Martina Clarke of Radio Dublin South FM talks to Barbara about her career, her new 'Full Circle' album and her plans for the future.                                    

Martina: Barbara, welcome to Dublin. I know it's a flying visit but thank you so much for doing this interview.

Barbara: Thanks very much, Martina. It's very nice to talk to you.
'Full Circle' is your first major studio album for nine years. Can you tell me a bit about it?

Well, it's a big mixture of different sorts of songs. It's actually quite a... somebody said 'an eclectic mix'. There's a lot of folk music on it which obviously you know I have a big connection with from a long time ago, and there are two classical songs and two songs from the 20th century which were sort of written about the 1960s. So it's a great big mixture of stuff. I've got a man called Troy Donockley to produce it and Troy is a musician I would say... to describe him, he's a celtic classical composer. It's slightly in the Michael Sullivan sort of mode. So he does classical music of his own which he composes, but with celtic instruments, with a celtic flavour, so it's really fantastically interesting for me. Really quite a departure.

How do you choose material for a new album?

The material was chosen by me, so what I did was I was making an album that I wanted to make at this point in my life. And I think very often it's not that difficult for an artist to choose songs that he or she feels that now they'd like to record. They're either
songs in a box that you feel you'd wanted to do years ago and never got the chance, or they could be songs that you've just heard or somebody's introduced you to. It's not difficult if you're interested in music to put together an album.

If I was to put a Beyonce album together I couldn't possibly do that because I don't know that kind of market, but I know what I like and I know the songs I like and I know what I can sing well. So most of them came from my own collection of songs that I've never recorded before.

Do you still enjoy singing your hits like 'January, February', 'Caravans', 'Another Suitcase...'?

Well, I don't sing 'January, February' anymore because I find that it is impossible to really sit that into what I do these days. 'Caravans' and 'Another Suitcase' are absolutely fine - they work fine and there are other songs from my past life which I could do from when I was a pop artist. There are songs which would work. But not all of them do work in the context of fitting in with a programme of songs like 'September Song', 'Buddy Can You Spare A Dime' and stuff like that which I did in '7 Ages of Woman'. They are the kind of songs which I tend to sing and so 'January, February' would just be like a spare part in there. But other things are fine, yes.

You recorded the album 'Don't Think Twice It's All Right' which was a collection of Bob Dylan songs. Is there any other artist you'd like to record an entire album of?

Well if I was, off the top of my head I'd say Randy Newman because I'm very fond of his songs, because to me they kind of bridge a gap between contemporary folk writers from when I was emerging, and film. I like the seriousness of his topics. I also like Tom Waits very much. There's a lot of writers... I love Paul Simon. That kind of writer would appeal to me because there's huge breadth in their material and lots of different sorts of songs.

You played Anita Braithwaite in 'Band Of Gold' and that's just about to be released on DVD. Which do you prefer now - is it straight acting or musical theatre?

I don't tend to do much Musical Theatre now because I find it quite arduous and tiring and committing. So I tend to like to do small bursts of it but not for very long. So I would say that I wouldn't naturally connect with Musical Theatre, although I have had great success in it. I would say that my favourite pastime is concerts, working live with good material in front of a live audience, that's my favourite thing.

Television acting is something that I really enjoy but I don't do very much of it for the simple reason that the stuff I'm invited to do doesn't really appeal to me. 'Band Of Gold' was something that I really did enjoy doing and obviously I'd like to do more television work but the stuff I get offered tends to be more soap opera and I'm really not very interested in that. It's a job but I'm not that desperate to work, you know? I really don't want to do that.

However, having said that there are obviously series on television that I wouldn't mind appearing in. But I'd really rather do a one-off or be in a low-budget film or something than do big stuff on television. Drama - I don't know - some of it's not very good, I don't think.

Speaking of Musical Theatre, you did return to 'Blood Brothers' in Liverpool for two weeks, which was a short run obviously. What was it like playing Mrs. Johnstone again?

Well, I'd been there two years ago because I went to do it in 2001 at Christmas and that was for four weeks. The thing was I think Bill Kenwright, who's had the show since the 1980s, I think he said 'Right, what can I do to make this Liverpool run of five weeks or something more of an event, more special than it is?' So he asked me to come and take part in it and I found out from everybody in Liverpool that it's a combination of Willy Russell and me and 'Blood Brothers' in Liverpool that makes it very special.

The population of Liverpool came out in absolute thousands to see it. And it's alright to play - I don't know if you're aware of Mrs. Johnstone's character but she ages in the part so it's perfectly alright to play Mrs. Johnstone aged 25 on stage at the beginning of the show and age her so that in fact, obviously, I'm much more more like Mrs. Johnstone in the second act these days. But that's perfectly acceptable. It's not like I could be miscast in the part now because I'm too old to play it.

It's been amazingly moving for me to go back and sing 'Easy Terms' and 'Tell Me It's Not True' again and work with all these different, very good actors playing the children.

It's a wonderful show. I've seen it every time it's been here.

It's wonderful.
You've recorded songs by contemporary artists such as U2, and you did a brilliant version of 'Soldiers' from ABBA, as well as folk songs like 'MacCrimmon's Lament' which is a personal favourite of mine. Where does your heart really lie?

I did like the U2 song and 'Soldiers' when I sang them very much indeed and recorded them. But my love definitely does lie in the field of world music and traditional music. I grew up listening to The Beatles and The Everly Brothers as a child.

