David McAlmont on teaming up with Michael Nyman
Keiron PimHe has one of the most exquisite voices in British music and he's coming to Norwich on May 7 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. David McAlmont told us about his latest collaboration, his Britpop days – and the Gorleston years.Keiron Pim
David McAlmont's voice is an extraordinary thing, a sublime and ethereal sound that has woven its way through numerous musical settings in the last couple of decades, from Britpop hits to jazz recordings.
It was most recently heard floating above a series of Michael Nyman's film scores and it is this intriguing collaboration that brings McAlmont to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. He and Nyman will perform songs from their album The Glare at the Theatre Royal, an evening that is sure to be one of this year's high points for the 240-year-old arts festival.
The concept is interesting - each of McAlmont's 11 songs takes a classic Nyman instrumental and gives it lyrics exploring a contemporary news story, written in the first-person from the perspective of a character involved.
So we have subjects such as modern piracy in the song Going to America, trafficked prostitution in Europe (City of Turin), assisted suicide (Friendly Fire), reality television (The Glare), and priapic politicians in a track called In Rai Don Giovanni. This last number skewers Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi to amusing effect, its protagonist noting that you 'cannot love a man with floozies younger than his kids'.
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McAlmont and Nyman met a decade ago but did not begin working together until 2007. Years before, McAlmont had become 'utterly entranced' by Nyman's soundtrack to Peter Greenaway's film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, and of their first meeting he recalls: 'I was completely gobsmacked, whereas he didn't know who I was. I said something about how I would love to work with him and he was very nice. And then a couple of years ago I joined Facebook.
'After a couple of days I got a message from someone calling themselves Michael Nyman. I couldn't be sure it was really him at first. He said 'Maybe you would like to do something with the music from [Michael Winterbottom's film] Wonderland'. We had a meeting.'
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In time they got to discussing the French Romantic painter Theodore Gericault, who painted The Raft of Medusa. 'We spoke about possibly doing a piece based on that painting,' says McAlmont, 'but then I started researching his life and what was extraordinary about him was that he bucked the trend of the time. Whereas most of the other painters were doing characters from the classics and paintings of military activity, so that people would buy them, he wanted to put contemporary life on the canvas.
'So I was really inspired by that. And I thought of the idea of using Michael's music as a canvas and writing contemporary life on to that. I chose the tracks that seemed to me to have a verse and chorus structure.
'Michael adamantly states that there's nothing like that in his compositions, but I heard it!'
The Glare came out to considerable praise in late 2009. As ever, McAlmont's extraordinary voice had critics reaching for adjectives and similes.
Soul singer Curtis Mayfield is one common comparison; memorably the Melody Maker once suggested that 'one day he will open his mouth and a cathedral will fall out'.
McAlmont's career to date has been episodic; he is perhaps best known for his short-lived spells working with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. As McAlmont and Butler they burst into view in 1995 with the orchestral pop single Yes, a camp, melodramatic Britpop anthem that provided a much-needed complement to the beer-and-testosterone-soaked rock of Oasis et al. The sight of the pair on Top of the Pops forms one of Britpop's vital images: Butler assaulting his guitar as if it had wronged him in a previous life, the dreadlocked McAlmont all elegant restraint and casually flicked wrists. It didn't last long. Projects back in those mid-90s days tended to end with bust-ups and walk-outs of some description.
'I think that my attitude has improved with maturity,' he reflects. 'I think now when I look back, how privileged and how fortunate I have been, and it's one regret I have that I didn't realise that at the time.'
He still characterises himself as something of 'a drifter', but has grown up since then and reckons that he and Nyman will work together on at least one more album. 'I definitely want to,' he says. While The Glare took stories from newspapers around the world, 'the idea is that next time we narrow it down to the British Isles, and if we do a third one then it could be about one city'.
For now he's focusing on The Glare, and is looking forward to appearing in Norwich on May 7. He's London-born, spent nine years of his youth in Guyana, but this is far from the first time he has been to Norfolk. In fact, the 42-year-old lived here during his childhood.
'I was in Gorleston from 1975 to '78,' he says. 'My mum got a nice offer to move up to Gorleston and run a guesthouse, so we upped sticks and left. It was on Upper Cliff Road. During the summer we went to the beach every day. I had a lovely couple of summers there, wandering around on my own. I went to Peterhouse School and lived in Lowestoft Road. I remember strawberry-picking at Hopton, kite-flying at Lowestoft, going to the woods and going to the sea at Caister.
'People think that I still have a bit of an accent. They say 'What's that accent you have?', and I say I lived in Guyana and they say it's not that, then I say I lived in Norfolk and they say 'That's it!' It's there in my 'R's, I think.'
David McAlmont: musical renegade, vocalist extraordinaire and Norfolk boy at heart. We look forward to welcoming him home.
t David McAlmont and Michael Nyman perform The Glare at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, at 8pm on Friday May 7. Tickets cost �6 to �36. Call 01603 766400, 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk