Born c. 1960, in London, England; died on December 18, 2000, in Cozumel, Mexico; daughter of Ewan (a folksinger and writer) and Jean (a choreographer) MacColl; married Steve Lillywhite (a music producer; divorced, 1997), c. 1980s; children: two sons.
The virtues of Kirsty MacColl's work---integrity, irony, literateness, and independence---are not ones typically associated with success in the world of popular music, especially for a female artist. Although MacColl never recognized great financial success during her lifetime, she gained the respect of critics and her peers with finely crafted, lyrically complex songs reminiscent of British tunesmiths like Kinks founder Ray Davies and post-punk trailblazer Elvis Costello.
Being likened to a wry pop experimentalist like Costello never helped MacColl "move units," but next to "the Dorothy Parker of pop"--a title bestowed on her by Jim Farber of the New York Daily News---the Costello comparison is pure gold. Parker, whose acid wit made her a journalistic luminary in pre-war America, is as far from the glittery iconography of the MTV generation as one can get. But then, so was MacColl.
From her early days recording singles for the British label Stiff to the posthumous release of her 2001 album Tropical Brainstorm, the singer-songwriter has purveyed what Amy Linden of Mirabella called "grown-up pop, with layers of luxurious, expansive vocals." MacColl often relied upon melodic pop as the vehicle for dark subject matter; as Farber noted, she "understates everything, detailing the most violent emotions with the greatest of ease." And despite myriad career disappointments---notably losing money and record deals on three separate occasions---MacColl remained focused and optimistic.
MacColl's father, Ewan MacColl, was an esteemed British folksinger best known for writing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a 1973 hit for singer Roberta Flack. But the elder MacColl didn't spend much time with his daughter as she grew up. "He lived in a different county and we would see him only on occasional weekends," MacColl recalled for the Los Angeles Daily News, and claimed in an interview with Pulse! that her father's influence on her work was "all genetic," adding that music legend had little to do with her early musical development.
"Everyone assumes that we lived like the Waltons, sitting around a campfire and playing acoustic guitars all day," she related in Pulse!, "But I grew up alone with my mother, and I spent all my time alone in my bedroom listening to records, trying to work out what Donald Fagen [of the eclectic group Steely Dan] was singing about. And then I realized it was all drug dealers! So I felt like an alien all the time---I was quite scared at school, because it was a rough one and I'd insisted on going there. I kept thinking, `Boy, if I can only survive school. If I can only survive `til I've left home, everything will be all right.' And it was. There you go."
At age 19, MacColl signed with Stiff Records, recording such singles as "They Don't Know," "There's a Guy Works Down in the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis," and a version of "A New England" by socialist-popster Billy Bragg. She also began working with producer Steve Lillywhite, whom she later married. In 1984 singer-actress Tracey Ullman had a top ten hit with "They Don't Know," providing MacColl with much-needed income and a degree of notoriety. "I remember going into a liquor store in San Francisco the first day I got there," she recalled to Wayne Bledsoe of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "They were playing Marvin Gaye's 'How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You.' And then right after that, 'They Don't Know' came on, and I just started jumping up and down. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened. I just couldn't believe I was on American radio. Well, it wasn't me, but it was my song."
Unfortunately, Stiff went under---still owing MacColl money. She had even worse luck with her next label, Polydor; she recorded one album there, and it was never released in the United States. That company, too, went bankrupt and MacColl declined to record anything else until the litigation surrounding the album was settled. She worked as a backup singer and guest vocalist on recordings by such artists as the Rolling Stones, Morrissey, Talking Heads, Robert Plant, and The Pogues. The latter group collaborated with her on the Christmas classic "Fairytale of New York"---a duet with Shane MacGowan---and later on the Cole Porter tribute/AIDS benefit anthology Red, Hot + Blue.
It wasn't until 1989 that MacColl recorded her next album, Kite, for the Virgin label; Lillywhite served as producer, while guitarist Johnny Marr--best known for his work as guitarist in The Smiths---contributed to several tracks. Consisting mostly of original songs and crystallizing her unique blend of bright melody and dark sophistication, the album was partly intended to prove a point. "I felt I had to prove that I wasn't this bimbo girl-next-door I'd been portrayed as," she confided in a Melody Maker interview. "That had been hanging around my neck like a f***ing albatross for so long, and I wanted to make the point that, yes, I can write a f***ing song, pal!" In addition to such prickly MacColl originals as "No Victims," "The End of a Perfect Day," and "Innocence," the album assays the tender Ray Davies requiem "Days." Steve Hochman, writing in Rolling Stone, noted approvingly that "MacColl has created a sparkling, modern folk-rock sound that at turns bounces, forces and eases her scoldings on, with her plain but attractive voice layered throughout." Hochman continued, adding that he regretted only that MacColl hadn't recorded more: "It's unfair for someone with this much to say and this much skill at saying it to be so stingy." Dave Jennings of Melody Maker deemed Kite "cerebral but instantly likeable; never wild or abandoned but always intriguing. A big surprise, out of the blue."
