For those of you who haven’t heard of Heather McClelland, she’s been performing since the age of 6 years old at festivals, and is part of The Sugar Sisters who were supported by BBC Radio 2 and played at the Royal Albert Hall. She’s also developed her own original project, collaborating with some exciting artists to create her ethereal sound with strings, vocal harmonies and electronic textures.
I’ve been a big fan ever since of Heather’s ever since I heard her stunning debut EP China Mind. Having written a review (here) Heather kindly agreed to have a chat so we could get to know her a little bit more – we chatted about her influences, the creative process, that Albert Hall gig and much more, just a few days before the UK was on Covid-19 lockdown. We discussed the fact that this is a difficult time for many of us; however, we still wanted to share this interview with you.
You’ve been singing since you were six?! That’s amazing! Can you remember when you first performed?
Yeah, I can actually! Both of my parents were musicians and so music has always been a big part of my life, they played all the time. My Dad is Irish and his family love music, so I’ve always been around it. The first time I played was at an Irish busking festival – the whole town came out and loads of us were busking. We got selected to go to the finals on the main stage and my brother (who was smaller) and my sister (who was much taller) all shared a microphone; so, I remember us on stage fighting on where the mic should go, my little brother was on tip toes and my sister leaning down. I think there were about 100
people, but as a child it felt like there was about 1000’s. We came second and we won about £500. I remember I was given £5 and I bought a game of Frustration!
I understand that you’ve performed at the Royal Albert Hall as well, what was that like?
Now that was amazing! I sing in The Sugar Sisters, we went out and did some busking and we were spotted by Terry Wogan’s producers. We went onto Radio 2 with Terry; we wrote a ditty he used in his show too. Charles Aznavour who sang the song She was doing a gig at The Royal Albert Hall and we were his support act. So, there was a guest list; but it was very limited, but when we asked if we could have Sir Terry on the guest list and they said yeah and they gave him the royal box! Having Sir Terry Wogan on our guest list was one of the most bizarre experiences ever. The Albert hall is also such an incredible place, you can tell why it has the reputation it has when you stand there. It was a really nerve wracking experience, it was one of my scariest experiences. It was about 7 years ago - I'd performed before but nothing like that.
I understand that you’ve spent some time in Brazil as an artist? I love Brazil and have been lucky enough to visit there before. Where did you go in Brazil?
I travelled around a lot for a couple of years, as I studied music over there. Whilst I grew up with music and performing, I'd never really studied music academically. So, I went out there after Uni and I went to Sao Paolo first and then I travelled a lot and met a load of musicians. It was whilst I was out there, I decided that no matter what, I was going to pursue music. In Brazil they’re so natural around their music, it’s so different and everybody does it. In Brazil they sing with their hearts and souls – everybody sings! They have traditional music and it’s very integrated with the way of life over there. It was an important and informative experience that gave me confidence and once I overcame my fear I got a lot of opportunities after I made that decision. There’s a Brazilian 7 stringed guitar that I learned to play when I was out there – it has an extra string for a lower bass and I started writing out there with it. Can’t Be Enough for example I wrote on that and then transposed it over to piano. It opened up a whole new way of writing for me.
The lyrics to that song are so deeply personal – it must’ve been so traumatic for you.
In a way for me that song was the one that’s the least emotional for me. That was more observational for me. I love that they’re the ones that you’ve picked up on. It’s the one I've tried to work in words...
I’ve found that with all of your songs – you're listening to the songs and the words you’re expecting aren’t used and so you listen more intently. Take Oceans Part – my partner lives in Malta and the lyrics speak to me so much. I sent it to my partner a few hours before this interview and she replied, “What a voice”.
That's so kind thank you. I really don’t take any of this for granted at all. When you put something out there and it moves someone it means so much.
You remind me of Dido and I’m sure you get that a lot – there’s a difference for me though. Artists often ask me how I’d describe their music and I've outed myself before you did. With you I've written – Folk with Feelings; It will tug your heartstrings but make your soul soar.
That's so nice. The way the songs are structured; it’s not happy, but it’s not sad, it’s that whole spectrum of emotion. I get what you’re trying to say.
When you heard your EP back for the first time what was it like? Do you remember the emotions that you felt?
I think that it’s really interesting – it's been such a bitty process that it hasn’t come together until really recently. It’s been really nice to listen back. I feel really proud. If I heard this as music, I would like this music. It took a really long time to find my sound as an artist, and I do feel like I've created something that I want to share and that I am proud of. As a musician I know, and it’s the same with my friends we all have self doubt; so it’s really nice to hear stuff back and say yeah this is me. This does represent what I want to say. That’s a really long answer but it’s what I feel.
