Life

Eddi Reader talks about music and her IRA grandfather

Eddi Reader may have just released a double album but her time is taken up by her IRA grandfather's writings about, among other things, the Easter Rising. She spoke to Jenny Lee about history, faith, music and Scottish independence

Scottish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader, who plays The Soma Festival in Newcastle, Co Down on July 13

RENOWNED for the passionate delivery of her music, Eddi Reader is also a passionate Scottish nationalist.

A firm advocate of Scottish independence, I spoke to her last week – the morning after she took part in a celebration of Scottish and Irish togetherness in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, in front of an audience that included President Michael D Higgins and Scottish First Minister Nicola Surgeon.

With many of those present, not least Reader herself, still in shock from the vote to leave the European Union, the Glasgow-born singer said she sought comfort in the "healing power of music", which she has always uses as a personal means of meditation.

"It was such a big responsibility to create the right feeling in the room and whilst I had been looking forward to singing, it was only in the middle of the song that I relaxed. At the start I was like a nervous little duckling paddling furiously but towards the middle of it I felt more like a swan," she said.

"Music always manages to bring us back to ourselves. No matter how things appear, you have to be in the moment, remember there are birds singing outside and try to maintain some stability," Reader, who will be appearing with her band at the Soma Festival in Co Down later this month, said.

Before that she is Tokyo-bound for a one-week tour of Japan where her music is extremely popular.

"Music has no borders – even if you don't understand the language. I love Edith Piaf. I don't know half the time what she is singing about but I can feel it."

Reader’s career has spanned more than three decades and has taken her from Scotland to busking in France, to the pop success of Fairground Attraction, 10 solo albums, three Brit Awards and an MBE.

While she released her double album The Best of Eddi Reader in May, the chance discovery of a treasure trove of personal manuscripts and Scottish songs from 480AD to 1898 belonging to her grandfather while clearing out her late uncle's house in Dublin has been consuming her every spare moment.

Methodically transcribing every word her grandfather Seamus Reader penned, she has discovered that he was a commander in the Scottish Brigade of the old IRA and a close associate of James Connolly when the Irish War of Independence broke out in 1919.

"It's taken me three and a half years to get to 1922," says Reader, who plans to publish a historical book based on her grandfather's notes.

"It starts in 1700 and goes through Robert Burns, the Irish Scots Brigades, Freemasonary, the signing of the treaties of the unions as well as stories of Irish legend Cú Chulainn, who was trained by the Scottish warrior woman Scáthach."

Reader has also learnt much about her musical DNA. Having published her Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns album in 2003, she discovered she wasn't the first in her family to sing the works of Scotland's best loved bard in public.

Her great grandfather Charles sang in halls and lodges across Scotland and, even further back, his father had come to Scotland as an 18-year-old immigrant from Frankfurt and was a street musician in Edinburgh.

"I'm constantly amazed at how my musical attractions are not just based on my experience now, but have been formed through centuries. It's a case of the more we change, the more we stay exactly the same."

Reader doesn't rule out a new album to accompany the history book. "I'm middle aged now so the things I want to achieve musically are going to be dictated by who I am now. I hope enough people are interested by it and will like to hear the ideas from this time," the 56-year-old told me.

"I've been going through all his songs and found a beautiful one by Thomas Moore. There is a line in it 'light is in the horizon yet', which is what I would call my album as back in the early 1900s they were living in a world that was just about to go into two world wars and amid insanity of xenophobia. Here I am in 2016 post-referendum and I feel these lessons and music of the past need to be heard and wisdom needs to prevail."

Reader argues that most of the people born in Britain today have grandparents born elsewhere in the world and that "the free movement of people" is human nature and does not want to see division with "the devil rubbing his hands".

A spiritual person, Reader doesn't believe in one particular religious dogma, but regularly prays to a "more intelligent being".

"It doesn't matter if you call that Jesus, Buddah or Mohammad, what is important is the conversation you are having. I''m very faithful to the idea that we are all amazingly beautiful and meant to be happy and I absolutely believe in everything that promotes that," she said.

"With me it's music and when I sing I'm in conversation with that spirit. Music feels to me like a little magic carpet and when I step on it and I play with it, it protects me from falling."

When it comes to musical interpretation, Reader thanks her lack of musical notation knowledge for her ability to make a song her own.

"I'm not a brilliant sight reader so I pick out the melody and see if I can make it make sense to my ear and then I will just invent the chords and the bass underneath it. Songs are like a football to me and whether I write them or someone else writes them, I need to be able to play with them."

It was this need which led to division and the ultimate split of her former band.

"With Fairground Attraction I met some brilliant songs I could use as a football until the writer wanted to chain the football in the ground and dictate how I kept that," she explained.

"I always say to people, if you want children to be creative you have to never judge what they do and let them fly with it and discover their own mistakes and give them choice."

Looking forward to returning to play in Northern Ireland, Reader will be hoping to take the opportunity to continue with her personal journey of discovery as she hopes to find out more about her great grandmother, who was from Lurgan, Co Armagh.

:: Eddi Reader plays The Soma Festival in St Mary's Hall, Newcastle, Co Down on July 13. For tickets and a full programme of event visit www.somafestival.com.

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