Though out Scottish singer-songwriter Horse McDonald may not be widely known in the United States, she’s something of a legend in the U.K. — especially to lesbian fans. After years of working with major record labels, scoring a number of U.K. and European chart hits and touring with Tina Turner, Horse has gone solo and is about to cross the pond to the U.S. with her seventh album, Red Haired Girl.
"This is my seventh album, and it just feels to me that now is my time," Horse said. "I really hope that it is going to happen and that people give it a chance, to hear the music. I could have given up a long time ago, but I kept on with it because I truly believe that when people have access to it, they love it."
Like her strikingly unusual moniker, Horse’s voice is completely original; it’s raw and powerful, emotive and honest, like your lover’s pleading while you’re in an all-out argument. It has gotten her through decades of being out and being a musician, issues she’s dealt with since her self-proclaimed "gender and sexuality dysmorphia" that led her to self-expression through art and music as a child.
"I think my own development as a person and an artist has been a struggle, to say the very least," said Horse, now 49. "The label that I signed to first, Capitol, was excited by me, but the problem was they didn’t know what the hell to do with me."
Her name comes from the band she was once a part of, a U.K. trio named Horse; she eventually took that name for herself when she went solo. The band came together in the 1980s, first under the names Astrakhan and Rhesus Negative. In 1986, the band signed a publishing deal with EMI and switched their name to Horse. Soon afterward, they appeared on the hit U.K. music show, The Tube, where they piqued the interest of viewers as well as a record executive from Capitol, who signed them in 1987.
The band Horse released their album Forgiven that year, but Horse herself was having vocal issues, and a node was discovered on her vocal cord. She had to undergo an operation and wait out the results — luckily, she came out with the same singing ability as when she went in. There wasn’t much recovery time before the band was opening for B.B. King and Tina Turner.
But when the Gulf War happened, the label halted action with the band, and when they finally began to record again, Horse herself hated the production and the band began falling apart. She started playing gigs on her own as the other members departed, and fans stuck with her and her voice throughout the 1990s.
From the beginning of her burgeoning career in the U.S., Horse has been compared to k.d. lang. "Because she’s gay," Horse said. "She’s a fabulous singer, but we’re very, very different — in terms of performance as well." She’s also been compared to Annie Lennox, Tracy Chapman and Tim Buckley ("Not because I sounded like him, but it was the passion somebody was trying to describe," Horse explained.)
The passion Horse sings with stems from legendary performers whom she credits as inspiration.
"I like to think of myself as possibly a torch singer for the ’90s, and now, like a sort of Dusty Springfield — someone uniquely different that gets up and really sells that song," she said. "When I was growing up she was in the background, and all the singers from that time, I suppose, are immersed in my system. I love that kind of torch singing."
Her intensity could also be credited to the material itself, which is largely autobiographical.
"If you take a song like ‘Destiny,’ which I’m worried about singing only because the song’s about my mom and dad getting older," she said, "I’m going to find that song very hard to sing. I like to think of [a song] as a good painting: You see so many different things … the more you look at it the more things you see.
"Everybody who listens to them or sings them has their own interpretation about them," she continued. "Red Haired Girl is about a personal situation of my own, but someone wrote to me and said, ‘You’ve written this song about my tale, about myself, about my partner that just died.’ That’s not what I wrote about, but it is about somebody being snatched away from you, so if that’s the way they want to interpret it …"