Interview: Marc Almond
A shorter version of this interview was originally commissioned for the Nottingham Evening Post. Here’s the full transcript of our conversation, which took place on Friday June 1st 2007.
Let’s start by talking about the new album, Stardom Road. It’s a covers album, with most, if not all, of the songs taken from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. There’s nothing after the Seventies, is there?
No, because I was a baby of the Fifties, a child of the Sixties and a teenager of the Seventies, and those were the decades that really shaped me. Obviously, the Eighties part of my career is very well known – but I did toy with a couple of songs from the Nineties at one point, by Pulp and Suede. But they were too much already in my own world, if you see what I mean. The artists are too associated with those tracks, and I didn’t feel I could bring anything different to them. I did record a song with Antony & the Johnsons, but that’s only available as a specific download. So most of the songs are from those decades, because I felt those were the decades that shaped my influences and shaped my life.
I’m curious to know which particular Pulp and Suede songs you were thinking of…
I can’t say, in case I ever decide in the future… I’m not going to say! (Laughs)
Fair enough! I shall speculate on that at leisure.
Oh, I’ll tell you actually. It’s a song by Pulp called Live Bed Show, which I really loved, but I couldn’t find the right angle for it. It was the title that appealed to me more than anything. And a track by Suede called Still Life, from Dog Man Star. But I felt I was just being a little bit indulgent, really. I had to have somebody throughout the making of the album – it was Tris Penna, the producer – doing the A&R-ing for me, and saying: no, no, you’ve got to concentrate on the songs that make the album flow. Talking me into different directions from being plainly self-indulgent. If I’d just made an album of random songs which I really loved, it would have been all over the place.
Although you only wrote one of the songs yourself, it strikes me that this is as deeply personal an album as any of your self-penned collections. The song selections all seem to have a very direct, almost autobiographical resonance with your own life – and I think that makes us hear these songs in a different way. Was that the intention?
Yes, it was. When you do an album of cover songs, it’s always very difficult to get that balance right, and to make it sound like one complete record. So I think you have to pick a theme, and a thread which goes all the way through the album – and the thread that seemed to be coming together was that this would give a little musical journey through my life. It doesn’t go to the most obvious places, like the electro side, because that’s already obvious to a lot of people – but I think it’s important to have that running journey, and a running theme.
I wanted to pick songs like the opener by Charles Aznavour, I Have Lived. It’s not a very known Aznavour song, and so I could put my own stamp on it that much more easily. People could listen to the lyrics, and they could really accept it as being a Marc Almond song. Almost a song which could have been written for me, or I could have written. I mean, I wouldn’t put myself in the same class as a songwriter like Charles Aznavour – which is why I like to sing other people’s songs, because I feel there are better songwriters than I ever could be, who can express my ideas better than I sometimes can through my own words.
It’s the second time I can think of that you’ve covered an Aznavour song, because there was What Makes A Man A Man, a number of years ago…
Three times, actually. I’ve also covered Yesterday When I Was Young, on my album Absinthe. The original choice for this album was going to be a song called This Will Be My Day, but I thought that as a lesser known song, I could give I Have Lived much more of a personal stamp, and make it my own.
It’s a great statement of intent. You could almost imagine it as the album’s finale, and it’s interesting that you use it as a kind of overture instead.
I wanted the album to end with a self-written number. After the accident, I couldn’t write songs. I wasn’t in a position to write songs; I wasn’t able to write songs. Then, when I was able to sit down and think about writing some lyrics, I was going through a very bad time with the recovery, and I would always come out with something that was quite depressed and over-melancholic. I wanted this to be a celebration album: the fact I’d got back into the studio again, the fact I’d got my voice back, and that I feel that I’m singing better than ever. I went back to lessons again, and got my confidence back, and I wanted the emotion and the celebratory feeling of actually going back into making a record.
That does come across…
So it was important that I ended the album with a self-written song, to show the way for the future and that I was back writing songs again. Redeem Me is about growing up and moving on, still being the person you are, still being true to yourself, but changing in life and prepared to want different things.
I want to ask you more about Redeem Me a little later on. I particularly like the sequence where you go from Bowie’s London Boys into Strangers in the Night. They’re both examples of songs that, when we hear you sing them, it brings a different context. I mean, London Boys: what an ahead-of-its-time song that is…
It’s still many young people’s experience, when they come to the big city. It has a resonance of today about it. I first heard it when I was about 14, 15 years old, when I bought The World of David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane had been successful, and they reissued all his earlier Sixties stuff. So I heard London Boys, and he was singing about, you know, the first time he took a pill… it was almost dangerous, there was something very provocative and evocative about it. London seemed to be this exciting, dangerous, fantastic place, which draws you to it. When I finally sang it all these years later, sitting in the studio while the orchestra were playing the song, I felt very emotional – and I hope the emotion comes out in the way I sing it.
