Tucked away among the legends who graced Island Records in the 1970s (Bob Marley, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, John Martyn) was a songwriting teenager from Teeside called Claire Hamill. Though she may not have set the singles chart alight, she is a genuine rock ‘n’ roll survivor and has made impressive albums in every subsequent decade, exploring musical forms beyond folk, rock and pop. Some of her songs make excursions and detours into musical hall, rootsy Americana, jazz and pre-rock, theatrical styles and she also made a splash in the New Age market during the 1980s. As we chat on the eve of her 11th album release, When Daylight Arrives, she is charmingly candid about all the ups, downs and in-betweens of her five-decade career.
Photography: Graham Lowe
“I felt like I was walking on air. I had literally gone from the classroom to the recording studio,” she says, recalling the moment in 1971 when, after successfully auditioning for Chris Blackwell, founder of Island, she came to London and began work on her first album. “I was taken into a huge, cavernous room and told to sing into ‘this microphone’. My abiding memory is the feeling of hearing my voice through a beautiful sound system for the first time. It was indescribable. I felt that the world was mine to conquer, that I was on my way to the top. It was just fantastic. And then getting all those wonderful musicians to play with me? Mind-blowing!”
Among the wonderful musicians was label-mate, John Martyn, who – after they’d shared a brief romantic liaison – became a friend of Claire’s. “I had a lot in common with John,” she recalls. “He was younger than his contemporaries, as I was. He was signed to a rock label but was essentially a folk artist. And I don’t think he came through Joe Boyd [legendary producer] either, but I might be mistaken about that. Most of the Island folk acts were attached to Joe Boyd in some way but I was from Teeside and hadn’t made it to London when I got my deal. I don’t think Joe Boyd was a fan of my work, from what I can gather. Oh, and John also had a Glaswegian father like me”.
The first album was called One House Left Standing – a wistful, wintry-sounding collection of self-written material cloaked in lovely, pastoral arrangements, some of them by Paul Buckmaster. Claire accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. The cover and sleeve photography depicted her sitting amid (and strolling around) a deserted industrial wasteland in the North. The album also included a Joni Mitchell song, ‘Urge For Going’, which had the added cachet of not having appeared on any of Mitchell’s own albums. Island took out a full-page ad in Time Out, heralding the arrival of the album and its single, ‘When I Was a Child’. In what now seem like astonishingly sexist tones, it read, “When most girls are frantically hunting husbands, starting work in Woolworths or learning to type, Claire Hamill has finished her first Island album”. “The world was extremely sexist in the early 70s”, Claire sighs. “The music business was misogynistic. I remember being on tour in the states and overhearing one DJ tell my minder, ‘Hey man, what’s wrong with that girl? She’s not coming across man, know what I mean?’. I was astonished.” Ever the free-spirit, on occasion Claire had to resort to some drastic action to nip rumours in the bud: “My label manager let it be known that the crew thought I was gay because I hadn’t pulled anyone on the tour. I promptly slept with the lighting guy to put that to rest. Yes, I did fancy him, but really!”
One House Left Standing, 1971. Photography: Visualeyes
The experience of going from a busy, multi-siblinged life in Middlesbrough to the louche, rock ‘n’ roll capital was a heady one and Chris Blackwell expressed misgivings concerning the party-hard lifestyle into which Claire might be thrust. “I was exposed to everything the music business had to offer,” she confirms. “I stayed a lot in the Portobello Hotel, Notting Hill Gate, in those days. I spent all my advance on rooms there and tickets on British Airways to Teeside. I once left all my luggage at the hotel before I flew home. At the check-in, they asked me if I had luggage and I grandly said, ‘No’. It was only when I was on the plane that I remembered storing it in the hotel’s cupboard under the stairs. When I collected it later on my return journey south, the receptionist told me that it was next to Alice Cooper’s snake!”
All this was a world away from Claire’s childhood, although it had been a musical one. “My grandmother sang beautifully,” she says. “And so did all my aunties and my mum. They sang harmony together so I learned how to do that from an early age. I absolutely loved to hear them sing at family parties. They were all very proud of me when I got my recording deal though my grandmother continued to ask me when I was going to get a proper job!”
