Discussing getting songs from ghosts despite Boo Hewerdine’s doubts.
Heidi Talbot may have spent over half her life as a working musician, including her apprenticeship with the Irish-American group Cherish the Ladies, and it is twenty years since her first solo album, but her new album ‘Sing It For A Lifetime’ represents a new challenge as it was recorded without her now ex-husband John McCusker in the producer’s chair. She had planned to record the album in Lafayette, Louisiana, with Dirk Powell but the pandemic intervened and she recorded the album with Powell in Louisiana while she was at home in Edinburgh. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Heidi Talbot over zoom to discuss ‘Sing It For A Lifetime’ and what it was like working remotely with Dirk Powell and his musicians, and how she managed to get Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher to play on it. She also explains that she got the idea for songs on the album, some she uncharacteristically wrote very quickly, on one of the many walks she had during the lockdown, and how she likes to believe that the song was given to her by the other-worldly beings she encountered on her walks. She also recounts that Boo Hewerdine definitely doesn’t believe her, saying that she created the songs herself, but that Shane MacGowan also believes he gets his songs from the ghosts.
There has been a bit of a similar pattern with artists and their pandemic records, but while ‘Sing It For A Lifetime’ may be a pandemic record it also had a unique genesis.
I think one of the good things that have come out of the last couple of years is that we have got really good at using our digital infrastructure. If someone had said to me two years ago that I would record an album with someone in America and I would be in Edinburgh, I would have said no way, we just can’t do that. I was supposed to go to Lafayette, Louisiana, and record the album with Dirk Powell. I had my flights booked, and about two weeks before I was due to go it was time to make a decision because we had been waiting and waiting for the COVID rules to change so that I could maybe get into America, but it was like this is not going to happen. Dirk had the studio booked, and he had musicians booked, and I had booked my time off, so we decided to just go for it. He would record in America, and I would record in Edinburgh, and it actually worked out really well for us.
Like I said, a couple of years ago I would have said there is no way, but I have a great friend who is a brilliant recording engineer called Cameron Malcolm, who I have worked with quite a lot over the years, and he came to my house with a lot of melamine foam, and we built a soundproofed cave in my living room. That is where I recorded, and Dirk would send files overnight because he was six hours behind the UK. He would record with musicians in Louisiana, send the files overnight, and in the morning we would download them and we would record to his files. We would have a crossover of a few hours every day where we were both in the studio, and it worked really well. It gave us a chance to reflect on what the other had done the day before. It gave us a little chance to step away from something because when you are in the studio quite a lot of the time it is very intense, and you are in that bubble and you are very close to it. Being able to send the music back and forth allowed both sides to really listen, it would be like, that’s interesting that has gone that way, I thought it would have gone this way but that way is much better, or vice versa.
How and why did you get Dirk Powell to produce the record?
I recorded with Dirk more than twenty years ago actually, we worked together on my first record ‘Distant Future’ which was produced by John Doyle, and Dirk played piano and double bass on it. That was when I was about 21, and he was a natural choice when I wanted to make a new record, and I wanted to do something different. The songs I was drawn towards that I was writing were leaning more towards americana and country, than folk. I love his solo albums, I had his ‘Walking Through Clay’ on repeat when that came out. So that is how that came about.
How did you work out who was leading what, and who did the arrangements?
We did quite a lot of pre-production and recorded little demos and sent them back and forth, then had a Zoom meeting, and we did quite a lot of that. I had a song I wrote called ‘Sing It For A Lifetime’ and I had written the melody, the chorus lyrics, and I made a little demo with just me and a guitar and sent it to Dirk. He then added lyrics to the verses, and it was a process where we throw a lot of different things at. Because we weren’t in the studio together we had time, he is a multi-instrumentalist, so to start with there is slide guitar and everything on it, and we would both come back to it and it was like, actually, we will take that off and I think we should redo the guitar, maybe we should take the drums off and build them up again. So it was definitely produced by Dirk, but we both had a lot of input into the tempos, feel and what have you. He is a great producer, he is very open to whatever, and he is just great.
What was it like not working with your now ex-husband John McCusker?
