Carmel McCourt In Interview
Carmel McCourt was interviewed by Mike Thorne on Monday December 22, 2003. It was 4pm in New York and 9pm in Manchester, England where she lives.
Mike Thorne: Earning a living playing music is difficult enough. However, Carmel, you and the group, always seemed to take the most difficult path available. How deliberate was that?
Carmel McCourt: You know that’s very true. I know we have always taken the most difficult paths because, I think, that’s how we are. It’s not that we mean to; it’s just your pioneering sense. I don’t think we meant to but, if we were starting in these days, I don’t think we would be allowed to do half the things we did or have the freedom to choose to do what we did. Definitely, it is very difficult to be a singer anyway without being really an ‘industry’ singer, but it is also difficult to be writers and that’s the main crux of what we did. We were writers. At the end of the day, when you’re working in different fields in music and trying to express yourself in whichever way you feel you want to, you’re not thinking about the racking in HMV [large UK record store chain owned by EMI] or something; you’re far away from that. Definitely, we made life very difficult for ourselves in the past, and I’m sure we’ll do so in the future.
Out of all the barriers you knocked down which is the one that satisfied you most?
Actually, the biggest barrier of the time in the eighties, when MTV started was, actually, that there were no black people on MTV . We had a video out but they didn’t want to play it because, obviously, two thirds of the group was black. At the same time,
Herbie Hancock had a sort of jazz single out and he was portrayed on it on a TV monitor in a room with puppets playing, moving in the video. (It was done by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, formerly of 10cc, and they got round that problem.) I just thought, ‘why do people have to go round that problem?’ What is so beautiful today, of course, is it is so predominantly black MTV, and music is so beautifully black at the moment with rap and all sorts of great singers that the problem’s not there anymore. But it was in the eighties, and I don’t think people really know about that, do they?
Isn’t the music business the last place in the world you would expect to be segregated?
It was a shock to find that out. Even right down to album covers we were doing (or CD covers that they changed over to) they were trying so busily to make Jim (Paris) and Jerry (Darby) kind of like silhouettes and then this white face would appear in the middle to the point where, actually, they would be phased out. It was a shock to come across that. It was such a shock because, you know, so much of the music that has inspired people is black music, black artists, you know: soul . You realize, god, if it’s difficult for us, how was it before? It must have been dreadful!
But music created by black musicians is part of all our childhood backgrounds…
That’s right. That’s exactly my point. It’s the shock. Then, when you meet it, you realize ….well, you get used to it quite quickly–the racism. I’d forgotten along the line that I was white, and very often I would get the other kind of racism from black artists: well, you can’t sing this because you’re white. I would say, that’s okay, I’m half Irish ! The Irish are really loud and very Bolshie so I got my way around it but, now and again, some black female singers would come up to me and try to strangle me and say ‘bitch’ in a playful way. Nonetheless, that was also a struggle.
The prejudice gets tiresome no matter where it comes from. However, do you think things have changed in a generation, the time that has passed since you started singing publicly?
Absolutely, I think it is quite a sweet country here in England. Intrinsically it is quite sweet; it does move on and, yes, it is warm in the sense that black is warm, and it is a great welcome to see that movement forward. You know it can never go back. That’s a good thing.
Some of the most successful music over the centuries has occurred when one genre cross-pollinates with another. Surely, this applies to you.
I think the problem with all of this is when it becomes a color issue . Duke Ellingtonanswered that in a very flamboyant way when some very straight white guy asked him in some film footage I saw. ‘Oh,’ he said to him (and Ellington was quite youthful at the time), ‘you’re making music for your people, meaning, obviously black people at that time in America. He took such umbrage that he turned away from the interviewer and played his piano in just the most expressive, angry way and then he turned back afterwards and said, ‘yes, I am making music for my people. Who are my people? Yes, my people like fine Beaujolais; my people like jazz music; my people…..’ Actually, he would never give it a label. He would go on about what his people were. He would describe people . He would not describe the color of the person. I thought that was great. Cross pollination, yes. It’s inevitable. It’s mixing, and it’s culture, and that’s an important part of it. You’re not forcing any issues; you’re actually living together, and that’s what will come out of the generation I have been in. You’re simply all broke, all living together; can’t afford cheese but you can afford eggs. Same old skint thing, and there’s no color issue.
