It’s been 30 years since Jimmy Somerville’s soaring, plaintive wail helped turn Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” into what would become, arguably, the most enduring LGBT anthem ever released. Now decades after recording some of the most memorable dance songs of the 1980s, including covers of the disco classics “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” the out Scottish singer is experiencing a renaissance. In the acclaimed new film Pride, a Bronski Beat concert provides the setting for a pivotal scene in the fact-based comedy-drama, and earlier this year, Somerville recorded a stunning acoustic version of the 1984 classic, proving his glorious voice can still rattle the rafters. Most exciting of all, however, is an album of all-new, disco-inspired material due early next year, including the euphoric just-released first single “Travesty.” Somerville phoned Queerty from London to discuss how he’s been reawakened by his new music, his thoughts on closeted pop stars and how he terrified Boy George.
Queerty: “Travesty” sounds like a long-lost disco anthem from the ’70s. What’s the message behind the new song?
Jimmy Somerville: For me, it’s filled with optimism. I feel more than ever we are in such scary times. It’s about finding a better day. We live in such heavy fearful times and when we go into fearful times we go into a very insular world and become less open to others. That’s what I’m trying to convey with this song.
On this album I feel I’ve gone into a period of really strong self-belief and a new period of how I feel and think and what I can do and achieve. It’s given me such a boost of confidence but not in an arrogant way. It’s more of “I can do this.” I guess I feel like I’ve been reawakened, especially musically. I feel like a kid again.
The upcoming album is titled Homage. So is it safe to presume the other songs on it are informed by your love of disco?
It’s all in the disco genre. It’s very of the time of strings and horns and guitars and backing vocals. It’s the quality of the track. All those little licks. It’s so integral and organic. It’s like fitting into an old comfortable jumper or sweater.
Were you listening to any disco artists in particular while you were writing the new material?
My head is a nonstop disco. I’ve been having a dance-athon in my head since I was a teenager.
It’s always been there since I was a kid and I’ve always loved it. It’s that cliché of being a young gay man without knowing I was gay but still latching onto female vocals and lyrics about love and loss. Love was such a fantasy for me. I needed to escape from the reality of where I was actually living. I was getting into a fantasy world, not just with disco but with all music. Disco had done something very special for me. I think maybe I understood the freedom and the organic process that was involved in it. When I did this new album I developed an understanding of what that process must have been when people were making those records. Everything comes together. When I was doing this album everyone involved came in and just loved it. It became much easier to communicate and be a part of it and just go with it because everyone was enjoying what they were doing. It was a really fascinating process. No matter how much you dismiss disco, in the back of your head there’s going to a little glitter ball saying, “hello, hello!”
When did you first realize you had such a distinctive singing voice?
I didn’t understand it until much later because as a kid I didn’t really sing. I have been told that I used to walk around the house pretending I was a little human synthesizer. [Laughs] I was just making sounds. I guess that’s where it all started. I didn’t know much about my voice until I was involved in a film called Framed Youth. I sang a poem that became a song on the Age of Consent album called “Screaming.” I remember being in the room then and everyone looking at me, like “What the fuck?!”
Yours is definitely one of the really great falsettos in pop music.
I have a counter-tenor, which is why my speaking voice is so low and I can sing quite low.
Can your voice actually shatter glass?
I did actually shatter a glass once in a venue. What it does do, which is really hilarious, is… once I was doing a benefit with Nik Kershaw and his wife was there and she was pregnant. She said that when I was doing my soundcheck and whenever I hit one of those high sustained notes the baby began kicking like crazy. [Laughs.]
What was your life like before you moved to London and started making music?
It was fucking hellish. It was completely bonkers. I was this tiny little kid with long strawberry blond hair that my mother wouldn’t cut. Everyone thought I was a little girl. I was living in Glasgow in a very hard, working-class community and my mom thought it would be fun to have me run around the summer holidays in lederhosen. [Laughs] I looked like a little girl with strawberry-blond hair running around in lederhosen. Does that not just say “pick on me?” I was like nothing else running around those streets, for sure.
