"Stark Talk" Interview with Edie Stark

The following is an extract from an interview with Edie Stark on Radio Scotland's "Stark Talk" programme. The full interview was broadcast on 30th August 2000.

ES: Dick Gaughan, you're currently on tour with Brian McNeill. You introduce yourselves as "the angry old farts of Scottish folk music". While many of your generation have put "Protest" out to pasture and slipped on the carpet slippers, why is yours still the passionate voice of no surrender?

I think possibly because I don't believe in "protest" - I believe in kicking up hell. And I think standing up and saying, "there is poverty, there is hardship in the world" - I find that voyeuristic. I think it is necessary to do more than that.

ES: So what are you doing that's more than that?

Suggesting why there is poverty and hardship? I love that beautiful statement that was made by a Latin American priest when he said something like, "When I say the poor have no bread, you call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, you call me a communist troublemaker". And so, hopefully, I fall into the latter category.

ES: Well, talking about being a communist troublemaker, later this month you're touring across America. Did being a communist troublemaker keep you out of the States for a while?

It caused me severe difficulties! <laughs> There was a ban on various people entering the USA. It's been scrapped now but what it meant was that every time I went to America I had to apply for special permission, a waiver to the ban, to get in. And I thought it was a bit unfair on promoters in America for me to ask them to accept me on a contract when I may not actually be able to enter the country. So I thought, there's no point in pursuing this. And then in the early 90s the Cold War ended and the Americans withdrew the ban and so I've got no problem getting visas now. And I actually enjoy going to the States.

ES: Even though it was a place that didn't want you there?

Yeah, but it wasn't American people that didn't want me there - it was some paranoid clown sitting in American Military Intelligence!

ES: You're touring, as I said, with Brian McNeill; you perform solo, you've performed with three bands - Boys of the Lough, Five Hand Reel, Clan Alba - you've also performed with Billy Bragg, Davy Steel - what do you prefer? Do you prefer being up on that stage on your own or is it nice to have some pals around you?

It's very contradictory that, because I love the danger of being on a stage by myself - you've got to turn in a performance, and I love that. I don't make out programmes any more. I just go onstage, I know what the first song's going to be and I just follow it from there, wherever it goes.

ES: What, you've got no set routine? You don't know what you're going to do next?

Not really. I mean, I've got a vague idea. I've been doing this long enough that I've got a fall-back repertoire but I love that whole business of standing on a stage by myself and beginning a conversation - because I regard a performance as being a two-way conversation with the audience.

ES: So do you prefer doing that on your own or with a band? You've still not really answered that question!

Well, there is the contradiction. Because I love doing that but, at the same time, music is a cooperative art. There is something special that happens when musicians come together and begin a dialogue musically and I love that as well. So I need both, really, I need both.

ES: And are you quite happy to be out of limelight when you're with other musicians?

Oh yeah, yeah. I don't need to front a band. <laughs> I've never been a great one for doing that. The great joy of Clan Alba was that there were eight people there and I was able to sort of - in footballing terms, I was able to get into the midfield and let the strikers get up front. And I love that, I love just being part of it. I get enough of the limelight when I'm on stage on my own.

ES: You like to tell people that you're from the "Republic of Leith" although you were actually born in Glasgow. Leith is a place that has now changed, not least to house the Scottish Executive. What do you remember of Leith in, dare I say, the Old Days? Well, at least when you were growing up there in - what? - the late 40s and 50s?

It would be very easy to romanticise it, I mean, there was a lot of hardship in Leith, a lot of poverty. And the living conditions, the tenements that were there, were as bad as anything there ever was in Glasgow. It was a solid, hard working class community, with all the negatives and positives that go with that. There was a very strong feeling of community. And in our street, I knew everybody in our street. It was a place where strangers didn't come. If a stranger came into our street, there were two possibilities and one was that it was the rentman coming round and the other was that it was somebody up to no good.

ES: Now it's got a few yuppies - what do you think of that?

