Talking To...Shelagh McDonald

In 1971 Shelagh McDonald seemingly had the world at her feet.
Second album 'Stargazer' has just been released to critical acclaim and her career could only continue to grow.
That was until one 'big mistake' that sent her out of the public eye and not re-emerging for 35 years and not performing for over 40.
Shelagh McDonald proved very difficult in tracking down more than basic information.
This piece, I believe, could be the most detailed history to date of the life of Shelagh McDonald.
Born in 1948 in Edinburgh and leaving for Glasgow at the age of 12 with her parents, she was privately educated before moving on to The Glasgow School of Art.
It was an experience here that proved pivotal in setting her on her musical path

"On our first exams, everybody was failed. I think one person may have passed. I took it personally, no one else did but I took it personally big time! I thought I was being singled out"

It was this event that caused the young student to re-evaluate her plans.
By this time she had already been attending some of Glasgow's folk clubs including 'sneaking in to the Glasgow University Folk Club'' and began doing floor spots (these days better known as open mic) and met Iain McGeachy who, would of course go on to better known as John Martyn.

"I couldn't get a grant and my parents were having to pay through the nose for my education so I just took the decision. I wanted to do music. I'd always been interested in writing poetry and will always have this literary side to me so I though, I'll give this a go, see what I can knock up. I realised that I enjoyed it"

A self-taught guitar player, she grew up listening to classical music and originally had aspirations to becoming a classical pianist.

"Of course the Beatles and the Stones and all of that style had kicked in but I always had this Classical theme in the back of my mind. I always will, it will always be a big influence on me."

From the beginning Shelagh had her plans set, there was no joining a band it was always just going to be "a girl and her guitar"

"In those days there were masses of folk clubs and there was a book called 'The Folk Directory' a massive book that would come out once a year. All the clubs and organisers were listed there. I would just sit with a pen and a piece of paper and wrote. That was how I got my start"

It was from here she left Scotland and moved to London where John Martyn introduced her to his agent who at this time was also Sandy Denny's agent.
At this time the agent wouldn't take her on due to his policy of having only one female folk singer at a time but the promise was made that should Denny move on a call would be made.
A promise duly kept

"When Sandy joined Fairport, her agent phoned me up and I was with him. His name was Sandy coincidentally, my record producer was called Sandy, and I took Sandy Denny's place. Must be one of those names for me"

Shelagh soon met Keith Christmas and "fell madly in love with him". A hand made card was sent to her from Keith asking her to join him in Bristol.

"I moved there and as if by magic this flat appeared. I found out later that it was part owned by one of the local gangsters, after I'd repainted his room. When I met him he told me how expensive the wallpaper was in the room I'd painted. He was a rather big guy"

It was Bristol that really kicked her career on. From the get go she was performing proper gigs and not the floor spots that she was so used to in Glasgow.
She was now professional and the bookings came thick and fast with her playing when the bookers had not even heard her.
After around a year of shows her hard work was rewarded when, through Keith Christmas she got her recording contract.

"When that happened I realised I needed to be in London, I was still doing folk gigs but moving away from the folk scene and on to the University circuit which was very active.

In those days you used to get big entertainment grants from the government but when Thatcher came along they stopped that"

It was then in 1970 armed with an album already written she entered the studio to begin her first record. As you would expect, entering the studio was a new experience the fact that she was playing with a band for the first time, made it that bit more nerve wracking The songs included ones given by musicians such as Gerry Rafferty, Andy Roberts and Keith Christmas.

"It was very ad-hoc in those days, the studio would be booked virtually the whole day. There was no rehearsal, we'd so say Richmond (Andy's song) I'd play it over to them a few times, they'd click where I'm coming from and improvise it.
There'd be 3-5 takes maximum and then that was it laid down. It was very much done on a wing and a prayer. Playing with a full band, you can just feel the power, sheer power especially after being a soloist the whole time. I said in the past it was like being given the keys to a phantom jet"

The album was mastered in a place familiar to us all, Abbey Road Studios before the Shelagh McDonald album was released to favourable reviews. The sales however didn't match the reviews however methods of promotion were very different to today

"There wasn't the publicity in those days, it was great to get a record out there but even the distribution wasn't too great then. For a record label to publicity in those days it was virtually unheard of. Records were actually quite expensive in those days so there wasn't the potential for big sales, I couldn't afford half the records I wanted in those days"

These days the idea of releasing an album without promotion is virtually unheard of, from a record label stand point anyway but then again 1970 is different world in terms of how the industry works of course. Despite the lack of sales, her reputation grew and along with it the calibre of venues she was playing.

"I got in with the Chrysalis Agency which was one of the main agencies and that got me on to the University circuit and I found myself supporting a lot of rock bands. You would get acoustic acts opening up for Rock bands, Keith (Christmas) for example, he toured with The Who all over America, with Frank Zappa too. He'd do his acoustic thing then they'd follow. That was something new they were trying out"

When work began on her second album, her producer, Sandy Robertson was approached by John Wood, the legendary sound engineer who has worked with the likes of Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens and of course Sandy Denny. He wanted to work on the album with them.

"We were both over the moon by this, it was really was a dream team for me. John would get the big groups from Elektra (records) flying their artists over to work with him so it was a big confidence boost

The songs were stronger and apart from one traditional song it was all my own stuff. Seemingly it was very well received, I don't have a clue how it sold though."As it happened Stargazer sold well and many observers proclaimed her the new Sandy Denny

"One thing I did hear though was that the advance copy that went out to the media was printed wrong and only had the A side on it so half the album was missing. That's worth an absolute fortune now apparently, It's crazy!"

Again, as with the release of her first album, the venues were growing, there were the odd Television appearances such as BBC Scotland and over in Belgium.
However now, our conversation had to turn the inevitable, the disappearance. At the time of working on her third album, the producer had to "bail out" after the recession of the 70's kicked in and bit hard.

"There were no real 'big' concerts at the time and not a lot of money floating about. It was only really the University scene. The folk scene itself was a bit of a joke but they were small, intimate and very friendly but no-one really took it seriously so nobody had any interest of investing any money in it"

I had enjoyed hearing about the good times and actually found myself feeling like I was playing the heel in asking about it. While working on songs for her third album, Shelagh took LSD. The result was a 'horrific' trip that had a devastating effect on both her singing voice and her life.

"I was never interested in taking drugs recreationally, never had and I never will. I got quite high enough on my own thoughts but I made the mistake of reading Timothy Leary's book 'The Politics of Ecstasy' which was the seminal work you know? It was the drug bible.
He would tell stories about how all these writers and musicians would create and feel like Michelangelo on it, I don't know about anyone else but when I looked back on what I'd done 12 hours later I'd think what the hells this? It just didn't work for me. I tried it and it was just a dead end for me."

It was then that in her words she "made a mistake".

"I lost five complete days, I have no clue what happened, I could have been abducted by aliens for all I know. I think I hallucinated for about three weeks and it wasn't so much the drug that affected my voice but the sheer trauma.
It was a form of Post Traumatic Stress, I couldn't stop shaking and it affected my voice and it just didn't get better. I sounded as if I was 90 years old"

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Stargazer