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Alison Moyet interview – Classic Pop Magazine



In this Alison Moyet interview from 2017, the former Yazoo singer talks to Wyndham Wallace about surviving 35 years in the pop business…

Alison moyet interview
Photo by Steve Gullick

It’s mid-April, and Alison Moyet is cradling a phone in the kitchen of her terraced Brighton home – the one she swapped for a seven-bedroom house and garden four years ago, the one without off-street parking – as words to her latest album’s title track are read back to her admiringly.

“Some people we don’t mean to lose,” the lyrics declare, “They snag on branches and separate in market squares…”

“I can’t begin to tell you,” she interrupts, her pleasure almost palpable, “how much it means to me that you’ve engaged with the lyrics. It’s more important to me than singing, than whether I have a voice or not. You just made me really happy by quoting that to me. How brilliant it is to actually be a writer, to be a poet, rather than just to be a mainstream pop singer. Thank you!”

The gratitude is unnecessary. Moyet’s latest, astonishing album, Other, is arguably her most realised collection to date, and its strengths lie as much in its vivid, inventive language as in its dark, startling music.

Brimfull of her trademark vocal intensity and peppered with striking imagery – I Germinate’s “bats in a blink eclipse the moon/ Like whipped kerchiefs in a courtly swoon”, The Rarest Birds’ “dove-grey gum constellations” – it represents the culmination of her slow but steady reinvention from ‘pop singer’ to ‘proper artist’. 

To some, Moyet remains fossilised as the Essex girl who first emerged as one half of Yazoo, alongside Vince Clarke, before her 1984 solo debut, Alf, took her to No.1, going four-times platinum in the process.

Even when, in 2014, BBC Breakfast summarised her career ahead of an interview, they stopped at 1986’s Is This Love?, as though the seven albums she’d made since – including 2002’s Hometime and 2004’s Voice, which both went gold, and The Minutes, which had recently gone Top 5 – were mere afterthoughts.

Her six-month run in a successful West End musical, and the play, Smaller, in which she’d starred alongside Dawn French, were also overlooked.

But Moyet’s been steadily refining her craft, often out of the spotlight, and though her commercial profile may not be as high as it once was, she’s now free to make music that appeals, first and foremost, to her rather than the marketplace. The signs are that it’s winning her new fans.

“I’ve been frustrated,” she admits when reminded of that BBC appearance, and of people’s nostalgia for her early work, “but less so now, because I think people are finally catching up with me. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been successful, and it was because of that success that later on I was able to make choices that were perceived risky. What frustrates me is the assumption that your best work is always going to be your bestselling, so you’re locked into this particular time. I hated my 20s. I really like middle age and I’m comfortable with the person I’ve become. My great successes aren’t related to my big sales.”

Though she describes herself, knowingly, as “plump with confidence”, she’s also thoughtful and appealingly – if unnecessarily – self-deprecating, though this she disputes. “It’s not even self-deprecating. I try to answer honestly, and I think maybe you’ve got to have lots of self-confidence to own your crapness.”

Moyet’s delight, however, comes from the fact that Other is as much a celebration of her love of language as her self-declared, perennial outsider status. It feels different from previous releases, she says, “because the emphasis on it is not singing. The emphasis on it is words, and I’ve been coming closer to that point all the time.”

This is particularly surprising, she confesses, because she barely reads. “The most impactful of times with books in my life was nursery rhymes,” she comments, pausing briefly before adding, “and I’m not even saying that wryly! I don’t read, and when I do read, I read fantasy.”

Indeed, one song, The English U – in which she describes herself facetiously as “a criminal to grammar/ To apostrophe, the hammer”, but nonetheless “pretty sound with tenses/ With ‘when’ and ‘which’ and ‘whence’s” – is a tender paean to her late mother’s love of prose. “Even though she sunk into Alzheimer’s,” Moyet explains, “the last vestige of anything she had was her knowledge of grammar.

“The disappointment she had in me being dyslexic and not being able to spell… How I wished I could have honoured her. But language has become very important to me. I love words, I love the shape of words, and the colour and the sound of them.”

Her mother, one might confidently suggest, would have been proud of what she’s achieved, and not just because of her verbal wit.