Things change all the time. There are bits of me that regret the passing of Leith as it was and there are bits of me that are very pragmatic about it and say, "Well, it had to go". I would not want my children - or anybody else's children - to grow up in the conditions that I grew up in. It was a very, very hard way of life. I mean, god almighty, we didn't have electricity until I was eight years old and there was one source of water, a cold tap, so baths were unheard of. But Leith now is a completely different place from the place I grew up in.

ES: Your forebears are both Scottish and Irish. Did you grow up feeling that you did have Irish blood?

Because my mother was Highland, I grew up with the knowledge that the Irish and the Scots were basically the same people, that there were more differences of accent rather than differences of culture.

ES: Your mum spoke Gaelic, didn't she?

Yes, my mother was a Gaelic speaker.

ES: She didn't teach you it?

She tried to teach me wee bits of it. But there wasn't really much Gaelic spoken in Leith at that time when I was growing up! There was always awareness of the stigma attached to Gaelic, which is something that I bitterly, bitterly regret now. I grew up speaking Lowland Scots, but my mother was a Gaelic speaker who had very little time for Lowland Scots at all and as far as she was concerned you either spoke Gaelic or you spoke English. And so I got double pressure - I used to get a row at school for speaking Scots, I used to get a row from my mother for speaking Scots. My mother, a lot of the time she wouldn't answer me unless I spoke to her in Gaelic or English. Fortunately, over my lifetime I've been able to see a lot of those divisions heal. It's one of the glorious things about the last twenty-five years, has been that healing process and the awareness of Scotland as an identity, as a country, with diversity of culture within it, but still one cohesive nation.

ES: Do you think that the big revival of Scottish traditional music played its part in making that change?

I believe so. But I would say that, wouldn't I, because I've been part of it and I want to take some of the credit for it! <laughs> But I think it has. I think that, rather than being a cause of it, it's been a symptom of the movement towards it. When I started singing there was this wonderful discovery of going into places and hearing people sing songs that had been written by people like Maurice Blythman, Hamish Henderson, Norman Buchan, people who were writing and singing songs about Scotland and about a Scottish identity and, even more importantly, that they were writing and singing them in Scots. Up until that time, every time I'd heard Scots used on the radio it was people like Harry Lauder making us out to be a nation of cretins. It was people wearing funny hats and singing songs about "bawbees" and stuff. And then suddenly here was somebody singing and making earth-shattering statements in Scots. I can't really exaggerate the effect that had on me as a kid.

ES: You served an apprenticeship, way back, in papermaking. <laughs> It's very difficult, Dick, to imagine you as anything other than a musician. Were you serious about the trade of papermaking?

No! It was something to do until I could get work as a musician! Cause I've been playing music all my life. I started playing guitar when I was 6 or 7 and I never wanted to do anything else. I always knew that whatever I did with my life I would play music.

ES: And was that something that was completely endorsed by your family?

Oh, yeah. Because everybody in our family played or sang. But my mother wanted me to go to University, she wanted me to become a teacher!

ES: Well, you are a teacher! You're a teacher on the stage!

I think I'm a lousy teacher! I've tried to teach people the guitar and failed dismally! But I love exchanging information with people. I love the business of conversation and discussion and the old Scottish tradition of argument of opposites, flyting, which is why I think we get a reputation of being such argumentative people. If I say, "It's a nice day" and you say "Yes, it is", well that's the end of the conversation. So we might as well have something to talk about.

ES: Argument is life-affirming?

I believe so, I believe so. There is something about - particularly, I think, areas of England - where, because of their history and their culture, disagreement is taken as being exceedingly rude. Whereas to us it's a way of life.

ES: You did have your taste of living in the South of England albeit a fairly unusual one. Before you recorded your first solo album, "No More Forever" in 1972, you lived in a hippie community in London, according to one of your sleeve notes, busking in the Underground! Was that a bit of a steep learning curve for a Leither?

