Heidi Berry

Heidi Berry Pomegranate: Anthology

As Ross Fortune of UK magazine Time Out saw it, writing about Heidi Berry in 1996, "she's not cool and she's not dead. But if the idiot-grinning hipsters who idly namecheck and deify the likes of Tim Buckley, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake and even Gram Parsons don't like Heidi Berry, then they're clearly both shit-faced and stupid."

Fighting words, but the case for Heidi Berry needs fighting for. Fiercely loved by those in the know - she was, after all, signed by Creation and 4AD, arguably the two most influential record labels to emerge from Britain's post-punk scene - she remains undiscovered by a wider world. If there's one job that this compilation can do, it's to state a claim for her true excellence.

Pomegranate must do because she's not planning to be 'cool' and she's certainly not planning to be dead, like so many of her musical antecedents (as listed by Ross Fortune). Coolness is rarely innate (60s Dylan, or Ziggy-era Bowie, say), and mostly just needs a talent for 'attitude', and as Heidi snorts, "I despise attitude with no content behind it. I've no interest in making music that is lauded one year, and dead the next. I'm only concerned about being true to myself. I've always wanted to write music that lasts - that will have meaning long after I'm gone." And that's what's driven her to record four and a half albums, and arrive here, at Pomegranate.

The truth is, she couldn't play the game even if she tried. She didn't even plan on singing for her supper. But a demo tape, intended for private use, found a receptive pair of ears, it must have been the only way to go. An impulse decision, then, more than a career manoeuvre. Which makes sense, as her songs and words exude integrity and raw honesty.

She reckons it's all to do with the nature of her upbringing - in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of artists (a jazz-singing mother with French-Canadian roots; an American actor/artist father), "and if you're artists' kids and not middle class, then you just get the shit kicked out of you." When Heidi was 15 and her mother remarried a Brit, and moved the family to London in 1973, she thought it great to be elsewhere. Even if that place was often in her head. "It made me self-reliant. Made me look to myself for my own definition of what people are meant to be, and what music is meant to be."

She'd written songs since she was a kid too. Influences/role models included Chrissie Hynde, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Marianne Faithfull, but Heidi sensed her voice suited country or folk. In 1985, when studying painting and printmaking at Middlesex Polytechnic, her then boyfriend Pete Astor (of The Loft and The Weather Prophets fame, both signed in turn to Creation) heard a tape and suggested she took it seriously. He'd already clocked her sublime voice, the kind that solicits descriptions such as "an intimate, misty warble, which shifts from melancholy to desperation with heartbreaking ease" (from The Big Issue magazine). Heidi thought his suggestion was "very funny." Even funnier, "the last person in the world that you should play them to would have been Alan McGhee."

But a studio engineer raved to the founder of Creation and a man almost singlehandedly responsible for the guitar-rock renaissance that lit up Britain's mid-80s underground scene. He called one night - Heidi was making dinner - and insisted she sign: she responded with the six-song debut Firefly (1987). In the British indie context, the fecund folk-rock style - tender, serene, but emotionally charged and uplifting was pretty unique in an era of guitar racketeering and attitudinal posing.

The full-length Below The Waves followed in 1989 - a starker sound, more likely to set spines to shiver. "Northshore Train" comes from here, the sole Creation cut to be included on Pomegranate, as an introduction to Heidi. Various Creation labelmates backed her on both albums, while her brother Christopher played acoustic guitar. But Creation never truly felt like home. Heidi: "It was at a time when singers like Susanne Vega were suddenly having hits, and Alan saw me in that vein. He understands guitar rock really well but at that time, I don't think he knew what I was about."

She was playing a show supporting Felt and Lush when Ivo Watts-Russell, founder of 4AD first saw Heidi. His memory is vivid: "I standing dead centre to the stage, watching this Dusty Springfield figure on stage, what with Heidi's hand movements...I was completely sucked in." With her relationship with Creation petering out, Ivo could offer a way out, and a way in. He asked Heidi to record a cover of Emmylou Harris's ''Til I Gain Control Again", a highlight of Blood, the third album from Ivo's music collective This Mortal Coil. It instantly made her part of the 4AD fold. The label felt "like home" she acknowledges, and she subsequently recorded three solo albums for 4AD, Love (1991), Heidi Berry (1993) and Miracle (1996), which contribute 12 core tracks to Pomegranate.

