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Interview: Emily Maguire

Image credit: Press Pack
Image credit: Press Pack
Image credit: Press Pack

Emily Maguire comes to York this May.

Emily Maguire is an acclaimed musician known for her thoughtful lyrics, amazing voice and her openness about having bipolar disorder. She published two books, one about her mental illness and one which is a collection of prose, poetry and songs. While touring Germany in 2014, she developed tendonitis in both her arms which made her unable to play her instruments, which led further to a depressive episode which lasted a year. Now she is recovered and in February, she released her fifth album A Bit Of Blue. She also has in plan a couple of gigs around the UK and one of them will be in York.

Ahead of her show in our town, I had a chat with the lovely Emily about her music and life.

To start from the beginning, you’re having a gig in York this May. Have you been to York before?

I have, yes! I’ve played in York quite a few times before and I actually played at Helmsley Arts Centre two or three years ago. It’s a very beautiful place. I love coming to York.

Did you get a chance to visit it?

Yes, I did! I actually live in Bath and York is quite a similar city. I love all the ancient buildings and the fact that it’s very small and beautiful.

In February, you released a brand new album which is your fifth one. How is this album different from the previous ones?

This album is so different from my last album, which was very speech production. There were a lot of layers of sounds, it was quite poppy. For this album, I wanted to do something completely different. I wanted the songs to be straight there and very haunting and just as beautiful as they could possibly be. I knew we wanted to call it A Bit of Blue and so we wanted it to be really atmospheric and very haunting.

Which song on the album is your favourite and what is it about?

I don’t have a favourite…at all, but, I think, probably, quite a big song for me would be the song ‘I’d Rather Be’ which was actually already a single and it was played on the radio every day a few years ago. The version on the radio which is very up-tempo ended up on my third album Believer, but we never actually performed it like that. We always performed it as a ballad and people kept asking about it, so we decided to record it for this album. It’s a song that’s very close to my heart. I actually wrote it after spending some time in a mental health hospital and I was coming to terms with having a mental health illness and I was realising that all the energy in my head could be something better, something I could choose to transform into creativity. It was a really important song for me.

Your first book is about your experiences while dealing with mental health issues and the second book is a collection of poems, prose and songs. Do you plan to write a third one, and if so, what would it be about?

I’m writing at the moment another collection of poetry. I write a lot of poems so my next book is going to be a poetry book. I write every day – I pretty much try and write a poem a day. I’m a Buddhist so I do meditating practice every morning and after my practice, I sit down with a cup of coffee and just write a poem. You know that phrase ‘it’s just at the top of my head’. The first thing that I think about I just write. So, yes, my next book is going to be a collection of those poems. 

Do you have a place that inspires you, a place where you go when you want to write?

Yes! Next week I’m going to the Isle of Purbeck which is in Dorset and it’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve known it all my life. My family lived there and that’s the place where I go to when I want to get away or I want to do some work. So, next week I’m bringing my guitar down there by the sea to do some writing.

Do you have another hobby outside of music and writing that you turn to when you need to refresh?

I like going for walks and listening to music, going to the cinema and theatre and most of all I like going to galleries and looking at art. I absolutely love looking at paintings and sculptures. I don’t know much about art but I just really enjoy looking at it. I think that creativity is like a reservoir and you need to be filling it up. In order to keep writing and keep inspired, I need to actually feed my mind with art in some way, music or paintings or books. All of that is really important to me.

I read that you know how to play many instruments – cello, piano, flute, guitar and recorder. Which one of these is your favourite to play and why?

Yes! Actually, while you’re talking to me I’m sitting in the garden at my cello teacher’s house. We had a cello lesson this morning because I’m actually making an instrumental album. I’ve already written all the pieces for it and I’ll be recording them over the next few months. There were a few years when I couldn’t play my instruments at all and I completely stopped doing that and now I’ve only just restarted. Literally, on Sundays, I’ll be playing the cello again. I’m very passionate about the cello.

So, the cello is your favourite instrument?

