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Going solo

Kildare songstress Heidi Talbot told David Hennessy about her new album made after the break up of her marriage, why it was time to make a country record and how she had no masterplan for her career.

Recorded in one soundproofed room as she looked after her two daughters and negotiated the split from her husband of 11 years, Heidi Talbot’s new album, Sing it for A Lifetime, is her most personal album yet.

Created in the wake of the demise of her marriage to folk musician John McCusker, the record contains some tracks that she thought may be too personal share but she says the making of it was also therapeutic.

Heidi told The Irish World: “I think there’s a lot of healing in making music.

“So making the record was definitely healing and there’s a lot of sorting out and processing when you’re writing, I think, as well.

“I guess it helps you to sort out your thoughts as well.

“It’s been a great thing to make new music, and especially over the pandemic, I think music and yoga and mindfulness really got me through the last couple of years.

“It’s been a difficult time for everybody. I think for most people, it’s been not their best two years.

“And then you come out the other side of it, things are brighter and I’m excited about the future.

“And this is the first solo album I’ll have released in nearly seven years so it’s quite an exciting time. And it feels like it’s time now.”

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Producing most of her previous albums, John was Heidi’s partner in music as well as life.

But making the record without him gave her a chance to experiment and make a different kind of record.

“This one’s very personal and I went through big changes in my life while I was making this record.

“I felt like I had to stand on my own two feet in a way.

“To just do what I thought, for good and for bad, and to stand by my decisions was really freeing and liberating, but it was terrifying.

“Because you’re putting something new out into the world and there’s always that fear.

“It’s like, ‘Okay, as long as I’m proud of what I’ve made, and what I’ve created, I stand by what I created’.

“I’m proud and happy with it.

“And then you hope that it gets to as many ears and as many hearts as possible and that it brings joy and maybe some healing to as many people as possible.

“That’s your hope.”

In order to find a new voice away from her longstanding recording partnership with McCusker, Heidi sought out the Appalachian fiddle legend and country producer Dirk Powell to be her partner this time around.

“If I was going to make a country record, now is the time,” she laughed. “I’m divorced, I’m a single mum, I’m out of work…”

The two had played together years earlier, when Powell appeared on 2004’s Distant Future.

“I’ve known him since then but I haven’t seen him for years.”

While it ended up being recorded in her home in Edinburgh, Heidi had planned on recording in Louisiana before Covid-19 ruled this out.

Instead the recording would become a remote real-time session over two different time zones, 3,000 miles apart with an international group of musicians, including her friend Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, coming together across the Atlantic.

“I had my flights booked and it just became very obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to go.

“So we just went, ’We just need to make Plan B’.

“And we had the dates booked in studio over there and the musicians booked.

“We decided that I would record the same days as they were recording but in Scotland, and it worked out really well.

“So Dirk and the musicians in Louisiana did a session and they sent it to us then in the evening, and then we would start in the morning which would be the middle of night for them and work away and then send them what we had done as they’d be starting their day.

“It was good because you could give each other feedback.

“It gave us also a little bit of time to process things.

“You could listen back to things and sort of decide, ‘Actually, this is working but maybe this isn’t and this should go in a slightly different direction’.

“Which I think was really helpful because if we had been in the studio it might not have been such an easy process, to have that time to listen back and really reflect on things.

“And the other thing that happened with Dirk is we still haven’t seen each other in years.

“We were meant to see each other at Celtic Connections in January, but my two kids got COVID and their dad was on tour so I couldn’t get anybody to take care of them.

“You’re basically asking someone, ‘My kids have COVID, can you come and babysit?’ I didn’t have any takers.

“And obviously I couldn’t take them to the gig.

“So I was meant to do the gig with Dirk, and I couldn’t do it.

“So after making the record together and sort of being like, ‘Right, I’ll see you in Glasgow the beginning of next year’, it still didn’t happen.

“So we still haven’t seen each other.”

Dirk could think you were avoiding him if he was sensitive, couldn’t he? “I know, exactly,” she laughs.

As it was recorded against the backdrop of a family break up, you could be forgiven for thinking there was little joy on the album.

But for proof that this is not the case you need look no further than the title track and current single, Sing it for a Lifetime.

“That came about really, really quickly.

“Over lockdown I was walking quite a lot.

“That was kind of all we could do really.

“And I was in the woods near where we lived and when I came back then, I wrote that song really quickly. Within ten minutes that came out and that doesn’t usually happen.

“Seldom does something happen that quickly.

“I was saying to my friend Boo Hewerdine, ‘I think I caught that in the forest. I just think I was lucky. I was open to it. And I caught that song’.

“But he’s very much more practical than me and he was like, ‘It was probably in there (you) and rattling around for quite a while. You were able to articulate it that day’.

“But I don’t know, I kind of feel like that just came to me in the woods.”

Unlike any of her previous work, the new album has a distinctive country flavour that includes covers of Willie Nelson’s There You Are and Dolly Parton’s When Possession Gets Too Strong.

“I’ve always loved country and it was time for me to make a different record.

“That’s how I felt, I wanted to do something completely different.

