Friday, 7 January 2011

From Clare to here

Clare Maguire has rubbed shoulders with Jay-Z, Leonard Cohen and Rick Rubin, but she hasn’t released an album yet. Brian Boyd talks to the 23-year-old Birmingham native about Topshop (party frocks), Raglan Road (party pieces) and her new album (party time)

YOU MAY not have heard about Birmingham-Irish singer Clare Maguire yet, but the biggest names in the music industry have – and are queuing up to work with her. The mystery around Maguire has been fuelled by the fact that she’s been kept out of the spotlight for the past three years (her label even took all her songs down from MySpace). Talents like this don’t come around often, hence the hush ahead of the release of her album next month.

“It has been a bit surreal,” says the 23-year-old, who grew up in a big Irish family and was raised on a diet of Irish trad. “There have been certain moments over the past few years when I couldn’t really believe what was happening to me. The producer Rick Rubin had me flown over to his house in Malibu when there was talk of him producing the album. I remember looking at this picture of him with Johnny Cash and June Carter on the wall while I was waiting for him and suddenly realising just how many huge stars he’s worked with and then getting really nervous. But he was really nice to me and in fact we ended up singing The Butcher Boy together. And then the phone rings and it’s Leonard Cohen inviting him down to a rehearsal, and he brings me down as well and there’s only a few people in the room and it’s the most incredible thing.”

There was also the shock of finding out that Jay-Z had sent out word that he wanted to meet her. “I met him in this bar he owns in New York. It was just insane. He comes over to me and says: ‘You’re Clare Maguire, aren’t you?’ Imagine Jay-Z saying that to you. He brought me up to his private bar upstairs and we were drinking shots together as he told me all about his struggles to break into the music world. I remember saying to him ‘How can you tell if somebody is a star?’ and he said he can see it in their eyes – so I asked him if he could see it in my eyes!”

All of these meetings were engineered by record companies who were desperately courting Maguire and trying to impress her. “It got to the stage where crazy money offers were being thrown at me, and it did seem that every single label out there was interested. You just forget about the money and get to thinking about which label could give the best career,” she says.

Eventually signing to Polydor, you can get some idea of what all the fuss is about by listening to her first single, Ain’t Nobody, on YouTube. And her voice is really something else – a sort of more earthy Stevie Nicks.

Maguire has already picked up Q magazine’s Next Big Thing award, and this week Maguire was announced in fifth place in the BBC Sound of 2011 poll. (The winner will be announced today.)

“That was back last October,” says Maguire. “I was terrified making my speech in front of so many famous people, and I only found out later that Paul McCartney was in the front row listening to me. If I had known that before I made the speech I’m not sure I would have been able to make it.”

Brought up in Birmingham by Irish parents who have roots in Cavan, Limerick and Roscommon, she was shaped by the music she heard as a child. “Ireland is the heartbeat of my music – it all comes from there and I first learnt to sing to Irish songs,” she says. “There would have been a lot of folk music in the house – The Dubliners, Liam Clancy – and there were quite a few parties where you’d have to get up and sing. I’d always do Raglan Road or Down by the Sally Gardens . And already there’s huge support for me among my relations in Ireland – I keep telling the record company that there’ll be no problem selling this album because I keep fielding phone calls from relations asking when is it out and when can they buy it.”

Maguire says she remembers singing more than she remembers talking as a child. “I actually started writing songs when I was seven – can you believe it? And it sort of went to an extreme with me. So there never really was a conscious decision to become a musician, it just happened naturally for me.

“Where I’m from in Birmingham the only option is to get a job in the yard where my dad works or work in a shop – so I worked in a shop and spent all my spare time on my MySpace page. Even at school I would tell the teachers that I was going to become a musician, and they’d be telling me to give up my silly notions and get a proper job instead. I remember being so annoyed that I actually walked out of school and went to work in Topshop. I was thinking ‘that’s no way to talk to someone with a dream’.”

Travelling down to London as often as she could, she relentlessly worked her MySpace contacts and began attracting AR interest. “Because I had dropped out of school to pursue this, I felt I really needed to work hard on it and prove people wrong,” she says. “I developed this really strong work ethic – but it is hard. I was adamant that I would only sing my own songs. Singing for me is the tool – the songs are the most important thing.

“At one stage Mike Skinner [aka The Streets – also from Birmingham] got in touch. He had this beat and he wanted me to sing over it. But I wrote my own chorus for the song, and as far as I know he’s kept it and is using it on his next album.”

Since signing her deal, the past two years have seen Maguire in a variety of studios – in London, Sweden and New York – getting the songs down for her debut album, After Dark , which is released at the end of February.

“I put myself under a lot of pressure. I was going, ‘I have to make this really great – I dropped out of school in order to do this’ to myself all the time. And there was also the consideration of how to do the songs live. Towards the end of last year I went out on tour with Plan B and he’d be playing to 5,000 people, so that was absolutely terrifying for me.”

Now that the album is ready to go she’s able to look back on her meetings with Rick Rubin, Jay-Z and Cohen and realise just what a big deal it was. “It is mental when you look back on it. At the time you don’t really realise what’s going on, but now I do, and it’s making me a bit nervous.

“There’s a big, epic production sound to the album, and I’m worried about how I can get that across live. I’m worried – and excited – about bringing these songs to Ireland. I’m so passionate about this because when you’ve been waiting 22 years to do something, you really want to get it right”.

After Dark is released on February 25

From Clare to here - The Irish Times - Fri, Jan 07, 2011

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