Eddi Reader: Still going for the Burns
Ahead of a Belfast show tomorrow, the Scottish star tells Andrew Johnston about her love for Ulster-Scots and her intriguing family history
She may have spent nearly a quarter of a century as a solo artist, but Eddi Reader still enjoys being part of a group now and again or, in the case of her Belfast gig this weekend, an entire orchestra.
Tomorrow night, the former Fairground Attraction singer will be at the Waterfront Hall for a special Burns Night concert alongside the Ulster Orchestra — and she knows where she’ll fit into proceedings.
“It feels like you’re a cog and if you put it in the right place, the whole thing starts mechanically turning around like an old-fashioned clockwork toy,” the 54-year-old Glaswegian songstress says. “With a band, you can jam or improvise, but with the orchestra, it’s got to be the way it is on paper.”
Presented in partnership with the Ulster-Scots Agency, the celebration of Scotland’s national poet comes off the back of Eddi’s acclaimed 2003 album of Robert Burns songs — itself inspired by an earlier orchestrated show.
“When I first did Burns, I was asked by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to play a Burns festival, and if I knew any Burns songs,” Eddi explains. “At the time, I only had about six or seven that I knew from folk clubs in the old days, but I got them orchestrated and performed about four with them. It was such a brilliant experience that I knew I wanted to do a whole album like that.”
Looking beyond Burns Night, Eddi has a new original studio collection, Vagabond, out on February 3, and will return to Northern Ireland in April for a string of seven headlining dates across the province, including shows in Newtownabbey, Omagh, Portstewart, Enniskillen and Downpatrick — places not often visited by a one-time number one-selling star.
“People are people, and I get a bit annoyed that the music business only focuses in on the big metropolises,” she says. “I find that people that don’t live in big cities are just as likely to enjoy music as people that do live in big cities.”
Even if they can be a little unsophisticated, it seems. “I remember playing in Ayrshire, in a wee town down on the coast, and all the people in the front row had brought their telephones and they were talking while I was singing, shouting down the phone, ‘No, she’s not sung it yet.’ I think a couple of them hadn’t been to a gig in their life.” ‘It’ was, of course, Fairground Attraction’s 1988 chart-topper Perfect, written by the band’s guitarist Mark E Nevin, which continues to gain radio play even now, over 25 years later. Eddi continues to perform the track at live shows, and in 2010, even recorded an Irish-language version — entitled Foirfe — although that’s about as far as her knowledge of Irish goes ...
“I learned it in about three days,” she laughs. “Mostly for me, it was an exercise in re-recording that song, which I love, and doing it a different way. If it was in Chinese, I would love to do it as well, or in French, or Italian. But part of me felt a little bit guilty, because I have no Scottish Gaelic, and I’m annoyed at myself that I don’t.”
While traditional language has often become something of a political football on these shores, Eddi is of the opinion that dialects such as Ulster-Scots should be preserved. “People believe it is something to be protected, and I agree with that,” she says.
“In Scotland, in the northeast, we just lost the last person who spoke the Cromarty dialect. He died at 90, and nobody else speaks the dialect, and that’s a shame. We’ve got to keep recording our aged population.”
Away from music, Eddi has been kept busy lately with the discovery that her great-uncle, Seamus Reader, was involved in early Scottish and Irish independence. Her findings of a treasure trove of family papers have triggered plans for an historical book to be published in 2016, but some of the shine was taken off the project when The Scotsman newspaper covered the story with the headline, ‘Eddi Reader reveals great-uncle’s life as IRA chief’. Did that make her angry?
“I was scared more than anything else,” she admits. “It seemed very much that they were trying to do something that wasn’t anything to do with the story. The story is really vast. My uncle was involved with the IRB, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the United Irishmen. That was people from all kinds of religious flavour.
“I just thought, ‘Why are they doing that?’ I offered them to come to my house, to show them all the stuff, but it seemed to me that they were just trying to denigrate and somehow equate today’s IRA with a long-dead relation of mine, who was not even around when the IRA was around. This predates the IRA. I was very surprised that they did that, and I realised that they did it because they have an anti-independence agenda.”
Speaking of which, Reader is a vocal supporter of the ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum this September 18. The star — who in 2001 moved back to Scotland after many years in London — guested on a recent episode of the BBC’s Question Time, speaking passionately about the subject. And she insists her views are not informed by any clichéd hatred of the English. “I’m a ‘Yes’ voter because I want my vote to count, and I want control of the money in this country,” she states. “That’s all. I don’t want to stop a social contract; I don’t want to stop a ‘union of crowns’; I don’t want to stop our community. I just want the political management to be in Scotland. I’m just an ordinary, walking-down-the-street, mother of two children who sings for her supper.
“But there’s people out there in Scotland, especially in the Press, and especially at The Scotsman — which is a very wrong name for that paper, because they don’t believe in Scotland at all; they believe in London management — who believe that Scots do not deserve the vote. I don’t want to be in that team.” Even at 54, Eddi remains the very definition of ‘firebrand’. And she’s not afraid to offer her tuppence worth on Northern Ireland’s problems, either. “I’m not really clear what the whole deal is with flags,” she offers. “I like my flag, but I wouldn’t die for it. There’s issues of identity, of course. That’s going to always come in. I, for example, don’t want to be called a ‘North Britisher’. I want to be Scottish. “But when politics decide who you are, then you’re going to run into trouble. People know who they are. People just want to feed their children, pay their mortgage or their rent, get through the day — and be in love with who they want to be in love with.”
Eddi Reader plays the Burns Night Celebration at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, tomorrow. For details, visit www.waterfront.co.uk. For details on NI tour dates this April, visit www.eddireader.co.uk/gigs