Deacon Blue were reluctant pop stars, now they're following their hearts
LATE last year,DeaconBlue played a concert in Kilmarnock jail. In January, at the request of the chaplain, Ricky Ross and Lorraine McIntosh went back to talk to theprisoners.
One might say the same about McIntosh and Ross. At the end of the 1980s, Deacon Blue dominated Scottish culture, playing to 250,000 people at The Big Day concert on Glasgow Green. Yet bands at their commercial peak are generally at their least interesting. More fascinating is what happened in the years before success and what life is like afterwards. These days, Ross and McIntosh try to be socially engaged and compassionate Christians, impulses that are rooted in their early lives.
Ross and McIntosh, married since 1990, arrive together at a new Glasgow bar/restaurant called Mine. It is the day after her 43rd birthday and he will be 50 in December. Although they are both friendly and polite, she seems much more open; he is reserved, his mind constantly patrolling the internal perimeter wall he has erected around his privacy.
Pop stardom was something that happened to Ross in the course of trying to get his songs heard. He didn't want it and didn't like it. He was in his early 30s and had a whole other life before Top Of The Pops. He had been a college student, a husband, a father and a teacher. He had worked for the church in Dundee, sheltering homeless alcoholics and taking poor kids to spend a week in fishermen's cottages in Mull. He was left-wing and right-on. He believed in God and Maynard Keynes. "I was," he says, "this anxious geek."
The occasion for this interview is Deacon Blue's forthcoming appearance at the Burns An' A' That festival. Having reformed in 1999, they are now more solid live act than creative force. Fans go along to wallow in the songs that soundtracked their youth. It's nostalgia but not undignified - these songs are like antique furniture, well-crafted objects that bear the weight of our collective memories and emotional associations.
Deacon Blue formed in Glasgow in 1985 but the roots of their sound and mindset go way back. Ricky Ross was born in Broughty Ferry in 1957 and grew up in a devout family "filled with love", part of the Christian Brethren, a group of fundamentalist evangelicals known for their austerity and insularity.
Given this background, wasn't it unlikely that Ross should become a singer of secular songs, a false idol who willingly stood out fromthecrowd?" Not really," he says. "When I was growing up, the characters we got to know were the preachers. They were over-the-top performers." He thinks he inherited the drive to perform and his love of story telling lyrics - for example, Dignity - from these preachers.
What music did he hear while growing up? "Hymns and Christian music. My mum and dad didn't drink, but they would invite people back to the house where there was a piano. So you'd go upstairs on a Sunday night and there would be all these people singing harmonies. I remember first hearing gospel music being played by a friend of the family who had come to Dundee from either the Bahamas or Jamaica. So the first time I heard that stuff was live in my living room."
At the same time, he was hearing pop radio, and getting turned on to wilder sounds such as Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland by his big sister. "I loved The Beatles. The first records I bought were Stones stuff." It was the classic tug o' war from which so much great music has emerged - sacred versus profane, I Am A Pilgrim versus Sympathy For The Devil.
Meanwhile,on the opposite coast, Lorraine McIntosh was growing up in Glasgow. At the end of the 1960s, her Catholic family moved to the mining town of Cumnock. "It was a very religious upbringing," she says. "We were living in deepest, darkest Ayrshire, a very bigoted place in those days.My mum never felt at home. In Glasgow, there was a sectarian problem but there was a healthy mix of both sides. In Cumnock there were few Catholics and it wasn't a pleasant experience."
Like her future husband, McIntosh was schooled in rock by an older sibling, her brother John. She remembers him playing Aja by Steely Dan, the album that eventually gave Deacon Blue their name.
"Music had always been a huge thing in the house," she says. "My mum's Irish so we used to go back to Ireland every year and sing in pubs there. My brother would sing with my dad, and I would sing with my brother. Irish songs and country music."
When McIntosh was 11, her mother died of leukaemia. "I was in primary seven and it changed my whole world. My dad didn't cope well after mum died, so our family life changed completely and school suffered. When I look at my daughters now - one's 14 and one's 12 - I think, What would they do without me?' I cannot imagine. But they would survive."
She entered adolescence with no female influence. What effect did that have? "All sorts of impacts and repercussions for the rest of your life. My mum was from a family of 10 and it made me anxious to remain close to them. Ireland and her life became much more important to me than they would have done if she had been alive."
Her mother's death also left her "being quite a needy person emotionally". Is that one of the reasons she became a performer? "Oh absolutely. I do like approval, and I like to make people happy. I think that would have been there anyway, but my mother dying was the final spur and the easiest way for me to get approval and praise was to sing."
She was singing when Ross first noticed her. "Friends of mine would gather and have parties," he says. "John and his wee sister would sing. I had met her a couple of times but I remember the first time that really impressed me was when Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska came out. I found it a dark listen and quite hard going, but the two of them played the whole album from beginning to end and made it come alive."
