Torchbearer is the stunning new concert show featuring the internationally renowned recording artist, jazz noir superstar and male contralto Graham J, accompanied by Ian Elmslie on the piano, formerly of award-winning cabaret duo Katrina and The Boy and author of the acclaimed book A Marvellous Party. Graham told us more about the Torchbearer concerts and how he got to know Ian.
Hi Graham, can you tell us about the Torchbearer concerts?
The concert traces a story of love, through all its many stages and guises, soundtracked by a wide variety of musical genres. In the first half, the audience is taken on a journey from the dream of romance, through pre-pubescent crushes and teenage lust, falling in love, the ups and downs of relationships, the compromises, and the heartbreak of betrayal. The second half focuses on the recovery after a break-up, how we grieve, repair and move on, with a smile on our face and hope in our hearts.
Our primary concern whilst researching the show was to find songs that lyrically advanced the story, with musical accompaniment that was both challenging for us and hopefully intriguing for the audience. The earliest piece dates from 1895, and we work through almost every decade, right up the present day. Some songs are “classics”, others more obscure, but hopefully all are entertaining.
Can you describe what Cabaret Noir is?
Cabaret Noir is a musical genre that blends elements of jazz, blues, musical theatre, classical and pop with highly emotive subject matter. Apart from writing original songs which fuse these styles I’ll take an existing popular song and twist it into something recognisable yet different. For example when I performed at The RVT with my band, we took the Village People’s “YMCA” changed some of the harmony and reworked it as a tragic ballad. The effect was quite something.
Why have you chosen to sing songs only from female artistes and who will you be featuring?
When Ian and I began discussing the project I said that I’ve always been drawn to female singers. I rarely listen to male singers. I’ve always identified with the lyrics being sung by women. They sing about falling in and out of love with men. As a gay man I identify with this. I can imagine and have often found myself in those situations. Ian said he felt the same. It was a logical choice for both of us.
I can’t really tell you which artists we’re featuring because I don’t want to give the game away. What I will say is that we’ve avoided choosing anything really obvious by them or anything that’s been covered umpteen times by other artists. As much as Ian and I adore Shirley, Judy and Barbra etc. we made a conscious choice to avoid their repertoire. But don’t worry – there were still plenty of divas and composers to explore.
We understand your voice is contralto and perfect for the songs you sing? Can you tell us more about your singing training and your voice?
Yes, I’m a male contralto. It’s the highest of the male voices and lowest of the female voices. The Jazz critic Sammy Stein described me as being a cross between Alison Moyet and Jimmy Somerville. I was originally trained as an opera singer. I was classified as a countertenor although that description didn’t really fit me as it refers to men who sing on falsetto. My voice naturally lies in the alto range. My voice has been described as having an androgynous timbre. So it’s neither male nor female. Like a female alto it has a warm dark colour that can sound masculine or feminine. Ian has encouraged me to sing in the lower part of my voice for this project which is giving me a lot of unusual colours to play with.
You mentioned that you will be performing with Ian Elmslie – who Boyz readers will know from cabaret duo Katrina and the Boy – how did you and Ian meet and start working together?
My friend Steve Wardlaw (who founded Emerald Life the LGBT insurer) had been telling me about Ian’s wonderful book A Marvellous Party. Apart from being Ian’s biography, it’s a wonderful snapshot of the cast and characters of the UK cabaret scene in the nineties. I was keen to read it. Facebook mysteriously picked up on my interest and suddenly appeared as a friend suggestion. I messaged him. We got chatting within 24 hours we knew we wanted to work with each other.
You describe the concerts as an evening of “man-love songs”, why is it important for you to celebrate man to man love in your music?
I think given the current state of the world, it is important for the LGBT+ community to stay visible. I feel that despite the progress we’ve made in terms of rights, we’re still having to be apologetic for who we are. I also think that it’s important to celebrate love and I mean that as distinct from sex. I feel that nowadays we concentrate far too much on the act and not enough on the emotions behind it. I feel that love in all of its forms has been downgraded. I’m also hoping that just as female singers reached me. I’ll be able to reach out to my female listeners. I want them to be able to feel solidarity with the songs Ian and I are presenting. After all “Men; you can’t live with them; you can’t live without them”.
Finally can you tell us three of your favourite love songs and what they mean to you?
This is a very hard one. There are so many good songs. Three songs that are on regular rotation on my iPhone if I have to choose:
Macy Gray’s “First Time”
I just love the intimate way in which she sings it. The lyrics are heartfelt and I love the Billie Holiday realness of her vocal.
Noah Reid’s version of “Simply The Best”
I love what he’s done with it. I love the energy of the original. It’s great for a workout but the version he released from Schitt’s Creek is just utterly beautiful. His character, Patrick, is also singing it to another man, David.
Candi Staton singing Dolly Parton’s “As Soon As I Touched Him”
It’s what I call a snuggle up to song. Lots of energy.
Graham J with Ian Elmslie Torchbearer concerts include The Crazy Coqs on 18 September, The Two Brewers on 26 September and The Pheasantry on 30 September. Full details at grahamjsings.com