Born in Glasgow, Scotland, McDowall's first venture into music was in the Poems, an art-punktrio formed in 1978 with her then-husband Drew McDowall. She formed Strawberry Switchblade in 1981 with Jill Bryson. After signing with Warner Bros. Records they enjoyed chart success with their single "Since Yesterday" in 1984; however later singles and an album did not sell as well as expected. This and internal problems lead to an acrimonious split in 1986.
At the same time, she formed a folk rock band called Sorrow with then-husband Robert Lee. Between 1993 and 2001, they released two albums and one EP through World Serpent Distribution and performed in Europe and the US. During this time, McDowall continued to record and perform with Current 93 and Coil, including the short-lived group Rosa Mundi. Robert Lee left the band in 2002. McDowall and her remaining bandmates continued to perform under the name until 2005 when she began performing under her own name.