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Monday 5 December 2016

Eva Cassidy and her incredible after-life

Published 12/02/2011 | 05:00

A full 15 years after her death at the age of just 33, a new chapter has just been written in the extraordinary story of Eva Cassidy. Her 'latest' album, Simply Eva last week went straight in at No 15 in the Irish album charts and at No 6 in the UK.

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Another platinum disc looks on the cards for an artist who online retailer Amazon have declared to be their fifth best-selling artist of all time -- with only The Beatles, U2, Norah Jones and Diana Krall ahead of her.

The late songbird's worldwide posthumous fame -- she has sold millions of albums from Australia to Scandinavia -- would have flummoxed no one more than Cassidy herself, who toiled in obscurity when she was alive, performing in local restaurants and nightclubs in and around her native Washington DC.

The only video footage of her playing live is a shaky amateur camcorder recording of a set she played in Washington's Blues Alley -- where the audience were so transfixed that you could hear a pin drop.

Her German-born mother Barbara said in a TV documentary about her daughter that Eva would have hated the hullabaloo that has followed in the wake of her premature passing.

But it's such a compelling story which ticks all the boxes required for an Oscar-winning Hollywood weepie that it's no surprise that Robert Redford's daughter Amy has acquired the film rights and is reportedly co-producing a biopic. Barbara Cassidy's choice of actress to play her daughter is Emily Watson or Kirsten Dunst.

A beautiful young blonde woman with a pure, soulful voice re-arranges some of the classics from the American songbook, old and new, more for her own amusement than any burning ambition to be a star -- modestly wowing an intimate audience at a local club, a hidden talent unaware of itself.

(Indeed, from the portrait that her mum paints of her, there's almost no way that she would ever have countenanced auditioning to be on American Idol or The X Factor -- yet the irony is that the wannabes on these shows regularly sing the very same songs that Eva put her stamp on.)

She plays in her spare time, making ends meet by working as a furniture painter, a sculptor and a jewellery designer. She has a romantic relationship with a local musician and engineer, who encourages her to strike out on her own after years of singing back-up in various local bands.

Alas, no sooner has she committed her sensitive, singular cover versions of standards by Fleetwood Mac, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Garland and Cyndi Lauper to tape than she is struck down by cancer, diagnosed too late to save her.

Years pass before a posthumous collection of her recordings (Songbird) finds its way to Terry Wogan, who champions the singer on his BBC Radio 2 show, followed by that shaky camcorder footage being aired on Top Of The Pops. US TV networks then catch on, giving her music and life-story prime-time slots.

Eva Cassidy's near-mythic status in popular culture is now secure.

I can almost picture the montage sequence in the biopic: we see the screen fill up with multiple shots of earnest young women with Eva's poster on their bedroom wall, learning the chords to 'Over The Rainbow' or 'Fields Of Gold' on their acoustic guitars, as they sing the lyrics with their eyes closed.

The clamour for more Eva Cassidy records goes supernova, and her record company duly go on to scour the vaults for every recording they can get their hands on, releasing no fewer than 10 albums in 10 years through the Noughties.

But has the well finally run dry? The current album, Simply Eva, is mostly made up of songs previously heard on her other albums, the difference being that this time they have been stripped of the instrumentation that had been added in the studio to flesh out the sound for commercial release.

So, as the title nods to, these recordings are ultra-minimalist, featuring just Eva's amazing voice and her delicate guitar playing. It's the essence of Eva, with no studio trickery or unnecessary frills. That's the spin, anyway.

And yet the sleeve notes in the CD booklet read almost like an apology to her fans for repackaging old material. "Ten years after she first topped the British charts you may think you've heard all there is to hear from Eva Cassidy. Think again.

"You may have heard most of these classic Eva songs before, but as sure as less is more, you have not experienced anything like this collection of previously unreleased Eva-only guitar/vocal performances," writes record company executive Bill Straw (as in clutching at ... ).

To be fair, there is one previously unreleased song, 'San Francisco Bay Blues', and an extended version of Eva's take on Paul Simon's gorgeous 'Kathy's Tune' with, Straw breathlessly announces, three extra verses, folks . . . which just made me wonder why they cut them out in the first place.

Alas, the ending of Eva Cassidy's mooted biopic can't be anything but achingly bittersweet, as we reflect on a rare talent taken from us too soon, who would never get to taste fame and fortune during her own lifetime, but whose voice was feted to be a fixture on the radio from Ardee to Alice Springs and whose rare, ropey concert footage would attract five and a half million viewers (and counting) on YouTube ...

Simply Eva (Blix Street Records) is out now.

nkelly@ independent.ie

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