“My voice was always the loudest one in the room,” laughs Clare Maguire. “I loved performing at family parties, and at school when I was bored, I’d get up on the desk and sing. The teachers thought I was mad, but it’s how I connect: telling a story in song, and seeing people react to that. When I’m talking, it’s far harder for me to express myself.”
She wrote her first song at the age of seven, and never remembers wanting to do anything else. For her, music wasn’t a career choice, or a fast route to fame. It was a calling.
Her paternal grandparents settled in the Midlands and built up a construction business. Her mum’s parents ran clubs and booked bands in Birmingham. Both had five children apiece, so Clare has some 50 cousins across Birmingham and southern Ireland.
“It’s a massive family, which means massive parties – a lot of drinking, and loads of music. Everybody’s got some sort of creative gene: music, mainly, but also performing, telling stories, acting and writing.”
Her dad liked to play the same cheesy pop tunes again and again while driving, and sitting in the back with her older brother and younger sister, Clare absorbed it all. She also grew up listening to her mum’s traditional Irish music, which influenced the darker, more poetic side of her own songs now.
By the age of 13, she was a regular in city centre record shops, where she discovered Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Howling Wolf, plus her heroine, the feisty gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “I had a paper round, and would spend everything I earned on whatever CDs the staff recommended. That’s where I started my love for music. My passion.”
When she was 17, a teacher told her it was time to give up her dreams of being a singer, and start concentrating on exam results. Instead, Clare stomped off to the headmaster to complain, then dropped out of school. To her, it was the only thing that made sense: she knew where she was headed, and she was willing to work hard to get there.
By day, she worked in shops, bars and restaurants in order to earn enough money to move to London and work on her music. By night, she sat up making connections on MySpace, eventually pulling in an extraordinary 1.5 million hits to hear the rough demos she had posted on her page.
After a few months of obsessive all-night clicking, producers and artists began to get in touch, asking her to work with them, and she began to commute to the capital, staying in grim B&Bs, sleeping on floors, making contacts and learning her craft as a writer and a singer. It was lonely at times, she says, and depressing. “But never once did I think, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ Ever since I was a child, this is what I’ve been going to do.”
Once they began to hear that soaring powerhouse of a voice, the music industry agreed with her. After fierce competition from other labels, she signed to Universal Music at the age of 20. In fairy tales and TV talent shows, this is where the story ends: with a single in the charts a week later. In the real world, for an artist who wants to do more than just sing along to pre-recorded backing tracks, this is where the hard work really starts.
What followed were two years of travelling, writing, recording and searching for a sound that felt right for her. In LA, she met Rick Rubin, who played her unreleased Johnny Cash demos and invited her to come with him to watch Leonard Cohen in rehearsal. In New York, Jay Z invited her for drinks in his restaurant and told her she had star quality: he could see it in her eyes.
Other people offered her songs – Jarvis Cocker, for instance, and Plan B. Though grateful for all of it, she continued working on her own music, looking for partners who would allow her to express her own voice. “It was all very flattering, and I loved meeting all these people. But in the end, I needed to do what I felt was right for me. It’s important to be yourself.”
When she eventually found the right collaborator in Fraser T Smith (whose credits includes Britney, Cee-Lo, Tinchy Stryder, Ellie Goulding and James Morrisson), the songs on Light After Dark came quickly. Most took just a day to write; in some, the vocals were recorded in the first take, capturing them while they were still raw and real.
“For me, it’s all about emotion,” says Clare, who ended up co-producing the tracks with Smith. “I wanted an album where you felt each of the songs in a different part of your body: in your head, in your heart, in your feet when you’re dancing. I wanted something that really connected with people, so everybody felt something from it.”
Inspired by everything from the death of her hero Michael Jackson (‘The Last Dance’) to the magic of childhood (‘The Happiest Pretenders’) or the loneliness of her first few months in the capital (the uplifting, gospel-inflected ‘Break These Chains’), these are torch songs for the 21st century, both completely contemporary and utterly timeless.
You’ll hear mournful echoes of the Irish music Clare grew up with on this album, hints of all the artists that influenced her: the Celtic vibes of Sinead O’Connor, the powerful vocals of Annie Lennox, the quirky innovations of Kate Bush, the soul of Johnny Cash. But mostly, you’ll hear a iconic new singer with a sound that’s all her own. As she’s always said, it’s all about the voice.