Eddi Reader returns for her seventh annual Irish tour this week and she’s released a new EP entitled Back The Dogs featuring her melodious takes on songs by Amy Winehouse and Super Furry Animals. Alan Corr meets the Scottish singer
“This big, huge hairy Maori haka performer - naked, except for this big sporran - came into the Holiday Inn in Glasgow and this acid casualty I know just went up to him and said, `do you want a pint?’. That weekend can be risky for your health - once you start, you just can’t stop.”
Eddi Reader is talking about her recent adventures at the Celtic Connections Festival in her native Glasgow and that tale of after show fun is another surreal scene from inside the goldmine of her long musical career.
Reader emerged from a working class background in the early 1980 to travel around Europe with circus and performance artists, record with The Waterboys and Gang of Four, hit No 1 with Fairground Attraction, accept an MBE for services to singing, and release eleven very fine solo folk albums in the past 23 years.
At 55, she remains a hugely industrious performer who seems to have an interest in everything (politics and history particularly). Reader is a wiry ball of energy with a broad and bawdy sense of humour and this week, she has returned to Ireland for her seventh annual Irish tour.
She’ll draw from a deep well of Scottish, American and Irish folk songs and her own compositions, both delicate and robust, and she’ll also get a chance to sing tracks from her new EP, Back The Dogs, which contains some very interesting song choices including covers of songs by Super Furry Animals and Nat King Cole.
Reader’s deep connection with Ireland is evident on the EP’s title track, a skittish number extolling the joys of race meetings featuring a very funny and evocative voice recording of her late grandmother, Madge Hayes.
“She was from Tralee, Co Kerry and moved to Glasgow when she was 21,” Reader says. “She had eight children and she actually moved back to Kerry but her mother encouraged her to go home because the man she met, my granddad, was a Protestant boy who was going to change his religion for her because he loved her so much. There was all sorts of carry on after that. She had 32 great grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.”
Granny Hayes passed away in 1988, just as Eddi was experiencing her first taste of success with Fairground Attraction and the song Perfect but she is immortalised on that recording made by Eddi in 1985. “She used to love backing the dogs and horses in Tralee when she was young. She was so funny - I loved sitting at her feet. It was better than the telly, better than the cinema.
“She used to tell me that Tralee was this magical kingdom. My last album was called Vagabond and there is something of travel in it and Granny Hayes helped me travel everyday in my head when I was a child. She loved Tralee - I think she thought that Glasgow was a bit of a dirty old dump.”
In sharp contrast to that, Reader also recorded a version of Super Furry Animals’ Juxtaposed With U, which was inspired by a summer she spent touring around Ireland with her band. “That was the song me and the band played the most and it’s such a beautiful, beautiful song. Very soulful, it’s got this real Marvin Gaye feel to it and Gruff is singing about how bullshit and greed has become more important than human relationships.
"We’re in a place in the world now where greed and bullshit is sold to us as something normal and something easy but we’re being encouraged to eat sweets, get fat and be greedy. But I know that we are still a community. There’s no way that if somebody’s house is falling down that somebody isn’t going to come and help.”
She also tackles Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini’s Moon River on the new EP and it comes as somewhat of homage to her uncles and grandfather. “I know those songs because I learnt them from unaccompanied singers like my Uncle Frank who was a driver on the corporation buses in Glasgow and my Uncle Charles was a conductor on the buses and my granddad worked in the shipyards.
“They were all hard Glaswegian, whisky-drinking men but when they sang songs like that to me, they became really gentle souls. I learnt very early, at five or four years old, the power of song and how it changes the atmosphere. Before I was born, people were falling in love to these songs as well. They fell in love to songs and characters in the 1940s and '50s - my mum was Liz Taylor and dad was Elvis.”
The same goes for her version of Mona Lisa, a song made famous by Nat King Cole, but does Eddi think that a swooning romantic quality is missing in how young people listen and fall in love to songs now? “I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I think people are still going for Harry Styles . . . “
The Back The Dogs EP ends with Eddi’s take on Amy Winehouse’s Love is A Losing Game. “I saw her at a gig in Glasgow before she did that Back to Black album, the Frank tour, and I saw her on stage with a bunch of London session musicians and as someone who lived in London for 28 years, I could tell there was a bit of a smell of profit around her.
“I knew she was being looked after, even before she was mega but also when I heard her performing I could hear Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington in her voice so she was attracted to the real stuff.
"There are some singers who are attracted to the pose and the persona and some singers who are attracted to the pose and persona and the music and then there are some singers who end up in folk music like me. Hahahaha!”
Back in the late eighties when she sang with the short-lived Fairground Attraction, Reader was the ultimate forties throwback. She was trying to capture something of the look of her jazz heroines with the back-to-basics simplicity in an age of shoulder pads and loadsamoney.
“Back then, feminism hadn’t quite reached the suburbs and female singers were being sold in a very sexual way,” she says. “I was a welder’s daughter and I wore my boover boots, f*** you - I’m not playing that game. I had my fist in the air before I even started.”
Reader is currently on her seventh Irish tour with her band - John Douglas and Boo Hewerdine on guitars, Alan Kelly on piano accordion and Kevin McGuire on double bass. Beside her obvious family and musical connections to Ireland, there is one main reason why she keeps coming back. "Irish audiences don’t give a f*** about style, they prefer content over style and that’s very apparent in the culture,” she says.
“It’s respect. Even if they take the piss out of themselves, they’re still very respectful of the whole cultural past and all the building blocks that brought them to this point.”
Eddi Reader plays the Spirit Store, Dundalk on February 17, Vicar Street, Dublin on February 19, Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick on February 20, Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen on Febuary 21, and the Ballymaloe Grainstore, Co Cork on February 22.
Tickets are on sale priced €28.00 (including booking fee from www.ticketmaster.ie & Ticketmaster outlets nationwide. 0818 719 300 - Republic of Ireland customers 0844 277 4455 - Northern Ireland customers 00353 1 456 9569 - International customer
The Back The Dogs EP is out now. www.eddireader.com