An Interview with Barbara Dickson
PUBLISHED: 15:57 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 15:58 13 February 2017
Honey-toned singer-songwriter Barbara Dickson – in Lowestoft this month – always enjoys performing in Suffolk. Although the county’s biggest music festival has yet to ‘discover’ her, she tells Jan Etherington
I first interviewed Barbara Dickson, for a music paper, 40 years ago. She’d just had a Top Ten hit with a haunting revival of the 1952 song Answer Me, and was also beginning to get noticed as the singer in Willy Russell’s Beatles musical, John, Paul, George, Ringo – and Bert.
A long-haired folk singer with square tinted glasses, suddenly Barbara was a ‘pop star‘ and a new look was required.
“I had a meeting with a French hair and make-up artist called Regis, and he showed me some photos and said ‘Do you like any of these looks?’ I liked one curly full hairstyle, with a pre-Raphaelite look, and I dressed in floaty, vintage Biba type clothes, so I had a makeover. I looked better and felt more confident than I ever had before.” She was 27 and chose the look herself.
“I feel sorry for these young teen girl singers now, who all seem to be forced to look like porn stars. We need to get back to the more natural look, where it’s more about the music than the bling and the skimpy outfits.” Feeling and looking good is still hugely important to Barbara, now 69, but she has strong opinions on cosmetic surgery.
“The obsession with changing your face is very worrying. I don’t believe in it. It’s not right and it’s not real. Being healthy is much more important. I’m OK about getting older. We all have to age and I’m carrying the flag for women over 60. I don’t want to look like some old cabaret singer. I avoid sequins!”
Barbara’s `70s perm has long gone. Now she has a shiny cascade of auburn waves and her look is chic Bohemian, with a dash of funky. She’s been singing professionally for 50 years, but her warm, honey contralto is still as strong and hypnotic as ever. She continues touring, recording and enjoying a career that includes Olivier award-winning acting roles in Blood Brothers, Spend, Spend, Spend and the TV drama Band of Gold, as well as hits like Another Suitcase, Another Hall, from Evita, and the duet with Elaine Paige, I know him so well, from the musical Chess. Barbara was given an OBE in 2002 and remains Scotland’s best-selling female singer, with six platinum and 11 gold albums. She could be forgiven for resting on her laurels.
“My mother never stopped saying ‘You’re doing too much. When are you going to retire?’ I said ‘When I’m rubbish – that’s when I’ll retire’. I need to make music. It lives in my spine, like a virus. I still have musical stories to tell, traditional songs, that are about my history, because I come from somewhere. I don’t come from the West End.”
Going back to her roots, musically, coincides with a move from Lincolnshire back to Scotland. Born in Dunfermline, she now lives in Edinburgh with her husband of 32 years, TV director Oliver Cookson.
“It was a big decision, and I wanted Oliver to be enthusiastic as well. It would have been a terrible thing if I’d insisted on us moving and he hated it. I don’t want to get divorced.” Her first hit, Answer Me, was very much about lost love.
“But I don’t write my own songs from personal experience. I really don’t think people should get through to the very core of you. You have to keep something for yourself.” It seems to go against the ‘tell all, reveal all’ Facebook generation. She agrees she keeps her personal life private. Barbara came late to marriage and motherhood.
“I left home at 17 but I was working on my career. At 25 I really thought I’d never have any children because I didn’t meet anybody who I wanted to marry – and I believe it should be for ever.” But in 1984, she met and married Oliver. They have what she calls a ‘floating population’ of three adult sons, Colm, 30, Gabriel, 28 and Archie, 26.
“None of them paired off, all into music. They’re motivated, hard working, but music is a precarious world.” Barbara has always seemed very grounded, helped by her years in the folk clubs with no-nonsense mates like Billy Connolly – “I love him. He has the most wonderful spirit” – and Gerry Rafferty, but also by her strong Scottish upbringing.
“My mother told me I used to sing in my pram and she encouraged me to learn the piano. I switched to the guitar at 12 and became fully professional when I was 20, travelling round the country, with my guitar and suitcase. And then Willy Russell asked me to sing in his play.”
Recently, Barbara has been appointed an Alzheimer’s Awareness Ambassador, working with the Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity in Scotland to encourage people with Alzheimers’ to think about, and take part in, music, which raises the mood. She has grown to love Suffolk, largely through meeting fellow musician and composer Denis King.
“I met Denis and his wife, Astrid, when we were both entertainers on a cruise in 2002. I’ve been to see them many times.” Indeed, Barbara made a music video in Walberswick while she was here in 2012. Denis had written a comedy song for a Tupperware convention in 1967, the Tupperware Brigade, and Barbara led a group of locals around the village, singing its praises. ‘Who’s the happiest housewife in the kitchen? The one with Tupperware on the shelf!’
Her new British tour starts this month. It’s quite a crew – five in the band, three technicians and a tour manager, in four cars. She loves being on the road, but husband Oliver happily stays at home. There’s a new CD, an EP of five songs – three traditional, one of Barbara’s and one by Robin Williamson. She’ll be performing at the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft, on February 22.
“I’m very much looking forward to visiting Suffolk again – I enjoy performing here. In fact, I’d love to do the Latitude Festival in the summer – but nobody’s asked me.” So, Latitude, if you’re reading this, Barbara Dickson says: ‘Answer Me!’
Details of Barbara’s tour dates and music at www.barbaradickson.net
Barbara is performing at the Marina Theatre, Lowestoft on February 22 www.marinatheatre.co.uk
The Tupperware Brigade can be listened to here