Local hero

Singer and songwriter Amy Macdonald

Scottish singer/songwriter Amy Macdonald has enjoyed huge global success, but her outlook remains decidedly homegrown. And, as she reveals in this exclusive interview, her beloved Ferrari 458 Italia regularly turns heads in her native Glasgow

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Over the past five years – has it really been that long? – we’ve talked with a wide range of famous Ferrari enthusiasts. We’ve spoken with some of the greatest drivers, the most committed collectors and motoring experts, but in this instance it felt like we were breaking new ground. Amy Macdonald, a major new musical talent who has sold almost five million albums and is successful all over Europe, is a younger enthusiast, and relatively new to both the history and charisma surrounding the marque. It was refreshing and rewarding to talk to someone who, without all that background knowledge, nevertheless absolutely got the message, and has that enthusiasm that these cars bring to the driver. If this is the future, then Ferrari is still on the right track. Musicians don’t always get the best of press, but Amy represents a wonderfully positive element in 21st-century music. There’s a rather depressing tendency amongst an older generation to moan on about things not being what they used to be – whether sausages, manners or music. In the case of music, I think this is partly fuelled by an overabundance of television talent shows. These tend to create the impression that all new music is merely karaoke, popping dance moves and boy (or girl) groups assembled on the basis of hairstyles rather than musical ability.
In fact, the real music business continues to produce an enormous amount of talent, great singer/songwriters and gifted players. It’s just that without sufficient TV and radio outlets, it’s that much more difficult to search it out if you were used to having it delivered via late night TV, pirate radio, or John Peel. It’s a tough business these days. An artist is required to not only be able to produce the work, but also to possess a fair amount of entrepreneurial flair, to market themselves to an audience who are generally distracted by an endless stream of games, videos and the social network, and whose idea of hi-fi is a pair of high end headphones… But I digress. For someone who has not been driving for that long, Amy has had a pretty good (or perhaps intense) motoring life. There are a limited number of teenagers who pass their driving test and kick off with a Mini Cooper. If it was exciting for Amy, I suspect it was even more so for her insurance broker (I speak with experience of this, having battled to find insurance for two teenage sons). Having surmounted this obstacle, rapid progress was made through a variety of quick cars culminating in becoming a Ferrari owner almost by accident. I particularly liked Amy’s mother’s advice upon being asked whether the purchase of said Ferrari was a mistake. She conceded that it wouldn’t make Amy poor to go ahead with the purchase, just stupid…
Family and friends are an important part of Amy’s ability to stay grounded and deal with her success. And she does deal with it particularly well. After 40-odd years in the business, I am all tooaware that not many million-selling artists would have taken as kindly to our arrival at her house in the outskirts of Glasgow, early in the morning, requesting that she valet her Ferrari and then arrange transport for us to a suitably green Scottish location. But she did so without complaint, and would probably have provided catering as well if we’d had the nerve to ask for it. It’s also worth noting that of all the interviewees we’ve conducted across this Magazine’s 21 issues, Amy has probably done more miles in her car in the last 12 months than anyone else we’ve talked to. She drives very well, too – with no real circuit or competition experience she still made it into the top 10 quickest guests on the BBC’s Top Gear programme. She’s as recognisable locally as Jay Leno is in LA, and that recognition always seems approving and enthusiastic, rather than envious. Ferrari would have to look long and hard to find a better young ambassador to introduce their cars to a new generation of clients…

