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Isla Grant

Biography

The Healing Power of Music

The phone rang in Isla Grant's hotel room. It was a friend of Isla's husband who had just found out that Allon was sleeping with a Page Three Girl.

This is not nearly so scandalous as it sounds. The Page Three Girl was Isla herself who, while she was touring Ireland, had appeared back home in Scotland on page three of the Sun newspaper, once the province of bare-all "stunnas". The difference was that Isla had made page three with her clothes on - it's the story of her success that is the "stunna".

Gold and platinum albums in Ireland. Sell-out tours. Chart placings sandwiched between U2 and Westlife. Massive press and radio interest in Australia and New Zealand. One hundred and thirty - and counting - cover versions of her song Cottage in the Country. Huge orders for her next album before she's even decided what songs are going to be on it, let alone set a release date. It is, as Isla says herself, incredible.

It is all the more incredible when you realise that, following an horrendous road accident in 1992, Isla was told by specialists that she would never sing again.

"Broken bones heal and pills help you through the physical pain," she says. "But to be told that I would never be on stage again, never again be able to do what I really loved doing, was just indescribable."

More than Isla's singing career had been in danger. She and Allon were lucky to survive the 140 mph impact crash with a driver who had crossed over to the wrong side of the road.

"It was a long clear stretch of road and I remember saying to Al, He's not going to go back across the road," says Isla. "When he was thirty yards away, Al tried to get out of his way but there was nowhere for us to go. There was a twelve-foot wall on our side of the road and traffic coming towards us on the other side."

Isla's seat belt burst her stomach lining on impact and she was left with broken bones and flashbacks of the other driver's eyes watching as he came towards them.

"The doctors later told me that they thought they were going to lose me," she says. "I still have bad days and even now I can still smell the hot oil, and of course the noise of the impact stays with you. But I'm really fortunate that I managed to get over it."

The mental healing process was slow. It took five years before Isla was even able to think about going back onstage.

Before the accident, she and Allon had worked on the country music scene in Scotland with groups including Kentucky Rain and as a duo, Isla Grant & Allon Young.

From a musical family in the Borders area of Scotland - her brother played clarinet in a jazz band, which made a big impression on his then teenage little sister, Isla was taken to her first gig at the age of nine by her parents to see Scottish Country Dance legend, the late Sir Jimmy Shand at a village hall, a memory she committed to song in The Old Accordian Man.

"He seemed old even then," she says. "But he was a lovely man. He never changed. I let him hear the song and he loved it, and there's a real bond between our two families now."

In her teens, Isla got into folk music, especially Tom Paxton (another hero who has become a friend through her songwriting) and Bob Dylan. Jazz, through her brother's involvement in band, came next. Then in country music, through the songs of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and the her ultimate hero Merle Haggard, she found her real metier.

"I wrote songs from about the age of fourteen," she says. "But they would end up going in the opposite direction from where I wanted them to go, so I'd give up. Of course, later, I found out that what I really was was a storyteller - Tom Paxton said to me "Aye, your a bit of a storyteller, Isla" - and so, around 1983/84, I started telling stories in song."

Her early recordings featured mainly cover versions of her favourite songs, with a few originals alongside them. Then, when she wrote Cottage in the Country and other singers started to sing it, she suddenly found a demand for her own songs.

"Before the accident, I had written twenty or thirty songs," she says. "But afterwards they really started to flow - something like two hundred and fifty in eight years."

Songs come to her, she says. "I don't go looking for them and I don't sit and work and work at them. If a song hasn't come together within two hours or so, I know it's not going to happen. Cottage in the Country, for example, I wrote in twenty minutes. I woke up at two o'clock in the morning with the words buzzing around in my head, got up, turned on the sound equipment, got it down and was back in bed at half past two."

Although writing songs played a vital part in her recuperation from the accident, Isla doesn't claim any special gift in her words helping to heal other people's troubles. Clearly, however, they do.

"People come up to me after concerts and thank me for certain songs, and that's lovely," she says. "I suppose, if anything, I give them belief. They get help from the songs because of what I went through with the accident. I write little poems as well as songs and we sell them at concerts. One of them's called Isla's Prayer, and a woman once phoned me and told me that a neighbour's husband was in hospital after an accident and the doctors thought he was going to lose his sight. His family had sat round his bed just saying Isla's Prayer over and over - and three weeks later he was out of hospital. He was absolutely fine."

Now signed to CMR Records in Dublin, with whom she released the gold-selling Only Yesterday in 2000 and the platinum-selling Mother in 2001, Isla is mixing with and sometimes even changing places with people she has admired for many years.

On her first Irish tour she supported Johnny McEvoy, for whom she wrote Partners In Rhyme. Now McEvoy, a great friend, plays support on her dates. And the list of singers who have covered her songs - she has most of the one hundred-odd albums which feature Cottage in the Country - includes CMR label mates Foster & Allen, who named their album after Partners In Rhyme, Mary Duff, Brendan Shine, Johnny Hogan and Daniel O'Donnell, who is a major fan.

"I'm really a very lucky lady," says Isla, a grandmother who had her new grand-daughter celebrated in song almost as soon as she arrived. "I have a great family, Al and my three sons (the youngest Fraser, a drummer, joins bass player Al in Isla's touring band) who are always there for me. And I have a wonderful career.

"I think back to the first concert I did, in Kelso, when I came back after the accident, a very emotional evening with all the doctors who looked after me and everybody who knows me all there to give their support, and what's happened since then is amazing. When Mother went to number nine in the charts and I was sitting between U2 and Westlife, I thought, I couldn't choose a better position. I mean, Westlife's parents come to my concerts."

With Isla's tours selling out before the tickets are even printed, she'd better get used to living in such exalted company.

c. Rob Adams, August 2001



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