I first encountered Elizabeth McGovern four or five years ago when I accidentally saw her band Sadie and the Hotheads in a bar in North London. We were in London for a football match and later in the evening while visiting an assortment of public houses, eventually found one with Live Music in the back room.
We actually saw two bands that night, but the one that captured my attention were the Hotheads with their quirky Pop-Country and very pretty singer (apologies for being so shallow). Apart from seeing their name on occasional gig guides and Festival rosters over the ensuing years, Sadie and the Hotheads didn’t cross my path again until October 2012; when I was watching a cookery programme on Sunday morning TV that plays a music video before and after the advert break. In this case I was taken aback when I heard Sadie and the Hotheads singing The Cow Song. It then took a couple of re-winds on Sky + before I realized that the singer was actually better known as Lady Cora from Downton Abbey!
Some quick research on the internet revealed that the shy singer I’d seen years before was now the Award winning star of our favourite TV programme; then by sheer coincidence the album HOW NOT TO LOSE THINGS by Sadie and the Hotheads arrived through the post followed by the opportunity to interview Elizabeth for this very publication.
While studying at Juilliard in New York City Elizabeth was offered her first acting role in Robert Redford’s film Ordinary People alongside Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler-Moore, this led to a few roles on and off Broadway and in 1981 was eventually nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Ragtime.
As the 80’s drew to a close Elizabeth met husband to be, Film Director Simon Curtis and after getting married in 1992 upped sticks and moved from New York to London to start a new life and eventually; a family.
While still acting on TV and in Theatre alongside bringing up two daughters Elizabeth decided to learn to play the guitar; which finally brings her to the world of Americana and Roots music.
Elizabeth “As a music fan, brought up in LA listening to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and hanging out with singers and bands at parties (chuckle) I guess I’d always wanted to learn to play an instrument but hadn’t got around to doing anything about it until I saw an advert in a shop window in London offering guitar lessons. That’s how I met Steve Nelson.
Steve is so sweet and patient with me and eventually; I can’t remember why or how, but we began talking about songwriting one day and eventually our guitar lessons evolved into songwriting sessions too. For quite a while it was just two friends bouncing ideas around until Steve suggested I try my songs out at an open-mic night at a local pub.
I was horrified at the idea but he eventually convinced me to give it a try and….well….no one booed or threw things at me, so I went back the next week and again and again.
I was working very hard on the music side of my life but never thought of myself as a musician, but a songwriter and Steve and his brother Simon had their own band; The Nelson Brothers and seemed to know just about everyone in the London music scene; so it seemed the natural thing to do when they formed a band to play my songs. I’ve always been a lover of words so writing songs came naturally to me but I never saw myself as a singer. We had decided quite early in the process that we should get a female singer to interpret my songs, but after a long grueling process I kept finding fault with everyone who auditioned, as my songs are all very personal and quirky. So; one evening Steve and Simon turned to me and told me that I should be the singer – or else (more laughter).
Even as an actress I was terrified at the prospect of standing on a stage, in front of a paying audience and surrounded by professional musicians but Steve and Simon convinced me I could do it and I did by embracing the terror and turning ‘Sadie’ into my alter-ego with a character all of her own. As the years have gone by it’s become easier for me as the band supports each others strengths and weaknesses like a family.
We released an album called I CAN WAIT in 2007 which was originally made for selling at gigs and Festivals and we are all very proud of it. I spent the next couple of years balancing my acting career with being in the band and being a Mum and Wife; but not necessarily in that order.
It was great fun with Sadie and the Hotheads traveling all over the country playing festivals at all hours of the day; well, some days were better than others. I can remember one Festival; I won’t say which, when we’d traveled hundreds of miles over night in the rain, to be told we had to go on stage at noon. When we walked on-stage the wind was so strong we could hardly hear ourselves there wasn’t a single person watching us, but we played anyway! After about 15 minutes; a figure appeared from the campsite and slowly made their way to the stage followed by a small bedraggled army of followers. They stopped about 50 yards from the front and it was only then, that I realized that the ‘figure’ was dressed from head to foot as a Pirate. He never moved an inch as the crowd built up around him and when we finished the set he took his hat off and bowed. It was quite a surreal moment; especially as the others hadn’t noticed him.
In 2009 I was asked if I’d be interested in reading a script for a new television series; and the character I was reading for was ‘interesting’ and well written so I agreed to join the cast. No one, including myself could have forecast the success that Downton Abbey would have; not just in the UK but across the World. It’s still difficult to get my head around the meteoric success of the show and, as a ‘jobbing actress’ I can only thank….well….the Angel on my shoulder for this amazing opportunity. No one, and certainly not me expected such a successful ‘second act’ to my life; but I’ll be forever grateful.
At first I thought I’d have to give up being in Sadie and the Hotheads; but when you are working on a series like Downton there is a lot of sitting around waiting to be called to do your scenes, and our cast included a lot of music fans so CD’s were loaned around every day and I’d often find myself in my trailer with Michelle Dockery (who plays my daughter Lady Mary) in our crinolines and fancy dresses listening to music or teaching each other new songs as we played our guitars. Thankfully I don’t think any photos exist.
All of that free time and waiting around gave me the urge to start writing again and those are the songs that now make up our album HOW NOT TO LOSE THINGS.
I’ve always written about things that happen to me or what goes on around me; but I do use ‘artistic license’ so don’t take the songs too literally.
As an example Old Boyfriends isn’t about whom some of the reviewers think it’s about (chuckle) but is an amalgamation of several ‘relationships’ from my past and has become a fun song to sing, especially when I see people thinking ‘is it about…...him?’ And only I know the truth.
My Debt Collector isn’t about me either; but I have seen a few friends get into difficulties so this is my take on that; no more and no less.
The Cow Song may sound like a silly little tune but it’s actually very personal to me. When I first arrived in England the first thing my husband, Simon Curtis did was whisk me down to Norfolk for the weekend. We were in the middle of nowhere and it rained non-stop; I couldn’t have been further from New York or LA if we’d gone to the moon; but the memories of the walk we did on that first morning will stay with me for the rest of my life and I wouldn’t have missed looking at that field of cows for anything.
The first song on the album; All The Time is probably the nearest to an autobiographical song; but it is still a perfected version of my life.
As I gradually acclimatized to the attention from the Press when Downton aired, we decided to keep going with Sadie and the Hotheads, gradually introducing the new songs to our set. Coincidentally the more I began to get recognized and did more interviews for magazines and newspapers Sadie and the Hotheads coincidentally began to get bigger and better gigs right across the country.
In October we were asked to do a weekly residency at the Troubadour in London; which was something I could only have dreamed of doing, three years ago and in Spring 2013 we will actually be doing our first headline tour of some pretty large theatres across the UK; so that’s a bit daunting but exciting too.
In the Summer of 2012 we played the main stage at the Isle of Wight Festival in front of tens of thousands of people; the sun was shining and my two daughters; who are normally too cool to like anything their Mum does, were down at the front smiling back at me – it was just one of those moments when you realize all of that hard work was worth it for moments like this and then; (I swear) there in the middle of the crowd I spotted a man dressed identically to the Pirate from three years previously. As we ended the set our eyes met (honestly) and he smiled at me, before doffing his hat and ‘disappearing’! I swear it happened; even if no one else believes me.
I’ve worked very hard to get to this stage with both of my careers but luckily Steve Nelson saw something in me when we were playing guitar and writing that I didn’t realize was there, and has constantly praised and encouraged me to work harder over the years and that’s got us where we are today.