Interview with Barbara Dickson
Recently, FolkWords was fortunate and privileged to steal a few minutes out of Barbara Dickson’s busy schedule for an interview, so Tim Carroll talked to her about her views on folk music, her music and her latest project, the album ‘To Each and Everyone – The Songs of Gerry Rafferty’ .
FW: Can we start by talking about the genesis of the project - ‘To Each and Everyone – The Songs of Gerry Rafferty’ - is it the fulfilment of a long-time dream or a more recent decision?
BD: "Actually, there’s a definite time-line with this, Gerry died at the beginning of 2011 and at the beginning of 2012, after experiencing a fairly gloomy year whenever I thought of Gerry and his legacy, Rab Noakes a good friend of mine told me he was tasked with putting on a concert as a tribute to Gerry’s life and works. I had to be involved. We all got together to decide what to play and sing, and I decided to sing one of his songs that I used to sing years ago, ‘Steamboat Row’. There was another song, which Martha Rafferty his daughter, was keen for me to sing at the concert and that was ‘Wise as a Serpent’ so I learnt that one too, both these songs are on the album.
In truth I had been singing Gerry’s songs for many years. I put Gerry’s song ‘City to City’ on an album of mine in 1978, which was completely coincidental with Gerry’s titled album ‘City to City’ released at the same time. From folk clubs through my pop career I’d loved Gerry’s songs and whenever I needed a lovely song to add to a show I’d look at Gerry’s work. So having a presence on Celtic Connections Concert was great for me. I was standing up and being counted with the people that admired and loved Gerry. That was the most important thing for me. It was hugely emotional but it was wonderful to celebrate his life along with people like Jack Bruce, Ron Sexsmith and Paul Brady."
FW: So is it fair to say the album grew out of the concert?
BD: "That’s really what sparked the whole thing for me, however not immediately. Afterwards, various people asked me why I didn’t record an album of Gerry Rafferty’s songs. That thought filtered into my brain but nothing happened immediately with other projects on the go. Then I received an email from a Gerry Rafferty fan in Germany saying that Gerry’s fans would love to hear me sing his songs and they felt that I could ‘carry the torch’ now that he’s gone.
I feel extremely close to Gerry and his memory lives deep in my heart. So without getting too metaphysical, I still feel connected to Gerry and feel that he’s very close to me. At first I thought it would be inappropriate to ‘hijack his career’ but after further consideration I realised it wouldn’t be ‘hijacking’ it would be creating an album to help people connect with Gerry and his music. It’s actually like saying: ‘He’s not gone because his music remains.’ Many people only know ‘Baker Street’ and ‘Right Down The Line’, they have little idea of the depth and breadth of his music, so I thought an album could widen the appreciation of Gerry’s talent.
To check out possible reaction I sounded out the idea of an album with Gerry’s daughter, his brother Jim and ex-wife Carla and nobody offered any negatives. So, far from being inappropriate it became a pleasant and positive crusade to keep alive the memory of Gerry Rafferty."
FW: How did you choose which songs to include on the album?
BD: "I went through every song that Gerry had recorded, including some rarities sent to me by his cousin Alan Rafferty. I considered the rarities and decided not to do them because to my mind, they were rare for a reason, in that Gerry had decided that he didn’t really want them to be centre stage.
So I worked with his ‘big catalogue’ of songs that were released with his approval while he was alive and I chose from there. I listened to everything and ended up with a list of songs, including some going right back to the early Humble Bums material, took them to Troy Donockley and ran them past him. Troy and I have an extraordinary way of coming up with songs to be recorded which is so unorthodox.
Troy is some fifteen years younger than me and he missed the ‘big time’ of Gerry Rafferty. He wasn’t part of the Gerry Rafferty ‘experience’ if you like, so he came to the album with that approach. With the songs in no particular order I sang them acapella to Troy. This allowed Troy to choose songs based on the atmosphere that he picked up from each one. In fact, it was Troy who decided that we should include ‘Baker Street’, all the rest are my choice. When I sang the songs each was ‘as it came’ to present the absolute ‘seed’ of the song with no adornment."
FW: The album has a ‘stripped back’ feel. The songs are not over-produced and sometimes that happens with Gerry’s songs.
BD: "I think, and Martha would not be offended when I say this, indeed I’m sure she would agree, that a lot of Gerry’s material was overproduced because he overproduced it. He was such a strong character and had such a clear vision of what the songs should be like there was nobody around strong enough to say: “Enough already, just stop, stop now.” It’s a bit like the Albert Memorial with more and more bits being added until it was so over the top.
As Martha said to me a while ago, the songs have their messages buried deep inside. A good friend of Gerry’s has told me that he didn’t realise how good these songs were until he listened carefully. There is so much locked within Gerry’s songs the ‘stripped back’ approach has the ability to pull more out of them. All I did, where possible, was go back to the basics of the songs and concentrate on the power of the lyrics, sometimes slowing them down to bring out the meaning. I think that when people are young there’s a tendency to rush through the words, especially with their own songs, then as people get older they tend to slow down, again even with their own songs."
FW: That’s clear with ‘Family Tree’ for instance
BD: "That song is so beautiful. I sang it at the Celtic Connections Concert with Gerry’s family and you can imagine how utterly moving that was for all of us. That song has become increasingly touching and heart rending; it just had to be on the album."
