A Conversation With Marc Almond

Be it his epic, cabaret-pop solo albums or his wonky electro-wave work in Soft Cell, Marc Almond is an avatar of modern dramatic vocal arts. Whether he belies or deifies his influences (Lotte Lenya, Gene Pitney, David Bowie), Almond has remade the image of the nü-pop singer with a tortured theatricality that would make Judy Garland seem tame. He hasn’t released music in the U.S. since the ’90s—2016’s gorgeously collected Trials Of Eyeliner 10-CD anthology was only properly released in the U.K.—but things change with Shadows And Reflections (BMG), an album of stirringly stagey new Almond songs and rare covers, all tinged with a cosmopolitan sheen and arching melodicism fans of Bacharach, Brel, Webb and Hazlewood will adore.

Do you believe in fate or free will? Where do you stand on the philosophical side of the ledger?
I don’t believe in fate because, in some way, that requires we believe in something predetermined by supernatural powers, and that doesn’t interest me.

You’ve had great health and lousy health. How has the latter made you appreciate the former?
Great health is something you take for granted until you lose it. I suppose if I thought I was going to live this long I would’ve taken better care of myself.

I’ve witnessed you in many live music circumstances. Are you done with Rewind ’80s tours or is there something heartening about seeing and hearing audiences respond to your most public moments or hits?
I find myself in the fortunate position that I’m still asked to do Rewinds and retro festivals, and I’m now OK with that because it isn’t all I do. I can do a song cycle, Ten Plagues, which was a metaphor about the AIDS crisis by avant-garde composers Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill. Or I can sing “Tainted Love” to 40,000 people and see how happy it makes them to relive their youth. That’s a great position to be in.

Coming off a 10-LP boxed set of your past and knowing Mike Thorne is readying a collection of Soft Cell tracks, have you had just about enough of your past?
No, the past defines us. If I only had the past it would personally be worrying, but I don’t. I keep working and recording new material, or revisiting the past. I no longer have a problem with going back, since there’s more behind me than ahead.

Several songs on the new album—“Overture,” “Interlude,” “No One To Say Goodnight To”—set and frame the record’s mood. They’re composed and orchestrated by you and longtime collaborator John Harle. How does his music speak to you?
John Harle is another great musician/composer, one of Britain’s finest. His understanding of the limits of musicality, his extraordinary ability to take out as much as he puts in, to let a composition breathe and have life, is amazing. His music doesn’t just speak to me. It is transformative and transports you.

Why the ’60s—that particular 1960s—as an inspirational éclat for Shadows? A little bit Mod, a little Carnaby Street cosmopolitan, a little—in the words of Sandra Bernhard—bit of Burt?
I mean, where do I begin? It’s the roots and new shoots of so much of the family tree of all modern music, so much potential, so many possibilities, so much to say and hope for in that decade of music. It just felt like such a natural thing to do and such a joy to explore so many great, relatively unknown songs.

Considering the whole Jimmy Webb/Bacharach vibe of Shadows, did your heart sink when Glen Campbell passed?
He will be sadly missed, and his influence is far more deeply felt than might’ve first been apparent.

You worked with Bacharach at the London Palladium, and you do his “Blue On Blue” here. I don’t mean to starfuck, but that just sounds like a magnificent opportunity—was he cool to work with? Why do this song, as opposed to a million others?
It’s still this relatively unknown song, and I love tunes that are sad and mournful, but feel in their arrangements to convey the exact opposite. It was great to work with Burt. He, of course, writes principally with women in mind, the simplicity of his storytelling always masks a subtext. He was thrilled I chose this song.

On the new album, you start with a picture of a man in an apartment, and end with a picture of a man in an apartment. Are you selling real estate now, or do you picture Shadows And Reflections as someone walled in by circumstance?
Exactly. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I wanted the songs to hang together to form a narrative, arranged around the opening and closing tracks. In many ways, it’s an homage to the films of the late ’50s and ’60s directed by Douglas Sirk. Once again, it’s the subtexts that I am fascinated by, the language of what is not said, and the bleakness of pursuing capitalist soulless dreams. It’s also about the emptiness of things, a lack of spirituality as a warning.

I ran around with you and the Soft Cell crowd when you first came to New York. You seemed to love the city, and then you seemed to hate it and never came back, more or less. Are you ever coming back?
I did love it. You have relationships with cities and places, you fall in love, and then they change and madden you, or leave you behind, or become something other than that thing you fell in love with. Or maybe we change. I loved New York, and then didn’t. I was in love with New York, and then wasn’t. But infuriatingly I still love it in some hope that we can rekindle something.

—A.D. Amorosi