In 2005, flicking idly through one of the glossy music monthlies, I spotted a tiny box copy item about a singer/songwriter called Shelagh McDonald who had vanished. No one knew her whereabouts, nor had they for over thirty years. Her two albums (from the early seventies) were being reissued on a two-for-one collection. I read the tiny piece and thought - this deserves better. I set about contacting all the people associated with Shelagh so that I could write a more substantial article. I discovered that while a minority of them feared that she was dead, most insisted that she wasn't. Rumours abounded, most of which suggested that she'd had a bad, one-off experience with narcotics.
I immersed myself in her two albums. 1970's Shelagh McDonald Album was a very pleasant introduction - the accompanying photographs showed a lovely, delicate-featured woman and the songs were full of enigmatic self-expression. Beautiful odes, such as 'Ophelia's Song', had a pastoral feel which was clearly understood and emphasised by Robert Kirby's arrangements (string arranger to Nick Drake among others). Shelagh's second album was Stargazer, a definite leap forward, demonstrating a growing confidence and sense of identity. It was to be her last recording for almost half a century.
Shelagh's first two albums. Photos: Keith Morris
My feature eventually appeared in The Independent in 2005, which in turn prompted the Scottish press to run similar articles. To everyone's astonishment, one of the articles eventually reached Shelagh. She was alive and had been living an itinerant lifestyle, camping in Scotland in all weathers with her partner Gordon. It emerged that one of the numerous theories was true - following the release of Stargazer (1971), Shelagh had indeed had a terrible experience with LSD, finding it impossible to come down even weeks after taking the substance. She had fled London, retreated to her parents' home in Scotland and then voyaged into the wilderness, living off the grid as a free spirit. She and Gordon posed for a photograph to accompany a sympathetic and illuminating feature by Grace Mackaskill after which Shelagh promptly went underground again, to the dismay of fans. But then, in 2012, she gradually re-emerged, this time armed with a guitar and a renewed singing voice. To the folk and singer/songwriter fraternities, it was as if Richey Manic [Edwards] had returned from the abyss.
Now, forty years on, Shelagh's third album is here. Parnassus Revisited finds her interpreting some traditional folk material, plus nine originals, with an open, free-form, jazzy quality to her guitar playing. I caught up with her as the album was emerging as a 'soft', independent release, with possible changes to come as momentum is attained. It is impossible not to warm to her candid and direct answers. Contemporary photographs show that her beauty has withstood the passing of several decades. Shelagh is well aware that layers of mythology have been constructed around her and is keen to draw a line; not to regret the past, but simply to stop dwelling on it at the prompting of journalists.
Shelagh in 2013. Photo: Heather McLennan
"Yours will be the last interview I do about my past," she tells me. "My past is merely a framework upon which others can weave their own fantasies about what actually happened and they'll continue with their re-inventions, no matter what I say!"
Charles Donovan: How is the recording process forty years after Stargazer came out?
Shelagh McDonald: Recording studios look superficially the same, until you see the computer screen on the wall above the sound decks. It lends an almost Orwellian touch to the whole room. Sound engineers are no longer dependent on their hearing alone; now they need good eyesight as well as the patience of a saint to endure the foibles and tribulations of the recording process. The computer must be consulted at all times. The abandonment of analogue has reconfigured the quality of present day recording, but I believe that the reliance on computers to tell us how to listen is removing something basic and instinctive. Certainly, it was amazing to realise that, if I'd fluffed a line here and there that they could be erased at the touch of a button. However, a few of these mistakes that we did erase actually sounded better when left as they were, in some obscure way they had become integral to the performance. Others will judge, of course, and it's all a matter of taste. One thing is for sure - recording is every bit as nerve-wracking as it was forty years ago!
CD: You mentioned to Grace Mackaskill that your voice had at one point been shot. You simply couldn't sing. How did you coax it back?
SM: The voice took some time to strengthen. There were periods when I didn't have time to sing. Gordon encouraged me but the impracticalities of returning to the folk scene during the years before his death could not be justified. At the end he said to me "you must sing". With that kind of endorsement how could I do otherwise? And recently I've been working with Nigel H Seymour who knows all there is to know about singing. He's put my voice through its paces and, thanks to him, I feel a lot more confident about it. As for performing again, I most definitely have Ian A. Anderson to thank. He nagged me until I agreed to do a gig with him and Ben Mandelson (The False Beards). Ian knows my weak spot - pride! He told me to "Come out from behind the sofa", so I said to myself, "I'll show him!"
CD: Have you completely recovered from the after-effects of your LSD experience? Do you wish it had never happened?
SM: I'm completely recovered from what happened back then and it's a miracle my voice has been restored. Only one lingering side effect - my mental arithmetic sucks! I've no regrets. It's made me who I am today and has taught me that you only get out of life what you put into it.
CD: How was it to discover that listeners old and new had kept exploring your music during your absence?
SM: I could hardly believe it when I learned people had been listening to my music. Sometimes their children have come up to me at gigs and said that they had known my music since they were young! Really incredible that, and very, very touching. No one from the music business approached me through all those intervening years and to be fair, it would have been impossible for them to find me if they had been.
CD: You re-emergence in 2005 was documented by the press but then you seemed to go quiet again. What was life like at the time?
SM: After my reappearance Gordon and I were still living in tents and the occasional B&B or hotel. By 2008 we'd had enough and moved into a flat, which was bliss! Unfortunately within five months of this Gordon's health deteriorated. He died in 2012.
CD: Are you back in touch with musicians who appeared on your early albums, like Keith Christmas [a singer-songwriter contemporary of Shelagh's]? Sadly, the brilliant arranger - Robert Kirby - died, though I did speak to him for my original article and he had lovely memories of you, as did all the people I spoke to. They all missed you a lot.
SM: Yes! I am in touch with the old gang: Keith (and Sian who's an angel), Sandy Roberton, Ian (A) Anderson, Maggie Holland, Jerry Gilbert et al. Sadly there are absent friends who I would so much have wished to see again - the wonderful Robert Kirby who transformed base metal into gold with his beautiful orchestral arrangements and who was the nicest person in the business. Al Jones who was uniquely talented and destined, I believe, to move beyond folk-rock to a multiplicity of musical genres. Likewise Dave Mudge (of Mudge and Clutterbuck) - Tim Clutterbuck is around somewhere and it would be great to hear from him. Perhaps he'll read this!
Thank you to those who wrote about Shelagh before I did...John O'Regan and Peter Moody.