You were referring to the Anglo-American music axis, but you drew so much from Africa and pulled so many people in from there. That was very inspired at the time.
It was normal, really, for me since when I was growing up one of my aunties was out in Africa and was always sending books back to us (we were a family of six), Also statues, other cultural things. She’d come over herself, and tell us about where she was working. In our family, we were linked with Africa in a sort of religious way. So it seemed a beautiful idea to work with any rhythm, any ethnic rhythm. There was a great love of France in our family. I guess we were Francophiles. That combination worked out great for us because you have more access in France to great African musicians working in thee. But all in all that’s just following the heart really, not some sort of marketing concept, you know.
In Africa music is an integral part of the social milieu, not put on an isolated pedestal as happens with commercial music here. Is that something you drew on also?
We have that thing here, but there is a great sense of its being ritual music in Africa and part of the culture. Here it’s just prized music, and it’s put on a pedestal, put on a stage. I remember being put on a table when I was four because you’re able to sing and other people just want to listen to you. Yes, you’re literally put on things, and you’re ‘performing’ before you realize it. Unlike in Africa, you’re the only one performing. So we are slightly deprived of music in our culture. Got loads of TV! We have it on radio, but we don’t have it live enough around us–I don’t think.
Do you dislike being placed apart as a performer or do you like the buzz?
I get nerve-wracked with it because it’s a bit odd. I’m not nervous at all, say, if I’m teaching choir or one-to-one singing, and I show people what I mean. There’s no nerves involved there. But when you’re performing in front of people you suddenly think uh, uh: it’s them against me or them against us. There’s nerves involved. I used to really enjoy reading the audiences, and managing the sets, changing things and accommodating the feel of an audience, but now I actually just do what we’ve written and don’t so much change it to suit the mood of an audience. Yeah, I think I got to really enjoy doing it!
You’re one of the most comfortable people on stage that I’ve ever seen. Did that come naturally or was it something that you had to learn?
It’s a great shock that you say this to me, actually. It’s funny you say that. I think halfway through I always do relax and enjoy. I’m one of those people who is a performer rather than an actress. Yeah, I guess I do take a few numbers to relax and then, when I’m relaxed, I’m just thinking, ‘well, go for it. Why not enjoy this. Try this number, let’s try that number.’ It doesn’t really matter if something really falls flat because you’re just trying them out in front of people. I enjoy it now.
You’ve always had honesty and directness emanating from the stage, so people are more likely to go with you rather than criticize English culture will often find fault rather than strength in a public figure. Did you feel that?
I think in Britain they do build people up, then knock them down, and they’ll do it to whatever artist is popular. I was just wondering today: why are they being so cruel to Britney Spears, for example? She’s done enormously well. She’s brought a lot of entertainment to people and added excitement to their lives and now they’re very busy catching her early in the morning without having washed her makeup off. They’re catching her drunk getting out of a cab. There’s all that stuff going on. That’s what they are great at here; they love bursting the bubble. They don’t really so that so much in France. They have a lot of respect for artists. I don’t think they have in England. Perhaps they do for actors, playwrights and authors but I don’t think they have that ultimate respect for music makers. When we started, they said, ‘oh, there’s a trio started from Manchester,’ and they said, ‘well, it’s supposed to be a Holy Trinity , these three. So, let’s nail the other two guys up in the middle and hang her and then crucify.’ You know, when you’re 24 or 25 and you just read this, you go, ‘oh, why?!’
I remember sitting on a doorstep in a back street in Piccadilly in Manchester and I was weeping. I just thought this is just the pits–why are they so–they want to kill people before they’ve actually started doing anything. However, I was lucky because the article was replied to by Elvis Costello (his keyboard player [Steve Nieve] had worked with us on one of the numbers [Bad Day]) and he wrote in along the lines of, ‘leave her alone; leave them alone. Who do you think you are; these people have just started.’ I think this piece of news was great and so it was a great relief when I heard that someone so talented would actually bother himself to write in for youngsters (as we were then, really). Perhaps, he felt the same need to do that because that’s what the press is like here. They’re really on self-destruct when they do that, I think. They say, ‘if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ That is it. However, to any artists starting out, especially in England, I’d say the same thing–if you don’t like it, get out, and, if you do continue, they can’t keep a good man down. So, just keep going.