FW: So the hope is this album will bring more people into contact with the depth of Gerry’s songs?
BD: "Definitely. I would love for people to ‘live’ the songs in the same way that I do."
FW: The album feels rooted in the emotion of the songs, presumably deliberate?
BD: "I do that anyway - whatever I’m singing. With every song I’ve recorded I’ve always sung as if my life depended on it. My preference has always been for both traditional and contemporary music written by good singer-songwriters. That’s always been and remains my preference in music.
I’ve always taken any song that I wanted to sing, that I felt right for me at the time and tried my hardest to get ‘inside’ the lyric and deliver it from the heart. I’ve acted as well and actor’s need to understand what they’re saying and make it mean something – to add something to the words. I believe it all comes from the same well-spring."
FW: Does the same intensity apply across folk music?
BD: "Troy and I have always said that we have running through us, like the writing in a stick of rock, an enduring love for the music of these islands. There is no doubt about it. Troy is from Cumbria and very rooted in the English and Irish traditions of music, I’m the same with the Scottish, Irish and English traditions. I love music in its original form, unfortunately much of it was hijacked by a ‘perceived’ tradition or watered down to a point where it lost its roots. I feel strongly that we need to look at our own music, understand our core beliefs in our own culture and reclaim our musical heritage."
FW: So you’re a believer in cherishing your own heritage?
BD: "Absolutely right. Admittedly, in my young days we were by no means perfect. Many of us sang with American accents because that’s where the music came from but as we learned more about our legacy we realised our own accents were fantastic mediums for singing."
FW: How about the blurring of the lines between folk and pop?
BD: "There are no hard and fast lines as I see it. It’s an organic flow. Look at James Taylor – nobody should doubt that he’s a folk singer. He definitely is in my opinion. He sprang from the fountain of singer-songwriters of the mid-twentieth century who loved the organic nature of their music. He didn’t come to England to learn about folk music, he knew all that already, he’d listened to Doc Watson, The Carter Family and George Jones. He knows about that music, so does Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. They all know their roots and more people should make an effort to know theirs."
FW: Is part of the problem that people put music in boxes?
BD: "That’s so right. Music is a living breathing thing. It has dynamics that ebb and flow, but people always try to categorise and define to ridiculous levels. The minute you start to define you restrict in some way. The truth is that unfortunately it’s all down to fashion, and I think the folk scene is as prone to the vagaries of fashion as anywhere else. I don’t think that so many years ago that fashion was so important but my goodness it matters today.
There are of course, many treasures still around, the ‘elder statesmen’ of tradition. We should be grateful for that. It is very important in traditional music, that although it moves on in a dynamic and living way, as it should, that we cherish our musical ‘elders’. We should value people like Martin Carthy and of course Maddy Prior, who is often overlooked. In my opinion Maddy is an icon of English music.
I’m not given to making public statements, but talking to your readership who are music lovers, I’m talking profoundly about how I feel. I do whatever I can to promote music that comes from the ‘right place’ – from an enduring legacy. In my musical life I have been places where the music didn’t feel right but like a lot of people I was caught up in situations outside my control. I often felt trapped and pushed in directions where I wasn’t entirely happy. Having been a ‘pop star’ and made several arbitrary records, I tried to get back to some sort of basics.
The album ‘Parcel of Rogues’ is an example, although that was overproduced and I didn’t quite find what I was looking for. It was only when I began working with Troy that I found myself where I wanted to be and found it with the album ‘Full Circle’. I side-lined management, told them I didn’t care what they thought. They were telling me: ‘don’t do that, people won’t like that, people won’t buy that’ and I thought my goodness, is that true? When people read that statement they may wonder why I didn’t have more faith in myself but I think if you scratch most artists at times there’s not much belief in there. Most of us need somebody loving and kind to be there saying: “Go on, go for it!” When I met Troy I found someone who offered that level of support and encouragement."
FW: With Gerry’s songs, which do you find strongest, melody or lyric?
BD: "It’s both without doubt, and I have to tell you that I think Gerry Rafferty is a better songwriter than many, many others. When you talk about great songwriters Gerry writes brilliant words and fantastic tunes. His songs are incredibly spiritual. Most people would recognise ‘Baker Street’ but possibly they have never listened to the depth of the words. With ‘To Each and Everyone – The Songs of Gerry Rafferty’ I wanted to strip back the songs and expose the words, to give people the opportunity to put aside any prejudices they may have and listen to the songs revealed for the first time."
FW: Will the forthcoming tour be based around the album?
BD: "The tour will include a whole range of material. There will be some of my ‘hits’ from 1975 to ’85 period, because people have long memories and expect to hear those. There’s naturally lots of melodic and beautiful Rafferty material from this album and there will also be some traditional songs from ‘Time and Tide’ and ‘Full Circle’. Joining me on tour are my band Troy Donockley, Nick Holland, Russell Field and Brad Lang – we are all looking forward to it so much. On this tour I’m bringing a repertoire of beautiful, meaningful songs that hopefully people will enjoy."
FW: Thank you for your time Barbara, it was a pleasure to talk to you.
© FolkWords - 2013