GOLD MAGAZINE: 1992
After a lengthy break from both touring and recording, Barbara Dickson has just spent the summer months on the road, leading up to the release of her latest album, "Don't Think Twice It's All Right", a collection of Bob Dylan songs. Liz Thomson caught up with her between stops.
It's a fair bet that the majority of Barbara Dickson's fans first sat up and took notice of her somewhere between her appearance in Willy Russell's West End success "John Paul George Ringo...And Bert" in 1974, and 1980, when she took "January February" into the Top Ten.
Since then, they've grown with her, admiring her voice and musicianship as she tackled everything from Gluck to Gracie Fields, Kurt Weill to Cole Porter, Sam Cooke to Lloyd Webber and, of course, her own songs, co-written with the likes of Charlie Dore, Alan Tarney or with long-time musical collaborator Ian Lynn.
Though it's a while since she's toured or recorded, Barbara's summer of hectic activity certainly proved she's not one to rest on her musical laurels. The 54-date tour covered both the musical and geographical miles, as she eschewed large regional venues in favour of smaller local ones, and proved once again that a good voice conquers all, be it Dylan or Dietrich.
"In these days of recession, I don't think you can do just big venues. You have to take what you do to the people," Barbara explains, when asked about a schedule that included dates in Inverness, the Embassy Centre in Skegness and Walthamstow's Assembly Hall. "People have financial problems and they're very choosy about what they spend their money on.
They don't want to travel miles and miles - and a 7.30pm start is difficult if you've got children. A lot of people who come to see me are families, so the best thing is to take what you do to them and you can be sure they will appreciate it."
While agreeing that it's a pretty exhausting way of touring - particularly performing the whole two-hour show, with no support, as Barbara does - there was never a sense of boredom or routine. "There's nothing so sobering as standing in front of one thousand people. You cannot take it lightly - I can't anyway, I'm always quite keyed up, worried that something might go wrong."
The summer tour was, she believes, her most theatrical and complex to date and, with her new look, Barbara resembled a walk-on from "Thelma and Louise". Simple props - a scarf, dark glasses - have been feature of her gigs for several years now, but this time, she and director Chris Bond included lots of back projection, using newsreel stills or shots from the Dickson family album.
"I worked with Chris on "Blood Brothers" in 1982-83 and he really helped me maximise my power theatrically. That's when I realised what could be done. Just after that I did a two-week season at the Liverpool Playhouse where Chris was artistic director and that's when I used costumes and props for the first time. Simple things, but terrifically effective. I've never gone back from there and I always approach everything in a very theatrical way. But this tour was the best I've done, the most challenging theatrically."
Clearly, Barbara has gathered a good team, for while Bond again directed her visuals, her old friend Ian Lynn worked on the music, always a collaborative effort. "Ian and myself, we work things out. I'll choose songs and we'll go through them," she explains, adding that multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn also brought in song ideas. "As far as I'm concerned, everything is fair game."
As for tackling material that's indelibly associated with someone else, she says, "A lot of people might think that they couldn't do it as well as the original, or that it wasn't their style, but I've never had that problem. It comes down to confidence. I grew up with pop music in the Sixties and I got into folk music around 1965, playing folk fairly exclusively for about ten years, but taking in James Taylor and Joni Mitchell as well as traditional music. Then I met a lot of musicians in London who were really into jazz, and later I got into black music." In the end, Barbara believes, it all comes down to knowing what you like and, at the age of 44 and with 30 years of music-making behind her, 23 of them professional, she certainly does that.
So, in the nicest way possible, Barbara's roots were showing. True, she's recorded "The Skye Boat Song", and a searing "She Moved Thro' The Fair", but how many fans remember her from the days when she toured the clubs and pubs with such fellow travellers as Maddy Prior and Gerry Rafferty, Rab Noakes and Billy Connolly - 'folk club mates' with whom she still keeps in touch.
This time around she offered stunning versions of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?", the first sung accapella, the second to the accompaniment of her brand new Martin guitar. Ewan MacColl and Sandy Denny, looking down from that great celestial singers' night, would surely have been delighted. "That stuff is so easy for me. It's what I cut my teeth on."
Her latest recording is a collection of Bob Dylan songs, "Don't Think Twice It's All Right", released by Columbia. Most of its twelve songs
are drawn from Dylan's golden period, 1962-65, and the sole representative of the past twenty years is the powerful "Ring Them Bells", taken from Dylan's 1989 album, "Oh Mercy". While the ignoral of "Blood On The Tracks" is perhaps surprising, Barbara's selection could be construed as yet another indictment of Dylan's later years.
Ms Dickson disagrees. "There's no shortage of cracking good songs. It just depends on what you like. I listened dutifully to everything, the whole lot, and came up with a shortlist that would provide enough material for four albums," she counters, adding that "Blowin' In The Wind" and "When The Ship Comes In" are favourites from her folk club days.
"The old ones are absolute classics. I don't think that's a sentimental leaning to Dylan as a young man. I think they are marginally more superior. I agree - he's kind of unpredictable these days. But listen: Dylan is a genius and if he never wrote another song he's done enough for us."
Eloquently put, and no one could disagree, but it is perhaps an odd time to come out with a Dylan album. Indeed, you probably have to go back as far as 1968 and Joan Baez's double album set, "Any Day Now", to find another devoted solely to his material. Recorded in Nashville, it is a country-meets-folk approach to the Old Master, but interestingly, Barbara has never heard of it. "I knew a lot of Baez in the mid-Sixties, but not that album," she admits.