Indeed, and when you go from that into Strangers in the Night, you’ve still got London Boys in your mind. So you’re thinking of being out in a club, copping off…
I’ve always wanted to do Strangers in the Night. There have been so many versions, and people have been a bit funny about it. They have this kind of prejudice against the song. There are so many cheesy versions of it. But the version that I loved was by Matt Monro; I love those British singers of the Fifties and early Sixties. It’s a song about picking people up casually, anonymously; it has quite a dark edge to it. I wanted to bring some of that out in my version.
I think that works. During the first half of the song, you forget that it transforms, and that you finish with a happy ending. You’re very much in that place of thinking about the anonymous encounters.
But I wrote these extra words, that go round at the end: “Stranger to stranger; lover to stranger; lover to lover; lover to stranger; stranger to stranger.” It’s like the cycle of a relationship: you meet somebody, you fall intensely in love, you know them so well, you have this great relationship, and then a year later you meet them on the street and they ignore you.
Oh God, I know what you’re talking about.
I hope you’ve never been through that experience… (Laughter)
So often now, people want these quick, intense experiences – so it is a nod towards that. But people will either get it or they won’t. It’s a risky one to do, because some people will instantly not like it – but I hope they get my little twist on it.
Indeed. In a way, this almost sounds like an easy listening collection; it positions you as a cabaret crooner. You’ve got a Dusty song, a Sinatra song, The Ballad of the Sad Young Men, which a lot of people associate with Shirley Bassey…
Well, I’ve been there before, with Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart, and some of the songs on Tenement Symphony.
I thought of Tenement Symphony as well. It’s interesting that you’ve gone from an original background in experimental electronic music, into this more cabaret material. It strikes me that you’re travelling in an opposite direction from Scott Walker.
I suppose I’ve got older. I’m not one of these artists who has mellowed or anything – but I’ve been through lots of different styles in my 27 years of making music. I do still like to work in the underground side of music, and sometimes I’ll do a little electro-dance single with a dance producer. Not many people will get to hear it sometimes, but I do it for myself more than anything else. With someone like Scott, for example, he’s gone into being very experimental and underground. I can respect and appreciate him as an artist; he’s doing what he wants to do.
Whatever I’ve done, all through my music, even since the Soft Cell days: in a way, they have always been classic songs. I’ve always come back to classic songs, and classic arrangements of songs – even in the less accessible things that I’ve done. Even when I went to Russia, and made an album of Russian music, I think they were quite old-fashioned songs. There’s an old-fashioned songwriter and balladeer in me – it’s almost music hall.
I think that comes from being brought up in Southport. I’ve got that seaside tradition, which runs through me; it’s in my genes. I worked in a Southport theatre, with an older style of entertainer, so that whole music hall spirit has always inspired me.
You recently said in an interview that you now prefer singing other people’s songs to your own, and that the world has had enough albums of Marc Almond originals.
I’m writing songs at the moment that I’m really pleased with, but I don’t usually fall in love with a lot of my songs for very long. I feel I’ve reached that stage where I’d love to do another album of totally original material, something for my fans and for myself, and I hope people would like it – but I just enjoy singing other people’s songs so much more. It gives me more freedom. There are better songwriters than I’ll ever be, who can say things in better ways than I ever can, and who can write better lyrics and better melodies.
Does that put a lot of pressure on you, though? The thought that your next collection of original material will be your final statement, if you like?
It gives me something to aim for. I love giving myself these kinds of challenges. But it doesn’t mean that I’ll never write another song again. I might write the odd song for this and that – or even for an album, like Redeem Me on this one. I might find the space to write one song that I can love, and I’ll find the opportunity to do that – but I’ll just do one more album which is completely of Marc Almond songs. I do feel that the world doesn’t really need them.
Through doing this album, I’ve listened to so many songs. There are so many albums that I’ve re-discovered, and songs which I’ve never heard before, and I’m thinking: God, there are so many great songs out there, and there’s so little time to sing them.
My fans would probably love another Marc Almond album. I would love it for me, because writing songs gets something out of me, and I’d just put the demos in a box under my bed and never release them. That would tidy things up for me.
Well, I enjoyed Redeem Me. As a reformed party boy myself, I could appreciate the sentiments. But a friend of mine, who’s a big fan of yours, claims that he doesn’t believe you. He thinks that there’s a small part of you that still yearns to “dance through subterranean chambers”, as the song puts it.
And he could very well be right there! (Laughter) All I can say is that I definitely still like to dance a lot of the time – but nights are a little earlier. Not so many late nights.
Indeed. Most of my dancing is confined to the kitchen floor these days…
I DJ sometimes in clubs as well, so I will always like that world. As Redeem Me says, I’ll always be true to the person I am. I’ll still be the same person that I’ve always been, liking the same things. I just want different things in my life now, as well. It’s nice to have a little bit of light, as opposed to just the darkness.