Gig preview: Clare Maguire at Wapentake, Leeds

Claire Maguire has just released her second album Stranger Things Have Happened. Here the Birmingham singer discusses being the '˜next big thing', self doubt, rehab and finally putting her true self at the heart of her music.

Clare Maguire

Your new album, which you’ve likened to a diary entry, feels very personal and honest. How important was it to be so open on it? 

People always ask me what kind of music do I make and I’m never sure what to say. I guess it’s singer/songwriter music. The majority of it was written on my own, in my flat at 2am in a piano or guitar, so it’s very straight to the point and clear about what’s it’s about.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It’s revealing and personal, so it feels very much like a diary entry. It was important for me to be as honest as possible. For years I just wasn’t, which made me more ill, because I was constantly trying to hide and that just made the madness that’s in my head much worse.

I’m still manic and I have times of craziness, but I feel that if I’m honest and open about it, it will let me feel better about it. You still get judged, but I’d rather be judged on my reality than something that’s fake.

As well as the honesty, there are very strong themes of strength and being yourself running through it.

It’s taken me a lot of time in my life to get to a point where I have respect for myself and self-worth. I have strength, which I always knew I had, but it was misguided before and now I understand myself. I’m not ashamed of any of it, but I’m in a much better place and the album’s themes reflect that.

You were thrust into fame quite suddenly with the BBC Sound of 2011 and MTV Brand New nods. Did you feel under pressure at that point? 

I don’t think I even fully understood at the time just how much pressure it was. That whole couple of years between getting signed and making that first record was such a whirlwind and so intense, there was pressure from every angle in my life. 

I didn’t fully engage properly with it as I was quite numb to everything that was going on. My coping mechanism was to just run away from it all in myself.

Looking back now from this point, I can see it. I can see other people going through it and sense it much more clearly, but at the time I was mostly unaware, at least on the surface.

At the time I was an addict, so I was heavily escaping from it all. 

It was so alien to what I understood, to anything I had experienced in my life.

You grew up in the Midlands, but come from an Irish background where feelings and emotions aren’t always talked about. Did that impact on your life when your career took off?

“It was very much like that. I grew up around people who are of that generation where nobody says anything. In my family, keeping things to yourself was just how it was.

I was already holding a lot in growing up, always very on edge and I was always a very manic person, so would do extreme things, like a lot of risk taking in everything I did.

When I got signed, I suddenly had access to more than ten quid a week to drink with. The only thing I ended up spending money on was rent and drinking, I wasn’t even buying clothes or anything. I didn’t care. It all went on alcohol.

When did it all become a real problem for you? 

As soon as I moved to London it got really bad. I was alone in my flat and going into all these meetings or writing sessions, which was really weird for me as I wasn’t used to being open with people. My way of dealing with it was to drink. 

I remember a few people in my life passed away and that really impacted on me. When I was on tour it was bad, but I had people there checking on me.

When I stopped making the album and just went back to being me again, that was when it got really, really bad.

When did you realise you needed help with it? 

I had three meetings that day and was getting progressively more drunk. Nobody ever said anything to my manager but that day was different as I was really bad.

I woke up the next day to go to another meeting and found an empty bottle of champagne that a producer on the album had given me that I always said I would never open. 

I had no memory of drinking it and, when I saw it, I felt that everything had come to an end. I knew I had to get to that meeting but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was going to die, there was no doubt about that.

How did you find being in rehab? 

It was an amazing experience for me. It was probably the first time in my life that I’d really talked to people. For the first few weeks I wouldn’t talk at all, but then a lady spoke who I could really relate to and I started to cry. It all just came out from there. It was a massive release.

Then to find myself being able to communicate with people without a drink in me was amazing. It helped seeing how bad a situation the people around me were in too, in that it made me grateful for what I had. They were all really funny too, it was the first time I’d properly laughed in years. They really helped me. 

I stopped listening to music for years, but it was in there that I reconnected with it. Growing up, music was like an escape and when I entered the industry it became a job. The enjoyment was gone, but in rehab I slowly started to listen to it again and enjoy it like I had when I was a teenager. It really brought me back to a time when things were good. 

It was incredible and I’m really lucky I got to do it.

