Singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, Buddhist poet and mental health advocate, Emily Maguire is an artist like no other, her remarkable story an inspiration for those who know her music.
Born in London, Emily grew up near Cambridge with no TV at home, a bookworm obsessed by her children’s history books, sport and music, learning to play the piano, cello, flute and recorder.
When she had her first breakdown at 16, diagnosed as acute clinical depression, Emily left home and dropped out of college. A car crash that same year triggered fibromyalgia pain syndrome (FMS), a chronic nervous system disorder that causes constant pain. By the time she was 21, Emily was on walking sticks and registered disabled.
After getting a guitar for her 21st birthday, Emily taught herself to play it using Bob Marley songbooks and started writing songs when a friend by chance suggested it. Her first song was ‘You Do’ (on the album ‘Stranger Place’). The illness suddenly became a blessing in disguise. Unable to work or go to university and with all this time on her hands, Emily wrote hundreds of songs in her bedroom, staring out at the world outside her window.
In constant pain but elated by her creativity, Emily’s mental health deteriorated until on her 23rd birthday she was taken to Fulbourn Hospital in Cambridge in a psychotic state and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In shock, Emily wrote ‘I Thought I Saw’ (on the album ‘Stranger Place’), the only way she could describe her horror at what had happened to her.
A year later, feeling stronger and realising “that all this energy in my head could be something precious, something I could transform into creativity if I chose to” , she wrote ‘I’d Rather Be’ (on the album ‘A Bit Of Blue’), her seminal song about being bipolar.
She moved back to London, recovered from the FMS thanks to Dr Peter Fisher at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, but after her long-term relationship ended in 2002 she had another psychotic breakdown and was sectioned at a hospital in London. Allowed to keep her guitar on the acute ward, she entertained the other patients with Bob Marley songs and wrote a song ‘Falling On My Feet’ (on the album ‘Stranger Place’) which she calls a premonition, four years later performing the song on her own to 4,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall.
A few months after coming out of hospital, in a strange twist of fate, she ended up on a plane to Australia to meet up with an old friend, Australian bass player and producer Christian Dunham. A three-week holiday turned into four years happily living a self-sufficient, eco-friendly life on a goat farm in the Australian bush, in a shack built by Christian from recycled wood, tin and potato sacks.
There Emily recovered her mental health, helped by constant sunshine and a veggie garden, surrounded by animals on the farm and in the hills around the shack. She started writing songs again in a wood and tin yurt built for her by Christian, and became a cheesemaker, financing her first two albums and UK tours by making and selling goats cheese on the farm.
After 7 years of writing songs, Emily finally released her first album ‘Stranger Place’ in 2004 on the record label she’d set up with Christian. They named it ‘Shaktu Records’ after their shack – shack no.2 on the farm.
The opening track ‘The Real World’ on ‘Stranger Place’ won Emily a spot at The Borderline in London to open for David Bowie’s bass player Gail Ann Dorsey, doing her first tour of the UK with Christian playing pubs and clubs.
‘Stranger Place’ had a raw organic sound, just acoustic guitar, drums and bass, and some cello. Her second album ‘Keep Walking’ had a more rich, warm, full sound with Emily playing a borrowed violin, viola and cello to create a string section.
The title track of ‘Keep Walking’ was playlisted on ABC Radio across Australia. On a tour of the UK after Emily and Christian’s wedding in 2007, a fan sent a CD to a producer at BBC Radio 2. Just before they were due to return to Australia, Aled Jones played Emily’s song ‘Back Home’ (on the album ‘Keep Walking’) on his show and Philip Tennant, the manager of The Waterboys, was listening.
Four weeks later, Emily found herself on tour with American legend Don McLean, playing to thousands of people at concert halls across the UK and Ireland culminating in a show at the Royal Albert Hall. Tours with Eric Bibb, Glenn Tilbrook and Roddy Frame followed, while Emily and Christian’s cheese customers in Australia were told they were not coming back.
