|Whistling A Happy
The Scotsman 2nd May 2005
RICKY ROSS is walking his dog in the little park opposite his house on the south side of Glasgow, just like he does every day. He turns his collar up to the wind while Phamie the fox terrier ("short for Euphemia") trots around happily investigating new scents. Itís all regulars, here, he explains, exchanging greetings with various children and dog walkers, though some cut straight to the chase and just speak to the dog.
"Here, Iím known as Phamieís owner, and Georgiaís dad," he says, happily. No word of being the frontman for one of the biggest Scottish bands of the late 1980s, Deacon Blue. No word of platinum discs, football stadium gigs and six million albums sold. He smiles: "Iím not famous anymore."
These days, Ross has a modest career as a singer-songwriter, though his name appears often as a writer on the recordings of others, such as Ronan Keating and James Blunt. Even at home, he is increasingly upstaged by his wife, the other distinctive voice of Deacon Blue, Lorraine McIntosh, who is now an actress in River City.
"If she was in here," he says, looking around the cafe where weíve stopped for a cuppa. The sentence tails off and he just shakes his head. "Itís all teenagers who watch soaps. Itís unbelievable. People who havenít been famous say it must be great, but itís not. There are a few nice things about it."
Ross, on the other hand, doesnít get stopped in the street anymore. "I mean occasionally you get people who know you, who are fans, but the most theyíll ever do is say something really nice and go away."
Many wouldnít recognise him. The floppy hair of the 1980s is cropped short, the chiselled chin and cheekbones fuzzed by greying stubble. When not singing, his distinctive voice becomes gravelly and Scottish.
When Deacon Blue split in 1994, Ross, the bandís main songwriter, struck out alone only to find his solo career on the rocks when he was ditched by Sony even before his first album was released. He and Lorraine went from being A-list celebrities to being ordinary parents. Ross now has four children, Caitlin, now 17, from his first marriage, and Emer, 12, Georgia, 10, and Seamus, four, with McIntosh.
Recent Deacon Blue concerts (the band reformed in 1999 for an album and tour and have played together intermittently ever since) gave Emer and Georgia their first taste of mum and dadís pop career. "We were tenpin bowling the other day, and Georgia said to me: ĎDad, thatís Dignity on the PA Systemí. It was Real Gone Kid. They donít know the difference between one song and another, they just know itís one of ours!
"I donít think they mind it. It means weíve been around a lot for them and thatís good. Itís strangest for Seamus, who has grown up with his mum on the telly.
"Lorraine doesnít let him see it very much. If sheís upset on the telly, he doesnít like that - and sheís always upset, her characterís always being put through the mill!"
Rossís fourth solo album, Pale Rider, out today, is mature and mellow. The title, with its overtones of mortality, was influenced by the death of Deacon Blue guitarist Graeme Kelling last June after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. "That was a big backdrop to the whole time of making the album. Graeme was 47 when he died, Iím 47 now. I guess itís about facing mortality, brushing against it, which is what most of us do.
"When I made my last album (This Is The Life) I wanted to write songs to give to people. This time round, I didnít have that luxury. A song never came round for Graeme. I suppose I didnít want to write a song which made it look like I was aware that he was dying, because part of the thing when someone is really ill like that is that you have hope, thatís what you hold onto. You wait until thereís a pause in events, but events keep catching up. I guess the first pause came after Graeme died, which was when the song got written."
Thatís not to say the album is morbid in any way, it ripples with the warmth and tunefulness of early Deacon Blue, in a pared-down acoustic style. "People expect of singer-songwriters that their lives are harrowed and tortured and suicidal. The Nick Drake industry, for example, thatís been a blueprint for the singer-songwriter, but you canít expect everyone to fit into that."
However, he believes that his song-writing is getting sharper with age. "Itís only in the last three years that Iíve done my apprenticeship in song-writing, when I sat down and said Iím going to concentrate on writing songs for other people. Itís quite a steep learning curve. You can be terribly sloppy. I look back at early songs, and I could never imagine writing some of them now, there are so many loose bits."
Talking about his life, Ross sounds so utterly content that you wonder if he wouldnít have preferred this all along. Certainly this is the life he seemed to be destined for before he got catapulted into the big league. He grew up in Dundee in a strict brethren family where pop music was frowned upon - but music was not. "My parents would have lots of young people from the church back to the house to gather round the piano and sing. There was a lot of music, and the notion of making your own music was quite a strong idea."
It was only when a cousin moved in, with his copy of Abbey Road that Ross got his first taste of pop. He moved on from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. On leaving school, he did a teaching degree and worked as a church youth worker in Dundee city centre. "It was an amazing time in my life, probably the most formative and exciting time in my life."
All this time, he was in and out of bands. More often out than in. "I would join bands and then leave. I always hated being in bands, but I loved songwriting. I kept doing it, I donít know why, playing the odd gig here and there, just piano, vocals, the kind of thing Iím doing now."
In the early 1980s he left Dundee for Glasgow, hoping to get work as a songwriter. In 1985, he met Dougie Vipond (Deacon Blue bassist, now a TV presenter) and the band started to form. It was a time when Scottish pop was all the rage - Del Amitri, Simple Minds, Aztec Camera, Wet Wet Wet - all the big record companies had an eye on Glasgow.
Deacon Blue signed to Sony in 1986, launching their debut single, Dignity, and album, Raintown, the following year. In 1989, When The World Knows Your Name entered the album charts at No 1, knocking Madonnaís Like A Prayer off the top spot. Later this year, Sony will release a re-mastered Raintown to mark their 20th anniversary, and a live DVD is in the pipeline.
Ross has no regrets. That would be "stupid". "But I think in different circumstances, my life might have gone in a different direction, I might have gone into what Iím doing now much earlier. I wish I had actually, I really like it. But, as it happened, I went down a different road and ended up being an artist more than a writer."
Now he has returned to song writing, "a different world, with its own pecking order, and Iím somewhere down about there!" indicating a low point in the air. A previous career in a chart-topping band makes no difference? "No, it doesnít. It really doesnít. Itís who youíve worked with, what your cuts are, what youíve done." As if on cue, Oasisí Donít Look Back In Anger comes on the cafe stereo. "Thatís one of the worst songs ever! Itís quite a nice tune, but such meaningless doggerel!"
The song-writing hierarchy is based, quite simply, on writing the best songs for the biggest acts. Ross writes for Ronan Keating, who covered his song from Pale Rider, She Gets Me Inside, on his last album. He has also written for up-and-coming star James Blunt and says heíd like to work for Will Young.
"A lot of manufactured pop is brilliant. Manufactured pop gave us the Monkees, Frank Sinatra. Itís got a bad name with bands like Westlife because they take a fairly tawdry No 1 hit from about seven years ago and do a very bland version of that. But Girls Aloud do it well, and the Backstreet Boys, I wish Iíd written some of that stuff. I did a writing session with one of the writers for S Club 7. Theyíre my heroes. Itís like what I thought it would be like meeting Bob Dylan. Itís a very high art form in my humble opinion!"
Itís a thrill, he says, to write for young artists whose careers are just taking off. "Itís great to see that, to have a stake in that. And also, to see them traipsing off doing loads of promotion, and I can think: ĎIím so glad itís not me!í" No, heíd rather be in the park, walking his dog. Susan Mansfield