The phrase ‘Big Personality’ may well have been coined for this week’s story. Scatty, fun, loud and eccentric Ali Pibworth is the Small City’s very own rock and roll diva. Driven by a wild and wonderful soul this gorgeous lady has built an unconventional life in music and taken everyone she knows and loves along with her for the ride.
Ali was born in Dumfries and was adopted at 5 weeks old by her Mum and Dad who had been trying for a baby for some years; surprise, surprise, after they relaxed with the gorgeous baby Ali in their lives pregnancy happened and three years later her little brother arrived to make the happy family complete.
Her dad was an engineer and they moved around a lot before nurse Mum eventually got fed up with the flitting and brought her family up to her home town of Perth.
“My parents are amazing and very clever people so I’ve always known I was adopted – it wasn’t one of those big shocks when I turned 12 jobs. When I was 25 my birth mum got in touch and suddenly I had another two sisters, Holly and Emma, and a whole new side to my family. My birth mum was only 19 when she had me and I found out that she had written to social work every single time she moved house for twenty five years just in case I had ever gone looking for her.
It was difficult for everyone at first, I think, but we’ve all come to terms with it. No-one’s family is Mum, Dad and 2.2 kids anymore – although, I suppose I maybe thought we were. The thing is, we can all use all the family we can get, so it’s worked out to be our version of perfect.”
Ali is rock and roll personified when we meet; she’s slightly hungover from a gig at The Green Room the night before, she’s been coaching her DIY Rock Shop kids all morning and although it is Saturday lunchtime in Perth City Centre she is wearing a fabulous black dress and heavy eye make-up. She looks like she might just get up from our table and give the restaurant a quick guitar set. Her company is glorious – you feel as though anything might happen and we agree I’ll stick to water in case the whole damn thing ends up at 1am in The Loft.
“I think I’m much more mellow now in my thirties – I spent a lot of my twenties being angry about things. Everything seemed so huge. Really important things happen to you – my Dad died last year and we lost my brother’s wonderful fiancée in an accident – and you realise that you need to get things in perspective.
I was devastated when I lost my dad; he was an amazing man and his record collection was probably the reason I fell in love with music. The first album I listened to properly was The Beatles – I asked him if he had ‘When I’m 64’ and he pulled out the Sgt Pepper original. I developed an obsession with vinyl there and then.”
Ali’s mum was – and still is – a huge fan of The Corries and she recalls a leather tape box, full of folk music that would sit between her and her brother, Ian, on long trips up to her Granny’s in Perth. The idea was it would keep them seperated enough to stop the arguing. Although her mum and dad listened to all sorts of music – she thought the Rolling Stones were rubbish on first listen – they didn’t play but Ali knew from a young age that she wanted to be a musician and kept on at them until they relented!
“I did play violin in P1 but the teacher ran off with all the money so that stopped that! I had an obsession with the bagpipes after one lot of Highland Games but I ended up playing the recorder rather than the chanter. I was a good player though, and moved on to treble in P5. I remember my teacher Mr Moore… he was legendary. He had the best haircut ever.
So by the time I was, like, nine I was begging for a piano and I got one that Christmas. It’s still the exact same piano I play on today. I got lessons from Mr Gordon above Wilkies and he was a brilliant teacher – I was playing classical and started doing grades. I got as far as Grade 1 which I did get a distinction for but by Grade 2 I had refused to do anymore and failed. I had spent eight years of my life playing piano for only my teacher and by then I wanted to play what I was interested in. So I started to rebel!
I was a nightmare teenager. Nightmare. My whole life I’ve always been described as eccentric – my brother Ian would just roll his eyes and my Dad would be all.. ‘What’s she up to now?’. He called me Lal, which I miss because I don’t hear it anymore…”
Ali may have put down the classical piano but at 15 she picked up a guitar and was instantly bitten by the rock and roll bug.
“It all clicked into place. I knew there and then that music was all I ever wanted to do. I started writing songs with my best friend and we’d hang out in my room or sit up in our garage smoking and thinking we were cool.
