Entertainment & Arts

How Clare Maguire beat alcoholism to make the album of her career

Clare Maguire Image copyright Virgin EMI
Image caption Clare Maguire: "I really just want to be happy"

After her first album failed to live up to expectations, Clare Maguire turned to alcohol and was given two weeks to live. She tells the BBC how she turned her life around, and poured her darkest thoughts into a head-turning new album.

Clare Maguire was groomed to be a pop star from a young age. Signed to Polydor Records in her teens, she worked with the industry's top writing talent and made the top five in the BBC's Sound of 2011. But while her debut album, Light After Dark, contained flashes of brilliance, it was musically adrift.

Even Maguire's powerhouse vocals couldn't sell songs that felt empty and rootless. Reviewing the record, The Guardian called her a "talent whose every point of interest has been sandblasted off between being signed and getting her album out".

Incredibly, the singer agrees.

"I just wasn't in the right place," she says. "When I was writing at home, I just used to lock myself in my room and sit there with pots and pans to make beats. When I came to London and started doing writing sessions, it was the first time I'd ever been in a room with somebody, alone, where I had to be honest about myself.

"For me, that was really difficult - because I grew up being told not to say anything about anything."

Born in Birmingham, Maguire's parents were both products of Irish emigre families. She grew up in a tradition of singing and storytelling but there was also an atmosphere of heavy drinking and repressed emotions.

"Love was a weird thing we never spoke about," she says. "It wasn't very affectionate or anything. I had to be secretive, always."

Seeking oblivion

When Life After Dark flopped, her own drinking became unmanageable.

"It got really, really bad," she says. "I'd wake up in the morning and drink two bottles of vodka. I was out of it all the time."

"I wanted this intense feeling of oblivion. Always, constantly. Like I wanted everything to stop."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Playing at Glastonbury in 2011: 'I was in such a dark place'

Things came to a head one morning in 2012, when she woke up to discover she'd polished off a prized bottle of champagne.

"The producer on my last record gave it to me. It was a gift from him and I always said I'd never open it."

When she realised it was gone, "it felt like the end of something."

Still drunk, she phoned her manager to back out of a record label meeting. He ordered a cab and demanded she see a doctor.

"She gave me a few weeks to live, then she just sent me straight to rehab. My sister had to pack my bags."

For the first week, Maguire didn't speak to anyone. But eventually, all the pent-up fear and anger and insecurity poured out of her.

"I guess I was ready," she says. "You have to be ready. Everyone I went to rehab with, none of them was ready and a lot of them have died.

"The thing I had, which a lot of them didn't have, was hope. Because I had another record to make, and I had a flat to go back to. When I realised that, I felt so lucky."

After two months, Maguire moved back to London, bought a sausage dog and spent some time "just living".

Slowly, carefully, she started recording music again. By 2013, she felt ready to share some of her new music online, posting a clutch of gorgeous, mellow new songs - barely demos, really - that would break your heart sooner than look at you.

Maguire - whose school choir used to make her mime because she drowned the other kids - dialled down the histrionics, discovering a muted, confessional tone. On Changing Faces, a sparse piano ballad about "losing my mind" in a desolate town, she sounded on the verge of tears.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Maguire's new songs so captivated Burberry's head designer, Christopher Bailey, that he invited her to perform at catwalk shows around the world last year

It was a revelation - but the singer was wary of jumping straight back into the limelight.

"I got into such a state with that last record. I was in such a dark place. I had such a great fear about going back to that place that I haven't wanted to put anything out."

Time and common sense prevailed, and the singer is on the verge of releasing her new album, Stranger Things Have Happened, this month.

Unlike her first record, it was made with a tiny circle of trusted friends - pianist Sam Beste (Amy Winehouse) and producer Blue May (Kindness, Robyn, Kano). It was written "alone at home with my dogs... Then I brought it into the studio and they played it better, because they are better musicians," Maguire laughs.

The result is "almost like a diary entry," she says. "A lot of the vocals are very intimate - they're almost whispered. I made the majority of the record sitting down…"

One song, Swimming, was even recorded lying down in her bed, as Maguire spilled her heart about a particularly nasty break-up.

Lyrically, she addresses her struggles with alcoholism and, on Whenever, her quest for a lover "who won't break me when I'm already broken".

Current single Elizabeth Taylor pays tribute to the Hollywood icon's "strength" and "power" in the face of personal tragedy.

"She had this layer of glamour but underneath there was a real loneliness," says Maguire. "Part of that song is probably about me during the time of my first record, too."

Image copyright Jessie Lily Adams
Image caption The singer wrote all her new album at home, surrounded by her mini-daschunds, empty pizza boxes and 'countless cups of tea'

With more than three years of material to choose from, Maguire had to ditch some fan favourites, including a track written for her by Pulp's Jarvis Cocker.

"The problem with me is my voice is drastically different all the time," she says. "When I listen to that song, I feel like it's a different person - and if I put that out I'd have to make a whole record to fit around it."

Speaking to this bright, talkative, funny 27-year-old it's hard to imagine how dark her life had become just five years ago.

She genuinely believes music saved her life ("being able to create and let it out is a form of self-medication") and says she finally feels "comfortable in my own skin".

But she is aware that all addicts need to keep their guard up, and admits that "even now, I can feel a bit shaky".

So how does she feel about returning to the music industry?

"In terms of ambition for this album, I have none," she says matter-of-factly.

"I've said that to everybody and luckily the label I'm with now is so supportive.

"It feels like, finally, I'm a musician. For so long I just didn't feel that. I just felt like a thing.

"I think about everything that's happened to me and, even though it got really bad, it taught me who I am."

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