‘Keep Walking’ was playlisted on Radio 2, Emily was interviewed for The Guardian’s G2, and her interview on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour was chosen for their pick of the week. Her third album ‘Believer’, a ‘masterpiece’ according to Maverick Magazine, won rave reviews in the music press with 2 songs playlisted on Radio 2. Greenpeace used her song ‘Woke Up’ as part of their Copenhagen climate change campaign.
Still no-one knew about her mental health condition. In 2010, with a single on Radio 2 and touring the country as Caffé Nero ‘Artist of the Month’, Emily had a breakdown following a miscarriage (portrayed in her ‘achingly beautiful’ song ‘Banks of the Acheron’ on ‘A Bit Of Blue’).
She decided to go public about her mental illness by publishing an extraordinary book ‘Start Over Again’, a brutally honest and deeply intimate account of her experiences of dealing with bipolar disorder. The book was launched on Radio 2 on World Mental Health Day generating a huge response from listeners.
She described how she had hidden the condition for years until she finally decided to confront the stigma and publish her book: “People said ‘you’re so brave’, but I didn’t feel brave, I just felt completely liberated. I could now talk about it. People could understand where these songs were coming from.”
Following the publication of her book, Emily performed in mental health hospitals and daycare centres in Bristol and Manchester, leaving her audience of staff, carers and patients deeply moved by her songs and inspired by her openness and willingness to share her experiences of psychosis and depression.
After 7 months on the road in 2011 with the former lead singer of Dr Hook, Dennis Locorriere, Emily took time out from touring in 2012 to write and record her fourth studio album ‘Bird Inside A Cage’. Under pressure to write a ‘hit’ song, she became increasingly depressed, culminating in another referral to mental health services and the song ‘Over The Waterfall’ (on the album ‘Bird Inside A Cage’).
Producer Nigel Butler (k.d. lang, Will Young, Robbie Williams) stepped in: “the most musical person I’ve ever met”, according to Emily. He produced the album in his studio in Ross-on-Wye, using Emily’s original demo vocals and creating all the arrangements and orchestrations himself.
Having disappeared again for a year, Emily was not sure anyone would still be interested in her. She made an appeal to her fans for funds to release ‘Bird Inside A Cage’ and was overwhelmed with pledges of support.
With Nigel’s background as one of the main X Factor producers, ‘Bird Inside A Cage’ was the most sophisticated and the most commercial of Emily’s records so far, her trademark lyric-rich songs and supremely emotive voice bathed in lush instrumentation. It was released in July 2013. The fans loved it.
The title track of ‘Bird Inside A Cage’ was written for the award-winning Times journalist Melanie Reid, paralysed in a horse-riding accident in 2010, who described the song as her “candle in the wind moment” in her column in The Times Magazine.
In early 2014, Emily undertook a 3-month tour of mental health hospitals, singing her songs about surviving mental illness for staff and patients in mental health facilities across the south-west of England. The response was overwhelmingly positive. As one member of staff put it: “This should happen more often – the difference in the SUs [service users] is quite amazing.”
Following an intensive tour of Germany in June 2014, while rehearsing for the recording of an instrumental contemporary classical album she had just composed, Emily developed chronic tendonitis in both her arms. She had to cancel all her gigs and was unable to play her instruments for the next 18 months. This caused another breakdown, a deep depression which lasted a year.
In 2016, back on her feet again, Emily published a new book ‘Notes From The North Pole’, a collection of poetry, prose and song lyrics put together during that dark time. She did another tour of mental health hospitals and groups, with some low-key warm-up gigs in the autumn of 2016 building up to the launch of her fifth studio album ‘A Bit Of Blue’ in February 2017.
The album was once again produced by Nigel Butler but had a completely different sound: sparse, exquisite piano and guitar arrangements compared to the multi-layered richness of ‘Bird Inside A Cage’. As Emily says, “I knew I wanted to call it ‘A Bit Of Blue’ and I knew I wanted it stripped bare, haunting and as beautiful as it could possibly be.”
