Angela McCluskey is an addiction. As elegant and charming as she is profane and comical, she immediately makes you feel both at ease, and a kind of gleeful discomfort that is only felt when in the presence of a deserving diva. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, her Mother who recognized her incredible gift at an early age, would rouse her from her sleep and have her sing in her pajamas for late night party guests. As Angela tells it, she didn’t like entertaining at that point, but she loved the lyrics of the song that became her childhood signature, “If I Ruled The World”. A befitting anthem for someone who has curated her own incredible universe filling it with astonishingly talented and kind people and surrounding herself with timeless beauty, and intellect at every turn. Once you’ve experienced Angela’s voice, it’s easy to imagine that it will never let you go.
The first time I heard Angela McCluskey sing was in a tiny, candle lit basement-level salon in NYC. It was jam-packed with celebrities from the creative industry: all of them her admirers and close friends. When she entered from the brimming back hall, a loud buzz came over the crowd; continuing until she commanded the tiny stage with humorous quips in her fiery Scottish accent. As the first passionate, yet perfectly distilled note silenced the room, I experienced one of those rare moments in life when a gifted individual articulates the angst of her audience. In Angela’s voice is an empathetic intensity that lulls its’ listeners into a state of communion with her ineffable, melancholic tone.
Angela’s vocal virtuosity has adorned countless recognizable commercials and films as well as top dance hits going back at least a decade. In 2004, Angela led Telepopmusik to the Grammy’s, with a nomination for Best Dance Recording for their smash hit ‘Breathe’. Aside from Mitsubishi’s famous choice of ‘Breathe’ to launch the Outlander, Angela also sang ‘Beautiful Things’ for American Express, her voice was heard on the Shick Quatro commercial with The song ‘I’m not the girl’. It received so much attention the track was made available as a free download by Shick. Her latest hit, ‘In the Air’ with Morgan Page, bumped Lady GaGa off the Billboard dance charts top position last year. She has just released yet another amazing album, ‘Lambeth Palace’.
Angela and I sat down in her Greenwich Village Bloomsbury themed home where she regaled me with tales of her career in her wonderful Scottish / LA / NYC dialect:
CHRISTINA LESSA: How did you come to America, LA specifically?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: I was working as a public relations’ specialist on a film for Limelight films in London. Before that time I wasn’t involved in the music business very much: I was at drama school and I was always intending to be a painter, an artist: something more hands on. I loved the acting, but the painting was my true love. Alas, though I can do it pretty well, I would have had to be brilliant to actually believe it was my vocation so l moved to London and got a job. I decided, you know, just to make some bucks, and 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 LA 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 films coming up – blah.di.blah… So I was kind of thinkin’ 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 and nothin’. It was ridiculous. I remember going out with my friend to the Rose Cafe down in Santa Monica and we were just hangin’ out and as we were leaving, she bumped into this guy, his name was Michael Siegel. I’ll never forget. And she’s talkin’ away and she’s Swedish and she’s all, [with a Swedish accent] “Ya, What Are ya doin’?” And he says, “I’ve won the rights to Ronald Dahl’s short stories, so now, I’m going to go buy a house and start my own agency and I’m looking for an interior designer right now and …”, and without missing a beat, I said, “I’ll do it.” They both looked at me like, “What?”. I said, “I’ll do’t, I’m really good, I love doin’ interiors. That’s brilliant!”. And my friend’s like, “Ya, but ya don’t live here and ya can’t drive and ya don’t know where to buy the paint”. And I said, so? I’ll do it. I’ll find it, I’ll find a way. I’ll manage. And we were laughing and he said, “Well, if you want to do it, call me.” So of course, we all went out that night and we were laughing and I was telling everybody and they were like, “Trust Angela, she’s already got a job you know, and she hasn’t been here but a week!”
CHRISTINA LESSA: That’s hysterical. So you decided to stay?
