Jimmy Somerville‘s love of disco is long documented. As the falsetto-voiced singer for ’80s pop groups Bronski Beat and The Communards, he covered classic hits by the likes of Sylvester, Thelma Houston, Donna Summer and The Bee Gees. His solo career has often detoured into disco and next year he returns to the genre once again with the album Homage.
Of course, he is a disco queen in his own right having contributed “Smalltown Boy” and “Why?” to the HI-NRG canon. We recently had a chance to chat with Jimmy over the phone from his home in London about the upcoming record, his current single “Travesty,” and his ill-fated meeting with Giorgio Moroder, among other disco-related topics.
Check out the interview after the jump!
You’ve got a disco record coming out in the New Year. You’ve made a lot of disco music over the years. What’s different and how did you approach this one?
It was strange because I was just about to start recording another little EP. We were in the studio and I was listening to the songs and suddenly I thought, ‘God it would be so great to do a disco album.’ There were a couple of songs we thought sounded like disco. Then I realized that most of the songs I had been doing recently were just all closet disco songs. So we reassessed everything and started doing this disco album. Everything just fell into place.
I’ve read that the production was painstaking because you tried to replicate techniques of the ’70s. Is that true?
We didn’t want to do a pastiche. We wanted to do an homage and try and recreate something that was such a massive part of my past. What I now realize I’ve done is made the kind of album that, if I was 15, I would have went and bought, took home, sat on my bed, put it on the turntable and read all of the sleeve notes — just like I used to do every Saturday afternoon. I would just sit and think whatever is happening in my life, I have this freedom at this very moment because I have this record. So I feel like I’ve achieved something.
Did you go all-out with the production then?
When you listen to a single like [Earth, Wind and Fire’s] “Boogie Wonderland,” it just bounces out like some volcanic eruption and yet these records were made in small studios with a lot of love. It doesn’t matter what size your studio. It’s about the love that’s put into it. We’ve used as little technology as we possibly can. We don’t use anything that’s sampled or on a loop. It’s all recorded live and put into the mixing room and chopped up. We didn’t put it through any machines to tune it. It’s all real.
The single “Travesty” has a political tone to it. Do you think of disco as political music?
I guess it depends on who is making it. On that particular track, it evolved into this statement. I was evoking all the elements of “MacArthur Park” or “Boogie Wonderland”: big intros and big, heavy stuff that then have a story. I had to ask myself, ‘Will this work?’ Especially when it came to the line “it’s time to wake up, it’s a welfare war.” It’s got this pulsing, driving rhythm to it and to me it’s all about being positive and the idea that we do deserve a better day. I was just going with the flow of what I was feeling and thinking lyrically. Having that big backing vocal behind it gives it push.
The “Travesty” lyric video.
Do you consider yourself a disco queen?
I consider myself just kind of like, liberated. I’ve liberated my glitterball! That’s what I’ve done.
You’ve often covered disco songs in the past. When you sing a song by Thelma Houston or Donna Summer, what do you think of?
Let’s put it this way: Imagine I’m 14 years old. I’m living in Scotland in a very, very rough industrial housing estate. I’m small. I’m male. And I’ve got red hair. And I would sing in front of the mirror smiling and I would think I was black and Donna Summer. So there you go.
What about Donna Summer in particular makes her special for you?
It’s more than Donna Summer; it’s the whole period and the production and the people working on it. [Her style of music] was very European that then went to America and picked up the disco element. There something very European in the mix. She had this pop sensibility but filtered through all this other stuff. Her really, really early stuff is totally bonkers. Have you heard the song called “Hostage”? It’s this crazy little song that her and Giorgio Moroder done. Her husband gets kidnapped and then she keeps on getting these telephone calls and at the very end she goes, ‘Oh, he’s dead.’ It’s totally nuts!
Did you ever meet her?
No, I didn’t. I once met Giorgio Moroder and that was a disappointment so told myself I never wanted to meet anybody who I had an idea in my head of how they were like.
What happened when you met him?
I was just going on and on and being so passionate about an album he’d done, From Here To Eternity, and he didn’t remember it. I just glazed over. It was like he stuck the most enormous pin in my eye.
“Hostage” by Donna Summer
What emotions or themes were you working from when writing the songs?
It’s all about love. I still think that love is a universal theme and sometimes we can be very dismissive of love songs. Love songs are really important because we all have dreams, fantasies and aspirations and love plays a very important part in that. Love is the very essence of what we are. We can only go forward if you really understand the true universal meaning of love. I know that sounds really wet, but that’s really how I feel.
When you came up in Bronski Beat you were known for putting gay subject matter front and center in your lyrics and in your album art. Do you still feel the desire to do that?
I put who I was into it and so I will continue to put who I am into what I am doing. I can only do that through being honest and through also trying to discover what I’m thinking and feeling, and by making a connection to someone — a human connection. I did that with “Smalltown Boy” and that’s why it’s so successful. It’s not just about me being a gay man, it’s about me being an emotional man.
Do you still relate to that song?
I do and the most beautiful thing is generation after generation relate to that song as well. Whatever happens in life I’m so proud I’m part of that. That song isn’t about me anymore. It’s a very evocative and very emotional cry. It’s a cry from the heart.
“Smalltown Boy” 2014 reprise
Do you still think of sexuality in political terms?
It will always be political because so much of the so-called freedoms that I have are based around legislation. We’ve seen through time and history how legislation can be tampered with. Russia has legislation to basically determine who can teach kids, what can be taught and what visibility someone can have because of their sexuality. It happens in the United States. It happens here in the UK. If I was to be walking somewhere holding another man’s hand, depending on where I am or how I lucky I happen to be at that time, I could find myself with a bashed-in head. It’s always going to be the case.
Would you perform in Russia?
No. I have done in the past. Would I go there now? No. There are fans all over but my own personal integrity and my own pride is what’s important. I would never tell someone to go out and do something. You have to find a way to do that yourselves. We are living in more violent times. It seems much more acceptable to have a violent reaction to someone because of what they do. Not just because they are gay, but in any kind of light it seems acceptable to be quite violent to people if you don’t like what they do.
Do you have any fond memories from live shows past?
Actually yeah, when I was involved in [advocacy group] ACT UP in the UK, we done a little fundraising tour and one of my friends, Pascal, wore a suit covered in little glass mirrors and at the end of each show he would go to the middle of the stage and he would be the human glitterball. He would just spin through the whole song.
When the album comes out, will you go on tour?
Yeah, I’m going to get some live stuff together to perform the songs and have a massive glitterball hanging above my head. Hopefully just behind and above – a great way for me to go would be squashed by a glitterball!