I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite because there are the guitar and the piano and I play them quite often. I write songs on these two instruments as well. But there’s something about the cello… I have a really strong connection with it and because I had this acute pain which made me unable to play makes it even more precious when I can.

I’ve noticed that you’ve been constant with posting videos on your official YouTube account for the last 2 months. You actually have a series of videos called Songs From My Attic – beautiful name, by the way. Do you think you’ll continue doing this, posting videos constantly?

Yes! Recording songs in my attic, yes! I really love doing it. And I can say a little bit about the song that I’m playing at the beginning of the video. I like that even though I can’t do so many gigs I can actually perform songs in my attic for the fans. What I kind of like to do is a request thing where people can suggest songs that they want me to play. It’s so wonderful that we’ve got the internet to communicate this way. And I love my attic as well. It‘s a very special place for me and it’s nice to invite people to hear me playing songs without all the instrumentation. Just the song. I think people seem to be interested in that. They want to hear the raw thing.

While doing my research, I was looking for some interviews of yours and I came across some interviews with another Emily Maguire who is an Australian author. I was wondering if you’ve heard of her. Do people usually make confusions between the two of you?

(Laughs) No, they haven’t, but it’s funny that you brought that up because I’ve known about the other Emily Maguire for quite a long time. There’s also an Emily Maguire who’s a Scottish hockey player (laughs). But, Emily Maguire, the author, she’s written quite racy books. It’s funny because sometimes when you google my name she would come up. I haven’t really been properly introduced to her. I would love to meet her one day. I should send her a CD really.

Moving on to a few more personal questions. You took a 2-year break from music because in 2014 you developed a chronic pain in both of your arms. Now you’re back! I know this is not a very recent event, but sometime in the Autumn of 2016, you cut your hair short. Did that have to do with a fresh start or did you just want a new hairstyle?

I think it was a fresh start. I used to have very short hair for years in my 20s and 30s and I also had a shaved head for a while. I had a really bad depression episode because I wasn’t able to play my instruments and when I came out of that I guess I felt like I wanted a new start. I felt different, and when you feel different there’s a part of you that will reflect that on the way that you look. So I decided after 15 years of having long hair just to cut it all off. I’m now very tempted to shave it, but we’ll see about that.

How do you manage to be so open about having mental health issues when most people out there are desperate to hide this?

I did hide it for quite a long time. I had a manager who said it would be best if I kept it quite. I was doing a lot of media interviews, a lot of press and radio interviews and I never talked about it. Then I kept getting ill and having to hide it. In the end, I had a song on Radio 2 that was being played every day and I was doing a tour of Caffe Neros and I was having an episode and I just couldn’t do it anymore. So, I decided to write this book Start over again. I was really nervous about it and my manager was really nervous about it. When I actually published it, the response of the people was so amazing. Because there was still a lot of stigma around, everyone was saying I was so brave to do it. But I didn’t feel brave, I just felt liberated. And I can talk about it now. I do a lot of gigs in mental health hospitals and I just find being open and being able to talk about this so rewarding because people are then open and able to talk about it to me. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, coming out and saying ‘Yes! I’ve got a mental illness and this is how it affects me’. It means that I can communicate with people. So many people have mental health issues and they hide it. They feel like they can’t talk about it, but with me, they can.

Before you released your first album, you were living on a goat farm with your partner. Could you tell us a few things about the life there?

We were making goat cheese and we were living in a shack that my partner built out of recycled wood timbers and paper sacks. Everything was made out of recycled wood. We lived there with this whole menagerie of creatures. We had mice in the piano, spiders that lived in the bathroom and frogs. There was a snake that we called Dudley and other snakes that would come in and out. Just creatures everywhere. It was basically sunny pretty much every day. I had my own yarn which Christian built for my birthday and I used to do my songwriting and my Buddhist practice in there. It was just Heaven on earth. I’d come from living in London, with concrete and sirens, to this place with fields and hills and trees and kangaroos. It was just incredible. I actually loved it there.