Other finds Moyet embracing what once troubled her, whether it be her self-confessed public awkwardness – “I’m so prone to circular thinking! I can forget where I’ve been, and yet one word that I’ve said could keep me awake for days!” – or her concerns about how best to proceed with her work. If, as she said at the time, The Minutes was “mindless of industry mores that apply to middle-aged women”, she’s gone even further with Other

“It’s mindless of all the industry mores” she emphasises. “I’m aware of the damning attitudes towards middle-aged women: the idea that we’re asinine, or we’re occupied by gentler pursuits, or that middle-aged women aren’t expected to be creative, or be seen in the media.

Read our Album By Album feature on Alison Moyet

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“You can either react by feeling like you can’t push yourself forward, or you just continue regardless of how you’re going to be accepted. I make records with no expectations now. I don’t expect to be on the radio, I don’t expect magazines to want to cover it. I just expect at this point in my career to make a record that I want to make.”

Attaining this has been harder than one might expect for someone who’s sold well over 20 million albums. Other – as its title suggests – addresses the manner in which she’s always felt like she didn’t belong.

Born to a French father, whom she describes fondly but bluntly as “a complete and utter control freak”, and an English mother, “who was a quite oppressed woman”, she grew up in what she describes as “quite a violent environment”, and always found communication intimidating, spending her early years mentally translating French so as to be able to speak English.

“Without sounding crap,” she elaborates, “I have always felt ‘other’. I came from a bit of a peasant family, where everything you had you had to make. Before I was in Yazoo I didn’t even have a cassette player.”

Moyet had other reasons to feel different, too.

“Weird things have happened in my life that have made me think about the fact I have always for some reason drawn unkindness,” she says, albeit without a note of self-pity. “In latter years, a lot of people have been very faithful to me, and very loving, and full of goodwill, but right down to my very first experience in hospital as an eight-year-old, waking up crying from a tonsil operation and having the nurse put her face next to mine and say ‘Why don’t you shut your mouth?!’ These little things have happened at such an alarming rate. Like when I asked to audition for the school musical, and the head of English said, ‘What would we want someone like you for?’

“All these things when I was young, I felt, ‘Yeah, why would you want someone like me?’ It didn’t even seem unreasonable after a while. It just seemed like, ‘Yeah, fair play. I know that I don’t fit.’ And when you’re younger, not fitting in is crushing.” She hesitates momentarily. “Actually, I’ve now come to that place where I feel quite blessed by it.”

Even once she was a star, her well-documented weight problems drew attention away from her music, and she recalls an occasion when a French journalist asked: “Don’t you feel ashamed going on stage looking the way you do?” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that she withdrew from the public eye.

This was partially due to disagreements with her label, Sony, following the release of 1994’s Essex, but in 2014, on Desert Island Discs, she revealed she’d also suffered for many years from agoraphobia, provoked by a painful encounter with Elvis Costello when, instead of praising a show, as she’d intended, she blurted out “You dragged that out a bit, didn’t you?”

Read our Pop Art: Vince Clarke feature

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In recent years, fortunately, she’s coaxed herself out of the house, and not only to tour. Though formal education never suited her, she’s started to study figurative sculpture. “I left school pretty much unqualified,” she says. “I didn’t even have an English exam. What I always wanted to do was art, but I had no qualifications.”

Nowadays, she travels by train to college, and speaks enthusiastically about piece mould castings and modelling in clay. “I’ve got one guy in my class I call Diligent Dan. He’s fantastic. He’s one of those people who will work really carefully at everything. But that’s not who I am. I could make a really fantastic model and then fuck it all up by being really slapdash. I did this portrait which I thought was fantastic, but completely fucked it when I moulded it.”

In the past, this might have stopped Moyet sleeping, but though her inability to focus continues to dog her, her new hobby has brought her peace.

“The thing I like about art the most is you can occupy yourself however many hours, and it’s the only time my brain isn’t whirring about anything else. I can lose the circular thinking, the concern I have constantly that I’ve said the wrong thing or behaved in the wrong way.”

Quite apart from informing her new album, her personal difficulties have also made her especially sympathetic to others who struggle to conform. An ambassador for Diversity Role Models, her love of Brighton is enhanced by its inclusivity, and one song, The Rarest Birds, was inspired by living in a place where “none of us have to be scared about who we are. They might kick our fucking teeth in, but they can kick our teeth in and we’re going to go out singing.” 

