The literary giant Samuel Johnson wrote “Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance”. Born in Cork city, Ireland, Nicole Maguire personifies Johnson’s aphorism and her dedication and determination have forged a remarkable debut album.
Petite and elfin, Maguire grew up in the windswept village of Conna, 20 miles from the coast of Southern Ireland — little grey stone buildings embracing a single road and subjugated under the heavy rolling rain clouds of the Celtic sea.
Despite none of her immediate family playing an instrument, Maguire was powerfully drawn to music. She scoured through her family and friends’ record collections listening to everything they’d collected from folk to hard rock but was most captivated by the beguiling romanticism of the California songwriters.
A lively and inquisitive child at school, Maguire entered all the faculty’s music contests and frequently won. “Yes I used to enter competitions in primary school” she recalls. “I played pennywhistle and sang. I won one singing a Mary Black song called “No Frontiers”. Other times I would do reels and jigs. I do have a lot of medals.”
“When I was twelve I picked up the guitar and learnt some chords. As I was learning other people’s songs, I thought “why not make some up”? and with a singular sense of purpose that would come to typify her career to date, she went in search of a mentor. She posted her first compositions to one of Ireland’s most successful and acclaimed songwriters, Paul Brady, whose songs have been recorded on multi-platinum albums by Bonnie Raitt, Tina Turner and Santana. “I figured he had to start somewhere too, so I sent him some music. I told him to say whatever he thought. I told him don’t worry — I have thick skin!”
Maguire set out to perform her songs live but as a teenager she wasn’t legally allowed to enter the Guinness-soaked clubs of Dublin and Cork. “I knew when I was 15 this was what I wanted to do and my mum would accompany me to my concerts as I wasn’t old enough to be allowed into the clubs on my own”.
As her growing stagecraft began to attract attention, Maguire looked for a concert mentor to coach her live performances to an even higher level. She chose none other than Ireland’s preeminent live performer – Damien Dempsey. “I got invited to a Damien Dempsey gig and I went up to him and said I was a songwriter. He must hear that twenty times a week, but he gave me a support slot at his next show”. Given the fervent ardour of Dempsey’s audience, this could easily have become a baptism of fire, but Dempsey’s partisan crowd warmed to Maguire’s candour and innocence. “He did such a wonderful thing for me. He gave me the support at his Vicar Street show which is the ultimate concert in Ireland. I got to road test those songs with a full band in front of his intense audience. I think he’s one of the most important Irish songwriters and in a hundred years from now his songs will be in all the Irish folk song books”.
As her touring became more frequent, Maguire realised she needed something to sell on the road to pay for room and board. She decided to cut an EP, but with no label she was forced to make sacrifices. “I sold my car to pay for the manufacturing of the CDs. I had to make a thousand — which is a lot for an unsigned singer to sell, especially in Ireland. But I’ve made a big dent in the pile.”
Soon her frequent performances across Ireland would introduce her to her next champion — Grammy award winning Texan singer Nanci Griffith. “The girl they had lined up to support Nanci on her Irish tour pulled out at the very last minute” Maguire explains “and I happened to be on the tip of someone’s tongue. Nanci took me under her wing and was so kind. I learned an awful lot from those gigs. It was just me and my guitar and a theatre full of people.”
Griffith and her band encouraged Maguire to try out her material Stateside. “Some of Nanci’s band said “have you ever considered going to Nashville to write?” So I just saved up some money and got on a plane and went. Every second person you meet in that city is a songwriter. Even the guy driving the bus is playing the passengers his songs! I was paying for it with my hard saved pennies so I chose very carefully who I wanted to work with. It was so productive that I saved more money to go back a second time. After going to school with Paul Brady, I guess this was like going to University for me.”
With a brace of songs that she’d road tested around America and Ireland, Maguire decided it was time to make an album. So, true to form she decided to approach one of the most respected producers in the world to help her navigate the perilous waters of the professional recording studio — Mitchell Froom — the multiple Grammy-nominated producer, who had recorded albums with Pearl Jam, Crowded House, Paul McCartney Randy Newman and Ron Sexsmith.
“It was one of Ron Sexsmith’s songs that inspired me to contact Mitchell” Maguire reveals, “I just emailed him and asked if I could send him a song. I really didn’t expect a reply but he wrote back and said he liked it. He said he would produce an album for me. I was delighted but then I had to deal with the reality of paying for it! Despite his enormous generosity, it wasn’t going to cost nothing.”
“I took on a second job to pay for it. Mitchell didn’t believe I could raise the money but somehow I found a way.” Out of respect for his young charge’s enthusiasm and tenacity, Froom assembled a crack group of musicians to back Maguire, all of whom he encouraged to play for beer money. “He picked every one of them” Maguire explains. “They were all people he had worked with before but I didn’t know who anyone of them were. When I Googled them I was starstruck.”
The band comprised Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ drummer, Pete Thomas; Crosby Stills and Nash’s bass player Bob Glaub and Val McCallum, guitarist for Sheryl Crow and Lucinda Williams. Backing vocals were handled by Vonda Shepard, the award winning singer from Ally McBeal with Froom producing, assisted by Grammy award-winning engineer David Boucher.
Maguire recalls that there was an incredible energy and momentum to the sessions. “We did it all live. We just went in and played it till we loved it and then we stopped. I hoped to create something that in twenty years I could be completely proud of. I think I did that”.
The album is profoundly emotional with a homespun lyricism that recalls Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt’s early 70s recordings and Chrstine McVie’s poignant songcraft in Fleetwood Mac.
On hearing the recordings, Damien Dempsey introduced Maguire to his record label bosses David Jaymes and Tom Haxell and they were so impressed that they agreed to release them immediately. All that remains to be said, is the compassion and empathy that emanates from these performances is equal to the incredible ambition and dedication Maguire employed to get them made.
“I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.”
John D. Rockefeller