Though her album was well received, MacColl couldn't seem to get over her crushing fear of live solo performance. "I couldn't imagine doing it," she confessed in Billboard. "I'd tried it a few times, and I was just so paralyzed by fear that I couldn't even sing. When the Kinks invited me to get up and sing 'Days' with them, I was in tears at the soundcheck because I was so scared."
These fears, however, are not evident in the subject matter of MacColl's songs. A recurring issue for her is women's strength and independence, something she feels pop music usually fails to address. "There are hundreds of thousands of people out there doing songs where the woman is always a victim and can't really manage without her man," MacColl declared in her Mirabella interview with Linden. "I just like sorta seeing it from another angle." Expanding on the theme for Fred Shuster of the Daily News, MacColl insisted that the helpless female songs she heard growing up "had nothing to do with how women felt---it was a misrepresentation. The myth of `If you leave me, I'm nothing,' is a load of garbage and most women know that. We're very strong people and not to be treated as second-class citizens." MacColl displayed the courage of her ecological convictions as well, hosting a BBC documentary on water pollution and purification; she even had a prototype of an organic filtration system built at her house.
MacColl's follow-up to Kite, 1991's Electric Landlady, displays considerably more musical ambition. Referring wittily in its title to the 1968 sonic watershed Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the album saw her exploring everything from funk to samba and injecting considerably more political content into her lyrics. Lillywhite again produced, and MacColl--intent on broadening her rhythmic palette---enlisted rapper Aniff Cousins to lend his cool vocals to the funk-infected "Walking Down Madison," the recording's opening track. Reviews of the album were mixed, but according to a Stereo Review writer, "MacColl moves with ease among jazz, country, samba, salsa and traditional pop rhythm numbers, mindful that her lyrics mean something-about ecological reform, about the hopelessness of New York's street people---instead of just being fodder for the beat. For these reasons---plus her enchanting soft soprano and liberal use of humor---MacColl never fails to hold one's interest."
What MacColl failed to hold onto was her record deal. Even as "Walking Down Madison" moved up the British charts, Virgin reneged on her tour support. Shortly thereafter she heard that she was off the label. "They told the management---they don't bother to deal with you as a person anymore once you're gone. You're just a big nothing," she explained in Pulse! Meanwhile, MacColl was rehearsing and recording with a band and preparing to tour; her musicians had to be paid, though no money was being earned.
MacColl was shocked and surprised to find her players willing to work on spec---with the understanding that she'd pay them when she could. "They said, `It's OK---pay us when you get a deal,'" she recollected to Pulse! writer Tom Lanham, "and that gave me a lot of confidence. If all these great people obviously believed in me, why shouldn't I believe in myself?"
MacColl's friend and collaborator Mark E. Nevin---formerly of the band Fairground Attraction---helped her organize a tour. Indeed, she reflected in a Billboard interview, Virgin's reversal "was a real kick in the teeth, but it was good in a way, because it made me get off my ass. And I said, 'Well, I'll show you,' and the next thing you know I'm out on the road, and before that I'd been too scared to do it for 10 years." MacColl's return to live performance led to an appearance at the 1992 Glastonbury Festival, where she performed her own songs along with cover versions of songs by Billy Bragg, the Smiths, and the Clash.
A bit later a childhood friend of MacColl's came to see one of her shows and brought her husband Jay Boberg, who happened to be the head of the independent label I.R.S. Records. He was impressed enough to sign MacColl. She had been recording without a deal, but the low budget and lack of label interference had allowed her to stay true to her own goals. "I made it thinking, even if everybody disagrees with me and I never get another deal, this is gonna be a record that I can play for my kids in 20 years and proudly say, 'This is what your mother did.'" The album was Titanic Days, released by I.R.S. in 1993. Further refining her formula on the pleasantly wicked "Bad" and the perfect pop of "Soho Square," MacColl surprised even her longtime fans this time around.