In London, Claire’s head was spinning: “One minute you are catching the bus like everyone else, the next you are ferried around in limos”. As Chris Blackwell had feared, she was also swiftly exposed to grown-up forms of refreshment. “It certainly changed me,” she confirms, “but I managed to escape the clutches of drugs eventually when I got married. I’d already booted cocaine into touch but I was smoking pot on a fairly regular basis. I never touch it now – it’s too addictive for me.”
Since One House Left Standing was issued internationally, Claire was dispatched to North America. “I’ll never forget my first date – Ottowa in Canada. I was booked to open for Jethro Tull in a huge stadium. I was blown away when I was how big it was! I had never even been to a football match at that point in my life, and certainly never in front of an audience of more than 500 people. Here I was in front of more than 20,000. America blew me away. I had many adventures and fell in love with a surfer from North Carolina called Mike Marsh, who inspired me to write ‘Warrior of the Water’ [a track which was to appear on Claire’s second album].
From the start, Claire stood out because of her dramatic approach to singing, and her ability to move seamlessly from bird-like fragility to strident, stentorian tones. “I wanted to be an actress, which is why I was so expressive. It gives another level to your voice and your delivery. I never did act though, but my daughter Susannah [Austin] is a singer/songwriter who acts. When I went round to her drama college to see what she was doing, I felt a twinge of regret, but it’s lovely to know she’s learning great skills to bring to her performances.”
And in an era in which it became increasingly fashionable for English pop and rock singers to adopt transatlantic twangs, Claire chose to stay authentic. “I always like to hear the words of any song, so I never blunted my diction – I saw that as an affectation. It’s fashionable but it’s just not me”.
For Claire’s second project, Island pulled out all the stops, hiring Paul Samwell-Smith, fresh off the back of his success with Carly Simon’s hit album, Anticipation, to produce. Along with some of Cat Steven’s band members, Claire was ushered to Richard Branson’s studio, The Manor, located in a postcard-pretty Oxfordshire setting. “It cost the label a lot of money,” says Claire. “£17,000 – quite a big bill in 1973. My latest album cost £4500.” The album was called October and to this day it is frequently held up as the pinnacle of Claire’s 1970s output. It was a more confident record than its predecessor and Claire’s vocals exhibited a colloquial flair, looser and more relaxed than the rather formal approach to singing which characterised her first album. October was presented in gatefold format; the cover taken up by a watercolour of the sky reflected in a puddle, and the additional sides printed with photographs of Claire frolicking in Richmond park (“on a cold autumnal morning at 6 a.m.”) and staring moodily through a rain-splashed window pane. “The photographer was Patrick Litchfield who took us all to lunch afterwards at Tratoo – a trendy restaurant near his studio in Notting Hill”.
The album’s centrepiece was ‘Speedbreaker’, a stroke of musical genius that not only fused folk with r’n’b rhythms in the manner of John Martyn, but was also, in part, about him. “I absolutely love it,” says Claire. “It will always be in my heart. I wrote it for John, for whom I had the greatest respect and love. But it’s also about another wonderful man in my life, on whom I also had a big crush, Alan White [drummer and percussionist on October]. He was a wonderful friend and I think the drum solo he played on the song is the greatest thing he’s ever done.” She remains understandably proud of the entire album. “I love October for the exquisite sound of the record and the wonderful playing.”
When October turned out to be more a critics’ favourite than a bestseller, Claire moved to the Konk label, owned by the Kinks, for Stage Door Johnnies (1974) and Abracadabra (1975). The former was produced by Ray Davies. “I was in awe of him,” says Claire, “but also frustrated because he was very hard to get hold of. I wanted to get a band together to tour but he wouldn’t put up the money and I didn’t know how to get things for myself at that stage as I had been looked after for so long by managers, I didn’t know what I should do on my own”. Those difficulties aside, both albums frame Claire’s writing within a slightly more conventional folk-rock setting, with some tracks, such as ‘Forbidden Fruit’ from Abracadabra, evincing qualities of Maria Muldaur. Konk also gave Claire the freedom to co-produce. “By the time Abracadabra was made, I had toured the USA twice and was really into being a rock diva. I was hanging out with Yes, pushing my voice to its limits, smoking a lot of pot and drinking. You can hear the rock edges and graininess in my voice on that album. What a little madam I was! I was barely 21. I thought I knew it all. How wrong can you be?”
