Interview: Boy George

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 10.29.13 in Interviews

[To celebrate the release of This Is What I Do, Boy George's first studio album in 18 years, we invited him to take over eMusic. Below is our revealing interview with the pop legend, and he also shared his favourite albums on eMusic, below. — Ed.]

As the sugar-sweet singer with Culture Club, Boy George was one of the very biggest British pop stars of the 1980s. He not only scored Transatlantic hits with songs like “Karma Chameleon” and “The War Song,” but also, as an androgynous man in the age of AIDS, he became a trailblazer for gay rights. Outspoken, but always gentle and humorous, he was a truly beloved pin-up, whose blurring of dress codes challenged pre-ordained notions of sexuality.

Now, after many years in a wilderness of lifestyle excess and personal trials, George is back with a vengeance. His first album in 18 years goes by the emphatic title, This is What I Do. It’s as if this most gifted of singers, now 52, has finally come to the realization that his vocation really does lie at the microphone.

Boy George became a key player in London’s acid-house scene after Culture Club’s dissolution in the late ’80s, and has spent most of the intervening time as a top-flight club DJ. Sporadic collaborations with upper-tier admirers such as Antony Hegarty and Mark Ronson have leant toward dance and electronica. Any cumulative progress for him as an artist was scuppered by much-publicized drug problems circa 2006-08, which left him ignominiously on probation, sweeping the streets in New York City.

George’s comeback record, contrary to all expectation, sees his return to the hybrid pop styles that first made him famous. Born George O’Dowd, to immigrant parents from County Tipperary, Ireland, he first emerged on the punk scene, and from there attacked soul and reggae with blue-eyed glee. His fans will doubtless be overjoyed to hear him singing in that vein again.

Having been sober for five years now, he is bright and breezy when Andrew Perry tracks him down by phone in the middle of a countryside walk in Austin, Texas. The predominant feature of the conversation: laughter.

That new album title, This Is What I Do, feels like a real statement. Did you mean it that way?

Yeah, it’s a statement of intent. So many things have changed: new management, new attitude, I’ve made the record myself. It’s just a whole different situation that I’m in. I’m not someone who really likes change. I had the same manager for 30 years, but it got to a point where I just felt that the people around me weren’t able to see beyond what I was.

Like, no matter what I did, they always thought about me as what I was in the ’80s, even though I’d done many, many things since then, and I’ve been working as a DJ, which is a very progressive world. Sometimes you just need to shift things around.

So, really, it is a statement of intent. I think a lot of people were expecting me to hire some trendy producer, perhaps David Guetta. I’m kind of glad that I’ve surprised people, because it certainly is exactly what I wanted to do, and I’m very happy with it.

So you made a conscious decision to break away from that house-y, disco-fied style of music?

That stuff would’ve been the obvious thing to do. I’ve had conversations with some really interesting people. Last year I was talking to Pharrell about working together, and he had some great ideas, but I just had to follow my instincts and say, I know what kind of record I wanna make, I know what kind of record would suit me right now, and it isn’t something that’s self-conscious, or trying to have a hit.

If you look at all my contemporaries, there are definitely ones who have hung onto their pop crowns by any means necessary — I’m not going to mention any names. When you do that, hire the trendy producer and run after whoever’s cool, you do have to sacrifice quite a lot about who you are as an artist. That’s never really been my thing. If anything, it’s the opposite. You know, what are people not wearing? That’s what I’ll wear!

“King Of Everything” is about a battle-scarred old boxer, trying to reignite his relationship with his long-suffering wife. Is there an element in there of how you feel, asking your fans to re-embrace you now as a singer?

No, not at all. First of all, I don’t really know who my fans are. Right now, I feel as if I’m starting again. I’m in America at the moment and nobody recognizes me here at all. I haven’t had one person in three weeks say, ‘Are you Boy George?’ No one. It’s amazing.

Are you dressed down? Travelling incognito, without make-up?

I’m skinnier and I’ve got a beard, and people just don’t recognize me, because the last time they saw me I was fat and bald. Even when they know it’s me, they still say, “You’re not the one who was street-sweeping, are you?” And I’m like, “Yeah, there isn’t another one.” [Laughs.] So for me, it feels very like the first time I came here in about ’82, it really does. Like, wow, I’m back at the beginning.

I actually find that quite exciting. I’m kind of getting a chance to re-paint my canvas. Yes, of course people have ideas, and of course I’ve got my hardcore fans — a lot of them are really excited that there’s a record coming. The kind of professionality of what I’m doing right now appeals very much to my hardcore audience!

So it’s an exciting time. There are two ways to look at it: You could either say, “Fuck, I’ve really messed this up,” or, “Great, I’ve got a chance to be who I want to be now.” I’ve only ever wanted to find my own little place, I’m not looking to recreate what I did in the ’80s.

The amount of people who’ve said to me over the years, “Oh you should do this, and you’d have a hit.” [Laughs.] You’re missing the point! Hits were an accident. It’s luck of the draw.

