Previous Next 

Dec 01 2014
And The Beat Goes On: Jimmy Somerville On His New Disco HOMAGE Comments (0)


The history of gay pop music can’t be written without Jimmy Somerville, whose piercing falsetto gave ‘80s band Bronski Beat’s first album its visceral punch and aching vulnerability. His later project, The Communards, saw even more success with a cheeky cover of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, continuing Jimmy’s association with disco; he has since put his stamp on a number of bona fide classics from the era.

Jimmy-SomervilleAs an out solo artist, Jimmy has released consistently life-affirming, dancefloor-ready, politically aware music. Most uniquely, his sexuality has been a part of his musical DNA for 30 years.

After a break in recording of several years, he’s back with Homage, a disco album so authentic it could be pressed on a white label and dumped in a used record store and no one would ever guess the mystery artist worked his magic in 2014 rather than 1978.

Speaking with Jimmy recently, I got him to talk about The Village People, Donna Summer, his vocal cords and more.

Check out my interview with Jimmy after the jump.

Boy Culture: Thanks for taking the time for this interview for Boy Culture, Jimmy.

Jimmy Somerville: It’s been a long time since I’ve been a part of “boy culture”…”old man culture,” more likely. [Laughs]

BC: Well, an old man writes it, too, so we’re good.

JS: Cool.

BC: I read a quote from you—you said Homage is the disco album you always wanted to make but never thought you could. What did you mean by that?

JS: Most of my musical career, I’ve always done albums and written songs that’ve been very dance-influenced, but more electronica. I love acoustic instruments, but it’s always veered off somewhere else. It’s all been a learning curve and some moments of joy and some moments of, “Why did I do that?”…but that’s life’s journey, isn’t it? Unbeknownst to me, that disco album I could make was waiting in the wings, so to speak, like a screaming diva that was shackled down. Suddenly, it just came to light and I thought, Do you know what? I don’t care anymore—I’m making a disco album.”

BC: Listening to your single “Travesty”, I was struck by the serious lyrics within the joyous music. People don’t think of disco as being very political, but quite a few classic disco songs had serious lyrical content. Were you deliberately trying to make music you could think to as well as dance to?

JS: It’s really funny because when I was doing “Travesty”, I suddenly thought, “What were the songs that were stuck in my head as a kid?” and the first one I thought of was Carl Bean/“I Was Born This Way”, and I remembered “Shame, Shame, Shame” from around the Nixon scandal. But the one that stood out was when I was in my teens and I bought the album by the Village People called Village People. It was four tracks. The first track was “Village People”, then “San Francisco”. The B side was “Fire Island” and when I heard the lyric, “Don’t go in the bushes/Someone might grab ya,” I was squealing in my pants at that point.

Then I listened to the lyrics of “Village People”—that song is filled with such optimism, such joy, such celebration, and the possibility of freedom and liberation. I was completely bowled over by that, and I thought, “Does anyone understand what they’re talking about? They’re talking about gay liberation, they’re singing about freedom!” and for me it was absolutely massive, that track.

Listen to “Village People” by The Village People above.

If anybody has any throwaway, dismissive ideas about The Village People, listen to that song and listen to the lyrics—it’s beautiful. I love it.

BC: I think a lot of people to this day don’t really get what The Village People were really singing about. 

JS: They were so off their heads. I remember when we went to record the [first] Bronski Beat album, we went to Manhattan and we stayed in the Chelsea Hotel with obviously the YMCA [nearby]. My head was full of all sorts of fantasies. I didn’t meet anyone from the YMCA, but I did meet an Italian-American pornstar, so that was the next best thing. 

BC: Have you seen the fan-made video for “Travesty”, showing all the disco acts performing as your song plays?

Amanda-LearJS: Yes! The synching of it is really quite funny. I wonder if anyone knows who the white woman is. If no one knows, it’s Amanda Lear, who does this great album called Sweet Revenge.

BC: Who, for you, are the ultimate disco acts?

