Marc Almond: ‘We live in chaotic times, but very creative times too’

Best known for Soft Cell, the duo formed in Leeds in 1979, Marc Almond has a new solo album out. Duncan Seaman reports.

Marc Almond. Picture: Etienne Gilfillan

Marc Almond’s extensive musical career has taken him far from his synth pop origins in Leeds duo Soft Cell. His 24 solo albums have involved many collaborators embraced everything from glam rock to experimental music, chanson, torch songs and even Russian choirs.

His latest, Chaos and a Dancing Star, is his first album of original material in five years. It again sees the 63-year-old singer paired with Chris Braide, the Warrington-born, Los Angeles-based musician and songwriter who has worked with the likes of Britney Spears, Sia and Lana Del Ray.

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“I’ve worked with Chris for a few years now and I have a great chemistry, both recording and songwriting, with him and as a good friend,” Almond says. “Chris sent me some great tunes by chance a few years ago when I was in need of new inspiration and needing someone who I could have a chemistry with songwriting again (as I was getting used to the fact that my songwriting days might be over). The first project we did was the album ‘The Velvet Trail.’ Also I do suppose we have a Northern humour and an eye for things. When I write about Southport as in the title song The Velvet Trail, Chris understands where I’m coming from as he knows that part of the country well.”

Chaos and a Dancing Star was mostly written in Los Angeles. Almond says he has long been fascinated by the glamour of the place and what lies beneath its shiny surface.

“Certainly, some of the latter songs we wrote and recorded for the album such as Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and Hollywood Forever were recorded there in LA, they have a nod to Americana. Chris usually writes and records at his studio in LA and sends tracks to me where I mostly record a vocal in London then send it back to him. I’ve always had a fascination for LA ever since I first visited there back in 1981 with Soft Cell and I wrote the song Angels for the Marc and The Mambas album Untitled. It has this dark history of scandal and crime amongst the rich and famous. There’s an underlying feeling of decay and neglect in LA with places and people. Very Sunset Boulevard, ghosts of old Hollywood. I think Tarantino depicted retro LA well in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. My favourite place in LA is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, resting place of such stars as Garland and Valentino.”

The album is named after a quote by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It seems to be a phrase that Almond sees as a maxim for life.

“Nietzsche is a writer, philosopher and poet and the full quote from Nietzsche is: ‘One Must Still have Chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing Star’. I’m not qualified to talk about Nietzsche (if anyone really is), but I loved the quote and I gave it my own meaning which I think is not too far from his – out of chaos comes order, creativity, the desire for something greater than ourselves. We live in chaotic times, but very creative times too which is maybe because of that. Of the small amounts I’ve read of him (and from what I understand), he has some really interesting philosophies though he’s very nihilistic. I don’t agree with everything he says.”

Marc Almond. Picture: Etienne Gilfillan

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull plays flute on the song Lord of Misrule. Almond says it was a song written with one of musical heroes in mind.

“I’ve been a fan of Ian’s and Jethro Tull’s since I was a teenager – in fact, one of the first records I bought was the single Witches Promise and the album Benefit by Jethro Tull after a pretty wild performance on Top of the Pops at the time. Folk-infused blues rock. I’m also a fan of the prog bands that mixed a theatricality with rock such as Tull, early Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and E.L.P.  Ian heard I was a fan and I was approached to see if I would take part in Ian’s Christmas Cathedral shows. I’ve guested at a few and took part in a performance of Ian’s Tull opus Thick as a Brick at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a surreal experience to sing Witches Promise with Ian on stage recently after I’d bought the single at 13. A circle complete. Chris Braide and I wrote Lord of Misrule with Ian in mind and he plays fantastic flute on the track. When I was 13, at Aireborough Grammar [in Guiseley], me and my best friend Frank Catteraul were huge Tull fans and had the longest hair in class in tribute. Sadly Frank is no longer with us, but he would have been amazed and (I’m sure) delighted that I ended up working with Ian.”

In 2018 Almond waved goodbye to Soft Cell with a sold-out concert at London’s O2 Arena. Although it was a laying to rest of the band as a live act, tantalisingly Almond says it may not be the last we hear of his musical relationship with Dave Ball.

“It was fantastic to celebrate 40 years since we formed at Leeds Polytechnic in late 1979 with such an incredible show and to give something to the fans that had been wanting it for years. It certainly laid to rest Soft Cell as a live band as how could we top that? However Soft Cell has always been an ongoing soap opera so there may be some new recorded music on the horizon. Watch this space, as they say.”

Four years ago Almond worked with Leeds College of Music’s Contemporary Orchestra and Pop Choir on two concerts of torch songs – a programme that later developed into Shadows and Reflections, one of his most successful solo albums. He talks fondly of returning to the city where he grew up and working with that group of young musicians.

“The project with Leeds College of Music was one of my favourite career projects and experiences. I consider myself lucky to work with such a lovely, talented collection of young musicians. I was awarded a fellowship from the college in 2014 which was an incredible honour. I hope all those musicians have gone on to wonderful and rewarding musical careers and we cross paths on the musical rounds at some time in the future. Leeds has given me so much and my times in Leeds have been some of the best of my life – it’s why I always try, if possible, to come back to do a concert or a project. It was a great experience and surreal to film some clips of Soft Cell playing back at the Warehouse for the first time since 1981, for the Live At The 02 DVD extras and a Soft Cell documentary.”

In 2018 Almond was awarded an OBE for his services to arts and culture. It was, he says, “a complete surprise – a lovely shock even – to get an OBE even if it meant that after all these years I had become a bit ‘establishment’. Not too much, I hope. I’m always appreciative at this time in my life to receive any award as recognition and, as for the OBE, my Mum was over the moon. It meant she could dress up and go to Buckingham Palace.”

Chaos and a Dancing Star is released on Friday January 31. Marc Almond plays at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on July 10.