You’ve been teaching a lot recently, and so you are coming face-to-face with amateurs. Growing up in the musical north, you must have had the piano-in-the-front-room culture. The enthusiastic amateur seems to have faded in the face of the professional on TV. Do you think that accentuates the journalists’ alienation?
I’m pleased to inform you that there is still a great deal of enthusiasm amongst the kids–teenagers–that I’m coming across. Yeah, I guess they’re inspired to be wannabes. They’ll get songbooks of the greatest hits of the moment but, I guess, that’s what inspired us in the past. And I think on the whole they are very much more aware of industry. They are aware of TV . What I do with them is get them to a microphone as quickly as possible so that they are not afraid of the it. I was very ‘cave woman’ about the microphone. So, I get them to kiss the mike; love the mike; Mike’s their friend. Before you know it, they grab the mike and, really within the hour they are just au fait with it. That’s one of the most important things I do with them because they are going to meet it sooner or later. So, if I have a group of six I’ll separate them one-to one and just guide them through it. Give them all the encouragement that they can really get, give them the encouragement I didn’t get and give them loads of help and training to understand their own voices.
That is something, again, I would have loved to have had at the age where they are. When I was 28/29. I did a kind of two-year bel canto singing course–one-on-one–which is kind of equivalent to three years that you do at the Royal Northern College [of Music, in Manchester]. What I teach them is that process of voice, but what I actually did at that stage was not that. I just went out with a very raw knowledge of singing and a very raw concept of projection. I think any tuition you can pick up along the way is worth going for with young singers (if they do tune into your website and hear this….). Just grab it when you can, and, if you don’t like the teacher, just ditch him and go get another one. Don’t feel sorry for the teacher, just use them and one day you will understand your own voice and, hopefully, turn around and teach
This becomes an aural culture, not something to be learned out of books. What was the turning point when you decided to become a singer?
I really wanted to be a singer since very young. Lots of singers that I would hear would not be on TV. My older sister would have Soul Man, some record like this, and I would hear Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, a load of singers that you wouldn’t hear on TV. And I heard gospel singers later on when I left home. TV-wise it would be someone like Lulu. It would be someone like Cilla Black. Something like that that sits in front of you and shouts at you from a TV. I just remember my Nana [grandma] once sitting on a sofa like you do in these small pokey rooms, and I was squashed beside her because there were so many of us and not enough seats. She once put her hand on my knee when I was listening to someone–it could have been Lulu–and I remember thinking, ooh, what’s she doing that for. At the same time, I was thinking, ‘she knows I’m dead excited about this.’
That was a big thing I did in my family. I always tried to hide my feelings or hide my enthusiasm and excitement, and I think she sussed me quite early on. My mom took me for singing lessons when I was about 13 or 14, but I ditched those as soon as possible because I didn’t like Hark, Hark, The Lark that I was made to sing– Orpheus and His Lute . It was not what I wanted to sing, but I learned a bit from that, and I really did want to do it from quite early on. I think from about age four, to be honest with you, I wanted to do that. Liza Minnelli was another example of someone you’d see at Christmas on TV, and she’d be an actress and also do these shows. Immediately, I would silently leave the room and go to the bathroom and look into the mirror and think, ‘what do you want to do, what do you want to do, do you want to be a singer or do you want to be an actress ?’ SINGER, SINGER, SINGER! So, from early on, I think you know IF you want to do it.
Quite a lot of people want to do it and end up doing horrible jobs, but then some of them have the guts to get out of those jobs and give it a go. It’s a rough life once you do, but it’s exciting. It’s fulfilling a dream and that’s not always easy, but there’s a level of satisfaction just fulfilling that dream, really.
Well, does that mean that you feel fulfilled now?
