British singer-songwriter Marc Almond's music career began in 1980 when he and keyboardist Dave Ball started the groundbreaking synth-pop act Soft Cell. The duo scored a 1981 international hit when they dusted off a little-known 1960s R&B song called "Tainted Love" and turned it into a thoroughly modern dance track. The song's original video is one for Freud to analyze: Almond dressed as a Roman emperor angrily singing to a little girl as he repeatedly rebuffs a Victorian woman's love offering of fruit. Also: A fish tank figures prominently.
After Soft Cell split in 1984, Almond began a wildly adventurous solo career, releasing critically acclaimed albums that explore electronica, torch songs, French ballads, Russian folk numbers — even an album featuring spoken word homoerotica written by Frenchmen Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, and Arthur Rimbaud.
Earlier this month Almond released the gorgeous The Velvet Trail, which landed him in the Top 40 on the British album charts for the first time in years. Its first single, the melancholy "Scar," is earning raves from fans old and new.
It's an especially sweet victory since the singer five years ago vowed he would never record original music again. That is, until hit-making British producer Chris Braide (Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Lana Del Rey, ) stepped in.
Almond answers a few pressing questions about working with Braide, singing with punky divas like Siouxsie Sioux and Beth Ditto, and introducing sleazy sex to a generation of 1980s teens.
The Advocate: The Velvet Trail cracked the British Top 40! Are you thrilled?
Marc Almond: Of course. It is always great being back in the chart, as it's about recognition for your work, by which that means sales as much as anything else.
Why now? Certainly The Velvet Trail is fantastic, but you've always put out great music.
I think this time all the pieces just seem to fall into place. Over the past few years I’ve diversified doing different projects, theater, opera, Russian folk, but my fans have been waiting for me to do another real big-production pop album. It’s a return to the kind of pop that I'm most known for outside my hard-core fan base — big tearful ballads and catchy electro-pop songs. I wasn't afraid to reference my past on this record, including the 1980s sound. [Coproducer] Chris Braide wanted to make an album that he felt was the best of Marc Almond but of new original songs. And yet despite the retro references, it's is a very modern sounding record. The response from fans has been overwhelming.
You said five years ago you were done with original music. What changed?
After Varieté, my last complete album of original songs, five years ago, I really felt the songwriting muse had all but left me. Taking in my age and how long I've been in the business — 35 years — I had to ask myself, seriously, how many more albums am I going to make? I like to record other people's songs as well as my own, and though I thought I would still write the odd song, they would be few and far. Chris read that I said this in an interview and refused to accept it. He sent me some great tunes, which really fired me up again to write, and before we knew it, we had 14 new fabulous songs.
Is 2015 a better time to be a gay musician?
When I first came to fame in the early '80s with Soft Cell, it was still a really difficult time for a gay artist in the music business, which was dominated by an atmosphere of heterosexuality to the point of being homophobic. I got terrible insults and mockery in the press and TV. There were talented gay musicians and singers, but the record company would try to market them as having [fictional] girlfriends or, at least, to have a blurred and, at most, bisexual sexuality, as they tried to do to me.
I grew up in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when it was, firstly, illegal [in England] to be gay. I was bullied at school and it was fearful to be gay. It was a hard thing to break out of the mold and come out. I wasn't a stereotype in as much as I was threatening, but I was afraid at the time as I was told my career would be over if I came out. I think it's changed, but still only if you have a nonthreatening and a family-friendly sexuality. Gluten-free music.
In the 1980s New Wave music was maligned in the mainstream music press. Yet its influence is everywhere in music today, in terms of artists using synthesizers to create dance music, bending gender rules, and exploring the intersection of art and music. Has New Wave had the last laugh?
Synthesizers and the bands or artists that used them weren't taken seriously at first especially by so-called serious music critics. They were ridiculed. Soft Cell were pilloried in the press. I'm sure it was worse in America. But yes, electronic music has lasted way longer and in many more forms than just being a fad. "Theatricality" in music has been embraced more than ever, but by girls more than boys. I like to think Soft Cell played our part in breaking down barriers of music and taboos of sexuality. We were different to many of the other so-called electronic bands, and we paved the way and set a blueprint for Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and so many others, for better or for worse.
