The ever popular Scottish singer-songwriter tells Michael McDonagh why leaving her Irish label and management felt so good
There are many people who think that Scottish singer-songwriter is actually Irish, even though she grew up on a dairy farm in the Scottish Borders, where she used to help out on the farm showing Hereford bulls at cattle shows.
Her first album was released on an Irish label, she supported Foster and Allen and Margo, Daniel O’Donnell’s big sister, was a big fan of her song Mother and helped make it a big hit there.
She’s also an Irish World Award winner and a popular one at that.
Since then she has been back and forth many, many times and is even known in Scotland as ‘Emerald Isla’ – her grandmother came from Glengarrif in West Cork.
After eleven albums, some of which went triple platinum, Isla branched out and started her own record label (IGE) and released her first album on her own label in October 2008.
Since then has recorded a further eight albums.
Whilst she was on tour in Scotland, I caught up with her to ask about her plans for 2018:
“We are in the middle of a small UK tour at the minute it was something that just came in that we had not intended doing. I had a long spell last year doing concerts in Australia and New Zealand, where I did 54 concerts It was a sell out tour but pretty hard going as it was 3 months but we love going over there as they treat me so well. Then we had an Irish tour, so I was going to take a break but this came in and we said we would do it. It starts all over again next year with Canada New Zealand and Australia but hopefully we will have a nice easy year this year”.
So how did it all begin for you?
“It all began at 16 years old and I was still at school but started singing folk music and I worked with all the Folk names at the time, the MacCalmans, the Corries, Mat McGinn and the Humblebums (Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty) and my goodness you would probably have been there, when I opened for them at the Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline and I worked with other people on the folk scene.”
[My first job was managing the Humblebums from the end of 1969 and I do remember that Carnegie Hall show but, alas, do not recall talking to a young Isla back then.]
I asked her had she only been into folk music and how she started writing her own songs.
“No, I went out of the real folk music for a little while and went into jazz and played banjo and then I found Merle Haggard and thought he was a wonderful. That was the key, as I thought he was an interesting and truthful songwriter, so I got more into the country music then. But only certain country artistes appealed to me like Merle Haggard, like Bobby Bear, like Willy Nelson. It was more the hard-core old time country guys that I liked and I appreciated their music.
“Then of course I started writing and I was writing folk crossover country if you like, because I had been in folk music for such a long time and we did a lot of country gigs. In fact we did the big Wembley Country Music stage the last time Johnny Cash was there, when I was in Kentucky Rain. Then as I started writing it became Isla Grant and the Back Room Boys.
“Then, when I really started writing seriously and it was about 1990, when I realised that one of the songs that I had written had been covered by so many artistes all over the world. There must be about 400 of them that have covered Cottage In The Country, so I thought now maybe there is something in this song writing and I might just take it more seriously, which I did do. Then songs like Mother’s Chair came along and ‘Mother’ and it was encouraging by the other artists doing my songs”.
You and your husband were both injured in a very serious road accident in 1992 that put you out of action for some time, was that a life changing experience and did it affect the way you approached your song writing?
“In 1992 the accident happened and I was out off the road for 5 years and I was told I would never be able to go on stage again. Then I really started to write for me. I was writing a lot of gospel songs and never really meant to record them. I was questioning why this had happened to me, and all the usual questions. It was like a crossroads in my life. I could have went either way but I said to the good man above, if you allow me to get back on stage, I will go out there and do my own material and I’ve done that. There are very few songs in the show now that are not my own.”
Although you are Scottish your big success came out of Ireland when you signed with Donnie Cassidy of CMR records in Dublin, who had brought Foster & Allen to Ritz. How did that come about?
“The actual album was recorded in Glasgow and somehow filtered over to Ireland and Margo, Daniel O’Donnell’s sister, had a radio show and she started playing this track Mother off the album and it went absolutely crazy.
“Then a promoter over there called me up and asked me would I be interested in doing seven concerts in Ireland but after a fortnight that seven concerts had gone to twenty. Ireland was buzzing with Isla Grant and this song Mother. Donie Cassidy heard it and came for a meeting with us and he asked me to sign a ten-year contract with his label. So I signed for the ten years but then later they wanted me to sign for another four years with them but I said ‘No’.”
