NATIONAL TREASURE JIMMY SOMERVILLE DOESN’T HAVE A TYPE OR A GAG REFLEX
54-year-old Scot Jimmy Somerville arrives at his manager's office on bicycle, whizzing past the photographer and I, who have stopped to gawk at a parked Maserati among the council estates. He's compact and fit, perfectly suited for the hazards of cycling in London. With his former bandmates in Bronski Beat, Jimmy wrote two of the most iconic gay anthems, 'Smalltown Boy' (pink triangle emblazoned across its seven inches) and 'Why?' in 1984, when queers had few allies under Reagan and Thatcher. With his alarm call of a voice, which extends over three full octaves and has been known to shatter glass on occasion, he had continued success with The Communards, plus a steady stream of solo records. This year, he released 'Homage', a collection of instant disco classics, and now his sound is taking a surprising detour.
Danny: What I loved about the ‘80s is that there was more room for original voices in pop music. Weird voices, odd voices, like yours… Why do you think are there so few original voices in pop music these days?
Jimmy: People tend to like it easy. I wouldn’t be able to put a face to any of these voices – they all sound the same. And even the boys all sound the same.
Is the music industry scared to take risks?
I just wonder if we’re all scared to take risks. Even the way that we dress now… When I first started, the whole thing was just about trying to be yourself. Now companies have become very aware of the money to be made from subcultures. Just as soon as something pops up, it’s swamped, it’s uprooted and it’s mass-produced. There’s no respect for someone’s originality or their uniqueness.
Why have you always sung in this falsetto voice?
It’s a countertenor, and it’s the most natural voice for me to sing in. It just comes out. It’s not a forced thing… I didn’t choose it, it chose me. There really wasn’t anyone, especially males, who were using this voice.
What about Klaus Nomi or Sylvester?
But my musical listening tended to be female singers like Dusty Springfield, Doris Day, and Peggy Lee. I was totally fascinated by how these white women could have such a powerful, bluesy voices. I had no intention to be a singer, but I loved to sing along… Until Bronski Beat, I was kind of fearful of my voice. When I was younger, I was aware of this tone. I equated it with being inadequate and not being a real man, because men don’t sing like that. I kind of suppressed it. I was ashamed and scared of it because it wasn’t masculine.
Of course Prince uses his highest registers to seduce women, and make himself more vulnerable, more ‘in heat’…
In the animal kingdom, especially birds, the males are always the most flamboyant with color…
You’re a pretty blokey guy, but to what extent is your singing voice a kind of drag?
Well, I have my moments. With Bronski Beat, this voice suddenly became who I was. Because the appeal of ‘Smalltown Boy’, I realized there was something powerful about my voice. There is a soulful, emotional cry in there, and there’s an optimism — that pulsing track and the little hooks. They’re very happy, those little plinky-plonky bursts of sound.
Has your voice ever gotten you into trouble?
It’s got me into trouble lots of times actually. Because of my personal politics and who I was, being so openly gay. That part of my fame got me into trouble.
Did it make you a target?
Oh yeah. Bronski Beat had bomb threats. We had to evacuate venues… And I had to get some police intervention because someone was trying to track down my address.
Did you have a stalker?
They were trying to send something through the post, so we had to kind of like, get that dealt with. I was attacked in the streets many a time. Scary things like being in a taxi and having this massive, mental skinhead trying to pull the door open — the whole time indicating he was going to slit my throat. It became a real cat and mouse game of awareness and vulnerability. It was a bit nuts.
You also had this incident where you were arrested in Hyde Park in 1984.
Yes, for gross indecency.
Fourteen years before George Michael was arrested on similar charges, by the way.
I used to go there all the time, so it was only a matter of time before I got caught.
What did the police officer do to entrap you?
They didn’t entrap me. It was me and this boy, and there were two men over that way — they looked like they were having sex, but they were police officers. They waited until I started sucking this guy’s dick. The charge in court was ‘the oral manipulation of an erect penis’ — no wonder we changed it to blowjobs. Can you imagine walking up to someone and saying, ‘Excuse me, may I orally manipulate your erect penis?’.
Did you have to pay a fine?
I paid my fine, and I paid his fine.
In your song ‘To Love Somebody’, you had this sort of reggae vibe going on. It’s interesting when gays play around with reggae because it’s such a typically-homophobic genre… Would you ever go reggae again?
That’s in the past. That was a time before reggae was hijacked by your Buju Bantons and that kind of stuff. Reggae was quite political in the UK, so you can see why I liked it.
How do you use your political voice now that gays are so perfectly integrated in the UK? You can get married, you can adopt children, and you are protected from discrimination in most aspects of daily life. It’s become so normal to be gay.
