Interview: Boy George

Boy GeorgeBoy George
Boy George
Boy George is back on the road, performing in small venues including City Varieties in Leeds. Duncan Seaman spoke to the singer.

BOY George is in Austin, Texas, a place, it seems, where hardly anyone knows him. Once one of the world’s most recognisable pop stars – with a million-dollar voice, flamboyant dress sense and regular knack of landing in scandal – he is today earning his crust as a DJ.

“It’s very interesting,” the one-time Culture Club singer says of his current tour of US clubs. “To be honest, most people – apart from the fans – have no idea who I am.”

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Whether that state of relative anonymity will change the release of his new album This Is What I Do remains to be seen. The 52-year-old Anglo-Irish Londoner – born George O’Dowd – seems philosophical about the mainstream pop world he’s returning to for the first time in nearly two decades.

“I’ve not had a record deal for the best part of 20 years because I was DJ-ing,” he says. “A lot of people probably think I’ve been asleep for 20 years but I’ve been working very hard.”

His intention when approaching this record was simple: “I wanted it to be really good – that was the main point.” It could easily have been another Culture Club album, a successor to 1999’s Don’t Mind If I Do. He’d been writing with Mikey Craig, Roy Hay and Jon Moss “for the last couple of years” but didn’t feel “we were collectively ready”.

The turning point came when he acquired a new manager, Jazz Summers, who’s previously worked with Wham!, The Verve and Snow Patrol. He suggested George should hook up with Youth (aka Martin Glover, former bass player with Killing Joke and producer for the likes of The Orb). “I thought it was an interesting idea,” George says. “That’s when I got my mojo. He’s a rock and roll sage. You’d go to his house and Ian McCulloch would be leaving as you’re coming in or Pete Murphy would turn up. It’s a rock and roll house – you can’t leave without a song.”

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It was there he wrote King of Everything, the opening single and standout track from the new album. A Yoko Ono number, Death of Samantha, was plucked from a covers album that he was at one time contemplating. “When you have history like I do, people have expectations. I wanted to surprise people. I wanted to make a grown-up record and I have. I can’t wait to make the next one.”

There is also some of the reggae sound he successfully deployed on million-selling hits such as Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and Everything I Own. But on the advice of drummer Richie Stevens, who’s worked with Simply Red and Tina Turner as well as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Horace Andy, it doesn’t dominate this album. George explains: “Reggae has been very good to me in my career and we decided we should use some of that. But certain songs were more rock and roll or more country. You have to respect the type of song.” What is striking is the upbeat tone of This Is What I Do. It reflects George’s happier frame of mind. “You can only ever be what you are right now,” he says. “The album is positive, easy-going, shoulder-shrugging. When I was younger I was pretty sure about what I thought. I knew it all. At this point I realised I don’t really know much. What I do know is profound, it helped to change me. Joni Mitchell said songs are questions you’d like to answer but you’re never going to answer. It’s about being a human being, letting things happen and letting stuff unfold as it should, taking it nice and slow.” George’s newfound perkiness has not gone unnoticed by his friends. Yoko Ono, who he’s “met many times over the years at different stages in my own development”, observed a change when they met at the Meltdown programme she curated at the South Bank Centre earlier this year. “She said, ‘Are you in love?’ I said, ‘Not strictly’,” he laughs.In a recent interview, he said he wanted to draw attention back to himself as a person “rather than as a car crash”.

He was concerned, he admits, that he had become caricatured in the popular imagination for his brushes with the law (for drugs and, in 2008, a conviction for falsely imprisoning a male escort).“A lot of what I do is a big PR exercise and it’s great, it’s reminding people that I’m an entertainer.”

Boy George plays at Leeds City Varieties on November 6. This is What I Do is available now.

Inspired by Yoko Ono’s “strange, weird” voice

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Boy George’s new album includes a cover version of the Yoko Ono song Death of Samantha. The singer explained: “I’m a big fan of her. I’ve always loved her songs. She is formidable. “Tom Waits once said, ‘Only prostitutes and monuments stay around long enough to get respect’. But a lot of people love her anyway. I’ve always played Death of Samantha. I like unusual voices. As much as I listen to Aretha Franklin or Sly Stone, I like Nico, Lou Reed and David Bowie. I like strange, weird voices.” He deliberately chose to perform at intimate venues on this tour.

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