Finding an archive of traditional songs in a relative’s house clearance proved to be the catalyst for Eddi Reader’s first new album in more than four years.
The resulting new album Cavalier was released at the end of last month, and it features a mix traditional songs, covers, and new numbers by Eddi, her husband John Douglas, and Boo Hewerdine.
Best known as the frontwoman of Fairground Attraction, who scored a global hit in 1988 with Perfect, she has carved out a satisfying solo career since that band’s implosion just two years later.
Eddi says: ‘I had a house I had to clear out and I found an archive of materials – traditional Scottish and Irish songs, and old English and stories about our cultural connections. It was part of my granddad’s dad’s collection, so there’s a sort of heritage there. I discovered some of the tunes were really lovely and I wanted to try them on for size.
‘I hadn’t been recording and I wasn’t sure what to bring to the table, so I started out with a couple of things like [Cavalier’s opening track] Maiden’s Lament and I found another one called Deirdre’s Farewell to Scotland – they were all in the paperwork of my great grandfather, I kind of started to fall in love with some of these concepts.’
And she found resonance from some of these ancient songs in current situations.
‘The song Deirdre’s Farewell, I found it around the time we were having a refugee crisis, and people were dying on the beaches trying to get to sanctuary and this song predates history – it’s from a mythological time.
‘It’s about an Irish girl who falls in love with a commonplace woodsman, who’s also a warrior for the king. But the king wants her for himself, so she runs away with her lover to Scotland and they find sanctuary in Argyll – in the song it pinpoints the loch and the glen.
‘I fell in love with the idea of singing it at the time because I felt like some places are sanctuary, and I enjoyed the experience of playing that role of saying thank you to a place for providing sanctuary.’
In the end, Eddi found she had enough recorded nearly 30 tracks, but has trimmed it back to 16 songs for the release.
‘There’s a double-album’s worth, plus there’s the contemporary songs as well that I didn’t want to separate from the more traditional song ideas. I was trying really hard, as I always do to mix it up and make one stand next to the other as a constant human condition narrative.’
She also worked closely with her husband John, who is also in the cult rock band Trashcan Sinatras, on the album.
‘He wasn’t around for the beginning of the process, but then he came back from tour and got stuck in, and I had to get let go a bit.
‘He’s a total genius, so when he says something I tend to defer to him, which I have to watch, as I like my own daft ideas as well! It was interesting because we’ve never worked this closely together before.
‘We were having little mini arguments about stuff that I hadn’t argued with people about for years. He’d say: “Try singing that line that way”, and I’d do it and I would be surprised, and then I’d get annoyed because he’s come up with something great that I couldn’t think of!
‘It was interesting for me let go of a bit of control. I have that little childish, “This is my thing, this is my ball, I’ve been playing with it all my life”, but I realise it’s expanding my artistry.’
This year also marks Eddi's 40 years in the music business, but as she puts it: ‘It’s exactly 30 years in the public eye – 40 years with the 10 years previous of me running around town, busking and me hitching myself to musical adventures. It’s been 40 years of me travelling around in a van with a bunch of other musicians – and I’m still in that van,’ she laughs.
In those pre-Fairground Attraction days she also performed backing vocals with Eurythmics, The Waterboys, and Alison Moyet. But it was now legendary post-punks Gang of Four who gave her her first major break in 1982.
‘That was my first professional job,’ she recalls enthusiastically. ‘I’d done the audition on the Tuesday, got the job on the Thursday and then we filmed it that same Thursday. I don’t know why they picked me but they did. I did the tour and met Stewart Copeland and Sting [they supported The Police] and early U2 – that was a big deal for me to get that gig. I was in a factory and fresh from a busking adventure in the south of France and London and I’d been singing little jingles. I was just trying to find my way in.
‘It was such a big, lovely adventure from then on.
Life is about little markers sometimes. I don’t usually carry a watch so I’m not that bothered with time, but I’m pretty proud of it. You just don’t notice how fast it goes by.’
During the short but intense lifespan of Fairground Attraction, Eddi says now that she often felt swept along by events.
‘When it all happens, you’re in the middle of it, but you don’t get to observe it, so you’re kind of caught up in it all.
‘You’re still the same person, but people are pushing you to commit to certain formulaic structures you had no idea existed before – you were just kind of doing your own thing as naturally as possible, and then you find yourself in the middle of something that’s vitally important to other people.
‘When I look back, I wish I had a big Monty Python arm where I could grab myself and pull myself out and have a cup of tea, sit down and go: “This is what’s going to happen here, so pay attention”.
‘It was kind of exciting and at the same time terrifying – like getting stopped in the street, that was kind of crazy. And this was before the paparazzi days. When I meet people now and they talk about it now, I think I would have given up a long time before if I had to deal with it. I find it incredible that’s allowed to happen – like with Amy Winehouse, it seems like an unbridled madness.’
Pavilion Theatre, Worthing
Monday, October 22