"Don't Think Twice It's All Right" fuses ancient and modern age-old folk influences with Nineties' studio techniques and programming. Dylan purists will probably throw up their hands and exclaim that nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, but Dickson fans, and those coming to the collection with an open mind, will find much to admire in her interpretations: snatches of "Yankee Doodle" and "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic", woven into "With God On Our Side", a drone bass on "Maggie's Farm", drum ostinatos, pipes... "Those are my influences," Barbara aknowledges, speaking of musical ideas that are as much Scottish as Anglo-American, "and I think I've every right to use them, to give a song an individual treatment. And I work so well with Ian. We're like musical lovers; we can communicate with just a look."
A striking feature of the tour (though not of the album) was the lead guitar work of Val McKenna. "She's a great player, old Val. It was no prejudice on my part that I'd never worked with a female member in the band. It just happens that I've worked with Caucasian men, the circles I've moved in. People I've worked with have tended to come through the nucleus of Ian and Pete.
"The guitar is a sex object really, associated with all that strutting your stuff in tight jeans. So women just don't play lead guitar, but there's no reason why they can't. Val's a session guitarist and a fine singer. It's very much a requirement of my band that everybody sings well - really well - or not at all. If you're going to cover a Manhattan Transfer song, you've got to do it as well as they did it," says Barbara, returning to our point of departure, and remarking what fun it's been, having a woman to gossip with on the road.
The road to success, and her position as one of Britain's top female vocalists, has been a long one that began in her native Scotland. She claims to have been "a poor scholar" who managed only four years of classical piano. "I'm a busker at heart. I taught myself to play the guitar by ear - I knew the names of the guitar chords and what went ith the other. So when I was about 21, I started to play the piano by ear, which I hadn't done before because I'd used music. I just put all these guitar chords on the piano - and that was how I did "John Paul George Ringo", by ear."
The show's writer, Willy Russell, became an acquaintance during Barbara's years on the folk circuit. "I met him first in Edinburgh, then again the night before he got married. I became friendly with him and I used to go and stay with him in Liverpool when I was doing the folk clubs in the area. He liked what I did, liked my voice and in fact ran a club himself. I was actually staying with him as he finished writing "John Paul George Ringo" and I thought it was a real scream. Willy thought of me doing it, so it was my big break."
"Blood Brothers" was another Russell creation, of course, so it sometimes seems that Barbara is as much a part of the Liverpool scene as the playwright himself. "I love Liverpool," she enthuses. "In fact, my mother's from there. It's a great place, like Glasgow, with a real spunky character. And they're so cheeky, the Scousers; they'll talk to anybody. They're very confident, they'll have a go - which is fantastic. In Liverpool or Glasgow, everyone will get up and sing a song. It's very unusual for people not to want to show off in a nice kind of a way."
If Russell was able to spot a good voice, Barbara has consistently proved no less able at spotting good songwriters, as a clutch of albums and her live shows testify. Words are of prime importance in the selection process. "I like good tunes but I also like words, and if somebody writes good words then become instantly interested." Aside from Lennon and McCartney and Dylan, she cites James Taylor ("a wonderful writer, a glorious voice, and I love the way he plays the guitar"), Eric Clapton, Sting, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell... "Lisa Stansfield is a great singer. I like Tracy Chapman a lot and Annie Lennox I adore." She dips in and out of most radio stations and is "always interested in what's happening. I really like Simply Red, Del Amitri... they're not actually doing anything new although they're writing new songs." In fact, says Barbara, she likes a bit of everything. "Even dance music, some of the modern stuff - though the sampling can drive me mad."
Her passion, though, is world music - folk music from wherever it comes. "I'd be as interested listening to a Japanese band playing Japanese music as I would listening to bands in the British Isles," she continues, adding that her favourite folk music above all others is Irish. "Like Gerry Rafferty, everything I like is grounded in folk music and I know more about Irish music than any other," says Barbara, reaching for superlatives as she mentions Planxty, Clannad, Christy Moore, the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners.
"I'd love to do a folk album, I really would. I just know so much about it. A vast part of my brain is crammed with those songs," she says, speaking of all those great traditional ballads that tell of love and death, and revenge. What about a television series? Perhaps another "Bringing It All Back Home" which explored Irish influences on American music. "I'd love to do that, but so far no one has offered me the money," she replies, moving on to castigate the record industry which, terrified of losing money, resorts to he mass-produced and predictable. "No one wants to put out anything in case it bombs," she adds, praising CBS-Sony for getting behind her.
In the short term, the future is a blank page, and bliss is sleeping in the same bed every night. "I love being at home. It's a real life and I don't miss being on the road at all." Even songwriting has taken a back seat. "I don't think I'll write for the next couple of years because my children are very young and I want to see them grow up." Colm is six, Gabriel almost four, Archie two, and they are all musical, though Barbara has no desire to push them. "I'd rather they just picked it up. The older two are allowed very gently to play the piano and strum my Martin, and they can all sing." It is, she feels, a musical household: husband Oliver works in television but is an excellent clarinettist and sings extremely well.
"I haven't sat down to plan what I'm going to do next," she concludes, adding that she'd like an acting project and is currently looking at a TV drama. "I've covered a lot of territory - but I've had to be encouraged, pushed, cajoled. I'm no Bonnie Langford. It was difficult for me to get out on stage because I'm not a ntaural show-off. I'm quite an introverted sort of person and I'm very serious as you can probably tell. I like to do things, but I like to do them my way."