This songbook has been one that has been brewing for a while. Thinking about artists and songwriters who have amassed a body of quality songs that still work when pared down to their very basics, Kirsty was one of those artists that I kept coming back to. With Southampton Ukulele Jam we have regularly performed They Don’t Know and A New England (the Billy Bragg song that she made into a hit). But this was finally kicked into life by a suggestion in one of our small groups of doing In These Shoes, from her Cuban-inspired final album, Tropical Brainstorm. And so here it is.
As I write this, the twentieth anniversary of MacColl’s tragic, untimely death has just passed. Killed in a boating accident in 2000, at a time when – both personally and professionally – her life was on an up, the world lost a talented, witty and sadly underrated artist and songwriter. We’ll never know what gems might have surfaced had it not been for that incident, but what we are left with is a body of work that established a high-water mark for songwriters of any ilk.
The daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl (best know as the writer of the classic The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face) and theatre director Joan Littlewood, Kirsty was an exceptionally gifted child who was always destined to do something great. However she wasn’t to take the folk singer route that her father had been such a hard-lined exponent of, and instead – after a brief dalliance in a punk band – pursued the route of a classic English songwriter, whose songs offered warm and witty vignettes and mini soap operas. But from the beginning her career suffered from a stop-start pattern that ultimately meant that she never had the constant presence in people’s short memories that would have allowed her to establish herself more firmly. Coupled with a crippling stage-fright early on, a period spent bringing up family with husband Steve Lillywhite (uber-producer for the likes of U2 an Simple Minds), a habit of directing her energies towards supporting other artists rather than furthering her own career, and a I’ll-do-it-my-way attitude that wouldn’t play the record company game, Kirsty struggled to get consistent traction.
And yet, as an artist and songwriter in her own right, and as a collaborator and interpreter of others songs, the quality bar was kept high throughout her life. From early 50s/60s-inspired songs such as They Don’t Know (a huge hit for Tracey Ullman) and There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis, to her cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England (for which Bragg wrote an additional verse), she earned love and respect from all she worked with. Later collaborations with Johnny Marr (of The Smiths) and Mark E. Nevin (of Fairground Attraction) led to a raft of classic songs across the five studio albums she left the world. Not forgetting the Christmas classic that is Fairytale of New York with The Pogues. And that’s before you factor in all her performances adding vocals to other people’s records (that’s her on records from Simple Minds, Talking Heads, Robert Plant, Billy Bragg, The Smiths, Robert Plant and Anni-Frid Lyngstad).
Her final album, 2000s Tropical Brainstorm, saw her finally hook her song writing to the Cuban and Brazilian music that was a massive love of hers – Kirsty regularly travelled to Cuba and Brazil, and was besotted by the music and culture of those places. What would have followed is anybody’s guess, but she had finally found happiness with a new partner (divorce from Lillywhite was followed by some dark times) and was at a creative peak. We lost a good one on the 18th December 2000. But these songs – all of her 1995 great hits collection, Galore, plus three additional songs – remain to remind us of a great talent.
Songs in this songbook: They Don’t Know / A New England / There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis / He’s On The Beach / Fairytale of New York (with The Pogues) / Miss Otis Regrets (with The Pogues) / Free World / Innocence / You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby / Days / Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim / Walking Down Madison / My Affair / Angel / Titanic Days / Can’t Stop Killing You / Caroline / Perfect Day / Terry / Soho Square / In These Shoes