After an almost 20 year absence from recording original material, and a history of substance abuse played out in the public arena, you might think that This Is What I Do (Kobalt), gay singer/songwriter Boy George’s return to recorded music might sound like, say, Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. But, you’d be wrong. Instead, Boy George’s voice, which isn’t as ravaged as Faithfull’s, but neither is it as unblemished as it used to be, is well-suited to the material. Beginning with opener “King of Everything,” co-written with former Culture Club band-mate Mikey Craig, George is diplomatic and graceful, particularly when he sings “What’s the word on the street/Have I lost my crown/Or will I be king again?” In ways that only he can, George tackles religion and faith (“My God”), heartbreak (“It’s Easy”), journeys (“Any Road”), new love (“Nice and Slow”) and even politics (“Feel The Vibration”). Yoko Ono gets special attention here, including a shout-out in “Bigger Than War,” as well as a respectful cover of her “Death of Samantha.” I spoke with Boy George about the new album in March 2014.
Gregg Shapiro: I’d like to begin by talking about the album cover for This Is What I Do. You are wearing a fabulous hat, as you have done on the cover of many of your albums. How many hats do you own?
Boy George: Probably 40, maybe. They often go on to another life. Whenever I get asked for auction items, it’s usually a hat. The hats do get recycled quite a lot. Roughly, at the moment, I would say I have 30, 40. But, they go and change and they have other lives.
Do you have an all-time favorite hat that you’ve hung onto over the years?
I have a new hat which I haven’t worn yet [laughs]. It’s one of those things. The guy that makes my hats, a guy called Philip Treacy, is a very amazing milliner in London. He gave me this beautiful Swarovski crystal hat, which I have. I just don’t have anything to wear with it [laughs]. It’s such a number of a hat! I keep thinking, “What the hell will I ever wear it with?” Maybe it will appear on my tour. I don’t know.
Do you have a cowboy hat to go with the country vibe of the songs “It’s Easy” and “Any Road” on This Is What I Do?
I don’t, no [laughs]. That might be a little too literal.
Did you hear “It’s Easy” and “Any Road” as country tunes while you were writing them or did they evolve into that genre?
I’m not someone who is frightened of country. It’s always been jazz, country, blues — it’s always crept into what I do. Certainly with “It’s Easy,” it was always going to be a country song. The idea of it was a Patsy Cline type song. Very simple, to the point. Some of those great old country songs have a great title. “It’s easy when you’re the one who stops loving first” felt like a classic Patsy Cline/Tammy Wynette/Dolly Parton tune. That was thinking, absolutely, 100 percent behind that. I wanted to come up with one of those lines. The song was written around that line.
I really love “Any Road,” a song with powerful messages, such as “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” and the spoken conclusion where you say, “I’m glad I’m not crazy like I used to be.”
That particular song was written around the groove. We sat around and came up with that guitar line (hums the part). That was the starting point to create a mood. The idea was that I would narrate, speak, really. A lot of the lyrics came from stream of consciousness. I wrote that song in a very different way to the way I normally write. I played around with different visual ideas and came up with the lyrics that came from different place, but in the end, made sense.
“King of Everything,” the opening track on This Is What I Do was co-written by Mikey Craig, a former Culture Club band-mate. What was it like to work with him again?
It was great to have Mikey involved. I think Mikey’s become quite confident as a writer. He plays around with keyboards now, not just bass. It was fun to have him around and to see how he’s grown as a writer and a musician. Back in the day, we wrote some incredible songs together. It was nice to have his energy on this record. He also helped to write (the song) “Love and Danger.”
I’ve always maintained that when a singer/songwriter records a cover of someone else’s song, that it’s a way to make a statement. Other than saying that you have great taste in music, what else does your cover of Yoko Ono’s “Death of Samantha” say about you?
I’ve always loved the song. I think it’s a really beautiful lyric. A lot of people say to me, “Yoko Ono, she just screams.” They don’t think of her as a writer. It’s a song I always play to people when I talk about Yoko. I say, “Listen to this song.” I love her version of the song. There’s a great acoustic version of “Death of Samantha” that she does that I love. Lyrically, it feels like something I would have written. It’s a song I should have written or wish I’d written.
The five songs closing the album are all in reggae style. What made you decide to arrange them in that fashion?
Originally, when we started the record, it was all going to be reggae. That was our starting point because Richie (Stevens), who produced the record, is a white-boy reggae-head. He’s a great reggae drummer. That’s why the album has such a solid feel, because of his drumming. As things went along, we felt it was a little too restrictive. So, we allowed certain songs to be what they wanted to be. There’s a strong connection between reggae and country anyway. We decided that we wanted to be a bit more experimental and not so rigid about what we were doing.
Music videos played an important role in your musical career. Do you plan to make music videos for any of the songs on This Is What I Do?
There is a “King of Everything” video and a “My God” video. There are other ones planned. They’re not going to be like back in the day, 100 grand [laughs]. The video for “My God” we made in my house. It’s up online. It’s a great little video. I think the way you do things now is very different. You can do things on a budget. It’s almost come full-circle back to the beginning when there weren’t massive budgets and you had to be a bit more creative. I think that’s exciting.
As someone who has spent a fair amount of time behind the decks as a DJ, are there songs on This Is What I Do that you would like to see remixed for club play?
There are some remixes of (“Feel The) Vibration” which are going to be available pretty soon. There’s a really great remix package that we’ve done that we’re going to put out in America. I think they’re going to be free, not going to be sold. We started off with “Feel The Vibration” because that felt like the most obvious track to do as a dance mix. : :