A SHIRT BOX FULL OF SONGS

You’ve recently published your autobiography, ‘A Shirt Box Full of Songs’. Did you enjoy the experience of putting it together?

I think that writing about your own life is very different to writing fiction. Obviously all the information is there already, but it was the style of the writing that worried me most. I didn’t want the book to be badly written or to come across as stilted – it had to be entertaining and to pull people into the story and I hope I’ve managed to do that.

As well as your early life, growing up in Dunfermline, and your years as a struggling folk singer, you've been a professional musician for over 40 years now. Did you find that it was difficult cramming everything that you've done into the book? How easy was it trying to recall everything?

I haven’t got the greatest memory when it comes to my career but strangely I’m brilliant with personal stuff. I've no idea why. I didn't really need to ask my brother much about when we were growing up, but all my colleagues definitely got it in the teeth having to help me remember dates and times. I also needed help with who played on which of my albums. I remember all the musicians of course, but couldn't remember which projects they’d worked on. That sounds terrible – it doesn't
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mean that I didn't love working with them, just that the world was whizzing by so quickly in those days as I always seemed to be rushing from one thing to the next.

That ‘pop’ era of your career was incredibly successful. What was the point at which you decided to move on from it? Was it a conscious decision to ‘reinvent’ yourself?

The pop years just came to an end naturally really. I decided that being the age I was wasn’t conducive to being in pop music. It was faintly embarrassing to still be singing that kind of music. Even musical theatre was becoming trite and so I went back to what I loved best, which was folk and acoustic music. I knew that had depth and meaning and it made me happy to be back doing that.

Do you still get the same buzz out of performing after all these years?

To be honest, I think I enjoy performing more than I used to. I used to worry far too much about all sorts of peripheral things. I got very anxious about silly stuff but now I’m totally focused on the music. I’m not really sure why that is. I think that maybe I didn’t trust the music enough when I was doing all the pop stuff. The material I do these days is far more meaningful. I believe in it completely and I hope that comes across to the audience.

You describe fame in your book as a 'Faustian pact'. There's obviously a degree to which you have to play the media game in order to promote your current projects - interviews, photo shoots and so on, and of course the press are always interested in people's private lives. How easy has it been to juggle those demands? Have you never been tempted to go down the road of doing shows like "I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here"? Like them or loath them, they do draw in huge audiences.

The reason I described it a 'Faustian Pact' is that so many people have this obsessive, prurient interest in the lives of the famous and will stop at nothing to satisfy it - or to be a part of it. I just find it weird. Gossip is a human need, so they say, but tittle-tattle has always annoyed me and I just never wanted to be the subject of that or to have any part in it. It's just desperate to watch people trying to be noticed in any way they can. TV reality shows are really sad. I don’t want to get involved with anything that includes the word 'celebrity' – unless it’s 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Being a Celebrity!'

Billy Connolly once said, “fame is being asked to sign your autograph on the back of a cigarette packet”.  Does it intrude much on your personal life? Do you get people coming up to you in the street or while you’re in a restaurant - and how easy is that to deal with?

Being well known doesn’t affect me really, unless someone shouts out my name in the street or makes me feel conspicuous. It’s taken me years to figure out what it is that’s so degrading about that, but it’s because you suddenly become very noticeable and for me it’s not enjoyable. When I’m working and I meet the audience after a show, I love that. It’s only out of context that it freaks me out.

You say celebrity is shallow, but many others who have had far less success than you have been swept up in it. Why do you think you’ve managed to keep your feet on the ground – is it family, your Scots background…?

I don’t believe that you are any better than your ability. I don’t care that other people are hugely famous and I really didn’t want it to happen to me. I wanted to remain a member of my community, wherever that was at the time. I wanted to have a life and to be ‘real’. Real music is nothing to do with fame and celebrity.

Do you still get the same 'buzz' from recording and performing after all these years? You've achieved so much - best-selling albums, playing some of the country's biggest venues... what drives you these days? Is there still an element of ambition - to make the next album the most successful yet, to play to even bigger audiences on the next tour?

Yes, I am filled with ambition but not for success in the money and fame department, but real success in what I want to achieve in my career. I desperately want to have recognition for my work and to have it treated seriously. At this stage of my life it’s just about having people appreciate my music.

You have played a handful of festivals this year. How did you enjoy the experience and is that something which you’d like to do more of?

Yes, I love festivals. I love not having to really dress up! I can just go on stage in jeans and a top. It also means that I can play a more informal set and really dig deep into myself musically. I’d love to play Glastonbury and the Cambridge Folk Festival. Tønder in Denmark would be good too.

Do you miss being out on the road and performing when a tour finishes? When you get back home do you find yourself thinking in the evenings, "I'd be going out on stage at this time?"

I do love touring and as you say I’ve recently been doing some shows in the summer, months after my tour has finished. I hate only working occasionally and would love to do more one-off's. It gives me a real buzz. I even play the piano and guitar at home, just to keep limbered up – so that I’m ready when the call comes!

Is it difficult adjusting between being Barbara Dickson, the singer, when you're working and your 'normal' life when you're back at home in Lincolnshire?

That touches on the idea of fame again, doesn't it? I love talking to people about my work, but I like to be left alone to enjoy my personal life and to have a good work/life balance. The lovely thing is that people do recognise me in the street or wherever I am, but most are respectful. I don't get hysterics any more, thankfully! And when I’m home, I’m just someone’s wife and mother.

In writing your book you must have spent a long time reflecting on your career. What would you say are the best - and worst - decisions you’ve made professionally?

The best was to turn professional when I was really afraid to do it, in case it went wrong and I had no money to fall back on. There have been many bad moves I’ve made in my professional career, but they’re all part of the process of learning not to repeat mistakes. The best everyone knows about already, I guess.

You seem to have reached a stage in your career where you are happier than ever. Do you think there will come a point when you hang up your guitar for good?

That’s a really difficult question, as it touches on age and ability. In music there are lots of older musicians and singers who are still great even into their '70's - and those who are most definitely not. What I’d like is to be granted the grace to see myself as others see me, to paraphrase the words of the great Robert Burns. When I'm past it, I’d like to know myself and stop before I get to that stage!

What are your plans for the future?

Well, when the tour is finished I want to start work on a new album which I’m provisionally calling ‘Full Circle 3’, which will be another collaboration with Troy. I really want to develop this strain of music we’ve been exploring. I want to do more festivals as I’ve said, and I also want to get back into writing more songs. I have a few ready, but I may need more.

You’ve had more success than most singers would dream of, won awards as an actress – are there any ambitions left unfulfilled?

Oh, loads! I’d like to sing a duet with James Taylor. I’d like to appear on ‘Transatlantic Sessions’. I’d like to play again in Australia, I’d like to play in the US and Canada. I could go on and on! Who knows if any of them will happen? So many wonderful opportunities have come my way throughout my career, many totally unexpected. I always look to the future and it’s why I always roll my eyes when interviewers ask me about the highlight of my career, as if the best is behind me. It’s certainly not – I truly believe the best is yet to come!


'Barbara Dickson' website - January, 2010.