Legislation is legislation — it doesn’t stop someone from whacking you over the head with a hammer.
This is the first known recording of Jimmy Somerville from ‘Framed Youth: The Revenge of the Teenage Perverts’, a documentary film he appeared in with Richard Coles, produced by the London Lesbian and Gay Youth Video Project in 1982.
How has your voice changed over the years?
Depends on what I’ve eaten. If my stomach’s full, I’m fucked. I keep forgetting not to drink whole milk in my coffee. It kind of puts this film on my throat. I had my tonsils looked at recently. They look really sexy. Have you ever seen your tonsils?
No, I haven’t.
Oh my god, they’re really long. And they’ve got a long slit, so they look really…
Like a vagina?
They really do. And mine are all smooth, freshly shaved, and I’ve got no lumps or bits on them. The specialist said my vocal chords are like what they would have been thirty years ago.
It’s more to do with what I drink and what I eat.
What kind of foods do you tend to avoid?
I eat the same things more or less every day.
Oh really. Like what?
For like years, it will always be broccoli, rice, spinach, beans, tomatoes, and fish or chicken — it tends to be fish. It’s always the same. Sometimes I go out and eat something.
Do you have porridge for breakfast?
No, but what I do is soak my muesli the night before.
Do you sing in the shower?
I usually talk to myself rather than sing.
Do you live alone?
Are you single?
Besides avoiding milk, how do you care for your voice?
I don’t get too precious about my voice. Maria Callas said sucking cock is really good for the voice. Sometimes, I would go cruising and have some sex before a gig. It’s incredible how long I can hold my breath. I don’t take big gasps when I’m singing. I draw in breath, but you would never hear it, you would never know that I was actually breathing.
Your special breathing technique…
Do you ever find yourself going out dancing?
No, no, no… That kind of thing, it doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I don’t go chasing adrenaline rushes anymore. If it happens, it happens.
What’s your idea of an exciting Saturday night?
I get excited when I’ve cracked a melody in my songwriting. Or I’ll go online, looking for potential boyfriends, or just chatting to people. And I’ll have my Garage Band open.
Do you have a home studio.
Just my laptop and Garage Band. That’s all I need. I’ve got the next album kind of ready to go.
I’m going back to a West Coast sound.
What’s the West Coast sound?
Like Bread and The Eagles and that kind of stuff. I’m creating songs about the time when I moved from that soft West Coast sound into full-on disco. I moved from Bread onto the dance floor, really.
Are you going to make a soft rock record?
It’s not quite soft rock. It’s got that bluesy element to it, which I can’t escape. It’s just part of my DNA.
So nobody is going to convince you to make a techno record?
I get asked to do things, and I just say no. I’m just focusing on me. Me, me, me… I don’t give a fuck about reaching younger people.
Anything else that you would like to get off your chest?
Yeah, I want to add a little description of the kind of guy that I like, and then if there’s any potential singles, they can write in…
Sure. What kind of guys do you like?
I don’t have a type. I’m just greedy.
That’s the second time you’ve mentioned that today.
It’s true. It’s just really true. As gay men, we are our own worst enemies because we’re greedy fuckers.
So many guys are looking for daddies. I should start a daddy dating service.
I still never quite get my head around it. It’s like, I shouldn’t be going looking for it. If it’s there, it’s there. But I still have this idea that I have to go out and look for it.
Where do you think you might find this boyfriend if you’re not clubbing anymore?
Absolutely, it’s impossible.
Do you belong to any like social clubs, like a cycling club? My boyfriend was telling me about Outdoor Lads. Have you heard of them?
Oh god no, I’m not into group activities.
Do you want to date someone your own age?
That’s kind of an interesting one. I don’t even know I want to date somebody, really.
You just want them to move right in.
Not even that. I just want them to kind of like, you know, use me every now and again, and then fuck off so I can get on with what I need to do. Again, it’s all very selfish.
Is it difficult to meet guys because you’re Jimmy Somerville?
No. I used to use Gaydar. There’s another website I quite like, which every now and again I would rejoin. It’s called Squirt.
Oh yes, they’re mapping out cruise areas as well, no?
Yeah, and it’s funny when you read it actually, because they get them all wrong.
Look, there’s an active cottage just five hundred meters away from your manager’s office…
I’ve met some really interesting guys through Squirt, nice guys. I’m just waiting for the day that suddenly, he’s there in front of me, and the spark just happens.
It’ll happen if you’re open to it, I guess.
Absolutely. You have to be available. Sometimes you don’t actually even realize that you’re not.
Happy Pride! Jimmy Somerville plays live this Saturday, 27 June 2015 at the Berliner Rundfunk Open Air in Berlin. For other dates and all things Jimmy, check out his official website.