Going for broke
Amy MacDonald has taken a big gamble by choosing the major label path in her quest for pop stardom. So far, the bet is paying big returns, says John Williamson
Amy MacDonald has spent much of 2007 on the promotional trail, and the week ahead of the release of her single, Mr Rock & Roll, seems more fraught than usual. Stuck in a people carrier in Shepherd’s Bush, she is between radio stations where she is recording idents (“Hi, this is Amy MacDonald and you’re listening to the morning zoo crew on …”) and interviews. During the day, filling time is doing press interviews and record store appearances. By night, there are gigs to play. Clearly, sleep is at a premium.
“It is the most stressful week of my life,” she laughs, “and we have all been arguing all the time. We have these huge five- minute long arguments where we all hate each other and are shouting at the top of our voices, but it is always soon forgotten. We all know it is a stressful situation, and the other side of it is that it is extremely exciting as well.”
Despite, the chaos, the 19-yearo l d G l a sw e g i a n seems to be coping not only with the oppressive schedule of the last couple of weeks – she has also played T in the Park and supported Elton John – but with the whirlwind couple of years that have taken her from school leaver to chartbothering songwriter.
MacDonald’s musical ascent seems like a particularly old-school, almost outmoded version of pop stardom, especially in light of the wave of recent female acts who have found their success driven by the internet, such as Lily Allen, Kate Nash and their ilk. She has also avoided years of treading the live boards in unsuccessful bands like KT Tunstall did, nor has she made her debut release on a small, inde- pendent record label like Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes.
Indeed, in citing Travis as her inspiration, and in producing a similar kind of memorable, melodious and mainstream pop, MacDonald’s cards are on the table. She is in a win-or-bust scenario: signed to the world’s biggest record label and with their hopes invested in her songs, a lowkey approach is hardly an option. It may not be subtle, but it appears to work, and is the result of two years of careful preparation.
She takes up the story: “I finished school at the end of fifth year and was accepted for Glasgow and Strathclyde University, but me and some of my friends decided to take a year off before going. It wasn’t really anything to do with my music, it was more about being fed up learning and being lazy, but having the time and being in the house did help. I could spend more time on the songs, go to see more gigs and perform more often.”
Live appearances were as an under-age performer in openmic sessions in Glasgow pubs and the more sedate environs of coffee shops and book stores, playing acoustically. Her break also seems like a throwback to a bygone era of the recording industry.
“I saw an advert in the NME,” she says, “which was along the lines of ‘production company seeking new artists’. I sent off some music, they loved it and got back to me.”
This established the first of the key relationships in MacDonald’s career with Pete Wilkinson of Melodramatic Records. With a small (and at that point unproven roster), Wilkinson, who with his wife Sarah now take on managerial and logistic duties, set to work with MacDonald on transforming the tentative recordings into something of interest to the major publishers and record labels.
“We spent the best part of a year working on the demos and getting them to a good standard, but at the start of last year we still didn’t feel that they were quite ready. However, somebody from one of the labels heard it and that was when the interest began.”
With offers from all the major labels on the table and a publishing deal in the pipeline with Warner-Chappell, it would appear that Wilkinson took on the bulk of the responsibility, with MacDonald only just of an age to be legally allowed to sign the paperwork.
“It was a hectic period,” she recalls, “and I was quite lucky in that I always had Pete with me, so I was never thrown in at the deep end when it came to dealing with the record companies. There was a fair amount of wining and dining, but I noticed that all stopped once we had signed!”
The label in question was Vertigo, part of Universal, who was hot off the back of huge success with The Killers and Razorlight. The deal was of sufficient magnitude that she has been able to buy her first home earlier this year.
“There has been nothing really bad that has happened so far,” she says, “and lots of great things, like meeting Elton John and Fran Healy. Of course, there is pressure involved because everyone has put so much into it, but that should mean that everything works out OK. We are all ecstatic at how far it has come so far, and while we are all keen for the single to do well, it is more important that the album does well, almost as a pat on the back for everyone involved.”
Although the huge billboards announcing the album, This is the Life, indicate the seriousness of the record company’s intent, they also put such an untried artist under a degree of pressure to succeed that would not be the case were a more incremental approach applied. Typically, she remains pragmatic and self-effacing about the situation.
“At first it was a bit weird seeing these posters,” she says, “but when I went to T in the Park a couple of weeks ago, I saw this huge display, about the size of eight normal posters, advertising my album. Unfortunately, there was a guy standing urinating on it – so you cannot take these things too seriously, there are downsides to it as well!”
The marketing of the record has not been solely down to the machine at Vertigo, and MacDonald’s MySpace blog gives a good insight to her thoughts on both her career and the more mundane parts of her life.
“I don’t do the blogs as a marketing thing,” she says. “No-one has ever bought a record because of a blog. It is just for people who are interested, and it is a great way of bridging the gap between artists and fans. When I was a member of one of the Travis message boards, I remember what it felt like when members of the band contributed.”
In spite of healthy signs of cynicism evident online about the industrial nature of the sales process, MacDonald has a balanced and down-to-earth approach to her situation and remains proud of the songs on the album, suggesting that she had little choice but to take her chance.
“I have had two years to live with the album,” she says, “as that is effectively how long I have been working on it, even though it is new to everyone else. I am really comfortable with it, even though there are a few parts we now hate and wonder what if we had done something else, but I guess that is natural.”
“My parents said that I would probably never get a chance like this again, and if it all goes belly up in the future, then I can look back on it and view it as a case of ‘well, I had to go for it.’ I am glad everything is going well at the moment, but who knows what will happen in the future. There is plenty of time to go to university and get a degree – I think I would like to do that sometime in the future.”
More immediately, MacDonald’s life seems to be more of the same – touring and promoting the record day and night. It may be demanding and at times deflating, but MacDonald is determined to capture her moment, and the reward of a Top 20 single is obvious payback for her industry.
“At the moment the shows vary from sold-out arenas and festivals to playing for 10 men in suits at some kind of corporate event,” she says, “but the excitement of it all keeps me going. I have no specific aims other than to sell enough to keep doing this and make another record.”
Since leaving school two years ago, Amy MacDonald has opened for Elton John and met musical inspiration Fran Healy from Travis