The icon shares memories and stories with Janet Christie, from breaking through with Soft Cell, recording with Gene Pitney and meeting Andy Warhol to almost losing his life in a motorcycle accident
Headlining the world’s greatest New Year party in Edinburgh, legendary synth pop icon and singer Marc Almond will be at the heart of Scotland’s Hogmanay.
Performing at the Street Party along with his band and a host of other acts, the legendary artist, who has sold more than 35 million records worldwide in his solo career and with his pioneering band Soft Cell, will usher in the fireworks that will see 2020 start with a bang.
For Almond the new year marks the release of a new album, Chaos and a Dancing Star, in January, and a show with album collaborator, songwriter and producer Chris Braide at the Royal Festival Hall in February. Then he heads off on a tour that stretches from Tokyo to Tayside, when he arrives in Dundee in August.
Born July 1957 in Lancashire, Almond formed synthpop duo Soft Cell in 1978 with Dave Ball on keyboards after they met at Leeds Polytechnic. After a string of hits including Tainted Love, Bedsitter, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, Torch, What!, Soul Inside and Memorabilia and four albums, the pair split in 1984.
Pursuing a solo career Almond notched up more than 20 albums and collaborations, including with Gene Pitney, Tony Visconti and Jools Holland. Known for his diverse career, he’s performed folk songs in Russia, duetted on Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart with Pitney and joined Ian Anderson on Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick at the Royal Albert Hall.
Tragedy struck in 2004 when a motorcycle crash left Almond in a coma for a month. After a remarkable recovery he returned to making music and in 2007 released the first of many more albums, A Lovely Life to Live with Jools Holland, as well as working with head injury charity Headway.
In 2018 he reunited with Ball to perform Soft Cell hits for the first time in 15 years with a one-off gig at the O2 in London. It was billed as their last ever live gig, but Almond doesn’t rule out recording together in the future.
As well as working with Headway, Almond helped raise funds for Maggie’s by taking time out from his US tour to sing at a fundraiser in November, with fashion designer friend Roland Mouret, raising £305,000 for Maggie’s Edinburgh.
Heading back to the capital to sing at Hogmanay, the icon takes time out to answer The Scotsman Magazine’s questions.
How would you describe your new album Chaos and a Dancing Star, due out 31 January, and the Royal Festival Hall, London show?
I have spent the last three years working on it, on and off, writing with the best person in the world, Chris Braide, who happens to also be a brilliant producer and acclaimed songwriter. I am very proud of it.
Musically it’s changed over those years from what started as a prog rock project to Americana balladry, but the general themes remain consistent.
Much of the album centres around looking at my own mortality and my place in the world, and those influences around me. Sometimes it feels to me as if we are at the end of our days, me and the world, the final decades. Apocalyptic gothic romance. Looking at myself in the mirror and seeing myself ageing scares me. To see time closing in and, for a narcissist it’s a hard thing to face. I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders and we’re both losing the war, the world and I.
The album also has an underlying pagan feel, returning back to the Earth, but also a renewing of life. But all you can do is keep on dancing. I believe that everyone should plant a tree or two in their life.
We will perform much of the album at the Royal Festival Hall but of course there will be favourites for the fans – it has to always be a bit of give and take. It will be a brilliant evening of rehearsed chaos, much like my life.
Do you still get a buzz out of performing?
Yes. In many ways the idea that people pay their hard-earned money to see you remains such a privilege, and I love the feel and feedback from performing. It’s still a challenge. I like to do different kinds of shows. If I was to only perform hit shows I’d get bored very quickly, though I have fun doing those too and people love them, but I like to take on different projects that challenge me and I can still learn from.
Did you know when you wrote those hits that they’d have such longevity?
Of course not, how could anyone? I mean how could I?
Of which song/album/piece of music are you most proud?
As with most artists you ask it will always be their latest album, as it is important to look forward as well as back. But I am very proud of Say Hello, Wave Goodbye – it is a bloody great song.
Why did you want to be a singer/musician?
I always wanted to be a performer in some capacity. Someone said I act like I’m on stage even when I’m not.
When did you first realise you could sing?
I suppose you know for sure you can sing when someone pays money for your record or to hear you (so in my case a college gig in 1978). Everything before that is your enthusiastic friends or relatives who are never entirely unbiased.
What else will you do, apart from perform, when you’re in Scotland? Any food/places/activities that you enjoy here?
Scotland is such a great place, and honestly if I had to live anywhere in the UK other than London, it would be Edinburgh. The food is great, the people so outgoing and the air is actually breathable, which it isn’t at all in London.
Did you enjoy writing your autobiography?
I did and I didn’t. Writing is such an art, and laborious and isolating. But it is interesting when you put your life down on paper and see just how much you have actually done.
How honest did you feel you could be?
Fairly honest. I am not sure I would be so honest now where so much is taken out of context and judged on social media, that literal place without irony.
I was recently accused of being transphobic over tweets that were taken out of context. The worrying thing is that if I, of all people am accused of being transphobic, which is an utter absurdity, then anyone can be accused of anything, where pointing a stick at people is enough to condemn them, where shaming and bullying are normalised. It’s worrying too because somewhere under all the noise real victims often can’t be heard.
Are your parents very proud of you?
My mother is naturally very proud of me, like most mothers are. I had never been comfortable being entirely open with her when I was younger but over the decades we have developed an understanding and she is incredibly supportive. My father is dead.
What was it that first attracted you to synth-orientated music?
