Kirsty MacColl’s Voice Was Singular. A New Box Aims to Bring It Wider

The singer-songwriter, who died in 2000, is best known for duetting on “Fairytale of New York.” But in an unusual career, she also made her mark behind the scenes.

During a fitful 20-year solo career, the singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl released just five full-length albums, achieving a modicum of success in her native England, and little notice in America. Yet MacColl — who died at 41 in 2000 — is omnipresent each holiday season: It’s her voice offering tart rejoinders to Shane MacGowan in the Pogues’ cockeyed Christmas anthem “Fairytale of New York.”

But the woman with the soaring alto, whom Bono once called “the Noelle Coward of her generation,” was far more than her best-known work. Last week, Universal released “See That Girl: 1979-2000,” an eight-disc boxed set with 161 tracks that follows MacColl’s musical journey — which included an attempt at teen pop stardom, years of accomplished studio craft and global musical exploration.

Those who knew her best, including the folk-punk musician Billy Bragg, have long extolled MacColl’s fierce wit, spiky charisma and gift for sharp-detailed songwriting. “It was all about attitude with Kirsty,” Bragg said in an interview. “Her personality came across so strongly in the songs.”

But her career was sporadic and often secondary to her family obligations, and her untimely passing precluded the usual late-career reappraisal and appreciation. “See That Girl” not only recovers many of MacColl’s lost recordings, but puts her in conversation with bold female singer-songwriters of today who perhaps unknowingly bear her influence.

“Her songs were brilliant, funny, they broke your heart, had wonderful chords and these magnificent bridges — and they were about girls,” said the actress and singer Tracey Ullman who, 40 years ago, scored an international hit with MacColl’s grand pop proclamation “They Don’t Know.” “I played that song at my wedding. I played it at my husband’s memorial service. It’s a song you can carry with you through your entire life,” she added. “Kirsty wrote those kinds of songs.” Continue reading