JS: For me, I think of “The Sound of Philadelphia” and lots of European disco. The Boney M songs, they’re trashy songs but if you listen to the production—oh, my goodness, the whole production was so pristine it was just like it was a dream. The really early Grace Jones stuff, the production and the mixing. For me, it’s not really so much about a specific person or artist or album or song, it’s more about how it sounds when I’m listening to it.

This album wasn’t about me being Jimmy Somerville, the singer, writing an album and doing these songs, it’s about a whole collection of people coming into his project and loving what they were hearing and coming into it and really getting on board and going for it and giving a lot because they really enjoy it. That’s what it must’ve been like in the studio [in the disco era] when musicians were just jamming. “Here’s the track, do you stuff with the bass, do your stuff with the drums.” That’s what we’ve done on this as well.

BC: You had a period where you didn’t record due to some record-company drama. When you got back into the studio, were you still inspired by the same sources? Or did you have to take a new approach?

JS: I’ve never stopped listening to disco. When I have my iTunes on, I have a laugh becauseI can go from X-Ray Spex to—I love “Rasputin” and will not have a bad word said about it!—to some really obscure kind of maybe piece of classical or chamber music, then Bowie, then The Cramps, then full-on disco. There’s lots of stuff to be inspired by.

On this album, I had to be more disciplined; I didn’t really want to be influenced by the rest of my kind of listenin’ stuff, so I applied my head to doing disco. I didn’t want to stray off the tracks.

BC: Everyone knows your voice as soon as they hear it on any track. Boy George just had to cancel a tour when his voice failed. What do you have to do to preserve your instrument?

JS: Just like everything in life, a lot of stuff is about genes and how you’re made up. I’m having a slight problem with my voice because I’m 53 and obviously the tone of your voice is going to change. There’s a part of me that just kinda thinks, “Oh! Terrible, terrible!” Then I think, “Have a look in the mirror. Look what’s happening—it’s called the aging process.” So, you know, my voice is going to change.

I’m just going with the flow of my voice. I can’t really do too much about that, I just have to accept and ignore that.

When I had my vocal cords checked, I had this huge, big grin on my face because he said they just look like they would’ve looked 25 years ago, and I thought, ‘Well that’s good.”

BC: So what you’re saying is that you have the body parts of a 28-year-old man in your throat.

JS: Well, that has been known… [Both laugh]


BC: Did you have any clue, when you were recording “Smalltown Boy” 30 years ago, that it would have such an impact and stand the test of time so well?

JS: I knew what the lyrics were about and I knew what we were doing because before we signed the record deal, we said, “You know what? We know what happens in this industry, but we’ll sing what we want, do what we want—and that’s okay.”

I didn’t realize that the song would be so powerful, but I think that’s more because it’s…for me, I think it’s more than the song, it really is…for me, I’m starting to understand during this time in my life really what being a singer is, and what using a voice is. Sadly, everybody has that ability and the voice is such an internal, emotional and core thing of who we are and everybody can use a voice, but like everything in life, it becomes a commodity so someone says, “You can’t sing you can’t do this.” Everybody can sing…it’s just an expression. 

In the early days, I didn’t really sing much; there’s a sound in that song which has got such fragility and emotion and I think that’s why it stands the test of time. When people hear it, it taps into something inside and emotional. For me, it’s quite amusing to think that I was part of that, that I contributed to making that song and that sound. It’s cool, really.

 BC: Have you ever regretted being 100% out from the very beginning of your career?

JS: Um…in some respects, yeah, from the anonymity level. It’s a hard one because it’s come this far now, my life story is my life story, so the whole being out and giving up anonymity is kind of part of that now. There’s been dark periods where I’ve really regretted that, and I’ve really kind of used that to punish myself and just been unbearable. [Laughs]

BC: And 30 years later, it’s still a big deal for a gay artist to decide whether to be out professionally.