AM: Well sort of, I was considering it. So, the next night we were having my going away party and we were at the Dresden Rooms which is fantastic – (the Dresden Rooms is like an old 50’s cocktail bar very MAD MEN)…with various people getting up to sing with the wonderful Mart and Elaine. And so, as always in my life, I’ve always gotten up and sang now and again. So I thought, oh, I’ll go up and sing, I’ll go up and sing, ‘cuz people got up and sang. But I didn’t realize that once you got up there, well – the woman who plays…Elaine she’s a big saboteur with a smile…so that whatever you sing, she’ll play sumpin’ else she was – she’s brilliant. And I said I would sing, I think, Paper Moon, and she started playing Blue Moon, so it was hysterical, halfway through it I was just laughing, and then afterwards I went over to the bar and some girl comes up to me and she’s like, [in a Valley Girl accent] “Oh my god, you’re like really amazing. Can I buy you a drink?”, and you know we start chatting, and I said, “What do you do?” and she said, ” Well actually, I just left Toronto and I’m an interior designer and I just moved here with my boyfriend and …”, and I said: “Do you have a car?”, and she was like, “Yes.”, and I said, “Do you have a license to drive?” and she was like, “Yes.” and I said, “Do you want to be my partner: do you want a job?”, and she was like, “Yeah! Where?” I said, “Meet me tomorrow at 11:00”. (My flight was at 3:00 in the afternoon.) So, picture it: she is drop-dead gorgeous, she’s like native American Indian, hair down to her arse, absolutely stunning, beautiful, and I said, “You bring all the files with like, the architectural drawings and the maps and whatever it is you do in college and I’ll do the job”.
So we arrive, and the door opens and I see him just gawk at her, and he’s like, “Come in.”, and I say to her, [in a whisper] “We’ve got the job”. And we sit down and we have this big meeting and everything and I give him a price which of course is NOTHING compared to what a real L.A. designer would charge – they’re like 25 thousand dollars a day and I was like 600 dollars under the table kind o’ thing. So he gave us the job. I went home, cancelled my flight, called my boyfriend Paul who I had just met in London (who was actually brought up in L.A and hated it) and I said to him, “I’m just gonna stay here for a little while longer”, and he’s like, [In a royal British accent] “I refuse to come there! I refuse. I can’t!” So, I decided I would just give it a few weeks.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You never went back to London though.. What made you stay?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: After a couple of weeks we’re doing the job – it was wonderful and we’re halfway through it and I’m paintin’ the kitchen one day and the door opens and this lady comes in and she’s like a typical old Jewish lady, she’s wonderful, she’s walking about puttin’ her fingers on everything, lookin’ at the dairt [Scottish for ‘dirt’] and lookin’ at her son in disgust and says, “Michael, this place is ridiculous. It’s filthy.”, and she’s lookin’ at me and she says, [in thick NY accent] “Who are you?”, and I say, “Who are you?”, and my girlfriend asks me, “Who’s she?” and I say, “She’s the cat’s mother”, and his mother says, “What’s that? She’s got an accent? What’s that accent? Who is this?” and I say, “We are in here doin’ the interior decoratin’ and ‘Who/She/It, is Angela McCluskey”, She’s like, “I like her” – right in front of me, like I wasn’t there: “I like her, who you got here?”, and then she turned out to be a lot of fun. Instead of mopin’ about her husband’s house, she would visit with us and bring us bagels and she decided to become my driver, which was like – a nightmare! Everyday in the car I would be hangin’ on with my white knuckles. She never looked at the road.
She just talked, [in an old NY lady’s voice] “And then my husband did this and then he did that, and then we moved to Chicago…”, and I would be like, “Please look at the road, look at the road!”, and she would never look at the road! So I decided I had to find a way to get her to stop talking so I brought these old Ella Fitzgerald tapes and I’d put them in ‘cuz she loved old music.
So I put them in and we’d be drivin’ along and every time she would begin to tell a story, I’d be like, “No. No! I love this song.”, and then one day, the player in the car doesn’t work and she flips out ‘cuz she’s gotten used to hearing her favorite music while she drives and I’m flippin’ out ‘cuz I don’t want her to start talkin’ again and get distracted like she does, so, I start singin’ the first old tune that comes to mind – it was one of her favorites – ‘Tisket a Tasket lost my yellow basket’ – its quite brilliant, stupid really, and she says, “You know kid, you got a good voice, I know someone who can help you, someone at WIlliam Morris owes me a favor, I’m gonna call him”, and I’m like, “What?” She says to me, “I’ll get you a job.” I said, “Job doin’ what?”, and she says, “Singin!”.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Wow, a William Morris Agent straight out of the gate? Did she come through?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: So the next day she comes in, she’s like, “I called him. I told you I’d call him. I called him and I got you a gig.” and I say, “You got me a gig? I don’t even have a band. What are you talkin’ about?”, “I got you a gig at the Atlas bar and grill.”. Now the Atlas Bar and Grill is this beautiful, large, big, supper club – it’s like doin’ the Algonquin room – and I’m like, “Myrna, I can’t do the Atlas bar and grill!”, She says to me, “What do ya need? a Sax player? A Piano? What?”
