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A touch of Frost; Charlie Melvin takes a call from Kirsty McGee.

Byline: Charlie Melvin

The artists who come to town are very busy people and sometimes just getting a few words with them can be a major problem. Kirsty McGee -one of folk music's rising stars who's headlining the Songwriters Festival at Hampton Street's HQ nightclub tonight -is on the road somewhere in Devon, but we're assured she'll call us when she reaches a telephone, to avoid the cost to her mobile. At the appointed time, McGee is on the line, but it soon becomes apparent she's using a public phone. 'I am in a call box, yeah,' the 31 year-old singer admits above the sound of seagulls, struggling to insert money into the machine.

'It's strange to be on this side of the interview. I was a journalist for years myself, doing exactly what you're doing now. I was mainly an arts writer.'

McGee, whose impressive second album Frost is released this month by Oxford's Park Records, is appearing at the festival tonight with her partner, 23 year-old Mat Martin. 'I met him when he was my stage manager at Sidmouth,' she reveals.

'We've been together for a couple of years and now he drives me all over the country playing music with me. Mat plays high-string guitar and mandolin as well as normal acoustic guitar and he does a little bit of backing vocals.'

Oh yes, keep an eye open for Martin's mandolin dear reader, it's probably the one McGee made for him during the HNC course in instrument-making she's been taking at Manchester's College of Arts & Technology since 2000. Despite their eight-year age difference, she refutes charges of cradle snatching. 'You're looking for scandal aren't you!' she laughs.

'Sometimes you meet somebody and you're just totally on the right wavelength with each other. If you meet the right person age doesn't really matter.'

Kirsty McGee was born May 8, 1972 and grew up in Stockport, Cheshire, destined for an unconventional life. 'I think my heritage is Irish, my parents on both sides have Irish grandparents,' she says.

'My surname's probably Irish originally, but I'm afraid that's as far as it goes. I've spent time in Ireland and I had a lot of Irish friends when I was younger, but I've never lived there. It's a lovely place. I do have some strange pronunciations and I'm not quite sure where I've got them from. I pick up people's accents.'

She was playing music from an early age. 'I was never very good at piano,' McGee admits.

'I only got as far as grade two. We lived in a nice house and all that, but we didn't have a piano. The next door neighbour had a piano in an outhouse and I'd get access to it about once a week. In the meantime, I had a piece of paper with the keys drawn on it to practice on. The whistling things were what I really got on with, which is why I took up the flute. It took me quite a while to get the courage up to sing.

'I always wanted to be in a band, I used to write songs, even when I was at primary school. My parents divorced when I was about 12. My mum had my teenage years, it's not a gift I would give very gladly to anyone. My dad moved to Spain about five years ago and he now lives in a little village called Orba in the mountains near Denia.' McGee was in bands from the age of 14, making her entrance onto Manchester's acoustic scene a few years later. After studying English in Sheffield, earning a master's degree in modern contemporary fiction, she became actively involved in the road-protest movement, demonstrating against the extension of Manchester airport, living in a tree house while working as a journalist. (The experience won her the nickname Crusty McGee).

Needing to get out of Manchester, she sold her few possessions and hitchhiked to Cornwall, where she began working on her own material. After living in a beach hut near St Ives, McGee got a job in a Penzance health food shop, performing her new songs for tips. A year to the day after leaving the north, she was on the the road again, hitching home. On the way, she secured a spot at the Brampton Live festival, where she was spotted by manager Ken Bradburn who financed her first album Honeysuckle, released by Cumbria's Fellside Recordings in 2002.

Honeysuckle received sufficient support from Radio 2's Bob Harris and Mike Harding to merit Kirsty McGee's Horizon nomination at last year's Radio 2 Folk Awards. 'It was very exciting and totally out of the blue,' she acknowledges.

'I was thrilled, it's lovely to have some kind of notice. To know that people are liking what I am doing makes me feel good because I feel like I'm on the right track. I went to the Awards dinner in London and wore a very posh frock. Honeysuckle was an album of love songs, which I suppose was quite an old-fashioned thing to do.

'My background is in literature and sometimes I'll write in a very quiet way that doesn't necessarily draw from anything in particular. The songs are quite delicate, but I probably have been quite delicate myself. The album does sound kind of frail, it's true. 'Once you let go of a song it belongs to everyone, there are many different ways that people can read it. It's kind of beautiful that it takes on many different forms when you let it go. That's the nice thing about love songs, and it's what I like best -although they're written personally, if you write from the heart people can relate to them and adapt them for their own lives and situations. Some of the best love songs I've ever heard have been the ones that have just reduced me to tears within seconds of them being started.'

Frost, McGee's first record for Park, is produced by The Bible's Boo Hewerdine, who contributes guitar and vocals to Honeysuckle. 'It was a conscious decision from the beginning,' she relates.

'Because of the nature of the songs, we wanted to make something that was a little more stripped down, in some ways closer to what Boo had been doing with his album Anon. Boo seemed to be the right person for the job, he's a very good person to work with in the studio, very laid back. I can hear a real difference from one album to the next, I think my voice has changed quite a lot.'

Incidentally Boo Hewerdine comes to Kings Heath's Red Lion Folk Club on Saturday 20 March, while McGee herself can be seen at The Red Lion on Saturday 8 May, a very special day. 'I'm appearing there on my birthday, it'll be a great night, yeah,' she chuckles.

As for the future, the bespectacled songwriter is looking forward to her first live dates outside the UK. 'We've got a gig in Spain next month, they're flying us out to Pamploma for just one night and in May we're going back for three shows in Cadiz, Alecante and Bilbao. That'll be very exciting and I'm hoping my dad will be able to come to the Alecante gig. I'll do my best.'

The 10th Birmingham Songwriters Festival runs between 14-29 March. Venue: HQ, Hampton St, Off Constitution Hill. Kirsty McGee with Mat Martin / Kate Doubleday / Jayne Powell can be seen tonight, 7.30pm. Tickets (pounds 8.50, pounds 7.50, plus booking fee) from 0871 2200260 or Swordfish Records. Kirsty McGee's Honeysuckle is released by Fellside Recordings. Frost is released by Park Records. Boo Hewerdine / Stony can be seen at The Red Lion Folk Club, Vicarage Road, Kings Heath on Saturday 20 March. 8.15pm. Tickets (pounds 9) pounds 8. Tel 0121 472 4253. Kirsty McGee & Mat Martin / Rosalind Brady & Simon Barron come to The Red Lion on Saturday 8 May. Hewerdine's Anon is available from Haven Records.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 16, 2004
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