INTERVIEW: David McAlmont 1

INTERVIEW: David McAlmont

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David McAlmont undoubtedly possess one of the best voices to emerge from this country. I don’t say that lightly; his ability to soulfully express with a soaring celestial grace each octave he sings with his words radiating from his aching falsetto and swooping with a striking bittersweet emotion. It’s this duality and a (sometimes) overlooked ability to write songs of great quality with his various collaborators that makes him an enduring star in the musical firmament. From his memorable work with Bernard Butler in the 1990s, that yielded the wall of sound pop of ‘The Sound of McAlmont and Butler’ and that housed two of the most superb songs of that decade in the sublime ‘Yes’ and ‘You Do’ and their follow up 2002’s ‘Bring It Back’, to his solo and soundtrack work with the likes of David Arnold and latterly his wonderful contributions to Michael Nyman‘s compositions, that depict a talent that is constantly evolving and seeking to push his work.

David McAlmont returned in 2011, with Fingersnap and a new collaborator pianist and composer Gary Davies. The results have been just as astounding. The uplifting soul of their first EP ‘Smokestacks’ has now been followed up by the tender brittle melancholia of the ornate voice and piano number ‘Blackbirds’ which is one of the best songs of 2014 so far.

We sent David some questions and were delighted and honoured that he answered them:

What’s the music you most remember listening to when you were growing up?

My mother was a fan of Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Perry Como; they were very present in my formative years. The Sound of Music soundtrack featuring Mary Martin was one of my earliest presents and I loved Top of the Pops. The stand out track of my childhood, the one that mesmerized me the most was Art Garfunkel’s take on I Only Have Eyes For You; it still does.

What were the first records you bought?

I was quite satisfied with my mother’s taste, the radio and the TV. So I didn’t buy my first album until my high school teens. My first purchase was Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle.

When did you first discover your voice, so to speak? And how did you develop it over time?

I was about fifteen going to church in Guyana, and I was a fan of contemporary Christian music. I used to do a version of El Shaddai, which I was often invited to sing.

Which singers do you admire? And why?

Too many to name, but Amy Winehouse and Dusty Springfield to name two because their understanding of soulful style has and continues to strike me as quite astounding.

If you can, talk us through what happened with your first band Thieves and why that album ended up coming out as a solo album?

It was a relationship stressed by corporate expectations. There was a challenge in Saul’s admiration for acts like the Blue Nile, Talk Talk and Scritti Politti who took ages to make records. I was too impatient for that level of craftsmanship.

Is it true you were approached by Bernard Butler to work together, after you supported Morrissey or is that an apocryphal tale?

I don’t know that the two are connected, but Morrissey may have heard the seeds of what became ‘Yes’ before I did.

In my opinion, ‘Yes’ is one of the greatest songs of the 1990s; how did it emerge and how did the song writing relationship work with Bernard during the period of recording the songs that would make up The Sound of McAlmont and Butler?

In a number of ways, but I took ‘Yes’ home, tried all kinds of things and eventually Judy Garland showed me the way. ‘Yes’ would be different if I hadn’t been blown away by Judy’s version of ‘The Man That Got Away’ days before I wrote it.

You recently played a rapturously received show with Bernard at the Union Chapel. Can you see a point where you would record again with Bernard? Or do you think Bring it Back the last album you will record given Bernard’s commitments?

I can see us finishing an album that we started while we were touring Bring it Back!

Is Fingersnap in a sense a celebration of that project?

Fingersnap is a duo that facilitates the presence of McAlmont and Butler songs in our audience. We see ourselves as a duo that does covers of an earlier duo’s songs. McAlmont and Butler celebrate twenty years next year.

You released a cover of ‘Diamonds are Forever’ with David Arnold, are there any songs left that you would like to cover?

Always. I think about songbook albums all the time, but Hideaway in Streatham allows me a space to vent that aspiration.

What did you learn from recording with Michael Nyman and the various soundtracks you worked on with him?

That I didn’t have to go to the edge of despair to produce a great lyric… I could use the energy to research and I have been researching ever since.

When did you meet Guy Davies of Fingersnap and what was it about your relationship that works?

Guy and I met in 1997 on a session for the album that became A Little Communication. We became fast friends and I am constantly blessed by his belief in me and his desire to create for and with me. Whereas all of my other collaborators have been very determined visionaries who saw my voice as something they wanted to slot into their vision- no problem with that- everything I do with Guy is very much OUR vision.

Your first release Smokehouse had a real soulful uplifting vibe, does soul music influence the way you approach songs? Do you think the best soul/Motown music has that ability to place bittersweet words/vocals against uplifting pop backdrops?

I think that Motown cemented a life affirming approach with songs like ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’. I am an optimist and it saddens me when the darker aspects of life overwhelm humanity.

Blackbirds is superb, I read that it was originally a poem that was set to music, what was the inspiration?

  1. Got pissed. Stayed up all night. Blackbird song: “Oh no! I’ve been up all night again.”
  2. Sobered up. Wanted to sleep. “What is that bloody bird that keeps waking me up?”
  3. Realized there was nothing I could do about the pesky little blighter, fell in love with its song. Wrote a poem.

Are you working on a Fingersnap album at the moment?

Very slowly, but we are accelerating.

What do you think you have learnt from writing and recording solo records that you have brought to your work with others?

That I am a lyricist, a top line writer and vocalist, nothing more and nothing less…

What does collaborating with others bring out in your work do you think?

At best, the best…

Is there anyone that you would like to collaborate with, that you have yet to?

Philip Glass, Gustavo Santaolla, Alberto Iglesias…

If you had to pick out five albums that have stayed with you throughout your life what would they be?

Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness’ First Finale; Barbra Streisand: Guilty; Carols From Clare; The Sound of Music: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack; Tony Bennett’s Twenty Greatest Hits

What modern musicians do you admire?

Bernard Butler, Brandon Ross (Cassandra Wilson’s guitarist), Michelle Stodart (The Magic Numbers), Jack Pollitt (Mama’s Gun drummer)
You have a show slated for Fingersnap in London this October, do you think you will take Fingersnap across the country?

Yes. Sorry to the out of towners, but we have toured before and got it wrong, so we need to ensure that we do it the right way.

Fingersnap play St James Theatre on the 22nd and 23rd of October.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.