No, I’m not fulfilled at all, Mike–no way! I’m still inspired a lot and keep ignoring all my recent songs thinking, ‘that’s good, that’s good. No, no, no!’ I don’t really want to go back into that music industry, but, at the same time, I still have one foot in it. I try to ignore it because I’m bringing up my son, and I don’t want to be away from him. I want a stable home–a boring upbringing–and so I teach special needs some days and singing other days, but a lot of me is frustrated. I just recently came back from Paris after doing a gig–an African gig–that ended at 5:00 a.m. I got back to England–got back home, and I just felt like having a heart attack. It was really hard work. I would do it still and record. I love recording now, which I used to hate. And I used to love the live process which I am now much more reluctant to do, if you like, because it is simply such hard work to get there and back and bring up a son. But, the recording process–well, I would just love to do that all the time. I think someone should pay me all the time to record–I’m so happy. Isn’t it!
Your early recording experiences showed that, at the time, it was certainly not your favorite environment. The difference in technique between an opera singer projecting acoustically to the back stalls and a singer working a microphone is vastly different. When did you click into that?
I did a few lessons with a lovely old lady from Bradford who’s a terribly sweet soprano, and she was singing to me. She said, you know that Billie Holiday song, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child? I said, ‘yeah.’ I was thinking that I had never really understood that song. She then started to sing it, and it was….. awful . She was a lovely woman, but it was like [imitates voice] ‘Sometimes I feel….’ No, I just thought. No. I just don’t think I’ll learn anything off her. But I learned an awful lot from this lady, and afterwards I just came back to rehearsal room–a real pitsy room–you know, a horrible room–and started to do I’m Not Afraid of You . And that’s when I really noticed that my ease of projection had increased in a few lessons, and from a classical teacher. Well, they’re not classical are they? I think that term belongs to a certain era, classical music, doesn’t it?
Later on, in my late 20’s I learned some more about it, with the bel canto teacher I mentioned before, Richard Alder from Maida Vale [in London]. He’s a master, and he undid all the teaching she did to do his teaching. And then I had to hide his teaching in my singing. So, it’s quite a difficult process picking up on all this and then hiding it and not sounding like you trained, letting it just gel with you and then being raw again. There’s a process involved. I’ve watched many a singer use the microphone so close up their lips are on it all the time. I’ve often wondered why I make it hard for myself: why don’t I just do that? So, recently, I’ve done a bit more of that and then I stand back and then let it go–the sound or whatever. I’m beginning to enjoy both ways, really.
When I worked with you in my 20’s, there was the phrase going around like it’s the taming of the shrew [coined by Carmel herself, if I remember – MT]. So, yeah, I knew it, and I knew I had to be, well, knocked into shape. I had to learn a load of stuff. Sometimes you’re not willing to learn and I think I was a bit reluctant to at first. But the more you learn in the recording process, I think, the more it pays a dividend on stage later.
At the time, I presumed that, since you had chosen such a difficult musical route, you had to fight to get every inch of the way. You didn’t seem to pick and choose who to battle, going toe to toe with everyone you encountered.
Well, it’s a fair enough comment, and I think it was a fair enough practice. And I think it was an onslaught. It was a war from my point of view. We’d go into the head of the record company, Roger Ames, at London Records at the time, and he would always say to us the first hurdle is me–himself. ‘You’ve got to get your music past me.’ The next hurdle will be the radio guys, and the next will be the general public. So you’re not going to get to them until you get past us lot, anyway. That was hard and was inevitably difficult for all of us. You had to be quite wily and that was the bit that got quite sickening. You had to be so clever how you got the stuff past this guy. It was very difficult–every, every album was very difficult to make–absolutely every one of them. Yeah!
But don’t you think there was some truth in what Roger Ames said about the process and what had to be?
I think it was truthful for his company at that time. I have a feeling it’s not quite the same now because, at the moment, I think record companies are a little bit in trouble. You’ve got so much fantastic, great rap going on and cultural artists recording themselves, putting themselves out, gaining their own audiences before they even dain to go to a record company. They are their own record company, you know. That must make a difference now. I hope! What do you think?
It seems to me that a lot of expertise in record making is being lost. But there always has to be a delicate balance between learning from others’ experience and finding out for yourself. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be that lineage available now–the opportunity for apprenticeship and thoroughly learning a craft, the process from which I benefited.