John and I have children together and we are still very close, we are still a family, but yes, we were a partnership in many ways and he produced my last three records, and we have worked together so much. I couldn’t make the same record without John, and I didn’t want to, either, I wanted to do something different. It was a baptism by fire I guess, I had to really stand on my own feet, and be responsible for these musical decisions I was making. It is always terrifying when you are making art, when you are making a new record it is exhilarating and it is also very scary because you are really putting yourself out there. It became very enjoyable, I would say at the start of the process I was very tentatively taking my steps because I was like, I’m not used to this, not having John there to bounce ideas off or to ask his advice on something. I had Dirk who is wonderful as a producer, but it was a different relationship obviously, and there are many layers if you are married to your partner, and your partner is your producer and you make music together. I would say it was a very good thing, I would say it was a very good process for me to go through, and I’m proud of all the things I have created. I met Dougie MacClean at Shetland Folk Festival recently, and we were talking about your songs and your records being like little snapshots of your life. I made a record called ‘The Last Star’ and I was like, gosh, I was pregnant with my eldest daughter when I made this, it is just a little snapshot in your life and it is beautiful. I also said that you have lots of song babies out in the world, haha, and it does feel a little bit like this record is my new baby, and I’m letting it go out into the world. I’m like, I’m very proud of you, off you go, haha.
How did you write the songs for the record, are they all new?
There are some covers. There is a Dolly Parton cover, ‘When Possession Gets Too Strong’, and there is a cover of a Willie Nelson song, ‘There You Are’, and I love Willie Nelson, I mean, you can’t really go wrong with Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson if you are making a more americana country record. I didn’t love the production of Willie’s version of it, no offence to him, it was quite ‘80s sounding with synths and stuff. When Dirk sent me back ‘There You Are’ I was like this would be so amazing to have Mark Knopfler on this, I can hear him playing, I thought, you know what, I know Mark a little bit because John had worked with him for years, and I’m going to email him and the worst that can happen is he says no. I emailed him a few songs and I said I can hear you on this song, and I would love you to play on it but I understand if you are busy. He wrote back to me straight away, and he very generously said I’m going into British Grove, a studio in London, with Guy Fletcher as well, and I will play on these songs. He also said if I wanted, Guy could play on some as well, haha. It was just so kind and so generous, and I was just like, that will be absolutely amazing. So he played on three tracks, and Guy played Hammond organ on a song called ‘Wandering Roads’ and that was a great addition to have. I am so delighted I have the musicians I have on the record, it feels like a real honour when people add their own energy and magic to your music, and I’m so grateful to all the musicians.
I walked a lot during lockdown because you couldn’t really do a lot, and I would sing little ideas into my phone and write a few lines here and there as they came to me. I’m very slow at writing songs, it takes me a long time, but a couple of these songs came really quickly, and I told my good friend Boo Hewerdine, who is an outstanding songwriter who can write a song really quickly about any subject he is that talented and skilful, that I went for a walk in the woods where I live and when I came home I wrote this song really quickly in like fifteen minutes, and that never happens to me. I’m quite spiritual in the sense that I like to believe there is an other-worldliness with all sorts of these beings around us and energies that we should be open to, and I told Boo I think I caught it in the forest like something gave it to me. He wasn’t really having it, haha, and he just told me it had been in me all the time, it had been rattling around inside and I had just had a moment of clarity and it came out in one go, haha. It is interesting, two different ways of coming at it.
And there is no definitive answer as to where the muse comes from, who really knows?
Exactly, haha. I think my way is much more interesting though. It is much nicer to think you can catch it, haha.
As we’ve discussed, this album is different, did you learn anything new about yourself during the recording?
Over the last two years, I think it is resilience, I think we are all more resilient. I think it is very important, especially now, to live in the present moment because nobody knows what is coming next. Every day I try to find joy in my day, just little things, and be thankful, and that really makes a difference to my day and it keeps me centred. If I start my day thinking about wow, this is amazing, I’m in this hotel and I’ve got some space and it is a beautiful day outside, and I’m going to have some coffee, just find the little things that can bring you some joy, because it is so easy to read the news. I was in kind of a habit, as lots of us are, of watching and reading the news on my phone when I woke up in the morning and then carrying it with me all day. As a musician, lots of us are very sensitive and you have to be very open, this is your job and this is what you do, so I would hold it and carry it around for the day and it’s not serving anybody. I can’t change what is happening, and I’ve learnt to put it down because I can’t look after my children if I’m carrying the world on my shoulders. I would say over the last couple of years I learnt to be very present and focus on what is happening right now, and to enjoy the little things in the day when things are not going that great.
What did you learn from your time with Cherish The Ladies?
