Interview: Barbara Dickson

This interview originally appeared in The Herald Magazine on February 2, 2019.

I can see two Barbara Dicksons in front of me. The first one’s drinking coffee on a winter’s day in Edinburgh’s New Town, reflecting on the sisterhood, pop stardom and political theatre – and looking forward to a career-spanning tour.

The other’s just outside our window, by the doorway of what was The Buffs – a sixties folk den which Dickson frequented as a prodigious folk singer, way back when. It’s so close that I can see her there: a teenager, guitar in hand, black boots, black polo neck, packet of Woodbines, regulation Levi’s 501s. That was before she packed in her day-job as a civil servant. Before she moved to London, became a pop star, stole the show as a theatre and TV actor, inspired John Lennon, Ray Charles and Bjorn from Abba to sing her praises – and bagged 17 gold and platinum albums (not to mention the hit singles), making her Scotland’s biggest-selling female artist of all time. As her life-long pal Billy Connolly puts it: “Barbara’s a one-off. Her voice just nails you to the wall.”

“I loved those 501s,” says Dickson, as we imagine her younger self across the road. “I shrunk them in this big old bath in my flat, round the corner from here, in Northumberland Street,” she recalls, and she draws a map in the morning light, charting the city’s sixties and seventies folk landmarks, half a century on. “I worked up there, by the Cafe Royal, at the Registrar General’s Department, and we’d walk to the Waverley Bar, off the High Street, and along to Sandy Bell’s. That place is so full of stories they’re stuck in the walls. People would just turn up. Martin Carthy, The McCalmans, Aly Bain, Hamish Henderson. We’d stand at the back, by the ladies’ toilets, all singing a cappella.”

Dickson was no stranger to unaccompanied vocal turns. Even as an infant in Dunfermline, “the bairn” would sing in her pram in the garden, much to the amazement of the local postman. She played piano from the age of five, picked up a guitar when she started high school, made her nervous local folk club debut a few years later, and moved to Edinburgh aged 17. “I’ve been everywhere since then, and experienced all sorts of music,” offers the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. “And I became an actress, and all that stuff, which I never would have dreamed of doing. People always say, ‘You must have had a plan’. But I didn’t have a plan at all.”

Her terrific autobiography, A Shirt Box Full Of Songs, testifies to that. It tells the tale of a girl from Fife who loved Calamity Jane, The Beatles and The Everly Brothers, and who always had a belief in her voice, if not in herself. She became a star of stage and screen, much to her surprise, although some of these pursuits caused extended periods of debilitating stagefright and nervous exhaustion. But other adventures sound like a wheeze. She starred in the finale of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film alongside Donovan and Jack Bruce; she and Elaine Paige hit it off righteously during their chart reign with I Know Him So Well; and she depicts her early-eighties courtship with moustachioed Grandstand heartthrob Des Lynam as great fun, albeit compromised by his preoccupation with sport. “We did seem to spend quite a lot of our short time together watching it on television when I’m sure there was something more interesting we could have been doing instead,” she writes.

Amid tales of her family, marriage, three sons, and love for Eminem (“to my mind one of the best musical storytellers since Bob Dylan”), A Shirt Box Full Of Songs celebrates a life of resilience and vulnerability; of seizing opportunities and taking risks. “Of lurching along!” Dickson adds, over her coffee. “And yes, being very, very scared all over the place.”

There’s a sense of seeking – and finding – courage, and freedom (from ourselves or others), in many of Barbara Dickson’s songs, not least two glorious Mike Batt classics: Run Like The Wind (“The more you try to keep me here, the less you will succeed”), and Caravan Song (“I need to breathe, I need to leave”). She nods. “Caravans has this kind of mythical thing with my audience, and I think it’s all to do with that line – ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going,’” she muses. “It has this hymnal, anthemic quality. People say to me, ‘It’s so wrapped up with memories’. Songs can mean so much to people. I think you have a responsibility to the audience to sing them.”