It was the ability to do so much with it, so many new and exciting ways to make sounds and to do it on a low budget. When I first heard I Feel Love by Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder I realised that a cold electronic beat and bass line with an emotive vocal is very intoxicating, especially in a nightclub and I worked in a nightclub for three years. Hearing the sci-fi sounds of early electronica like Eno with Roxy Music, it just sounded so futuristic in a nostalgic kind of way.
What is your lasting memory of Soft Cell and topping the charts from 1978 to 1984?
There are many. Going to New York for the first time, Studio 54, meeting Andy Warhol at the Factory, hearing your record on the radio, doing Top of the Pops.
Are you still friends with Dave Ball and will you do another concert or was last year’s definitely the last?
We are still speaking and have a good working relationship. No, we will never do another concert – the sell out at the 02 was, as promised, the final time. But we might record some more tracks together, even a new album might be on the cards – who knows?
You have diverse influences, from Jacques Brel to Marc Bolan to Jarvis Cocker to Sinatra to Siouxsie Sioux – what is it about an artist that inspires you, is there something they all have in common?
Well I love Jarvis, he even wrote a song for me called Worship Me Now, but he’s definitely not an influence per se. My influences go back further. 1960s pop and soul, Bolan and Bowie sure, punk, garage, electronica. And I like Sinatra, his album A Man Alone is one of my favourites, but I prefer Johnny Ray, more histrionic, Bobby Darin, more crazy and Billy Fury prettier and more glamorous.
Jacques Brel of course, I have to thank Bowie for helping me discover him, and the late great Charles Aznavour.
Brel and Aznavour, the disillusioned romantic, the cynic, and Aznavour the nostalgic romantic. Opposites yet not too far apart, great storytellers. Put this strange mix into a blender, add a bit of this and that and you get me I suppose.
They all are really talented performers and storytellers – the performance within the song has always attracted me to either the song or the singer.
You are always very theatrical and give a great performance, so if you couldn’t sing, would you have gone into acting?
Is that what I am, ‘theatrical’? I always fancied myself as an actor, but performing a song should never be confused with acting, and most singers are too self-conscious to be great actors – to be a great actor you have to be shameless in so many ways, and singers are often too fearful of letting go. I always expected to go into experimental theatre and dance around half naked covered in paint, like Isadora Duncan. You don’t need to have too much talent for that.
Who have you been most excited to meet?
That is a tough one. Kate Bush, who I have met several times, was a thrill. And Freddie Mercury. And I love going out for dinner with Annie Lennox, that is always exciting. And of course Andy Warhol, who I met a couple of times. We talked for hours about nothing at all really.
What was it like working with Gene Pitney when you recorded Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart together?
He was charming, the consummate professional and such a gentleman. I adored Gene and had such a memorable experience working with him. Showed me how to be a pro.
Which cover version of your songs do you like most?
It has to be Say Hello, Wave Goodbye – it was covered by a-ha and more famously by David Gray, who made it into his own, so much so that many people come up to me and ask why I am singing one of his songs. It is a great version by him.
Where do you live now?
London, but I move around a lot and once lived in Moscow for many years, and I still go there a lot.
When and where were you happiest?
Yesterday when I was young.
What inspires you to make music?
It’s actually what I do. It’s the nearest thing I have to a job, but surrounding myself with and meeting talented people always inspires me. But I am always more – inspired is not the right word – concerned for the way the world feels presently, slightly out of kilter, and politically dishonest. So as an artist that comes through in more and more of my work.
You divide your time between London, Moscow and occasionally Barcelona. Are you still interested in Russian folk music and why?
Russian music is fascinating to me, as it is so entwined with the people, and their desire for expression whilst living in a country that is, let’s say, problematic. To understand Russia you have to spend time with ordinary Russian people. They are so like us and yet so unlike us. The place is deeply fascinating and full of paradoxes. And contrary to so much you read in the press, they are warm and generous and full of life.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
I do live shows. I love theatre and film, and just sitting in with my pets and playing music or making collages – they’re a type of therapy.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the music business?
I have no advice other than why not, you never know.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were young?
Not to take drugs and squander all my money, but what is the point of regrets? They have no purpose.
How did you feel getting your OBE last year, who presented it, what did you say to them and who did you take to the palace?
It came as a complete and utter surprise and I was honestly overwhelmed. I never ever imagined it would happen to me, of all people. I took my mum to the palace and Prince William gave me the award. He spoke to me but that will remain between him and I. It was an unforgettable and sweet day.
Is it true you were in a motorcycle accident in 2004 that left you in a coma for a month and that you are now patron of the brain trauma charity Headway?
It is true. And I am.
What happened in the accident and how did this experience change you and your outlook on life?
I was the pillion rider on a motorcycle, and a car pulled across our path. The reality is that such crashes are brutally mundane and horrific. You go out, it happens and your life is never the same. And then one day, if you are lucky you go home again, after many months and the house is just as you left it on that day all that time ago, just the same, but you are not.
What do you do with Headway?
Anything I can to raise their profile (www.headway.org.uk). They are an incredibly important charity for anyone suffering head trauma or PTSD, and it is such an important issue that needs to be dealt with. It changes lives, and Headway gives people hope where perhaps they felt there was none.
If you could go back in time, what in your life would you do differently?
Actually nothing. And maybe everything. Maybe not get on that motorbike on that particular day.
Can I just wish everyone in Scotland the happiest Hogmanay and all the best for the New Year.
Marc Almond headlines Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, www.edinburghshogmanay.com
His new album, Chaos and a Dancing Star, is released on 31 January, www.marcalmond.co.uk
Marc Almond and Chris Braide play the Royal Festival Hall, London on Monday 10 February 2020. For details and tickets, see www.marcalmond.co.uk and www.ticketmaster.co.uk/event/1F00573798552670