Kirsty Anna MacColl was born in Croydon, South London on 10th October 1959. Her father was the legendary folk singer Ewan MacColl, though she grew up seeing him only at weekends, being raised by her dancer and choreographer mother, Jean Newlove, alongside older brother Hamish, whose record collection the young Kirsty commandeered to immerse herself in the sounds of the Beach Boys and Neil Young, which she later credited with inspiring her love of harmonies and songwriting skills.
In 1978, Kirsty joined a minor league band called (in the spirit of the times) the Drug Addix, masquerading as Mandy Doubt. They released one EP on Chiswick Records, before Kirsty was auditioned and signed as a solo singer by Stiff Records after hastily penning They Don’t Know, the song that would become her first single in June 1979.
It wasn’t a hit (for Kirsty at least), however, and she was soon off to Polydor where, in May 1981, she reached No. 14 in the UK chart with There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis, a witty rocking number pointing the finger at lying scoundrels everywhere, a theme to which she would return with relish throughout her songwriting life.
In June 1981 an album, Desperate Character, was released on Polydor, featuring a collection of snappy Kirsty songs along with a few ‘60s covers. It didn’t trouble the chart and remained largely unknown to all but her most long serving and devoted fans.
Back at Stiff, in December 1984 she hit No. 7 with her version of Billy Bragg’s A New England. Her knack for spotting a killer song and her persuasiveness in having the song’s composer write an extra verse just for her paid off with what would be the biggest solo chart success of her career. The next single, He’s On The Beach, inexplicably got nowhere and her second spell with Stiff came to an end.
In November 1987, Kirsty reached No. 2 in the chart performing with The Pogues on what is now officially “Britain’s favourite Christmas song,” Fairytale Of New York, but having met husband Steve Lillywhite at a Simple Minds session in 1983 she largely spent the second half of the Eighties raising her two sons, with periodic appearances as a backing singer for a wide range of top acts.
Kirsty returned to the studio as a solo artist with Virgin for the 1989 release of what many still consider to be her best album, Kite. Preceded by the minor hit Free World, the album came out in April and reached No.34 in the album chart. A second hit, the Ray Davies song Days followed, reaching No. 12.
Kirsty teamed up with Smiths guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr to pen songs for her follow-up LP, Electric Landlady. This was heralded by the rap infused dance hit Walking Down Madison; the album also featured Kirsty’s first fully formed attempt at Latin music (kindled by her work in New York on a David Byrne album years earlier) with My Affair, but it was less successful than Kite and Kirsty was dropped by Virgin and hit something of a slump, which sadly included the break-up of her marriage to Steve Lillywhite.
Not being one to give up, however, Kirsty bounced back in 1994 with what she termed her "sad divorce album", Titanic Days. The single announcing the album’s imminent arrival was Angel (Floating ‘Round This House). Also featured was a song which was to become virtually her signature work and the inspiration for her fans memorial gesture years later, Soho Square.
Titanic Days wasn’t a great success in terms of sales but the following year her ‘Best Of’, Galore, reached No.6 and stayed on the UK album chart for 27 weeks, after which everything went quiet for a few years as far as the record buying public was concerned. During this spell, Kirsty began to find her feet again and having toyed with the idea of giving up the music business completely, she decided to get busy and toured South America and Cuba extensively.
In early 1999 Kirsty fell in love again and started to work on a bunch of new material which she’d started in Brazil and in Cuba, meshing Latin rhythms to her familiar lyrical dexterity and wit. She proclaimed herself “a Latin soul trapped in an English body” and went to work in Pete Glenister and Dave Ruffy’s studio in Bermondsey. The resulting tracks, featuring samples from Kirsty’s by now extensive collection of Cuban records brought back from her numerous trips, were to become released to much acclaim as the album Tropical Brainstorm (V2, 1999)
Kirsty had already started work on her next album and was working on various side projects when she decided to take a well earned break after a year of touring and promotional work. She flew to Mexico with her partner James and two sons, Louis and Jamie. On December 18th 2000 her love of diving cost Kirsty her life when a powerful speedboat hit her off the coast of Cozumel island.
The following day her photo was prominent on the front pages of almost all the British newspapers as it became apparent just how popular she was, though she had only latterly begun to appreciate it herself. At her public memorial service, major rock stars and television actors mingled freely with the public, everyone united in their grief.
Her mother Jean subsequently embarked on a quest to uncover the truth about the incident. After a tirelessly fought nine year campaign, she finally exhausted all legal avenues to bring to justice the man she believes is responsible for Kirsty’s death, Guillermo González Nova (one of Mexico’s wealthiest businessmen), and Jean abandoned the Justice for Kirsty campaign, which sustained her through her intense grief, on the anniversary of Kirsty’s death on 18th December 2009. Her determination to find the truth remains undiminished and she continues to champion Kirsty’s cause through a World Health Organisation campaign to raise international awareness of health and safety.
The Music Fund for Cuba, of which Jean is a patron, was established in 2001 in memory of Kirsty, who was inspired by Cuban music and loved the island, its culture and its people. The fund provides much needed support and equipment for children and young Cuban musicians, dancer and artists throughout the island. Working with its partner organisation in Cuba, the National Centre for Music and Arts Schools (CNEArt), it has already provided thousands of pounds worth of equipment including reeds, instruments, ballet shoes and teaching manuals for Cuban schools and performing artists.
A permanent memorial to Kirsty is planned to be established in the renovated Miramar Theatre in Havana. Meanwhile, her music lives on as testimony to her skills as a writer and arranger of excellent songs, while her many qualities as a person live on in the memories of her family and friends.