[Barking dog interlude]
I was thinking about this. I was talking to Jim Parris about the recording process, of what we’ve done with our recent project. And I was talking with someone else and saying, well, obviously, there aren’t so many people who really know how to mike up a double base or orchestra or whatever. But then there are so many brilliant new young guys who are so fantastic at electronic sounds and modulation and change and improvisation and all sorts of things that, perhaps, there is a new school of engineering, if you like, in sort of a digital way. I was thinking it will pass on; all that information will pass on. I don’t think it will die out because, if I ended up in a situation with someone who could only work with, say, a Fostex four-track in a back room and we have something else to do, you know you’ll come forward with the skills you know and you’ll try and plug the gaps.
We worked with John Timperley who recorded lots of orchestras and other great things. He’s gone way back; I think he was with the Beatles. He did Thelonious Monk. He did loads of those people as a sound recording engineer, and he may well feel the pinch if it’s all going into a digital way, orchestras not being used or whatever. I would always suggest that there is nothing to worry about because I think that, when young engineers get really excited about recording a process, they’ll go and learn how to record with great mike techniques and about picking out the fantastic–the right room–that’s probably the most important part that they don’t even think about now.
[More barking dog interlude]
Recording a good vocal, putting a singer in a comfortable environment, is not something everybody gets, is it?
No, no. Absolutely not all the time. It’s really difficult for singers today who might be working in some small space and are told: right, sing now. And they [the producers] are, for example, going to sample that vocal across the track. I think that singer will find it really hard to get into the track, to warm up and let it bellow. They are going to sing quite tight and quite small to the mike. You know the new R&B vocal style, you’re going to hear a lot of nice warm throat singing and stuff like this, but you can get bored of that, you know. I don’t think you could record Pavarotti like that way….. So it will stylize the vocal. It will hamper the vocal and stop the singer stretching the sounds. But then they arrive at (you know that’s the curious thing) a new generation of sound, and that new sound then is the chart-filling thing. You can’t say that’s bad, but it is limiting the vocal–the vocalist.
It sounds as if you think that modern digital recording techniques are hampering free vocal expression.
I think so. You know what it’s like. It could be your friend or a local guy who does engineering and he’s possibly really good. Maybe he has a studio set-up, but it’ll be so spot-on with what’s in tune, he’ll be so spot-on with the timing that the singer won’t really be allowed to make those ‘mistakes’ of expression. You wonder how they would have recorded Frank Sinatra. Would they have not let him sing across that beat that way? Would they, for example, have allowed Marc Almond to go flat on that verse there? They would not have allowed such human gestures. And they don’t allow that now, so they end up with a very neat, in tune, in good timing, slightly boring vocal. I think the singer is a bit handcuffed.
It can be a form of insecurity, not for you but for some singers who have to be absolutely in tune before they think they are really delivering. Some people are unable to trust their instincts fully.
That’s fine. Then you have got to say to yourself I have to always be in tune. Oh, I must never have a crackle in my voice. Oh, I must never have a horrible sound. Sometimes you have a horrible sound that comes out of you–oh, uh! But that’s what you’ve made at that time and that is the human sound and that is the sound of someone who is stressed trying to express a song that is stressed out. That is the sound of the human cry, and, yeah, we are neatening that up a bit and it doesn’t quite say it all, does it?
As for example the kind of effect you get from some African vocalists?
That’s right. The greater number of African artists I have known have sung at some point at some sort of ceremony or event in the town or the village, and they could all start off with a song that sound like sort of [exhales a vague note]. And then the voice will come through, and then you wait a bit, and they start singing in a beautiful tonal way. You think, that’s nice and that’s live right in front of me there. So it’s not a battle about digital versus the human cry. But it could be, couldn’t it!
Where are you going next?
