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
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee