David McAlmont released a hit single and two albums with guitarist Bernard Butler. During his career he has moved through a succession of musical genres and performance styles.
The popular music industry is a notoriously fickle business, with artists being lavishly nurtured one minute, only to find themselves dropped at point-blank notice the next for not selling. So it takes an uncommon degree of persistence to be able to see your way back into it again.
David McAlmont came to public notice as one half of a duo with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler in 1995. Their hit single ‘Yes’ was followed by two albums, The Sound of McAlmont and Butler (1995) and Bring It Back (2002).
In 2005, McAlmont released Set 1, an album of covers of show-tunes and jazz standards (together with a revelatory reading of the Whitney Houston chart-topper, ‘Saving All My Love For You’), and another phase looked set to roll.
When the company that released the album collapsed in financial confusion, McAlmont found himself, as he puts it, "floundering for a couple of years. I did a few shows to keep my face in, some contributions to TV documentaries, and eventually found another manager.
"I decided the thing for me to do was not to pursue pop perfection, but to aim for a Mercury Music Prize."
Changing the direction of a creative career
A productive new initiative arose when he was asked to be part of a presentation at the Royal Festival Hall of songs by Harold Arlen, to support a stage production of The Wizard of Oz.
The hardest thing to deal with in any career is that pressing question of what to do next.
It’s a show he still tours to small and medium-sized venues, which have included London jazz cafés, arts clubs, festivals, and a Brighton church.
David capitalises on the up-close-and-personal nature of venues such as these, accompanied only by pianist Natasha Panas. He tells the stories behind the songs to audiences that know them inside out, and who appreciate more from such performances than just the chance to tap their feet.
He has also collaborated with composer Michael Nyman, whose soundtracks for some of Peter Greenaway’s films have brought contemporary classical music to a constituency that wasn’t expecting to receive it.
How much strategic planning goes into these diversifications? "A thing I’ve accepted about myself is that I have no idea how to create a commercial enterprise."
"I’m good at expressing emotion in what I do. Deep down I think I’m a bit of an academic in my approach, but I feel very liberated now that I don’t see myself as a commercial entity.’
Diversifying a music career
The kinds of singers David admires are those who have worked in a wide variety of styles.
"I certainly know when it’s necessary to be humble. Sometimes it’s easy, but I’m aware sometimes that I can get carried away, so there’s that tension, when you have to work a crowd sometimes to bring them over to your side.
"I feel very liberated now that I don’t see myself as a commercial entity."
"I think it’s more inventive when it’s more about performance than when it’s just about myself, my ego."
One of the risks of working in different genres can be carrying audiences from one destination on your own journey to another. Does he know who his audience is?
"I know a lot of my audience is gay. A lot of them are followers of great singers, and I do a lot of work by great singers. It’s not remotely hip, but I think it’s cool.
"There was a time when I jumped through hoops, attempting to do what was expected of me, but now I don’t feel that pressure. I think people are interested to hear what I do with a song."
The days when a coming-out moment was a strategic decision in a singer’s career may be receding into history, but did his own sexuality play a part in his early career?
"I think there was a point when the two went hand-in-hand certainly. I was black, queer, fierce and militant, and I wanted everybody to know about it.
"That was my rebellion. I think often adolescence can be stagnant for a gay man, so mine came later, at about the time I started recording and releasing records."
A creative career - what to do next?
The hardest thing to deal with in any career is that pressing question of what to do next. McAlmont says that, a few years ago, he was gearing up to spend the next chunk of his career singing jazz standards.
"I didn’t know what to write about, except that I didn’t want to write about me," – but then Nyman found him on Facebook.
They toyed with the idea of a project based on the story behind the nineteenth-century French painting, The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault’s masterpiece. The fascination lay in the painter’s own turn from classical genre pieces to documentary subjects.
"It’s interesting in that my ambitions have all changed – when I was 13, I wanted to be Michael Jackson."
The direction in which it led McAlmont was to finding real people’s stories, and thinking himself empathically into the heads of the people involved. "It hasn’t been an easy way of doing things, but the result is that I’m very excited about what I’m writing.
"At worst, it becomes an imporant story set to music, and at best it becomes a great song. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been as a songwriter. I see it as putting into these stories some of the emotion that the news media takes out."
Does he feel that his career has fulfilled his ambitions so far? "It’s interesting in that my ambitions have all changed.
"When I was about 13, I wanted to be Michael Jackson. Also, I remember seeing images of the great works in the fine arts when I was at school, and wanting to be part of that.
"I wanted to be the first black male soul singer to sing songs from a gay point of view. Then I found myself going to see Peter Greenaway films to hear that music."
Getting into the music industry
For those who don’t fancy chancing their tonsils on The X-Factor, what was David's experience of getting into the industry?
"The music industry will only sign what they believe they can market and sell."
"I thought it was easy, I must confess, and I think that conditioned how well I did in it.
"I did have a couple of big splashes, but I didn’t do as well as some. Which is to say that I didn’t really do that well at all. I think if I’d had a fuller understanding of my own abilities, I would have appreciated how difficult it is to get into it.
"I think a lot of people still believe that the industry will sign anything. But they’ll really only sign up what they believe they can market and sell."
When a friend on her way to an X-Factor audition asked for his advice. McAlmont told her that he thinks the show is predominantly looking for people who will make good television, more than those who have obvious talent. He can think of many great singers who haven’t made it on the show.
That said, he retains a degree of respect for people he’s worked with in the past, who take a straightforwardly careerist approach.
"I know people who go to the studio at nine in the morning, and work there till six before going home again.
"Some people have that work ethic," he ponders that prospect for a second before breaking into a grin. "I’m not really like that."
David is currently in the band Fingersnap with pianist Guy Davies.