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Charlie Dore: ‘Experiencing the force-field of Robin Williams’ energy is something I won’t forget’

·13-min read
Charlie Dore: ‘Experiencing the force-field of Robin Williams’ energy is something I won’t forget’
Charlie Dore: ‘A Beatle was playing my song!’ (Di Holmes)
Charlie Dore: ‘A Beatle was playing my song!’ (Di Holmes)

Charlie Dore has seen a great deal in her many decades as an award-winning singer, songwriter, actress, comedy club co-founder and much more. But it was a first the other day when a horse’s head arrived in the post.

Mercifully, this was not part of some grim reimagining of The Godfather, but a vital prop for the video she’s making for “A Hundred Miles of Nothing”. This delicately arresting piece is from Dore's uniformly delightful album Like Animals, which peeped above the parapet last year to warm applause but is now being fully launched at her sold-out Kings Place show in London this Friday.

“I sent all these measurements to the guy who’s making it, and we discussed things like how to flock the face to make it look textured. His name is Leigh Cranston. We call him the masked horseman,” she says drily. “The detail in his work is extraordinary. You have to literally measure how close together your eyes are, and from the tip of my nose to the nape of my neck, all this stuff. That’s some information I’ll never use. ‘I’m leaving you because the distance between your eyes is too close.’”

Dore has filled a distinguished songbook both with music for herself – all the way back to her moment of pop celebrity with the top 15 US hit “Pilot of the Airwaves” in 1980 – and for heavyweights such as Tina Turner (“Twenty Four Seven”) and Céline Dion. The French-Canadian superstar’s covers of Dore’s “Refuse to Dance” and “Rain, Tax (It's Inevitable)” were on the multi-million sellers The Colour of My Love and A New Day Has Come, respectively.

You’ll likely know another of her copyrights, “Ain’t No Doubt”, co-written with Danny Schogger, which went to No 1 in the UK in 1992 for actor-singer Jimmy Nail. She’s the favourite writer, and a good friend, of Eric Idle, who introduced her to his pal George Harrison; the Beatle liked her song “Fear of Flying” so much that he put it on his jukebox and, unbeknown to her for years, recorded a demo of it himself.

Invited one summer to a party at Harrison’s Friar Park home, Dore suddenly realised he was strumming her song. She wished there was someone there she could tell: “‘It’s a Beatle playing my song!’ It didn’t really mean anything to the other famous people there, but it was a moment for me,” she remembers. George’s wife Olivia Harrison later invited Dore back to the house to hear the demo, and allowed Jools Holland to play a snippet of it on his Radio 2 show some years ago, but it remains in her private collection.

What singles Dore out as a songwriter, and has won her two prestigious Ascap Awards, is her ability to combine the adhesive and the unexpected, both musically and lyrically. Few others would dig deeply enough into the language for titles such as “Collateral” (“about a man who had power and success but didn’t know how to have a relationship”) or “Rivers of Cortisol”, inspired by the panic attack she had while driving on the Golden Gate Bridge, after hanging out with her friend Robin Williams. Of whom more later.

Both songs are highlights of Like Animals, which is delivered in a richly English timbre in its own space between folk and Americana. “A Hundred Miles Of Nothing”, as another example, is her “small hymn to silence, space and slowing down”, co-written with her new collaborator, Michele Stodart of The Magic Numbers. It’s as celestial in its elegance as it is unpredictable in its chord progressions.

“I like to be surprised where a melody goes,” says Dore. “The nuance of the chords is really important, and that probably comes from my mother, who was a really brilliant pianist. I used to hear her as a little girl playing Chopin, Delius and Elgar. All her family were very musical.” Dore’s grandmother, indeed, was taught piano by Gustav Holst while at St Paul’s School for Girls.

“But my mother wasn’t a pushy parent, and we did fall out about reading music. She gave up because I was a very naughty pupil. I used to copy what she did by ear, so I would play lots of little classical pieces, but wrong. When she started to teach me the very basics, I hated it. The book was all these stupid little exercises, I thought. So I used to cheat. I’d look further down the book at these more complicated pieces, ask her to play them, remember them, then pretend I was reading them. She rumbled me.”

The Céline and Tina covers only emphasise Dore’s innate strengths as a composer. “‘Refuse to Dance’ was a song I’d written with Danny Schogger, and it was a slightly odd mix of classical-leaning piano chords and melody over a loping, mechanical loop, topped off with a dark lyric. I often played new songs to a producer friend, Chris Neil, who’d produced a lot of hits, had a good ear and would always give an honest opinion.

“He said he was working with a French-Canadian singer, Céline Dion and thought it would really suit her. Neither Danny nor I had heard of her and I wasn’t keen to give away a song I needed for my own album to an unknown singer. But I trusted Chris so I said OK. Céline’s speciality was big, soaring, emotional ballads so, in the early Nineties, this wasn’t her normal genre at all. To be honest it was completely unlike anything else on the album.

“I wrote ‘Rain, Tax (It’s Inevitable)’ with the brilliant Terry Britten, who produced a scorching demo, sung by the late, brilliant session singer Marian Morgan, but we couldn’t get arrested with it. Then Chris Neil heard it and suggested Céline again. I said to Chris I hadn’t thought of her as an R&B singer and he just said, ‘She can sing anything.’

“‘Twenty Four Seven’ was also written with Terry Britten, who was responsible for ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ and lots of others for Tina. At the time Tina was being encouraged by her record label and her manager to take the Cher ‘Believe’ dance route, but Terry said he’d rather we write a real old-style Tina rock track. Considering it was totally against brief alongside the prescribed dance tracks, I was surprised they allowed it as the title song.”

Born in London, Dore was raised in Reg Dwight’s backyard, Pinner in Middlesex, and schooled in Tring. Her mother died when she was 15. “I know I would have had a very different teenage life had she stayed alive,” she muses. “She was a very sussed-out, smart woman. My poor dad couldn’t keep up with me. He was struggling with widowhood himself and was a bit of an innocent. I basically became like his older sister. He stopped being my dad and became my younger brother.”

Long before she ever made a record, she played Helen of Troy, exiled to Thebes, in the first regional rep company nude-rock-musical, Orgy, based on The Bacchae. Directed by no less than Michael Bogdanov, later of the RSC, it starred Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter as Dionysus and was controversial enough to prompt a local clergyman to march outside the Newcastle Playhouse, declaring that the audience's very souls were in peril.

Dore on ‘Rainbow’ with Julian Littman and Karl Johnson (Fremantle Media/Shutterstock)
Dore on ‘Rainbow’ with Julian Littman and Karl Johnson (Fremantle Media/Shutterstock)

She went on to be part of the original music trio on the children’s TV show Rainbow, before Rod, Jane & Freddy, along with the actor Karl Johnson and Julian Littman, who remains her steadfast sideman to this day. A fonder memory is of mid-Seventies nights at the Half Moon in Putney, where, for a while, she got to know the future Elvis Costello.

“Ralph McTell used to drink there, because he lived round the corner, and he said, ‘Check out this guy’. That was when Elvis was playing in his band Flip City, very early on. He was just known as DP Costello then, and we all became friends. My little band then was a shifting population of musicians. Julian was coming in and out of the picture, because he was doing a lot of acting gigs.”

Then came her solo deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. “They saw me as a sort of British Emmylou Harris,” she says. “My very first band didn’t even have drums. We were totally guitar, mandolin, banjo, it was all acoustic. My [2009] album The Hula Valley Songbook is a collection of covers, and it’s all the songs I used to play, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, a whole selection.”

When they finally got a drummer, first it was Paul Atkinson from pub rock staples Bees Make Honey. “Then we had Pick Withers. All the time he was with us, he said ‘I’d like to work with you, but I’ve got to say that at some point I will stop, because I’m working with these two brothers, and they've got a band.’ They didn’t have a name at that point, and then they were Dire Straits. I went ‘Oh, that’s a terrible name. That’s a recipe for failure if ever I heard one.’”