The Official Ferrari Magazine: Let’s kick off with music. I couldn’t help noticing the fantastic framed photograph of Bruce Springsteen in the other room. Is he a major inspiration?
Amy MAC DONALD: I’m still discovering him, because he’s obviously been around longer than me. Even now I’m still hearing songs I’d never heard before. I met him last summer at the Hard Rock Calling concert I’d been doing in London. I was on the same bill. I’d been doing some press and when I came back he was just there, hanging out near my dressing room…
TOFM: Bruce Springsteen was hanging out outside your dressing room?
AM: [laughs] There was no security. Usually I’d get really nervous but I thought, this opportunity isn’t going to come around again, so I went straight over to him and said, ‘Hello, this is who I am, this is who we are…’ One of my albums was mixed by Bob Clearmountain, who has worked with Bruce, so we had that connection. It probably reassured him that I wasn’t a crazy person.
Nick Mason Did I read somewhere that Travis were an influence? Fran Healy [singer] is a lovely guy.
AM: I saw Travis when I was 12, and it absolutely inspired me to learn the guitar and sing. My dad has incriminating home movies of me not being able to sing, being absolutely tone deaf, trying to do Michael Jackson songs when I was really young. I really was terrible. Suddenly I could sing in tune, I’ve no idea where it came from. Then I taught myself to play guitar, I’ve never had a lesson. I probably should have… [laughs]
NM: Join the club. [smiles] Of course, it’s not all about technique or technical ability. But one always feels one would gain in self-confidence if you’ve had an academic background, been taught how to play the instrument technically really well. Having said that, there’s no doubt that classical musicians have enormous trouble improvising, because they’ve become so geared to reading and interpreting the notes. Yehudi Menuhin – he couldn’t improvise and it really frustrated him. When we were working on Wish You Were Here, we had Stéphane Grappelli on the album. We all tried to get Yehudi to improvise but he couldn’t.
TOFM: You’ve released three albums in six years. Are you a prolific writer?
AM: [surprised] Oh no, I’d say I was the complete opposite! I’m not sitting on a bank of songs. When I’m recording an album I go into the studio with maybe 13 songs… ‘Let’s go with the full 13, guys.’
NM: [smiles knowingly] Yes, and then someone suggests that maybe you could add another verse here or there…
AM: [laughs] And then they ask for B-sides. Nope, no B-sides here… Can we do a remix?
TOFM: Where does your inspiration come from?
AM: I’ll start writing because I want to. Whereas if I have to write, I don’t want to do it, because then it feels like I’m doing a job. The songs on the most recent album came naturally, from just being at home for a year. Slow It Down was actually written about the car, when I got the Ferrari.
“Slow It Down was actually written about the car, when I got the Ferrari.”
I’ve never admitted that to anybody before! It sounds like it’s a love song, but it’s actually about the 458. Across The Nile was inspired by the trouble in Egypt, the night the people over-threw the President. I was watching the news and bawling my eyes out, and I thought, ‘get the guitar…’ There are always songs I’ve heard and I think, ‘why didn’t I write that?’ Certain Beach Boys songs. Or some of the songs Frank Sinatra sang. Just great songs, y’know? I’m not a student of the classics, if I hear a great song on the radio I’ll like it.
TOFM: Which bit of what you do is most enjoyable?
AM: [quickly] Touring. Playing live. I love the excitement you get from writing a good song, and recording it in the studio. But it’s never 100 per cent for me until I’m playing it live with my band in front of a crowd…
NM: [thoughtfully] Most people who are involved in the business are there because they like performing. I guess we really ought to move on to cars… Would it be accurate to describe you as an accidental Ferrari owner?
AM: [laughs] Well, yes. An ex-boyfriend actually ordered it. Then he decided he couldn’t afford it at that precise moment and was looking for someone to take the order. So I started thinking, ‘What would it be like to have a Ferrari?’ Then I became restless and couldn’t sleep properly, because I kept thinking about having a red Ferrari on the drive. My friends couldn’t understand why I was getting myself into such a state…
TOFM: Now that’s what I call a high class problem. Should I have a Ferrari or not?
AM: [laughs] On the treadmill in the gym, my mind would wander. My mum’s an accountant, which is a bad thing, it means I’ve always sought her reassurance, and she’s always thought I was crazy buying all these cars. Well obviously I decided I needed the Ferrari, I couldn’t bear it to go to anyone else. I said to my mum, ‘If I buy this car, will I be poor?’ She replied, ‘You won’t be poor, just stupid.’ So I said, ‘I’m fine with that…’ And that’s how I ended up acquiring a Ferrari.
NM: That’s what I call financial management… The other conversation I like to ponder is the one between you and your insurance broker. Musician. Young. Moving from a Mini Cooper, through the Audi R8s, then finally when the phone rang in the insurance broker’s office… Ferrari?! Whaatt? You are in rather an unusual position, it must be said.
