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44, and the floppy hair that defined an era has been replaced by a stylish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
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