Monday, April 21
815 V St. N.W.
Doors open at 7 p.m.
Boy George is the first to acknowledge a cliché.
Getting sober in 2008 and turning 50 two years ago are big “take stock” moments for many and no less so for him.
“It was a huge turning point for me,” he says of his milestone birthday. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to get my shit together, I’ve got to focus, this is important.’ I just felt I’d wasted a lot of time. I looked at myself and thought, ‘God, I’ve done nothing.’ I know I’ve done a lot, I’ve always worked. I’ve grafted and always made money, but a lot of it was pointless because no one knew what I was doing.”
This year, the world is seeing the fruit of those epiphanies. His new album “This Is What I Do” was out in the UK last fall and officially drops in the U.S. with three bonus cuts on March 25. The last several years have seen him release a spate of side projects of various scope, but this is his first full-fledged solo album since 1995’s “Cheapness and Beauty.” He starts a U.S. leg of his tour on April 18 in Philadelphia and plays D.C.’s 9:30 Club on April 21.
During a Saturday afternoon phone chat from his London home last weekend, George — in his ever-delightful, clipped British accent — was chatty, self deprecating, quick to laugh and balked or sidestepped no questions. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: I know you’ve been DJing a lot and working on various things, but how did it work out that you released a new album at this time? Why now?
BOY GEORGE: Well, you know, as you said, I’ve been DJing very happily for the last 25 years and I haven’t really had a record deal for a long time. I suppose I have thought about making records but, you know, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. You know, whether I was going to sign with a major label or do something more independent. I also changed management a couple of years ago and wanted to kind of start fresh with a bunch of people that perhaps could kind of see beyond what I was. I think when you’ve had a very, very successful career like I had in the ‘80s, people tend to kind of hope you’re going to try and repeat that. They’re always waiting for you to write the next “Karma Chameleon,” but it’s never going to happen (laughs). Everything I’ve ever done has been kind of instinctual and impulsive and spontaneous and I’ve never really been the kind of artist that can kind of just pull it out of a hat. I have to feel it. … I just felt it was the right time. We discussed the different ways I could go about making a record and I decided to be brave and pay for it myself and own it myself which is a new thing for me, kind of a grown up move. And so far, you know, it’s been the right choice.
BLADE: When was it recorded and how long did it take?
GEORGE: We started about March last year and we did it within about four months. Not solidly. We recorded and then somebody else mixed it. I would say about four to five months last year.
BLADE: How was the reception in the UK last fall?
GEORGE: We’ve had amazing reviews. Comeback of the year, Boy George has finally got his mojo back, you know, blah, blah, blah. Lots of compliments. I mean, much to my surprise really, because I wasn’t really sure what kind of reaction I would get. I wasn’t sure what to expect. So yeah, everything in the UK has been kind of another surprise. England tends to get much more excited about Beyonce than anything that comes from here. It’s like all America, America, hip-hop, Beyonce, Lady Gaga. Nobody cares about Boy George anymore (laughs). That’s why I’m relying on you guys in America.
BLADE: The first single “King of Everything” says “What is the word on the street? Have I lost my crown?” Have you?
GEORGE: Well, the song isn’t just about me, it’s about everyone. It’s about human frailty, people messing up, which is a very human thing, yet it is also about me but it’s about you, it’s about everyone. It’s not literal. The crown is a metaphor. If it was about me, I’d call it “Queen of Everything.”
BLADE: How did the UK tour go last fall?
GEORGE: It was amazing. Very small, very affectionate and the audiences were adorable. They were mostly the kind of hardcore fans, so they were really affectionate.
BLADE: About how long do you usually play?
GEORGE: It depends on the curfew. We do about an hour and a half, maybe two hours. Not quite Bruce Springsteen-length. But we play for as long as we can. When you’re doing a show, sometimes if the mood is right, you can keep it going, depending on the audience reaction, really. But obviously some venues have a curfew so you can’t play longer than a certain time.
BLADE: About how much of the new album do you work into the set list?
