Instruments: Guitar, Vocals
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Even when Amy Macdonald’s not visibly around, she’s busy. If her hiatus whilst recording new music made her seemingly a long way from the radio-play ubiquity she enjoyed as an award-winning teenage singer-songwriter straight out of Scotland, she’s actually performing to vast audiences at European festivals. Even when she’s meant to be taking time off, she’s being asked to represent her country at flagship events, or is scratching an ever-itchy writing urge. Macdonald might have enjoyed a decade’s success in the music industry, here, there and everywhere, but she’s still in her twenties.
The fact is, Macdonald is that rare thing: the natural musician in whom a new song is never far away. Rarer still: the British artist with a top-of-the-bill status in multiple international territories. Just when we thought Amy was gone… she was knocking them dead at the Montreux Jazz Festival, her performance immortalised in a football goal-sized poster that’s hung in the arrivals hall at Geneva Airport “for about five years now!” she laughs.
Macdonald thinks back over the four years between the release of her third album, summer 2012’s Life In A Beautiful Light, and the completion
of her upcoming fourth, Under Stars. And she considers the steps that led to the making of the record that is, frankly, her most rocking yet.
“I toured the third album till end of 2013,” she begins. “Another long tour – it always is,” grins this dedicated live performer. “People think, ‘oh, I’ve not heard a song on the radio from you for a while, you must be sitting at home with your feet up?’”
Much as Macdonald likes escaping from it all, back to her home in small town Scotland, back to her dogs and her Ferraris (She has two at the last count, which is one more than even the most extravagant rock’n’roller) taking it easy “is never the way,” she affirms. “That was 18 months’ touring, finishing up with a two-month orchestra tour. I got home at 1am on Christmas Eve.
“That was nice feeling,” she beams. “I was finally having a bit of a chilled time and there was no rush. I knew that was me for a while, and I could take 2014 off.”
But it wasn’t, and she couldn’t. As perhaps the biggest young female Scottish artist in the world – not to mention a huge football fan – Macdonald was asked to raise the curtain on two sports events that brought the planet to Scotland.
“That year I was asked to perform at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. Then I was asked to sing at the opening of the Ryder Cup. It was never really quiet,” she admits.
Then, just to completely ruin her well-earned break from a career that had roared out of the traps with 2007’s three-million-selling debut This Is The Life, “I decided to start writing songs.”
But this time, Macdonald broke with tradition. Rather than write practically everything herself, as she had done on This Is The Life, A Curious Thing (2010) and Life In A Beautiful Light, she connected with the circle of musicians with whom she’d become fast friends in the ten years since she signed a record deal aged 19, namely bass player Jimmy Sims and his friend/her occasional acoustic guitarist Ben Parker.
The trio realised they’d hit immediately on a winning writing formula. Macdonald’s plans for “a really slow-paced” album-making process went out the window. Within less than a year, they had 17 or 18 songs.
“It’s a new lease of life after ten years,” she affirms. “Everybody involved is excited and invigorated again. It’s a fresh start, with fresh ideas.
"Everyone I played the songs to was just absolutely buzzing," Macdonald continues. "And for me it was generally a much more enjoyable process because I didn’t feel as much pressure because I was doing it with other people. There are still songs on the album that I’ve written all on my own, but Jimmy, Ben and I just struck up such a close friendship and working relationship.”
In early 2016 Amy and her wingmen began recording in the unremarkable-but-inspiring surroundings of the Clapham studio of fellow Scot Cam Blackwood (George Ezra, Florence and the Machine). There were additional sessions in another unprepossessing corner of London, at the studios of production duo My Riot (London Grammar, Birdy).
Dream On was an early stand-out. A gung-ho, positive rocker which showcases the new power in her voice, it also speaks of the greater volume – in both senses – of Macdonald’s new music. From almost the minute it was written it staked its claim to be the first single from her fourth album. That feeling was underlined when she and her band road-tested it over the summer.
“I did a few festivals in France, Germany and Switzerland, and we put a few new songs in the set to see how they went down. And Dream On, we played it at one festival in Switzerland, and people were dancing, singing – which is completely opposite to the normal reaction when you say, ‘we’re gonna play something new!’” laughs this twentysomething touring veteran.
