By Michael McDonagh
In 1992, having spent some time as a session musician, with the Irish National Symphony Orchestra Dublin-born Eleanor McEvoy started playing the violin for Mary Black.
It was natural for Eleanor at that time to want to move on from just being a backing musician in the strings section to develop her own career, so she set up her first tentative gigs in some small pub venues.
By an extraordinary bit of luck and by a strange twist of fate a legendary A&R man from a major label in America, Tom Zutat, had just arrived in Dublin to see some hot-at-the-time Irish rock band, My Little Funhouse, and was stuck in traffic in his limo on the way to his meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel.
On the car radio, he heard the voice of Eleanor McEvoy for the first time and asked his driver, who worked ‘chauffeur to the stars’ Mickey Devine, who it was, as he was really moved by the voice.
He was told it was Eleanor and that she was playing the Baggot Inn that night, so he diverted his limo and went straight there – although it would have been quicker to walk.
By the next morning, Eleanor had been signed to the mighty prestigious Geffen Records for a US deal, alongside such names as Elton John, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
The talented Eleanor, who at that time had hardly done any gigs at all on her own, was soon touring the world to promote her eponymous debut album for Geffen, which went on to sell 250,000 copies.
At the same time, A Woman’s Heart entered the Irish charts, selling over 750,000 copies and remains one of Ireland’s biggest selling albums of all-time.
We asked Eleanor what her memories had been of that life-changing wet and foggy night.
“Well I was doing a gig at the Baggot Inn on a Monday night and I had hoped some local A&R guys might come to see me but there was an American guy there and he was kind of scruffy and he said to me ‘I’m from Geffen Records and I want to sign you to a worldwide deal to Geffen – I signed Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith’, who were both huge at that time.
“I thought the poor guy was deluded. I just thought ‘poor man, he is not right in the head’, remember this was the Baggot Inn on a wet Monday.
“Luckily, I was polite to him and I think it was my bass player’s birthday and there was some cake going around, so I said ‘why don’t you sit down there and I’ll get you a cup of tea and a bit of cake and I’ll come back and talk to you later’, like I’m expecting his carers to come and get him.
“I left him and then John Sheehan from Sony Music was there too, and he said to me ‘you might want to talk to that fella there, he is an important man’, so I said ‘oh really, so who is the guy with him in the suit?’ and John said that’s his driver.
“I have always been eternally grateful to John for telling me that night and I went back, and I spoke to the American Guy.”
IW: It was such a great break for you, how long were you with Geffen?
“I was with Geffen from about 1992 to 1994 and the first album went really well. I even ended up playing at Tom’s wedding. But then Tom fell out with David Geffen and left the company and I was still signed to them – they would not let me go, so the end was not great.
“In fairness to Tom he really put his heart and soul into me and even put his own money on the line – but Geffen wanted me to work with another A&R guy. I didn’t want to work with him, I tried, but it just was not going to work. I then signed to Columbia Records in New York in about 1995.”
IW: Tell us about your new album.
“My current album is quite unusual as this album was cut direct to vinyl.
“Myself, and a guy called Damon Butcher, who worked with The Beautiful South and Everything But The Girl and loads of people from that British pop ‘sensibility’, if you like.
“But he also used to do a lot of jazz stuff early on, and he is a great, great player. This record company approached us and asked us would we do this album, cut straight to vinyl. That means that – as you sing the songs, the vinyl is actually being cut so you have no ‘drop-ins’ and you have to do a whole side in one go.
“You start, play a song, wait about three seconds and then do the next song and carry on until that side is finished. You can’t do anything wrong, play a wrong note, or drop anything. The idea of it was really exciting and you get great sound.
“When, initially, I was asked to do the album, I approached some really top musicians who play with very famous people you would know and when I asked would they be up for it, they said ‘you must be joking’.
“One of them said ‘you could not pay me enough money, are you out of your mind’. I approached Damon and he said ‘My God, let me think about it’. He did not say ‘yes’ straight away but he did come back and say he would love to do it.
“I have to say, though, that it was the most terrifying experience of my life. It was absolutely hair raising. We did it at Air Studios, which was The Beatle’s producer George Martin’s studio.
‘When we went in, I said to Damon ‘have you worked here before?’ he said ‘yes, with Robert Palmer’ and I asked ‘who was the producer?’ and he replied ‘George Martin’, I thought ‘Jayzuz, Damon’ but he said this was more terrifying. It will come out on CD as well – it’s called Forgotten Dreams.
“There is a song on it called Gimme Some Wine that I had from a collaboration with a British artist called Chris Gollon, who has since died. It was desperately sad.
“He painted 24 paintings inspired by the songs on my Naked Dreams album and then I started writing songs based on his paintings. There was a song I had with Lloyd Cole called Dreaming Of Leaving and he did a painting called Dreaming Of Leaving. I then wrote a song called Gimme Some Wine based on his painting and he then painted 23 paintings based on my songs.
IW: You were one signed to a big, big record label, but the world has changed now, and those deals seem to have gone, do you think it is harder for musicians now or with the internet is it easier?
“Wow, I think it is harder. I would hate to be starting out now. I was lucky enough to be able to benefit from the investment of a major label, so it was a lot easier, but now you can do it yourself.
“I can manage that by having different people in each territory, and agents in each territory, so you can become kind of autonomous, which you could not have done before.
“And of course, by being independent you have artistic freedom. To be fair, in both majors I was with, the A&R men who dealt with me were great and did not often make a comment – and if they did, like Tom Zutat at Geffen, he had really good ears and was always right with what he said.
“Mitchell Cohen at Columbia never made a comment gratuitously, so if they did comment, I really took on board what they said because they knew what they were talking about.
“But I have been friends with other A&R guys who are complete plonkers and would not have a clue, and then there were the stylists, effing stylists, Jazus, I hated them telling me what to wear.
“The record companies have changed now and the people in them are different, you can’t have a chat with them any more and they don’t seem to assist you. Whilst it might be harder to start out, you do have your freedom to create what you want and get it out there.”
IW: What will you be up to when this tour is over?
“I don’t know, the ‘direct to vinyl’ was a great challenge but, Jayzus, I don’t want to do that again, it was terrifying, I lost a lot of sleep over it, I am not going to do that again but will do something different.
“I have some good ideas in my head, but we will keep them there for now until I can get them going.”
Irish multi-instrumentalist singer and storyteller Eleanor McEvoy will play eleven-dates across England throughout April on her new Gimme Some Wine tour.