- 21 Jan 20
As part of our special songwriter feature, we're looking at the homegrown artists behind some of the most outstanding albums of recent months.
The history of music is littered with people who have extraordinarily high opinions of their talents. That’s a good thing because otherwise we might never have got to hear James Brown, Little Richard, John Lennon, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Joe Strummer, Bono, Madonna, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Kanye, Lady Gaga… the list goes on and on.
Conversely you’ve The Late David Turpin, the Dublin singer and film scorer and writer who’s very much still live, but appears almost embarrassed that he’s dragged us here today to talk about his new record.
The forty-something shouldn’t be so demure because his treatise on the conventions of modern love, Romances, is a genuine Irish Album of the Year contender.
While no slouch in the vocal department himself – for proof check out 2013’s equally excellent We Belong Dead – Turpin has ‘cast’ the album as if making a film, with 12 other male singers handling what would otherwise have been his parts.
Asked whether it was hard handing over such intensely personal songs – shame, abandonment, cruelty and infidelity all loom large – to other people, David pauses for a while and says: “There’s this sort of fetish for the ‘lone writer mining the depths of their psyche and then pouring it all out on record.’ Mere autobiography doesn’t attract me. It’s quite an arrogant thing to say, ‘I expect you as an audience to listen to me talk about myself.’ Done well by somebody like Joni Mitchell it can be very beautiful. Done badly it’s a form of masturbation. I say that without any prejudice against masturbation; we all do it, we all enjoy it. Being as these songs are about sex and love and romance, it made sense to do them as a series of liaisons, I guess, with other people. Musical liaisons, I hasten to add.”
David readily admits to Romances being influenced by Derek Jarman, the avant British filmmaker, stage designer, diarist and, er, gardener.
“I don’t know how much you hear it in the songs, but aesthetically the imagery surrounding the record is quite Jarman-ian,” he explains. “We had a calligraphy artist recreate his handwriting, which is very distinctive, for the booklet that comes with it. One of things that is important to me about Derek Jarman is that whilst made on a shoestring, his work is so beautiful. Think of the scene in (his 1991 film) Edward II where Annie Lennox pops out of nowhere and sings a Cole Porter song. It has the glamour of a 1930s Hollywood musical on about a hundredth of the budget.”
Another of Romances’ conceits is men singing about things – tenderness, vulnerability, uncertainty etc. etc. – that are supposed to be female preserves.
“Something I hear all the time working in the film industry is that, ‘Romance is for girls, crime is for boys’,” he sighs. “That wasn’t my experience of being a boy. I didn’t like Heat or Scarface or anything like that. I liked Imitation Of Life and Magnificent Obsession and Dynasty. We tend to gender the genres and that can have an affect on people. Boys can grow up with no experience of love and sex and romance. It’s just not part of their culture.”
David grew up having to dodge the homophobic bullies who had a major problem with him coming out as a teenager.
“It wasn’t so much ‘coming out’ as people just being able to tell I was gay,” he recalls. “I had other kids shoving my head down the toilet and it going round school that I had AIDS and had died when I was off school for a couple of days with ‘flu. I was beaten up fairly regularly and ostracised from various groups. It tends to void you of a sense of your worth – both as a child and as the adult you become. You become very unwilling to stand up for yourself. What I’ve never wanted any of my work to be, though, is a pity party. There’s lots of light to go with the darkness.”
One of the numerous Romances standouts is ‘Couldn’t Do Without’, which features a stunning turn from Conor J. O’Brien.
“Conor, who I’ve known for a very long time, is lovely,” David enthuses. “He’s managed to be commercially successful while remaining 100% true to himself, which is a really difficult thing to do. He’s worked on everything I’ve ever recorded, so we’ve continued the tradition.”
The rest of Romances’ cast is a mixture of old friends and new people David discovered through the audition process.
“To run through a few of them, Bear Worship – who you might also know as Ivan St. John and Pinky – featured on my last record. Martin McCann I knew of as an entity – he was in Sack, of course, and loves Sade, which made him another automatic choice. Gar Cox has been my boyfriend for six years so that was obvious. Elephant is very contained and nice – although he did make fun of me because I still use a CD Discman. Samyel is French-Irish, which gave me the rare opportunity to work with another language. He was very good at being willing to embody all the clichés of being a romantic Frenchman. Xona, who was in BIMM, has a big, big voice.
“It’s been so liberating,” David concludes. “Working with other people’s voices is one of the few moments when I feel like I’m getting out of the trap of being me.”
• Romances is out now on Kabinet.