Why was that?
“I wanted to go out and present the songs as I had written them and not be told how to record them or perform them. We parted company, not on very good terms to be honest, and I started my own label.
“I think they got a shock that Isla Grant wasn’t a person who just nodded and said ‘Yes’ and did what they wanted. These songs are my babies, I gave birth to them and whether people like the way I have done them or not is up to them but at least I wanted to be able to present them the way I wanted, as I had written the songs. They all have a meaning and there is nobody who can experience where that song came from except me.
“I said ‘Look, I am not signing!’ and they tried so hard to keep me, as they knew I was going to Australia and New Zealand but I needed to be in control of my own songs.
“They would be laughing now as I’ve just done 54 or more concerts down there, so they would be absolutely delighted.
“No, it was a hard time with them, to try and get the songs recorded they way I wanted them done but I’ve put all that behind me now and it is all in the past.
“I now have eight albums recorded and out there now that I have produced myself and I am doing fine.”
Being on that label’s Foster and Allen tour ‘down under’ must at least have been a big break?
“At the beginning to go to Australia and New Zealand and open for Foster and Allen, just me and a guitar, was a great opportunity and I went back a couple of times through CMR.
“Then a promoter down there approached me and so from then I have been doing it my own way working with them.
“It is great as when ‘Isla Grant’ goes there because they really work hard with no other distractions – the only other artiste they take down there is the Russian Ballet, so I am not competing with anybody.”
Like so many artistes now you are doing it all yourself without big record company backing, is that hard?
“You can look at it both ways too but when you are on your own you are in control and you know exactly what’s happening. You know where all the money is going.
“You know what you have to do when you go in the studio but it is harder when you then have to go out and promote an album.
“Now it is harder as once the big record companies would market and promote the album and do all that for you but now we have to take care of that ourselves but not when we go to Australia and New Zealand, though, as that’s all done for me there. The promoter and record distributor down there do an amazing job with television promotion, spending thousands of dollars. That is taken care of for us there – and Canada is the same.
“When it comes to Ireland I always want to put some money into TV commercials, as it just gives the album that little extra push and I have to do all that myself.
“(And), of course, you don’t have the hassle of sitting around a table and getting all these people telling you what you have to do.”
In an age of digital Downloads are physical CDs still selling for your sort of music?
“I am very very lucky as I have a fantastic fan base that still buys physical CDs and in Australia and New Zealand I sell hundreds each night but now you really have to be on iTtunes and everything to make it all work.”
So what advice would you give a young performer starting out?
“I think it is really hard nowadays. The younger ones coming into it now maybe have a song that gets on YouTube or Facebook, or whatever, and all of a sudden they think they are an overnight star – but it does not work that way.
“I worked for years supporting people like and Big Bill Campbell and The Corries, who were lovely lovely guys so I was lucky that I had done an apprenticeship. Mat McGinn was very very kind to me, as he used to tell me how to work an audience and how to bring them to you. I don’t think the young ones now learn or are taught any of that.
“You have to pay your dues and it really was an experience, especially when I moved from folk clubs to the Working Men’s Clubs. If they did not like you they really let you know. I feel sorry for a lot of these young ones who are on those shows like The X Factor , as they build these young girls and guys up and they think they are going to be superstars but there is only one who wins and the others, who have had a taste of it, are then forgotten. I really do feel sorry for them, it is sad.”
You seem very busy, will we be seeing you in concert here this year?
“I’ll be doing an extensive UK tour next year, I’ll have about 25 concerts in Ireland in January February and March then I’m in Canada in June so it will be in October before I am there. Then I’ll be doing a very big UK tour.”
When you have time off from such extensive touring how do you relax?
“I have four dogs at home, a Golden Retriever, two Cocker Spaniels and a Cockapoo. I am a big animal lover and am involved with animal rescue charities. From being brought up on the farm, I have always been concerned about animal cruelty and I learned to love and appreciate animals. I love walking the dogs as a good way to relax.”
Too bad she is so busy that we will have to wait for over a year before we can next see her on tour here.