The great strength of This Is What I Do is that it feels “real,” like a man standing in front of you, telling you what he’s been through, how he survived, and how he feels now. It’s very reflective, even philosophical…

Well, there’s a lot of shrugging on this album. When I was younger I was very sure about what I thought, and what I thought I knew. I had very definite ideas about things. At 52, I kind of sort of know that I don’t know. And it’s quite nice, not to know. I suppose I’ve always used songs as a way of asking questions, and trying to answer questions, whereas now I feel like I don’t have the answers, and maybe I don’t need the answers.

It’s like, go with the flow. It’s quite a nice thing, just learning to be a human being, rather than obsessive, and worrying too much about what’s gonna happen next. Just letting it happen, and having a bit of faith actually, is the key thing.

Many of the lyrics are about faith. Is it true that the song, “My God,” is about a guy who tried to convert you to Christianity in a bar?

Yeah! I was in a bar in New York, the B Bar, that I used to go to every Tuesday. It was everyone’s favorite haunt. I was drunk and messy, and this guy came up and gave me a Jesus pamphlet. First of all, I didn’t know what it was. I thought, “Oh that’s nice, he’s given me a book!” Then I was like, “Arrgh, how dare he!”

Back then, if people said, “Oh, I’ll pray for you,” I’d shudder. Now I’m a bit more open to that. Back then, it was more, what do you mean, you’re gonna pray for me?! I was very defensive, so with this guy, I was like, “What if I gave you a pamphlet on cross-dressing? What would you say?”

It was presumptuous of me. In hindsight, I just think that the universe does things to poke you. During that period, I was kind of screaming out to be contained in some way. And it happened, certainly not in any way that I desired it, or planned it [i.e in court, on assault and false imprisonment charges] [is this a note from Andrew? LL], but it’s what happened.

So, in retrospect, you see that incident in the bar, shouting at this poor little leaflet guy, as a fork in the road?

I never forgot that incident, and I perhaps feel a little more affectionately toward that person now. He was a messenger. In a way, sometimes, your condition, your levels of consciousness, they do affect what happens around you. I’ve seen that in a very powerful and very subtle ways in the last five years, since I’ve been clean — the difference in the way people treat me.

In fact, being here in America, it almost feels like a PR exercise, because the last time I was here I was sweeping up. So people have this very clear image of when they saw me last, and they are a little bit, [hesitantly], “Hmm, what’s he gonna do?” [Laughs.] And when I’m actually utterly pleasant, and just getting on with what I do, people are actually quite relieved.

One thing I’ve discovered in the last few years, the main thing you need to do is to just turn up and be professional. That’s rule No. 1, and then everything else just falls into place. So it’s a very interesting time, and I think I’m less angry now. I didn’t think I was angry before, I thought I was perfectly reasonable, hahaha.

In that debauched state, did you lose perspective on what you’d become? The song “Any Road” is about abandoning the patterns of the past and choosing recovery.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself, and things have happened accidentally that have been really helpful. The starting point is being sober, and then you kind of invite all these interesting things into your life, sometimes by default, sometimes deliberately. It’s very interesting what happens when you’re a bit more still.

Yoko Ono is a big presence on the record. You cover her song “Death Of Samantha,” and then “Bigger Than War” is something of an homage to her. It sounds like the Plastic Ono Band goes Broadway!

I said Sesame Street meets Hair: The Musical, but yeah, it was kind of playing around with what John Lennon said, about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus. But also, in a way, it’s ironic that Yoko Ono has stood the test of time.

I did Yoko’s Meltdown [Yoko-curated festival at London's South Bank Centre — Ed.] a few months ago. It was a random gig that came up, and we got the chance to play most of the new album there. I’ve been involved in a couple of Meltdowns — literally and figuratively, hahaha — and from what I hear from the people there, she was really hands-on and involved.

I’ve got a lot of respect for her, I think she’s formidable, and I actually really like her music. I always play people “Death Of Samantha.” Her version’s beautiful.

What is that you identify with — her fearlessness? Her progressiveness?

All those things. I’ve met her a few times, obviously, over the years, and I’ve been in different states of repair — mostly, disarray. She’s always been great. When I met her at Meltdown, she was like, “Wow, you look great, are you in love?” I was like, “Not officially!” She’s a great spirit.

Also, “Death Of Samantha” was for my friend Paul, who died eight years ago. It was one of his favorite songs, so I always wanted to do it as a tribute to him.

Picking up a musical thread from Culture Club, there’s quite a bit of reggae on the album — the vibey, upbeat, positive kind. “Live Your Life” almost sounds like Burning Spear at Studio One.

Yeah, that’s when I got into reggae, 1972, 1973. Richie Stevens, who produced the album, he used to play with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Horace Andy. I think he was 15 when he played with LKJ, so he’s got a very strong reggae pedigree.

Dennis Bovell [legendary Barbadian bassist, aka Blackbeard], who was in Linton’s band, plays on my album. He’s on “Bigger Than War” — he did that bit that goes, “bigger than you, bigger than me,” and he plays bass on a few things. Dennis is like a reggae sage. There’s two sages on the album — there’s Youth [Killing Joke bassist and producer], who’s the rock ‘n’ roll sage, and there’s Dennis.

