Margaret Urlich – 1989-style

August 23, 2022
7 mins read
Start

As our wee tribute to Margaret Urlich (24 January 1965 – 22 August 2022) GARY STEEL revisits a piece he wrote around the release of her debut album. Pics by Polly Walker.

The Cat Is Back – Former Cat and Peking Man gal Margaret Urlich has just launched her solo self. Gary Steel’s quest was to find out how serious she is about her career and life on earth.

 

SHORT HISTORY

Large family. Excels at gymnastics and dance. Hates school. Joins brother’s pop group. Wins Best Female Vocalist two years running at Music Industry Awards. Peking Man calls it a day. Forms When The Cat’s Away with fellow ‘chick’ singers. Hugely successful. Fronts Sign Of The Times television show. Works with Dave Dobbyn. Signs five-year contract with CBS Records. Moves to Sydney. Records debut solo album.

 

SCENARIO

The reception alcove at Polly Walker’s photographic studio off Khyber Road. It is 5pm on a Tuesday evening. Gary is extremely tired. Deadlines, and all that. Margaret is extremely tired. Photographic sessions, and all that. Polly’s been shooting her all afternoon. We sink into the couch. Gary activates the tape recorder. Commence.

 

CONVERSATION

Gary has never met Margaret before. But he has heard some scary stories from fellow journalists who have. One poor chap – who had given her early work the thumbs down – says he was faced with a show of antagonistic staring and hissing.

Fearing the worst, Gary begins with a line of tentative, inoffensive questioning. He need not have worried. Margaret is a kitten, on this occasion, without claws.

She’s friendly, stumbling through lazy sentences like an average Kiwi girl-next-door. She’s also a family girl, and her loyalty to her folks and a tight circle of friends displays itself like a beacon throughout the rambling two-way rave.

 

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ALBUM

Fans of Peking Man and When The Cat’s Away and Margaret’s contribution to both have waited a long time for Safety In Numbers, her first solo album. Recorded in Sydney with English producer Robyn Smith at the controls, this album has a lot resting on it, as her record company plan to release it worldwide.

“We recorded the album in two batches, and actually started eighteen months ago,” says Margaret. Smith, who has worked with and written material for the likes of Luther Vandross, The Pasadenas and Was Not Was, is “basically a top session programmer and synth player… a fantastic musician who’s getting into producing,” says Margaret. “He’s good for getting a performance and really fussy,” she says.

“I was a bit freaked out with the whole thing to start off with, and I just had to calm down and trust him. Eventually we got some good performances but it took a while! To get live energy on tape is pretty hard to do, and I’ve improved a hundred-fold from beginning to end. Because I’m not a session singer, if the situation’s not right, I just can’t perform.”

Margaret found the whole thing a bit scary. Although she has carried through her career with some determination, she found it “kinda weird doing my own solo thing because I went into it blind. I’ve never had a fixed plan, never sorted myself out, image-wise or whatever.”

The songs, which are grooving but silky smooth and sophisticated, are one-third self-penned, with some contributions from Smith, and even a song by Margaret’s good buddy Dave Dobbyn Finding good songs was easy, but finding songs that she felt comfortable singing was another thing. “I have this honesty thing,” she says, “where I have to think ‘this does sound like me’. If it doesn’t feel right I won’t do it, because I don’t want to be caught singing a song that’s not really me. ‘Just joking, it’s not really me guys!’”

 

NOSTALGIA

Having put the finishing touches on the first-born of her second phase, Gary wonders what she thinks when she hears old Peking Man records? Does she start shaking uncontrollably? Does she feel the sudden urge to get blind drunk? Does she want to hurt someone? Does she feel a teeny weeny bit embarrassed?

“It’s not embarrassing,” she says. “It’s funny, I bluffed my way in I guess, and I can hear that it’s a bit that way. There comes a time when you have to stop bluffing and take it a bit more seriously. It’s good training. It’s good to hear an improvement, too,” she says, visibly wincing.

