Speaking to EG from her home in California, Maria McKee was on buoyant, easy-going form throughout our conversation. We started by discussing the new album, Late December. This feels very much like an album of two halves – almost like the old-fashioned Side One and Side Two – with its warm, accessible, country-tinged and surprisingly radio-friendly first half standing in marked contrast to the more prickly, dramatic, histrionic second half.
“Initially, I didn’t visualise compartmentalising the album into two sides. But my favourite albums are real records, and I grew up with Side One being one thing and Side Two being something else. I think it’s almost ingrained in you. Being an artist who has an eclectic range, half the art of making an album is in sequencing the tracks.”
“My husband (Jim Akin) and I set out to make an album that we would enjoy – and in doing so, we had a wide range of songs that we wanted to make work over one album. It seemed like the best way was to put the darker songs towards the end. To hook people in, and then to let them sit down for the show…”
The opening number is also the album’s title track.
“My husband and I live and work together. We have a very small flat, and we’re in each other’s faces the whole time. Sometimes I go away and do a little tour by myself, and give him some space. Then I’ll come home, and he’ll have these marvellous tracks for me to write to. That was one of them. He thought the music had the right mood, and he told me that he wanted the lyrics to have a lot of New York imagery. That was his vision. Then when we were looking through his photos, and trying to decide which ones to use on the album, the title just seemed to work.”
With Akin making such a major musical and artistic contribution, perhaps not everybody appreciates the team effort involved.
“We do everything together. He records, engineers and masters everything; he leads the band and plays a lot of the instruments. I probably wouldn’t make albums if it wasn’t down to him.”
For anyone who has lost touch with McKee’s solo work since her emergence in the late 1980s, following the demise of the country-rock band Lone Justice, some of the newer material may come as a surprise. As a stylistically diverse artist, the sound of each successive album is impossible to predict. Naturally, this can cause friction with record companies who seek to market her in one particular way.
“It did when I was part of the major label system, absolutely. It was a constant thorn in my side, and also a thorn in the side for anyone trying to make money off an artist like myself. But now we’ve gone independent. We make the albums at home, then we deliver them onto the doorstep of the record company.”
These days, Maria’s work is released by Cooking Vinyl, an independent label with a solid reputation for upholding the artistic integrity of their acts.
“They signed me as the artist that I actually am, and they don’t seem to expect anything in particular. They just enjoy the fact that I’m fairly prolific. So it’s amazing to be able to deliver an album, without having them say: We don’t hear any singles, you’ve got to go back in the studio. It’s fantastic, a dream come true. Every day I have to pinch myself!”
Although many people still associate Maria with Show Me Heaven, a UK Number One single from 1990, fewer people are aware that she also penned A Good Heart, which was a chart-topper for Feargal Sharkey back in 1985. Having covered the song on last year’s live acoustic album, Maria returns to it again on Late December.
“A lot of people don’t know that I wrote that song. I started including it in my repertoire when I did this little acoustic tour last year. I really enjoyed singing it. Then my husband heard it and said: That’s kind of a magic combination – a hit song, and you sing it really well, and you did also happen to write it, which is a good story – so let’s release it.”
Maria’s new version compares more than favourably with Sharkey’s original, which is let down by the somewhat dated production techniques of its time. It also benefits from a wholly unexpected and rather splendid harpsichord solo, which could well be the first of its kind on a pop recording since The Beatles’ In My Life.
“We were going crazy trying to figure out what to do during the musical break. We had some guitar solos, but it just sounded naff. My husband suggested the harpsichord. At first I was fighting it – “No, no, I hate it!” – but now I love it.”
The song was written when Maria was just 18 years old, “hence the very innocent, quixotic lyrics –My expectations may be high, I blame it on my youth – which now I have to sing with a bit of irony. But the lyrics still hold true to me.”
As for Show Me Heaven – taken from a movie soundtrack, and wholly unrepresentative of her other work – any worries that Maria might be unwilling to discuss it were quickly dispelled.
