Interview: Jimmy Somerville: Still fighting for his love

Escaping a tough life in Glasgow, he ran away to London at 17 and became a rent boy. Then a Hampstead doctor took him off the street and set him on a path that eventually led to pop stardom

Hester Lacey
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:50

A record company mogul's office is a plush place. This one, at RAK Recording Studios in St John's Wood, north-west London, has two walls covered in glittering gold and silver discs, a huge leather sofa and an antique desk, floor- length drapes and smoked glass, lots of plants, plus a number of copies of posh, glossy mags for the super-rich - International Yachting Partnership and Cigar Aficionado. Jimmy Somerville, curled on the massive settee, wearing camouflage trousers and faded T-shirt, with bare feet in open- toed sandals, fresh from cycling in from Islington, looks a touch incongruous.

He is diminutive, crop-headed, with a sandy, freckled pallor that looks as though he has spent the whole summer indoors. Which perhaps he has, for his new single, "Dark Skies", released last Monday to enthusiastic reviews, is very much a home-made product. "My flatmate Sally and I are working together. It's very instinctive. We record and produce at home - we only go to a larger studio to mix it with a mixing engineer. It's a whole new thing for me. I've always relied on a big producer and big studios. I had budgets that were ridiculous. But this single cost under three or four grand, when before it was in tens of thousands."

He believes this new bargain-basement style is truer to his own musical instincts than some of his previous work. "This is darker and deeper than what I've done for a long time. It's about going back to the roots where I started. It's very dancey and it's very hard, quite aggressive sounding, but also within it there's very sad and bluesy melodies. It has an underground feel to it. I'm getting away from the easy option of the standard cover which would guarantee some kind of chart hit, but wouldn't guarantee any kind of credibility. I'm following my own instincts, I feel like an artist again."

Somerville's musical career took off in the mid-Eighties with Bronski Beat, enthusiastic promoters of gay rights (their debut album, The Age Of Consent, included a table comparing the British homosexual age of consent with that of other countries). Hits included "Smalltown Boy" and "Why?". He moved on to form the Communards - their third single, "Don't Leave Me This Way" was the second-bestselling single of 1986.

The Communards split up in1988 and since then Somerville's solo career has yet to equal the mainstream success that both bands achieved. His 1995 solo album Dare To Love was well received but didn't hit the same chart heights. Then he took time off, "living his life" and travelling. But, he says in his gentle Scottish accent, he doesn't care. Stardom can be uncomfortable. "If you disappear for a few years you lose momentum. I was taking risks by disappearing. I'm now having to understand that commercial success isn't the only kind of success you can have. So many people have to struggle for years, very few bands get success with their first record, but I was instantly successful and famous on a very large scale, which was scary. I'm having my career in reverse now."

Somerville is an unlikely figure of a pop star. Now 36, he had a difficult adolescence in a rough part of Glasgow. His father was a roofer, and his mother worked in a chemical factory. "I had good parents. My mother had morals and standards and she brought us up to be good kids - some of the families around were just laws unto themselves, it was really tribal. But I was this young confused gay man who was just of going off the rails. I hated everybody and everything. It was me against the world, and that's a big war to start fighting."

He ran away to London with a friend at the age of 17. "I was working in a paint factory and it was hideous. I was made fun of for being a 'little poof'. I became so thick skinned, but I decided I was tired of it in the end." He got on the train with a week's wages in his pocket. "The day I was born was the day I arrived at Euston station," he says. "We had no money, nowhere to go, but we knew we could go to Piccadilly Circus and become prostitutes. We weren't troubled by it. We saw it as a means to an end, an easy way to get money." He spent only a few months on the street, surrounded by "scary, nasty people", before a guardian angel appeared in the form of a Hampstead doctor. "He gave us the attic of his house - no favours required, he just gave us the rooms. He'd done the same before. Someone like that is a really good person."

With an address, Somerville could find a job and he started working in the department store Heal's, where he stayed for five years. Then he made the unlikely leap from shop assistant to pop star. "I went to squat with a bunch of friends - creative, intelligent, political people. We got involved in a community project funded by the Arts Council and we made this video. I sang a poem and somebody, I think it was Richard Coles, who was later my partner in the Communards, said I had a very strange sound and I should use it." His falsetto is his musical trademark. "It's not really a singing voice, it's untrained, it was just sort of a sound that I was making. Then I met Larry and Steve [Bronski], we started writing songs together, and before I knew it we had a record deal as Bronski Beat. It was all so quick, and it was something that I had never dreamed would happen to me, because I honestly didn't have any desire to be in showbiz or the entertainments industry."

The trappings of success amazed him. "It didn't make me hugely rich, but I'm very comfortable. I got more money than I ever dreamed I'd have - enough to buy a house and to know that I wasn't going to have to worry about bills and things for the rest of my life. Incredible," he says, with a quite touching wonderment. He was glad he could his fame to promote gay rights and left-wing politics. "I definitely think my visibility and openness contributed to today's awareness of homosexuality. I was one of the first people to be that open and that up-front. It was a natural thing to do. I'd always been political as a kid and I saw my sexuality as a political thing, which I still think it is."

Somerville was involved in Red Wedge, the music movement that supported the Labour Party. But although he still votes Labour, he is disillusioned with its New incarnation. "I still believe there should be free education and healthcare, these are fundamental basics that should be funded by the government. And the one party you think would champion these things is saying they have to keep the voters happy - and the voters are too selfish to pay the extra ten or 20 pence a week to fund these things. I think it's over now for radical politics." He sighs, more sad than angry. "All you have is your principles and your dreams of what an ideal situation would be. But you know that it's never going to happen."

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