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Singer back, 40 years after vanishing act

SHE was compared to Joan Baez, and was even described as the new Joni Mitchell.

Shelagh McDonald was expected to become a big star in 1971, but vanished instead. Picture: Ian Anderson
Shelagh McDonald was expected to become a big star in 1971, but vanished instead. Picture: Ian Anderson

So when Scottish folk singer Shelagh McDonald released her critically-acclaimed second album, Stargazer, in 1971, everyone expected her career to soar.

Instead, the 24-year-old vanished, leaving fans to ponder her whereabouts for more than 30 years. There were reports of sightings in Edinburgh, Bristol and even America, but most fans didn't even know if she was alive.

Only in 2005, after a re-release of her work without her knowledge, did Ms McDonald make herself known to the world again — a "surreal" experience, after reading about herself as if she were dead.

Now the 64-year-old singer is making a comeback with a renewed vigour.

In February of this year her partner Gordon Farquhar, a physicist, died aged 80, and she says he is responsible for her return.

She said: "I started writing songs again probably around 2005. When Gordon died, I thought 'is this going to make me feel like singing, am I able to sing?'

"Then three months after he died, I realised yes, I can do it. In fact, he said to me I should do it."

During Ms McDonald's rise to fame she moved to Bristol, then London. It was there she tried drugs, but a "horrific" hallucination on LSD made her flee back to her parents in Edinburgh. She said the LSD trip destroyed her voice, leaving her sounding like a "strangled cat".

Then she met Mr Farquhar, and began to live an increasingly nomadic lifestyle, including living in a tent for six years.

"We lived rough for the last six years, and for the last few years, settled in a forest not far out of Lanark," she said. "I thought I would test my voice, and give it 15 days, if it's not going to come back, I'd forget it.

"So it loosened up and after about 10 days, something clicked and I knew that was it. It's been getting better and better since. I'm enjoying singing now more than I ever have."

Her voice now sits at a lower register, and she says her music is more in a jazz than folk style ("instead of the Joni influence, maybe the Leonard Cohen influence").

She has played in pubs around Lanark, where she is still based, and has taken part in various jam sessions and folk clubs.

Only a few weeks ago, she went to a gig at A' the Airts, Sanquhar, in Dumfries and met radio DJ Hugh Taylor who asked her to do a set of four songs.

She will now join Mr Taylor as a guest on his radio show, Folk'n'Stuff, to be broadcast on Alive Radio 107.3FM on Tuesday December 11, at 9pm.

Mr Taylor said: "Somebody said that back in the 70s, she really was incredibly talented, brilliant, looked like an angel, but she was an exceedingly nice person, which was unusual.

"She's lovely. And her voice has not diminished in the least.

"I'm very excited about it. How often does a community radio station in a place like Dumfries get an opportunity to break something like that back into the world?"

Ms McDonald may release new material next year, and wants to work with some of her previous collaborators.

"Now is the right time. I've no regrets whatsoever and I would not be enjoying it so much now if I had been in the business.

"I love being with musicians again, I've missed being around them. I think people are expecting me to be a miserable old sod, a tragedy, and I'm supposed to be incredibly mysterious.

"You cannot be mysterious if you've lived in a tent for six years, it just can't be done.

"There's a little bit of pressure, but part of me just enjoys the challenge."

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