It’s a wonderful answer because it’s authentic. I think that it’s timeless. You could play this to me 20 years ago or 20 years into the future the magic is there. I think it’s going to be as timeless. I understand what you’re saying about this you have to be happy with what you’re producing. As long as you’re happy with what you’re doing and it reflects who you are then you’re happy.
It’s taken me a really long time to get here. I wouldn’t have been able to release this 2 years ago. I was going through a process of grief as my mum had died and I had also just become a new mum. It was a very intense chapter and it took a while for me to feel settled in myself enough for me to be able to put something into the world. It feels like it’s taken a long time to get here, but I've done something I actually like.
The EP is stunningly produced and I think perfectly timed.
Thank you. I’ve been really lucky with it to work with Taz from Submotion Orchestra. He’s such a phenomenal musician and he hears and understands me. He gets what I’m trying to do, he adds stuff without taking anything away. My ideas really come through. Stuff like China Mind I wrote the ending of that on vocals and he was like we need to put that on Cello and it really worked.
What’s the reaction been like to the EP since the launch?
The EP seems to have been well received – BBC Introducing have picked it up, Sarah Gosling. A few nights before it was released, I uploaded it to BBC Introducing. I was having a bit of a difficult day pre-release day trying to manage motherhood with release admin and feeling like I was swimming against the tide!
Suddenly I got tagged in a Twitter post and that BBC Introducing were playing me. They had made Can’t be enough upload of the week and said the most amazing things about it in the introduction. It couldn’t have come at a better time and helped restore some of my faith in the reasons why I was trying to put my music out. It was the first radio play and my first experience of someone who didn’t know me and who got it. I’ve had some other positive reviews since then. Though I do feel like it’s a really strange time with the Corona situation going on you know? I released it on the day before everything in the UK started happening with Covid -19.
There’s a lot of anxiety around the industry currently. Bands and artists as well those who’s careers revolve around it are all loosing money currently. Live music for me is such a lifeline; to remove that from a lot of people is really tough.
London is so intense at the moment. I work in hospitals and I’m not allowed to go onto the wards anymore. We’re going to have to find different ways of doing stuff – a lot of my friends earn all their income from live gigs so they have been enormously affected by this.
I’m hoping that sharing and writing about new music will help get me through this
Yeah we all have those friends that we want to share new music with. I love people like that.
So what’s next for you – once things get back to normal?
So we’re meant to be doing a gig in September in the incredible Purcell room at the South Bank Centre – hopefully things will be back to normal then and that can go ahead. It would be really wonderful to do a tour. I’m also writing my new EP so that’s exciting. I hope I'm going to be able to use part of this time to record some more stuff, though I do have a toddler so it’s a juggling act. I guess what I want to ensure is that I keep moving forward as an artist – I have an incredible band and I would love to do an extension of the launch gig with them a choir and a full orchestra.
Is there anything on your playlist or stuff you’re currently listening to that people wouldn’t expect to hear on your playlist?
I think I've got a very diverse music collection so I don’t know... I have everything from Toumani Diabate to Billie Eilish. I have so many albums where I know every single lyric some pretty random, but very nostalgic. In my early teens I had a friend who played guitar with me, but the only things he could play were songs by Nirvana and Tracy Chapman so they had a big influence on me growing up.
It’s been a real privilege to listen to the music that you listened to, to help inspire you and your work. It was almost as though I was watching your work.
Ah thank you - I haven’t shared the playlist far and wide yet as it feels like everyone is busy adjusting to the pandemic, but I will do soon. I love listening to it though. Did you know much of the stuff before you listened to it?
New ones for me were Ibeyi, Cibelle, Agnes Obel, Lucy Rose – when I was listening to this I was out walking and I had to keep on taking my phone out of my pocket and seeing who it was. I have an insatiable appetite for new music and so when someone who’s music I admire shares music that inspires them that’s really special.
That’s so nice – you know when you find a song and you say to all of your friends you have to listen to this? That’s what putting that playlist together was like for me.
So to end the interview; if I was to give you £10 and you could chose a current album or any 2 classics in any format what would you choose?
Hmm..... I would probably say The Staves I think as I love them and I love singing along to them – there's so much in there with the harmonies you can sing a different harmony each time you listen. I’m a harmony geek so this makes me happy. Plus I have so many beautiful memories of singing along to them with my mum who was also a singer.
If you’d like to listen to the stunning playlist of the music that influenced Heathers writing for the EP then you can listen via this link