I joined Cherish The Ladies when I was 21, and I was very, very young, and I feel that was part of my apprenticeship. I learnt so much from Joanie Madden, the woman who runs Cherish The Ladies, and she is just an extraordinary woman, so strong as a person and a great businesswoman, far better than me, haha. She taught me everything really, she taught me how to be a touring musician and how to look after yourself. When I joined I hadn’t a clue, I didn’t even know how to check in to a flight and get myself from this flight to the connecting flight, just really basic stuff. So she taught me all those things we musicians have to learn when you start. She is also amazing in her ability to connect with an audience, and to watch her do that is great. She is so personable and she has so much energy and personality, and she can really read an audience, it kind of feels like she scoops them up and carries them along in this concert, which is an amazing skill to have. Then there were really practical things about travelling, booking your travel and the logistics, she stays up all night and books all the travel, it is all her, she does it. That is nothing to do with music, but I think I’m an excellent travel agent and I learnt that from her, haha.
You are Irish, you’ve lived and worked in America, and now you live in Edinburgh, how do you see yourself?
I don’t think I would like to say I’m one thing, I definitely identify as an Irish woman, for sure. That is where I’m from, that is where I was raised, it is what has informed my being, but I moved from Ireland when I was 19 and I went to America. I did a lot of growing up in America, I was there for seven years in New York. That is a really difficult question, and as far as my cultural influences go I think that a good song is a good song and they don’t really have a label on them saying this is Irish, and this one is American. You could say they are all Irish because I’m Irish. Just like I was saying before, there are snapshots of my life, and as a singer, the songs that resonate with me will depend sometimes on where I am and what is going on around me. When I find a song, and sometimes it could be just one line in a song, that really resonates it is like, it is in my heart and I have to sing this song just so I can sing that line.
During the lockdown when we couldn’t do concerts, I was doing some vocal coaching with people, and that was one of the questions I asked when they came with a song they wanted to learn, why do you like this song, what’s your favourite part, is it the verse or is it the chorus, and then which line is your favourite. Before I do that I get them to sing it, and they record the Zooms, and it is really interesting because I can almost pick out which is the part they really like because when they sing it, they mean it, and I believe them. You then try and carry that feeling, you feel it and you want your audience to feel it, so you try and carry it all the way through, what is the theme of this song, is this song about forgiveness, is this song hopeful, or is it just heartbreaking? What do you want the audience to feel?
Who are the biggest influences on your music?
Mary Black, the Irish folk singer, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, there are so many of them, Dick Gaughan. Again it depends on how I’m feeling, but I always go back to Mary Black. I also like The Pogues, Shane MacGowan, I just love his writing. I’m with Kris Driver in Germany and we have been having lots of chats in the car, and we were talking about this metaphysical idea of songs coming from somewhere else, he’s not really on for that either, he was like you are not giving yourself enough credit because you wrote the song, not the ghosts. Years ago at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, I was there with Cherish The Ladies, and I was in the old Central Hotel and had a very late night drinking wine, I shall say, and I met Shane MacGowan. We stayed up singing songs and having a drink, and he told me that he gets his songs from the ghosts, he was like the ghosts give me the songs. We had all been well served, haha, but I really loved that. Who knows, haha.
What are your plans for 2022?
I’ve got quite a few busy weeks coming up, when I get back from Germany I’m home for a couple of days and then I’m going to America for Folk Alliance in Kansas, and I’m over there for a while. I’ve got festivals over the summer, and I’m doing a festival with Boo Hewerdine, Ely Folk Festival, at the beginning of July. I’m going to Tønder Folk Festival in Denmark, and there are a few other things. It is so great to be doing concerts again, and this German tour with Kris Drever is the first time I’ve toured with him for fourteen years, though we’ve recorded together on various albums, and I was teasing him about not knowing what I had done to him, haha. It is so great to get back out and do what you love to do.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
We have been playing each other a lot of new music in the car, and I’ve just heard Aldous Harding, ‘The Barrel’, and Efterklang. I’ve been listening to an old one from Josh Ritter, ‘The Beast in Its Tracks’, which is fantastic, and a girl called Misty River. It is great to discover new music, and because I have two young kids I find I’m just listening to whatever they are interested in. At the moment it is quite a lot of pop music, what is the new song on TicTok that everyone is dancing to, haha.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
I just hope people enjoy the record if they do decide to listen to it, and it also brings them some joy and maybe a little bit of healing. Someone asked me the other day whether it is a really depressing, sad, heartbreaking album, and it is not. I like to think it is a little bit of a journey through everything, there is some healing, some joy, some heartbreak, and some hope. I hope it gets to many ears, and it’s taken into as many hearts as possible.
Heidi Talbot’s ‘Sing It For A Lifetime’ is out now on Absolute.
>>> Please help to support the running costs of Americana UK, run by a dedicated team in our spare time, by donating £2 a month to us - we'll send you an exclusive 20 track curated playlist every month plus the opportunity to win our monthly giveaway. Click here for more information.