Cautionary tales on the road to pop stardom: The Pierces, Alice Gold and Delta Maid on breaking into the music business

By Liam Barnes

Almost as long as there has been music, there has been a much-maligned business that manages it.

From ancient tyrants demanding courtly songs praising their God-given powers to rock ‘n’ roll bands struggling to break free from onerous contracts, soaring talents have been caged by money-men depicted as cynical, seditious and swindling.

Even before the notoriously fickle reality TV shows built and broke a budding singer’s dreams in the course of a season, it was renowned as an immensely difficult medium, prone to swaying fashions and often years of toil before a breakthrough that often never came.

Three acts who have been victims to varying degrees of such a slippery system put on a breathtaking show at the Ruby Lounge on Saturday: a sister act hitting the big time after a decade of toil and a near break-up; a peripatetic pop princess finally gaining widespread recognition; and a bluesy Scouser so fearful of her prospects of success she almost never saw her ambitions realised.

On their first tour as a headlining act in the UK were Alabama-born sisters Catherine and Allison Pierce, who as The Pierces have recently released the fourth album of sweet-harmonising folk-rock, You and I, but until recently had yet to match critical acclaim with record sales. However, You and I has hit #4 in the UK album charts,

“It’s very, very nice – we’ve obviously been doing this for a long time,” said Catherine, the younger of the sisters.

“It’s a relief – I feel this is our time,” added Alison, an assessment supported by a busy summer of festivals, including Glastonbury, following the conclusion of their tour.

The sisters have endured many years of struggle to get where they are, but determination and self-belief sustained their efforts on the long road up.

Despite performing songs from 2007’s Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge on hit US show Gossip Girl, the sisters nearly disbanded to pursue solo work, but decided to carry on together.

 “What’s kept us going has been the fact that we just love making music,” said Catherine, who worked as a DJ to keep the money coming in.

Alison, who moonlighted as a nanny, said: “There were moments I didn’t enjoy it, but you keep trusting that our path will unfold.”

The day after they decided to split up, Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman stepped with an offer of a support slot for his band’s South American tour. Despite that offer not coming to fruition, Berryman then oversaw the production of You and I with Coldplay’s producer Rik Simpson, which made #4 in the UK album chart and has barely been off Radio 2 playlists this year.

A strange quirk of The Pierces’ renaissance has been its British roots; not only with Berryman’s involvement, but as currently they are without an American label, they hope that the success this side of the Atlantic will revive their fortunes at home.

“The UK’s open to music that’s not easily defined into categories,” said Alison.

“Our problem in the US was we didn’t fit in and it confused people,” added Catherine. “Everything’s going so well here, which will help us break through [in America].”

Having been on the verge of success before, only for it to slip away, Catherine and Alison are prepared to handle whatever comes their way.

“With Thirteen [Tales of Love and Revenge] there was a buzz but not any follow-on,” said Catherine. “It gets really exciting when things get bigger, but we’ve had so many ups and downs it won’t faze us.”

Like The Pierces, Alice Gold will also be rocking up at Glastonbury this summer. Another thing the Londoner has in common with the Americans is a long struggle to get noticed.

Having garnered a cult following as Alice McLaughlin but narrowly failing to hit the bit time, she taught English to the Duke of Luxembourg’s son among various odd-jobs before regrouping last year, being nominated by Q Magazine as one to watch for this year. Hoping for her own tour next year, she’s relishing the chance to work alongside a band such as The Pierces.

She said: “It’s really fabulous to be on the road with The Pierces, you can learn a lot.”

The new stage name – “I did the name change because I needed a fresh approach,” said Alice – has seen an upsurge in fortunes, with a new album, Seven Rainbows, due for release on July 4.

“It’s the album I’ve been trying to make for years,” she said. “I did it myself, with no manager and no record company, and I’m really pleased with how it’s worked out.”

The stress on the individuality of the record is a salient point: Alice has always furrowed her own path, as is borne out by a series of extraordinary escapades, from winning a Winnebago mobile home in a poker game and driving it across America to living in a narrow boat in the Thames.

“I’ve been so bloody-minded about making records it’s taken me to weird places,” said Alice, whose hard journey to the cusp of a breakthrough contrasts sharply with the boom-and-bust patterns of boybands and reality TV singers with careers less long-lived than a mayfly. Such disposable music and cynicism doesn’t sit well with musicians like Alice.

 “It does make me a bit angry that on The X Factor these guys get all the promotion help,” she said. “I sometimes listen to the lyrics on Radio 1 and I’m glad I’m not on it.”

However, the only thing Alice is focusing on is her music, and she hopes that touring with The Pierces can be the breakthrough both acts deserve.

“I don’t want to be going backwards now,” she said. “I think it’s our time – but you don’t do it for money anyway, you do it for love.” 

Considering how hard it has been for both The Pierces and Alice Gold to get to where they are, you can forgive fellow performer Delta Maid for her pessimism.

The 26-year-old folk/blues songstress from Liverpool studied Biology at Lancaster University and was training to be a vascular scientist at Manchester for 18 months before finally following her musical dreams.

After positive feedback from her fledgling first gigs, she posted songs on the internet which then caught the attention of industry bigwigs, leading to her debut album, Outside Looking In, being released in April, as well as bagging the opening slot on The Pierces’ UK tour.

“It’s brilliant – The Pierces are so good and to do so many dates, I could not have wished for anything better,” said Delta, aka Katie Foulkes. “It’s kind of inspiring because they have been slogging at it for such a long time, it shows if you’re first album doesn’t go as well just keep going.”

Despite having always adored the country music played by her parents and having fallen in love with the blues at 13, worries over her chances of making it held her back from pursuing her passion, so the speed of her progress has taken her by surprise. 

“So many people pursue it I thought it was a big ask,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it; it was so quick and sudden.”

The name Delta Maid instantly conjures up an image of the classic Deep South music which has inspired her, yet Katie’s keen to take in as many influences as possible.

 “I listen to everything really – I learn a lot listening to current stuff as well as old,” she said.

“I do think that I write cross-over songs,” she adds.  “But this wouldn’t be a crazy route to go down if I was in America.”

The natural pragmatist in her was never likely to get carried away with her success, and the experiences of both Alice Gold and The Pierces have shown how easily Delta Maid’s days in the sun can be clouded over.

“There’s a long way to go and I just need to keep going,” she said. “Hopefully I will.”


Top Five Songs About the Music Industry:


Pink Floyd – Have A Cigar
Probably the seminal song about a band’s battles with an ignorant record company boss, the stand-out lyric “Which one’s Pink?” was based on actual exchanges between music executives. One of the greatest guitar solos ever sticks it to the man in style.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Century City
Written during the landmark legal wrangle with their record label for their first two albums, this track is a scathing criticism of the LA district famous for being home to lawyers and their ilk. Despite the distractions around them, the Gainesville band’s resulting album, ‘Damn The Torpedoes’, is considered by many fans as their finest.
Dire Straits – Money for Nothing
It may be more famous for its bonkers computer-animated video (the first ever played on MTV in Europe), but the lyrics are an angry sideswipe at the vacuity of fame and the music business. Use of the word ‘faggot’ has kept censors in a tizzy ever since.
The Byrds – So You Want to Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
Trust a bunch of harmonising hippies in their hazy halcyon days to rail against the capitalist regime! The sweet sounds mask a depiction of the broken dreams at the business end of the entertainment, inspired by the formation of The Monkees, captures the paradox at the heart of the phrase ‘music industry’.
W.A.S.P. – Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the Rue Morgue)
Brutal, violent and crunching, a long battle with a violent end – and the song’s pretty heavy too.

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