"After more than a decade of being the Singer Most Likely To, MacColl finally has---made a great album, that is," declared Musician's J.D. Considine, adding "each of these gems is perfectly set, with clean, carefully colored arrangement and none of the over-harmonized excess that marred her previous output. Prepare yourself for a Titanic love affair." A Billboard reviewer deemed the album "a brew of pure pop sense and biting wit at least as satisfying as her previous work." Erik Himmelsbach of the Los Angeles Reader found the singer "better than ever" and the album "far more lyrically realized" than Electric Landlady, if "not as musically challenging."
And though she still hadn't sold enough records to be a hot property in the industry, MacColl doubled her resolve. "My attitude to the music business now is that I've got to make what I've got to make, regardless," she stated in Pulse! "I will try and sell it, try to promote it, but I'm not gonna go to a gym and get anorexia and a blonde wig just so the company can sell a few more copies to people who are so stupid they only want to buy things by air-brushed photographs." Rather, MacColl strived to create an intelligent adult woman's pop persona and stuck to it. "I started in music young and naive and malleable," MacColl insisted in a Request interview, "and the older I get the more determined I become not to compromise. Getting older is supposed to make you mellower, but I get more militant every day."
In 1995, MacColl marked time with the anthology, Galore. The liner notes for the compact disc includes personal testimonials of MacColl friends such as Billy Bragg, Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, Bono, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, David Byrne, and Shane MacGowan. According to Bono: "Red hair, sharp tongue, she should be Irish, but I think of Kirsty MacColl as one in a line of great English songwriters that include Ray Davies, Paul Weller and Morrissey ... the Noelle Coward of her generation!" The album includes two previously unreleased songs, "Caroline" and a duet with the Lemonheads Evan Dando on the Lou Reed classic "Perfect Day." The former song is an attempt by MacColl to answer the plaintive narrator of Dolly Parton's classic "woman-done-wrong" song, "Jolene." In 1998, MacColl released a collection of live recordings from the BBC, What Do Pretty Girls Do?
Separated from Lillywhite in 1994, MacColl's marriage officially ended in divorce in 1997. She took a break from songwriting and recording to spend time with her children, and began to travel to Latin and Central America, and Cuba. The music of those regions inform her final album of original material, Tropical Brainstorm, which was hailed by critics as among her best efforts. The album seamlessly fuses MacColl's acerbic lyrics with salsa and bossa nova. Entertainment Weekly admired the album because it "captures her earnest fascination with Latin music, but it's just as much of a product of her dry British humor. As usual, her songs express endless disappointment in love matched to melodies that won't quit. Just one thing: Don't buy only this but everything she's recorded, so this great, lost writer's memory can live on."
MacColl died on December 18, 2000, at the age of 41, while vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico. She was swimming with her two children when she was hit by a speedboat in an area reserved for swimmers.
by Simon Glickman and Bruce Walker
Kirsty MacColl's Career
Recording and performing artist, 1979-2000. Recorded debut single "They Don't Know," Stiff Records, 1979; sang with various artists, including the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, Talking Heads, the Kinks, Morrissey, and the Pogues, 1980s; signed with Polydor and recorded U.K. debut album, mid-1980s; signed with Virgin and released U.S. debut album Kite, 1989; hosted BBC documentary Don't Go Near the Water, 1991; signed with I.R.S. and released Titanic Days, 1993; album Tropical Brainstorm released posthumously, 2001.
- Selected discography
- "They Don't Know," Stiff, 1979.
- Kite Virgin, 1989.
- Electric Landlady Virgin, 1991.
- Titanic Days I.R.S., 1993.
- "There's a Guy Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis," Stiff.
- "A New England," Stiff.
- "Fairytale of New York," Stiff.
- Galore Virgin, 1995.
- What Do Pretty Girls Do? UK Hux, 1998.
- Tropical Brainstorm Instinct Records, 2001.
- Billboard, October 9, 1993; December 11, 1993.
- Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), October 15, 1993.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 27, 2001; December 21, 2001.
- Knoxville News-Sentinel, October 10, 1993.
- Los Angeles Reader, October 15, 1993.
- Melody Maker, May 13, 1989; June 22, 1991.
- Mirabella, November 1993.
- Musician, November 1993.
- New York Daily News, October 10, 1993.
- Pulse!, Holiday Issue 1993.
- Request, November 1993.
- Rolling Stone, May 31, 1990.
- Stereo Review, October 1991.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by I.R.S. publicity materials, 1993.