A NUA WOMAN
THE last time we heard of Leslie Dowdall, she was the lead singer of In Tua Nua, a seven strong band of Irish pop hopefuls which also featured Vinnie Kilduff and Steve Wickham. The Dublin based band was groomed for international stardom, Island Records backing their Celtic flavoured rock sound, but alas, despite much hype and glory, In Tua Nua didn't go the distance. They broke up in 1989 amid much acrimony, leaving behind three albums, legal acrimony and a lot of shattered dreams. As Leslie herself admits, she was young, foolish, confident and optimistic - perfectly poised for a fall.
Seven years later, and Leslie Dowdall has finally kicked her solo career into gear with the catchy, hummable single, Wonderful Thing, taken from her debut album, No Guilt No Guile, on Grapevine Records. It's a confident, assured collection of adult oriented rock tunes, most of them written by Leslie, and the album's measured production values suggest that Ms Dowdall is determined to make the smooth transition from wide eyed ingenue of the 1980s to mature, experienced woman of the 1990s.
This same 1990s woman sits in the lobby of the Conrad Hotel in Earlsfort Terrace, sipping a mineral water and ignoring the sandwich which has just been placed in front of her. On the cover of the new album Leslie is also seated, looking like a somewhat pensive version of Debbie Harry, but here in the Conrad she could be just another professional woman in her mid 30s with an upward career curve and an extra dash of flair. Which I suppose is exactly what she is.
So, before we get on to the business in hand, what exactly did happen with In Tua Nua? When and how did it all go wrong? According to Leslie, the writing was on the wall when Island Records wanted to use top songwriters from Los Angeles to custom make tracks for the band's third album, despite the fact that In Tua Nua were perfectly willing and able to compose their own tunes.
"There were a lot of creative differences," explains Leslie. "I mean, seven people in the band, which is a lot of people to control, and people had different ideas about where it was going. We were sent over to Los Angeles, La LaLand, to meet all the songwriters, and we were young and stupid enough to know that we wanted to do our own songs, so we fought with the record company the whole time, and as a result made the record under a lot of duress. But still, it was a good album, and it was an awful lot of waste and stupidity to end like that. We'd spent a lot of money on it, and we had been doing a lot of touring - we put eight years into it, that's a long time, the whole of my 20s running around the country."
LESLIE DOWDALL was 23 when she joined In Tua Nua, and although he had sung in various bands while studying at the College of Marketing and Design in Dublin, In Tua Nua was her first taste of possible pop success, and in the heady, optimistic atmosphere of post U2 Irish rock it was easy to fall under the spellbinding promise of major stardom. In hindsight, Leslie feels that maybe there was a bit too much hype, a bit too much money being thrown around, a few too many unrealistic expectations. When the bubble burst on In Tua Nua, was there a sour taste of disillusionment at the end of the rainbow?
"Of course there was disillusionment, after all the blood, sweat and tears that went into it, I mean, it just seemed very foolish, from all of our points of view, the way it ended." It didn't just end there, however: the band members spent another year getting tangled up in litigation, which Leslie admits was ultimately stupid, futile and wasteful. By the time the writs had settled, Leslie Dowdall had lost much of her momentum, but still held tightly to some of her naive optimism. "I think for the first year after the litigation, to be honest, I thought I'd get a deal. No problem. I wasn't writing songs, didn't even know what I wanted to do. I had to decide, what kind of music do I want to do? I didn't actually really know what direction, where do I want to go with this."
Enter Pol Brennan of Clannad, with whom Leslie began a fledgling songwriting partnership, and with whom she cut some demos to try and attract A&R interest. However, she never got a chance to bring this collaboration to fruition because in 1993, after numerous bouts of inexplicable ill health, Leslie Dowdall discovered she had cancer.
"I don't want to make a big thing about it," she says, "But it was a serious illness and it took a year and a half to get back one track. Looking back on it, I'm lucky to come out the other side, and I'm glad to be saying this now, but it certainly changed my view of where I was going in my life."
Luck was on Leslie's side: the disease was successfully treated in a short space of time, but she had to put her budding solo career on hold to let the recovery and renewal process take its course. As she slowly emerged from the darkness, however, Leslie saw her songwriting start to come into focus, and she sowed the creative seeds which finally became No Guilt No Guile. She also found that elusive "musical direction".
"When I was going in to record it, I knew what I didn't want, which was an Irish Celtic albums with a fanfare of pipes, because I had done that. I wanted the voice to be heard." I have only a vague, distant memory of Leslie's voice in In Tua Nua, but on the strength of the current album, it seems like her voice might have grown a bit since those innocent days. "Yes, definitely, it has mellowed and matured, it comes with age!" she laughs.
Leslie Dowdall re enters the arena at an interesting time for women in pop. On the one side, you've got the wannabes - young, pouting, scantily clad girls who go by first names only, and sometimes gather in force under the girlie group banner. On the other side you've got the "Alanisettes" - young, shouting, angry women who wear their wounds like protective clothing. Scattered in between are assorted torch singers, divas and soul queens, each trying to outdo the other in a vocal power struggle. On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be much elbow room for a soft spoken thirtysomething singer with no major axe to grind and no giant ego to feed. Where does a woman like Leslie fit in?
"Well, I look at Annie Lennox, k.d. lang, I mean there's a whole genre. That's the difference from the 1980s, when it was a real novelty to be a girl fronting a band. Now they're everywhere. I think the 1990s have brought out women in every sphere, I think it's great.
"THERE are singers like Shawn Colvin, there's all these mature voices, they've been singing in back bars for years, and they've suddenly emerged and been totally accepted. And people like Bjork and that kind of stuff, it's more individuality and talent as opposed to sexuality and gender. It sets them apart from the old cliche of the rock chick.
"I think that's one of the great things about Ireland, it's that women singers are very distinctive. I mean, how many women singers are there in America, there must be thousands. But there are very individual voices in Ireland, and I think that's a very important thing to keep, it's very easy to start singing in an American accent, because you hear it in the media every day."
One ladies club which Leslie won't be joining, however, is the brigade which is responsible for our most reprehensible genre, heard in the album A Woman's Heart. "We were talking about that last night," says Leslie, "having an alternative Woman's Heart, just for a joke. And I just found it very ... OK, fair enough, it did well, and I think fair play to them." She adds, however, that if the album was meant to represent women in Ireland, it offered a "very narrow view.
Leslie Dowdall might have been absent from the Irish music scene for the past few years, but she doesn't see her new album as a "comeback". While the media were asking, where is she now? Leslie was busy writing songs and working with other musicians even her illness didn't stop her from putting down ideas in a Portastudio at home. In contrast to the prevailing hunger for instant fame and reward, Leslie Dowdall's heart seems to be moving to the unhurried, self contained beat of the artisan.
"It's like any art form; you start off doing it for yourself, and if you're showing your art collection to the public, or you're showing your music, you're open to people's thoughts and criticism, and you hope that people will buy it and like it and connect with it."