“And afterwards, the Swiss promoter, who put on my first show in a tiny club in 2007, came running back to the dressing room, and said: ‘That song Dream On is a massive hit. People out there were loving it.’ We thought, ‘we need to take this feedback on board…’”
Pegged for release at the top of the new year, Macdonald thinks the sentiment (“Living for the weekend, the drinks are on me…”) is especially good for a January single.
“It’s obviously quite bleak as people try get over the Christmas hangover, so it’s brilliant to have such an upbeat song for January,” she notes with typical irrepressible enthusiasm.
The mooted second single Automatic came together when the band, thinking they’d just mess around and feel for a creative connection, struck gold on the first day of writing with the hard-driving track. “Because Ben is so skilled on Pro-Tools, it almost sounded finished after the first day. We beefed it up a bit and added some more exciting electric guitars later,” she says, highlighting the cracking solo that was the contribution of guest guitarist Leo Abrahams, recently fêted for his work producing Regina Spektor’s critically acclaimed Remember Us To Life album.
As for the words – “Hitting the road is all that I got… Foot to the floor, I can’t take any more…” – “that was me just thinking about people constantly running away from problems – and also trying to think of who I wanted to sound like. And on that one I was thinking of the Bruce Springsteen, big American thing…”
Down By The Water is a horse of a different colour; simple blues that emerged seemingly out of nowhere one afternoon when “Jimmy and I were just sitting messing around. He came up with some really nice notes on the bass, and we just added to it. It was one of those songs where, when we were writing it, we didn’t think it was up to much. It just sounded a bit too simple, pared down, not really a big extravagant song.”
But in that simplicity was majesty. In the studio with My Riot, the legendary Juliet Roberts – she sang house classic Needin’ U with David Morales – recorded “amazing backing vocals, gospel-style. As soon as I heard Juliet’s vocals, I just felt that it completed this kind of lovely, downhome, swampy feeling.”
The punchy, crunchy title track is surely another chart contender.
“We wrote that as maybe an album opener, but it didn’t have a chorus. That’s the great thing Cam did with that song – he told me to get a hook for it, to make it big and powerful. The next day I came up with something in about two minutes, no kidding. And obviously I was convinced it was rubbish. But Cam loved it straight away.”
Under Stars is full of moments like that: honest, persuasive, instinctive songwriting built for summer festival or daytime radio singalongs. It’s also full of smart, incisive, inclusive lyrics that can’t help but reflect the times in which they were written. A young worldlywise Scotswoman, Macdonald found herself writing during a hinge in history.
“The album is not the slightest bit political,” she begins, “but it was written before, during and after the Scottish independence referendum. Being in Scotland at that time, you couldn’t escape it. And from a writer’s point of view it was amazingly inspiring, even tangentially. We were talking about the events all the time, and that comes came through in The Rise And Fall,” she says of one of the album’s most anthemic numbers.
“If I’m honest I was thinking about Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character in House Of Cards, when I was writing – I was obsessed with that show at the time!” she laughs again. Then, recording the song in London in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, real-world events couldn’t help but filter in again.
The rousing From The Ashes has a similar backstory. “It’s another song that sounds part of what’s being going on, but it was completely unintentional. That song was me writing a song I thought would be perfect for The Hunger Games. It’s a really, really bleak song but It ends in euphoria with chanting and the idea that everything is OK. That’s the song that ends the album, which in my mind is the place where it’s always meant to be.”
Under Stars is 29-years-young Amy Macdonald reaching in, reaching up and reaching out. Her famously rich voice is richer, more powerful still. Her renowned way with a melody is stronger, bolder, more impactful. Partnering with new collaborators has given her the power to dig even deeper. Allying herself with likeminded musical souls close to home has freed her to fly even higher.
“It’s crazy all the things that have happened,” she reflects. “The one thing I regret slightly is not taking it in more, especially with the first album. It just exploded in Europe; there was one country after another doing exceptionally well. But I just thought that’s what happens – you put an album out and bang, it does really well! Now I know that’s not the norm, and that was an exceptional thing. I wish I’d be more aware at the time of how amazing it was. But now I know how lucky I was then – and how even luckier I am to still be doing what I want to do ten years later.”
Amy Macdonald has only just begun. Under Stars, but reaching for them, too. She might have been there, done that, but she’s now ready to do much, much more.