.
They're so fast, the folk musicians, really fast. They're buskers but they're jazzers too and their musical vocabulary is stunning, they...you know you're talking Louis Armstrong good, not...there's nothing ego about them and that's another wonderful thing about them, a lot of them anyway...ones I've met, the ones I'm playing with are...they're so cool to me and I just wanna have them taint me with their brush really [laughs] that's what it is!
I certainly don't ...I mean ...sure I can sing a couple of songs on my own but it's really the musical quality I'm looking for, y'know?
C: Yeah, I know what you mean.
E: Long gone are the days when I could join the Duke Ellington band, y'know, like Anita O'Day or Ella Fitzgerald, I can't do that anyway, I gotta do my own thing and find it, but I'd love it, y'know? Ideally I'd like to be, I mean ma'be not realistically, but singing wise I'd like to be in the 50's, early 50's, with Artie Shaw playing beside me and me singing a couple o' daft 50's songs.
C: Wow, perhaps that's one for after the next album!
E: Y'gotta pay for it though. It's like orchestras are massive, it's bad enough with a 5 piece band never mind a 40 piece orchestra! Robbie [Williams] may get it, get away with it!
C: A lot of money, a big investment isn't it really?
E: I'd spend it, if I had it! And I do do occasional little scratch cards, if I do [win] that's what I'm spending it on!
C: You never know [laughs], you never know...
E: I'm doin' it, I'm getting a big orchestra, I'm getting capital, I'm getting all the valve mix I can, I'm gonna be Ella Fitzgerald until I come home.
C: It's good to hear that you've got plans for your latter years, although you're not there yet [laughs]
E: I'm ancient. [laughs].
E: I'm not nearly as ancient as Madonna though! [both laugh]
C: Well if she can keep going, let's all keep going, that's what I say!
E: Certainly. What does she look like...she's amazing! Just 1 year older than me... and Michael Jackson's one year older...
E: ...but that's alright.
C: That's not old! There's loads of so called 'older women' working in the music business.
E: I don't mind actually growing old, I don't really mind it.
C: There has to be some benefit!
E: As long as hair and boils don't come out in places like my nose! [laughs]
C: [laughs] I know what you mean.
E: Like jumping on trampolines! That's the other middle-aged thing you can't do!
C: Why not?
E: 'Cause you break your bloody feet, that's why! [both laugh]
C: I've had a bit if a difficult festival too...I twisted my ankle coming out of the media caravan and then sat of some chewing-gum in the photographers' pit. At least your festival's been a bit better than that!
E: Well it's been a bit problematic because of my baby boy.
C: Why, what's happened to him? How old is he?
E: He's 18! [both laugh] And he's decided to become a drunk...we'll see how long it lasts. Y'see I'm a total hypocrite, aren't I?
C: I was gonna say!! The trouble is, you see you can't preach can you?
E: It was only yesterday we were doing bananas and dance and 'come down stairs'. Now he wants to get pissed and chat up a barmaid, kiss her for days!
C: I wonder where he gets all that rebellion from?
E: I don't know. I'm a good girl!
As featured in CATtales Book