If you can just get him to visit, with some papaya, he is such an amazing positive force. If he comes in and says you’re doing something “baaahd,” you know know you’re doing something good.

It’s interesting that you, as a gay man, have such a positive affinity for reggae. Some gay people are offended by all reggae, simply because a couple of dancehall records over the years have featured homophobic lyrics.

Which is really stupid. Generalizations are always dangerous. There are some ragga records that I find very offensive, by Sizzla and Buju Banton. The sad thing about those records is, the grooves are brilliant and the essence is great. It’s just the subject matter — like, find something else to fucking sing about! What the fuck do you know about me anyway?

It’s a weird obsessive thing that some Jamaicans have about gay sex. They can’t get past the fact of two men locked together, it’s just beyond their comprehension. I always say to them, you’re obviously thinking about this far more than you need to. I don’t obsess about straight sex. I find it actually quite nice!

So “Live Your Life” is a gay reggae song, to counter-balance the homophobic stuff?

I jokingly call it reg-gay, but it’s not necessarily just about sexuality. But it is about that very British attitude where if you obviously know that your kid is gay, which people always do, then you say, “Let’s not talk about it. Because if we talk about it, he’ll be more gay.” It’s like, no! He’s not going to be any less gay!

It’s a really difficult area, and I think it’s important to address it because of what’s going on in the world — in Russia, in some parts of Africa. I thought, I wanna write a righteous song that’s about being different.

I had a really funny conversation with Marc Almond on the internet, because I was saying I wanted him to sing on the record, and I said, “Do you like reggae?” And he said, “Oh no, it’s my worst genre!” I love Marc, so I’m not dissing him, but that’s so weird. I think anyone who doesn’t like reggae is a bit weird.

It’d be really interesting to have Marc on a reggae tune. It would be a good thing to do, because it’s like reclaiming it for gay people. Like, I’m not frightened of you.

Overwhelmingly, This Is What I Do is a positive, sunshine record. As you say in “Nice And Slow,” you’ve got your sparkle back. Has it all been about finding that sense of idealistic purpose with music again, using it with missionary zeal, as a force for change?

Yeah. I’d stopped doing that a long time ago. When I made this record, I did say to everyone involved, “Let’s assume we’re not gonna get any radio play, because I haven’t been played on the radio for years.” The fact that “King Of Everything” has been playlisted is a thrill like you don’t know. I didn’t expect it, so it was a real surprise. In a way, it was a bit of a relief not having to worry about all that: I put the record out myself, so I don’t have to please anyone.

Self-releasing always seems like a good move in theory, to have that autonomy and approach everything on your own terms. Is it really like that?

I put together a band of people I’ve worked with continuously since leaving Culture Club, and then we pulled in people we’ve worked with over the years, so there are a few interesting guests. It really was a very joyful experience. I can’t wait to make another album. Perhaps the next one will be with Culture Club, we’ll see.

In 2011, there was talk that Culture Club was going to tour and record together again. What happened?

When I started writing for this record, I was kind of writing with that in mind, but I just didn’t feel that we were match-ready. I knew I had to a lot of work to do before I got my mojo back, so we didn’t happen, and this record happened instead. I kind of decided that, actually, I would be much better for them, once I’d got my own record out of my system.

So, the plan is that next year, in January and February, we’re gonna get back to writing, and hopefully next year record another Culture Club record, which I think will be great.

How do you look back on your pop stardom years, in your current state of mind? You seem to be doing a lot of processing and reflection…

With some of it, I’ve got very affectionate memories. I feel that I have a quite healthy relationship with the past now. It’s a bit like my relationship with my dad, who passed away eight years ago. Now, I have a really healthy relationship with him. I have, in a way, rewritten some of the past, which I think you do, and it’s the same with Culture Club.

In a way, my wellness has such an effect on the band. If I’m in a good space, it really affects everything around me, and it certainly affects the way we work together, because I was in the past a very unpredictable force [chuckles semi-ruefully], and I have to remember that my behavior, although some of it was fun, really did affect everyone in the band. Whatever I went through, they had to go through.

So, you know, I’m coming back to them a very different person, but they’re quite skeptical [cackles mischievously] — when’s he going to turn? They have a point — I understand that now.

You made some beautiful, positive, important music in that era. What the band projected into the world, to teenage kids, in terms of messages about sexual freedom and self-determination — you must be proud of that.

Yeah, very proud of it. I meet people still, all the time, who say, “You were my beacon of hope,” or, “You were the only one out there that I could relate to.” That’s a really amazing thing to hear. I do value that very much, and I actually think there’s more work to be done.

Right now, at this point, I could be a much better — I don’t want to say role model — but certainly, if you look around the world at what’s going on, things haven’t changed that much, and I think there is a need to address these things, and talk about them, and hopefully effect some change.

Back in the early ’80s, it really felt for a while that the world had really changed, and now it feels like we’re slipping back. For some people, life isn’t any easier, and that’s a shame.