JS: I guess in some sense the only drawback about it was because there wasn’t anybody else being so outspoken and talking a lot about politics, I was expected and given this mantle of the gay spokesperson, which I wasn’t really. You know, I didn’t want to be like that, but it was very difficult not to be speaking for a political situation that was filled with discrimination, especially as gay politics and gay life took a dark depth during the beginning of the AIDS crisis and how public opinion and attitudes turned a really, really dark corner, so being visible during that period was very draining and demanding and it did make an impact on me. It didn’t make life very good for me for periods of time.

BC: You were a close friend of Mark Ashton’s, whose life was memorialized in the recent film Pride. Did they get it right? 

JS: You know what? I haven’t watched it yet because I was so close to Mark and that period and that time, so I’m going to wait for the DVD and I’m gonna sit at home and I’m probably gonna cry and shout at the TV, “That never happened!” I can compose myself instead of traumatizing half the cinema.

When me and Mark first met, me and Mark were like double trouble. [Laughs] Everyone’s seen this movie and it’s almost like Saint Ashton, but my God we didn’t call him Moscow Mary for nothin’. His punk name when he was runnin’ around being a punk was Evil. [Laughs] He could be twisted and so, so naughty. But that’s my history and my memories.


BC: I wanted to ask you about a few other divas to get your impressions., starting with Donna Summer.

JSJS: Just my youth, you know? Imagine I’m Scottish, I’m 5’4”, I’ve got red hair, I’m very white and I’m homosexual, and I’m staring in a mirror thinking I’m black and I’m Donna Summer.

BC: What about Diana Ross?

JS: Just recently, I’ve been listening to parts of The Wiz and thinking to myself, “Diana Ross…Dorothy?” [Laughs]

BC: Beyoncé?

JS: If I could and if I had a little factory and had the money, I would basically make zip-up Beyoncé suits so the queens at Gay Pride could just sashay down the street, have a million Beyoncés just shaking their stuff.

BC: Miley Cyrus?

JS: Is she the one who was hanging on the ball thing? That wrecking ball? You know, there’s an interesting thing because we have this whole big scandal at the moment, this massive thing about teenage-girl grooming and underage sexual abuse, etc., and it’s very controversial, but I do believe that certain women artists do play a part in how young girls look at them and aspire, and if they dress like them and there’s all of this kind of trying to be this sexual creature when they’re actually still children, it’s so complex.


I won't say any names, but I also just think it’s really sad for you to suddenly have your career take off again because you’re wearing a pair of gold hot pants.

BC: So you’re saying we won’t be seeing Jimmy Somerville in gold hot pants any time soon?

JS: I shan’t be roaming around in any gold hot pants unless it’s some very rich man who’s paying me for the privilege. [Both laugh]

BC: Thanks again, Jimmy! 

JS: Thank you—I’ve had a chuckle.

Boy Culture's Top 20 Favorite Jimmy Vocals/Songs

#1 “Smalltown Boy”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#2 “I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me”—Bronski Beat feat. Marc Almond (1984)

#3 “It Ain't Necessarily So”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#4 “Need-a-Man Blues”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#5 “So Cold the Night”—The Communards (1986)

#6 “Why?”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#7 “Hard Rain”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#8 “Heatwave”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#9 “Run from Love”—Jimmy Somerville feat. Claudia Brucken (1991)

#10 “No More War”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#11 “Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)”—Jimmy Somerville (1990)


#12 “Screaming”—Bronski Beat (1984)

#13 “Comment te dire adieu”—Jimmy Somerville & June Miles Kingston (1989)

#14 “Don't Leave Me This Way”—The Communards with Sarah Jane Morris (1986)

#15 “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real”—Jimmy Somerville (1990)

#16 “There's More to Love”—The Communards (1988)

#17 “Star”—The Weather Girls feat. Jimmy Somerville (1996)


#18 “Disenchanted”—The Communards (1986)

#19 “Girl Falling Down”—Jimmy Somerville (1999)

#20 “Travesty”—Jimmy Somerville (2014)