After Fairground Attraction collapsed in the wake of their one classic album, The First of a Million Kisses, it forced Reader to pursue a doggedly successful solo career and now she is back on the road with her new album Vagabond.
“It was a pretty bonkers time because I wasn’t really clear on the way the business works,” recalls Reader. “It would have been easy to for me to have kept hold of Fairground Attraction, make money for everybody and let them have a wage for the rest of their days. But I gave my power away and I allowed other people to control or veto things which they had the power to do. Whereas, if I’d kept my own power I could have done it properly, and made a few more albums.
“I had to learn this, but I was a slow learner in a lot of ways, because I was 28 when we had that number one and I should have known by then that I needed to stop pretending everyone was my granny, aunty or benevolent uncle. I needed to realise I was in amongst sharks who had no intention of looking after me so, at that point, after all the years walking round busking, sessions, I found the music I loved only for it slip right out my fingers.”
Despite the setback, Reader is armed with one of the most distinctive voices in British music. This was her trump card as she set out on what can best be described as an idiosyncratic solo path. Her new album is a case in point with its mix of new songs, folk tunes and three classic jazz standards – but her quality pipes, honed in numerous sessions for other artists when she started out, means she can shift effortlessly across genres in a way very few vocalists can.
“I was trying to find that feeling when I heard older aunties singing at parties or my granddad who would be from another time,” says Reader.” I was five watching a sixty-year-old singing songs he danced to in his 20s. So I was trying to find that effect on me when I heard those songs and that was where I took it to.
“Of the three standards I’ll Never Be The Same is the closest to what music makes you feel when you hear it through the voices of a house full of drunken people singing and having a laugh.”
On this album she is once again working with her long-time collaborators, the criminally-underrated songwriter Boo Hewerdine and Reader’s husband John Douglas.
“I trust them and with John I didn’t do much with him before I covered his song Wild Mountainside. I just knew him as a fan would through his work with the Trashcan Sinatras.”
She adds: “There’s a lot of things I didn’t appreciate in my own abilities and I bring a lot of editing skills to the table. If someone brings a line I’ll go ‘nah, there’s something better than that, I know that’.
“John’s songs are quite dark whereas I tend to want to cheer it up like at the end of Snowflakes In The Sun. I didn’t want it to just to be about everything disappearing, and then we thought about something good that disappears which is tears. This album became what it was through the contributions in the room of myself, John and Boo.”
Reader’s attitudes were shaped by growing up in a Glasgow tenement and in Thatcher’s Britain which decimated Scotland’s traditional industrial base. She remains a proud Scot who returned North of the border after nearly three decades in London. So for this singular artist it seemed natural to record an album of Robert Burns’ songs.
“I was told I was ruining my career, but I can’t be pragmatic with music, it has to be instinctive,” notes Reader. “Someone suggested I did a whole album of songs that were of the past, which came out of the songs I’d not recorded, and then I noticed they were all Robert Burns’ songs. I realised I was meant to sing and record these songs so I started thinking it was time to go home to Ayrshire where my mum lived.”
That album earned the welder’s daughter an MBE for services to music, but she also found some common ground with Scotland’s greatest poet.
“When I found more out about him I realised we were very similar in that we both had passion, anger instinct and a love of our environment. Burns was teaching me about who I was before I knew who I was and he sort of merged with my father who had died that year. I came back to Scotland during the making of that album and I felt like Burns was standing over the bridge at the border holding his arms out and saying come home.”
Images by Chris Payne