She first made her mark as the lead singer of Yazoo (better known as Yaz) with Depeche Mode’s Vince Clarke more than 30 years ago. But these days, Alison Moyet has been getting more introspective, weaving her life experiences – by way of her characteristic bluesy contralto voice – into a new album called The Minutes. It’s the British singer-songwriter’s first album in six years, and it’s already reached the top five in the U.K. The first single, “When I Was Your Girl,” paints a non-linear portrait of time passage rife with memories. “When I was your girl,” a sage-sounding Moyet croons, “I didn’t know that I would end where you begin, more beautiful in your skin.”
As the introspective album drops this month in the U.S., we talk to Moyet about her long and winding career. She’s not only been touring as a solo artist for many years, but she received raves in London’s West End for her portrayal of Mama Morton in the musical Chicago. After a public weight loss, battle with bipolar disorder and coming out in support of marriage equality in her native England, she admits she values her die-hard gay male and lesbian fans – and thinks she might know why the LGBT community keeps coming back for more.
AfterEllen.com: The Minutes has been a long time coming since your last album in 2007. You’re quoted in a recent interview as saying you didn’t listen to any other music when you were recording it. What influenced the lyrics and music this time around?
Alison Moyet: Lyrically, I have become bored with the general romantic playing field that dominates the narrative in pop music – and certainly has [dominated] mine. Having said that, I am being as introspective as I ever was [with] themes of neurosis, redemption and personal examination, as well as wider observations. In The Minutes, I have reflected on the metaphor of a cinema experience, the notion of a sunken bell personified, fascination of physical endeavor — streams of consciousness. It always sounds a bit wank explaining it. Sometimes writing is a technical exercise. Sometimes it’s just about a pleasing couplet. Sometimes I feel confused when I try to deconstruct them for others, feeling that the lyric itself was the most succinct way I could express myself around an idea, and that the explanation is expanded for the sake of it.
Melodically, I wanted to play with very little embellishment and not fall into the trap of showboating. We absorb influences throughout our lives without even being aware. I wanted to write from that perspective rather than attempt a nod at a youth culture I don’t belong to, or to meet the expectations of where it is assumed I should find myself as a middle-aged woman.
AE: You’ve also said this album is quite different from your past works, but with an electronic base — without being retro, a dangerous place for anyone who found fame in the 1980s. What can longtime fans expect from the new tracks? And how is the album different from anything you’ve done before?
AM: Sonically, it is different from the records I have made lately in that I am working more prominently with programming and electronica. Technology has changed the methodology for everyone pretty much. It is not retro because we have not gone for that. It is not an analog record. Writing wise, it is as it ever was in practice. My song choices have always been schizophrenic, [but] electronic music is a leveller. It brings a cohesiveness if the user is canny.
Guy Sigsworth is the perfect foil for me in that he is both a brilliant inventor and an incredibly talented musician and composer. We have worked as a band might. Always the lyricist, I have never completely led the melodic information before in the way that I do on this album, nor have I ever previously enjoyed such deft musical architecture than that which Guy employs in his composition. We bounced off each other throughout.
AE: The video for the first single “When I Was Your Girl” was recorded in a familiar English location from your own childhood. What’s the significance for you?
AM: The song is about a journey. The same words in the mouth of the teen-self and the adult-self resound differently. What we believe possible and imperative in our youth we cease to even value when lived-in. Instead, we wear hats. We filmed the video on Southend Pier. This was a place that signified escape to me. Southend, the glamorous auntie that liked kids, the day out, the place where moods were high and tensions forgotten for an hour. It’s the past meeting the present, the young meeting the old.
AE: The album’s already debuted at number five on the U.K. charts in anticipation of its U.S. release on June 11. What’s success feeling like at this point in your life?
AM: I am in a brilliant place at last. I expect nothing and there is little that I resent. That is liberating. All I can control is my output. In this way, accepted or rejected, we are left comfortable with our choices. I had no doubt that if heard, some people would like this record because it is earnestly made and has craft and depth. I don’t, however, assume that people will get to hear it to decide. I didn’t expect a top 10 and not because I don’t know it’s worth. Ours is a big playing field, youth is king and I have long been on the bench. I long ago decided not to swim with the current and experience led me to expect to be ever mired. So to answer your question, it is brilliant to have your work applauded, to feel vindicated, to be supported as I happily find myself today. I love every happy piece of news and tiny victory. I can love them knowing they are fleeting.
AE: You’ve said the album’s title refers to time and place in one’s life. What do “the minutes” mean for you right now?
AM: We are fed stories of how our lives should be, imbibed with love and joy and success. We fail and we feel cheated. We think we got everything wrong and that someone else hasn’t because they are better people. Better at being. Truth is, our joys, our exceptional times happen in minutes that are strung in pedestrian years. We need to enjoy them like spring flowers. Making this album when no label would take my call or listen to my work, finding at last a place that believed in me, and then receiving the reaction I am getting now that it’s finally released, counts among my minutes. I delight in them all the more for knowing they pass and that’s OK.
AE: You’ve been candid about your personal life, struggles with fame, weight and depression – and the breakup of Yaz. You’ve also a very strong appeal among gay men and women. Why do you think that is?
AM: Perhaps it is the not hiding my “otherness.” When you are not a member of mainstream society, when you don’t see yourself represented respectfully in the larger world, you gravitate toward those that [don’t] shy away from facing their detractors. Maybe it’s realizing already that external acceptance cannot be counted upon and we don’t need to make our lifestyle choices based on being socially accepted? Maybe it is that gay men don’t have to want to wank over their female singer of choice so it didn’t matter that I was ugly. Who knows? But hurrah for the gays!
AE: I suspect it’s the beauty they see in the artist and her work. To that, what song on the album most embodies where you are as a musician?
AM: I see this as a body of work, one that needs every component to roundly illustrate my current head space. Lyrically, perhaps it is between “Horizon Flame” and “Filigree.” The first reflects on the liberating concept of being mortal and ultimately insignificant, and the latter sums up the tenet of the minutes. [It’s] an epiphany I had when, by accident, I found myself one wet afternoon in a cinema in Amsterdam watching Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life.
AE: A multi-faceted film speaking to life’s complexities, to say the least. As far as influences, what musicians are on your own playlist these days?
AM: Having avoided listening to anything new for three years, I am just starting to get my toes wet again. I have my staples like Elbow and Elvis Costello and Melanie Safka. The last album I bought was Junip by Junip. I did a radio show last week with them where they performed live “Your Life Your Call” and loved it. I get very singular when I’m getting into something.
AE: Any favorite moments or regrets from your 30-plus year career?
AM: There is not a favorite. There are minutes and each good one is much like your love. It always seems deeper than the last. Regrets? None that still reside, although the bastards certainly can have long lives.