After nearly losing her life to alcohol, the UK songstress returns with a new LP that tackles addiction, heartbreak, and life in the wake of losing everything.
Photos by Justin Staple
Around this time five years ago, Clare Maguire walked into a rehabilitation clinic and was told she had about three weeks to live.
The then-22-year-old songstress was still woozy from the night before, topping off a three-month bender triggered by a severed label deal with a bottle of rare champagne, a gift from her debut album’s producer, and one she promised she’d never open. Unable to leave her apartment, she called her manager for help.
“It was just a particularly intense day of madness and drinking,” Maguire says. “I was supposed to be going from a meeting that morning, and I rung him and was just like, ‘Yeah, I can’t do it.’ I could just feel myself collapsing inside.”
The Birmingham-born, London-based Maguire first broke onto the scene in 2009, a powerhouse type with a voice that earned next-big-thing accolades, a priority contract with Polydor, and comparisons to the likes of Florence Welch and Stevie Nicks. Her ensuing debut, Light After Dark, charted decently, but ultimately failed to live up to the hype, a work produced with heavy label oversight and little creative insight on Maguire’s part.
“When I was 19 and I was trying to write, I was a particular type of person that was very manic, and didn’t truly understand myself at all,” she says. “I had no idea about what to say, or what was going on with me.”
Her lack of self-identity, combined with heavy touring and ongoing pressure to meet label expectations, untethered a longtime struggle with depression that spiraled into alcoholism, drug abuse, and isolation. A typical day’s fare would include a bottle of whisky and two bottles of wine, among other substances. She doesn’t remember much from that time.
Now 27 and almost five years sober, Maguire’s return to music has been a slow burn in tandem with her recovery. She distanced herself from the power pop of her debut, collaborating with the likes of The Streets and Danny Brown before returning to her folk and blues roots. A series of songs and EPs released in the years since have culminated in Maguire’s second full-length record, Stranger Things Have Happened, out now on Universal.
It’s an aching, understated work, a meditation on the experience of being driven back upon yourself that delves into addiction, heartbreak, and the existential white-out that is life in the wake of losing everything. Some of its songs were written and recorded while she was literally lying down, bedridden amidst throes of depression.
For the first time, Maguire isn’t singing to impress anyone, and the result is all the more impressive for it. On tracks like “Falling Leaves” and “Changing Faces,” Maguire pours her voice into its sparse blues and folk frameworks, seeping into muted piano vamps and 60s pop strings to invigorate compositions that walk the line of retro anachronism but never cross it.
We recently sat down with Maguire at the VICE offices in LA, where she was in town to shoot an extended music video-cum-short film with director Bradley Alexander to accompany the album, to discuss her new music, mental illness, and what more the music industry can be doing to help artists, and women in particular, struggling with addiction.
NOISEY: Tell me about the decision to call your manager and ask for help. How did you get to the point that you knew you were ready for it?
I was really lucky that I did. I realized it because I could actually feel myself getting really ill. I was just shaking constantly. I could just feel myself collapsing inside. Because it’d been like three solid months of like really bad, heavy drinking, and then that’s when I went into the doctor and she gave me a few weeks to live. It really was in a place that I was like, definitely dying.
How did that feel, to be told that? That you had a few weeks to live?
I knew, really, I think. I knew, and I was kind of relieved that she told me. ‘Cause I was like, now I can get help. I need to stop now. And so it’s strange, actually, to be told that and then to feel relieved [Laughs].
I think there’s this kind of romantic notion that if you’re a creative person, you have to be a little crazy to be good at what you do. So there’s a hesitation to give up your vices because you think that’s what unlocks your abilities. What were the challenges of letting that go and learning how to discover your creativity sober?
It’s funny because so many people I meet think that like being out of it helps your writing, and I used to always think that way, but it’s kind of been the opposite for me, really. Since I’ve got clean, it’s been a lot easier for me. It’s taken time, but it’s been easier for me now to be true to who I am.
Not even as a musician, but just as a person that’s been really tough for me. I grew up in like a really strong Catholic Irish family and everything was really hidden and secretive. I think that’s kind of common with people who grew up in a very religious family. I was always hiding in myself and very insecure and shy. I found it really tough to communicate, and when I first moved to London and was doing writing sessions and stuff, it was just impossible for me, I just couldn’t do it. I think that that’s kind of where I really spiralled out of control like as a person.
