Fighting For Dignity
The Scotsman 29th March 2002
 
Ricky Ross’s songs have never shied away from what he calls "the important stuff" - politics, home, faith, work and dignity. He’s been labelled Scotland’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, a description that suggests a hardened, po-faced journeyman voluntarily carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But as he bounds out of the front door of a production company in Glasgow’s West End, it’s difficult to think of a less apt image. He is cheery and energetic.

I ask him about the current music scene. "My eldest daughter, who’s 14, came home one day raving about the Dido album," he says, laughing, "and I had to say: ‘I’m sorry, I’m too old’." Ross is now 44, and the floppy hair that defined an era has been replaced by a stylish quiff that wouldn’t look out of place in 1950s America. On record he is maturing into an artist who, with the continued popularity of alt.country and singer-songwriter material, could share the same broad appeal as Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright or Steve Earle.

Theoretically, that is - because Ross has tried this before. Deacon Blue amicably called it a day in 1994 and it came as no surprise when Ross, the main songwriter in the band, emerged as a solo artist with the album What You Are two years later. What was surprising upon its release, however - both to Ross and to anyone who heard it - was that it was a commercial flop. Despite Deacon Blue’s success, Ross had to endure the humiliation of watching his solo debut crash into bargain bins across the land. Fopp records in Glasgow even launched a "Save Ricky Ross" campaign, turning their piles of unsold CDs into a colourful window display in a desperate attempt to get rid of them - at £1.99 each.

None of this was really Ross’s fault. His record company, Sony, had decided to drop him before the album was even released, so the album wasn’t promoted. I ask him if he’s angry at the way he was treated. "Not really, to be honest," he says. "But I thought it was a bit unfair to expect you to make just one album. It would have been nice for them to say: ‘Look, let’s make two’. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be easy going solo, so I really wanted to start off again on a smaller scale, build an audience up, but they were like: ‘No, no, no, we’ll take care of that’. Funny thing was, I actually tried to leave Sony in order to do that, to start smaller, but they wouldn’t let me go." Ross is upbeat and philosophical about it. "If you don’t sell records, that’s it," he laughs. "End of story."

The musical landscape has changed a lot since 1996. "If anything, I think music has got more and more diverse," Ross says. "We’ve almost gone down the American route where people can just say: ‘I listen to that radio station, and to that type of music’. I know a guy who’s really, really into banjo music, and he’s found an internet radio station way out there in Hicksville that plays this stuff. People go and search out for things a lot more now, and I think that’s quite healthy."

By an odd coincidence, Ross is releasing a comeback album in the same month as two of Deacon Blue’s contemporaries, Del Amitri and Simple Minds, but he is aware that the Scottish music scene is now a changed place. "Looking back on it (the late 1980s), it was amazing but it was also weird, because it doesn’t happen like that now. The bands that come out of Glasgow now work really hard to get where they’re going, and certainly didn’t have it as easy as a lot of us did. I mean, Travis have certainly worked to have done what they’ve done. In our day you did a couple of gigs, got the A&R people up from London and away you went."

Now father to four children and with a stable family life, Ross knows he’s hardly in a position to dive back into the heady world of rock stardom. "Well, I’m really lucky to be doing what I’m doing as a musician," he says. "I can write and produce songs at home for a lot of the year, but I certainly couldn’t do any other job in the music industry that involved working long hours in London.

Well, Glasgow is my home really, and although it would make sense in a lot of ways, it wouldn’t be worth it. I love London, but I’m always a tourist there. Its charms sometimes elude you because you spend so much time in traffic jams."

Despite this, one of the songs on the new album, London Comes Alive, is a hymn to the UK capital. It is dedicated, curiously, to Ross’s mother. "A couple of years ago I was down there," he explains, "and I was travelling closer and closer to the heart of the city, and there’s nothing as exciting as a big city when it’s coming alive and you’re getting closer to knowing what it really is. So basically, I used this as an image to show how it’s like getting closer to someone, towards the core when you really get to know a person.

"I got annoyed with myself. I’d written stuff about my dad before he died, [eight years ago] but not very articulately, you know, not close enough for him to recognise it at the time, and then it annoyed me that I’d written all this other stuff about him after he died, and I just thought: ‘That’s so typical of what you do’. So I had this idea about writing songs about my pals while they’re alive, and being able to play them to them."

So, older, wiser and with a new awareness of his own mortality? Ross is hesitant to call it that, but even the title of the new album - This is the Life - speaks volumes. "It was a mantra I had," he says. "It’s just that realisation, you know. This is the life. I mean, I’m 44 years of age. When you’re 20 you think: ‘What’s round the corner for me?’ I suppose it’s saying, ‘This is it, this is what we’ve got, better learn to get on with it.’ I’m not in any way trying to tell other people that, it’s more to myself, and nor am I complaining about it. If anything, I’m probably celebrating it. When I was growing up, guys literally thought: ‘I’ll get in a band and our lives will just utterly change for the best and something miraculous will happen.’ And even when they’ve done that, been in a band, become really successful, it doesn’t feel like that, because it’s still your life, you’re still the same person, and you’ve still got to deal with all the other stuff you used to deal with, because all the important stuff is still there.

"It’s still there ... waiting for you."

This is the Life is released on 8 April on Papillon. Ricky Ross plays the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr, 13 April, the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 15 April and the Cottier Theatre, Glasgow, 16 April

Hamish Brown