“Pilot of the Airwaves” achieved the familiar writer’s trick of getting on the radio by singing about it, and its American success should have opened a whole new transatlantic window. But a label dispute meant that she never made it to the States to promote it. “It was like it was happening to someone else,” she says. “I just used to hear it as a rumour. No email in those days.

“In retrospect, I should have been more pushy. I’m quite dogged, but I don’t have those sharp elbows, it doesn’t come naturally to me. So the most important thing of being visible when you’re on the tip of a success wasn’t there. They probably thought I was a man.”

Charlie Dore on stage (Press image)
Charlie Dore on stage (Press image)

That door didn’t open, but it meant that others did. “In a way what happened was that all the other things I love to do, I did more of, like acting and writing. That probably would have been delayed a long time.” In 1983, she starred with Tim Curry and Jonathan Pryce in Richard Eyre’s movie of Ian McEwan’s The Ploughman’s Lunch, among a myriad of film, TV and scoring roles.

The widespread covers of her songs funded such projects as her co-founding of The Hurricane Club in London’s Soho, which hosted such up-and-comers as Harry Hill and Jo Brand. “It was never a money-maker, but boy, it was really fun,” she glows. Another performer was Robin Williams, with whom she already had a long-term friendship.

“The first time I met him, he was on Mork & Mindy, and he was brought by a friend to my flat in West Hampstead. Suddenly this electric man turned up. We were all going to go to Dingwalls and see someone’s friend who was in a band. When I went down to the kitchen, he came with me.

“While I was preparing stuff, and everybody else was back in the sitting room, he was with me for a few minutes, and it was just a one-on-one show. I was thinking ‘Who is this guy?’ He was extraordinary, and he really focused on you as well. It was really you and him, and it was quite an extraordinary energy.”

“I met him a few times,” she goes on. “We went to stay at his ranch in Napa Valley. He and Valerie, his then wife, also had a place in San Francisco that they would stay at sometimes. One night, he wanted to go and see some comedy, so he took me and [partner and longtime soulmate] Tom into town. Valerie didn’t want to come out, so she left him with me and Tom. He was quite a responsibility, and she felt he’d be OK with us, we wouldn’t lead him astray.

“So we ended up in the back of his truck, and he pretended to be a New York cab driver the whole way. He did this entire show with us as prisoners in the back, and it was very funny. Then we went to a comedy club, and when they saw he was there, they went ‘Will you do a set?’ He went ‘No.... oh yes alright then,’ because he always did.

“It all went wild, it was fantastic, and then we were backstage with him and we couldn’t leave, because the crowd wanted to see him. We had to wait there until the crowd dispersed. There was lots of, um, refreshment, shall we say.

“The last time I saw Robin was in 1996 at The Hurricane Club. I wasn’t by any means part of his inner circle. But he was always very kind and inclusive when we crossed paths, and along with that extraordinary, mercurial brain of his went a fantastically sharp memory for detail. He’d remember random things about you or conversations you’d had, which was endearing and of course very flattering. Experiencing the force-field of his energy is something I won’t forget.

“He joined us onstage for an improv set, and at first we were nervous to be sharing a stage with this comedy icon. But he was so genuinely invested in it that somehow he made us raise our game. It was like we were all having this strange collective dream of being on stage with Robin Williams. It was exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time. I think I hyperventilated for about four hours after the show ended, having laughed so much.

“We weren’t close enough to have had any idea of his illness, so the news of his suicide was a complete shock. I hadn’t seen Robin for a long time, but I did feel very sad to know I would never experience that unique source of heat and light in the same room again. But I’m glad to have known him, if only for a short while.”

In the course of an engaging conversation, Dore has veered wildly off subject to talk about her great-grandmother being a suffragette, or her love of Iron and Wine and Sufjan Stevens, or the song on the album built around the sound of a neighbour’s leaf blower. Starting again this week, audiences will enjoy those diversions almost as much as her unique songs. “I am Madame Tangent, I’m afraid,” she laughs. “I think I’ll have that on my gravestone: ‘I digress.’”

Charlie Dore is at Kings Place in London on 25 June. The album ‘Like Animals’ is out now on Black Ink Records

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