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Angela McCluskey, Singer for the Wild Colonials, Dies at 64

Angela McCluskey, the Scottish-born, L.A.-based frontwoman for the popular ’90s band the Wild Colonials, died Thursday at age 64. The singer died after being in a coma following emergency surgery for an arterial tear.

The death was announced in a post on McCluskey’s Instagram account Thursday night. “We are devastated to tell you that our beloved Angela McCluskey has left us to be with her fellow angels,” said the post. “Never did anyone live life more fully, love more generously, sing more… well, just… more. Angela sang just as she breathed. Her life was a song, and she was music. She will be missed more than any of us can say, but our love for her and her love for her beloved Paul, her siblings Gerard, Alan and Muriel, and all her family and friends will live forever. Please light a candle for our darling.”

After making a splash on the L.A. alternative rock scene, the Wild Colonials were signed to DGC/Geffen and amassed a cult following with their two albums, 1994’s “Fruit of Life” and its followup “This Can’t Be Life” two years later. McCluskey formed the band with her pianist-composer husband, Paul Cantelon, and several other musicians. Following their breakup, McCluskey’s first solo album, “The Things We Do,” was released by Manhattan/Blue Note in 2004, followed by a half-dozen subsequent albums or EPs.

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Fellow musicians who shared spaces and stages with her, from Garbage’s Shirley Manson to Lone Justice’s Maria McKee, mourned McCluskey’s loss on social media.

“Darling… I’m broken-hearted,” wrote her fellow countrywoman, Manson. “A Scottish treasure. A world-class talent. A wildly irreverent, generous, loving soul who practiced kindness at all times in all the dark places.”

Wrote McKee, “I’m feeling absolute shock and heartbreak. She truly was otherworldly and yet filled one with the deepest warmth, radiating. Paul, I love you. You are in my heart.”

McCluskey last made a public splash appearing at a November tribute to the late Robbie Robertson, who, to her astonishment, she recounted, had once called her up to ask her to sing on his song “How to Be Clairvoyant.” Variety covered the L.A. event, which also included Jackson Browne and Jason Isbell, and especially praised McCluskey’s performance (joined by her husband, Cantelon) of the Band’s 1969 song “Whispering Pines.” “With her powerhouse vocals filling the room, McCluskey gave an impassioned, goosebump-inducing performance,” wrote Pamela Chelin. “Overcome with emotion, McCluskey hung her head forward for a few moments at the end of the song, honoring Robertson.”

Wrote rocker-turned-film composer Craig Wedren (“Yellowjackets”) on Instagram: “A page in the book of my heart got torn out yesterday with the passing of Angela McCluskey. Even though I know better, it sometimes feels like the ones with the most life and love in them are the ones that get taken from us most prematurely, although I guess we’re not young anymore, so who knows. Honestly, none of us could ever tell how old Angela was anyway — when we met in the ‘90s she already had the voice of a whiskey-soaked velvet trumpet, and, although we didn’t see as much of each other as time danced by, 25 years later she still retained the spirit and brilliance of a 9-year-old genie BOSS playing dress-up.”

Continued Wedren, “Like so many things, I took for granted that we would sing together again. Oh to be wrapped in your midnight blanket of music and candles one more time… You brought people and music together for REAL. Thank you for your spirit, Angela, and thank you for that VOICE. Thank you for being my friend, and for just being irrepressibly and irreplaceably YOU. Fly on Angel.”

Rain Phoenix posted: “Rest in power deal Angela, a most truthful and loyal friend. A generous, no-nonsense powerhouse, with effortless style, wicked humor, and a voice most beautiful – there will never be another.”

Said Adria Petty, Tom Petty’s daughter: “Angela lived life so fully in the moment. She is actually a tremendous inspiration for doing it right. It is so sad to see her go this way — just way too soon. Her shows at Fez were so fun in NY in the ’90s. I will never forget them. Paul Cantelon, so much love to you wishing you strength for this horrible sudden loss.”

In McCluskey’s last post of any length on social media, she posted a photo of the Wild Colonials two weeks ago, taken at the time of their signing their record deal in 1993W and reminisced. “we just signed our deal to Geffen and we’re about to embark on the American Tour — great decade touring with everyone from Cyndi Lauper, Chris Isaaks, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Joe Cocker, Grant Lee Buffalo, the Kinks, King crimson… headlined B stage at Lilith Fair. It was a wonderful journey considering I came to L.A. for a week with Alison Owen and never went back. What a journey it’s been… incredible, American dream, really.”