Would you want to live there now?

I think I’d find it difficult to go back now. I think maybe living in a shack would be good but the politics in Australia is so right-wing now. The fabric of the society there has changed. The one thing I love about living in the UK is the seasons. I just love the different seasons that we have here and I love living in Bath as well. Bath is such a beautiful place to be. I was really homesick when I first left Australia but now I love living in the UK.

Moving from the UK to Australia is a big deal. You said the change of the scenery is what made you move to Australia, but did that have to do with your husband as well?

Yes, it did. The reason I went to Australia was because I just had a major breakdown and I’d been hospitalised and my long-term relationship had broken up. So, I went to Australia to convalesce and there’s a whole story about how it actually happened. It’s in my book Start over again. There was this bizarre coincidence that happened. Basically, Christian was a very old friend of mine I met in London about 8 years earlier. He got me into playing the guitar and it was him who got me to get a guitar for my 21st birthday. He was back to Australia, so I went to visit him for a 3-week holiday and while I was there he suggested to make an album because he heard the songs I’d been writing. I’d been writing songs for 7 years by that point and never really did anything with them. He said why not make an album but at the same time we kind of fell in love and that’s when it began and started our record label which is named after our shack.

You mentioned before that you did tours of mental health hospitals already did two tours of mental health hospitals, which is a beautiful idea. You probably met so many different people with so many different stories to tell. Is there anyone in particular, whose story really impressed you that you still remember?

I don’t know about stories so much, but there was a woman that I met in a hospital in Bristol. She was very moved by the music I was singing. She was obviously into Christianity, she was a strong believer and she felt like she had a holy spirit. She gave me such an amazing smile and such a big hug. It was so lovely to meet her. The first time I met her it was a few years ago when I did the gig in the hospital and then I met her again, she was back in the hospital again, and she remembered me. She remembered the songs and said that what I was doing is very important. It really meant something for her. I met loads of people on my tours. One of the good things about being bipolar is that you can talk to anybody in a mental health hospital because you can relate to the people. You can talk to anyone and have a full understanding of what they’re going through.

I read that you never saw yourself as a performer but you somehow got the courage to start singing in open-mic clubs. Do you remember your first time performing in front of a crowd?

The very first time I ever played in public was in Purbeck. My great uncle forced me to sing a song and I was terrified but I got through it and I was up for doing it again (laughs). The first time I played at a gig was in London. I played at an open-mic night and I checked it out beforehand. We were about 20 people there and I thought that I can do this but when I turned up on the actual night there were over 150 people in the room because it was somebody’s birthday and I literally died from fright. I got up on stage and I was choking so much, but then I started singing the first song. I don’t know how I managed to open my mouth and sing. I thought no one was listening and then, at the end, this whole room just erupted in applause and I just turned my back on them. I just didn’t know what to do (laughs). I was so overwhelmed by the fact that people actually like it. That was amazing. I don’t think I slept that night.

Finally, after all the experiences you’ve been through and all the self-development you did over the years, would you choose to live a life without your mental illness, if you could start your life over?

That’s a really good question! I’d hesitate to say that I would want to be healthy because the reason I write the songs that I do is because I have bipolar disorder. If I didn’t have that mental illness, then I wouldn’t write the songs I do. If you’d ask me the year before last when I was in the middle of a really brutal depression I would say I would do anything not to be bipolar. But when I’m well and I can be philosophical about it, I know that the reason people respond so strongly to my songs is because of the empathy that I have as a resort of going through that suffering myself. And if I didn’t go through it, I wouldn’t be able to express it for other people. Everybody has highs and lows, everybody goes through great despair and great joy in their lives. It’s not solely for the people who are bipolar and because I go through it quite regularly, it just means that I can actually put it into the lyrics of a song. And that can be very beneficial for people. So, no, I wouldn’t choose to be healthy. Well, I can say that now (laughs) staying in a lovely garden with the sun shining and feeling well.

Emily will play in York on 13th May at Helmsley Arts Centre.