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BARBARA DICKSON INTERVIEW

She may be the biggest-selling female singer in Scotland, but Barbara Dickson hates the word "celebrity". She arrives at the Balmoral on the bus, after opting to stay with a friend in Inverleith for her weekend visit.

Dressed down in a pink top and striped scarf, she looks younger than her 61 years. She has not changed much from her years of pop stardom, although her frizzy perm has been replaced by gentle waves. She's in an upbeat mood – delighted to be back in Edinburgh.
She's here to promote her autobiography, A Shirt Box Full of Songs, the title of which harks back to her apprenticeship on the city's folk club circuit, when she would store fragments of songs in her father's old shirt box.

While her career has taken her to glamorous theatres and concert halls around the world, some of her fondest memories are of the city's folk clubs and pubs. She is best-known for her hits I Know Him So Well, Caravan Song and Another Suitcase in Another Hall, in the 1970s and 80s. But she says she never wanted to become famous growing up, and simply saw music as an integral part of her life.

She says: "My mother sang all the time. I grew up thinking everybody sang. The environment was full of music. My sons and I play and sing all the time. When we have get-togethers, everyone does a party piece. None of my sons have aspirations to go on X-Factor. It's just part of them."

Her first experience of performing was entering a piano competition at the Assembly Rooms aged ten, followed by singing in school concerts. But it was only when she moved from Dunfermline to Edinburgh at the age of 17, that she began to perform regularly. Friends persuaded her to sing at a night out at a folk club, and she soon became a regular. At the time she was working for the Civil Service at New Register House, and living in Northumberland Street in the New Town.

She laments the loss of the folk clubs, which were a regular feature in Edinburgh. She would also sing in pubs, including the Waverley and the Halfway House. She says: "They were proper clubs. There was a compere and anyone could sing. The first time I was very, very nervous. But something inside me must've wanted to sing in front of people. We'd write songs down for each other all the time. I'd keep fragments of songs in an old shirtbox. It was a very organic culture, with no top and bottom. I hate the cut and thrust of fame.
Barbara decided to become a professional singer when her employers refused to give her three weeks' unpaid leave to sing in Copenhagen. She gave up her job to make a living from music. 'I see my career as part of my soul'

Shortly afterwards she moved to the north of England to work. Her friend Willy Russell persuaded her to try acting in his musical, John Paul George Ringo . . . & Bert. After this she began recording pop songs and her career took off. She was soon performing sell-out shows, and recording with singers such as Elaine Paige.

She says: "I didn't want fame – I actually found it embarrassing! I was mobbed once, and I've always been mystified by it. I see myself as a musician who has a great gift, and I'm very careful with it. I hate the word celebrity. Even 30 years ago, if you were well-known, there was something you were well-known for. The problem with things like the X-Factor is people are catapulted into the stratosphere when they're not ready for it. The rest of us climbed up gradually."

But she says she likes being recognised in the streets, and always takes time to chat to fans and sign autographs after shows. She feels especially touched when couples tell her a song has a special meaning for them. She tries to keep her family out of the spotlight. Unlike many show business couples, she and her husband Oliver Cookson, a TV producer, have been happily married for 25 years. They have three sons, with the youngest starting university.

She says: "My ideal would be to only have people pay attention to my work, and not to me. I've never wanted cameras in my house. Because I work in the public eye, I want somewhere away from it. I've never given up working, and neither has my husband. It's good for a relationship. When my first two sons were very little, I used to take them with me. Then when my eldest started school, I tried to work in the holidays."

Perhaps surprisingly, her husband and sons have not read her book. Barbara says this is because they know all her stories already.
She says: "I don't have any massive revelations! I didn't even give my friends copies. It seemed a bit arrogant. I've only given a copy to one or two people who helped me with it."

Although her story is for the most part uplifting, she also deals with some of the more difficult periods of her life. She writes about the stage-fright and exhaustion which affected her for about 15 years. It started when she "died" on stage, forgetting her lines when another cast member made a wrong move. She says: "He came on stage doing something that completely threw me. Everybody just stands there and it's terrifying. I'd never had an experience like that.

"It was like a black mood that was there all the time. I used to be sick, and I had a rash right across my chest. It was an absolute blind terror. I used to panic, have sweats and cough. I was exhausted. I became ill, and I couldn't eat or sleep. I didn't want to go back into theatre. There was nothing I could take – I just had to keep at it. I see my career as a vocation. It's part of my soul, and I can't give that up. The stage fright does diminish with time, but I'm still nervous. I've never been very sure of myself. My dad was very shy, and my mother was an outgoing Liverpudlian. I'm right down the middle."

Like most women, she admits to often feeling insecure about her appearance. As a skinny teenager, she tried exercises to make her legs less beanpole-like. She also refused to be photographed wearing her glasses for many years.

She says: "When you're in the public eye you have the services of hairdressers and makeup artists. But I've looked at photos and thought it doesn't look like me. One of the worst photo sessions was in Holland, when they wanted me to wear a coat over my outfit and walk down a catwalk carrying a suitcase!"

Although her career has now lasted more than 40 years, she still plans to keep writing songs and performing. She was due to make an informal appearance at the Queen's Hall last night, alongside her old friend Archie Fisher. She will then be returning to Dunfermline on Monday, to speak about her book at the Carnegie Hall. In between she will be relaxing with her family, walking in the Botanic Gardens and shopping in Harvey Nichols. She says she dreams about coming back to Edinburgh, and would love to buy a house in Trinity, overlooking the Forth.

She says: "The lovely thing about Edinburgh is I can just bus into town and go to galleries, museums and the ballet. It's very beautiful and I love the New Town. I'm trying to persuade my husband to move. He loves Alexander McCall Smith's Scotland Street books – I think it's a kind of product placement! I can see myself back here. I've never put down roots in England."


Edinburgh "Evening News", October 31, 2009. Interview by Hazel Mollison.