 

SEEDKNEE

Halfway through the recording, Margaret upped and moved to Sydney semi permanently. It made sense: ragey nightlife, always something to do. And her swanky apartment in Kings Cross put her right in the middle of it all. While Margaret admits there are lots of good reasons to live in Sydney, she doesn’t take kindly to typical rocking Ockers, and doesn’t see herself fitting in easily with the Australian Cold Chisel legacy still thriving. Citing talented Kiwi Dave Dobbyn as someone who was seduced, submerged and spewed up by the Aussie rock industry, Margaret is a little cynical. “Dave’s been working Australia for six years. I did a tour with him, and it’s hard yakker, because they’re not very open to things that are different.”

She’s keen to give of her best, however, and itching to get back into onstage mode. I really want to be known as a live performer,” she says. “If I’m not doing any live work I tend to go a bit loopy. It’s a real release for me, like therapy. I get neurotic if I don’t do it. I start to feel all pent-up and frustrated… I like to entertain, to move a lot and be strong onstage.”

 

BOOM CRASH

Gary gets all worked up and asks the Big One. What if it flops, Margaret? “Aargh! (Pause). You try and be philosophical. It’s like, basically, the biggest thing I’ve ever done, and it is personal, and for it not to be accepted is a personal thing as well. But I’m also aware that it’s not necessarily an indication as to whether the music’s good. I’m lucky… the other Cats are all going through the same thing (budding solo careers).”

Whatever, she reasons, at least she’s kept her individuality. “There are so many female artists and they’re all so disposable. I would prefer to make a really good record that I knew was good and I was respected by my peers, and then do a better record the next time, and not just have this runaway success… ‘here’s a chick singer, let’s see what we can get’. I see myself making records for a while, and I want it to be honest. I just want to stay in control. I want to rid myself of gimmicks, really be just me and see how it goes, because gimmicks don’t last long.”

So there’ll be no shortening the name to Margie, in the great tradition of Tiffany, Martika, Sinitta, Sonia, etc? Yes, she says, it was suggested. No, she says, it’s not easy being female in the wake of Kylie. “Every record company would LOVE a Kylie, because they pay the bills. I think Kylie’s fine, but… it’s hard when you don’t fit into a mould and you think ‘maybe I should be a bit sexier and try to appeal to this market, fluff about a bit and wiggle my bum a bit more.”

 

SIGNS

Last year, Gary was surprised to see Margaret fronting a soft-core Christian music television programme called Signs Of The Times. Is she religious?

“No! No way. I wanted to do Signs Of The Times because kids would get into it. It’s hard to grow up these days. I’d hate to be 18 again, because of the pressure. Girls find it hard to make their own mark on the world, but they definitely can. It’s hard to find your thing, and I’m lucky because I’ve found a real outlet, but I remember when I was that age… ‘what am I going to do?’ It has always taken care of itself, but I guess I’ve been lucky.”

Margaret was herself one of the education system’s failures. “I never thought I was ambitious. I hated school, fluffed around, didn’t do very well. I was sluggish about life. I hadn’t found what I wanted to do.

“You’re taught that because you didn’t do well in this exam that you’re a failure. Hopefully the school system’s changing, but I went to a Catholic girl’s school, and the options just weren’t there.”

What’s important for Margaret is “loving music and having a pure energy for what I’m doing, and trying not to compromise myself.” She admits that she has been lucky, but doesn’t see the point of working at a job that you despise. Follow your dreams instead. “It’s essential that you’re not just working to save money to buy clothes to go out to get drunk… humans are creative, that’s what separates us from animals.”

END BIT

When The Cat’s Away: “It was a wonderful thing, but it’s time to move on for all of us.” Favourite singers: “KD Lang… a white chick singing country with so much soul; Joni Mitchell… a wonderful singer, and so honest.” Catholicism: “There’s guilt, a confusion you’ve got to work through.” Astrology: “I’m a Capricorn, and I surround myself with Sagittarians. Mao Zedong and Jesus Christ were Capricorns!”

 

  • This piece was originally the cover story of the November 1989 issue of RTR Countdown magazine.

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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