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that she’s also active on Twitter, whose 140-character rule suits her self-proclaimed inarticulacy.

“People say, ‘Let the trolls go’, and I say, ‘You’ve got no idea’. I have this battle desire, and I love it when people think they can floor me with words that don’t touch me. A couple of songs have been informed by that on the album,” she continues, pointing especially to Beautiful Gun. “Being contacted by Americans who are both completely right wing and hate anything liberal, and yet would practically weep if you discussed taking away their guns. You’re frightening people smaller than yourself, and yet you have to have this accoutrement to do it.”

She also talks angrily of “people who put words in a deity’s mouth and claim him for their own, and yet there’s nothing Christian about the way they behave other than their church attendance.” She points to other hypocrisies, too, such as those who are “anti-abortion, pro-life, and yet really anti-social care. When does this child go from ‘Their life must be preserved’ to ‘Their lives may be damned’? Is it when their adult teeth come through?”

Alongside the freedom she now feels to express herself and defend others, Moyet’s also taken severe measures to liberate herself from her past. When she moved house, she threw out huge mountains of historical baggage.

“I just trashed everything I had: the stuff in my loft, my gold discs, all my itineraries, everything that I kept pointlessly. I have no care to carry things. I have no care to carry that success. All of those things that you keep and buy, that make note of the fact you existed: when do you ever look at them? When does it touch your life? When do you need them?”

Evidently these extreme decisions have paid off. Other celebrates Moyet’s individuality in an unexpectedly vibrant fashion, as well as the fresh lease of life that her newfound self-assurance has brought her.

“I’ll tell you how normal my life is,” she chuckles. “I came back from sculpture the other day on the train, and I looked bad. I’m covered in plaster, my hair hasn’t been brushed. I was sitting at a table of four people, and there’s a smartly dressed young woman, sitting diagonally to me, who pushed over her bag of nuts and said, ‘Would you like these?’ That will explain to you how invisible I’ve become: she thought I was a bag lady! I feel so bad now. I should have taken her nuts and thanked her for my one meal of the day. I never ever felt I looked underfed!”

Thirty-five years, almost to the day, since Yazoo battled their way to No.2 with Only You, Alison Moyet seems finally to have found not only herself, but also a refreshed muse.

“What I love now,” she concludes, “is the freedom of not being noticed so I can actually now observe, as opposed to spending my whole time worrying I’m being observed. Maybe that’s where creativity for me comes from now: I can actually be a person in society, which is what I wanted to be, and yet invisible. I still feel ill equipped. I still feel like a different beast. However, where once I would very much have liked not to have been, now I have no desire for it to be otherwise.” 

Vive la différence!

Alison Moyet’s website

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Making David Bowie: Low – Classic Pop Magazine



David Bowie Low cover
David Bowie Low cover

In 1976 David Bowie fled his demons, seeking seclusion, healing and creative freedom. he landed in Germany and set about creating the first album of his celebrated ‘Berlin trilogy’, the mighty Low

Though Bowie had finally achieved his long-sought goal of gaining chart success in America, it had come at a cost. The laid-back sophistication of Young Americans had morphed into the destabilised desperation of the still utterly marvellous Station To Station.

The latter album was a sonically and lyrically textured masterpiece, but psychologically Bowie was somewhere else entirely – indeed, he would later claim to not remember recording it at all. 

A now-crippling dependence on cocaine had addled Bowie’s mind, and his stylistic adoption of the consciously dark Thin White Duke persona had now swamped his being more thoroughly and totally than even his earlier situation with the Ziggy Stardust character had.

Bowie fled to Switzerland in an effort to be free of this evil twin, his dependence on drugs and the vacuity of his former Los Angeles home.

His first project was to work with his good friend Iggy Pop, who had a range of predicaments to work through himself, and Bowie’s behind-the-scenes puppet mastery on the iconic The Idiot opened many musical doors that led Bowie directly onto his work on Low – which was initially titled New Music: Night And Day.

Low’s dynamic and sonic adventurousness can be partly attributed to Bowie’s tight relationship with his latest creative muse Brian Eno, who would inspire Bowie and his band to explore a range of new approaches to songwriting, performing and mixing that would shape the Berlin Trilogy’s creative process.

