Music: What Kirsty did next

Though David Byrne has marvelled over her voice and Morrissey has drooled over her songs, the big time still seems to elude Kirsty MacColl. Perhaps the new album inspired by her travels in South America will do the trick?
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"The Noelle Coward of her generation" - Bono; "The voice of an angel" - David Byrne; "The wit of Ray Davies and the harmonic invention of the Beach Boys" - Johnny Marr; "Great songs and crackin' bust" - Morrissey. These are just a few of the accolades showered on Kirsty MacColl when she released Galore, her "Best of..." album, in 1994.

But it was Shane MacGowan who came up with the most pertinent observation: "Why isn't she massively successful?" Why not indeed? There are few female singers who have such a starry array of fans yet remain so overlooked by the public. "I think some of my work is quite well known," insists MacColl, "but people don't necessarily know it's me. And I haven't been particularly prolific." But after 20 years on the fringes of stardom, she remains unfazed: "I've never been fashionable, but I've never been unfashionable, either."

Maybe it's because she has always been acclaimed for her performances of other people's songs. She has had hits with Billy Bragg's "A New England", The Kinks' "Days", Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" (with The Lemonheads' Evan Dando) and a duet with Shane MacGowan in the Pogues' debauched Christmas offering "Fairytale of New York". She has also provided backing vocals for Talking Heads on their Naked LP, for The Smiths on "Ask", and on Morrissey's "Interesting Drug". She has also written songs with Johnny Marr, notably "Can't Stop Killing Me" and "Walking Down Madison".

There is a feeling, among critics at least, that MacColl has sold herself short over the years. That is not to say that she doesn't write her own songs. On the contrary - her self-penned works, such as "Free World" and "Titanic Days", have had music journalists beside themselves with delight. It's just that the sales figures simply do not match their enthusiasm. Gallingly, MacColl's first single, "They Don't Know", written when she was only 17, was a huge hit for the actress and comedian Tracey Ullman in 1983.

And it runs in the family. She is the daughter of Ewan MacColl, the folk singer whose sublime "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was first made famous by Roberta Flack and even more successfully covered by Alison Moyet.

But MacColl's prolonged absences haven't helped. Soon after the success of "A New England" in 1985, she married the celebrity producer Steve Lillywhite and became pregnant. "Towards the end of the Eighties I did a lot of stuff with other people because I had small children and I couldn't go out on the road," she explains. "It was a way of staying in touch with the music world without letting it take over."

But MacColl's recent absence from music has had less to do with family commitments - she has now split with Lillywhite - and more to do with the gathering of ideas. Over the last seven years she has travelled extensively in Cuba and Brazil, drawing inspiration from Latin music. "My first visit to Cuba was in '92, though I'd already recorded with some Latin musicians in New York before that. After visiting Havana a few times I started travelling all over the country, getting increasingly immersed in the music."

Having exhausted Cuba, MacColl then moved on to Brazil. "I went to Rio and Salvador and then a friend set me up in a studio in Recife. I wanted to do an acoustic thing - just a guitar and a couple of percussionists - but when I got there I realised that the guitarist wanted to be in Dire Straits. They're very into rock in Brazil and I had to spend a lot of time bullying them into being more Brazilian."

Less a new direction, MacColl's forthcoming album, Tropical Brainstorm, reflects a whole new way of living. "I was travelling alone for two or three weeks at a time," she recalls, "picking up the language as best I could, and just soaking up a whole new culture. There was so much to take in. The mambo is one particular rhythm that comes from Cuba, but cha-cha, salsa and son all originate from there. For an island that small, it's produced an amazingly important amount of music."

Indeed, MacColl was so taken with the place that she considered giving up the music business altogether. "I do think I could be happy making a living doing something else - I could teach English to foreigners. If I didn't have commitments here I would be quite happy to travel and spend more time abroad."

Could the fact that MacColl was compelled to go abroad for inspiration be an indictment of an ailing British music scene? "Well, there wasn't anything that grabbed me over here. I wasn't interested in techno or Britpop, or whatever else was coming out at the time. English people can be closed to music from other countries. I'm just not into that Little England thing." This seems strange when you consider that MacColl is felt by so many to be the essence of Englishness, from her unmistakable estuary accent to the gritty, small-town sentiments of songs such as "Innocence and "A New England".

Stylistically, though, her music has always been harder to pin down. Over the years she has dabbled in a range of musical styles, from folk and country to out-and-out pop. Given the strong Latin influence present in 1991's "My Affair", her new direction does not come as much of a surprise. More unexpected is the change of mood on Tropical Brainstorm, the devil- may-care atmosphere light years away from her mournful Titanic Days.

"I was very unhappy when I did Titanic Days. I think it was a good record, but you have to be feeling reasonably strong to listen to it. I made a conscious decision after it not to do another album until I was feeling more happy about life." Gone are the drowsy vocals of old. The big and brassy "In These Shoes?" sees MacColl in salacious mood, cataloguing some interesting methods of seduction; "Mambo de la Luna", extols the virtues of her new-found paradise. "The mood is certainly lighter," she agrees, "but the lyrics are still recognisably me."

It's true. As in the songs of the old days, men do not get off lightly in Tropical Brainstorm. The fiery sentiments in "Treachery" and "England 2 Colombia 0" echo her raucous 1989 single "Don't Come the Cowboy with Me Sonny Jim!" But there is also an air of liberation running through the album, from the sexual frisson of "In These Shoes?" to the Utopian pop of "Us Amazonians".

Is it possible that working alone and being far away from home has finally afforded MacColl some much-needed self-belief? "Perhaps. I did it really for the experience, thinking, If we can't use any of it when we get back then so be it, but I would at least have had a go." `

Mambo de la Luna', is out now on V2 records. `Tropical Brainstorm' will be released in March


The Beatles

There are traces of Indian sitar music on the 1966 album, Revolver. Early in 1968 The Beatles decamped to Rishikesh, to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's meditation centre on the banks of the Ganges. Although their stay in India ended in disillusionment, it was to prove extremely productive in songwriting terms.

Phil Manzanera

In recent years the guitarist of Roxy Music has been heavily involved with producing Latin American artists, and has been touring with a Cuban band. Manzanera draws on his South American roots and his time in Cuba during the Castro revolution on this year's album, Vozero.

Peter Gabriel

Gabriel sampled South African funeral drumming and chanting in "Biko", and marimbas for "No Self Control", though the world music influence was more prominent on his fourth album, Peter Gabriel (Security), in 1982. That summer he also helped present the first ever Womad (World of Music and Dance) festival, showcasing musicians from such places as Pakistan, Burundi and Indonesia.

Paul Simon

Simon set off on a new path with 1986's critically acclaimed Graceland. He began developing a looser approach to composition, beginning with tapes he'd made of South African groups and bringing in African musicians. 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints was developed around a tape of Brazilian drumming.

Geri Halliwell

After going it alone, Ginger Spice got in touch with her Latin side for her single "Mi Chico Latino". Enough said.