It was while in rehab you found yourself getting back into music. How did that come about?

When I was in there I was listening to the first Arctic Monkeys record. That and The Streets were the main things. They really reminded me of who I was, of growing up and where I came from. 

That really helped me to understand again who I was, but also about the relationships I was forming that I carried on after I left. 

So it helped me to write again, to give me stories to explore and to have the confidence to just write for myself again.

You eased yourself back into the industry again by gradually releasing songs online. Why did you take that approach? 

It was probably because I got into this thing again where I was a bit fearful of putting myself out there. 

With what had happened to me before, there was this incredible negativity towards me in the industry, so I was afraid of being judged so harshly again. I understand it now, but at that point I just didn’t get why it was so intense. It was really horrible.

For the first couple of years there it was a real issue for me, as I was scared it would make me go back down again. 

There came a point where I just thought I had to put something out, just to test the water and it was fine. The fans I had before were still there and all really positive about it and when started to talk online again everyone was lovely and very supportive. 

It was good to do it that way and not in a big music industry way.

Who were the inspirations behind the record and what did you take from them? 

There wasn’t anyone I was particularly trying to replicate sound-wise, but the inspiration from artists like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Rihanna comes from the fact that they are really uncompromising. You know exactly who they are in their everyday life. You believe in them.

There’s also an underbelly of darkness in them that I’m always quite drawn towards. I think that comes over in this record, it’s quite blue and sad, but there’s a strength and optimism there too.

The song Half-Hearted Love was co-written by Jarvis Cocker, but didn’t make the album. Why was that?

When I first moved to London ten years ago, he heard my voice as I was writing with his guitarist. He really liked what we’d been doing and said he had a song for me. The demo was just Jarvis playing the piano and it was amazing. 

I recorded it and it’s definitely one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. I put it on a mixtape I put online and everyone seemed to love it.

The thing is though, my voice is so heavy and dark on it, while on this new record my voice is more whispery. I’m really particular about things like that, so it felt like two different characters, so it just didn’t feel like it fitted. That’s the only reason it didn’t go on there, as if I wasn’t such a perfectionist, it would have been an obvious choice. It’s an incredible song.

You have a really strong team of musicians and production behind you, how much of a difference does that make to your recording process? 

All the record was recorded at Blue May’s studio in Hackney so the sound of the record sounds exactly like the sound of his room.

Sam Beste is probably the greatest pianist in London as far as I’m concerned. He’s really amazing. I used to love sitting around the studio just listening to him play.

You also have people like Amy Langelely, the string arranger who took it to crazy levels, Tom Skinner the drummer and Tom Goss, my guitarist and friend and writes a lot with me.

They all just brought their own style and personalities with them, which helps make the record more personal.

You’ve also been working closely with Burberry too, how has that been going?

When I started putting music online a few years ago, Christopher Bailey at Burberry heard it and really liked it. They asked me to do Burberry Acoustic, then they wanted me to do their fashion show, which became two fashion shows, then the next thing I was doing shows in LA, Japan and South Korea. They’ve been amazing and really supportive. The whole experience has been really good for me.

With the album about to drop, how does it feel to be getting fully back into the music industry again?

I was really nervous at first, but when I first put things up I realised it wasn’t that bad. The last time everything was so extreme, whereas this time it’s a lot more lo-fi, a lot more relaxed and a lot more me. It feels good. I’m really happy with the support and how people have reacted. I’m surprised, but in a nice way.

How important has music been in getting you to where you are right now?

Music definitely helped me, but it’s been a combination of people and places, talking and understanding.

Music definitely helped me feel again. I was so numb for so long, so when I started to feel something again it was a big moment for me. For about five years I was in the heaviness of addiction and was completely numb. Everything was very grey, I don’t remember any colour, so the feeling of seeing colour again was amazing.

When you look to the future now, what do you see? 

I don’t have any expectations for the future whatsoever. All I think about is what will the show look and sound like, or where am I going to go with the next record. It’s all about the music and enjoyment in art in itself. I don’t know where it’s all going, but I’m looking forward to it.

Clare Maguire plays at Wapentake in Leeds on Wednesday June 8. For details visit