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Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Photo: Graham Lowe.

Photo: Graham Lowe.

Claire Hamill into the daylight

Local singer/songwriter Claire Hamill has just launched a new album. Hannah Collisson went to talk to her about it and her life in music. The interview is reprinted by kind permission of The Stinger.

A singer and songwriter from an early age, Claire Hamill was signed to Island Records at the age of 17, she has worked with the likes of John Martyn and Ray Davies, and one of her songs was recorded by Eva Cassidy.

Over five decades and a successful career Claire has made music in many different styles, but in recent years she has returned to her folk roots. Her 12th album When Daylight Arrives continues in the same vein as her previous record, The Meeting of the Waters, though perhaps a bit more rock and a little less jazz, she says. The album was recorded in St Leonards at CRS studio, with local musicians.

“It’s folk-rock basically, it’s got some jazz overtones but I’m not a jazz singer really. My taste in music is quite broad, and I write whatever comes out of my head,” says Claire, who now lives in St Leonards.

Her inspiration comes from the world around her as well as trying to figure out relationships with loved ones. “I’ve had a couple of relationships that haven’t been that successful where you try and analyse what went wrong, and so that’s always inspiration for songs.

I know people say that you shouldn’t do your therapy in public, but songwriters can’t help doing that. I get inspiration from the trees and the birds, but you are never quite sure where it is going to come from. I do write political songs; I wrote a song about Iraq that I occasionally sing.”

Claire's new album is her 12th.

Claire’s new album is her 12th.

One of the songs on When Daylight Arrives, Valentia Valise, was inspired by Claire’s grandmother who was Irish and left Valentia Island, off the west coast of Kerry, to live in the northeast. Two others contain lyrics written by her sister Louise, who died six years ago.

“My sister was a talented poet and wrote some lovely poetry,” says Claire.She showed me some of her poetry and it scanned very lyrically. She was aware before she died of the songs, but she hadn’t heard them recorded. There are a couple of other lyrics that she left behind that I might look at in time, but it’s a shame she never lived to hear the ones on this record.”

Originally from Teeside, Claire began playing guitar at the age of 12, learning to accompany herself. “It’s mainly as a backdrop to my voice, and I love to sing,” says Claire.

By the time she was in her late teens Claire was making waves in the music world. In 1971 she started work on her first album, One House Left Standing, on which John Martyn was one of the musicians. In the years that followed, Claire explored the genres of folk, folk-rock, art-pop, and even new age, with her album Voices (1986), which is one of her most successful to date.

“I’ve played in some amazing places in the world and I’ve had some very interesting gigs,” says Claire. “I was flown by helicopter to a big festival in America (in the Pocano mountains) when I was 17 or 18 and it was Rod Stewart and The Beach Boys playing. It was a huge festival and I was later reminded that we had all had dinner with Rod Stewart afterwards. 

That’s the funny thing, when you have had a long life in music there are things that you just forget. I didn’t document it when I was young – I didn’t have a camera, I wasn’t keeping a diary. Sometimes I regret that I don’t have more photos, but I’m lucky I have fans that keep stuff.”

One career highlight for Claire was discovering that Eva Cassidy had recorded one of her songs. You Take My Breath Away was the lead track on the posthumous album The Best of Eva Cassidy, released in 2012.

“It was just phenomenal,” says Claire. “I was gigging with a guy called Phil Hudson, I was doing a jazz set with him in The Anchor in the old town. A friend said, ‘Why don’t you do Fields of Gold, and you should listen to Eva Cassidy’s version, it’s really good’.

I went home and Googled her and it brought up this interview, how they’d found her tapes. It said one of her first recording sessions was You Take My Breath Away.” Claire recognised this as one of her songs and made a call to the record label.

After a wait of several months a phone call came saying that the tape had been found. “It wasn’t just the money, which was very welcome, but it was the feeling that I had written a song good enough for her to sing, because she only sang great songs.”

Claire is well aware of the need to adapt to changes in the workings of the music industry in order to continue to make a living as a musician. “At the moment I’m doing an online course in how to develop your business through social media, and I’ve signed up to a couple of blogs.

I’m refreshing my work as I go along, trying to see what people are looking for. It’s not easy for me to reach my audience, because my audience is an older age group.”

Claire has not performed in Hastings for a while, but has recently started to rehearse with a band and hopes to arrange a few gigs for towards the end of the year in support of her new album. “I’ve got this Irish maudlin thing going through me, so I do need to lighten it from time to time, so I will be doing a sprinkling of cover songs,” she adds.

When she does perform, Claire does not do it by half-measure, explaining that she always gives it 100%, as if it might be her last. “To give a performance that has really good technique and also has feeling is hard. People say ‘you make it look effortless’ and I think, if only they knew how much effort it takes to sound effortless. I have a skill and a natural ability to sing, but I have honed it over my life.”

Claire is hard at work on her autobiography, which is due out next year, and she is also in a Yes tribute band called Fragile. “It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. The music is so difficult and the words don’t mean anything in particular.

I used to be very close friends with the drummer of Yes. We shared a flat, he was one of the first people who discovered me and brought me to London. He got the gig in Yes and I got to know the rest of the band – I was part of the entourage.

You do get a sense of achievement from it, it’s a different feel to when I do my own stuff. When I do my own stuff there’s a different kind of pressure because you’re speaking from your heart.”

Closer to home, Claire leads two singing groups in Hastings, which work on popular songs. The smaller group favours Americana, while the larger one tends towards rock standards. She regularly puts together a package for the annual Beatles Day fundraiser.

Claire is positive about the local music scene, but bemoans the lack of a mid-sized venue. “It’s as healthy as it’s always been. I love the fact there are still young bands out there, going for it. Buick 6, Blair, Liane Carroll, you still have access to people of that calibre and quality, and we’re very blessed to be able to see them.”

 

Claire will perform unplugged at the Electric Palace on Saturday 21 November when Sunday Bloody Sunday will be screened as part of the BFI’s LOVE season.

This article was first published in the winter 2015/16 edition of The Stinger, Hastings’ free music magazine. The Stinger now comes out quarterly – the next issue is due in January.

Posted 18:46 Monday, Nov 16, 2015 In: Music & Sound

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