Out In The City
Interview: Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson shot to fame in 1984 as the lead singer with Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The band went to number one in the UK charts with their first three singles, including the infamous ‘Relax’ – banned from the Radio One airwaves.
The group disbanded – somewhat acrimoniously – after the release of their second album, Liverpool, in 1986, but Johnson went on to solo success with singles such as ‘Love Train’ and ‘Americanos’, and the album, Blast. His career stalled in the 1990s, and after the disappointing performance of his 1999 album, Soulstream, he decided to step back from music and pursue other passions – most notably painting. Now he’s back with a new solo album, Europa, and a UK tour in October.
Why have you taken such an extended break from the recording studio?
Holly: I put a lot of effort into the Soulstream album in 1999. It was released on my own label, Pleasuredome, which I had set up specifically to release it. It had taken me years to make it, and there was a hell of amount of work involved in releasing your own record that I didn’t realise. After that, I just thought I needed to try and investigate other things. I’d just come out of a protracted period of illness [Johnson was diagnosed HIV-positive in the early 90s], and I kind of exhausted myself releasing Soulstream. To be honest with you, I kind of didn’t want to do that again in a hurry. So I made the decision to go back to art school and re-boot myself creatively, and that led me up different pathways. Strangely, those very pathways led back to music eventually.
In short, I suppose, I didn’t feel there was anyone waiting for the next album. There are lots of other things in life to do, and I’d given quite a lot of my life over to music and the music industry, and I needed to do other things.
When did you decide, “I’m going to do another album”?
In about 2009, there was a Frankie Says Greatest project that Universal did. I wasn’t crazy about the remixes that they did for it, but they asked me would I help them promote it. I said, ‘Only if you re-issue my solo albums that have been sitting on a dusty shelf in some dungeon for the past 15 years’, and they said, ‘OK’. So they did that… and I kind of existed again: meaning, all of a sudden, you could actually download Blast and Dreams That Money Can’t Buy and Soulstream, and buy the CDs. I kind of existed again as a solo artist, because these things just hadn’t been available apart from on eBay. So that happened, and then in 2011, I got approached by Rewind [Festival] to perform in Henley, and they asked me to headline, and I thought, well, the Blast re-issue’s out, and the other re-issues are out, I might as well just do it.
I enjoyed it so much, I realised that this is what I was supposed to be doing with my life! It really was a bit of a revelation that there were people out there that enjoyed hearing those songs, and I enjoyed singing them. That had been my basic reservation, really. I didn’t want to get stuck in that nostalgia world, and so that really motivated me to write some more songs. I already had some songs knocking around… and so here we have my first new album of the 21st century.
Was it difficult to get back on stage?
Oh yeah, it was nerve-racking. But as soon as you get on there, and you’re sufficiently well rehearsed, and it goes well, then it’s a glorious thing to do, you know? It is an amazing thing, performing live. It’s not as if I ever stopped singing completely, because I would play around with keyboards and stuff at home, I just stopped singing in front of people. The only performances that I was being offered were PAs – two backing tracks of the hits; and that really gets boring after a while: not actually collaborating with other musicians and playing the music live. I decided one day that I wasn’t going to do that again and I haven’t done it really for a long time.
Your new single (‘Follow Your Heart’) is amazing – is it representative of the album?
Kind of, except the rest of the album isn’t quite as funky, house-y, clubby – if you know what I mean? There’s quite a variety of tracks, all with an electronic basis and, you know, there are some tracks that you can dance to, but this is the most soul-ey, r’nb, house-y track on the album. There’s a wide variety of tracks. There are big ballads and a hands-in-the-air dance track. It is a very varied record. It was all made in the same room, more or less, with the same other person, Mark Ralph. He’s a bit of a whiz. He’s worked with people like Hot Chip and Franz Ferdinand, and we just got on like a house on fire. We both love synthesisers.
Frankie Knuckles did a remix of the new single. How did that come about? And how did you feel when you heard about his passing?
It was a big deal that he said that he liked the song when I sent it to him. For me, I was absolutely thrilled. And I was thrilled with what he did. He did it quite a while ago in fact, while I was recording the album, and no-one suspected that would happen [Knuckles died suddenly in March 2014]. I was like, ‘Oh no, what am I going to do now?’ I wasn’t sure how long I should to wait to release it, but other people said ‘No, don’t worry it, it’s his work and it’s a homage to him’ and all of those things, so… I love it and I’m really proud of it, and I thought he was genius.
You burst on to the music scene in a controversial fashion with ‘Relax’. Do you think acts today can still be controversial, or have we seen it all before?
Well, in those days it was controversial to say that you were actually gay. Boy George hadn’t said it at that time, even though he was controversial in his own way. Marc Almond hadn’t said it at that time. George Michael was never going to say it voluntarily, and I still don’t think he would have done had he not been caught in that situation. But there were people like me, and Paul [Rutherford FGTH dancer and backing vocalist] and Jimmy Somerville, who felt that it was a no-brainer: that really you had to be true to yourself, and if people weren’t OK with it then they’re really the sort of people that you don’t want in your life, or care what they think, you know, that was my general feeling. Funnily enough, the same sort of event occurred later on when I disclosed my HIV status. There was no other pop singer in the known universe that was prepared to do that, which was really odd as well. It’s funny how being gay was like a stigma in the 80s, whereas now it’s sort of mainstream, an accepted way of being in this country and Europe, at least. Although I don’t think being HIV-positive is yet seen as being particularly acceptable, especially in the gay community, where I think people discriminate against people who are HIV-positive somehow more than in the general public.
You’ve been with your partner, Wolfgang, for 30 years now. Any plans to marry now that you can do so?
No! [laughs] I know it seems bizarre but it’s just… it’s a choice that you have and we haven’t chosen to do so. I think part of it is that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. It might somehow change things and we don’t really feel the need. It’s not as if we’re like, billionaires or anything, and we have to protect our assets, or anything like. There are good reasons to have a civil partnership and everything, to protect the rights of your partner, but it just hasn’t… we’ve just not had the time, really!
Holly’s new single, ‘Follow Your Heart’, is out now. The album, Europa, is released 29 September. Catch him live on the following dates: O2 Academy Bristol (18 Oct), Birmingham Institute (19 Oct), O2 ABC Glasgow (21 Oct), O2 Academy Newcastle (22 Oct), Liverpool EchoTwo (24 Oct), Manchester Academy 2 (25 Oct), London IndigoO2 (28 Oct). He will also be performing in August at Rewind South and Rewind North: www.rewindfestival.com
Posted: 1 August 2014