I recently had the privilege of speaking with groundbreaking dance artist Jimmy Somerville about his new album and his history as one of the loudest and proudest gay artists.
JMG: Hi, Jimmy! Let’s start with today and work backwards. Tell us about your coming album, Homage, and its first single, Travesty, which made its worldwide debut on my site last month to much acclaim from my readers. From the first single, this feels like a total throwback to the lush orchestrated disco sound of the 70s.
Jimmy Somerville: That’s it, exactly. This is the album I’ve always wanted to do. This is the album that if it came out when I was 15 years old, I’d have been dancing around my bedroom to it.
JMG: I’ve been dancing around my bedroom to it and I’m a few multiples of 15 years old. It’s been five years since your last album and a decade since one was released in the US. Why the long break?
JS: Well, it all had to do with money, confidence, and direction. After my contract to London [Records] came to an end – my relationship [with them] was so toxic – it destroyed my belief in myself as a writer and performer. Only in the last two and half years did everything turn in my head. It was like, “I can do this. I’m doing this for me.” It’s like I’m starting my career all over again.
JMG: Speaking of starting your career, you came out as a proud gay artist in the early 80s when few others would. At that time you publicly slammed artists like Boy George who were still being coy about their gayness. How do you think things have changed for young gay artists today?
JMG: Sam Smith has been out pretty much from the start.
JS: He’s out there, he’s really successful, and you know what, nobody gives a shit. But even today it’s a brave thing to do. I take my hat off to him.
JMG: As to your political awakening, like many gay men my age, 1984’s Smalltown Boy was part of my own political awakening. For so many of us, that song was so painfully personal but also truly beautiful. I can’t think of any other song that was so simultaneously heartbreaking and empowering.
JS: It never fails to move when I hear that. It never fails to make me tearful. It’s not even really my song anymore. It means too much to so many other people.
JMG: When Bronski Beat was touring back then, my friends and I drove hundreds of miles to hear you at Fort Lauderdale’s Copa. But when we got there, no Jimmy Somerville.
JS: Yeah, sorry about that. It was just Frank [Bronski] and Larry [Steinbachek] at that point. The club didn’t tell you?
JMG: Nope. People were pissed and they let the other guys know it by chanting, “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.”
JS: (Chuckles.) I’m sure that went over well.
JMG: Last year you appeared in a wildly viral video in which you seemed to surprise a Berlin street busker as he was singing Smalltown Boy. Was that really just a happy random circumstance?
JS: Um…half and half. He knew I was nearby.
JMG: A Bronski Beat concert is a major plot point in the movie Pride, which is in US theaters right now. How did that come about?
JS: Mark, the main character, was my best friend [in real life]. He kept hitting on my boyfriend. We had a massive fight and then we were inseparable. I wrote For A Friend [Communards, 1987] for Mark when he died.
JMG: Since you mentioned a Communards song, dare I ask if you keep in touch with [bandmate] Richard Coles?
JS: We keep in touch by email. You know, he’s an Anglican priest now and he’s written a book. Look it up on Amazon, there’s actually a halo on the cover.
JMG: So what’s next for you?
JS: Basically I’ll just keep writing material for another album. Some touring for this one, but there’s no band. I’m not on a label and this album cost hardly anything to do. It was just made with so much love and friendship.
JMG: My San Francisco readers are dying for a concert.
JS: San Francisco! I’d love to play there.
JMG: Thanks very much, Jimmy. Before we go, since your new album is old school disco, I’m wondering what your personal all-time favorite disco song is?
JS: Oh, that’s so hard!. There’s so many, it’s impossible to say, really. But if I had to pick just one…hmm…I’d guess I’d say Divine’s Native Love. You just can’t hear that without wanting to move.
The single and extended 12″ version of Travesty are now available for download. Homage will be released in early 2015. Below is the worldwide debut of legendary Saint DJ Robbie Leslie’s eleven-minute re-edit of Travesty.