Eddi Reader: Sings the Songs of Robert Burns: 2003

EDDI Reader and I have something in common. We both once felt complete indifference for the works of Robert Burns.

On the rare occasions it was taught at school, I stared out of the classroom window.

I had posters of Pete Townshend and David Bowie on my bedroom wall. They were my poets.

Meanwhile Eddi was consumed by the cool jazz of greats such as Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington.

Auld Lang Syne felt nothing more than a maudlin, drunken wail at Hogmanay parties.

And My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose was strictly the domain of more traditional Scottish performers like Kenneth McKellar or Moira Anderson.

In the maturity of our later years, we thankfully both discovered the real beauty of The Bard.


Eddi’s belated passion for Burns led directly to my own appreciation of his music.

“Growing up, my interest in Robert Burns was minimal, if not non-existent,” she confessed.

“I thought his work was for the highbrow – something rich people celebrated at posh Burns’ suppers.

“It was not for the likes of me … the hardly educated, council estate, overspill girl.


“Burns wasn’t something which seemed part of my life. But neither was going to university or having more intellectual pursuits.

“Now, I see that I was wrong. I am precisely the kind of person Burns wrote for.”

In 1975, the Reader family relocated to Irvine, as part of the Glasgow housing overspill.

“At 16, I attended Greenwood Academy in Irvine – the same school Nicola Sturgeon later went to – and there was a female teacher, who was really into Burns,” said Eddi.

“She didn’t seem to like me, but I didn’t take it personally, because the overspill was a massive influx into the town. A lot of people saw us as invaders, who were bringing our bull***t with us.

“But it was thanks to that move that I was introduced to Robert Burns.”

Eddi became a regular at a local folk club and watched musicians like Dick Gaughan and Michael Marra celebrate his music.

She said: “They were more rootsy and folky, and from a generation who were a little bit older than me. But they were much more intimate with Burns than I was. They knew all about his intellectual brilliance.

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“My only exposure to his music was opera-style singers performing his songs on TV at New Year.

“So, as a result, I didn’t really understand it.”

Eddi soaked up the songs of Burns, while exploring her own musical path. She learned her craft as a busker in London and across Europe.

A period singing with diverse acts like Eurythmics, Billy Mackenzie, Gang Of Four, John Foxx and Alison Moyet also proved an invaluable apprenticeship.

In 1988, Eddi got her first big break, forming the band Fairground Attraction with songwriter Mark E. Nevin.

Their debut album, First Of A Million Kisses, was an enjoyable musical ragbag of pop, jazz, skiffle and country flavoured songs.

It produced three hit singles, most notably, Perfect, which topped the UK charts.

The band won two Brit Awards – Best Single and Best British Album.

But Eddi was ill suited to the glare of the pop spotlight. Growing friction within the band led to sessions for a second album being scrapped.

RCA Records rush-released Ay Fond Kiss, in a bid to capitalise on the band’s pop success.

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The album’s title song – misspelt by the label – was Eddi’s first real recording of a Burns composition, and a pointer for what lay ahead.

Two years later Mirmama kicked off a run of impressive solo albums.

Her seventh record … Eddi Reader: Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns, was released by Rough Trade, on May 12, 2003.

The “does-as-it-says-on-the-tin” title belies the musical dexterity and sheer quality of what many now regard as her defining album.

However, she was warned that her decision to reinterpret Burns’ work was career suicide. “I met real resistance from my manager, Pete Jenner, who said: ‘You’re ruining your career’,” revealed Eddi.

“He felt so strongly that I was doing the wrong thing. But I really wanted to do it. The songs were jumping out at me.

“And, to be fair to Pete, when he saw I was serious about it, he was fantastic. He got behind the project 100%. Then he said: ‘Look, the best way to do this is … do it BIG.’”

In August, 2002, Eddi set up base in her Glasgow flat with folk musicians Phil Cunningham, Ewan Vernal, John McCusker and Boo Hewerdine to rehearse the songs.

She had also collaborated with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with conductor/arranger Kevin McCrae.

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Eddi premiered the project the following January, playing two concerts with the orchestra, as part of Celtic Connections. It paved the way for the album recording at CaVa Studios in Glasgow.

“I didn’t want it to be all po-faced, Kenneth McKellar-style music,” she said.

“When folk musicians go into the studio they tend to lose their sense of freedom. They feel they’ve got to pin it down a bit more professionally.

“That’s an anathema to me. What I wanted was the loose stuff you get when you play in the pub.

“So that was something I would push for and insist on, but in a gentle way.”

