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Ricky Ross: ‘You can avoid real life, and still get paid!’

Ricky Ross was attracted to music, not for the fame or money, but for the sheer simplicity of being able to make money by doing something that you love.
Ricky Ross Scottish singer-songwriter, broadcaster and lead singer of the rock band Deacon Blue. Pictured in Cafe Gandolfi, Glasgow. Credit: Mirrorpix

Rock band Deacon Blue released their 11th studio album in February this year. Their lead singer, Ricky Ross, released his first solo album So Long Ago in 1984.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, the Scottish singer-songwriter considers the part that religion has played in his life and how much he misses each of his parents.

At 16 I was still very much in the evangelical church world that my parents had brought me up in. Rock’n’roll was increasingly dominating my thoughts. I didn’t do well at school, and I didn’t enjoy it. I had no idea what ‘my thing’ was going to be – at school my thing was just looking out of windows and dreaming. My classroom was very high up so I could see the whole of Fife. So I spent my time drawing things on the back of my jotters and looking out at Fife and dreaming about when I could leave school. I think that thing about constantly dreaming – that’s why you become a songwriter. Because you dream up stories. It was of no use to me at the time, but eventually it came in quite handy.

If you met my teenage self now you’d probably think I was a pain in the arse. I just look back and think, I didn’t know anything. I thought I knew things but I didn’t. To be honest, I have no idea who that person was. Other than just a muddle of thoughts and ideas.

I fell into teaching for a stupid reason; I wanted to grow my hair. That was my only motivation in life, I wanted to look like Neil Young. And at commercial college I had to cut my hair. Then I was talking to this teacher and they said I could study to be a primary school teacher. I thought, OK, that sounds alright. Then my mum said, you know you could get a degree and teach secondary school. And I suddenly pulled myself together. I thought, I know I’m not stupid. I’m not going to love being a primary school teacher, but I like kids. So I should probably get a teaching degree.

Deacon Blue Disc Presentation At The Borderline, London. Disc Presented By Sony Music CEO Paul Russell 01/01/1988 (Sony Music Archive via Getty Images/Terry Lott)

I look back with real affection to being part of the evangelical church. It was a lovely, lovely warm community of people, and it was our whole life; it completely absorbed everything we did. There was nothing harmful in it, no abuse or anything. And it wasn’t really, really, really strict – we didn’t play football on Sundays, I had to get dressed for church, those kind of things – but it wasn’t horrible, there wasn’t any sort of nastiness or cruelty that some religions have. But equally, it was weird. You’d go to school on Monday and everyone was talking about The Golden Shot on TV and I didn’t know what they were talking about ’cause it was on a Sunday and we weren’t allowed to watch! So there was definitely a feeling of being slightly outside the world but quite comfortable in your own world, that duality of existence.

I’ve got friends I grew up with who now hate anything to do with religion. I was not like that. I loved the essence of faith, I’ve tried to follow that. That’s been a big marker for me, you know. By the time I was 20 my commitment to that particular religion began to move off into a different direction, but I’ve not lost that faith.

I got piano lessons when I was a kid and I stopped, and then started again on my own. I had Beatles books, all that kind of thing. But I never really wanted to learn other people’s songs, I just wanted to write my own. I love listening to music, but I don’t have a repertoire of party pieces like some people do. I was always so excited by the idea of writing. And it was the late ’60s, early ’70s so it was a time of singer songwriters. To be a singer meant to be a songwriter.

We were a really, really close family. My dad died 28 years ago. My mum died last year, at 92. We actually got closer and closer as time went on. I think as your parents get more frail you get very intimate again, I suppose because essentially you’re looking after them… My mum was the life force, she was the one that did everything with us, she could play piano so she would oversee my piano lessons. My dad liked music, he loved singing. He would just go off and start singing – he never drank anything but he loved singing old songs, singing anywhere, singing in the car, or when he was with his friends. Just any time he felt happy.

I think if someone had told the young me that his life when he got older would just be getting up in the morning and doing whatever he wanted to do, and that would involve making music for a good percentage of the day… I would have just bitten the hand off you. I didn’t know that such a possibility existed. The idea that you could kind of avoid real life, and you do what you want to do… and get paid for it! I think it’s amazing that I’ve managed to get away with that for the best part of 40 years. I remember meeting Billy McNeill, a lovely, lovely, man [McNeill captained the European Cup-winning Celtic in 1967, then had two spells as the club’s manager]. I said, are you still working Billy? And he said Ricky, I’ve never worked.

I was never driven by the idea of being famous. It was the mystery, the mystique of the whole thing that appealed to me. I remember meeting a guy who played the sax and he told me about a recording studio you could go to and record through the night because it was cheaper. And I thought, you can go to a studio and you can just make music? That was amazing to me.

Glasgow, Scotland, UK. 16th September, 2014. Scottish pro-independence rally. Deacon Blue frontman Ricky Ross addresses Yes crowd at Scottish independence rally in George Square, Glasgow. Credit: Tony Clerkson/Alamy Live News
Scottish pro-Deacon Blue frontman Ricky Ross addresses Yes crowd at Scottish independence rally in George Square, Glasgow 2014. Credit: Tony Clerkson/Alamy Live News

The song that changed our life completely was Dignity. Gordon Charlton, who signed us to CBS Records, he just played it over and over again. He loved that song. Suddenly we had a song that you could wear like a badge. It became a sort of passport. I didn’t know if it would be a hit when I wrote it, but I remember thinking – and this kind of goes back to the 16-year-old self in me, that slight Protestant work ethic – I’d always wanted to make songs that mattered, songs that could change the way people felt about themselves, about life. I felt that when I wrote the lyric to Dignity, this is actually a song that says something about me, about us, about where we are. If we can get it musically right, this might go somewhere.

I think Dignity made a connection. It’s a folk song – people go off and sing it in their own places, and turn it into their own song. I love that. I think that’s the highest compliment you can get, when a song becomes part of people’s culture.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my dad, every time. I dream about him all the time, in fact he was in my dream last night. So many little things I’d like to ask him – who was so and so, why did they think that, what was the deal with uncle John again? He was a good storyteller, my dad. It always happened in the car, we’d be in there together and he’d tell me all these stories.

Ricky Ross receives honorary degree
Ricky Ross receives honorary degree Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

If I could visit any time in the past it would be to a world that no longer exists. I once went down to Muscle Shoals in Alabama and one night I just drove around to see what Alabama was like. I passed this revival tent, a big revival mission. And I was just like… wow. It was like a ghost. It brought back all these memories of being a kid because that’s the world that we were living in, revival meetings and gospel meetings. It was such a big part of my growing up. I’ve often thought, I’d like to go back just for one night, a big Saturday night, and hear all these hymns, see all these characters, see my parents, my grandparents, all of us together singing songs by people like Alan Jackson and Willie Nelson and Randy Travis. I’d roam around all the bustle, smell the tea urns lined up where all the women were making the tea, I’d take it all in. That world isn’t there any more, that world has disappeared. But I’d love to go back to it now because all the people I loved would be in that room.

The 30th anniversary vinyl limited edition of Deacon Blue’s 1991 album Fellow Hoodlums is out now on Sony