In an interview, McCluskey said she had not grown up planning to pursue a career in music. “I was an actress from 13 to 25, then worked behind the scenes in press for movies and TV,” she said. “I ended up in L.A. and did a few shows, one thing lead to another and I was offered record deals.”

Elaborating in conversation with Flattmag, McCluskey said that she had “started working in publicity for films and with this little film, ‘Hear My Song,’ we went to Ireland and then we were up for an Oscar, so I find myself in L.A. for a week. I remember getting dragged there – I really did not want to go. It was just one of those things you know and I went there, and after about three days there, I realized I couldn’t go home. It was like, how can I go back to Highgate, and the rain, and London and not knowing when the next film’s coming up… So I was kind of thinking myself, half-dreamily, well maybe I could stay here, you know, what could I do? But, I couldn’t drive and I had no fuckin’ money.”

A friend who heard her singing in the car hooked her up with a William Morris agent, which led to a showcase and the formation of the Wild Colonials with her then-boyfriend, future husband and several other players she described as “this motley crew: I’ve got this jazz sax player, a rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, a drummer who hates drumming and a classical pianist, and I’m like, ‘What the fock can I do with this lot?’ So basically I said to Paul, ‘What else can you play?’ and he says, ‘Well, I play the violin… which he brought out and he hadn’t played since he was 12, so it was like a train smash.”

A Los Angeles Times review of one of the band’s earliest shows described the Wild Colonials as being distinguished by “McCluskey’s rich voice and an adventurous musical spirit that incorporates cello, violin, talking drum and Australian didgeridoo without seeming gimmicky.”

A residency at a small cafe in east Hollywood transferred to a more prominent Tuesday night spot at Cafe Largo. “We met many lifelong friends there and I remember it as my golden years,” she said. “Josh Charles, who became a life-long friend. Winona Ryder, Jennifer Aniston and Ben Stiller were regulars…none of them quite the big stars they are today, of course. This was just a great little vibe to come to ever week and know you would have a great night, meet some fun people from all over the globe and hear great music… It could be Harry Dean Stanton up there or maybe a kid called Rufus Wainwright who Paul, my husband, championed. Rickie Lee Jones would stroll on stage and sometimes just sit behind me at the piano. Jon Brion, who always blew the roof off with his stuff and ended up doing the famous Friday night residency. There was also Grant Lee Buffalo and the night with Michael Penn and Aimee Mann. Oh, those were amazing days… I keep trying to recreate them in New York,” where she subsequently settled, she said.

Along the way, McCluskey reportedly became a godmother to Lily Allen and Riley Keough

She was sanguine about the Wild Colonials’ decline and split. “Geffen was bought out by Seagrams… and the music was put on the back burner whilst they signed pop bands,” she said. “So, we left after two records and seven blissful years touring and having fun. We were a cult band, rather like Arcade Fire. I think we were a lot before our time and it’s all in the timing. I loved it, and still meet people every other day who LOVED the band.”

In 2002, she recorded a collaboration with Télépopmusik, “Breathe,” which went on to be nominated for a dance music Grammy, along with becoming prominent in a Mitsubishi commercial. “Basically after Télépopmusik, I got a million calls from other DJs,” she said. “I mean it became an anthem — it gets played everyday. I hear it everyday myself! I hear it in the gym, I hear it in the store, I hear it in hotels, I hear it on the phone while I’m on hold. I should be a freaking billionaire!”

Another collaboration with Télépopmusik, “Don’t Look Back,” was sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s “Is It Love.” Other dance-oriented collaborations included Morgan Page’s “In the Air,” Paul Oakenfold’s “You Could Be Happy” and Big Gigantic’s “The Little Things.”

Looking back, McCluskey didn’t regret not becoming more well known. “I like to have a life. I have too many friends who (are) out there 365 days a year for like, for what? The worst thing that could possibly happen is I would become famous,” she said. “It would kill me. ‘Cause I’m still a nightmare… if people come up to my door and I don’t know that they’re coming, I freak out you know? I’m a real kind of private person. I like my space and the thought of people coming up to me in the street is just horrific. I don’t mind a nice compliment, but you know, it’s that thing where I get up because I love to sing — that’s all I love to do.”

Talking with the L.A. Weekly’s Lily Moayeri in 2016, she said, ““People say to me, ‘I can’t believe you never made it.’ I say, ‘But I did make it.’ I’ve made 12 albums. I got a Grammy nomination. I’ve met everybody in the world. I’ve spent my whole life singing. I’ve never done anything else. What’s ‘making it?’ Being Taylor Swift? I’ve managed to have it both ways. I’ve had my cake and eaten it.”

A GoFundMe has been set up to help McCluskey’s husband with expenses, here.

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