In Conversation with Clare Maguire

It’s been five years since Clare Maguire landed a top five placement on the ‘Sound Of…’ poll before releasing her major label debut to an anticipating industry and public.

It’s also been five years since she walked out of her contract and straight into rehab, being given two weeks to live before falling silent from the music industry entirely. Her return, Stranger Things Have Happened, is strikingly atmospheric, deeply personal and arguable one of 2016’s most crucial records.

On the week of the record’s release, she’s set out on a short tour of a select-few UK Record Stores, accumulating with the artist’s first London headline show in almost five years the following week. A sell-out, no surprise.

We caught Birmingham’s lady-of-the-lungs in South West London, as her mini-jaunt rolls into Kingston’s prestigious Banquet Records. Despite the back garden resembling a place that’d thrash any competition in a Chelsea Flower Show ‘Crack Den’ category, Maguire’s glorious cackle, humour and smothering leopard-print coat make the whole scene rather enjoyable. Over half a pack of cigarettes and a dodgy mic, we discuss how overcoming addiction, honesty and, err, Kanye West shaped both artist and record.

Is it nice to be back on the road for these shows? It’s been quite a while…

I’m going to be one hundred percent honest here… Before I came on the road to do these shows, I really didn’t want to do it. Really panicking, really frightened. I was ringing people up like, “I can’t do it, I really don’t wanna go,” that kind of thing. When I actually did, actually as soon as I got in the van, I thought that it was gonna be good. Once I got the first one done I thought, “Actually yeah this is amazing.” Just seeing it all from such a different point of view, since last time I was just out of it as a person, so this is a big thing for me to just get out there and do it. Now that I’m here and meeting people who I know from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and recognising their faces and seeing them listen to the songs, it’s mad. It’s amazing.

So the reluctance to touring has completely vanished now?

It has gone because, even the October tour I have planned, I was thinking, “I don’t want to do a big tour at all!” Really worried but now I’m really looking forward to it, especially the main London show I’m doing for this tour. When it sold out, I was convinced it was just my family that had bought tickets. People don’t wanna come see me sitting there doing some piano songs, are you fucking joking?! [laughs]

The album reviews I’ve read for Stranger Things Have Happened have all been incredibly complimentary, pretty much nothing but praise for the record. The BBC even stated you’ve got your “album of a career.” Is the praise something you take on-board easily?

No! [laughs] You see, I just live in fear. A big reason that I took so long with this record is just because I was frightened of the response from the industry. Last time, there was a really good response from people but the industry was pretty hard-core with me so I was worried about it all again. It’s been good this time though, I met Mark Savage from the BBC and Nick Levine from VICE who are both really nice people and I could just sit and talk at for an hour. It’s helping me see a good side of the industry this time round. I didn’t write this record thinking it was going to be any kind of big change-of-my-life LP, I just wanted to make something that was real, true and authentic after the experience I had.

In the run-up to this record, you’d released a mixtape, a couple of EPs, some live recordings of Burberry runway shows as well as a load of demos. How did you go about narrowing down the album from all of that?

I had so many demos. I had a few tracks that I really liked but I didn’t know how they were gonna fit. Elizabeth Taylor was a dance track when I first recorded it which I did with High Contrast, alongside Boomerang [2015 EP track] which I’m obsessed with, which is heavy and bluesy. So I had those and then tracks like Changing Faces, which are totally different.

“Basically, exclusive right here, I’m putting another record out really quickly and it’s gonna be more Boomerang-ish, with that track on it. That way, I’ll have three albums out and they’ll all be totally different and everyone call yell, “WHO THE FUCK IS SHE?!””

Mental, manic, always changing personality and album sounds, that’s me. The thing is, this side of me for this record is me at 2 o’clock in the morning in my bedroom, introspective, writing about my experience. The next record is angry me. They’re my two sides.

The lyric, “Here I am / Here I stand,” crops up a couple of times over the record. Is that a phrase that is used a lot within your life?

I definitely feel like this record is me trying to represent myself so that lyric has come through subconsciously, there was no effort to use it more than once. Maybe it’s because I’m just lazy and haven’t thought of anything else to say…

Your influence playlist on Spotify has the names you’d expect to crop up, Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, alongside ZAYN and Kanye West… How do the latter two feed into this record’s inspiration?

You have to understand: I am Kanye’s biggest fan. My love for him is so real, I will not have a bad word said about him.

“If I could work with anyone, it’d be Kanye West. I think he is so true to himself and that is the most important thing for me.”