It surely was! I arrived in London and for a brief period found myself homeless and ... and I tended to gravitate towards people who were non-conformist, that appealed to the rebel within me, and I loved that period. There were a lot of negatives to it, like the fact that we were busy frying our brains with all kinds of substances.

ES: What sort of things were you frying your brains with at that time? Would it have been LSD, acid?

Actually, strangely enough, it wasn't that much different from today in that the primary drug of choice for everybody at that point was booze. It was primarily party time.

ES: Back to the music. The Boys of the Lough with Aly Bain, Robin Morton and Cathal McConnell - you were with them for a year. Why didn't you last longer? It was a good time ...

It was a great year. But they were doing an awful lot of flying and at that stage I had a terror of flying. And also, I was starting to feel the restrictions of being in a band at that point and I saw this endless touring, endless getting on and off of aeroplanes lying ahead of me and I thought, I don't want that. It was restlessness and itchy feet, I wanted to do other things and -

ES: Do you regret the decision?

No, not at all, no. I don't actually regret any decisions that I've made in terms of playing. You see, I've never had any sort of great career plan. I was just delighted at the opportunity to be able to make my living playing music. And the idea of sitting down and drawing up a business plan and a career structure were way beyond me. They still are, actually! When it comes down to it, I just pick up the guitar and I go and play.

ES: It's what's very refreshing about you, though.

What's that?

ES: The fact that you've not had that business plan. That you've just gone out and played the kind of music that you want to play.

I think it's true for most of the people of my vintage. We were a generation who discovered - or rediscovered - a culture that most people had neglected or forgotten was there. I think, personally, that the musical outpouring from '65 to '85, I honestly don't think there's ever been anything like that.

ES: So does that mean that you're now 15 years out of date?

No, I don't think of myself as being out of date at all. Because I've never considered myself to be in date! I've gone through various periods in my life of being in fashion and being out of fashion and I learned long ago not to worry about that. I am incredibly flattered that anybody wants to come and hear me play. Even after 30 years doing it I'm still kind of taken aback by that.

ES: I think the 3 years that you had with 5HR almost demonstrate that, don't they? It was the band's aim at that time to create a Rock music that was Celtic Rock music. It wasn't called that at the time. It was very revolutionary. Common as muck now, but very revolutionary then!

I'm proud of the music that we produced in that time. We produced 3 albums which I'm very proud of, lumps and warts and all, very rough and crude, but the great thing about it was that there was an energy within that band. Most of us didn't get on terribly well as human beings. I mean, Bobby Eaglesham and I have remained friends since; I've worked since with Dave Tulloch. But the other two guys that were in the band, I haven't seen since I left the band. But it was like a family. We had this deep loyalty to the band and to this energy that we produced on stage.

ES: But there was also lots of touring at that time which, looking at your history, seems to have taken the most enormous personal toll on you.

It certainly did. Like any experience like that, very intense high-energy experience, it had a downside; you can't go up without coming down and, on me anyway, it took quite a savage personal toll because I went through huge bouts of depression and mental disturbance like that. And also the fact that, when you're on the road with a band like that, one of the only ways you find to lift yourself is through using booze. We drank like nobody's business during that three and a half years. Because, you travel in a van for 16 hours, get to where you're playing, and you're feeling like death. So you think, I'll have a couple of drams and that'll put me in the mood for playing. And, yeah, it puts you in the mood for playing but you've got to do the same thing tomorrow because you wake up with a hangover. It's part of taking a bunch of people that age, slinging them in a van with a bunch of instruments and sending them round the world, not making much money, doing what it is that they passionately want to do but having incredible odds stacked against them.

ES: Did it lead then to disintegration for you?

I had a nervous breakdown at the end of it. We were on the road and my daughter was knocked down by a car. It's every musician's nightmare, that you're on tour and something happens to your family. Things had been very, very rocky financially with the band and we were getting carved up and ripped off all over the place. Talk to any musician of my age and you'll find the war stories there and I've got a chest full of them. We were getting ripped off and the whole thing was crazy and the band wasn't anywhere near as popular then as it appears to be now. I wish that everybody who says that they'd gone to 5HR gigs back in the 70s had actually gone to them - we'd have been playing Carnegie Hall!

