Ex-Soft Cell singer Marc Almond is working with young Leeds musicians for a special concert. Duncan Seaman reports.
Fresh from a day’s rehearsal at Leeds College of Music, Marc Almond is in a sunny mood.
The singer is busy preparing for two concerts with the College’s Contemporary Orchestra and Pop Choir and says he’s “thrilled” with how things have been going.
“I’m just stunned,” he says. “The quality of the musicians is fantastic, the arrangements are so good, so I’m absolutely over the moon. I couldn’t have expected any better.”
Considering the orchestra had only been given the scores that day, they’d got up to speed with remarkable ease. “I was amazed,” Almond marvels. “I think I’m the rusty one, they’re really good.”
The concerts next month at Leeds Town Hall and the Royal Festival Hall in London are billed as ‘A Celebration of 20th Century Torch Songs’. Almond explains the programme will focus on classic songs written by others as well as some of his own from a career that began with the synth pop duo Soft Cell that he formed with David Ball while they were studying at art college in Leeds in the late 1970s.
“I wanted to pick a programme for the musicians that were great old songs but with great arrangements and musicality that would give the different musicians in the orchestra – and there’s a lot of musicians on stage – a chance to shine in different ways, to show their skills, and something that would be challenging as well because some of these songs are quite challenging for me but they’re songs that I love.
“Throughout my career I’ve loved to sing big ballads and torch songs, it’s one of the things I’m known for. I picked one or two songs that I’ve done before but a lot of songs that I haven’t done before so it’s a learning thing for me and that’s what makes it quite exciting. I might fall on my face and forget the words and forget the melodies but if I do I feel quite confident because the musicians are great so I could just sit on the side of the stage and listen to the instrumentals.”
Fifty-eight-year-old Almond might have won an Ivor Novello Inspiration Award for his own songs – which have included the likes of Bedsitter and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye – but he admits in some ways he’s happier interpreting the lyrics of others. “It’s a comfort zone for me, I feel very comfortable singing other people’s songs,” he says.
“With this particular show I tried to pick songs that weren’t overly well known. I didn’t want to go for the obvious songs from the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Yeah, there’s one or two in there that people will know but I tried to pick songs that I felt were kind of personal to me, that I really loved, so it goes from Mel Tormé or Lena Horne to someone like the Walker Brothers and Gene Pitney, of course, and those 1950s teenage angst kind of things.”
I’d been in bands when I was 16 or 17 in my home town of Southport but professionally it really started for me in Leeds, so Leeds I think of as my musical birthplace.
What matters, he says, are that they’re songs “that I feel people will believe me singing, people have got to equate a song with me”.
“It’s no use being like sometimes on The X Factor someone who is too young singing something like My Way, that’s a song that you sing when you’re at the end of your career.”
Almond’s love of torch songs pre-dates Soft Cell. He says: “We started as quite an experimental art band, we kind of moved over to pop music because we both loved it but when we first started at college we were a bit experimental, a little bit darker even. I think we kind of shaped ourselves into a pop band singing more melodic songs.
“Before that I discovered things like Jacques Brel and French chanson songs at an early age, my parents had Eartha Kitt albums, so those kind of songs were always part of me, that I really liked.
“I grew up listening to songs that had melody, I loved listening to David Bowie a lot, songs that attracted me had melodies and more traditional song structures.”
He remembers Leeds in the late 70s and early 80s with fondness. “I started at art college in ‘76. It was a great time to be here in Leeds. At the time the art college was known as one of the best in the country. It was famous for its performance art and its fine art department.
“It was also a great time to be in Leeds because of the whole punk thing. There were clubs like the F Club, so you could see a different band, either at the University or the Poly or one of these clubs every week. It was a great place for music, it was a wonderful time to be here, lots of exciting things happening.
“I’m sure exciting things are still happening in Leeds – it’s a student town – but then it was a very vibrant city and a great place to start making music as well.
“I’d been in bands when I was 16 or 17 in my home town of Southport but professionally it really started for me in Leeds, so Leeds I think of as my musical birthplace.”
Though best known for hits such as Tainted Love and Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart, Almond’s career has been full of left turns into more arty territory with the likes of Marc and the Mambas, an album of Jacques Brel covers or more recently the song cycle Ten Plagues. “It’s kind of worked for me,” he says. “There’s a whole audience that know me for doing one kind of thing, there’s a whole audience that know me for doing another kind of thing.
“It’s very interesting. I’ve just been putting together a ten-disc box set which is coming out in the autumn through Universal, I had to curate that and pick songs from all of my career, 150 songs or something, to choose them is quite hard to do. Reading the sleeve notes, somebody else pointed out I think I’m the only artist that’s been able to do that. I’m sometimes the art student, doing experimental theatre or music things, and then sometimes I can be the entertainer and pop singer. I think that’s my Southport side as well [Almond was born in the Lancashire resort before moving to Harrogate then Leeds], the end of the pier or something. I’ve always loved to work in those two sides. Sometimes you can bring them together but I like to work in those different fields and put those different hats on.”
Geed up by the warm reception for The Velvet Trail, Almond’s 2015 collaboration with LA-based producer Chris Braide that was his first album of original songs in five years, he reveals the pair are “half way through” a follow-up. “That probably won’t be out until the year after next,” he says.
In the meantime Almond has also been working on the pop operetta Against Nature, based on the novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans. “We did a Pledge campaign to record the soundtrack of it, which is really great – it’s piano, vocals and strings,” he says.
“We’re speaking to different theatre people and producers at the moment, hopefully to take it into a theatre at some stage. How long that will take I do not know because these things can sometimes take years.
“We did a limited release [of the album] to the people who did the Pledge campaign but we’ll release it to the public at some point.”
An Evening with Marc Almond accompanied by Leeds College of Music Contemporary Orchestra and Pop Choir is at Leeds Town Hall on Friday July 8. For details visit http://www.marcalmond.co.uk/
Almond also appears at Grassington Festival on July 2. http://www.grassington-festival.org.uk/
As a fan of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, Marc Almond treasured working with their producer Tony Visconti.
“I like Tony because so many times you find yourself these days working in a studio with a computer. Sometimes it’s nice to work with an old school producer who will set you up with a band in a rehearsal studio and rehearse it and rehearse it then rearrange it and say, ‘I think you should cut that verse out and cut this out’. He’ll sit there and say ‘I think the drums should be a bit louder’ or ‘here’s a trick I used with Marc Bolan’, ‘here’s a trick I used with David Bowie’. He knows how to pull all those great things out of the bag. It’s a great fun studio experience.”
Almond is closely involved in organising a concert at Shepherds Bush Empire in September 2017 to mark the 40th anniversary of Marc Bolan’s death.
“I’ve done two - the first one was ten years ago then another five years ago - and the next one is next year. It’s the first time I’ve co-organised it with Danielz of T.Rexstacy and Tony Visconti’s going to be coming over for that too with the string section and everything<” he says.
“I’m looking forward to it because we get lots of good guests on and it’s going to be a great excuse for all Marc Bolan and T.Rex fans to sing along to very song and just have a celebration.
“I think as we’re all getting so old now I don’t think there will be another one after that. It’s the last big Bolan celebration that we do, so I think it will be a good night out.”