My first band was with three boys – Roddy Bader, Dave Fyans and Coco Brown. It was called Hot Rod Hamster, although just after I joined we changed the name to Novakane. Our first gig was in The Grill bar when I was 16 – I think I still have the flyer actually.
The Grill was a brilliant place for me because suddenly I wasn’t so different - I fitted in among these people. They always thought I was a year older than I was, mainly because I lied about my age. When I celebrated my 18th there I was only actually 17. You couldn’t do that now.
We used to think that velvet jackets were the key to getting served; we were convinced they made us look twenty-something. We’d come in, head straight to the back and send the oldest looking person to the bar for 8 snakebites and black.”
Ali moved from playing classical piano for her teacher to playing in front of pub crowds, and for her wild young soul it was addictive. Novakane split after two gigs following the bold Ali announcing on stage that they were the supporting act at another local gig. She hadn’t spoken to the other band members about this or run the idea past anyone and so after their set she was promptly sacked by Dave, the guitarist.
“I phoned the promoter and said we couldn’t do it after all but that I’d like to help promote what he was doing. So there I was, 16 and kicking about with these two bands who were touring from London - Jocasta and Cecil. There was this very fatherly roadie who asked me what I was doing in Perth and who convinced me I should be doing more in music.
I went down to London to hang out for a bit and on my first day back, I was in Glasgow and I was asked to take a bag to a gig where The Sneakerpimps were supporting Blur.
To appreciate how huge that was, you have to understand that when I was 15 I missed my history exam so that I could stand in line with my friend Suki to see Blur from the front row.
Anyway, after dropping off the bag, I ended up at the aftershow party and that’s when I thought ‘I need to be able to do this ALL the time!’. I was stupid excited - it was the thing that really prompted my move down to London permanently.
When I moved, I was living in Camden and hanging out in the music scene; I mean it was the arse end of the scene but it was a scene. I worked in a pub called The Queen and the young, cool set of the time hung out there. Nenah Cherry, Jude Law, Dennis Pennis… it was nuts. In fact my Blur obsession was fully satisfied when I ended up getting drunk on whisky with Graham Coxon.
I was miles from home and I think I spoke to my mum more while I was in London than I had for the whole of my teenage years. I remember coming back from the pub one night and finding a drunk, legless Scotsman outside my flat – this was a man with literally no legs, he was in a wheelchair. I wheeled him to the nearest phonebox and called my mum like it was the only possible solution.”
Ali had a residency playing guitar and singing her own stuff in the Rock Garden in Covent Garden and together with her then boyfriend she set up the Virtual Festivals website, a magazine style site that toured festivals interviewing bands and doing lead in line ups and promos. It was exciting times but she was beginning to feel homesick and had started to come back to Perth at weekends, hanging out with her brother’s friends that included a band called PMX.
“I made a decision to come back and work with them and another band called Dirtbox. From there I started booking bands for Curly Lloyds and The Grill. I started Battle of the Bands with Neil Collis and that then started Junior Battle of The Bands where 14 year old kids like John McKenzie and Tom Mitchell played for the first time. That was really the first sparks of Rock Shop.
My brother’s friend, Doug – who is now my brother-in-law by the way - was working in Clearwater studios and he was always inviting me down to hang out. That’s when I met Donny - he was in Southpaw at the time. We started going out in the November and by the following September I was pregnant with Tennessee.”
Tennessee was born the following July when Ali was 23 years old.
“Southpaw had a gig in Dundee that day and Donny tried to persuade me to wait in the car, in labour, while he played his set.”
Theirs was a passionate and feisty relationship but with a new baby in the mix, there was no room for two gigging musicians. Southpaw was doing good things at the time and Donny's position as the working musician overtook Ali’s own haphazard career.
However, just a couple of years later The Bothy opened and was looking for a piano player to play a Saturday night set. She hadn’t played in years but had one showpiece memorised that she knew could see her through the interview.