GEORGE: We kind of try and balance it with things people know, some things people haven’t heard, some new stuff, some old stuff. You know, I’ve been doing this a while and one thing I’ve continued to do is to play live. At the end, you have to figure out a way to reach the audience.
BLADE: How does the new stuff sit with the Culture Club hits? Is it hard to build a set list that flows?
GEORGE: No, I don’t think it’s difficult. With the things people know, you’re always in a very safe area. If you sing a song that’s been a hit, that’s very safe so no, I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. There are certain songs that I don’t do. Obviously with that kind of a back catalogue, there are some songs you grow into and some that you say, “OK, this doesn’t really speak to who I am anymore.” So you kind of try to mix it up and keep it interesting, not just for the audience but also for yourself. You don’t want it to be a kind of robotic show that’s the same every night. Myself and John, who plays guitar in my band, we have sections where we do acoustic stuff and we can do all sorts of things there and change things around and do new things. That helps keep the show exciting.
BLADE: Do you still have the goatee?
GEORGE: I do.
BLADE: Your look at present seems more kind of genderfuck than androgynous. Just a whim or do you feel more comfortable with mixing in masculine elements than you have in previous years?
GEORGE: I just had some time off and didn’t shave for a few days and kind of looked at myself and thought, “Oh, I quite like this look.” It’s not something I really sat down and thought about. I just kind of grew my beard when I was on break and other people seemed to like it and other people didn’t like it, which made me want to keep it more. I might get bored with it at some point but I’m loving it at the moment.
BLADE: Lots of pop stars have played around with androgynous looks — I’m thinking of David Bowie and Prince — and the public seems to accept them as straight. You were always pretty much out for the most part. Do you feel the public overall has pretty good gaydar?
GEORGE: I don’t know really. I think there are some audiences that don’t really want to know, depending on the artist. Sometimes people have this kind of spare-me-the-details kind of attitude. I think it’s more about what kind of artist you are and in what ways you want to affect the audience. That’s the starting point for me. It’s about what’s going to make you happy, do you know what I mean? How much of yourself you reveal. I think it’s much easier for somebody straight to play around with these boundaries because they’re not being defined by their sexuality. If you’re gay, then you’re gay and you have to strike a sort of balance so people don’t feel you’re flaunting it in their face or preaching, you know. I think as a gay artist, you have to walk a much finer line than, say, somebody who’s just having a flirtation with this. I mean, it’s much easier for someone straight like Macklemore to sing a song with the word gay in it. A few years ago I made an album called “Cheapness and Beauty” and there was a song called “Same Thing in Reverse” and I was told categorically this will never, ever get played on the radio because I used the phrase “kamikaze queer” in it. You can get away with more when you’re straight.
BLADE: You’ve talked about making a new album with Culture Club this year. Is that still in the cards?
GEORGE: Yes, we are looking at the possibility of recording some stuff this year but at the moment, we’re kind of still in the writing stages. We’ve had some great sessions and we really did enjoy ourselves and it was a really nice experience. Everybody came away feeling really good about it and, you know, we’re going to see what we can do next.
BLADE: It’s so great to see you looking so good, sounding so good and apparently really thriving. A few of your contemporaries who were also huge in the ‘80s haven’t fared as well. What did you think and feel when you heard Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston had died?
GEORGE: Oh my God, you know, I mean Michael Jackson. And I loved Whitney Houston like so much. I was just a massive, massive fan. I loved her voice. And Michael Jackson, you know, I was at home when it happened and I just remember thinking, “Oh my God, this is so sad.” You know, he was such an incredible artist. For the last few years of his life, I felt like there was so much pressure on him and he looked world-weary every time I saw him. I felt such sadness for him. I was just so sad when he died and Whitney, what a shame for both of them. They were great, great artists. I was a huge Michael Jackson fan and a huge Whitney Houston fan and I’m not ashamed to say I did cry. I thought it was really sad.
BLADE: Conversely does it make you happy when you see some of those artists still doing well today. Like Cyndi Lauper, for instance, just won a Tony.