“And especially with John not producing I was like, ‘I can’t make that kind of a record without John so I’ve got to make a totally different record. And I’d like to make more of an Americana country record’.

“That’s why I called on Dirk.

“It’s not like I won’t sing or play folk music again, and lots of the songs on the record are influenced by folk.

“I’m a folk singer. If people ask me what kind of singer I am, I guess that’s what I am.”

Empty Promise Land is a duet with Dirk Powell that features Mark Knopfler.

It tells the story of the end of a relationship with male and female voices reaching a shared place of resignation: ‘This woman whose life is boiling underneath her skin, This lonely man who’s just longing for his dreams again’.

“Empty Promise Land was written by Dirk years and years ago.

“He sent it to me and I loved it.

“We both agreed it should be a duet so he was singing the male parts on it, and I could hear Mark Knopfler who I know a little bit.

“Every time I listened to it, I could just hear Mark on his guitar on the track.

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna send him an email and if he’s available, great. But he’s very busy and the worst that could happen is he just doesn’t get back to me’.

“I sent him an email and he wrote back to me that day and said, ‘Yep, no problem. Send it to me and if it’s okay with you, I can record it’.

“And he said Guy Fletcher, who is also in Dire Straits, ‘is here as well and if you’d like it, Guy could play on something too’.

“I said, ‘Yes, please, that would be amazing’.

“I was delighted.

“It was very generous of them to add their time and their music to it.”

Heidi knew Mark from her former husband being part of his band.

“I got to know Mark through John, and he was always very generous and very kind with the kids.

“And he played on my Angels without Wings record back in 2012.

“So he’s always been a really supportive friend.”

Heidi admit she had some hesitation about sharing some songs due to their personal nature.

I Let You Go is Talbot’s most personal song yet, written in the form of a letter to her former partner. She feared it was too personal to publish.

She also had reservations about Broken Mirror.

“Yeah, they’re quite raw.

“On my last record I did a song called It’s All For Love.

“That was for my mam after she passed away and I couldn’t sing that live for quite a while.

“That’s raw in a different way. That’s from a broken heart, but it’s broken in a different way.

“I think when you’re so close to something, it can be hard to share that as well.

“But lots of people have said to me in the past what songs I’ve recorded meant to them.

“And even if that’s the only a few people, you’ve done your job.

“If you’ve made someone feel something different and it’s made them feel better, or it’s made them feel they’re not alone then that’s such a wonderful thing.”

From Kill in Co. Kildare, Heidi has over two decades of work behind her now with her eponymous debut album coming out in 2002.

After moving to New York as a teenager, she would get a massive break with a five-year stint as part of the American supergroup Cherish The Ladies.

“I went to America when I was almost 19.

And that was me working as a full time musician since then, so I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve been able to continue to keep it as my job.

“But like I said, the last couple years have been tough for everybody, and especially for musicians or anyone in the arts.

“It was the first time I ever really thought, ‘Maybe I won’t be able to do this anymore, maybe I won’t be able to make a living from music’.

“Whenever I thought like, ‘Okay, I need to think about something else’, something always comes along.”

It was always music for Heidi and even when told to focus on other things, she never had a plan B.

“From when I was really young, I was playing and singing in the local pub.

“I always wanted to sing.

“As I went through school, the teachers and guidance counsellor in school were like, ‘Well, that’s very nice that you want to do that, but that’s a hobby’.

“I didn’t really have a plan.

“It was just like, ‘That’s really what I want to do.

“And that’s what I love doing and I’ve got to try and see how it goes.

“But everybody was heading to university and I was like, ‘I want to do music. The only thing I want to do is sing’.

“I decided I would go away for the summer and my brother was like, ‘Well, I’d love to go to New York for a few months’.

“I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go there’.

“He gave two weeks’ notice at a job and we flew to New York two weeks later with very little money. Very, very naive. Not knowing anybody.

“I think we were brave but very naive.

“Blind faith,” she laughs.

“My mam had seen an ad in the Sunday World newspaper- This is the God’s honest truth- looking for a singer.

“And she sent them a tape.

“The day we got to New York- I know it doesn’t sound real but we phoned my mam to let her know we got there okay.

“She said, ‘There’s someone on the other line and he’s calling from New York. He wants to talk to you about giving you a job’.

“This is the day we landed in New York.

“I phoned him, it was a guy who had a wedding band and he said to me, ‘Could you come up to the Bronx tomorrow night?’

“We had just heard about the Bronx and seen it in movies. We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, the Bronx is really rough. Where are we going? We could get murdered’.

“We get up there and I sang a couple of songs and that night he offered me a job.

“So it was very serendipitous.”

Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies would ask Heidi to join the group when she got to know her singing.

“I had a residency that I did every Wednesday and she came in every week so I got to know her a little bit.

“And when her singer left Cherish the Ladies, she asked me to fill in for a few weeks until they found another singer and then she offered me a job.

“So it all you know it all kind of worked out for me but I didn’t have a grand master plan.”

The single Sing it for a Lifetime is out now.

The album Sing it for a Lifetime is out on 20 May.

For more information, click here.

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