“I went in and played it, they loved it and said ‘start a week on Saturday. You play from 8 to midnight.’ It sounds great but it meant I had to learn four hours of piano in ten days. I was SO nervous; Dave Will from The Postbox was the assistant manager at the time and he brought me a large red wine and off I went.
It was amazing; people really liked it and I had an excuse to be out and socialising. I used to do a bit of hostess stuff if they were busy, sometimes I’d jump behind the bar and serve, but mainly I was playing piano for four hours every Saturday night. It was an amazing team of people and everyone was like one big family.
I remember the English National Opera came to play at the Concert Hall and were in for dinner. I had seven or eight members standing round my piano singing The Spice Girls songs – fun fact! I did six years in total, with some breaks and I loved every minute – well, except when people requested Elton John and Coldplay.”
Her life change came when Tennessee started school and she went back to college to do an HNC in music performance. She had started to realise that she’d missed out on the education and the opportunities that might bring. This was the beginning of the mellower Ali, the less angry Ali, and as her twenties came to an end and her own baby entered education, she knew it was time to do something for herself.
To understand Ali fully you have to appreciate that underneath that eccentric exterior and wild child image beats an extremely passionate heart and exceptionally bright mind. She is both emotionally and creatively smart, with a razor sharp wit that can turn even the most mundane events into hilarious anecdotes. She is slightly nervous all the time, outwardly brimming with confidence but with occasional glimpses of her vulnerable artist’s soul and compassionate, love all, nature.
She loves music and musicians. In a very simple and raw way it makes her who she is. She is not an ambitious person, but rather she is passionate in the truest sense of the word. Her HNC turned into an honours degree that saw her spend four years spanning her late twenties and early thirties honing her craft and understanding that innate part of a musician that makes them tick.
“I was in a class with 17 and 18 year olds and I was so worried I was going to be like an old mum. But I connected with my group – Ciaron Judge, Dylan Pepper and Daryl Hockin – and it got me through. Donny and I split towards the end of my first year which we kind of knew was coming; we had a some great times over seven years and we obviously share a child but it was done.
It took me four years to prove my musical credentials but eventually it happened. I think as a group of musicians we had a unity and I had begun to understand what it meant to be part of something real.”
It was towards the end of her fourth year that she had the idea for DIY Rock Shop, her now well-established business for young musicians. As her own confidence grew she recalled how, as a young teenager, she had been scared to get out and play. She’d venture into Bandwagon slightly intimated by Pete Caban (which she laughs loudly at now) and that memory has her convinced that half of the problems experienced by young musicians come from nerves and fear rather than any lack of actual musical talent.
“First and foremost DIY Rock Shop teaches kids how to be more gallus. In all my years of private music lessons I had only ever played for my teacher and myself. They teach you Scottish schlep and musical tunes and although a good teacher – of which there are many – will give you an amazing grounding and help you with technical instruction, that feeling of playing with, and in front of, other people can only be experienced when you swallow down your nerves and get up there and do it. Confidence and passion are what young musicians need most – everything else can be taught.
The problem, until DIY Rock Shop came along, was that there was nowhere for kids to access this. If you are more rock and roll than musical grades what do you do? I ended playing in The Grill at 15 because there were no other outlets for me – it was my only opportunity. How can that be okay?
Actually, if you think about it, I’m saving kids from the pub! How ironic is that!?”
Cue loud belly laughs and she takes a long swig of her wine and we both agree this should be her new T-Shirt slogan.
DIY Rock Shop started four years ago and a large group of the first kids remain with her today. They meet at Clearwater Studios, form bands, practice sessions together and create real music that they love. All of this happens under the wild and wonderful eye of Ms Ali Pibworth. She is unrelenting in her mission, talking about ‘her kids’ to anyone who will listen and drawing on her huge network of talented musicians to bring about experiences that grown artists would cut their arm off for!
