That’s right. It was at the Shaw Theatre and it was a play called ‘The Night We Buried Judy Garland’.
It was the story of the Stonewall Riot, which coincided with the night Judy Garland died. It was something I’m really interested in and I wanted to know the roots of Stonewall and how Gay Pride started.
I was a bit of a Judy fan. When I first moved to London, I was living in one of the last gay co-op houses and one of the albums we listened to was Judy Garland’s ‘Judy At Carnegie Hall’. I’ve definitely taken my inspiration from torch singers like Edith Piaf and those kind of people, also Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ and other things like that.
It was a bit of a baptism of fire that show. I hadn’t learned the songs by heart, so I was fluffing my lines a bit, but it was a good introduction.
Another thing that I did was ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’, which was released in 1991. It was written by Peter Hamill and Chris Judge Smith, and I played a small role called Montresor. He was quite a naïve character, so it suited my personality at the time. Apparently Barney Ashton, the writer of Torsten, had heard me singing that part and that’s what gave him the idea of using me for the character of Torsten.
I think one of the hardest things is that people, especially Erasure fans, are expecting Andy Bell to come on the stage, and I have to completely forget that. You can’t have a cheeky grin in-between the songs, or say anything, or even acknowledge the audience, unless it’s a song directed towards them. In that respect it was quite unnerving and I think some of the people found it quite scary, because they weren’t used to seeing me like that. You could see them freezing up a little bit, and I think for quite a few people it was out of their comfort zone as well.
It was really an amazing experience. There’s always a lot going on with the Festival, so many shows going on each day.
For us, it was quite hard. I don’t think people realised we were there, so we didn’t attract the audiences we’d hoped for. We used the back of my head for the posters we printed. Maybe if we’d used my face maybe we could have drawn more of a crowd.
Overall, I was really pleased. I was happy that we got some reviewers in, and we got quite good reviews. I don’t think it went as smoothly as people thought it was going to go, but it was a great experience and I loved it. I would do it again at the drop of a hat.
Barney and I met about five years ago. I was at the Kerrang! Awards in London and Barney was on the same table. He works for Strike Force Entertainment and lots of his stuff is released through Cherry Red, so were at the independent label table. I was there to give an award to Daniel Miller, the head of Mute.
Barney and I just started talking and he said he had this character in mind called Torsten and that he’d had me in mind as well when he was writing the person. I think he’d been writing it for quite a long time, but he attached the character to me somehow. Barney’s and my backgrounds – I don’t mean the way we were brought up, but our gay experiences – are very similar. We had the same kind of stifled embarrassment, being quite shy and not being able to have conversations with people.
A lot of that comes out through the character of Torsten, even though he’s not totally gay. Until I actually heard the songs and saw the words, I wasn’t really sure about it, and Barney could have had a whole list of people he wanted to use. But on the whole I think it’s really well suited to me.
The character of Andy Bell in Erasure is quite clean-cut and naïve. With Torsten, he’s completely different. I wouldn’t say he’s jaded, but because he’s lived so long and gone through so much, I think he must be quite detached. It’s quite hard for him to keep going over the same thing all the time, and meeting new people, when he’s done it so much. It must be hard for him to meet someone that’s refreshing to him, and inspiring.
I suppose so. I’ve always been attracted to really kind of leftfield characters, and the darker side of things and I’m always seen as very up and quite joyous when we’re doing Erasure. Torsten is completely different. It enables me to bring some demons or darkness or whatever is inside. With Torsten I’m drawing on some of the bad experiences that I’ve had in my own life, but which people might not know about quite so much.
Vince doesn’t like me swearing. He tells me off if I swear. It’s ironic, because he swears like a trooper!
I originally had demos from Barney. He’s a good singer as well, and a really good actor, so I had his demos of him singing on them. My performance is a bit more subdued than his really, because he’s more used to letting himself go and really getting into the character. He knows Torsten better than I do because he’s created the person. I took the way that he sung the songs, but some of the ways that he sang words didn’t feel like they were in the right metre to me, so I changed that around a little bit on some of them, just to give a bit more meaning. Apart from that, I wouldn’t say there was really a collaboration.
More than that, you obviously have to put your own soul and sensibility into the words, and try and feel the songs, and also give them a certain sweetness as well. People know my voice, and I quite like the angelic aspect that I bring to my singing, but I don’t think Torsten’s quite that kind of character. Even though he’s quite brutal, I wanted to make it a bit more refined and polished.