You mentioned the album Age of Consent. Besides being one of the best albums of the ’80s, it’s a contender for the greatest queer album ever recorded. Did you realize at the time just how revolutionary it was?
Well, you can’t look into the future, but I was very aware of what I was doing at the beginning. I knew the platform I was using and realized that we could really go to town and be out there. We could be in your face. That was the intention. We were young and involved in that musical, artistic, creative fashion explosion that happened in the early-to-mid ’80s. That’s when gay politics really exploded into the mainstream and we were part of that. We were able to take it to another level because we were in a pop band and had access to media.
It’s now been 30 years since “Smalltown Boy” was released. That video helped a lot of people realize they were gay and to come out. What inspired you to write it?
It was about having that political visibility and being seen. It’s very simple. There’s a naivety in it, but there’s also a very strong emotional cry and I think that’s the power of it. There’s no ambiguity, but it’s very real and emotional. It’s not the most complex of lyrics, but it appeals across the board. It’s what it is. It’s difficult to explain. At the time I wasn’t too involved in “what am I trying to be here?” It was more about what I was trying to evoke. In a sense, it wasn’t just me. There were other friends who were involved in the young gay scene and involved in the video. It was part of a package, really.
It still has a lot of power today.
I think it has the power to evoke emotional response and something inside. We can all run around with our fists in the air and shouting slogans, but when you feel something inside is when it really matters. At the time you were being saturated with all the typical MTV, big budget, over-the-top videos and you wonder, What the hell is this shit about? Then suddenly there was this very gritty video that had a narrative and was telling a story as real as it possibly can and taking you on a pulsing journey. What happened to me in the video, it didn’t matter about the location because people could identify with the character.
Was the record label supportive of the video?
They were. I realize it was a cynical move in some respects because they realized it hadn’t been done before. The realized that we were in an industry, especially in the U.K., where you were allowed to be very in your face and take risks and do something different. They understood that and were definitely behind us. Then they were going to take us to America and make us big and tried to claw it back in a bit, but the genie was already out of the bottle.
There’s a scene in the new film Pride that takes place at a Bronski Beat concert. Has this helped introduce your music to a new generation?
I haven’t seen the film yet. I’m going to wait for it to come out on DVD. I know I’m going to bawl my eyes out so I’m going to do that in private. I’m not sure what will happen but there’s a generation who’ll be awakened to what was actually happening at that time. For me, Pride is about such a fantastic, sweet time. LGSM (Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners) was ignored by much of the media, even the left-leaning media. So it’s great that it’s getting recognition with this movie. For me, it’s a very emotional time because the main character Mark was my best friend. We met each other when we were very young, around 18. We were part of this underground new gay scene that was about politics and music and art and discussion. We were inseparable. We were known as “Double Trouble.” The movie is bringing up a lot of stuff for me. I’m processing stuff that I couldn’t before. It’s a nice place to be in to be able to do that.
As one of the few openly gay pop stars in the ’80s, you were certainly a trailblazer. How did you feel about closeted entertainers at the time?
I had to look at my behavior during that period. It’s what it was at the time. I knew so many people who were being so successful and just putting their careers first and not saying much. During the emergence of what was happening with AIDS, no one was saying anything. Then here was us trying to get as much information as we could and trying to put it out there and talk about it. I felt kind of alone and on my own. I can still be like this but then I was so opinionated and it was my way or no way and if you didn’t do what I wanted you were just going to get your face slapped. I was that kind of activist. [Laughs] I was never really gifted with diplomacy.
I have a funny story about this. Whenever we did Top of the Pops, I often wondered why my dressing room was halfway across the building. It was because I was made to stay away from everyone else because I had such a big mouth. Boy George is such a big guy and when we finally got to talk and be sort of friendly he said to me, “ I was so terrified of you. You had the biggest fucking mouth!”
I think that being so honest and open at the beginning of your career must have inspired your fans to remain loyal over the years.
I do have very loyal fans and who are still interested in what I do. They really support me and wait for new stuff to come out. There are always new people discovering the older songs and that’s really awesome.
Listen to “Travesty” below and vote for it in the Queerty awards.