So, I’m thinkin’ how am I gonna do this? So the owner asks to meet me and I go in and there are a couple of fantastic like gay guys who run it and they’re like, “You must do it, you must do it!”, and I did have a little tape of Paul and I doing a couple of songs… so, I finally persuade Paul to come over and now I have a classical pianist and I have a friend who plays rock guitar and I have another guy who doesn’t really even like playing the drums and I went to see a movie one night and I’m sitting beside a guy who’s an editor and I say, So you edited this and he says yeah, but I’m a sax player.
So I end up with this motley crew: I’ve got this jazz sax player, a rock and 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 – like EEYAH EEYAH. We picked ‘Somewhere’ by Tom Waits, and I think, ‘Funny Valentine’ and ‘Don’t Explain’, all depressing, melancholy, you know, cut your wrist kind of songs and we did the show and it was fantastic, it went really brilliantly.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Was that around the time of The Wild Colonials?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: Yes…After that we started a residency at a place called Cafe Largo which is now famous.. Mark Flannigan had just taken it over and we had met him at an east Hollywood cafe we had been doing a low key one nighter, but it was getting too small for our audience…so Mark and I were like, okay, let’s move our Tuesday nights to the Largo… ‘Angela’s big night out’ which was my first residency in a little pub in America, and we’d have all these different musicians turn up every week whoever was passing through from Dublin or London, it was always a great night.
So then some old Irish guy comes up to me one day and says, “I want to give you guys a gig.” He says, “We’re having a big party in our church for one of our members who died of too much alcohol, liver failure from alcohol poisoning…” (Imagine all that in one sentence and a party) I was flabbergasted, but broke also, so, I said to the others do you want to do this gig – it’s some money and I know we’re not really a band, but… and the others are like, “Why not?” So I get an old Irish song book and I’m looking through it at all the titles of songs and I’m getting’ ready to learn or pick some songs, and the guy calls up and says, “We need a name for the church poster what’s the name of your band?”, I said we don’t have a name we’re not a band, but then I started looking through the song book and I saw the song, ‘Wild Colonial Boy’, and I said, “We’re the ‘Wild Colonials’.”. So, the next day, we played and did the show, got our money and the next week when we were doin’ our little show at the pub we were suddenly the, ‘Wild Colonials’.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So, when did songwriting become important for you?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: I remember sittin’ on the sidewalk one day and my friend was playin’ guitar and I remember startin’ this song – I’d written some little poems and bits and I remember singing a melody with my words to Sharks’s guitar …’The Spark is gone but the love lives on’, and it turned into this song, and then the next day, I did it again, and again, and again, and within two weeks I’d written 8 songs. We were now playing every Tuesday night at Cafe Largo which is now a very, very, famous venue, and known for supporting great music… We met many life long friends there and I remember it as my golden years…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. Ricki Lee Jones would stroll on stage and sometimes, just sit behind me at the piano. Jon Brian 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 NY…in fact my friend Kraig Johnson and I play at ENTWINE in the West Village every Wednesday, its a baby version of the largo…but agin’ we all love it and you never know who might be singing from Joe Arthur to Courtney Love to Ambrosia Parsley. Back at the largo we kept it tight with friends and music lovers only.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You didn’t let the record labels in?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: Not for ages… it was the sort of place you couldn’t speak when people were playing so it had this wonderful sort of reverence. So all sorts of musicians would drop by, and then the buzz got too big and the label’s started sending people. Suddenly within about 8 months, I started gettin’ calls from them all and l remember feeling: well, l suppose this had to end sometime, and we have to move on or make way for someone else. It was sad and exciting at the same time. I couldn’t do it forever. We were all stone broke and the band were like, for fok sake, we are being offered record deals, lets do what we do best, make a record and take this show on the road…and we did.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What year was this?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: This was 1991. Suddenly it was too much for me ‘cuz I kept sayin, “No, I’m not really ready – I don’t really have enough songs, this is really scary, .”, and blah.di.blah, and the next thing you know I’ve got a manager, I’ve got an agent, I’ve got like a million-dollar record deal with Geffen records, and we’re at Peter Gabriel’s studio in England.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You seem to have a talent for meeting interesting people…