For Heidi, "4AD gave me the chance to do the music I wanted. I felt understood and nurtured. And I was allowed me to work with the right people." For Love, Ivo introduced her to producer Pete Walsh, who'd overseen Scott Walker's comeback on his 1983 opus Climate Of Hunter. The breadth of guests underlined how highly Heidi was held in regard: among them Terry Bickers (House Of Love/Levitation), Martin McCarrick (Siouxsie & The Banshees/This Mortal Coil), Laurence O'Keefe (Levitation/Dark Star) and avant-garde saxophonist Lol Coxhill.

For Heidi Berry, Ivo suggested producer Hugh Jones, whose CV is too lengthy and distinguished to unravel here - the same goes for the musicians on board. But the combined talent confirmed that Heidi was on no folk renaissance kick: listen hard, and it's clear that Indian classical music and The Velvet Underground play their part alongside the oft-cited Celtic colours. As Melody Maker's Jim Irvin said about Love, "it has the melancholy of a folk record that has had all its signpost removed, like a village in the war."

"What I do is incredibly eclectic" she reasons. "I don't care about genre at all. I've worked with classical musicians, jazz, folk, indie... with electric guitars, acoustic guitarists, and people who are very handy with samples.

"The songs arrive, almost like stray cats," she goes on, "and you have to take them for what they are. They dictate what instruments they can bearáthey're very clear about what they want from me!"

With Hugh Jones on board again, Ivo reckons Miracle has the best musicianship of any album released on 4AD. By this point, Heidi was in full fluid flight. Ivo again: "Heidi's an incredible communicator - and a very subtle one. Out of the records that I released on 4AD, Heidi's albums are some of the most important to me."

Sadly the joy of Miracle couldn't prevent heartbreak. 4AD's attempts to work within the music industry's increasing profiteering manoeuvres, and Heidi's lack of career-escalating sales meant that she couldn't take the album out on tour. She quickly sensed which was the wind was blowing, and dumped her acoustic guitars "to clear the decks for whatever the new world was going to be."

We're still waiting for ample evidence. Heidi has still to release a new album since Miracle, which includes her most recent project, the superb Lost Girls, a more rock collaboration with Patrick Fitzgerald (vocalist/bassist with the equally underrated Kitchens of Distinction) that yielded a dozen shows and just one 7" vinyl single, 'Needle's Eye' (1999), which concludes Pomegranate. Proof of an edgier, challenging Heidi, it signified her passage out of what she calls "the golden age of 4AD" as 'Northshore Train' rode her in. For Heidi, Lost Girls was a way to "open myself up to as much music as possible, to discover more stuff about myself as well as how others think. Ideas I'd had in the past came to maturity."

Pomegranate thus makes a perfect bookmark for the past. Its track listing is a compilation of two efforts, one by Ivo and the other by Heidi. "His was terribly gloomy, mine was too happy! So I combined them - the introspective with the 'up' moments. I chose songs that I could feel as positive about today as when they were recorded. Songs I could still sing today."

This is Ivo's greatest pleasure. "Music often has to do with the time when they were made," he declares "but Heidi's three albums transcend that for me. Her albums are at the core of what I hoped I was doing with 4AD, to represent people who could express themselves in music that has nothing to do with the flow and flavour of the decade in which they were made. It's the same reasons why Nick Drake's music works for people. Heidi's music is not about where she fitted in. Instead, it has great lasting value."

Given how many singer-songwriters have ploughed the folk-fusion field since Heidi, her influence is doubtless greater than people realise. It has been said that, without Heidi, there might have been no Beth Orton. Heidi: "If I've influenced people, I hope it's by being so bloody minded about what I felt music ought to be. Really honest, sometimes hard to take, sometimes harsh, sometimes very beautiful, sometimes a bit of both."

Pomegranate is all these things, and more. Take a bite of the jeweled fruit. Suck on its beauty. And don't let no idiot-grinning hipster tell you otherwise.

- Martin Aston
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