GEORGE: I’m always happy when anyone does well. That’s a measure of maturity, I think. Cyndi’s a friend. I haven’t seen her for a while, but she’s a great girl and, you know, yeah, I think when you see your contemporaries doing well, it gives you hope. You think, “OK, anything’s possible.”
BLADE: You recognized early on that fame was fickle and I remember you telling Johnny Carson you knew staying at that level at the height of Culture Club was not sustainable and that you envisioned yourself eventually writing songs for other artists and doing other things. How has that played out differently than you thought it might have when you were 22?
GEORGE: Oh, I think when you’re 22 you really think you know it all, don’t you? (laughs) You listen back to the things you say and you think, “Oh my God, you really thought you knew it all.” And I think at that age, you’re still learning so much. I feel very fortunate to still be doing what I love.
BLADE: Yes, but it struck me as rather insightful that you realized even then that pop careers always ebb and flow.
GEORGE: It may be one of the reasons I’ve done other things. I’ve never wanted to just rest on my laurels. I don’t have the idea of trying to kind of repeat something. So in a way, DJing has been an incredible second career for me. When I first started it, my manager at the time thought it was a really bad idea and told me I shouldn’t do it. But again, I just followed my instincts and it was the right thing to do because it allowed me to avoid nostalgia. I’ve been able to be involved in a quite progressive industry and not have to worry about what I used to be or, you know, the ‘80s, and all that stuff. So I’m really happy that I made that decision. I like to work. I’m a worker and I’m always up for a new challenge.
BLADE: Back in the early ‘90s, the theme from “Crying Game” was this huge out-of-nowhere smash radio hit in the U.S. Do you still sing it live?
GEORGE: From time to time. Actually, maybe that’s a good one to put into the set in America. I’ll write that down.
BLADE: Is it harder to break a song in the U.S. now than it was years ago? Not even with yourself, necessarily, but just in general?
GEORGE: I don’t know what it’s like now because I’m not involved in that kind of trying to have hits, you know. I think past a certain age, you’re just kind of marginalized in the world anyway.
BLADE: Does that bring with it artistic freedom?
GEORGE: I think it does. Once you kind of get over the shock and the horror that certain radio stations won’t play your new stuff no matter how good you are, I mean that’s really the bonkers thing. I’m not sure it’s as bad in America as it is here, but certainly here, it’s just ridiculous. But it kind of remains to be seen. It’s a very different landscape now. Making records is very different and the way we promote ourselves is very different. In a way I’m kind of starting again, so I’ll let you know.
BLADE: How many of the players from the album do you tour with?
GEORGE: All of them.
BLADE: The album has such a lush sound — is that easy to duplicate on stage?
GEORGE: Well, we have a nine-piece band that we’re touring with at great expense so we probably won’t be making any money. But I think it’s really important to have a great band and we had a great time in the UK last year. We do England and Europe then we go to America. We’ll be steaming by the time we get to the states.
BLADE: How long have you been a vegan?
GEORGE: I’m not strictly a vegan but I’m very conscious about what I eat and I don’t eat a lot of dairy, though I do eat some cheeses. I’ve been on a very particular metabolic plan diet for two years that’s all about your hormonal reaction to certain foods so some of the stuff I don’t eat is very random — like pumpkin, kale, onion or lemon. It’s very individual and different for each person. It’s been sort of life changing for me but I don’t really call myself anything because then you eat a piece of cheese and everybody freaks out.
BLADE: And you run too?
GEORGE: Well, I exercise.
BLADE: Is the U.S. version of the album the same?
GEORGE: No, it’s got more songs. I wrote a song called “Turn On a Little Light For Me,” which I wrote especially for the American album and which I love. We were asked by the label to provide some more stuff and I had a couple covers — “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey and the Bob Dylan song “Make You Feel My Love,” but I didn’t just want covers as the bonus content so I wrote a new song too. It’s about hope. A lovely kind of little Dylan-esque kind of song.
BLADE: Thanks for your time.
GEORGE: Thank you.