Though Bowie and Eno’s relationship was a major piece of the creative jigsaw, another important element was Tony Visconti’s production, utilising such innovative sonic tools as the Eventide Harmonizer, which Visconti radically applied to many of the drum tracks on the record.

Aside from the addition of versatile lead guitarist Ricky Gardiner, the core band remained pretty much unchanged from Station To Station. It included rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, who remembered: “All cards were off the table for this album. We knew that Brian was running the show.

“Visconti and I had brought all our effects. I had footswitches, bypass phasers and Tony had his toys. Brian had a synth that had a magnetic ribbon hanging from it. I later found that he could connect with it, somehow, through this ribbon and have it sequence. Pure genius.” 

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The record is divided into two distinct halves. The more conventional songs fill up most of Side One’s running time, while the second side is wholly instrumental in nature, with these nuanced arrangements dominated by textured EMS synth. 

On the few songs that Bowie does lend his vocals to on the record, we tend to get lyrics that are fragmentary and which thematically offer shattered pictures of a life in turmoil.

Opening instrumental Speed Of Life is a brief sonic preview of all that’s to follow, including a fade in/fade out that’s used on many of the tracks on Low, giving the listener the impression that doors are being opened and closed, and that somewhere, this unresolved music is still playing.

Breaking Glass follows, a painfully resurrected memory of a relationship, and a mind, in strife, while the poppier learnings of What In The World offer up a depressing, agoraphobic lyric that speaks of yearning for love, though seen through the eyes of a dark lyrical protagonist “talking through the gloom” and waiting “until the crowd goes”. 

Similar subject matter is dealt with in one of Bowie’s finest songs, Sound And Vision. The song’s scant lyrics serve as a paean to inspiration, and thus represent the sonic distillation of everything he sought to achieve with Low.

However, the themes of the song also highlight the utter blank misery of depression, with the “pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say” in Bowie’s isolated room. These lyrics, and Bowie’s irregular delivery, are contrasted by the track’s upbeat arrangement, the “doo-doo-doo” backing vocals, and the nursery-rhyme-like descending melody.

Elsewhere on Side One, Always Crashing In The Same Car is a weary and resigned piece that references the relentless cycle of Bowie’s dismal mental state as well as an unfortunate incident with his Mercedes, where the singer rammed a car that belonged to a coke dealer who had ripped him off. Be My Wife is an anguished plea for companionship, complicated by Bowie’s inability to stay in one place too long, both geographically and musically. 

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While two of the songs proper sit among the finest of Bowie’s entire career, it’s the instrumental side where Low comes into its own, particularly when viewed as a unique listening experience. The instrumentals, which really begin with Side One’s poignant closer A New Career In A New Town, offer a broad collage of both sonic succour and despair, in a less internalised form. 

On Side Two, Bowie turns his attentions beyond himself and instead paints a picture of the various cultures, communities and cities that surrounded him, from the solemn Warszawa’s bleak evocation of the Warsaw that Bowie encountered while travelling through the city the preceding year to the punsomely-titled Art Decade (perhaps the first Berlin-oriented piece of the trilogy), which illustrates the disengagement of West Berlin society at that time, when it was by-and-large a hedonistic, culturally malnourished environment.

The other side of the city’s wall is invoked by the album closer Subterraneans, a harrowing sonic eulogy to those who were caught in East Berlin after the separation.

These two pieces are deliberately divided by the spine-tingling Weeping Wall, serving as the aural equivalent of that imposing dividing line, with a multi-instrumental arrangement that contains guitar, vibraphone and piano.

Initial reaction to the record was somewhat baffled. This was the year of the Sex PistolsNever Mind The Bollocks in the UK, and the US market expected the further funky exploits of the chat show-friendly Bowie of 1976.

But Low has since come to be regarded as one of Bowie’s central works: it’s honest, raw and anguished, but Bowie’s mission here is to move beyond this state of mind, attempting an exorcism of his demons via music. In this sense, Low is a positive record.

The rich instrumental work on the album shows Bowie’s desire to explore music in an advanced and original way, particularly for a major pop star. He’d continue this approach on Heroes later the same year, demonstrating he’d indeed found the sound and vision he evangelised on the eponymous lead single.

