Health and Happiness
an interview with out singer/songwriter C Duncan
by Gregg Shapiro
Photo: Jordan Curtis Hughes
We may only be a few months into the new year, but it’s safe to say that Health (FatCat) by gay singer/songwriter C Duncan will find a place on my 2019 best-of list at the end of the year. At turns gorgeous (the title track, “Care” and “He Came From The Sun”), undeniably danceable (“Pulses & Rain”, “Impossible”), irresistibly retro (“Stuck Here With You” and “Somebody Else’s Home”) and sometimes all three at once (“Talk Talk Talk” and “Holiday Home”), Health is music that is good for you. I spoke with Duncan about the album shortly before its March 2019 release.
Chris, for those who might not be familiar with your work, would you mind saying a few words about releasing your three full-length albums as C Duncan, as opposed to Chris Duncan.
My name is actually Christopher Duncan, but I’ve shortened it to C Duncan for my pop style of music. I also write classical music, which I do under the name Christopher Duncan. I thought for the pop world, I’d make it a bit cooler and snappier.
It worked! Your new album Health finds you working with an outside producer (Craig Potter) and musicians, including a youth choir (Hallé Youth Choir). What was it about these songs that necessitated such a move?
With these songs, I wanted to make something bigger sounding than my previous albums. I’ve always toyed with the idea of having strings and a choir, but because of the way I used to record, which was pretty much in my bedroom or living room, I couldn’t seem to get a choir into my house. As I was writing the songs, I thought I better start writing arrangements for other instruments and other singers with the hopes of going into the studio. Then I went on tour with (the band) Elbow and got to know Craig (Potter) well. I thought it would be a perfect match to go into the studio with him to make the album I wanted to make.
There’s a bit of a 1960s vibe to Health, from the David Hockney-esque cover image to many of the musical arrangements on the album.
Yes, I guess there is, in a way, although that wasn’t a conscious thing. I am very inspired by David Hockney, as you could see from the artwork. I think it’s just my songwriting, because I love listening to Dionne Warwick and the old Burt Bacharach songs, and the Mills Brothers and Ink Spots and the old barber shop quartets, so I guess that just filtered in, but it wasn’t deliberate to make it sound `60s. It just came out that way.
I detect the influence of gay singer/songwriter John Grant in “He Came From The Sun”, as well as Prefab Sprout “Wrong Side of the Door” and The High Llamas on the title cut. Am I on the right track in terms of some of these other musical influences?
Absolutely. Definitely. Especially John Grant. He’s been a big influence on me. There’s this ballad writing that he does, certainly on the Queen of Denmark album. Actually, I love his most recent album (Love Is Magic) musically, and also his willingness to be so open about everything that he writes about. I find that such a great starting point for his music. He says things as they are. It’s easy to get into his head-space. There’s no mystery surrounding his music, it’s there for all to see.
Speaking of “He Came From the Sun”, it sounds to me like one of the most profound coming out songs I’ve heard in a long time.
I wrote that around the same time as the whole Chechnyan anti-gay purge was started. That had a big effect on me. It got me thinking about my own coming out, finding out who I was, and how easy a time I’ve had. Even though I had my struggles, for most people to come out there is that struggle of having to come out as anything. It’s mind-boggling to think that such things (as the anti-gay violence in Chechnya) still go on in the world. That, combined with the relationship I had with my ex-partner, whose father was still very homophobic. He couldn’t get his head around the fact that his son was gay and he wouldn’t discuss it. We went out for just over a year. I never met his father because it just wasn’t worth it. It would have caused too much uproar in the family, even though I got to know his mom well. It got me thinking about my own situation. How fortunate I am, but also how it just depends from place to place and family to family how these things will affect you; especially coming out.
“Impossible” and “Blasé”, which has an emotional quality similar to “Impossible” are presented in unexpectedly upbeat arrangements. Was that done intentionally to lighten the delivery of the messages?
I think so. Certainly in “Blasé”, it was much more tongue in cheek. “Impossible” is about my current relationship. My partner, who I’ve been with for a couple of years, used to work on the other side of Scotland, working night time hours, and I was working during the day. “Blasé” is basically a sort of “fuck you” track done in a slightly jaunty way [laughs]. I had fun writing it. It’s like, “I’m over it now, but I’m still going to write a snippy song about it.”
I also love the dance vibes of “Holiday Home” and “Pulses & Rain”. Are you someone who likes to go out dancing?
I do like dancing, yes. I listen to quite a lot of upbeat electronic dance music. I tend to dance around my house a lot, not so much out in clubs anymore.
Are there dance remixes of those two tracks in the works?
I don’t know (about the others) at the moment, but there is for “Talk Talk Talk”. As things go on, we tend to get quite a few remixes made. I’ll do a remix for another artist and they’ll do one for me. As the campaign goes along, I’m guessing we’ll end up with some remixes of those two tracks certainly.
What are the chances that your fans stateside will get to experience you live in concert?
I would absolutely love to come back out to the States. At the moment, we’re basically waiting to see how the album goes down and then hopefully get some funding and then I’ll come straight back to the States again. I was there at the end of 2017 with Elbow and I just loved it. I loved the audiences. I really hope that I get to come across again. That’s my plan.