Recently, I’ve worked with Bruce Wassy the French drummer. He’s from Cameroon, based in Paris. Since we’ve done a project with him and written all these pieces with him, performed now three times with him. I think to make the CD recording of that will be the next step. But, meanwhile, in my backroom, Mike, I’ve got a little Fostex 4-Track, vocoder keyboard with lots of track sounds on it–you know, real digital! I’ve got my M-1. I’ve got the MIDI lead and everything. I’m very busy looking at the manual trying to work out these things and I had to get glasses recently so my Fostex 4-Track manual is bedtime reading, trying to work it. So the fun part with me is just being able to churn out what I’ve been ignoring recently and record a lot more ideas.
I have to mention that in the African music I have just been involved with I was riding on top of the rhythms. To me, coming from England and the things I hear there, it’s quite old fashioned and it still has to move for me a little bit farther forward, but I guess for a lot of black American artists it might be of interest for them to hear the kind of drumming Bruce can do. You know, it’s formidable. So, it’s a challenge how we actually approach this recording. We got one offer from a German label that said they hate commercial music. They want to know this world music thing, and I was saying to Jim Parris, who’s kind of managing the whole thing, well, you know, maybe I’ve got an idea or two to move these tracks forward, and it does actually involve digital sound.
I’m inspired greatly by various artists I hear from America, greatly by some of the sweetness in the singing some of the rappers use. They’ll use the vocalist in between……it’s just incredible singing and lovely sentiment and they have a very simple beat–a very simple four-beat. I’ve been busy working on the five-beat and one song that was seven, and I changed to 13–who cares! You just go, oh, no! So four is difficult enough for all of us so I’d like to push Bruce into playing more into four, and I’d like to move ahead maybe with this material, or maybe again with Jim Parris on our own. Just moving forward again. Writing new things.
Even in this contemporary electronic fog, music still comes back to people just hitting things and opening their mouths, doesn’t it?
Hitting things. Hmm! Well, I’ve done a lot of keyboards now for the past, god, it must be about 12 years. So, one of the things I do is teach very elementary piano to people so they know where they are on it. So, in the process I’m really into what you play, but I also incorporate the idea of magic music: I think you’ve got to allow for a randomness to occur and that comes from Brian Eno. That is his mark, if you like, from a teacher in my life. That would be one thing I’ve learned from him. Record yourselves. Don’t rely on someone else.
If you have no one else, record yourself. Put yourself out and allow for that random mistake. In the end I always regard anyone who has worked with drum and bass as having got it right, you know. And, from working with just drums (acoustic kit) and double bass from the eighties, that is something I felt, anyway, myself. They are the frequencies I want to hear on a speaker and in my car radio–speaker–whatever. I actually listen to all sorts of music. I switch between stations and I try driving along–nearly crashing–trying to get the bass end on this, and I am hopelessly just moving a tone control. That has become for me one of the issues.
Actually, didn’t realize it before, but Roger Ames said it all the time, it’s where you sit in the speaker. You [Mike] used to say a lot, ‘oh, that vocal tape, that vocal doesn’t sit in the speaker,’ and there would be another vocal tape and you’d say, Oh, that sits in the speaker and I’d look at you and I’d think, ‘what does sitting in the speaker mean?’ Now, I’m 45. I’ve worked out what sitting in the speaker means and lot of what I like to hear, I must say is…… there’s very sanitized versions of rap over here that I like Black-Eyed Peas . My seven-year old son, for example, that’s what I bought for Christmas, it has the odd swear word but it’s really sanitized. It’s almost what they did with Punk music to get rid of it–you know, sanitized it. But, you now, looking into Tupac [Shakur] or anything by other artists, 50 Cent or whatever, there’s some really strong, great musical heritage moving on with these guys.
Whatever, they’re moving on with……it could be a piano part from a great classical piece that’s just stolen and put in a the track five times here or there. Then you go to a high school, and you meet some black kid whose sort of 14 who wants to learn the piano because he’s heard part from Tupac , and you’re like, oh, my god! It’s amazing, the knock-on effect. It really does spark with a lot of kids. What they are doing is so cultural it won’t be taken away. It won’t die out. It’s definitely speaking the truth and mirroring what’s going on.
Whether the people like it or not is another matter; whether people like the lyrics or not is another matter. Whether people like the attitude to women in it…..yes, it’s another matter because, actually what has been said and spoken about is exactly people telling it as it is–mirroring what’s going on.
What was your question?