Despite its dark tones, Emily’s message in ‘A Bit Of Blue’ is one of hope and optimism. As the sleeve notes state, “I wanted to say that even in the midst of suffering there is hope, there is potential, there is even joy. That a bit of blue is sometimes a good thing: to make you think, reassess, change direction, find some freedom in this crazy world we live in.”
Songs from the new album were played on BBC Radio across the UK with the uplifting single ‘For Free’ played on Radio 2. Together with Christian, Emily toured arts centres across the UK, delighted to be singing her songs again and entrancing audiences wherever she went.
Emily is passionate about songwriting. saying in a press interview that “music to me is all about uplifting, comforting and inspiring people”. On her old MySpace page, she cited Bach, Bob Marley and Buddha as her influences. A practising Buddhist for over 20 years, her albums are all dedicated to her teacher Lama Jampa Thaye.
As an advocate for mental health, Emily has spoken frequently in the media about combating the stigma of mental illness. In 2013 she was interviewed by Libby Purves for ‘Midweek’ on BBC Radio 4, talking about her book ‘Start Over Again’ and her experiences of dealing with bipolar disorder.
In 2017, she was interviewed by Coronation Street actress Cherylee Houston for a Radio 4 programme called ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’, talking about chronic pain, creativity and her bipolar condition. She was also interviewed by Clare Balding for BBC Radio 2, talking about her music, mental health and Buddhist faith.
In October 2017, Emily performed at the World Congress of Psychiatry in Berlin before heading to Australia in December to spend time with Christian’s family and to start recording her next album.
In 2018 she performed more gigs for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust at mental health hospitals in Cambridge and did a 6-month UK tour of arts centres with Christian. In October, the US-based International Society For Bipolar Disorders announced that she had won the 2019 Mogens Schou Award For Public Service and Advocacy, which was presented to her at their annual international conference in Sydney.
At the end of 2018 Emily toured bookshops and Buddhist centres in the UK to promote her third book ‘Meditation Mind’, a book of poetry inspired by her Buddhist practice and featured on BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts programme ‘Front Row’. In January 2019, disillusioned by Brexit, Emily and Christian moved back to Australia to the goat farm in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland where they used to live. Living in the wooden house that had replaced Christian’s old shack (which had been eaten by termites), they started work on Emily’s sixth studio album. Then came Covid and the world changed. As lockdowns began, their plans to return to tour the UK each year had to be put on hold indefinitely. The Australian border was shut and Emily didn’t see her family again for the next 2½ years.
In December 2020 Emily and Christian released a film and a free live album of their gig at Eudlo
Hall in Australia as a Christmas present for her fans. They had performed the gig on 17 October 2020 before a small Covid-restricted audience with English sisters Sarah and Louise King playing Emily’s string arrangements. Emily loves composing for strings – “one of my favourite things to do”. As a classically trained cellist herself, she has featured strings in all her albums since borrowing a cello to record her debut album ‘Stranger Place’ back in the very beginning of her career.
In 2021, Emily published her first songbook for guitar and also her fourth book, a collection of stream-of-consciousness poems called ‘Words With Wings’, each written after her daily Buddhist meditation practice. She recorded all these poems and set them to her own original piano music, offering this digital album as part of the book.
In November 2021 Shaktu Records released a double-album ‘The Collection’, a selection of of songs from Emily’s first five albums. In 2022 Emily and Christian began touring rural community halls in Australia – “perfect spaces for a concert”. Emily’s long-awaited sixth album ‘A Light To Follow’ was released in February 2023.
Emily is now based back in the UK recovering from a year-long severe bipolar episode. When she fully recovers her mental health in 2024, she plans to do intimate house concerts and gigs for mental health/community organisations and groups around the UK instead of touring as before. Her albums and books are no longer available to order online through her website. Her six albums including ‘A Light To Follow’, released just before her return to the UK, are available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and other digital music platforms. All the lyrics can be found on her website.
Read her latest blog here.