“I don’t mind at all! It was a hit in the UK and Europe, but it did absolutely nothing in the States. It’s the story of my life! A Good Heart never did a thing over here, either. It may not represent my work as a singer-songwriter, but it does represent my vocal style: big, lush and dramatic. And if truth be told, it was fun to have a Number One song, with a different audience. The people who come to my shows don’t expect to hear it – nor do they care if I even play it.”
Having spent many years living in Dublin, Maria has now returned to her native California.
“I’m always trying to leave, and I always come back. It’s in my blood. I’m fifth generation Californian – my great-grandfather homesteaded here from Italy. But I’ve spent a lot of time in Ireland, and it’s still my second home. I have family and god-children there, so I still go over all the time.”
After her UK tour, Maria will be back here in June, tutoring a week-long residential songwriting course for the Arvon Foundation. But is songwriting a discipline that can ever be taught?
“I don’t know that it can. What I’m going to teach is how to keep your muse open, and how to be at the ready for the inspiration. To expand your lexicon as an artist, to assimilate your influences, and to take risks with your subject matter. I’m going to deconstruct a few songs that I believe are near perfect – like Amazing Grace and Bridge Over Troubled Water – taking them line by line. But I’m not going to sit down and teach somebody how to write a song. I can only teach them what I do, and what I’ve learnt. If anything, it will be more like a philosophy course.”
Given that some of the freshest, most exciting music on the planet is currently being made in West Africa, chances to hear it live in this part of the country are all too rare. It was therefore a great treat to witness the Senegalese singer/songwriter Nuru Kane – recently nominated for a Radio 3 World Music Award – and his band Bayefall Gnawa cooking up a storm in the unlikely setting of the Djanogly Theatre for the best part of three hours.
Unusually for a West African musician, Nuru draws many of his influences from the highly rhythmic, almost trance-like Moroccan music known as Gnawa. During some of the longer work-outs, you could almost sense the swirling hubbub of Marrakech’s famous Djamaa El Fna Square, with its story-tellers, snake charmers and performing monkeys. At other times, the hypnotic repetition evoked the Afrobeat sound of the late Fela Kuti.
With a strong emphasis on percussive elements, the band combined rhythmic precision with a delightful looseness of spirit, all tied together by Nuru’s authoritative presence and gentle enthusiasm. Although some of the pastoral delicacy of their recorded work was lost along the way, the sheer visceral thrill of the playing more than made up for it.
With sixteen Top 20 hits under their belts over the past seven years, including five Number Ones, The Sugababes can lay claim to being Britain’s most successful girl group since the Spice Girls. To mark this, their first arena tour has been billed as a Greatest Hits show, and thus a celebration of their achievements to date.
After a long wait, and just as the audience’s patience was wearing thin, the girls finally took to the stage at 9.20, and proceeded to rattle off nineteen numbers in just over an hour and twenty minutes – a bare minimum of performance time for a show of this scale. Backed by a simple four piece band, and surrounded by a barrage of wonderfully stylish computer-generated light patterns, they quickly proved themselves as confident, powerful live singers.
That said, there was little of interest in the vocal arrangements, which stuck fairly rigidly to the melodies, leaving little scope for creative flair. Although the three voices meshed together well, the three personalities behind the voices seemed oddly detached throughout. For a girl group to succeed on stage, there needs to be some sense of a team spirit – that this is a gang of best friends, who stick together and support each other. Bananarama and The Spice Girls had it; Girls Aloud have it in spades; but The Sugababes seemed all but strangers to each other, occupying their own separate spaces, and barely acknowledging each others’ presence.
As the sole remaining original member, Keisha seemed very much the leader of the group, with the strongest vocal presence. Balancing her aloof attitude, Heidi was all smiles throughout, while “new girl” Amelle stayed mostly in the background, never stealing the limelight, knowing her place.
Only during a stripped-down Ugly did anything resembling true passion bubble to the surface. The rest was competent, professional, but disappointingly sterile.