Going above and Beyond an Interview with Andy Bell of Erasure
By Gregg Shapiro
Photos: Andy Sturmey, Doron Gild
It’s been 30 years since the release of Erasure’s third album The Innocents, the disc that aided the duo of gay vocalist Andy Bell and synthesizer mastermind Vince Clarks (formerly of Depeche Mode and Yazoo) into crossing over into mainstream success with songs such as “A Little Respect” and “Chains of Love”. Of course, the gays (and the cool kids) had been dancing to them, and songs such as “Oh, L’Amour”, “Who Needs Love Like That”, “Victim of Love” and “Sometimes” for a couple of years by then. Since the release of The Innocents, Erasure has put out more than a dozen studio discs. Bell has even released a handful of solo albums.
An interesting musical experiment if ever there was one, Erasure’s World Beyond (Mute) is a “classical reworking” of the 10 tracks from its 2017 World Be Gone disc. Given the subject matter of the album, the current chaotic political mood, the chamber music setting, backed by Echo Collective, is quite fitting. Songs such as “Be Careful What You Wish For!”, “Oh What A World”, “World Be Gone”, “Take Me Out of Myself” and “Lousy Sum of Nothing” in particular, actually benefit from these new renditions. It’s not all doom and gloom as you can hear on “Love You To The Sky” and “Just A Little”. Nevertheless, it’s “Still It’s Not Over”, Erasure’s queerest and most overtly political statement, that is sure to have the greatest impact on LGBTQ listeners. I spoke with Andy Bell about the album before Erasure embarked on its US concert tour.
When the 10 songs that appear on both World Be Gone and World Beyond were originally written, did they begin in electronic or acoustic arrangements?
They were written electronically. Vince had sent me the musical parts and chord arrangements. It was done over a period of six months. I was sitting on the songs for probably three months. I was hemming and hawing. I couldn’t come up with any ideas. Once Vince and I got together…we had three writing sessions; one in London, one in Miami and one in New York. Each time we met up, all of a sudden, my confidence came. I was singing into the mic. It was almost like I needed Vince there, as my muse, for the songs [laughs]. He’s kind of a confidence booster. When I first heard the music, I thought, “Oh, wow, the music is so good, it doesn’t really need any vocals [laughs].” It sounded like a film soundtrack. It took me a while for the songs to settle in. I think I get a bit nervous when I first hear the music. I kind of don’t know what to do. You have to leave it for a while. You can listen to it, but the trick is not to listen to it too much. Otherwise you can kind of OD on the music.
You don’t want to overthink it.
With the exception of switching the placement of the songs “Love You To The Sky” and “Oh What A World”, both albums are essentially mirror images in terms of the track listings. Why were those songs switched in the order?
The running order worked itself out on the electronic version. It was almost like a DJ list. It’s not like you’re telling a narrative all the way through. Each one finds its own place. When I redid the vocals for the orchestral version, I felt like “Oh What A World” was so strong. I think it had been a bit overlooked on the first version. Rather than overlooking it again, we should put it first so people notice it.
Can you please say something about what was involved in the decision process to rerecord the songs on World Be Gone with the Echo Collective and transform them into what they are on World Beyond?
I think it was an idea that was sparked by Daniel (Miller of Mute Records) and Vince having dinner together. I think it was because I had been working on this “Torsten” project, which was two theatrical albums (Torsten the Bareback Saint and Torsten the Beautiful Libertine), and there’s a third part to come. It was a thing of letting me explore my vocals more. When you’re singing with electronic instruments, they tend to soak up a lot of the nuances in your vocals. I feel like I have to add backing vocals, just to emphasize the choruses and things like that on the electronic versions. On the orchestral versions, I think it’s much more about the character of the voice. It was kind of a bit of an experiment to maybe bring the “Torsten” project closer to Erasure.
You sing about “Sweet Summer Loving” in the song of the same name and “summer romance” in the song “Love You to the Sky”. Would it be fair to say that summer is your favorite season?
Well, it would be fair to say that my new husband (Stephen Moss) is from Florida. I associate him with the sunshine. He’s got such a beaming smile. He lights up the room when he comes in. It’s about that and it’s a bit of salvation song. After I lost (longtime partner) Paul (Hickey), Stephen was instrumental in helping me through that. It’s still kind of tough. It feels like you’ve lost your home in some ways. Even though me and Stephen are building a new life together. When you’ve been with someone so long, it leaves such a gaping hole. You’re not trying to fill it with the other person. You have to find a new way.
To my ears, “Still It’s Not Over” is one of the most overtly queer and political songs Erasure has ever recorded. The arrangement on the song really brings out the emotional power of the song.
It’s about my love affair with San Francisco and New York City. Being out from the very beginning of my career, going to San Francisco was very hard. We were embraced by the city, by the LGBT community. At the same time, you felt the ghosts of all the people who had gone before us, especially in the U.S., who had fought to get HIV medicines and such. It’s about those polar opposites. I remember coming across an ACT UP demonstration in New York City. It was very exciting, but at the same time quite scary [laughs], because of all the things tied in with it. Especially being HIV+ myself, you kind of felt a bit like a wild animal. It’s difficult to explain it. I think the song was a nod to that and a thank you to all of the people who have helped us. I know it’s tough – the amount of times we’ve been bashed literally to the ground, physically and emotionally. The amount of times we had to get up again, pick up our stuff and start from scratch.
And still we rise.
Yes! It’s never over. You think there’s going to be one day when you can take a sigh of relief, but it’s never going to be over, ever.
The World Beyond album is not the first time that Erasure has gone all-acoustic. That honor goes to 2006’s Union Street. What do you enjoy most about the experience of rerecording Erasure songs in these kinds of musical settings?
I really love it. Union Street was one of those albums that was quite misunderstood, especially here in the UK with all of the music journalists. I have a sincere affection for country music. I was brought up on it where I grew up. When you’re singing to strings, whether it’s violins or guitars, your voice almost floats on it. That’s why I love harps [laughs], they’re very angelic. It’s like another voice singing a duet with you. I really do love singing with live instruments.
The new Erasure U.S. tour begins in Miami. Is this a nod to your fans in one of your home bases?
It is now. We never used to play in Florida. We didn’t have the fan-base down there. I think it’s a natural progression because we’ve played there now a number of times. The gay community is so strong and it’s building back up again, especially in Miami Beach. You feel like you’re a homecoming queen [laughs] in those kinds of places. It’s true! You’re almost adopted by the place. It’s a thrill for me to go and play there. You’re in your home territory.