Eddi admits she did have a few reservations about reinterpreting Burns.

“On the first day, I remember walking in and seeing all the various musicians assembled,” Eddi recalled.

“Everyone was a little nervous. I know I was. In a situation like that, I’m an under-confident, nail biting little girl. But somehow, it just felt special.

“The music just took me by the hand and carried me through.

“I was frightened to talk to the orchestral people, but only because I had such great respect for them.

“But Kevin McCrae was magnificent. He just got it. He had that romanticism, and there was something about the way he would hear what I was doing – and where I was going – with my voice.

“When I heard the rising strings of Jamie Come Try Me or Ae Fond Kiss, I knew I was in the company of musicians of amazing expertise. It was like a huge musical comfort blanket.

“All I had to do was show up … and sing.”

Eddi put a modern spin on real jewels such as Charlie Is My Darling, Willie Stewart/Molly Rankin, Winter It Is Past and John Anderson My Jo, paying reverence to the original compositions.

Suddenly, what had seemed a risk, now felt completely natural.

She said: “There were a couple of songs where it was just me and the orchestra. I stood in the vocal booth watching all their violin bows going up skywards.

“I felt I was being elevated. It’s embedded in my marrow.

“I did most of my vocals in straight takes. At times, there were maybe little flaws if I let go … but sometimes flaws are good. I’m very accepting of that.

“I am neurotic, but not so neurotic where I’d be doing 57 takes. I’d need to get it in the first two or three.”

Then Eddi faced what seemed like insurmountable obstacles from the London-focused media.

She said: “Pete told me: ‘I’d never understood racism against Scotland – from England – until I tried to sell this album to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

“As one, they all said: ‘Isn’t this just a Scottish thing?’

“It was remarkable to get that from Pete because our relationship with the English media – and its ignorance of Scottish iconography or art – was almost an ignored part of our Anglo-Scot relationship, and gave me even more resolve to hold it up as valuable work.”

Despite that initial resistance, the album earned Eddi the best reviews of her career and credited her with taking Burns’ music to a whole new audience.

Or, as in my case, reintroducing people to work previously dismissed or ignored.

“I don’t feel responsible for doing anything to Burns. But what happened was simply that people maybe got something out of it,” said Eddi.

“Some reviews said: ‘Do we really need yet another version of Charlie Is My Darling?’

“It was disrespectful, but I thought … I’m doing it anyway.

“By making the album, I’ve ended up with something I’m very proud of because of the beauty it brought to me.

“It also gave me a bunch of songs I wasn’t going to get bored of. Every time I sing them, they change shape. They’re not stuck to a formula.

“It’s the most pulsating form of music.”

* THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.

The day Patti Smith gave me a compliment...and a row

THE first time Eddi Reader sat down to listen to her album of the songs of Robert Burns, things were a little hazy.

“I was still heavily partying in those days, so I was stoned. I remember thinking – My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose is just too beautiful … everybody is going to laugh at me,” she recalled.

“I got this paranoid sense I’d somehow got it all wrong. I was dabbling in stuff that didn’t suit me.

“Then, when I got sober, I listened to it once through with my husband John. I think it worked.

“I left it behind me then. I only revisited it when I made the deluxe version in 2012 and added some new songs to it.

“By then, the album had been fully accepted. Everybody seemed to love it and by that time, I loved it too.”

Eddi has fond memories of when she premiered the record with two triumphant shows at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow.

She performed Burns’ songs with her band and the RSNO, led by Kevin McCrae.

“Kevin was standing, baton ready, and I started the song in the wrong key,” she said.

“All my pals were saying: ‘Edna’s f****** up!’ Behind me, I could feel all this turmoil. But nobody wanted to say: ‘What ARE you doing?’

“The whole audience were laughing. But that broke the ice, and from then on it was great. A very natural thing happened which was that my scatty heid came in to save us all from the freaked out-ness we were in.”

Eddi had also performed with the RSNO at the Burns An’ A’ That festival staged in Culzean Castle in Ayrshire.

She shared the spotlight with Patti Smith, who is also a Burns aficionado.

The queen of New York punk had some very kind words for the Scottish singer.

“I was in the green room when she walked up to me … it was like seeing an angel,” Eddi recalled.

“She told me my version of John Anderson My Jo brought back memories of her late husband.

“She said: ‘I just wanna tell you, that song you did, John Anderson My Jo … it reminds me of Fred. And I love it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.

“I said: ‘Oh, thank you very much’.

“She replied: ‘And, I’m not bull******* you’. She gave me into a row straight away for getting all frothy with her.”