Low is an important record in a broader context, too, impacting on the mindsets of many young Bowie-heads who would take on the spirit of musical (and conceptual) audacity and push those ideas into the mainstream, as well as throwing a spotlight on many of the electronic inspirations Bowie and Eno revered.

No doubt, it helped mould the synthesiser into an object of ‘cool’. 

Is Low David Bowie’s best album? Well, that’s one of those perpetual debates that shifts and alters as trends and perspectives change – but it’s a fascinating collection and undeniably one of his most transcendent, superlative listening experiences. 

David Bowie: Low – the songs

Speed Of Life

Propelled out of the ether by a whirling buzz of Eno’s quickly faded-up synthesiser, bold instrumental opener Speed Of Life exhibits many of Low’s sonic facets. There’s the impactful rhythm section – Dennis Davis’ processed drum sound, the inconspicuous but effortless bass playing of George Murray, the fizzing synth that increasingly dominates and a cyclic, tightly structured arrangement. Before we can get too comfortable, the track moves into a fade out, making for a tantalisingly unresolved listening experience.

Breaking Glass

“David and Angie had been arguing and it was easy to hear what was going on, so the music of the song needed to represent the way people argue,” Carlos Alomar remembers about this Low highlight. “I really thought out the arrangement. The drums and bass start out like somebody knocking on the door, hard.” 

While Breaking Glass is the shortest song on Low, it’s one of the record’s most memorable moments. From the infectious lead riff to the tight (yet unsure) funk arrangement that bounces to life during the verses, to Bowie’s lyrical shards and yelps of histrionic self-reflection, Breaking Glass finds Bowie laying bare his pained mindset. Though the lyrics are few, they work incredibly effectively, including the provocative: “You’re such a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems…”

What In The World

Originating as a track earmarked for inclusion on The Idiot, Iggy Pop appropriately lends vocals to this relatively upbeat track that is among the more commercially flavoured compositions on Low. Despite this, the arrangement and mix are occasionally challenging, from the chirruping synthesiser, providing a futuristic veneer, to the unsettling, isolated lyrics that imply a yearning to escape and find love. Once again, the lyrics and allusions are fragmentary.

 Sound And Vision

The album’s lead single is also among its high water marks – some would argue it’s one of the highlights of the entire Berlin creative endeavour. Sound And Vision is, on the surface, an incongruously breezy and buoyant pop song, with an upbeat but reflective feel. This relatively straightforward arrangement is impaled by shards of descending synthesiser, which stream into the song like the sonic equivalent of sunlight beaming into a dimly-lit room – the same kind of room, perhaps, as the one that’s evoked by a sublime but brief lyric which, though gloomy, is ultimately a positive manifesto that distils Bowie’s creative approach to his album entirely into one song. 

Bowie searches for a creative muse, going cold turkey on distractions and vices and focusing on achieving “the gift of sound and vision”. Though the song was inspired by this sense of inner turmoil, it’s nonetheless extremely infectious, making it one of the most accessible pieces of music recorded during the Berlin period. This was reflected by its No.3 chart placing in the UK singles chart. 

Always Crashing In The Same Car

A haunting, shimmering song that (unusually for Low) starts and ends with no fades, Always Crashing In The Same Car is a beautifully elaborate piece of music that highlights both Ricky Gardiner’s sublime lead guitar skills as well as Eno’s multi-layered synthesis. Bowie once again sings with sad uncertainty, though the despondency evoked in the resigned lyric is in the past tense, perhaps implying that this state of mind is consigned to memory. However you read it, Always Crashing… is one of the most glorious compositions on the record.

Be My Wife

With an over-the-top piano dominating proceedings, Be My Wife finds Bowie romantically yearning for love with a lyric that also heavily references his wanderlust (this would be a more pronounced concern on 1979’s Lodger). Be My Wife is perhaps the oddest song on Low, even though it’s one of the more accessible and conventionally structured songs. An interesting choice for a single, then – which perhaps explains why, when it was released shortly after Sound And Vision, it failed to chart in the US. The garage-band style and vaguely intoxicated air that pervades Be My Wife would be resurrected again during the Berlin Trilogy, and is also an interesting sonic precursor to the kind of sound that Blur adopted in the late 90s. 