Her voice remains stunning. Singular yet warmly familiar; sad, and poignant, and uplifting. I’ve loved it since I was a child. She laughs. “That’s not your fault! I get great swathes of women coming to see me, lots of women who’ve all been friends for many years, and they’ll have brainwashed their whole families by playing and singing my songs, so you’ll get younger victims, just like you, being dragged along.” (All too willingly.) “And then – and this is really sweet, at my age, I’m 71 – you’ll get women who come up and talk to me after the show, and they’ll say, ‘My husband’s standing behind that pillar there, because he’s too nervous to say hello.’” A hearty chuckle. “And I go, ‘Right, let’s have a look at him! It might be worth trading the husband in!’

“But the loveliest thing of all,” Dickson continues, “Is that I get women who say, ‘For goodness’ sake, keep going – you’re an inspiration to us!’ And this is the thing. The sisterhood is very, very important to me. We women have enough of a problem with being consigned to the bin over the age of whatever it is now, so I want to be a funky old lady, and I want to keep my funky old ladies going as well. I’m not interested in being outrageous. I don’t want to stand there telling jokes. That’s not for me particularly, because I am from Dunfermline. And I am quite shy,” she says. “But I feel like I’m a sort of poster girl for these women who’ve made some terrible choices and some good choices, who came through the upheaval of the sixties and seventies, and I think that’s very important. I love being that woman. And I love being that woman in Scotland.”

She’s been away for over 40 years, living in London and Lincolnshire, but Dickson recently returned to Edinburgh, round the corner from her old flat. “I hit the ground running when I moved back – it was as if I’d never been away,” she smiles. “It’s been a fantastic experience to re-inhabit the boots that I left in the early seventies, and to start walking around in them again.”

That’s not to say she’s retreading old ground. From her earliest records in cahoots with long-standing friends Rab Noakes and Archie Fisher to her most recent albums, Dickson’s flair for the (re)interpretation of a song remains exceptional, and unshackled by genre conventions: there’s room for folk, pop, prog, rock, classical and more. But she’s never one to rest on her laurels, and is relishing the prospect of shaking things up on her forthcoming tour. She touches on a recent reinvention of her Evita classic Another Suitcase In Another Hall (later covered by Madonna), and a new take on Easy Terms that she’s rendering as a harmonium psalm. “I love that a song can have a life of its own, and that it can have many lives,” she says. “It means it’s a sort of shape-shifting thing.”

Her relationships change with those songs, too. After years of ambivalence towards it, Dickson has rekindled an affection for January, February, thanks to her musical collaborator Troy Donockley. “I just never knew how to revamp it,” she says. “And then, about three years ago, Troy said – ‘You know what? We could do January, February as a jig – because that’s what it is. If I play bazouki, suddenly it becomes folk music’. And that’s what we did.” An orchestral version on Through Line, her recent album with The Carducci Quartet, is also well worth hearing. “I’ve developed a new enthusiasm for January, February now,” she reflects. “That’s taken time. But I love being able to make my own choices when I want to. I love being independent [she has her own record label, Chariot], and not to have to toe any sort of musical line.”

Dickson’s knack for song interpretation led to her career in theatre. It was galvanised by dramatist, lyricist and composer Willy Russell, whom she first befriended in Sandy Bell’s. He cast her in his groundbreaking 1974 Liverpool theatre production John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert, which saw Dickson in her element: at a piano, re-configuring The Beatles. In the early eighties, Russell wrote the devastating Blood Brothers, and while Dickson was thrilled at the prospect of contributing vocals to his play-with-songs, Russell had other ideas: he persuaded her to accept her first-ever acting role, as the central protagonist, Mrs Johnstone. It bagged Dickson the first of two Best Actress In A Musical garlands at the Olivier Awards.

