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Collaborations, Family And Folk: Stereoboard Chats To Heidi Talbot

Wednesday, 31 July 2013 Written by James Ball

Heidi Talbot is pretty busy. The singer-songwriter, who hails from Co Kildare, has been performing as a solo act for many years following her stint with the Irish-American collective Cherish the Ladies, and turned out for two sets at the Cambridge Folk Festival this year. 

Stereoboard's James Ball sat down with her at the festival's Folk Net Café to discuss collaborations, kids and cocktails.

You’ve been in the business for 11 years, releasing five solo albums and two albums as part of Cherish the Ladies. What do you think is the key to your success?

I think when I started off, I just did every single gig I got offered. I think for every musician, you never really want to say to no to something you’re offered in case you don’t get asked to do it again. Even if that means you’re really busy all the time. It didn’t even matter if it was bad money or in bad pubs for four hours at a time. Over this time I’ve met so many other great musicians, and I’ve been able to collaborate with them over time too so that’s certainly helped.

You mention your collaborations there. You’ve worked with quite a few big names in your time, notably King Creosote, Mark Knopfler and Roddy Woomble. How did you get to bring these collaborations to the table?

It varies all the time. Roddy Woomble, for example, I just met when I moved to Edinburgh. I met him through friends of mine, and so he then asked me to sing on the Idlewild record “Post Electric Blues”. So yeah, that one just came about through friends. For this record ('Angels Without Wings'), I had met Kenny Anderson of King Creosote backstage at festivals where I was performing, and he asked me to sing on his record. I was just about to have my baby at the time so had to turn him down, but knew I wanted to work with him at some stage. Afterwards, when it was time to do my record, he was one of the first people I called up.

What do you think collaborations add to an album?

For this album especially, the original idea was to write each track with a different co-writer or performer. Although it didn’t quite end up that way, the additions of different people keeps everything fresh. Everyone has different takes on where to take a song. It’s great to hear different people's ideas on lyrics or a melody. For example, when you write a piece of music that you think will be up tempo, and someone comes back with some really sad lyrics, or the other way around, it’s great to feed off each other's ideas and create something more than you may have done on your own.

So, going right back to the beginning, which musicians, bands or people inspired you to start making music?

I guess it was just whoever I was listening to at my mum and dad's house. We had a lot of different music. My mum would listen to a lot of Dubliners and folk music. My brothers would listen to a lot of Pogues. One of my brothers was really into Blondie, and my sister was into Pasty Cline. I ended up being really into Mary Black, Dolores Keane and Maura O’Connell. There was an album called A Woman's Heart that came out featuring all three of those when I was 11 that was a big album in Ireland, and I just loved it. I knew every word of every song, and that was the first time I sat up and said “I want to be Mary Black!”. Later on I would discover and take inspiration from Joni Mitchell, but those three artists and that album was the first time I decided I wanted to sing, and these are the songs I want to sing.

Your husband, John McCusker, is also your producer and plays in your band. You also have your little one to look after as well. How do you manage to juggle your professional life as an artist with your family life since they’ve become so intertwined?

It actually works out pretty well for us. John does a lot of work, either as a producer or in various bands. At the moment he’s on tour with Mark Knopfler. Therefore he’s away for about five months, so we don’t play all the time or as much as we’d want to. This time, me and my daughter would join him where we can on the road, and then I’ll come back and do some gigs on my own. However, when he’s home, he comes away with me on the road and we work together. In a way that’s great for us because we get to see each other and we love playing music together. We also bring our daughter with us on the road so it’s very much a family affair. It’s not easy all the time with a little one on tour with us, but it’s working so far, and until she starts school, we’ll keep on carrying on.

Your newest album is called 'Angels Without Wings'. How did you come to call it that?

One of the songs on the album is called that. But I also like that thought behind it too. You get that nice thought that there are people around you, watching out for you and I really like that. It was one of the first songs I ended up recording for the album so the name stuck.

What could you draw from on this album that makes it a progression from other albums you’ve done?

Well, the idea was to record it live, or as much of it live as we could. We booked a recording studio in Glasgow called Gorbles Sounds where they happen to have seven different booths. That way we could all record at the same time like a band, but still have the separation. There’s very few studios, at least that I’ve been in, where something like that is possible so this is the first album that we’ve recorded this way. That way as well we can capture the performances rather than trying to make every little thing perfect. You may be able to hear people breathing, or the harmonium creaking or someone stamping their foot to keep time. It helps to capture the real feel and emotion of a song in that way.

The recording process and playing live in front of a crowd are two very different things. Which of the two do you enjoy doing the most and why?

It really depends what else is going on in my life. I really like performing live in front of a crowd more than singing in a studio. There’s just something about the feel you get when you’re on a stage performing, and singing, and storytelling. I really like recording too, but I have to say I prefer the live aspect.

This is your first visit to Cambridge for the Folk Festival for a few years. How does this compare to other festivals or gigs you’ve done?

This is my first proper visit here with my band. I was here about four years ago playing in the Club Tent, and I’ve been a few times just to watch bands, but this is my first full performance here. I guess it’s because it’s one of the biggest folk festivals in this country and they always have some of the biggest acts playing. It’s just a great festival . The UK is really lucky to have so many great folk festivals, but this is the biggest one and it gets the most attention.

Is there anyone you’ve always wanted to work with, either as a collaboration, or as a producer or anything, that you haven’t worked with yet?

Jack White. Definitely. I’d love to sing a song with him. I’d also like to work with Paul Simon. I’d also love to meet Joni Mitchell, although I don’t know. Maybe that wouldn’t be so great. She’s so iconic and I wouldn’t want anyone to be disappointed. Oh, I love Shane MacGowan. I’m a huge Shane MacGowan fan. I don’t know if we could ever get him down to the studio but I would love to do a song with him.

What would you say, so far, is the highlight of your career to date? One thing where you’ve stepped back and said “Wow. That makes everything more than worth it!”

Recently, this year, I’ve done a TV show in Ireland. I’ve done TV shows in America, and radio and other things in the UK, but this one meant more to me because it’s a show called The Late, Late Show. It’s like the Irish equivalent of The Jonathan Ross Show. My parents and my granny and my family have been watching this show forever. It’s such a big deal to be on that show in Ireland. Even if people over here in the UK may not have heard of it, it’s such a big thing do be a part of. It’s not even so much that I got to be on a show, it’s mostly because I got to be on the show that my whole family are such big fans of. It’s the Holy Grail of Irish TV!

So what would you say to any young, aspiring musicians who may see you up on a stage and say “I really want to be doing that”?

All I can really say is keep on singing. Do as many gigs as you’re offered. Go to loads of festivals and meet people. Build up a good group of people who can help you and work with you. Try to get someone who will let you sing backing vocals with them. Just keep trying to get up on stage and doing what you love. Keep trying to get gigs, even if you don’t get paid for them. Most importantly, never get discouraged. Never give up.

If there was a cocktail called the “Heidi Talbot”, what would be in it?

Oh, let me see. It would have to be something with whiskey in it, a good Irish whiskey. Maybe a bit of sugar. Maybe some rum as well. Perhaps a little mint, and maybe some soda water.

That’s like a hardcore mojito!

Yeah! Exactly! A hot mojito! 

Pictures by Craig Willis

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