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Anna Sweeney takes the plunge as Ayr singer/songwriter brings self-produced pop to Mad Hatters, Inverness with Lilura

By Kyle Walker

ON the Scottish isle of Arran, a fresh tradition has been born over the last decade - the Douglas Dook.

Since 2012, every January 1 sees brave (or foolhardy) souls don their wetsuits and plunge into the Firth of Clyde at Brodick Bay to raise funds for Arran Mountain Rescue.

And for Ayr-born singer/songwriter Anna Sweeney, a chance to dust off the cobwebs after the previous night’s gigging for the island’s Hogmanay celebrations. “We were playing until kind of the evening and then we were off actually, so we just got to join in,” she said. “And they have the fireworks and they have this horse trailer full of prosecco, literally!

“In the morning, New Year’s Day, we all go down to the pier and jump in the sea - which is freezing! But everyone kind of does that to get rid of the hangover so it definitely works, but…”

She paused, before adding, “Not sure I’d rush to do it again!” with a laugh.

It’s certainly a more bracing way to start the year than the typical Scottish New Year’s Day tradition of rolling out of bed at noon with a stinking hangover and hunting out multipackets of crisps.

But that drive to achieve and succeed sums up Anna better than any description. Already in 2020 her weekends have been filled with gigs, with Inverness’ Mad Hatters the latest stop for the Kilmarnock-based artist.

Anna Sweeney. Picture: Andrew Gerrie
Anna Sweeney. Picture: Andrew Gerrie

“I love Inverness, and I’ve only ever been up actually in the summer because I’ve come up for XpoNorth, and I’ve been up past it for Belladrum and things like that,” she explained. “But I love coming up and I always have a brilliant night out in Inverness, I always have a really good time.

“Obviously, Jemma [Tweedie, aka Lilura] that I’m gigging with, I stay with her most of the time and it’s always really nice to catch up. She kind of shows where I should and shouldn’t be going out for a pint!”

Those willing to brave the winter chill to attend Mad Hatters - their own Douglas Dook - will experience the warmth of multi-instrumentalist Anna’s self-produced synth-driven pop bops.

But while the likes of Robyn and Taylor Swift are counted among her inspirations, her original inspirations come from far more austere places. “Growing up we had to take a lot of long car journeys to visit my grandparents. They lived up in Clydebank and we were in the car for ages.

“And my mum and dad would always play me Dire Straits, Johnny Cash, tonnes of Bob Dylan. And it was always music with a story written into the songs.

“I still remember all the lyrics to songs I haven’t heard for 15 years because I just kind of soaked up all that imagery, I had nothing else to do in those days in the back of the car, so I just sat and absorbed all that music.”

Melding those disparate influences together, Anna brings those songwriting traditions together to craft her sound. “A lot of people say that my music is country songwriting with synths and beats behind it!” she laughed.

“I once had an A&R session at a music convention and basically they told me to pick a lane, they were like, ‘This is country songwriting but it sounds like Sigrid!’ And then they were like, ‘You need to decide on one or the other,’ and I was like, ‘Do I though…?’”

Striking out on her own path has been the way since Anna’s first concert, a songwriters’ showcase in her hometown of Ayr.

And putting together the set for that first ever concert was a nerve wracking experience. “It was terrifying! They broadcast it on a local radio, and it was packed - it was sold out - and it was literally my first ever gig!

“And I was just a skinny 17 year old with this huge 12-string guitar shaking like a leaf on stage! I just remember being terrified and telling everyone I played a full set of songs I’d written that week because I wrote them all just so I could do the gig!”

Things quickly gathered momentum from there - too quickly, unfortunately. “I went from singing my first ever song to being on TV and radio and touring and all these different things. And I was managing it all myself and I was also doing a uni course on music as well at UWS.

“I just burned out really badly and I ended up in the hospital for quite a while. And when you’re that age, I didn’t have that perspective on mental health, and it wasn’t that spoken about - this was, say, 2012.

“So I didn’t even realise there was a problem until it got to the stage where I couldn’t gig any more and I couldn’t leave the house. It got really bad - it was the biggest learning curve ever and it was hard because I wanted to go back to it but I knew I couldn’t. It wasn’t good for me at that stage.”

Anna returned to music in 2017, still self-managing her music and her art. This time though, she was more conscious of her health and what she can achieve, and ready to take the plunge into the icy depths of the industry once more.

“The best thing I ever did was to go, okay, I’m just going to go and grow up and learn to look after myself and my health first,” she explained. “Only then would I be well enough to go and do all the gigging and everything else.”

Anna paused, briefly, before adding firmly, “And it worked.”

Anna Sweeney plays Mad Hatters, Inverness on Friday, January 17, with support from Lilura. Doors open at 9.30pm and entry is free. Go to www.annasweeney.co.uk

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