Soft Cell's 1981 album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret introduced sleaze and kink to a subset of 1980s youth culture. Where else would we have learned about horny dwarves? What got you started on kinky stuff?
A lot of '80s bands were into a glossier depiction of life in the '80s. In Britain it was a very conservative time. We didn't think it was truthful, so we wanted to show what we felt Britain was really like, its sleazier reality and what went on behind closed doors. I loved [French author] Jean Genet, whose heroes in his books were criminals, drag queens, hustlers, and prostitutes, and John Rechy, who moved in the New York and Los Angeles underworld circles as a hustler. I loved Warhol and his world. John Waters too.
I went to work in this red-light world in London's Soho in the late 1970s to earn money to see me through art college and I wrote songs about it. Ever since those art college days when I did my performances and strange cabaret shows, I would make this world my setting. It was a truthful beauty.
New York in the early 1980s was the perfect place for Soft Cell to record our first albums — the downtown art scene was thriving, electric, extreme. I was accepted into that world and was inspired by it, though it was all to sadly change because of AIDS.
You've sung duets with Siouxsie (of post-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees) and German model-turned-singer Nico, and, now on Velvet Trail, with Beth Ditto of Gossip. Can you share any stories?
I was first a fan of Siousxie and The Banshees when at college and later, after my own success, became friends with them. It was a real thrill to record a track with Siouxsie, and she always remains one of my favorite artists ever. I was nervous writing and recording the track ("Threat of Love" off Almond's 1998 album Open All Night), and it was probably a bit self-conscious, but I love the track.
Nico was a lovely, sweet person, and I loved to hear her talk about her son by the French actor Alain Delon, but it was a difficult recording session. Nico was on methadone at the time, trying to come off heroin. As the day wore on, it became harder to get a vocal from her (for the duet "Your Kisses Burn" from Almond's 1988 The Stars We Are), so we had to coax her and eventually had to piece together what we had. I think it's her last proper recording and it's still wonderful. It has the unmistakable voice of Nico.
Beth recorded her vocals [for "When the Comet Comes" on Almond's new album] in Los Angeles with Chris, so I wasn't present, but I'm a great fan of hers and the Gossip, and she elevates the track. I'm lucky to have worked with so many great people.
"Tainted Love" is still played the world over. Teens today know it. It set a world record at the time for for most weeks at number 1 in the U.S. But because you didn't write it, you never made big bucks off it. What's the story? [Note: In 1964 R&B singer Gloria Jones first recorded the song, written by Ed Cobb.]
The song at present is owned by three different publishers. I don't get any publishing and never have. I get royalties for my performance every time our version is played, but it's not a lot. We are currently investigating various legal options to get better royalties. The song has been good to me, to an extent, but it hasn't made me or [Soft Cell partner] Dave Ball rich. Everyone that has ever covered it has done so because Soft Cell's version has inspired them, even using references to our arrangement. Even those that have gone back to the original have done so because our version has led them there. It was not well-known before we covered it. A lot of people [now] have covered it, so it makes a lot of money for the publishers and Universal mostly. Don't ask me to cheer when another person covers it. It's just making the record company richer.
You've covered an array of artists, from Belgian singer Jacques Brel to Lou Reed. Even Frankie Valli! Why reinterpret songs by other people?
I've always, since my childhood, been first and foremost a music fan, and I love to be a curator of songs. I acknowledge that people have written much better songs than I, told stories and conveyed emotions often better than I can in my own songs. There are so many great unknown or little-known songs. I love to bring them to my fans, get inside them, and make them my own. For a long time, many people thought "Tainted Love" was an original Soft Cell song. I get more joy sometimes out of singing others' songs.
What are you listening to at home right now?
I've been mostly going retro in my music listening over the past few years, and it's very eclectic: T. Rex, Jobriath, Bowie, Kate Bush, New York Dolls, lots of folk, 1960s music, blues, Turkish music like Zeki Müren, crooners and Gregorian monks. Of newer music I've been listening to, amongst other things, John Grant, Lana Del Rey — I absolutely love Ultraviolence, Perfume Genius, Cat's Eyes, Bat For Lashes, and I'll always give the new Madonna album a good listen-to.
Filming the Velvet Trail clip pic.twitter.com/X2ol4lE2QJ
— Marc Almond (@MarcAlmond) March 5, 2015