Clare Maguire: Only fools rush in

First she turned down Jay-Z's label, then she said no to a Jarvis Cocker track – not bad for someone who had just quit Topshop. Alexis Petridis meets singer-songwriter Clare Maguire

The day she met Rick Rubin, says Clare Maguire, was "probably the most brilliant day of my life". She was looking for a record deal, and was summoned to the Malibu home of the legendary producer and co-president of Columbia Records to perform for him. "I was just a huge fan of the records he made with Johnny Cash," she says. "I get there and there's this big picture of Johnny Cash and [his wife] June Carter on the wall. We went into his kitchen and he gave me a guitar. I was so all over the place, the only song I could think of was an old Irish folk song. So I sang that, and he liked it. And because I was talking about Johnny Cash, he started playing me some tracks they'd done together that hadn't been released."

This caused the 23-year-old to burst into tears: "It was just so overwhelming." In a final flourish, Rubin suggested they go to see Leonard Cohen rehearsing, presumably in order to demonstrate what an artist who's spent 44 years signed to Columbia looks like. "He was the nicest man I think I've ever met. He had this thing in his eyes, where he looked so kind and so genuine, and you just knew it was all about the music for him, and he was like . . ." Her voice tails off. "Just really . . . " she says, before giving up trying to find words to describe him.

But despite Rubin's compound wonderfulness, the peek into the Cash archive and the presence of Cohen, she didn't sign to his label. "No, no, no, no," she frowns. "I was thinking, 'Where can I go that, if I make a record, it's going to get to as many people as possible?" I signed to the label that could do the most for me." That was Polydor.

You could, if you wished, say this anecdote tells you a lot about Maguire. It certainly tells you something about how desperate labels were to get her signature, and how improbable the ensuing bidding war must have seemed to someone who had been working in Topshop while playing Bruce Springsteen covers in Birmingham pubs by night. A few weeks before the Rubin incident, another label took her to The Spotted Pig, the New York gastropub co-owned by Jay-Z, when the rapper turned up ("I think the guy from the label texted him," she notes, wryly). Jay-Z whisked her away from her burger, bought her drinks and told her that he could see that she was a star. "He said, 'You can always tell someone's going to be big because you can see the determination in their eyes.' And, because I'd had five shots, I went, [drunk voice] 'Can you see it in my eyes?' and he said, 'Yeah.'"

But the thanks-but-no-thanks denouement suggests a certain steely determination on the part of Maguire to do things her way. It isn't necessarily what you'd expect from an artist working in commercial pop-rock, albeit with a vaguely gothic twist on the evidence of debut album Light After Dark (she thinks the bleakness in her music might come from her parents' love of Irish folk songs "where someone always dies at the end"). She also has an immensely powerful voice, which she discovered when starring in a school musical aged six. As is the way with artists working in vaguely commercial pop-rock, Maguire was encouraged by her record company to work with professional songwriters: not just the usual big guns for hire, such as Linda Perry, but Jarvis Cocker and Plan B. She was still living in a bedsit at the time, but turned all the results down. "I found that hard, because when you're in the studio writing with someone, it's such a personal thing, so intense. I hate to let people down."

You can see why labels thought she might be a star. Sitting in a Soho members' club, picking at her macaroni cheese, she already looks like one. Her hair is dyed black and her grey-green eyes are ringed with kohl in the time-honoured manner of the provincial goth, but the dress is designer and the shoes are from outer space: a riot of grey suede and lace trimmings. She is charming but driven. Maguire left school in Solihull at 17, after an altercation with a teacher who suggested she might consider applying to university. "He basically said to me I'd never make it, which was the wrong thing to say. I was quite rebellious, very obsessed with the fact that [this] was what I wanted to do."

She is alleged to have signed in the end for what one journalist called "an eye-watering sum of money" ("Well, it all goes into the live show," she frowns, "Me, personally, I don't get that much"), which presumably means there's an immense weight of expectation on her shoulders. Her debut album went top 10, but the singles so far have failed to break the top 20. "I'm not scared," she says. "I'm getting a following; it may not be massive yet, but it's there."

Besides, she says, she has enough to keep her occupied: video shoots, working with drum'n'bass producers Chase and Status, a second album "which I've already told the record company I want to make for June and they're like, 'You can't do that.'" When we speak, she is preparing for her debut show at at London's G-A-Y club. "It's the biggest thing I've done. Four dancers covered in body paint, gold from head to toe," she enthuses. "Everything's in white on stage; it's supposed to look like heaven. The gay clubs allow you to do that visual thing more. And I've got a solid gay fanbase, which is surprising, but they're really sweet. They set up fan pages for me and bring me Valentine's cards.

"People either really like what I do, or not, but the ones who like it kind of start obsessing about it. I knew I'd get that. It's a love it or hate it thing. It's got some raw elements, but it's very polished, it's very bold, quite pop, and then there's the voice, obviously. Some people are just going to . . ." Lost for words again, she pulls a face, then heads off to meet with her gold-painted dancers.

• Clare Maguire plays the Union Chapel, London (020-7226 3750), tomorrow. Her single, The Shield and the Sword, is out on Monday.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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