A New Career In A New Town

This ghostly, evocative instrumental segues Side One neatly into the (relatively) vocal-free Side Two. It’s a moving, transitional piece, as the title reflects. The wonderful harmonica work serves as a despairing human wail in the dark, counterpointed with the sluggish mechanisation of the repetitive rhythm section. This harmonica line would be reused later in Bowie’s recording career, on the title track of 1987’s Never Let Me Down and on the heartbreaking, triumphant closer of 2016’s Blackstar: I Can’t Give Everything Away.


And so to Side Two – the experimental milestone that astounded and dumbfounded in equal measure. Warszawa begins what is, in essence, a travelogue. Here, we’re taking a look at the Warsaw of the mid-70s. Bowie would say that the second half of Low contained tracks that concerned things he couldn’t put into words and “required textures” – and here, in a mournful and solemn-feeling track, Bowie and Eno do just that. Through the synth, we zone into the mood of a particular place and a time. Bowie would add the bizarre, lyric-free vocal after the composition, with Visconti speeding up the tape to raise his register.

Art Decade

This eerie, nostalgic piece evokes better days – as the obvious pun in the title implies. Art (ie, culture, society) had decayed on the western side of the Berlin Wall, the former glory of the city now a fading memory of yesterday. Though Eno composed much of the initial arrangement in solitude, Bowie contributed to establishing the tension of the track, and the addition of real instruments – included a gorgeous cello – contributed to the impression of former glory.

Weeping Wall

Eno might have played a big hand in the shaping of the previous two tracks, but Weeping Wall was a solo exercise for Bowie who, entirely alone, created this sonic reaction to the ever-imposing presence of the Berlin Wall, and its divisive effect on the city’s inhabitants. It was also the only track on Low to be recorded entirely at Hansa Studios in Berlin, with a view that directly faced the wall. It’s a distorted jumble of melodic ideas and occasional vocal snapshots – evoking, perhaps, the graffiti and snippets of human communication that covered the wall itself.


Originating as a piece of music intended to soundtrack The Man Who Fell To Earth, Subterraneans was worked on further and grew into this fitting closer for the record. Conceptually, it’s a reference – and a salutation – to the forgotten families and lives that resided on the other side of the wall, in Communist East Berlin. The backwards music and the faint-jazz effect of the distant saxophones are unsettling as well as being sonically fascinating, as are moody chant-like vocals that are conjured from the ether. It’s a tense piece that closes without resolution, ending Low on a stunningly moving note.

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Watch “Meteorite” by Anna of the North & Gus Dapperton



When sending acts to Eurovision in recent years, Norway started a trend of veering down the novelty route. I cannot think why they do this as some of the best pop acts to come out of anywhere come out of Norway. Sigrid, Astrid S, Dagny, Susanne Sundfør and Morten Harket, for example. One more candidate for the role of Norway’s Eurovision ambassador I can think of is Anna of the North. I do not seem to write about Anna of the North way near enough. She just put out the track “Meteorite” in collaboration with the New York-raised singer-songwriter and producer Gus Dapperton.

The song is the first insight of Anna’s third album. Gus composed the song originally.

Speaking about the collaboration and song, Anna says, “He (Gus) asked if I wanted to put a verse on it (“Meteorite“) and collaborate which I, of course, wanted to do. I’m a big fan of him. I love the song and am so happy with how it came out. Our voices work really well together. It’s a song about distance and how energy always connects us.”

Listen on Apple Music

It is good to hear such a warm, summery song from Anna. “Meteorite” has more pop influences than she usually does, but a third album is a good time to switch things up a bit. The guest spot from Gus lends well to this dynamic. The idea of an indie-pop collaboration for a change is refreshing, in comparison to pop and EDM.

In the Chessa Subbiondo directed music video, I love how ordinary, and real it feels. A launderette is the setting of the video. Far from airing their dirty laundry. As they go about the mundane tasks of daily life, Anna and Gus are more intent on crooning about the effects felt, by long-distance relationships.

I can feel you here, feel you there, feel you right, baby. I can feel your waist ‘cross the space and the time. It hits me like a flood, like a stun, like a light, like a meteorite.”

This sunny slice of whistle-led skittering pop is perfect to cool off on a hot summer day. It is a record that is never anything less than intoxicating.

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Interview: Bernard Sumner talks New Order



New Order with Bernard Sumner, centre
New Order with Bernard Sumner, centre. Photo by Warren Jackson

Perhaps one of pop’s most reluctant stars, Bernard Sumner of New Order has been behind some of the finest songs of the past 40-plus years. A couple of years back, Classic Pop caught up with the  frontman at the O2 Silver Clefs, the Nordoff Robbins music therapy fundraising event where he received the Outstanding Achievement award. 

Congratulations on winning your Silver Clef award!

Thanks. I don’t get a lot of awards… I give out a lot! I suppose ‘Lifetime Achievement’ means you are about to fall off the table. This is for songwriting, though, so it’s nice to get one that means something, because without the songs there would be nothing… there would be no Joy Division. Also, the Nordoff Robbins charity is really good. We all know somebody who has problems of one sort or another. We all have a family member who has been through something, and it’s nice to see somebody helping with music therapy. Music has been therapy to me over the years; when you’re feeling shit, you can put on a piece of music and it can lift you. That’s at a basic level, but obviously what they’re doing is much more than that. Music is power and therapy.

You spent some time on tour in Europe in late 2019. In the early days New Order didn’t enjoy playing live, but these days maintaining a pop career is all about gigging. How have you adapted to current economics?

You make the live work pleasurable – we play places that we want to play and the gigs now have been just phenomenal. The audiences are so special. I will always want to write songs, but you have to find a way of doing gigs so it’s successful and pleasurable and not like a chore. Everyone is loving it now.

Special events like the Manchester International Festival gig in 2017 must keep it fresh.

Yeah, it’s quite a unique thing that we did. I don’t think anybody had used a synthesizer orchestra before. And delving into our back catalogue like that; it was important that it was captured with the [Decades] documentary and live album.

Does touring mean there’s less time for songwriting?

I think we have to find a way of doing the music like that. Maybe it’s down to writing one song and playing it live, which is what we used to do in Joy Division. I have requested releasing some 12”s but apparently you can’t do that anymore… it’s a global market or something. It would be great to write an album but not record it, so no one can buy it… that’s a very New Order thing to do. Just play it live.

Is there any new material on the horizon?

The way I work, I gather micro-snippets of ideas on a recorder. I’ve got about 200 of them and I need to sit down, sort them out and make them into songs. They are inspirational moments but I don’t sit at home strumming a guitar anymore. I used to. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, I don’t know. Perhaps I should be worried.

Your old bandmate Johnny Marr recently said that he wants to get Electronic back together…

We’ve just done a gig with Johnny in Athens and I got up on stage and played [Electronic’s] Get The Message with him, which was great fun, but New Order is taking up so much of my time. I can’t even get time to go to the dentist. It’s really flared up, New Order all around the world. I love it.

When Joy Division ended, was it daunting taking centre stage?

I became an accidental singer but I enjoy it now. I consider it a blessing. In Joy Division I was the guitarist and keyboard player and I had no desire to be the frontperson. The trick is not to care too much, but just enough.

How did you cope with becoming the main songwriter as well?

I’m quite a private person, I like to watch and observe people rather than interact. Music is abstract, it’s a set of chords, rhythms, but once you get to the lyrics, that’s a literal thing. I didn’t know how to do it but I had to, or we’d fail. So I would sit there with a bottle of wine for hours and hours until something came out. It’s like a stream of consciousness thing, until two or three lines start to make sense.

Today there’s a lot of love for New Order, but you’ve had your ups and downs…

For all the success you’ve earned, you have to deal with the adversity that inevitably follows. It’s the same for most bands. Initially things go swimmingly well, you’ve got the energy of youth on your side. You climb that mountain but there’s only one place to go once you hit Everest, and that’s down.

How do you view contemporary music and streaming?

Eno came up with the concept of ambient music, but now technology has made all music ambient, it’s background music. A lot of commercial music on radio is basically a cash register. There always was an element of that, but there’s too much like that now.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I love Arcade Fire very much, and also Years & Years – I did a remix for them. I like esoteric stuff.

Would New Order consider playing Glastonbury when the festival returns in 2021?

We would love to do it again… the last time was in 2016. It only bloody rains when we do it, though. I’m a weather jinx. Don’t take me on holiday with you.

Is there a secret to your longevity?

I don’t like to analyse it. I think the best way to be good at what you do is just to forget yourself. 

Read more: Peter Hook interview

Read more: New Order – album by album

New Order’s website



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