Kirsty MacColl on Her Own Terms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kirsty MacColl's new album, a retrospective look at her 16-year recording career, comes with its own testimonials--a CD booklet spread in which famous musicians pay tribute to her multifaceted gifts.

U2 singer Bono rates her "as one in a line of great English songwriters that include Ray Davies, Paul Weller and Morrissey . . . the Noelle Coward of her generation."

To David Byrne, she has "the voice of an angel," a sentiment echoed exactly by Billy Bragg, who had perhaps his biggest career payday when MacColl's steam-rolling 1984 version of his song, "A New England," made the British Top 10.

Morrissey takes appreciative note of MacColl's "great songs." Shane MacGowan, who sang a duet with her on one of the Pogues' most widely heard songs, "Fairytale of New York," wonders, "Anyway, why isn't she massively successful?"

"Galore," the 18-song album that includes these encomiums, seems like a savvy attempt to give MacColl a boost toward the stateside success that has eluded her on her three previous U.S. releases, all of them critically esteemed but slow-selling.

With the Adult Album Alternative format newly established and perfectly tailored to MacColl's combination of a mature songwriter's vision and a distinctive, dusky-toned alto of many hues, this somewhat early look backward--MacColl is in her mid-30s--makes business sense. Rounding out the package are a catchy new original, "Caroline," and a duet with Evan Dando on Lou Reed's misty ballad, "Perfect Day."

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Could "Galore" be the answer, or at least part of it, to MacGowan's question? Ask the confessedly road-weary singer that question as she sits in a Minneapolis hotel room, and another one presents itself: Could crusty Kirsty care less?

Regarding the possible career benefits of repackaging her highlights at a time when an American commercial radio format finally exists to give them a fair airing, MacColl said, "There might have been some thought of that, but it wasn't from me.

"I can only concentrate on music. I find the business side incredibly tedious," said MacColl, who plays tonight at the Coach House. "I think if you want to be a big star you have to play big-star games, and I can't be bothered. It's a very sick business, and I don't enjoy it."

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MacColl, whose discourse is a blend of frequent chuckles, the free deployment of some choice expletives and a no-nonsense way of getting to the point without bothering to dance around it, says she has mellowed a bit when it comes to such extra-musical chores as interviews.

"I'm better at promoting stuff, or at least I've realized it's part of the job," she said. "You've got to sell enough records to make another one. This one's doing quite well in England," where MacColl reported it had spent the previous three weeks since its release in the Top 10.

As for getting her friends to write all those nice things about her for the CD, MacColl said, "On the Shangri-Las' greatest hits, they had all these notes by journalists. I thought it would be more interesting (to solicit comments from musicians she has worked with) than having a journalist nobody's heard of. I didn't expect them to write such eulogies. I was expecting something weirder."

As the daughter of a well-known British folk musician, the late Ewan MacColl, it seems a matter of course that MacColl found her way into music. But she says she did it entirely without the support of her father, a political radical who is best known as the writer of Roberta Flack's signature hit, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and for the Pogues-covered "Dirty Old Town."

"I think I consciously sought to avoid any kind of folk music for a long time, because he was so anti-rock music that he hated it," MacColl said of her father. (Ewan divorced her mother when Kirsty was young and raised a second family with Peggy Seeger, half-sister of the American folkie, Pete Seeger.)

"It wasn't until after 'Kite' (the 1989 album that was her first U.S. release, arriving in the year her father died) that he said he thought I'd done anything worthwhile. He made all his children feel utterly worthless growing up." MacColl's older brother, Hamish, and her younger half-siblings, Neill, Calum and Kitty, all have pop and rock careers going.

"Everybody wants their father's support, don't they, in whatever they're doing? He wasn't very supportive for a long time. He was later on, but it was an uphill struggle," she said. "I think he was bitterly disappointed that we weren't Communist guerrillas. It was a terrible letdown that we were into pop music.

"I find it quite hard to listen to his stuff, because it fills me with really deep sadness," she said. "I know it's good, but it's associated with sad things for me."

Later in the interview, MacColl brought up her father again, wanting to add a balancing stroke: "All that stuff about my dad--I did love him, even if he'd drive me crazy."

"I suppose music was a refuge from school and home," MacColl said of her beginnings as a singer. "It kept me relatively sane for a lot of years. It was the only thing that interested me greatly, for as long as I can remember. I think I had (the Beach Boys') 'Good Vibrations' when I was about 5. I got it from my brother, and that was just mind-blowing."

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Brian Wilson's masterpieces of vocal orchestration with the Beach Boys had a lasting influence on MacColl. Her own recordings, especially such early efforts as "A New England" and "They Don't Know," have emphasized layered harmonies in which MacColl turns her own voice into a chorus of over-dubbed parts.

"They Don't Know," a pop confection from 1979, was five years ahead of its time for MacColl: It anticipated the lush, bright sound that became popular for the Bangles during the mid-1980s, and Tracey Ullman's 1984 remake of MacColl's song reached No. 8 on the U.S. charts.

Those early vocal tours de force--and her marriage to one of England's highest-profile record producers, Steve Lillywhite, from whom she separated nine months ago (they have two sons, ages 8 and 10)--helped MacColl land numerous session gigs singing backup vocals for Morrissey, Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones and Talking Heads, among others.

It kept her busy during a long period when she refused to tour: MacColl says her first tour in the early '80s went badly and soured her on live performance for 10 years.

"I had a very big band, and I was totally inexperienced," she said. "Instead of telling them to turn down, I'd try to shout over them every night, and I got hoarse."

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Eventually, MacColl said, "I decided I'd better get over it," and she has toured after every release since "Electric Landlady" in 1991.

MacColl's musical and thematic interests have been extremely varied. Newcomers who pick up on "Galore" will find it holds too many shadings of the pop rainbow to list briefly. They range from folk-pop and spoof-minded country singing to the hip-hop inflections and salsa-band arrangements that emerged on "Electric Landlady," to the wistful, orchestral arrangements of "Titanic Days," the 1993 album that MacColl says was emotionally tinged by her marital troubles.

She applies her array of styles to well-drawn character studies both wry and sympathetic, to tart put-downs of shallow materialists and to worried social observations.

MacColl writes all her own lyrics and melodies, but she often gets help in fleshing out songs from such frequent collaborators as Johnny Marr, the former Smiths guitarist, Mark Nevin of the band Fairground Attraction, and Pete Glenister, who plays guitar in MacColl's three-man touring band.

"It's really a kick in the (behind) for me to collaborate, because I'm dead lazy," MacColl said. "I write to exorcise demons. That's what you do--you turn misery and imperfection to advantage."

Having looked back with "Galore," MacColl will plot her next musical moves after her tour ends in May. Whatever happens, she said, "I'm not going to do anything that involves lots of tight Spandex."

* Kirsty MacColl, Fossil and Kerry Getz play tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $13.50. (714) 496-8930.

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