Now here’s a great English neo-folk artist lost to time. Shelagh McDonald, born in Edinburgh, was a gorgeous Scottish folk singer destined for stardom. Her style was uniquely urbane, mixing Joni Mitchell sonics with Nick Drake-like singing and atmosphere. Some of the upper echelon of English folk-rock luminaries like members from Fotheringay, Fairport Convention, Mighty Baby, artists like Keith Christmas, Robert Kirby (Nick Drake’s string arranger) and producers like Joe Boyd and John Wood would help her craft her highly sophisticated neo-folk music. Somehow, after taking some LSD shortly after the release of her second album, Stargazer of which my selections are for the day, she suffered a bad trip that saw her roaming on the streets, suffering from horrible hallucinations. This bad trip killed her career consigning her to a mundane day to day life.
Originally, discovered by another brilliant folkie Keith Christmas. She beguiled folk audiences with her combination of dark looks, intricate guitar playing, and shy gentle demeanor. There was a strong bit of Scottish feeling in her music, which many saw could lend her to surpassing Sandy Denny. Her first album, appropriately called The Shelagh McDonald Album, found her backed up by Keith Christmas, Gerry Conway (Cat Steven’s musician), Mighty Baby, and Robert Kirby on string arrangements. Its such an unique album for its genre, showing the huge influence of urban life with changing folk sounds. Songs like “Look Over the Hills and Far Away” (written by Gerry Rafferty!) with jazz inflected experimental melancholia seem to predict Joni’s Blue period, “Ophelia’s Song” rival Nick’s baroque-folk sound, and gorgeous rural-pastorals like “Richmond” invoke something you don’t quite hear anywhere else in England. That first album was just a teaser for her even better Stargazer album. The first album made her a minor star, but the second was supposed to take her over the bridge.
That’s what you hear in “Rod’s Song”, a grown woman coming into her own voice and style. Its quite a sparse song, but the little elements that get added here and there are just breathtaking, when you hear Shelagh provide her own “do, do, dos”, you hear something Joni and Sandy can’t quite evoke as plainly, the sound of autumn. Somehow her solo guitar and voice makes the song sound fuller than you’d expect.
When you travel further into the album, the subtle charms of her arrangements and experimentation is what wins you over. “Liz’s Song” has a starry airy quality to it, “City’s Cry” evokes a Pink Moon–like gossamer darkness, then you have songs more in line with the forceful folk of the time like “Dowie Den’s of Yarrow” and “Baby Go Slow” (a brilliant country-Anglo folk shuffle!) which hint at the masterful backing musicians she had in tow…Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks from Fairport Convention (and Bryter Layer) and Danny Thompson from Pentangle. I’ll stop from going down each track, and leave that for you to discover but I got to highlight one more song the amazing Shelagh and Richard Thompson groove of “Odyssey”, which seems to combine Hejira-era open-tuned jazz folk (a damn great thing!) with Liege & Lief-era Fairport Convention. These are the tracks that hinted at some unfulfilled promise that was lost when Shelagh unknowingly retired from her musical career.
Only recently, around 2005, do we know that she got married sometime in the 80s to a man who struggled to make ends meet. They both faced the full brunt of the 1980s recession, and were forced to live homeless on the streets, setting up their tents to survive. Only near the end of the 90s after years of moving from shelter to shelter did she rediscover that a younger generation hadn’t forgotten her recordings and that people had been looking for her ages to send her royalty payments and seek interviews. Its an interesting story that the Guardian covers succinctly in this article: Click Here to Read More. One that makes it that much more heartening to read that she has resolved to record again and has straightened her finances out to finally live a fruitful life. Its just a shame, that drugs took down in their prime what could have been another brilliant point of light other female musicians (let alone male, as well) could draw from.
– Let No Man Steal Your Thyme (a compilation with both of her releases and some bonus tracks at the start and end.)