A young English singer/songwriter is on the fast track, a much vaunted talent with a distinctive, emotive, voice, a coveted Polydor record deal secured leading to a No7 UK charting debut album, BBC’s Zane Low pushing the cause relentlessly on Radio One, high profile music placements in major TV adverts including a memorable one for Renault, lots of breakfast TV exposure, tour support slots with Plan B and The Script already done and dusted, and playing solo concerts in large capacity halls; in 2011 it was hard to avoid the stunning voice of Clare Maguire even if you didn’t know it was hers.
Dream starts don’t come much dreamier than this, and with so many British contemporaries blazing trails into sold out arenas all over the world (think Florence, Adele, Paloma, and later Ellie Goulding), Clare Maguire only had to follow suit, she had the world at her feet, or did she?
For some, the shiny alluring oyster turns out to be a poisoned chalice.
Perhaps the writing was already on the wall, despite its success, not all of the reviews for the debut album, the presciently titled Light After Dark, were complimentary, critiques of unsuitable, one dimensional, overly synthesised production, and song writing limitations suggested Clare was being driven down a wrong road with a confused identity.
The final track on the album, This Is Not The End, a powerful Irish folk influenced ballad, seems an aberration yet is the one outstanding performance, the one outstanding song, which suggests there is so much more to Clare than the next electro pop dance diva her paymasters were seeming to want in return for their investment. After all it was working for others.
That’s not to suggest every track on Light After Dark is a dud, far from it, but for this reviewer the authenticity of Clare’s voice was being drowned out by the heavy orchestral and synthetic musical backing when it required complimentary musicianship to bring the voice alive on record, an unforgivable mistake by Polydor; why invest in a raw talent only to try to change it to follow a trend?
Perhaps it was ever thus. That said I have to acknowledge that there are many fans who love Light After Dark for the very reasons I and others have expressed reservations, it was pretty successful after all, and that may in part explain the confusion, the old style versus substance debate.
And so Clare disappeared into a musical abyss, into loneliness in the big city, alcohol addiction, relationship problems, and ultimately depression, it’s a well worn, sadly familiar, path, which often leads to no return.
I’m not going to rake over the embers of this period of her life, there is plentiful commentary to be found with a quick Google search for anyone more interested.
Thankfully though for Clare Maguire and for us, this is not the end.
Picking up the threads in May 2015, after a period of sporadic Soundcloud releases and sketchy collaborations, experimenting with musical and vocal styles, and importantly a Burberry sponsorship to ensure there’s opportunity to perform live on occasion in exotic locations and which no doubt helped keep the wolf from the door, we find Clare preparing for a three night residency at The Glee Club in Birmingham, not in the main room, but a small studio room of an intimate 150 capacity, all sold out in advance. It’s an encouraging though no doubt tentative and nervy testing of the water in a hospitable environment with local friends and family amongst the stalwart, intrigued, audience.
I’m familiar with the debut album, and with all of the interim online music, but this is the first time I’ve heard Clare live, and I’m excited for that and to see what she comes up with.
There’s a surprise present left on each seat of a new four track EP Don’t Mess Me Around.
She opens with Ain’t Nobody from the Light After Dark album, and as the vocal strains kick in they send shivers down my spine, and I know live is where it’s at for Clare Maguire.
For the next hour the old album is discarded and it’s new music all the way, and I didn’t find a single soul disappointed by that.
The Glee Club is all seated but she had no trouble getting everyone to stand and gyrate to the funked up Don’t Mess Me Around.
Clare delivers a lot of good humoured patter between songs and it was clear this run of shows, and the new music, were part of the recovery process, there being a lot of honest admission of ‘where I’ve been and where I’m going’, and in some of the songs no little anger.
At the end of the show chatting briefly with Clare the expectation was for a second album in October with a full tour.
It transpired though that whatever woods we were in, we would not be out of for some time after that, with no tour materialising and the second album not arriving until the end of May 2016.
Finally, one year further on, with a new album to promote, Stranger Things Have Happened having been released a few days earlier (reviewed below), we were treated to another Glee Club performance in June 2016.
Again in the small but sold out studio room, again a very solid performance.
This time there was to be no songs from Light After Dark in the set at all.
The patter was a little less confessional, and the new songs seemed to be shifting from anger to a positive form of melancholy, reflection, and acceptance, and all very well received by the audience.
Clare promised to be back again for a show in the main room at the venue in the autumn, a promise this time duly kept.
The Main Room with a healthy 450 souls capacity was filled with an enthusiastic and wonderfully all age audience, which was treated to a mix up of songs old, new, and in between.
No longer daunted by her Light After Dark material, Clare has simply revived and reworked the best for live performance, with highlights being a powerful rendition of Bullet, and an especially surprising take on Ain’t Nobody now given chunky Les Paul riffs with a blues rock feel which worked brilliantly.
Last Dance, an anthemic song I can take or leave, is a crowd pleaser for the early adopters and duly went down a storm.
A surprise, and very welcome, inclusion in the set was the rousing, angry, Boomerang, from the 2015 EP, which with the Glee Club’s PA operating at maximum volume will certainly have acted as an electric prod to any remaining audience stupor and a shock to anyone expecting a night of gentle ballads.
