David McAlmont: the misunderstood star
There's something about a man with a high voice that gets people. Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Jackie Wilson - they're the untouchables of pop. But in more ways than one. In terms of image, they're positively virginal, perfectly sexless. So where does that leave singers like Jimmy Sommerville, not to mention McAlmont? Mayfield and Wilson are seen as "classic" singers, but someone like Jimmy Sommerville, clearly crooning to a man, is classed as "camp". Heterosexual romance demands a vulnerable, trembling falsetto in the background, but the less said about the singers the better.
McAlmont, 28, could go either way. Soul may yet make a respectable man of him, but next year he'll appear on an album of James Bond themes, singing the immortal lines: "Unlike men the diamonds linger... diamonds are forever." As Freud might have said: "What does McAlmont want?"
I'm meeting McAlmont at Heathrow airport, from where we'll fly to Belfast for a series of radio and TV shows. I await a vision in gold, a sauntering star. A swotty comp kid strolls up - skinny pins, blue blazer and glasses. Then he flutters his ticket to provide some air. That's my boy.
As he settles into his plane seat, having first applied cherry lip balm, McAlmont explains that he hasn't always shared the world's opinion of his voice. In a helter-skelter accent, (he was brought up in Norfolk, then moved with his family to Guyana), he tells me how it (the "fuss") all began. "We were doing a 13-year-old kids version of 'Close To You'. All the boys were growling and all the girls were singing very sweetly and I was singing very sweetly too. The music teacher knew something was up - she got the boys to start on their own. I thought: 'If anyone's doing anything wrong I don't want to be found out' and I joined in with the growling. But teach knew the difference. She said, 'McAlmont, you've got a lovely voice and you shouldn't be ashamed of it'."
McAlmont still harbours doubts. "I wanted that kind of mature, grown- up edge that Al Green has." He pouts knowingly. "I sound like a choirboy."
McAlmont's testosterone-free voice has served him and Bernard Butler well - their second single "You Do" has just been released, and the album The Sound of McAlmont and Butler, comes out on 20 November. But today McAlmont is travelling sans Butler, because the two have split. According to McAlmont, it was his own refusal to play the he-male that brought things to a head. "I think Bernard's quite fey, really" he says huskily, "but he worked in a really clinical way. Our relationship was quite gladiatorial. That's not the way I like to work. I'm not saying that I have to be in love with people that I write with, but I'd like to think there's some kind of rendezvous going on." Since going public with these thoughts, however, McAlmont and Butler have had a mutual change of heart. Now the strangest on/ off relationship in pop is back on.
Having landed, we scoot over to BBC Radio Belfast for the Across the Line show. McAlmont sings a new ditty "Be Mine" with his latest collaborator, Graham Kern, on acoustic guitar. All in the studio agree: McAlmont's raw crooning stops the heart.
During a long Guinnessy lunch we get to hear about McAlmont's doomed love life. He mock-whispers that his ideal relationship is the one between Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game. "I would have loved to be in Jaye Davidson's shoes," he flutters, "being so smitten by this man that you'll visit him in prison forever."
After a quick nap, it's time for The Kelly Show, a late-Sunday-night programme, which for one week will be turned over to the gay community. McAlmont puts on huge, Herman Munster boots and sways across the floor provocatively: but there's a problem. The producer thinks McAlmont is going to perform "You Do" - with strings. It's out of the question: McAlmont can't do the number without Butler. The nice PR man persuades the producer to listen to "Be Mine". McAlmont tumbles straight into song: "Don't leave. I won't let you."
McAlmont finishes. Silence. The producer walks off, muttering: "Liked the other one - it had more kick."
We're back in the hotel - McAlmont is sure he's been pulled because of complaints from Ulster's religious groups. Kern thinks they were cut because "Be Mine" was too downbeat. Was McAlmont too camp, or not camp enough? As Freud might have said: "What does the world want?"
McAlmont is dwelling on rejection. "As a child I got shut out so much by men."
School sounds hell. "The boys hate you and if the girls want to demonstrate they're grown women they go for McAlmont." (I blink at this use of the third person - he's oblivious.) "Everyone would stand round watching McAlmont get beaten up by a girl." His voice is wobbling. "I've had a bad life, I deserve to be beautiful."
He says he is happier now than ever before. But he knows the mouth of Pandora's Box is wide open. "There's nothing more hopeless on this planet than a pop musician - stardom is a sickness." Why does he want it then? He giggles drunkenly. "It's a place to hide."
It's 10.30pm and we're off to see Massive Attack, friends of McAlmont's. He grooves quietly to himself at the back of the hall. Leaning over, he shouts: "Isn't this better than being at some crappy TV show?"
We're back at the hotel once more and McAlmont is drunk as a skunk. He's showing off to all the straight guys. "Does anyone want to try my cherry... lip salve?" he asks. "See how I add the last bit," he giggles, "so none of you feel insecure."
The hotel muzak persists in the background. It's "The Girl from Ipanema". McAlmont starts singing along. There's more to this man than his voice, but what a voice. McAlmont will be lucky if he makes it big. So will we.
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