I had a friend round yesterday and I was playing him extracts from ‘The Beautiful Libertine’, which is the next instalment of the Torsten story, and he also saw the original show. It did make me think, though: it is actually quite a heavy thing for people just to sit down and listen to the whole way through, as a recording. It’s not like a West End show or anything like that. It does require a certain amount of patience to sit through it. I suppose if you are watching the physical show, it does give it an extra dimension.
I’m the opposite. I’ve listened to the songs over and over and over again but for me it hasn’t gelled into an actual story yet. I can’t imagine Torsten’s birth, or where he grew up, or things like that; I just feel like I know him a bit as a person. You’re just learning as you go along and the more songs you do.
I was quite surprised recording ‘The Beautiful Libertine’, though. It was much quicker than doing the first album because I didn’t know who Torsten was, and on the second album it made me realise that I kind of get him already. It was much easier to interpret the songs this time.
The songs are also much more melodic this time and it’s more song-based, and much more about his background.
It’s set just after he’s left college, and living in Paris for a while, and it goes into a few more of his relationships he’s had.
I think it must be really hard for him to just have met so many people and to have so many different adventures. I’ve probably had three loves in my life – I’m onto my third one now – and I’ve had a really fulfilled life already. I can’t imagine having twenty, or however many Torsten’s had. I’d be worn out by now.
We’re performing in March in London at Above The Stag Theatre in Vauxhall, which is a very small theatre.
We’re also doing a workshop in the last week of September and the first week of October which I’m really looking forward to.
I think maybe that was a bit of an overstatement saying that, because even though it was supposedly a one-man show, I did have Chris Frost with me on stage. I think it was just the fact that going up to Edinburgh was quite daunting. That was what was challenging.
The new episode is introducing characters, so there will be two more characters on stage with me this time.
Outside of music, my other two passions are dancing and performance, or acting. The only thing I’ve done before, apart from the Stonewall thing, was doing Youth Theatre in school, which I really loved. That’s why I’m so looking forward to this workshop. I’ve also done an acting to camera course before.
I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of an actor, but singing has always been second nature, so I followed the easiest option – not purposefully, but it seemed like naturally that was the way it worked out, and I concentrated so much on the singing that I haven’t really ventured too much into the acting side.
There are singers that can act, and singers that can’t. It’s really weird. I think it just depends on your interpretation of things. Take somebody like Madonna. Because people know her so well as the character Madonna, it’s really hard for her to escape that character. I think that unless she was going to shave her hair off, or look like an old lady or something, it’s very hard for her to escape that persona.
For me, it’s kind of easier in some way. Erasure is very happy-go-lucky, but I love dressing up and I love putting characters into the songs. I want to be able to do that more, and delve deeper. I’ve always wanted to do more in this space – nothing too commercial, something with real substance.
If you were to hear Barney’s versions of the songs, I think you’d be surprised how much more they were. Because he’s really an actor at heart, rather than a singer, he acts the words more than sings them. I have a good teacher in him.
Absolutely. Also just laying yourself bare and having confidence in that person – you know they’re not going to steer you wrong.
I have to be totally honest, these were all from Barney’s imagination. It was his idea to do ‘Variance’, and because it was such a long gap between the Edinburgh show and ‘The Beautiful Libertine’ coming out next year, I think it was a thing to keep people occupied, and also to maybe get it played in clubs, or for electro fans.
Barney’s a complete electro fan as well, he DJs at a gay club and he loves all the pop electro stuff, but he also loves experimentation as well.
It was his idea to do the talking version of ‘Weston-Super-Mare’ and I really love doing those sorts of things because you’re really completely let off the hook and you can do whatever you like. So I did this really weird, horrible voice for that version.
There’s a track on the new album that has a speaking part as well, which is also really spooky. I could see Mike Allison, who was recording the vocals, looking at me going “Oh my God, where is that coming from?” It was this horrible, creepy voice. It allowed me to be completely opposite of who I am. It would be nice to do cartoon voices. I’d love to do that.
Well, I wouldn’t mind a go at ‘Phantom’, if I’m honest…
‘Variance – The Torsten: The Bareback Saint Remixes’ is out now on Strike Force Entertainment through Cherry Red. The collection includes new interpretations of the songs from the original instalment of Torsten by Barney Ashworth, mOOger and Dancing With Ruby. Andy Bell recorded new vocals for some of the alternate versions.
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