The songs from Stranger Things Have Happened formed the bulk of the set and are by now familiar to most of the audience, and yet it was the inclusion of the title song from the 2015 Don’t Mess Me Around EP which was an invitation to get up and groove, seeing Clare encourage, well in some cases drag, the entire front row onto the stage as backing dancers, having the desired effect and the audience remained on their feet until the end.
An end which came all too soon after just 45 minutes due to illness of the keyboard player, yet such is the warmth of feeling towards Clare and the band that there is not a single murmur of discontent. In fact Clare sang one last song, Changing Faces, unaccompanied, which initially seemed a little uncomfortable but ended in triumph.
It was noticeable that the banter is now very much interactive and Clare has learned the odd trick to engage the audience even giving out cans of beer from plastic bags as people were ‘not pissed enough’.
It’s all a far cry from the confessional reformed alcoholic we witnessed in early 2015, and as her song says it is to be hoped she has left this all in yesterday and once again the future for Clare Maguire is bright, this time on her own authentic terms befitting of her unique talent and endearing persona.
Stranger Things Have Happened – Album Review
Fully five years after her chart success debut album Light After Dark, Clare Maguire released her starkly different follow up Stranger Things Have Happened.
Gone is the bombastic orchestral and computer synth pop backing to be replaced by an ensemble of acoustic and light electric instrumentalists, a stripped down smoky room vibe more suited to her voice than the wannabe electro dance floor fillers of old.
If anything STHH almost goes too far in the opposite direction as whilst Clare delivers on an eclectic mix of styles, there is little scope for a power ballad such as This Is Not the End, or the growling anger evident in the 2015 EP Don’t Mess Me Around.
The album opens with the bouncy jazz infused Faded, with piano and upright bass, and brushed drums, providing a statement of intent, Clare’s voice rises and falls with subtlety but doesn’t bellow.
Here I Am moves into Motown territory, Clare delivers soulful controlled power without the intensity of her earlier work and it’s very agreeable.
Elizabeth Taylor was introduced during her 2015 shows and is already a crowd favourite as it veers from gentle ballad verses to powerful choruses reminiscent of her earlier work, and as the choruses ebb away into the repeated line ‘another lesson learned’ you can sense the emotion and regret.
I feel it was a little unfortunate that this was released as the first single as being a track of only vocal and piano accompaniment it tempted the press to draw comparisons with the massively successful Adele’s 25; we’ve been there before and whilst she’s an avowed fan the last thing Clare needs right now is to be dubbed an Adele clone and there are songs on the album which would have shown that Clare has rather more to offer, yes even than Adele, such as…
Swimming, has a superb low-fi Americana feel with an understated electric guitar riff, and it doesn’t take too much of a leap to imagine one of her idols Johnny Cash singing this song.
The title track Stranger Things Have Happened takes the pace to an even slower ebb with wispy harp, and a trippy vocal reminiscent of Kate Bush at her most wistful.
Whenever You Want It is one of Clare’s interim Soundcloud releases revisited, a song suggestive of a relationship in crisis where one party just wants whatever is wrong to disappear, to ignore the inevitable, in favour of cosy nights in front of the TV. It’s an interesting song, hinting at submissiveness in order to prolong a dying relationship, a desire simply to be loved and to be enough, perhaps we’ve all been there, and that melancholy comes across in Clare’s performance.
The Valley, the second single release from the album, takes the tempo upbeat , with a Jack Savoretti style acoustic guitar intro and jangly verses in which Clare drops her ‘t’s on words such as ‘shooting’ and ‘counting’ giving a youthful, colloquial feel which is a little at odds with the meaty, vibrant, choruses which take us full throttle into Stevie Nicks mode.
All of which means The Valley should have been a sure fire Radio 2 playlist hit.
Hanging In The Stars, has a lovely ethereal piano opening which leads into an acoustic 60s folksy vibe reminiscent of Joni Mitchell or Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Falling Leaves shows off Clare’s extraordinary range without ever having to strain, delving into smoky bar room slow jazz, and makes more than a passing nod to Nina Simone’s Strange Fruit.
Changing Faces, a thank you song which Clare attributes to ‘home town’ of Birmingham yet with its vague references to drink and drugs can equally apply to a friend who stands by you in your worst times, through thick and thin.
Spaceman, blends influences such as The Beatles, and Jeff Lynne, yet the one which struck me most strongly was Hunky Dory era Bowie. The song has a fuller orchestral production without the bombast of the first album.
Leave You In Yesterday, makes for a poignant yet optimistic ending to the album which marks an end to past problems, or relationships, and although never completely out of mind, history can be put in proper perspective and understanding. This quiet, minimalist song leaves us wanting to know what comes next.
It’s poignant that her first album is called Light After Dark as really that’s kind of where she finds herself now.
I am prepared to assert that Clare Maguire is a world class singer, capable of incredible vocal range and spine tingling emotional expression. and it only remains for her to consolidate the impressive blend of songs in her portfolio, and confidently build an appreciative audience, without constraints to style or demographic, which will remain with her for years to come.
If she can accumulate knowledgeable, musically empathetic people in her entourage, appreciating there is more to a sustainable, artistically and financially profitable career than being a corporation owned, EDM hit machine arena diva, the dark will diminish and the light become ever brighter, after all stranger things have happened.
In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche – “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”