SUSAN Boyle has many odd claims to fame following her life-changing turn on Britain's Got Talent, but who'd have thought Michael Nyman and David McAlmont would write a song about her? "I've done what you suggested and the world has paid attention," sings McAlmont on The Glare, the sombre title track of the duo's oddly affecting new album, "but I'm still alone."
If the idea of a black, gay Englishman singing "in character" as Susan Boyle raises your eyebrows, you need to hear the rest of The Glare. The album's 11 songs see McAlmont – best known as Bernard Butler's musical partner in McAlmont and Butler – adopting the voices of everyone from Samantha Orobator, the pregnant British woman locked up in Laos this year for heroin smuggling, to Veronica Lario, the estranged wife of Silvio Berlusconi. The title refers to the glare of the international media, in which the songs' various characters have all been caught.
The idea sprang, McAlmont admits, partly from being starstruck at the chance to work with the famous film composer. Having admired his music for years, he was taken aback when Nyman sent him a message on Facebook suggesting they work together, and initially assumed he was talking to a fraud.
When he'd established that it really was Nyman, "I thought, maybe instead of writing about me and my love life and my heartbreak, which I find really dull now, why not try and write something more worthwhile?" The idea he came up with – which he calls, half-jokingly, "lyrical verit" or a "21st century portrait" – saw him spend weeks trawling through news websites looking for real-life stories that he could set to various pieces by Nyman, originally written for films such as Gattaca and Wonderland.
"I did it more or less the way an actor might prepare for a role," explains McAlmont. "If it was a New Zealand story in a Canadian newspaper, I'd go to the New Zealand newspaper. Then I'd read the local newspapers, then look at Google Earth and just ingest as much of the life as I could." In each case, he says, he'd think about the mood created by the Nyman pieces he was listening to, and what story might fit. For one song, he began with a lyric about an American woman who faked her own kidnapping, then abandoned that idea and spent a weekend researching the life of French First Lady Carla Bruni, before eventually writing about Joanna Lumley's visit to Kathmandu. The Susan Boyle song "was originally going to be about a disaster at sea". Eventually he decided the music made him think of "isolation and profound loneliness, and for some reason I got that from Susan Boyle".
There is an irony here, in that McAlmont himself has, for the most part, avoided the media glare throughout his two decades in the music business. This might have something to do with the fact that he's such a musical chameleon. His first album was lush, epic synth pop – think Marvin Gaye collaborating with the Pet Shop Boys – but he has since tried his hand at everything from soul to James Bond themes, recording a memorable version of Diamonds Are Forever with 007 composer David Arnold. Next, he's planning to make a jazz album in New York.
"A lot of people have been frustrated with me over the years because I haven't persevered in a commercial direction but I can't, you know?" he says. "I have tried to be a pop singer and it just didn't feel right." As well as working with Nyman, this year has seen him writing a song for Shirley Bassey's new album. When its producer David Arnold invited him to collaborate, "I shot over to that studio like you wouldn't believe!" he says. "There are four female singers that I really love – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie Andrews and Shirley Bassey. For some reason, when I'm cleaning my house, a song like Coldplay's In My Place will come into my head, but I won't sing it the way Chris Martin would, I use one of those ladies. Shirley Bassey is a favourite." And, unexpectedly, he launches into a brilliant impression of Shirley Bassey singing Coldplay and Prince. "In my plaaaace. In my place! I do that all the time. Purple raaaain, Purple rain! It's easy to write a song for Shirley because she's in my soul."
I tell him he sounds like he'd be great fun at karaoke. "I sang Come As You Are (by Nirvana] one night," he replies. Now that'd be something to see on Britain's Got Talent.
The Glare is released on 2 November
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 18 October 2009