It’s hard for Amy Macdonald to remember the high point of the two-year period following the release of her 2007 debut This Is The Life. Was it supporting Paul Weller in Holland at the beginning of 2007? ‘He and [guitarist] Steve Cradock were very nice to me and we became friends,’ the singer-songwriter remembers. ‘Then when I headlined Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2008, Paul came along – that was a total thrill.’
Was it winning the Best International Newcomer at Germany’s Echo Awards, beating Duffy, Adele and Gabriella Cilmi? Going five-times platinum in Switzerland? Watching the album’s title track become a Number One single in ten countries? Becoming the biggest selling debut British female since Amy Winehouse in Germany? Performing a triumphant homecoming show on the main stage at Scotland’s T In The Park, the festival she had attended religiously since she was old enough to legally pitch a tent?
Or was it knocking Radiohead’s In Rainbows from the Number One spot in the UK album charts in January 2008? ‘That was just brilliant for me,’ admits the Scottish artist, who was only 19 at the time of the release of This Is The Life (she’s 22 now). ‘The album had hung around the charts all Christmas. It had been out for six months and it had gone to Number Two when it was released. And when it got to Christmas I was just so chuffed that it was anywhere near the Top 20 at that time of year. The week after Christmas it was climbing… On the Friday it was Number Three, a couple of thousand copies behind Take That and then miles away from Radiohead at Number One. But I think I benefited from the Saturday shoppers – mums in Tesco are not gonna buy Radiohead, so I think that’s how I trumped them.’ On hearing the news her first phone call was to her mum. ‘It was just amazing.’
The high point amidst all those peaks? None of the above.
‘I just love performing, and I’m so glad that I’ve established the live side of things,’ she says eagerly of a world tour that continued right up until autumn 2009. ‘That’s the most important thing, especially ‘cause that’s what I remember from when I was younger: after I loved a CD I’d be like, “right, now I want to see this band live.” And now I can’t believe that I’m able to play festivals and clubs all over the world.’
Months, miles, club shows, pub shows, halls, theatres, festivals, encores, second encores: through good old-fashioned gigging, word-of-mouth enthusiasm and constant, overwhelming radio play (notably for the internationally ubiquitous singles Mr Rock and Roll and This Is The Life), Amy Macdonald went from being an unknown teenage Scottish singer-songwriter to international star. Being the ever-restless songwriter she’s been from her early teens, she’s alchemised those experiences into the sound of her second album, A Curious Thing. Big, bold and dramatic. Intimate, tender and touching. It’s Amy Macdonald, full-voiced and rebooted and reenergised, with added hammering piano and a couple of guest spots from Paul Weller.
The album’s title, she explains, is taken from new song No Roots: “this life I lead, it’s a curious thing but I can’t deny the happiness it brings”. It’s a reflection on the strange turns her life has taken in the four years since she signed a record deal.
Not that Macdonald’s singing about the torment of staying in hotels, nor that she’s upped sticks for sunnier swankier climes. Home is still smalltown Scotland, a few miles from Glasgow; inspiration continues to come from her heart; and her preferred creative environment remains the pokey, stuffy and not-a-little-smelly studio in the Surrey home of her manager and producer Pete Wilkinson. ‘It’s the way we do it and the way we’re comfortable and the way we like it,’ she says firmly.
She began writing songs for her second album last spring, in a brief break from her touring commitments. For the first time she began poring through her old notebooks, looking at song ideas – previously she’d sit down to write a song and if it didn’t come straight away, she’d abandon it. Hence the instantly catchy songs on her first album. But hence, too, a lot of half-written ideas left on the page.
Love, Love is one of these older songs, a racing, pogo-pop belter that Macdonald correctly identifies as ‘one of those kooky album tracks that keeps the flow going along’. It’s one of a clutch of uptempo songs on A Curious Thing, and emblematic of the richer sound of the new songs. ‘That’s because I’ve just toured constantly,’ she explains, ‘and just spent all that time with my band, who are all amazing musicians, who spend their spare time on the stage jamming to anything. We’ve actually done the most ridiculous things, like spending ages making reggae versions of the whole first album! Those experiences made me think we could get in a lot of instruments and make this really big-sounding album.’
Some of those instruments were found in Weller’s own low-key recording studio, a few country miles from Wilkinson’s studio. A Curious Thing was recorded there, including Love, Love (on which the Modfather plays guitar) and the irrepressible This Pretty Face, which features Weller on bass and is Macdonald’s withering take on ‘the whole obsession with celebrity culture. I hate that whole side of the music industry – I just want to know about someone’s music, not what they’re wearing.’
Preening pop stars also get it in the neck in Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over, the scorching first single, which comes complete with ‘big hooky chorus’ and live strings. It’s not about the end of a relationship – Macdonald is still fully loved-up with her boyfriend, footballer Steve Lovell, who currently plays for Scottish Division One team Partick Thistle, nor of a career. The idea sparked into Macdonald’s head at an awards ceremony in Europe, ‘and there was a well-known musician who’d won an award and was basically preaching to the crowd,’ says the songwriter who previously wrote about her one-time hero Pete Doherty in Poison Prince. ‘And it was just embarrassing! You might have a won an award for your music but this crowd are so not interested in your personal beliefs on things! And no, it wasn’t Bono or Kanye West…’
At the other end of the musical extreme is a simple song called What Happiness Means To Me. ‘I love that it’s quiet and raw; that there are no effects on my vocal. It felt like the right way to end to the album’.
What Happiness Means To Me was written on a piano belonging to Lovell, and her boyfriend has directly inspired other moments on A Curious Thing. Troubled Soul, studded with thumping drums and Celtic atmospherics (the culture, not the Glasgow football team), was written to him while the striker was stuck in Aberdeen one Christmas, in the midst of an unhappy spell signed to the city’s team. The defiant, encouraging Your Time Will Come, already a live favourite, was also composed as a big-up to Lovell and a song that anyone can relate to. ‘I think there comes a point in everyone’s life when they don’t know what to do next – they’re scared about the future. Your Time Will Come is a positive song that explains that everything will turn out well in the end’.
The song An Ordinary Life, meanwhile, is Macdonald’s own dig – at the ‘Z-list celebs’ she saw flocking round Scots-born Hollywood actor Gerard Butler at a party he held in Glasgow late last year to mark the opening of his film Law Abiding Citizen. She tried not to bother him, even though he’d already raved about how much he loved her first album. ‘I was like, “this is bizarre, this Hollywood actor telling me I rock and I’m amazing!” But that night there were so many people there just so hungry for fame.
‘So that song’s actually about him,’ she continues. ‘You’re in this room and everyone’s looking at you. For me, I’ve still got that ordinary life, and I just want to hold on to that for as long as I can. I don’t ever want to be having album launch parties where celeb wannabes come along and hassle me!’
Amy Macdonald better watch out. A Curious Thing is set to make her even more popular. But no matter: the beauty queens and Z-listers won’t be able to get near for the real, proper fans of her real, proper songwriting.