Eddi Reader on music, her spiritual home in Ireland and the last throes of empire

Scottish music legend Eddi Reader is Ireland-bound once again as part of her ongoing 40 Years Live tour. David Roy spoke to the Glaswegian singer, songwriter and musician about her family's Irish roots, why she's always been comfortable performing live and her views on Scottish independence

Eddi Reader and her band are back in Ireland this month
Eddi Reader and her band are back in Ireland this month

EDDI Reader is no stranger to Irish audiences, having been a regular visitor to venues across the country for many years now. 2020 is no exception, as in just over a week's time, the Glasgow-born singer/songwriter and her faithful live band – husband John Douglas (guitar/vocals), Boo Hewerdine (guitar/vocals), Roscommon's own Alan Kelly (piano/accordion) and Kevin McGuire (double bass/vocals) – will be playing a run of dates in Sligo, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Letterkenny, Dun Laoghaire, Belfast, Armagh and Tarbert.

However, apparently it actually took some time for the former Fairground Attraction singer turned solo star – currently celebrating her 40th year in music (or is it her 41st or 42nd? Read on for clarification) – to 'crack' the live circuit here, as she explains.

"I remember a time where I would be looking longingly at Ireland and thinking 'Why can't I go over to play some gigs?'," explains Reader (60), who released her most recent album, Cavalier, in 2018.

"At the time it used to be you could only do it if you had some big promoter, y'know? But we just tried approaching venues ourselves, and it was really great – Alan Kelly from the Alan Kelly Gang who plays with me knew all the people who ran the gigs, so it was easy for me to phone them and say, 'Would you mind?'

"So now we usually play every year in February around Valentine's Day, so I get to see you guys all in love with each other. We try to play some of the more out of the way places too – it's great to see a little bit of the countryside and not just stick to the main drag."

Indeed, while Tarbert in Co Kerry is definitely not one of the 'big college towns' considered as safe bets for most touring acts, her upcoming date at Tarbert Village Hall on February 29 will have a special significance for the Scots star.

"I want to always do Kerry – it's my spiritual home. My granny came from Tralee," explains Reader, who has strong Irish roots and indeed connections to the Irish revolution: her great uncle James 'Seamus' Reader was a piper who performed for James Connolly and Countess Markievicz and was the head of the Scottish Brigade of the Irish Republican Brotherhood during the Irish War of Independence. Eddi is currently working on a book based on his extensive diaries.

She continues: "My great granny [James's mother] is from Lurgan and my mum's mum, Madge, who was my favourite person in all the world, is from Tralee. I loved the sound of her voice, but we were just babies so I didn't know it was an accent or that it was from Ireland – she just had this gorgeous lilt to her voice.

"I loved listening to her stories, she had all these tales; in her head, the way she described Tralee to me was like there was was mermaids lapping by the water – she called it 'the Spa'. She was washing her face with seaweed in the mornings to make herself beautiful and there was some castle and a big footprint where the devil walked.

"I didn't see Ireland or Tralee for myself until I was about 25 and I still do so love going there."

At this stage, there can't be many places left around the world where Reader hasn't played, from her early days busking on the streets of Glasgow and London and her American adventure as a touring member of post-punks Gang of Four, through the pop madness of her chart-topping Fairground Attraction days and on to her ongoing solo career, which has so far seen her record nine albums – including two hugely acclaimed volumes of Robert Burns songs.

"I've been out earning a living [at music] since I was about 19 and I've never had to do another job, which seems to me remarkable," enthuses Reader. "But you never know – I'm keeping up my crochet and my love of filing."

She continues: "The '40 years' thing started at the end of last year, so I'm kind of cheating it a little bit. 1978/79 were the days that I went to folk clubs and learned about song properly, y'know?

"I did learn about song from my mum's knee and I did listen to the adults singing all the 'songbook' stuff before that, and I did collect and play the guitar when I was about 10 – but actually going out on my own [to play] as an adult wasn't until I was about 18/19."

An articulate and engaging interviewee, Reader is a confident and magnetic presence on the stage as well. According to her, those live capabilities stem from the simple fact that she's "comfortable in my own skin" – although it maybe hasn't always been that way.

"It's taken about 40 years – I'm getting there!" she chuckles. "I think maybe coming from a big family helped me enjoy singing in front of people, but every day I'm learning more – it's an experiment in expansion. If you'd have been talking to me about 20 years ago, you'd probably have got some little quivering wreck.

"During the Fairground Attraction times and just after that, as much as I loved it and enjoyed it there was a part of me that didn't feel like I should have been there. I mean, I'm still star-struck today when I meet anybody [famous] who sings and plays or acts and writes. I never can put myself in their position, I don't feel equal in a lot of ways in that way – but certainly I want to be.

"So I'm always learning and trying to tell myself that the people in front of me are there because they want to be there. It makes me feel comfortable when I think that way."

On the other hand, what definitely does not make the Scots star feel comfortable is the Tory government's refusal to countenance another vote on Scottish independence.

"It just seems that this 'British empire' thing is a bit in its last throes and I think it's never really been addressed – it's like the elephant in the room," says Reader, who was a prominent supporter of the 'Yes' campaign in the run up to Scotland's 2014 vote.

"England needs a kind of cultural renaissance and enlightenment and so does Ireland, as far as 'why have we got a wee chunk of us missing?' And then we've got Scotland that has no control over its resources.

"It just seems really awkward and silly and we are in this position because nobody has ever said 'let's sit down and talk about this out-of-balance relationship we have with England – are you OK with this, Wales? Are you OK, Ireland? Are you OK, Scotland?'

"And the poor English people don't know what's going on. They're like, 'What's wrong with you, why do you want to leave us?' We're like, 'We don't want to leave anything, we want to be here but just own our own money – is that OK?'"

"It's a fight, that's all. I just hope it doesn't get to be as bad as what you [Ireland] had to go through."

:: Eddi Reader, February 12, Hawk's Well Theatre, Sligo/ February 13, Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick/ February 14, Cork Opera House/ February 15, Theatre Royal, Waterford/ February 19, An Grianan Theatre, Letterkenny/ February 20, Dun Laoghaire, Pavilion Theatre/ February 21, Ulster Hall, Belfast/ February 22, Market Place Theatre, Armagh/ February 29, Tarbert Village Hall. Ticket details available via Eddireader.co.uk