“A lot of people seeing Blood Brothers said, ‘Oh, it’s very Northern, it’s very gloomy,’” says Dickson. “Which it was. It was about Thatcher’s Britain. It was political theatre. But my mother was from Liverpool and I’m a working class person, and I felt very strongly about Mrs Johnstone and why did what she did. Why she had to give a child away. It’s such a very powerful piece of work. And so I see myself – without being pretentious – as having contributed something quite important to the theatre, from a left-wing point of view,” she offers. “Not that I bang on about left wing issues, but that is my background. I come from a mining area in Scotland. Even my own show, The Seven Ages of Woman, was a walk through the life of the ordinary everywoman – from a small person to an older person – celebrating the sisterhood in all of its diversity.”

The characters with whom she’s most closely associated in her acting career are diverse, too: destitute mother Mrs Johnstone; Anita Braithwaite from Band of Gold (Kay Mellor’s groundbreaking TV series about a group of sex workers in Bradford); and infamous Yorkshire woman Viv Nicholson, whose rags-to-riches-to-rags tale was depicted in Spend, Spend, Spend. But at heart, they all have common traits. They’re all strong, vulnerable, warm and complex working-class women. They’re all survivors. “Absolutely. There’s nothing of Noel Coward that I could bring much to,” Dickson suggests. “But if Bill Forsyth or Bill Bryden wanted me to play someone’s granny up a close, hanging out the washing, I’d be particularly happy to do that.”

Her celebration of the sisterhood extends to a melancholic power ballad that made her one half of the UK’s biggest-selling female duo of all time. Co-written for the musical Chess by Tim Rice and Abba’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, it saw Dickson join forces with Elaine Paige for a love song with twist: two women sing from different (but increasingly harmonic) perspectives about the same man. “Exactly – that’s why I wanted to do it,” she says. “That’s what was so interesting to me about the song.” Suffice to say, it struck a chord. It spent four weeks at number one in 1985, but its popularity has endured.

Dickson doesn’t sing it live – it is a duet, after all – but acknowledges its beloved appeal. “People will often say to me, ‘What don’t you sing it?’ And I say – ‘Do you know something, why don’t you sing it?’ she laughs. “I’m handing it over – it’s your song now. I love that everyone can sing it, and I love that it’s been done for charity. But it’s the most telling example of a song that I’ve done without having any idea of the life that it would have.” She looks out of the window. I imagine her younger self passing us by.

Looking back, she could have played it differently. Barbara Dickson could have kept her day-job in the civil service; turned down Willy Russell, Tim Rice, TV offers; remained a local folk linchpin; hung around in Sandy Bell’s. She could have been less scared. But in the end, that’s not how she explored the seven ages of woman. There are many ways to inhabit a strong and vulnerable character. There are many ways to sing a song.

*

Barbara Dickson plays Perth Concert Hall on February 6, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 7, Inverness Eden Court on February 8 and Edinburgh King’s Theatre on February 10.

SIDE PANEL: FULL CIRCLE

Barbara Dickson has influenced generations of artists, but she looks to them, too, for inspiration. She’s a huge fan of singer-songwriter Emma Pollock and musician-composer Mairearad Green – connecting them with her abiding allies The Corries, Hamish Imlach, Charlie Dore, and her hugely-missed friend, Gerry Rafferty. “It’s important for me to be aware of what’s going on,” Dickson says. “Someone like Karine Polwart is a shining example of what you can do with a prodigious amount of talent. She adds more enlightenment to the musical scene in Scotland. I think it’s very important that we don’t get too tied up in our own music; that we speak to the world. Karine does that.”

Polwart, in turn, was inspired by Dickson. “I remember seeing Barbara on the Two Ronnies when I was at primary school, and my mum saying, with a degree of pride, ‘She’s from Dunfermline, you know’. Her voice was so effortlessly warm, earthy and smoky. She barely looked like she was trying,” Polwart offers. “In terms of Scottish women singers and musicians, only Annie Lennox and Sheena Easton were comparable in stature at the time. And they were more elusive somehow. Barbara seemed to be both elegant and a good laugh. Much later, I realised she’d emerged from folk clubs and hung out with all the amazing trad singers that influenced my early career. I like that she’s long since returned to singing folk songs as well as pop songs, and treats them as equal in value.”

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