Singing star Barbara Dickson goes back to her folksy roots for new Irish tour

Theatrical singing star Barbara Dickson is back on the road at 70 and shows no signs of slowing down. Here she tells Gail Bell why it is important to pay your dues and why she is going back to basics, stripping it all back to just a voice, some folk songs and a guitar

Wearing it well – Barbara Dickson is coming to Belfast and Ballymena as part of a new six-date Irish tour this month
Gail Bell

SHE says her fans in Northern Ireland will know her as "the woman with big curly hair and even bigger shoulder pads", but Barbara Dickson wants you all to know, she's a changed woman.

Her style, if not her powerful voice, has softened over the years, which is hardly surprising since she is now over 70 and happy to pare down the look and the staging of her new tour in which she goes back to her beloved folksy roots.

"I would be a sad case if I came out on stage looking like I was 17 instead of 70," she says, chuckling down the line in her soft, Scottish vernacular. "I have changed over the years, but I still carry that image about from the 1980s."

Ahead of a new six-date Irish tour with Nick Holland – and "very special guest" Anthony Toner – La Dickson says she is looking forward to an "intimate gathering" in Belfast and Ballymena, singing traditional music, mixed with a few favourite theatrical favourites for which she is known.

The hugely popular I Know Him So Well, sung with contemporary, Elaine Paige, comes to mind, but is not, it seems, on the schedule.

"I never sing that song because it was a duet and that's the way it stays – as a duet," she says firmly, but concedes that other hits such as Caravan, and Another Suitcase in Another Hall (from Evita) may be on the list.

With reference to her aforementioned duetting partner, she shares the same strong views on instant stardom; views that famously landed Paige in a bit of a media storm some years ago when she criticised shows like Britain's Got Talent and the overnight success it brought to its winners, including the now-famous Scottish singer Susan Boyle.

On this subject, Dickson is singing from the same song sheet and feels it is important to "build up your art" and "pay your dues" rather than being propelled to overnight sensation status on the basis of public votes and televised celebrity critiques.

The subject comes up accidentally when talking about her early years doing the rounds of the folk clubs near her native Dunfermline where the singer honed her art slowly and in the "warm, supportive environment" she equated with the folk clubs that also acted as "political, left wing, social" hotbeds at the time.

"I count myself lucky that I grew up with the folk music scene at the time that I did," she says. "I know, from the bottom of my heart, that if I ever had to enter a singing competition that I would be 'washed up' by the time I was 19.

"That has something to do with the fact that I am fantastically shy, so it was perfect that the folk clubs provided an informal setting to learn your craft; they allowed you to sing happily in a corner of a room without too much fuss. You were also allowed to be 'rubbish' occasionally and no-one cared. I think there should be more of that today for young people starting out."

It was during this casual folk setting, ironically, that Dickson went on to meet famed dramatist and composer Willy Russell, who was also starting out and later asked her to play his original Mrs Johnstone in the musical Blood Brothers, a role in 1983 that projected her into the mainstream herself.

Surprisingly, though, she is not a fan of musical theatre generally and apart from Blood Brothers and Spend, Spend, Spend, a rags-to-riches story of real-life 1961 football pools winner Viv Nicholson (played by Dickson who won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress), she has little time for modern musicals.

"Some of the musicals that get on stage today offer little in the way of good, original stories," she says. "I live in Edinburgh and I'm afraid I'm am a terrible snob when it comes to the theatre. I want to come out feeling like my life has changed."

She is a gushing fan, though, of the music of Gerry Rafferty, Bob Dillon and Randy Newman – along with Co Tyrone's Jarlath Henderson (youngest ever recipient of the BBC Young Folk Award in 2003) and, of course, Belfast-based Anthony Toner, who joins her on stage for the upcoming concerts.

For a multi-million-selling recording artist – she has no idea of the number of albums she has recorded to date but is currently working on a new studio album for 2018 – who has lifted the roof in the Albert Hall in London, she, refershingly, has no problem scaling down for the smaller gatherings in Dublin, Clonmel, Naas, Westport, Ballymena and Belfast this month.

"The way I see it," she says modestly, "it is a chance to meet up with my lovely Irish fans and let the music speak. It is all stripped back; it's just me and a guitar and I hope I'm up to that kind of scrutiny. If people like me, I'll come back."

:: Barbara Dickson appears at The Braid in Ballymena on Friday October 27 and The Lyric, Belfast, on Sunday October 29.

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