All the greatest artists are the ones who aren’t going to be likable on a massive scale. He’s just a super extreme version of that as, every day, he’s in a really intense situation. It’s good that he rants about whatever he wants and I just wish that I did it more. Usually if anything happens to me online then I just go silent, maybe I should just go in on them?! [laughs loudly]

Was overcoming alcoholism a factor in what shaped the sound of this record? Or was this something you had wanted to make for a while now?

I started writing it when I got sober which was when I was coming out of quite an extreme relationship. I got into it whilst in rehab which you’re really not supposed to do, oh well! [laughs] I was fine with the alcoholism and was dealing with that, but then I got thrown straight into this intense relationship. He stole a load of money from me as well so I just ended up incredibly depressed to the point where I didn’t want to move, I’d just lay on my bed all the time. For Swimming, my producer let himself into my house, found me lying in bed and played me the track over and over and just recorded me singing over it. The vocals you hear on the final track is actually me lying in bed. When I’ve been singing Swimming on this tour and going over the lyrics in my head, I realise that the sound has definitely come from that time of my life even if I didn’t fully realise it when writing it. It was a massive part of my life, my whole life was leading up to it really.

You’ve never been one to shy away from your past, especially in interviews about overcoming addiction and in this record’s lyrics. Is being so open about that time of your life something you find or have found difficult?

It’s important for me to be open, I have to be honest. I can’t function any other way. As I was living in such a way for so many years where I couldn’t say anything out of fear of upsetting or hurting anyone, I just have to not care about that and put my mental health first. With that, it means I have to be honest. I can sense that some people find it shocking but I only realised how extreme the situation was until I got talking to people about it. Even after being told I had two weeks to live.

Looking back, how do you feel about the first record now?

Sometimes people think that I don’t like that record but I really do. What I’m unsure about is the situation I was in at the time. When I listen to Light After Dark, I can hear who I was which I think there is something really great about. Clearly it’s a person who was really struggling in the studio, making a big pop record. You can really hear that behind it all is someone who’s sad. I think the bad response I got from the industry towards the album is why people think I don’t like it. It’s a bit like what happened with Jessie J. It was all about the ‘Sound Of…’ poll and how she felt that, even though the feedback from people was good, the industry hammered in on her. Like how there was pressure from the industry on me for coming at number five. I did loads of interviews with Jessie around that time and she was just a natural born pop-star, totally ready for it. I wasn’t at that level and couldn’t handle it.

There’s a thing about the ‘Sound Of…’ curse, as such, in that it can pretty much ruin some careers before they’ve really even begun…

Yes! It’s about how the industry can bring an artist up and then straight away move on and say, “Oh do you remember so-and-so?”

Are there any plans to add any Light After Dark to the tour setlist?

With the main London show, I’m just doing the second album start to finish since the musicians who played on the album will all be onstage with me. Maybe when I do the October shows, I’ll add a few in. I did Ain’t Nobody at the recent Birmingham shows.

You accumulated quite a hefty fan base (the ‘Maguirettes’) from the first record who, despite you disappearing for a long while and switching your sound up entirely, have all remained and been out in force to promote this record. Has that loyalty surprised you at all?

I’ve been surprised that there has been anyone at all. When the London show sold out, I was in complete shock. I thought it was just family or the label. When I first met the Maguirettes six years ago, they were about 14 yet they’ve still stuck by me. For the Birmingham shows, one of them did my hair and another photographed the show which was so nice to have them involved, really sweet. I consider my fan base pretty similar to that of Marina [and the Diamonds], just on a smaller scale. She’s also someone that doesn’t get radio play but then she’s able to sell out all these huge spaces.

“Marina was actually the one person I sent this album over to, whilst she was doing her South American tour. She rang back saying that she really loved it and pinpointed her favourite tracks from it.”

Marina constantly switches it up and her fans stick right by here, which I feel has been the same for me but on a smaller scale. She’s genuinely one of my favourite artists.

How did the Burberry runway shows, for which you’ve been all over the world to perform for, come about? Is fashion something that’s always been an interest of yours?

It stemmed from me putting the tracks on Soundcloud which the music guy over there heard so they got me to do an acoustic set. From that, they got me to do the shows. Burberry are incredible with music and really supportive of UK acts. Plus you get free clothes so that’s pretty sweet. [laughs]

The final lyric of the record, “I’ll leave you in yesterday / One more time,” seems a fitting round-off point for this chapter of your life. Besides the new record and tour, what else do you have planned?

October shows, new album then we’ll have to see what happens…

Stranger Things Have Happened is available now.

Words by Bill Baker