I first became familiar with The Irrepressibles when my friend Becc played me the ‘In This Shirt’ video. I was completely in awe, and I think for me that was when I knew The Irrepressibles, and you in particular, were something special. The visuals of the video were pushing barriers, and so beautifully produced, and the lyrics so poignant.
For those who aren’t familiar, tell us a bit about the story behind The Irrepressibles.
I started the band in 2003. Before then I’d been gigging a lot of the songs alone, just guitar and voice, building a following on the London scene. Looking back, at school I’d written music for the orchestra and imagined visions for it – I was a quiet child and my imagination was where I retreated to. But I had ended up making grunge-rock music, and with The Irrepressibles these two worlds collided. I wanted to create a band that pushed back the boundaries that I felt were so restrictive and be political with it. You couldn’t be open about your sexuality, and music had to be either high or low art. I wanted to change perceptions in pop music – I felt honesty and art and culture should go together. So I started to work with unique instrumentation and do the live and visual side differently. I started to create visual worlds on stage, performing inside of installations I’d imagined, combining choreography and unique lighting and working with fashion designers and people in makeup to create worlds to house the music. It was difficult because I was going against the norm but eventually we were part of a movement.
Mirror Mirror was an album that was all about this artistic freedom, eventually released nearly 10 years after I’d started. Nude was about pulling all this back and arriving somewhere very raw. It was about telling my story of coming of age and discovering my sexuality. I wanted to make a very bold and honest homosexual record from both the visual to the lyrical content. My career suffered initially but then the music industry followed suit with other artists being this open and focused on LGBT.
I can remember the first time I saw you perform; it was at a Town Hall in North London, and it’s one of the only times I’ve had goosebumps whilst watching a performance. When you sing, it feels like you share a part of yourself with the audience, which is what watching a musician should be like.
Your lyrics are so beautifully written, and incredibly open – are there ever times when it’s difficult to sing about a particularly hard breakup, or time in your life that you’ve written about?
Yes, especially when things move on and you’re taken back to that time and you relive it. But to me I couldn’t sing the trivial. Don’t get me wrong, songs about fun, and silliness even, are part of my musical world but it always has to be honest for me. It’s a way of me understanding the world, a kind of therapy. You can transform a hard time into something beautiful or capture the energy of fun into sound.
Your supporting band are incredibly talented. How did you find them all, and do you prefer work with the same band?
Through an ad online initially. I met another of the band in a music shop once. Life is sometimes like that, isn’t it? I work with them to create the movements they perform live and together we become like a flock of animals. They are great musicians and people! I’ve worked with many of them for over eight years.
What I really admire about you is the fact that you are a lead singer who uses their music and stature to discuss social issues, such as LGBT rights. Why do you think that more musicians aren’t as open in their song writing?
Talking about your homosexuality was a taboo in the lyrics of your music, now it is a time of transformation around LGBT rights globally. But there is so much more to do: it is criminalised in many countries, and in some it even means death. For me, if you have a voice you should use it for the betterment of society – to me there is only society. Everyone is a child underneath it all, everyone is scared, everyone is precious. I believe in diplomacy, communication and compassion as the ways of helping bring about change.
You’ve just said you’re deleting your Facebook page so you can be more creative. Do you think as a society we are loosing our creativity to the internet?
Yes. But then the internet is a very creative space and in some ways it is improving the quality of things. You need to command people’s attention as an artist. But at the same time baby animals…baby animals…baby animals…
I’ve become really interested in different art forms acting as a relief – if I’m ever on the computer too long, I need to go and sit by the water and write. Do you think younger generations will be have less romanticised views on society because of the internet and advanced technology?
I think nature is essential. It’s funny because it’s everything, and totally sorts you out! But you can talk to someone in another country at the click of a keypad on the internet and that is incredible for peace and understanding in the world. I think the internet will bring greater peace. We all become like one massive brain.
You’ve recently been working with Royksopp (I costumed designed for them once too!), what have you been doing with them and how did it come about?
I sang on five tracks on their recent album and I’ve been touring as a vocalist for them this last year, singing along side Jonna Lee of iamamiwhoami of whom I’m a big fan also. It’s been amazing, and I’ve learnt so much from them all.
Tell us about your creative process – do you set time aside to write, or do you wait until it comes to you?
I work all the time on my music. I believe that music is always there and there is always life to write about.
How important are the visuals to you? Do you come up with the ideas for your videos?
Very important. For me pop music is an audio visual art. I directed the videos for my last album – I had a lot to say – but also we had little money. I’ve worked with directors in the past and in that case I leave them alone to interpret the music. I also create the visual worlds of the shows as the live performance is an expression of the music.
You’ve recently moved to Berlin – what spurred this move?
I wanted to for a long time. But also London has become insanely expensive. I’m very political and believe that people shouldn’t spend all their money on rent, it’s insane. We’re part of the EU still thankfully and you can live anywhere you want, you just get on a plane. So I moved to Germany where rent is regulated and food and transport prices more common-sense and people actually take a day off – all the shops are closed on a Sunday…I can breathe!
How has gentrification in London affected you and other artists you know? Do you think there’ll be an end, or will creatives have to continually move further out?
It is always the same process: artists move in, fashion people move in, magazines say it’s the cool place to live, rich people move in, areas get posh coffee shops…you’ll never stop that I’m afraid, but it’s all good because you get gluten-free cakes! Being serious though, we just need regulation of house prices and local communities being supported. Common-sense stuff. London used to be very good at that. Hackney was a good example of success in this area but that’s because they have a left wing council balancing things out. But people do currently have their hands tied.
You’ve been doing a lot of work with Jon Campbell, and he’s your support in London – tell us more about what you’ve been working on together.
I’ve been producing his first EP called ‘About A Boy’ – doing string, brass and percussion arrangements. He has a low baritone voice in some ways reminiscent of Chet Baker and his songs are honest, sometimes sarcastic, and earthy. It’s been a labour of love.
If you had a five-track playlist, what tracks would be on there?
I have broad taste! Today it would be:
Le1f – Wut
Kraftwerk – The Hall Of Mirrors
Anais Mitchell – Coming Down
Amadou & Mariam – Sabali
Peaches – Vaginoplasty
Tell us about the two dates you have coming up in London next week, what can people expect?
We’re recording live on two nights in this beautiful chamber classical venue in Camden. I’ll be singing playing grand piano and guitar with my violinist and cellist expanding arrangements through loop pedal into larger orchestrations live. We’re playing songs from Nude, Mirror Mirror plus some reworks I’ve done of some songs of some of my heroes. It’s going to be very intimate.