ES: It's a long time since it happened but you were unable to sing for an entire year - that must have been, I would imagine, one of the scariest times of your life.

Up until that point, if anybody'd said to me, "Who are you?" the first thing I would have said is "I'm a singer". And, at that point I had to think, well, am I? Is there more to me than that, is that all there is? That is how I express myself as a person, it's something which is instinctive to me, as instinctive as talking, is playing music. What if I can't do that any more? Is there something else I can do? Are there other things involved? And it was a huge learning process -

ES: And what was your answer? Was there something else you could do?

The answer was, yes, life goes on. The first thing I did was I took a course in computer programming. I've always been fairly technically minded, and at the end of '83, beginning of '84, I got obsessed by computers and took a course in progamming and I've retained the obsession every since.

ES: Tell me, how does it feel for somebody who's still out on the road and still making albums that anytime the name Dick Gaughan is mentioned people go, "Oh yes, Handful of Earth, a brilliant album" and that was in 1981.

I've got mixed feelings about that album. It's a privilege to have done something that people relate to in that way. It's quite humbling actually in a lot of ways. On the other hand, it's kind of hung round my neck like a millstone because everything I've done since has been compared to it. Which I suppose is the price tag that it carries.

ES: On the last couple of albums that you've done, Sail On and Redwood Cathedral, there were only a couple of songs that were written by you and you've now stated again on the sleeve notes that you regard yourself as being an interpreter, an interpreter of other people's songs. Presumably that, of course, does mean more than just doing cover versions ... it's an art.

I believe so.

ES: But you're also a very good songwriter.

Thank you. Err, I don't know how to write songs. I don't know what the craft of writing songs is. It's a completely different craft from my craft.

ES: But you've done it! And do it!

I've done it, but I haven't been prolific at doing it because I don't know how to do it. I've got a drawer full of first verses. Now there are people who get the first verse or the idea who can then take that idea and craft it into a song. And I don't really know how to do that. It was not the craft I grew up with. I grew up with the craft of singing songs, singing traditional songs, interpreting events from the past in such a way as to make them relevant to the present.

ES: So what's the skill then in the interpretation of somebody else's song?

I think it's probably closer to acting than to anything because it's taking a set of ideas and words which somebody's put together and reinterpreting them in the light of your own experience of life. Now there is no point whatsoever in my singing a song just for the sake of singing it. I will only sing a song if I think that I can help to uncover something else in the song that hasn't been there previously and to explain the song maybe a little better.

I cannot buy into this idea that singers should only sing songs they write themselves because if you extrapolate from that then that means that orchestral musicians should only play music that they have written themselves so you've got no orchestras, actors should only be in plays that they've written themselves so you're reduced to one-person plays. The whole thing's a nonsense and it was invented by the music industry. And the reason for it is because record companies want control of the publishing rights on the record - it's a simple mercenary thing, nothing to do with artistic aesthetics or anything, it is the idea that "if we put out a record of you and we own the publishing on it then we get more money".

ES: There aren't many like you left, Dick. Uncompromising, principled wandering troubadour who belts out songs about how the world could be a better place. This is my last question - has 3 decades of doing this made a difference to the world? Or does it matter?

I don't think it's made a difference to the world. I think what it might have done is, hopefully, at best, it might have made a difference to some of the people who can make a difference to the world. A song can't change anything except maybe the way people feel or the way people think. Or give people confidence or give people hope. That's the best that I can do, to sing songs which try to give people a sense of confidence in their ability to take control of their own lives.

ES: And you've not changed - you may not have changed the world but you've not changed yourself?

I've changed in as much as anybody changes over 30 years. The major change in my life, and it's a wonderful one, is that I don't get people coming up and telling me that I'll become a conservative when I grow up!

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