Stage Door Johnnies, 1974. Photography: Monty Coles
Wrong indeed. because Claire’s solo career was about to go into a hiatus. “Sales weren’t terribly good. Of course, I wanted to be at the top of my profession but Konk wanted me to record a cover song, a single. They were not about to fund another album and I was very disappointed. Ray didn’t want me to leave, so I just didn’t do anything for some time. Then punk happened and it was looking tricky for me”. Punk was notoriously hostile to singer/songwriters, progressive rock, soul and disco, but Claire soldiered on with live work and then a guest role with Wishbone Ash, with whom she toured and recorded into the early 1980s. Then, in 1984, having put a toe in the water with a couple of solo singles, she re-emerged with Touchpaper, a surprisingly convincing foray into synthesised art-pop. Some of the songs, most notably ‘Jump’, had a distinctly urban edge and Claire managed to avoid the trap of sounding like an acoustic singer/songwriter being pushed into an ill-fitting, electronic format – a fate which had befallen Carole King when she made the jump into electronica on Speeding Time (1983). Claire’s voice was also noticeably more flexible and confident by this point. “I have always tried to improve my singing as I’ve got older, ” she explains. “I try to give the song what it deserves, to let it tell me how it wants to express itself. Ultimately, I just want to make someone feel something”.
Since she was now an independent artist, Claire had the freedom to turn her hand to any genre she wanted, even if the days of major label budgets were behind her. Her next project was an unexpected transition to New Age. “My then-husband, Nick Austin, had just created a label for instrumental music and he invited me to make an album just using my voice. At first, I was bemused but when the engineer at the first session told me how fantastic and unique it was, I started to love what came out. It was such a liberating experience to do the whole thing myself without consultation with other people. It happened at a sweet time in my life. I’d just had my first child, Tara, and was living in the country. Life was good”. Voices, produced by Claire, was the resulting a capella album created by multi-tracking and sampling her voice.
Voices was sufficiently well-received that it led to Claire’s music being used on BBC soundtracks, but rather than churn out more of the same, she gradually worked her way back to the singer/songwriter style with which she’d first made her name, on albums like Love in the Afternoon (1988) and The Lost and the Lovers (2004). In an industry that has undergone more changes in the last ten years than in the previous thirty, she has had to conjure new ways of funding herself and for both the new album and its predecessor (2013’s The Meeting of the Waters), Claire has reached into her own pockets. “It was just time to sell my house anyway,” she says. “The kids were all living in London. I’d been re-mortgaging every time I needed money for a new car or to send them off to university. I had an interest-only mortgage so I thought, what the hell – sell now – you’ll only have to sell later anyway. So I did it.”
Claire calls her new album, When Daylight Arrives, “folk with a jazzy edge”. “I used the same local musicians as on the last one [Claire lives in Hastings, Sussex] and the same sound engineer/producer,” she explains. It features, for the first time, Claire co-writing with her late sister, Louise. “She was talented in many ways…musical, too. She played Bodhran in an Irish band. She showed me her poetry and I realised it would make great lyrics, so I offered to make them into songs and she was delighted. She heard me sing them many times before she died in 2010. It’s a shame she never got to hear them recorded and put on an album. It was a long time before I could even sing them again – they brought back poignant memories”.
When Daylight Arrives, 2015. Photography: D.J. Brass
Next up is an autobiography. “I’m halfway through. I have promised myself I will finish by October”. Considering the elements of Claire’s life – the adventures and misadventures, the famous names, the friends, managers, lovers, thrills and spills – it is bound to be one of 2016’s more interesting reads. She is fortunate enough only to have a small handful of regrets and there are two things she’d do differently if given the chance to go back. “When my manager says, ‘Stanley Dorfman wants you to do a special for BBC2’, I won’t say, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough’. And when he says, ‘I’ve got you a support slot with David Bowie’, I won’t say, ‘No, I don’t fancy that'”.
Find out more about Claire here. When Daylight Arrives is out now and available on iTunes, Spotify and other outlets.