Arts: To Shirley, with love

The dresses are gone, the voice is deeper - but the solo David McAlmont is still in search of his feminine side.

The very first note is something of a shock. For a split second, you wonder if you've put the wrong CD in the player. No. This really is David McAlmont. Why the surprise? Because that first shimmering note is rich, resonant, and pretty damn low. Admittedly, we're not quite in Lou Rawls territory but coming from the man famous for inhabiting the eerie stratosphere of falsetto-land, this is quite a leap.

Indeed, the whole of A Little Communication, his first solo album, is several steps beyond what anyone has been expecting. And he's genuinely proud of it. "This is the first time that I've listened to an album of mine and heard everything I've felt musically taking place."

It's not hard to see why. Surrounded by the beautifully finessed sounds supplied by producer Tommy D, the voice is, at last, centre-stage. Post- Bernard Butler - from whom he less-than-chummily split in 1995 after a brief creative liaison - McAlmont has finally gone solo at the age of 32, presenting what one critic has already described as "the best British vocal performance of 1998".

If you're looking for categorisation, it's British soul, as in "heart and...". Yet it's not just the utterly distinctive vocals which make the album so noteworthy. The entire effect is of a singer-songwriter hitting a deep vein of self-confidence. Music PRs are overly fond of loftily promoting a second-rate talent as "a major recording artist" but on this showing, McAlmont emerges as the real McCoy. All the more perplexing then, to discover that he dislikes being in the studio.

"I'm at my most confident on stage. It's the thing I do least which really bothers me," he says, gravely. "It takes me a long time to find myself in the studio." That may go some way to explaining why A Little Communication has been three years in gestation. Many performers who favour live appearances end up imprisoned by the deliberations and slow delivery of the recording process, their spirit neutered by the sterility of the studio, their performance swamped by over-production. Ironically, the hallmark of this album is its freshness.

It began life in 1995 with David Arnold, who had produced McAlmont's deliciously camp cover version of "Diamonds Are Forever". "He said did I want to be Shirley Bassey for a day? I said, `Absolutely!'" The thought of singing in front of a big orchestra was a blast but it suddenly occurred to him that this wasn't karaoke. "As much as I had been inspired by her, I couldn't do her. What would be the point? So I had to come up with something else." This ex-performance art student used it as a statement about gender roles. "Musically and visually on the video, I finally put something to rest. I'd made all sorts of attempts to address it, but I'd never managed it as well as I did there ... that whole transformation from a grumpy bloke walking the streets of Soho into this `Virtual Shirley World'. I would say that was one of my finest hours and it was useful because I thought, `Right, you can't top that. Now I can move on'."

As a result, the two of them began work on the album. "The sound was really expansive and epic ... Bassey-esque. But it wasn't right so we went back and tried to make it a bit more edgy, but that didn't quite work either. I'd never paid attention to the compliments I'd been paid before but it just got to the point where I realised that people were interested in what I was doing and finally I had to accept that." So, with Tommy D now on board, the focus returned to the voice, pure and not so simple.

In classical music, falsetto or counter-tenor voices have been used as a less savage substitute for the castrato tradition. Together with its similarity to the boy treble timbre, the falsetto sound has a sense of youthfulness, other-worldliness and a seemingly genderless purity. It is sometimes genuinely difficult to tell if the sound is being produced by a man or a woman. "I still think I sound a bit like a kid," McAlmont muses.

It certainly creates an ambiguity that he relishes, both as a songwriter and a singer. But unlike, say, the unyielding sound of The Stylistics, McAlmont's voice has a far more expressive quality, probably because he's got over three and a half octaves at his disposal. (We're almost talking Cleo Laine here). Best of all on the new album is the fact that his falsetto has now become merely one more tone in his vocal palette. Most of the time, he sings in an easy, sinuous high-tenor. "It's useful but I'm sort of over the falsetto now," he smiles. "With alcohol and smoking, I think I've made my range a little lower but that doesn't bother me. I always fancied sounding like Rod Stewart."

As John McEnroe remarked, "You cannot be serious?"

"Yeah. I didn't like the fact that I always sounded so gorgeous and angelic. I like it now, though."

Nonetheless, Art Garfunkel was an early inspiration. "It was about how beautiful and dreamy his voice is and the fact that the voice belonged to a man." His mother encouraged him to listen to Tony Bennett, who he still rates above Frank Sinatra for his emotional connection to a lyric, but most of his other mentors are women because "there's a vulnerability to female performers that a lot of men don't have". He cites Roberta Flack as central to his vocal development. "Songs like `Reverend Lee' and `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', which I do a very good karaoke version of!"

He began singing at his Pentecostal church in the West Indies at the age of 13, but believes that listening to people like Dusty Springfield, Karen Carpenter and Shirley Bassey really taught him how to express himself vocally. (Dusty in Memphis remains one of his favourite albums.) Those women, and plenty more besides, have traditionally cornered the pain market, producing album after album of "My man's left me and I'm miserable". He points to Peggy Lee - "very devil-may-care and world-weary, like in `Is That All There Is?' - and Nina Simone. "She's so acidic. There's pain there, but it's aggressive. She's saying, `there's someone who's responsible and as soon as I get my hands on him, the guy's gonna die!'"

A Little Communication is a Nineties spin on all that. He's learned the trick of being confidently vulnerable. His sombre face looming out of the publicity photos may be a shade intimidating, but he comes across as self-assured and beguilingly gentle. His lyrics alone illustrate his unusual willingness to reveal himself. The subtext is about wanting to be with someone, admitting errors of the past and acknowledging the cost, but hoping to have learned from his mistakes. Importantly, he manages to escape the standard male smugness which runs along the lines of: "Hey, I've been a really bad boy, but I've apologised so it's fine."

His views on masculinity go way back. His father left home when he was young "and I grew up feeling basically appalled by a lot of the men in my family and what they were capable of doing to the women they were supposed to love. I had very different notions of what affection should be. It sounds daft, but a lot of what I've expressed so far in my career has been about men-hating. It's no longer like that. I think I've grown up and I've begun to understand men, which is to understand myself. That's what makes my music tick".

`A Little Communication' is out now on Hut Records

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all