McIntosh had a less positive first impression of Ross. "He seemed a very uptight, intense, angsty character. I don't think I particularly liked him. He was very driven."
She found his confidence attractive, though. "He was arrogant and I do quite like people who are so sure of themselves and their own opinions .I suppose it's unlike me.We were talking about me wanting to please. Well, Ricky's never felt that desire."
McIntosh joined Deacon Blue in time to record the debut album, 1987's Raintown, a bleak but beautiful album which takes its emotional tenor from the fact that Ross's first marriage was ending (he has a daughter from that relationship). McIntosh and Ross became a couple, which contributed to the joy you can hear on 1989's million-selling When The World Knows Your Name. "It was exhilarating," says Ross. "It definitely added a real spark to things."
Their getting together caused problems within the band. "For me it was great," says McIntosh. "But for the band it was hard. Bands are very intense environments. You've got all these people wanting their input, their say and their place. I had just been a backing singer, and even though I became quite an important member of the band, to be a partner with the band's creator obviously put me in a different position. That changed for a good few years my relationship with the guys in the band. Their attitude towards me was resentful. But over time that resolved itself."
After 17 hit singles and four studio albums, Deacon Blue disbanded in 1994."Lorraine doesn't like change much," says Ross, "but I was desperate to finish it." He was sick of the way the band and his life had become inseparable. "Our whole life was in this beast."
It was during this retreat from the public sphere that Ross and McIntosh began to attend church again. It was prompted by a loss of faith. "My dad had died in 1994," says Ross, "and it was traumatic. Three days before he died it had been diagnosed that he was going to have heart failure, but the expectation was that that would not be for a few months to a year. So it was quite sudden in the end. We had the funeral and then I went straight on what turned out to be the final Deacon Blue tour.
"I remember feeling quite numb, then months later we were away for a weekend in Edinburgh. Lorraine was pregnant with Georgia, and I confessed that I had a sense after my father's funeral of putting him in the ground and that being it." He felt there was no afterlife after all, the first time he had ever had that sense of nothingness. "So shocked was Lorraine by this that she said, Get into that pub. We need to talk about this'. It was some pub on the Royal Mile. That was a great moment because I had been thinking that maybe she felt the same way, that faith wasn't that important. So it was aturning point."They talked it through, and then, together with their children, started to attend their local Episcopal church in Glasgow, a favourite with mixed-denomination couples.
Their working lives since then have been up and down. Ross's solo career has not been a commercial success, although his recent album, Pale Rider, was excellent.These days he writes material for others, and has worked with James Blunt and Ronan Keating. He has just returned from a songwriting fortnight in Nashville. Working in this way suits his personality: "I don't really like being in bands."
McIntosh, meanwhile has reinvented herself as an actress. She appeared in the films My Name Is Joe and Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself and in 2002 joined the cast of River City. She left the soap at the end of October last year."Now I want to do theatre," she says. "Watching Black Watch blew my mind. I thought, This is the sort of thing you could be doing. You could be involved in something imaginative, creative and powerful.' A lot of actors can't afford to do theatre as the pay is basically nothing. I'm in a luckier position. So I have decided since leaving River City to try to do that."
She feels she is about to embark on a new stage in her life. Still in her early 20s when Deacon Blue took off, becoming famous wasn't good for her. She became too concerned with her public image; her sense of worth bound up with the fluctuations of her career. Only recently has she has been able to rid herself of those feelings.
"It was my faith," she explains. "I did a thing called The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, an eight-month period of scriptural meditations and prayer. One of the things was looking at your perception of yourself and what you saw as your biggest weakness, and for me it was caring too much about what other people perceived me to be; it was exhausting to constantly live up to people's image of you as successful or happy or confident or whatever. So faith has helped me come to a place where it's not really about what other people think of me."
Ross has also been doing the exercises - this is his last week - but is less willing to talk about his motivations for doing so. One Jesuit website describes the exercises as an attempt "to deepen our sense of interior freedom from the hero-system of popular secular society". It's not difficult to see the attraction this would hold for a reluctant and unorthodox star.
Now, he has "come full circle", living the sort of hard-working, family-orientated, faith-founded life that would have been the ideal of his upbringing. He hangs out with his four kids, who range in age from 19 to six, writes songs, listens obsessively to Johnny Cash, reads the news online and tries to avoid being forced to sing at parties. Lately he has started crying easily, which he thinks is to do with feeling mortality "bearing down" upon him, but mostly it's a quiet life, for which he and McIntosh are grateful. Their return to the church, in particular, seems to have been a blessing. "It's wonderfully full of lunatics," says Ross, "like us!"
Deacon Blue will play Ayr Racecourse as part of Burns An' A' That on May 26. Ricky Ross will present a new series, The Late Lounge, on Radio Scotland this summer. Peter Ross