“We started off doing a week long course in the holidays and it progressed to weekend blocks which were so successful we now run more or less all through the school term with special events in holidays. The great thing is the kids want to be there – it’s not something their parents are making them do. It’s all driven by their enthusiasm.
There has to be shows, has to be. I just think, what’s the point of knowing it all if you can’t show off? You’ve worked hard, you have a talent that 90% of people will never have… you need a stage.
That’s why I want them to have real experiences – when we opened the stage for Southern Fried Festival last year I have never been prouder. We’re doing the same this year – both days. We’ve played Doune The Rabbit Hole, The Tams, The Corinna and Book Your Ain Fest in Dundee.
We have sessions with local musicians all the time – it’s a great leveller for the kids because it shows them that regardless of fame or success, we’re all just the same.
Two years ago they had sessions with some of the artists from Southern Fried including Cindi Caine who is now one of my favourite people ever. She’s this big star and she just came in and asked the kids to show her what they could do. She invited them up on stage with her at the Festival and had them eating out of the palm of her hand. Two weeks before they didn’t know who Aretha Franklin was and there they were, on stage doing gospel with Cindi Caine. It made them feel like stars.”
Ali tells me she does feel possessive and also a bit nervous – as though they are her children. She isn’t really a woman for rules though and you can imagine they have a fairly free rein. However, this is one of the reasons it works. Tennessee joins in sporadically.
“She loves the Stone Roses just now – I knew the Bass Player of course but I can’t say that or I’ll burst the bubble. She plays guitar and sings but never really in front of me or her Dad. The daughter of two musicians can’t really rebel when her parents have spent her entire life going ‘Ta-Dah we’re all doing music!’.
Sometimes it is like work and it is difficult but when you see them up there, playing and doing their thing it’s all worth it.”
This year, Clearwater Studios moved from their old portacabin into new premises at The ice Factory and DIY Rock Shop has gone with them. Now run by Fiona Munro, Clearwater has been home to Rock Shop since way back at the beginning and Ali is adamant in her resolve that they would never have made it as a business if it hadn’t been for the support of Fiona.
“The new premises are AMAZING and we are all so excited. Fiona has been my rock, she’s so together and so professional. To see her do well is such a buzz and to know that we’re all going to be part of it, me and the kids, is brill.”
Of course, anyone who follows Perth’s live music scene will know that as well as pushing a bunch of young kids up on stage, Ali is also back gigging herself and showing her face out and about. She hosts the Open Mic in Twa Tams on a Thursday night – where of course the kids are allowed to play until 10pm – and the night before our interview, she was supporting Colonel Mustard and The Dijon 5 with The True Gents.
“I’ve been playing for a couple of people on their new albums, putting piano down for them. I do love the haphazardness of it all. I’ve never had a proper job in my life – it’s been pubs and session music and now DIY Rock Shop and that suits me perfectly. It’s an odd life I guess, and I certainly couldn’t have done it without my Mum and Dad.
They have supported me emotionally, financially and have been by my side helping bring up Tennessee. We live next door to my Mum, we cut a hole in the fence so Tennessee could climb through. I can’t say enough about them.”
As I look across at this crazy lady, I can’t help but think ‘This shouldn’t work’. If she Dragons Denned it Deborah would have a field day with her. But it does work; it works just perfectly because it is real, it is authentic and it was born out of a genuine and passionate belief that these kids deserve to be heard their way.
Ali Pibworth orders another wine and tells me a couple of stories I can’t begin to write down for fear of either her Mum or mine calling and giving me a row. Her smile is wide, her soul is generous and her heart sits proudly on her sleeve, exposing her love for the crazy and beautiful life she has built submerged in the music of her kids, her peers and own rock and roll self.
Twa Tams Open Mic: Wan Mair Tune at The Tams
Next Rock Shop Show: Sunday 19th June, 4pm at Perth Playhouse
Next Ali Gig: The Twa Tams with Mr T on Friday 3rd June
Southern Fried Festival pics by Marc Marnie and Ali on Keyboards by Angie B Photography.