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: Before any of the record labels came along there’s a knock on my door one day and I open the door and there’s this guy standing 6’5 all black leather and I’m like, all my makeup running and I’m, “Excuse me. Who are you?” and he’s like, “Hi, my name’s Chad Smith and it’s my wife and I’s three month anniversary and she’s a big fan of yers and I’m in a band called the Chilli Peppers and…”, and I say, “Hello!, come in, come in!”. So we went out and played this secret gig for her and she went bananas and then afterwards he asked me for a tape and I said, “Tape? I don’t have money for my dinner, never mind a tape.” Two days later he calls me up and he says bring the band and meet me at studio 57, (this is where Phil Specter did White Christmas with Elvis) a big giant, massive studio. He had taken all the tables and chairs from the restaurant that I played every Tuesday night. With the table-cloths and the bloody lamps! Then he made us watch Spinal Tap and then we recorded with all of our friends there, and wine and everything, and we recorded a record and he gave it to me and he said to me, “All right. Off you go.” And then he played drums with us for 6 months ‘cuz Chilli Peppers were off. We’ve been very lucky because with me, it was always musicians that came to me, always. Such as, after we signed the deal with Geffen, our first gig was in NY with Joe Cocker and I remember coming off stage and coming into the dressing room and this girls sittin’ there with this little grin and lookin’ really hot and I said to her, “Excuse me, this is a dressing room.”, and she said, “I know, my name is Cindi and I’m a really big fan and I wanted to write your video.”, and it was Cindi Lauper. My whole life has been like that. It’s been just massive, enormous, ridiculous. Talk about the ‘American Dream!’
Then Geffen was bought out by Seagrams then a water company and the music was put on the back burner whilst they signed pop bands. So, we left after 2 records and 7 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. So, we took some time out and I ended up on the other side of the world. I got asked to go to Paris and work with this band who’d been making a record for, like, five years. [laughs] A French band called Telepopmusic and when they told me the name I was already like, you must be joking. Like, we’ll get lynched in London if we play with that name. ‘Tele, Pop, and Music’ ? It turns out it is an old electrical store in Paris with big blue neon and the guy sells old amps that don’t work. So I went over there for five days. We had a studio the size of a couch. We didn’t even have a vocal booth. I had to lie on the couch everyday and all I had was earphones, they’d bring a bottle of champagne, light candles everywhere, and it was very funny ‘cuz they chain smoked, and I always joked about not bein’ able to breathe… I’d come in every night to warm up and I’d be like, ‘Just breathe, another day, just breathe’ – that was like my joke. And then when they put the songs together and they sent me the record, they’d turned this into a song, which was actually quite beautiful. I remember thinking this is ridiculous and I gave it to my friend and I said, “What do you think, is this a single, I can’t really hear a single.”, and she said, “Are you kidding? That song, ‘Just Breathe’ is massive!”
CHRISTINA LESSA: What year did you write Breathe? Can you tell me how many times it’s been used commercially?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: Over ten years ago, it just won’t stop breathin! Well the first commercial was Mitsibushi, and then overnight it sold hundreds of thousands and got ‘big’, and then it got nominated for a Grammy and it sold even more and then we started to tour and I was touring for like years. It’s been used for Visa, Mitsibushi, L’oreal, and at the moment its Carte Noire, and it’s just won the best sync at the music awards in Paris.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’ve had incredible successes. It’s been kismet.
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: I’ve been very lucky, you know, I’m pretty good at staying under the radar. I like to have a life. I have too many friends who like… they’re out there 365 days a year for like, for what? The worst thing that could possibly happen is I would become famous. It would kill me. ‘Cuz I’m still a nightmare, if people come up to my door and I don’t know that their coming, I freak out you know? I’m a real kind of private person. I like my space and the thought of people comin’ up to me in the street is just horrific. [laughs]. 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…
CHRISTINA LESSA: So you’ve gone through being part of a record label, and now that genre is basically over. I mean the pursuit of a record label is pretty much done so you’re going into this new phase now.
