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O.C. Pop Beat

Kirsty MacColl on Her Own Terms


"I suppose music was a refuge from school and home," MacColl said of her beginnings as a singer. "It kept me relatively sane for a lot of years. It was the only thing that interested me greatly, for as long as I can remember. I think I had (the Beach Boys') 'Good Vibrations' when I was about 5. I got it from my brother, and that was just mind-blowing."


Brian Wilson's masterpieces of vocal orchestration with the Beach Boys had a lasting influence on MacColl. Her own recordings, especially such early efforts as "A New England" and "They Don't Know," have emphasized layered harmonies in which MacColl turns her own voice into a chorus of over-dubbed parts.

"They Don't Know," a pop confection from 1979, was five years ahead of its time for MacColl: It anticipated the lush, bright sound that became popular for the Bangles during the mid-1980s, and Tracey Ullman's 1984 remake of MacColl's song reached No. 8 on the U.S. charts.

Those early vocal tours de force--and her marriage to one of England's highest-profile record producers, Steve Lillywhite, from whom she separated nine months ago (they have two sons, ages 8 and 10)--helped MacColl land numerous session gigs singing backup vocals for Morrissey, Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones and Talking Heads, among others.

It kept her busy during a long period when she refused to tour: MacColl says her first tour in the early '80s went badly and soured her on live performance for 10 years.

"I had a very big band, and I was totally inexperienced," she said. "Instead of telling them to turn down, I'd try to shout over them every night, and I got hoarse."


Eventually, MacColl said, "I decided I'd better get over it," and she has toured after every release since "Electric Landlady" in 1991.

MacColl's musical and thematic interests have been extremely varied. Newcomers who pick up on "Galore" will find it holds too many shadings of the pop rainbow to list briefly. They range from folk-pop and spoof-minded country singing to the hip-hop inflections and salsa-band arrangements that emerged on "Electric Landlady," to the wistful, orchestral arrangements of "Titanic Days," the 1993 album that MacColl says was emotionally tinged by her marital troubles.

She applies her array of styles to well-drawn character studies both wry and sympathetic, to tart put-downs of shallow materialists and to worried social observations.

MacColl writes all her own lyrics and melodies, but she often gets help in fleshing out songs from such frequent collaborators as Johnny Marr, the former Smiths guitarist, Mark Nevin of the band Fairground Attraction, and Pete Glenister, who plays guitar in MacColl's three-man touring band.

"It's really a kick in the (behind) for me to collaborate, because I'm dead lazy," MacColl said. "I write to exorcise demons. That's what you do--you turn misery and imperfection to advantage."

Having looked back with "Galore," MacColl will plot her next musical moves after her tour ends in May. Whatever happens, she said, "I'm not going to do anything that involves lots of tight Spandex."

* Kirsty MacColl, Fossil and Kerry Getz play tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $13.50. (714) 496-8930.

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