I was just so numb. I can’t even remember so many years of my life, like it’s actually quite difficult when I think back on it because I sort of grieve the young person that I was, because I just was out of it. You know? It just seems very gray to me. I don’t remember much color. ’Cause it wasn’t just addiction, it was severe depression, which comes hand-in-hand with it, I guess. It was really dark for me, and I thought that I was making good songs because I was just going in all the time, doing different writing sessions all the time. It becomes this thing you’re not actually thinking about because, really, I was just going in, getting drunk. And then when I got sober I started to actually feel again, and started to understand who I was, and what I liked. It took a long time even after that to be able to be honest with myself and to get the confidence to be able to know who I was and to have that level of self-worth, which I’ve only got really in the past couple of years. And I think from that I just started to understand what I wanted to say. When I was drinking and stuff, I thought I knew, but I had no idea.
Now that you've made this record, how or whom do you want people to see or know you as?
I’ve always felt like I’m not a shiny, happy, perfect person. I’m just not. And I never have been. I’ve always been a bit rough around the edges. A bit mental. And just very manic, and a bit insane, really. As soon as I got into music, I’ve been so frightened of showing that, showing who I am. Because I felt like people won’t like me.
This is showing, like, everything, including all my flaws. There’s a lot, but I think it’s really important for me to show it. Because this could be my last record, I don’t know. It’s important that people know, actually, who I am, whether they like it or not. But the support from the people who bought the last record [has been] overwhelming, and people are just really nice, actually. I didn’t think it would be, because it’s difficult being honest about it all. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. Well, it’s still taboo.
Yeah! Exactly. Addiction is still taboo, and just mental health is still taboo. And I think especially coming from a woman. I’ve been living it for so long, I don’t sometimes realize how big it is. But then when I start talking about it I’m like, yeah, this is actually important to talk about because I think a lot of people are probably going through it and just not talking about it, or don’t even understand that they’re going through it.
What do you feel are some of the challenges of dealing with mental illness and addiction as a woman in music, specifically?
It’s this strange thing where if a man is going through, it kind of adds to their sexiness or whatever. Whereas with a woman it just kind of adds to the madness and they’re like, “Oh, she’s crazy,” or whatever. I’ve found it tough being a woman, and the reaction I’ve had from people even when I was going through addiction. I think that people kind of judge you. When I first moved to London, I think people used to say things like, “Oh, she’s just some dumb girl from Birmingham, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” People used to say things like that to me, the reaction that I was getting from much older men, like in record labels. And I still to this day say I don’t know whether it would have been the same if I was a guy. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah. I often think of when Britney Spears shaved her head. I can't help but wonder if it had been a guy who had broken down like that, whether it would’ve been written off as “oh, wild rock star” rather than “crazy hot mess.” Which is also dangerous.
It’s so true, and it’s so wrong. Because, you know, it’s mental illness, isn’t it? It’s all exactly the same. I don’t know if this even is relevant to this, but recently when I’ve been seeing Justin Bieber, I just see this like great sadness in him. You fall into this really dark place, and you can just feel so alone, and I sort of see him and think, are people looking after him? I don’t know, I could be wrong. But it’s the same thing with Amy Winehouse. Amy Winehouse should never have been touring the amount that she was when she was so ill, but people still made her do it because you know, there’s money to be made. And that’s kind of what happens, and it’s just very sad.
What do you think the music industry can be doing better to protect or help artists struggling with addiction or mental illness?
There needs to be a certain level of empathy that I don't think that I felt for a long time. I felt very alone. Just through the reaction from everyone, really. Especially women. It can seem funny, like when you see people tweeting stuff, but it’s actually probably not funny, it’s actually probably something bad’s going on. I think that labels need to somehow work out some kind of system that they can help build artists in a way that isn’t so much like everything focused on the first thing that they do, and like loads of money thrown at one thing. Because I think it happens so often that people are given this one shot, and then if it doesn’t work on that one shot, they’re just like ripped apart and tossed aside and nobody gives them a second chance. So I think that there needs to be some sort of way of being able to build people slowly. I think you’ve just got to sometimes think about the person behind it.
Tell me more about the song “Swimming”—you recorded it lying down in bed?
