Peyton is the hugely popular singer who has made the UK gay scene his home and launch pad for his successful international career ever since his debut club smash A Higher Place in 2003. Next week he launches his brand new album, the beautiful Sinners Got Soul Too and Dave Cross caught up with the singer to find out the whole story.
Hi Peyton, are you excited about the release of your album?
This project has been in the works now for almost three years, it’s been such a labour of love, and it’s been an international effort too; so many different people and different stories. So for me, to finally get to this point, it feels like the product is done, so I’m extremely excited. I’m over the moon.
Before we talk about the album, how did you first get into music?
I started off in the church. My father was a preacher in Virginia, so I grew up in a Pentecostal church. Then in 2003 I wrote my first song, A Higher Place, and I had a very random connection – a guy I knew recommended a producer for me to call, so I called this guy, recorded this record with him, he did it in the house music style, we sent it to Hed Kandi and other labels, Mark Doyle at Hed Kandi signed it and it went to the top of the charts all over the world, so that was the beginning of my 16-year career. Very random the way it began. But the real beginning was at church.
And even though the album is called Sinners Got Soul Too, there’s that gospel feeling on a couple of the tracks…
We’re all sinners, Dave.
Some of us more than others…
[laughs] Some of us a lot more than others! Gospel music has been very much an influence in all of my music, from A Higher Place to the last house record I did, everything I’ve done has always had that kind of gospel influence, even though it wasn’t religious. Because for me, I think the reason why people – Muslims, Jews, even non-believers – everybody loves gospel music. And when you hear a big black gospel choir singing Oh Happy Day it immediately strikes a chord with everyone, even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to Christianity. And my take on that is that gospel music is the sound of hope; there’s something about it that sounds like optimism. So I’ve always tried to seep something from that in my music – in the dance music and now also in this album – because for me music is a a type of ministry and it always has been. And even though I’m not religious anymore, for me music is my way of giving something back and taking people on a journey.
Since A Higher Place hit the charts and everything kicked off, you’ve played gigs literally all over the world – the Beijing Olympics, Sydney Mardi Gras – is it possible to pick any highlights from those?
Absolutely. So for me, what’s been a joyful part of my career is every year I make a kind annual pilgrimage to go around the Sydney Mardi Gras season in February and do as many gigs as I can do while I’m there to justify being there. And as a result, by putting that time and energy into that country, and specifically that city, little by little my profile built up, so over the years I’ve built a strong relationship with a lot of the people there, and I’ve done some amazing gigs in Sydney. I’ve done the harbour party five times, I’ve done these amazing concerts called Ignite; it’s their version of Pete Tong’s Ibiza Proms with a symphonic orchestra playing house music – in fact there’s a video of that on my YouTube page which is just amazing: me coming in from the back of the massive auditorium to A Higher Place, with all these lasers and choir and orchestra. To be honest, it just doesn’t get much better than that. And to a crowd of people who know me and love me and are exuding love and support. That’s definitely a highlight.
Another thing I have to ask you about is a couple of years ago you decided to go onto The X Factor, but got voted out before the live shows. Looking back now though, do you think you learnt something, are you glad you did it?
I feel completely 100% glad that I did it. I was in two minds about doing it from the beginning. For me it was not for me an obvious thing to gravitate towards because I’m not a great fan of those programmes anyway. And it wasn’t as if I was going on there hoping Simon Cowell was going to change my life. But when we have made a decision – when I say ‘we’ I mean my manager and I – when we were halfway through this album and we shopped it around to different major labels, we’d gotten some good feedback, but the general very common denominator in the feedback was that, well look, if you want to launch the career of somebody at this age, at this point, at this career climate, you need a bigger machine, you need something that will help give you the profile. So after a lot of coercing and prodding and pushing, I finally gave in to my manager because I thought he was right, why not take a chance, and whatever happens hopefully it will be a way to help me raise my profile.
I went into it with my eyes wide open, because I am older and I have a good understanding of how these things work from the beginning. So I went into it kind of expecting the worst from the beginning, but really there was no negatives, support was good on social media. And when I came out it meant that if I had gone one more week and made it to the live finals I would’ve been under X Factor contract, but I didn’t, so I was free. So I got a whole month of amazing publicity, I came out with the nation furious on my behalf, and actually it was a blessing. I got all the profile, I got to remain independent, and really I don’t think I was the right kind of artist for them anyway. They want to be able to mould you and shape you. So I really felt like I got exactly what I wanted to get out of it. And we’re in a position now where we’re about to launch this album, and there are millions of people who have seen me and will potentially go “Oh that’s that guy…” But I wasn’t in it long enough to be tarnished with the brush of X Factor, as it were, and I wasn’t in it long enough to be ‘an X Factor artist’. It was a tough decision, I won’t lie. Having had an international career for 15 years you have to get ready to humble yourself, and that part was challenging, but anything that scares you that much I think you have to stand up to your fear and do it anyway.