But when I was about fourteen I became very wedded to folk music and for the next twelve years of my life I was very interested in and worked in that field, solely in that world, playing the guitar, travelling and singing traditional music and at that time contemporary music within that kind of idiom, and I went all over the country. I was in Ireland, I was all over the place singing the music and although the theatre took me away from folk music, I never, ever lost my love of that music.

Actually I've been singing 'MacCrimmon's Lament' in my concert act since 1978, so it was only four years after I left folk clubs that the folk music was back in my concert set. So people who saw me in the 70s and 80s in Ireland would remember that there was a presence of folk music. And I've done versions of 'She Moves Thro' The Fair' and all sorts of stuff over the years. Now I got the chance this year to make an album with Troy Donockley and I said 'absolutely, let's go and do it' and away I went, so it's released on the 13th of September.

The reaction to it so far... the people in the media haven't heard it yet, but the people who are going to work on the album, the promotional people, they all really like it. And I think that's rather important because if it was a labour of love and nothing more I probably wouldn't expect people to be as enthusiastic as I am. But in fact I have not met anybody who says 'I don't get this, I don't see it'.

What do you think of the current British music scene and are there are present day artists that you admire?

I'm a big fan of Eminem but he's not English. If you're talking about popular music in Britain I'm not very fond of it at all because the manufactured end of it, the sort of 'Pop Idol' side of it, doesn't do a thing for me. It doesn't seem to be any better or any worse than what pop music's always been about. I'm not saying these singers are worse, but they're not very special and they don't have a great deal to offer in my opinion. That's only my opinion.

However, I think this is a bubble which will burst and I think that ultimately the singer-songwriter will emerge again and people like Daniel Bedingfield, who is rather good, will ultimately become more of a consistent presence in the pop charts. Whenever I hear Daniel Bedingfield I always think he's a boy who will have a long career. I can imagine him being like JK from Jamiroquai and going on until he's in his 40s and beyond.

But a lot of it is like it's always been in pop music, you know? Make no mistake, I can think of some terrible records in the early 60s which were just froth and nothing. So I don't think much has changed but I do think that we need to keep a handle on the more serious end of music. And I think Glastonbury actually points up that there's masses of decent music around. All sorts of music - there's the jazz from Jamie Cullum and people like that. Those people are very good because they're just real players, real musicians.

Of all the songs you've recorded do you have a favourite one?

No, I don't have a favourite but I can tell you what the audiences' favourite is and that's 'Caravans'. My audience, wherever I go, whenever I sing that, I just mention the name and they applaud and they love it and they go absolutely mad at the end. It's very odd, I don't know if Mike Batt knew this when he wrote the song, but it has a kind of spiritual quality which appeals to people and they absolutely love it.

So I just hope that I can gather some more people together for this new album and take the people who like my work along a lot further. I know there are lots of dyed-in-the-wool fans of mine who go into my website and they're all very, very keen to hear the new album. They know what it is and they can't wait for it.

What have been the highlights of your career so far and are there any things you'd still like to achieve?

When people ask me this question, which they don't all the time but I do get asked, 'what's the highlight of your career?' I always say, rather mysteriously, that I don't know because it hasn't happened yet and I honestly do believe that. If you'd asked me this question in 1995 obviously people would expect me to say 'I Know Him So Well', but then I wouldn't have been able to say getting my second Olivier Award for 'Spend Spend Spend', and I wouldn't have been able to say getting an OBE from the Queen for Services to Music and Drama.

So I would say to you, Martina, ask me again in five years time and I will probably come up with something special to tell you which at this point would be the highlight of my career. But I do think that my career just is evolving all the time.

You recorded 'Come Back With The Same Look In Your Eyes' which is from 'Tell Me On A Sunday'...

That's right, yes!

Would you ever consider appearing in that show? It's a one-woman show...

I don't think so because it's not my kind of thing I would have to say. My own show, '7 Ages Of Woman', which I featured in all the songs, was much more my kind of thing because it touched on kind of social issues and it was Everywoman's show not just one woman. It was everybody from mothers and daughters to prostitutes and drug addicts. It took into play the life of Everywoman, regardless of what she was and I think the soul of Everywoman was in there. So I think I've been there and done that now.

Who inspires you as a singer?

I like Bonnie Raitt. There's a wonderful English singer called Chris While who sings with a woman called Julie Matthews. They're excellent if anyone gets the chance to go and look at them on the internet on their website. Chris While is a fine singer, she's wonderful and I love her. My favourite singer of all time is James Taylor. He is just fantastic. And there's a lot of folk musicians I like and inspirational music. I take Liam O'Flynn as one of my great inspirations. I like Christy Moore. I like Paul Simon. But James Taylor is my very favourite because he's got better and better and better. I think he's never had a really rough patch like a lot of people have and he's just as brilliant as he ever was.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

Well, my plans thus far are I've got a television show to do with Elaine Paige next week called 'The Greatest Love Songs' for the BBC. I'm doing a festival in Hampshire at Somerley House in August. My album comes out in September - I'll be promoting that. I'm doing 'Proms in the Park' in September in Glasgow for the BBC Proms and I am going on tour in February and March. I don't know yet if I'm coming to Ireland. I came to the Waterfront in February this year but I would very much like to come back so I'll chivvy my promoter to make that happen. And I hope I can come back as soon as possible.

Barbara Dickson, thank you very much!

Thank you very much, Martina.

Radio Dublin FM, July, 2004. Interview by Martina Clarke.