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: Well the big thing now is D.J.’s. and I’m so lucky in that because of ‘Breathe’ I’m very, very, well known among the big D.J.’s in the world so there isn’t a day that goes by without somebody asking will I do it? So you have to pick and choose and I did a song with a guy called Morgan Page and BT that I really loved and that became a hit pretty fast.
CHRISTINA LESSA: “In the Air”
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: Yeah, ‘In the Air’, and that has just been nominated for an IDMA award at the Winter Music Conference which is a really big deal.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So, of course, the money is in commercials but I’d like to address the importance of performance now. When I look for you online, which is what everyone does now – you have to be visible online and when you are there, its the voice of one reaching billions. The same thing is said about you over and over again online, and its’ always about your live performances. Most people comment on that, you have such a presence.
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: I’ve done two solo records and now the next one is the one that I really want to kick ass with, the one I’ve always wanted to do. Once ‘Lambeth Palace’ comes out – I’ll do the ‘Lambeth Palace’ tour and I’ll do Philadelphia and Boston and you know, I’ll do my own little thing. I play with Paul all the time, you always see me singing in NY somewhere, But, I can’t play my record because to play my record, you know, musicians can’t live on the wind, they need money, they can’t do things for nothing. My big thing is I start in a little club, and then I build up, and now that I’m well known, well it’s fine, its great fun but, one of the problems now is because you can just record and publish yourself, millions of people are doin’ it. It used to be that maybe you would get the cream of the crop, but now you’ve got like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, of them. You’re just overwhelmed with them – even on Facebook.
FLATT: It’s the same in all of the arts. There’s a glut of information.
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: Yes! The same with photography and so you don’t even look at events anymore, so I actually went back to grass roots where I did a little thing on my laptop called, ‘Take 5’ and I would send it to someone, like I would send it to you and I would say, “Listen to this, Christina, if you like it, have a look at the video, if you like it just send it to 5 friends with a real note and not an event or any email or a blast. I find that that is effective and different and they send you the file. Some people send it to 10 or 20 people ‘cuz they just love it, some send it to just 5, but it means you’re not bombarding people with events which on Facebook, you know, everyday there’s too many!
CHRISTINA LESSA: It’s a collective – that’s what’s happening with everyone that has talent, they create a collective, and that team supports them, they redefine them, and they create marketing in a very organic way. Its happening all over the place.
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: That is great because you can do what you want without a record label breathing down your neck. And the next thing that I do: this is the thing that I’m really excited about on every level, it is the first time I’ll have maybe done something that’s completely pure, it’s not because I have to make a pop record or I have to make a rock record, or I have to make an electronic record… I’ve proved it. I’ve proved I can have a rock hit and a pop hit and an electronic hit, and the really exciting thing now is I hope, I mean for my career, I hope that it can be like Bjork’s -very theatrical stages and such and that is me and that’s what I’m gonna do.
CHRISTINA LESSA: In a sense, you are almost recreating the wild colonials, but on a different scale.
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: exactly, and what’s funny is I’m always trying to recreate the Wild Colonials. I never stop. I’m always trying to recreate the little residency and those eight months where my life was pure bliss and I didn’t have ten dollars!
CHRISTINA LESSA: The timing is right now – just right – because nobody has the extra ten dollars. So, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
ANGELA MCCLUSKEY: [laughs], I will be in that place where I can just say, “Right, you’ve paid your dues and now it’s time for you to just do what you want to do and don’t be scared, just go and do it. I am thinking to even do a record with Paul – Paul and I play so beautifully together and everyone’s always saying why don’t you do this? And it’s because he’s too busy doin’ films and I’m too busy doin’ commercials and films and it’s like: ‘Hello? We have a connection that comes along only once in a while’, you know, like once in a hundred years: Chopin and Georges Sand, Go for it. Go for it, just jump that train and run you know – Go for it. And that’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to be more fearless. I mean, I think I’m pretty fearless, but I’d like to be even more fearless – in ten years. And have a nice house by the ocean. [laughs] and a chauffeur, ‘cuz I still can’t drive!