Let’s talk about the album. It’s not the record necessarily that people might expect if they’ve been following your career with all the house singles, so what was the thought process when you started, what was the plan?
To be honest I had grown weary of dance music because all music styles change, but when I started in dance music in 2003, A Higher Place has three verses, a bridge and like four choruses, it’s like a frickin’ hymn. And little by little the trends in music had changed so drastically to the point where it wasn’t about song-writing or lyrics or vocals, so over the last few years, from a writer’s point of view, which is what I am, I was bored out of my head. People would send me a track to write over and I’d write a song, but what they really wanted was just three words from it or a hook. So I was like, look, I’m either going to have to up my game and find a way to stay in music, or I’m going to have to figure out something else to do with my life, and I had absolutely no idea what else to do – I’ve been travelling around the world singing for 15 years. So my manager suggested I stop writing for the dance genre, because any song can be remixed, but instead of being constrained by the genre just write songs. He said my song-writing is better than ever, that I’m at a point now where I should just trust the song and then go and find the right style for it. So that’s really how it began.
And then a few situation arose where I had to write songs about very specific situations – ballads, they weren’t dance tracks – and I remember one for me wedding a couple of years ago, Be My Enough, it was a surprise song that I did at my wedding for my now-husband, and that was a beautiful, uplifting ballad. And so I just started having all these pieces that weren’t dance records, and it gave it me the confidence to to keep going. So I just carried on and the final product is this album.
I want to ask you about a couple of tracks in particular, the opening track on the album, Keep On Rising, is a new version of what I remember as being a club classic.
I’ve always loved it, I’ve always thought it was a great song. So what was the idea for that?
Well, to be honest, for years when I would finish my set in a club, I would burst into a cappella and when I got to the chorus everyone would join in and the whole club would be singing along. And I always wanted to think about creating a version of it that was more along the lines of the words, and we decided that that version of it on the album is great. I didn’t want an album with filler in it. Every single track deserves its place on the album and every single track takes you on a journey. I really wanted to get that right and for me this track just sets up the mindset I want people to be in when they go on that journey.
And also, When They Go Low, which you released as a single last year; it was inspired by Michelle Obama, so can you tell us about that?
Of course. She gave this incredible speech at the National Democratic Convention last year during that horrible, ugly election. And she talked about how her girls are watching all of this; the nasty political atmosphere that was going on in America last year, and there was a part in her speech where she tried to explain to them that when you encounter someone who is a bully, someone who’s cruel, that you don’t stoop to their level: when they go low, we go high. And that resonated with me immediately partly because I was bullied quite severely when I was a kid, and to me that message was it is bigger than Trump, it’s timeless, bigger than this chapter in American politics, a message that spoke to all of us about bullying in general.
One of the other tracks I wanted to ask you about is the song I’ll Rise, listening to the lyrics again it’s about bullying and overcoming adversity…
Well that song, those words were written by the great African-American poet Maya Angelou, and Maya Angelou was an activist, poet, professor, writer and an extraordinary woman, and wrote a poem called Still I Rise, which is so powerful. And Ben Harper, who is an American soul singer, took the open and put to music, so the original version of that song is actually a Ben Harper song, which is a little bit dark. And in 2004 for my second release on Hed Kandi, I took that song and did my version of it, which after A Higher Place is my next biggest track on Hed Kandi. So I’ve been singing it for 16 years in clubs.
And finally on the album, True Colors, the Cyndi Lauper song, which is a great song, there’s no question about it. Why did you decide to do a cover of such a well-known song?
I love the song, and obviously again on the issue of bullying, which is something only until very recently started to talk about – I never told people at the time, I never told my parents, because I was ashamed and embarrassed I think. But True Colors is one of those songs that resonates with anyone who’s been bullied. And Cyndi Lauper is amazing, but her voice is quite a particular, acquired taste, and her version of the song is so old now, and I looked over the covers that have been done of that track and I could not find one that, for me anyway, took it to the place where it potentially could go. So I thought I’m going to do my version of it. And also in this climate right now we need music with a message, we need to give something to the world that reminds us that it’s not all doom and gloom.
I think that’s the message of the whole album, for me; it’s a very positive message.
It’s definitely an album with a mission. Like I say, music for me has always been a type of ministry. There are loads of songs about relationships and break ups, but there aren’t enough songs celebrating friendship, or a good, healthy, solid sense of self, you know? And for me that’s important and so often I miss that in music.