AM: It’s definitely unusual. Not a lot of women really seem to be interested in cars, never mind young Scottish female singer/songwriters. So it does surprise people. I quite like it, it’s nice when it’s unexpected. There aren’t many Ferraris around Glasgow, so most people know it’s me now. Most people are very positive, though we did pass a couple of cyclists today who were less kind. ‘Don’t even give them the satisfaction of looking at it,’ one said. They were away down the road and thought I couldn’t hear them, but it was so quiet up there that their voices carried. That’s probably the only negative comment I’ve ever had. People usually just want to chat to me about it.
NM: There’s real charisma to Ferrari, and rarity. So generally, I think people are very upbeat when they see one. But it’s a car you have to be interested in, you have to want to drive it. It doesn’t work if it just sits in the garage.
“A Ferrari it’s a car you have to be interested in, you have to want to drive it”
That’s why I checked the mileage… there’s over 6,000 miles on it, so you clearly use the car.
AM: I really do. I should point out that I’m not comfortable driving the way I normally do with someone else in the car. Unless it’s Arnie, he’s used to it [Arnie is Amy’s miniature Schnauzer]. What’s the point in getting something like this if you’re not going to enjoy it? I know bigger mileage affects the value, but I didn’t get the 458 for investment reasons. [pause] Driving it makes me happy.
NM: The good news is that a few more hit albums and the value will be in the owner rather than the car. Elton John, for example. If I could open a Bentley or Rolls-Royce dealership with cars with his name in the log book… [laughs] Does your love of cars and Ferrari extend back into childhood?
AM: No. I passed my driving test at the same time as I got my record contract, I had more money than a normal teenager, so I bought a Mini Cooper. I was the only one of my friends who could drive. There was a gap between me recording my first album and it being released, so I did a lot of driving, and I totally fell in love with it. I had my sights set on an Audi R8, so I started with a TT. Then I got the R8, but for me Ferrari was always the pinnacle, it was always right up there. But I never thought I’d get near one. Then the opportunity came round, as I said. I couldn’t sleep. When I first drove it,
it was instant. I loved it.
TOFM: Why was that? Did it weave a spell over you?
AM: A Ferrari feels like it has its own personality, that you have to respect it. I loved the R8, it’s a great car, but it feels like anyone could drive it, and you can do what you want in it. With the Ferrari, you have to be gentle, it’s a two-way thing, it’s really not like being in a normal car. It’s just as much involved as you are. Once you’ve driven it, you just… know. It’s actually hard to explain until you’ve experienced it. Does that sound weird?
NM: No. That’s exactly what Ferrari wants you to feel. When you start it up, it goes… ‘whuuum!’ And you just know that somebody sat in a room inMaranello and decided that the 458 wouldn’t simply start, it would deliver some theatre at the same time. What’s built into the 458 is an attempt to make the pulse quicken as you approach it.
“What’s built into the 458 is an attempt to make the pulse quicken as you approach it.”
It’s like climbing into a plane to go flying. There’s a sense that this is about a bit more than going to the shops. You have to raise your game.
AM: It’s the only car I have where I don’t listen to music while I’m driving it. Usually it’s full blast… I miss driving full-stop when I’m on tour. A day like today is definitely a Ferrari day.
TOFM: Is this the start of something big? Chris Evans has a shrine to Ferrari in his house. It can become quite a major presence in your life.
AM: I don’t know. I still feel like I’m at the start of something. We’re… just good friends at this point. Mind you, my sister’s boyfriend bought me a big Ferrari book for Christmas. [pause] You have to drive one of these cars to fully appreciate it. Once you’ve done that I can exactly see why someone like Chris could become completely obsessed.
NM: You were quick on Top Gear as the “star in a reasonably priced car”. Are you planning to race?
AM: I was the ninth fastest [Amy was only twotenths slower than Tom Cruise]. I was the quickest female on the programme, and I could have gone faster still. Basically, I listened to everything the Stig told me. Everything. I’d previously had a bit of tuition at Knockhill. My tutor there said to me, ‘if you entered a race tomorrow, you would not come last…’ That’s OK by me. They’ve asked me if I want to do a race. We’ll see what pans out.
NM: I’ve done some race instruction, and women are much better when it comes to learning a track, and how best to drive it. Because they listen. Men almost always have something to prove, which can be really rather unnerving. [pause] Practice hard. Practice more even than you think you need to. Be thorough. And make sure someone shows you that there’s more than one way round a circuit.
TOFM: Do you ever think maybe it’s all happening a bit too fast, for someone who’s still only 25?
AM: [pause] I’ve always been described as having an old head on young shoulders. I’ve also been very lucky with the people I have around me, my band and crew, my family…
NM: I like the sound of your mother…
AM: [laughing] My mum lives her whole life based on a worst case scenario. If you can deal with that, then you’ll be fine. [pause] ‘What’s for you won’t pass you by’. My grandmother used to say that. Don’t get upset if something you really want to happen doesn’t. It’s a solid philosophy, I think.

Da issue 21, May 2013

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  • Piotr Tarnowski

    I ♥ Amy!