That song actually was the first song that I did from this record. And that was really soon after I’d come out of rehab, and I was seeing somebody at that point. It ended really, really badly. They’d just come out of prison, and they stole quite some money from me, and it was just really mental. I’d been in a really good place straight after rehab and then that just really hit, I went into a massive depression for a few weeks. Like couldn’t come out my room. And my mate, Tom, he’s a guitarist who I’ve worked with for years, came round to my house and let himself in. He came into my bedroom, and set up his computer and started playing this loop constantly around. And I was lying in bed at that point because I was just in a really bad way, and I just wrote that song. That vocal that’s on the record is me lying in bed, with the speakers on in the room, and I guess that that’s just kind of talking about that relationship. [Laughs] Usually when I’m like that, I don’t like to write, or don’t like actually to be around people at all.
How did you get back to the place where you were able to write and make music again? What was that experience was like for you?
There was about a year or maybe like two years of my life where I completely stopped listening to music. When I was growing up, music really was my escape. When I got into the music industry, it became a lot more about business, and I guess that my release became alcohol.
When I went into rehab, for the first couple of weeks I was really silent. I didn’t speak to anybody, I didn’t speak in any of the meetings or anything. And I just remember, there was one night where I went back into my room and I started listening to music again. I just remember really properly feeling music, like in the sense of it making you shake, and the hairs on the back of your neck’s going up and everything. It was just like this mad experience that I hadn’t felt for so long. Then I started to get excited about music and writing again. I came out, I started doing loads of writing sessions and really got into it again, and started to love it again. And started to need it again.
What were you listening to that helped unlock you that night?
I listened to the Arctic Monkeys’ first record, actually. And I think that it really hit me so much because there’s something about Alex Turner’s writing at that point that really, really reminded me of when I grew up and the good years in my life. Where I used to actually go out and have so much fun and everything was so simple. And also The Streets. It’s a kind of similar thing, Mike Skinner, he’s from Birmingham and the language that he uses really reminds me of my youth, who I was, and what I’d lost in myself, that I’d just totally forgot about.
How did you develop the sound and production on this album? Was that sort of a conscious choice, or did that kind of evolve as the recording process started?
I’d been writing in my bedroom, most of the songs really. And I brought them into Blue, who runs the studio where I made the music in Hackney, and it was me, him, and Sam Best. He’s like this incredible jazz pianist. And he just really fleshed out the chords, and really got the sound. It’s really the sound of the room that gave the record this special feeling, and we recorded all of it at night. He’s got this massive window, and there’s all these flats opposite that you’d just see these yellow lights coming through. It just feels very much like revealing something. But doing it in a way that doesn’t feel kind of forced, or fake. That was the most important thing. I’ve had a real issue with showing who I am. That’s been my major issue. Because of insecurity, because of self-loathing, which I’ve had like throughout the years. I’ve really made a conscious effort to not do that, with everything that I’m doing with this one. I can’t hide anymore. Regardless of whether it’s likeable or not. And that’s what I’ve tried to do with the music. I’ve just tried to make it as real as I can. You know, the production I think is really, really amazing, actually, if I do say so myself. I do really like it. [Laughs]
What the hardest part about asking for help? What would you say to someone reading this who might identify with what you've been talking about?
When I was like heavy into my addiction, I think the biggest thing that I felt when I look back on it, was extreme, crippling loneliness. You really do feel like everyone is against you, and everyone hates you. When people are saying things to you, you feel like they’re attacking you. They’re not, actually, they just really care about you. They’re suffering from a loss also, because they’re losing you, because you’re getting lost to this darkness and the oblivion that you’re in. I didn’t even realize I was in it, I thought that I was fine, you know? I really loved the darkness. And I loved the oblivion. And I loved alcohol. I still now love alcohol, like I have like alcohol bottles in my flat—I just love the look of them. I’m like obsessed with the whole thing of alcohol. It’s a strange thing. You’re in this love affair with it, and you don’t want to lose it, and you don’t want to leave it, because it’s like your companion, almost.
If you sense like that you relate to anything that I’m saying, the only thing that I can say, even though it sounds cliche, is that it does get better. When you do step out of it, what you do gain, from losing that kind of great companion that you feel like you have with alcohol, or drugs, or anything that you’re addicted to—the feeling that you have every day is so much greater. I can’t even stress it enough, how much better it actually is. I understand that it does feel like it’s impossible. But it’s not impossible. It is so much better. And your relationships with everyone in your life will get better. They will forgive you. And they will love you and they’ll be so happy to have you back. Because they’ve lost you at this point, if this is how you’re feeling.
Clare Maguire's Straner Things Have Happened is out now. Order it here.
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.