As comebacks go, this one takes some beating. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Shelagh McDonald was one of the most respected singer-songwriters on the folk scene. After migrating south from her native Scotland and making a couple of impressive albums, she’d been hailed by Melody Maker as ‘the new Sandy Denny’. Then, in 1972, she simply vanished. For over thirty years, rumours of her whereabouts circulated. Finally, in 2005, with her back catalogue now attracting attention from a new generation, she resurfaced, to tell of a catastrophic experience with LSD that had caused her to quit the music business. Her voice shot, she’d spent the intervening decades travelling, often living under canvas. Happily, that velvety voice has now returned and Shelagh, confidence restored, is performing again.
This interview was conducted in July 2013. We spoke shortly after she’d played a rare London gig, supporting Mike Heron and Trembling Bells.
You've said that female folk singers were unusual on the club scene in the ‘60s. Did you find it a welcoming environment?
From the moment I decided to take music seriously, I strove to be accepted as a musician, pure and simple, and the guys in the business have consistently paid me the compliment of treating me as one of them. They’ve been great... never patronized, nor let me off the hook if I’d done a rotten gig.
I love your guitar style. Must require a lot of practice. Who were your masters in finger style?
My guitar heroes?! How long have you got! The very first influence was Bert Jansch, whose albums I wore down to within an inch of their lives to learn exactly what he was doing with his fingers. Would like to say I did the same with Davey Graham, but his Arabic cross-rhythms were totally beyond me. (I have played his guitar, though! Broke a string one night in Cousins and, while fixing it, became aware of a pair of hands clutching a guitar as he gently lowered it down on my shoulders... felt as if I’d just been given the Order of the Garter!). My friend Keith Christmas also helped steer me away from the strict folky fingerstyle I used for traditional stuff and, like many in the folk scene, Joni Mitchell solved the problem of bringing colour to one’s guitar sound without breaking your finger-joints... thus began my addiction to open tunings.
You started (am I right?) by singing trad material and other people's songs. When and how did you start writing your own songs?
As with guitar playing, so with songwriting... Joni’s first album was the one that broke the mould for me. Sure, there were loads of good songs being written, but for me they lacked the introspection I was after. I’m a great one for the ‘stream of consciousness’ school of songwriting, because complete honesty is a prerequisite for any art form and songwriting is no different. The only problem with this is, of course, that you can only be as honest as your self-development will allow and I now look back on my early songs as being rather like reading Adrian Mole... or should that be Ariadne Mole?!
Several of your songs from the ‘60s are about named individuals - Rod, Liz… That's rather different from, for instance, Sandy Denny, who wrote about her friends but concealed their identities in opaque lyrics. Any thoughts on the relative merits in lyric-writing of telling it straight vs wrapping up one's meaning?
I’ve always had very laid-back friends... always told them I was writing about them and felt that if I’d disguised their names they would have been a bit miffed.
At the two gigs I've been to you haven’t revived your old self-written songs. How do you feel about those songs now?
My personal favourites are those I played piano on, and of the others, I would say that ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Peacock Lady’ have stood the test of time.
When and how did your voice ‘come back’? Was it before the events of 2005 when the press rediscovered you?
Having read in the Scottish Daily Mail in 2005 that my albums had been re-issued I thought I’d better see if my voice (which I’d completely given up on) could be cranked up to an acceptable level in case anyone asked me to sing for my supper! Gordon [her late partner] and I were living in the middle of a forest at the time and I would start with little ten minute sessions singing anything that came into my head. At this point my throat was still seized up and it could be a bit painful. Each day I’d sing for an extra ten minutes and after about nine days my throat started to relax. From then it was a simple matter of gradually increasing the volume till I was able to really feel what was happening to my vocal cords and regard my voice as an instrument to be played seriously rather than being picked up and strummed to pass away a few idle moments.
Does the music business seem a totally different place now? If so, what are the biggest changes you've noticed?
The music scene is unrecognizable but the audiences are the same. I think that’s what keeps us all going. It’s the old story... the digital signal has changed everything, particularly the legal side of things, and I’m not alone in referring to this as a minefield. Back then, a folk concert in a proper concert hall was regarded as a mega event. I got my first professional gigs by using the ubiquitous door-stop sized ‘Folk Directory’ and writing to every folk club in the country and people would book you without having heard of you. Anyone who was daft enough to travel from Scotland to Devon for peanuts was good enough for them because we were all part of this mad family! It goes without saying I wish there were more folk clubs and that they met more than just once a month. However, I applaud the trend in combining folk with story-telling, poetry, stand-up, etc.
How has your own songwriting changed?
I’m aiming for a more open-ended approach. After a while the whole idea of sticking rigidly to one verse, followed by a chorus to be repeated between successive verses is like putting music into a straitjacket. Would like to think I’m playing around and experimenting more, and hopefully taking more risks.
What's next? Can we expect a new album? I hope so!
Next gigs on the horizon are the Wickerman in Dumfries and Galloway, the Oran Mor in Glasgow, then on to the Sidmouth Folk Festival. Am really looking forward to all of them and to starting my first album for (don’t remind me how many) years next month. Around autumn I’ll be working with an amazing songwriter, Nigel H Seymour, who I would urge folks to listen out for.
(Cheeky question but…) how do you plan to vote in the Scottish referendum?
Am torn here, firstly because I have a much loved relative (alas, no longer with us) who was a prime mover and shaker in bringing the SNP out of the backwoods and if I opted for the status quo he might turn in his grave. On the other hand, he might be equally mortified if he knew that our oil revenues continued to be controlled, not by Whitehall, but by the major oil companies operating from London if we voted for home rule. I will take my cue from my adored relative and vote consistently where my conscience dictates.