ABOVE: BOY GEORGE. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEAN STOCKINGS
Legendary pop star Boy George, AKA George Alan O’Dowd, released This Is What I Do, his first studio album in 18 years, last month. He’ll be on tour through July, stopping off in New York City to perform tonight at Irving Plaza. Although he was in town last fall for some DJ gigs, it had been eight years since he’d last visited the city and 15 years since he’s done a show here. Now 52 and in recovery after a string of misfortunes with the law involving drugs and sex, he’s reinvented Boy George as a clean-living Buddhist who eats well and is spending most of his time working on projects, Tweeting (he has 302,000 followers), and cooking; and at parties, he’s usually the DJ. The androgynous crooner’s music has often been referred to as blue-eyed soul, and he’s best known for his work in Culture Club during the 1980s, although he’s done plenty of solo work and with other bands in his career spanning 30 years, selling over 150 million records. Boy George’s new album is a very personal record and his voice is still haunting combining reggae and pop rock. In his song “The King of Everything,” he alludes to his troubled past: “I made an art of letting you down.” But now Boy George has picked himself up and is back on the road.
GERRY VISCO: I’ve been listening to your new record, and it’s really fabulous. There are a lot of ballads with some dance elements in there. How would you say this record is different from some of the earlier ones?
BOY GEORGE: It’s similar in the sense that I’ve always been pretty eclectic. I’ve never had just one kind of sound. This record is a tribute to all the things I grew up with. The ’70s was really my kind of formative decade for my musical education, so I think I went back to all of those things that I loved as a kid. In the early part of the ’70s, we had glam rock, but we also had reggae and ska happening at the same time. I just took all those influences I had as a kid and threw them together and somehow it works. I didn’t want to sound like I was trying to be trendy or up to date, or even to think about competing with what’s going on now, because I don’t know if I’d even really know where to start. So I kind of just went back to the things I know.
VISCO: I was struck by how the lyrics had a maturity and wisdom. I’ve always loved your stuff, but the voice that you have now in terms of your message seems really together.
GEORGE: There’s been a lot of changes in my life, particularly in the last six years and I think the record is, yeah I think it’s a grown-up record. I think I’m a grown-up, finally.
VISCO: The music itself still has that quality. This is a record from somebody who’s got his shit together.
GEORGE: I probably wouldn’t put it in such colorful terms, but that’s a really good way of describing it! Making this record was the beginning of big changes in my life. I have a whole new management team and I started to work with people who were able to see me in a new way rather than hoping I’d recreate what I did 30 ago, which has never been interesting to me. One of the best things about being involved in dance music for the last 25 years is I’ve had the most amazing escape from nostalgia so I was able to come back to kind of making a record. I just feel at the moment I’ve got this great opportunity to re-paint the idea I have of myself and also work a little bit with some of the preconceptions and ideas that the public have of me. My fan base has kept up with me and they know what I’ve been doing, but a lot of other people will be hearing me for the first time in ages, so I feel very excited.
VISCO: You’re touring with a new nine-piece band?
GEORGE: The bulk of the band is people I’ve worked with since leaving Culture Club, guys I’ve worked with for over 20 years. There’ve been some recent additions to the band. When you have a really good group of people and when you start adding people. The band I have at the moment is awesome and they’re all great musicians. It feels like being onstage with friends and makes the whole thing much more enjoyable.
VISCO: The record was released first in England, and it’s coming out here now. Is there a reason why there’s a different date?
GEORGE: It’s just the way it panned out. We’re doing it independently, and you have to set up individual situations in each country. America was the last place, but I think it’s been the right move. I’m very excited about America. I got a great reaction to the record when I was there last month and it feels very positive. America has always been my biggest audience, so I’m putting a lot of faith in America.
VISCO: You’ve been coming here off and on to do some DJ gigs, right?
GEORGE: I was there last fall for a few weeks, DJing around America. That was my first trip back in eight years. It was really nice to be back in America and then I came back just before Christmas. I DJ’d and sang at Miami Basel 2013. You know I’m really excited about playing, because it’s been 15 years since I’ve done a proper live show in America.
VISCO: It’s 18 years since you’ve been in the studio; so why did you wait so long?
GEORGE: I’ve been involved in dance music and haven’t really thought about making a record. When I did decide to make a record, I had to think about how I was going to do it. Did I want to sign a record deal, did I want to do it independently? I decided it was a really good time to do it myself, not to go back to a major label. The way that we do things now is so different to back in the day.
VISCO: What would you say the big difference is?
GEORGE: The big difference is you don’t have to have a big label to reach your audience. You know you have social networking, and you can do things efficiently without the might of a big label. So far I’ve been really impressed with the way that my team has been working and it just feels exciting. And also it’s quite nice not to have anybody telling me what to do. Wear less lipstick. Or whatever it may be that record companies offer you.
VISCO: I suppose they had a budget, but still it’s a pain.
GEORGE: They have a budget, but we have a budget too. It feels like a new beginning for me, like I’ve gone back to go and I’m doing things in a different way. I don’t know what will happen but it feels exciting.
VISCO: You look great by the way. What have you been doing with your skin? It’s glowing.
GEORGE: Lots of vegetables and not drinking. Alcohol is one of the worst things for anyone’s skin, so not having alcohol for six years has helped a lot.
VISCO: You cook vegan food and stuff.
GEORGE: I try to watch what I put into my body. I love food. I get very excited about what I’m going to eat next.
VISCO: Do the restaurants in England still suck, or are they better now?
GEORGE: England is a culinary delight these days. We’ve really caught up with the rest of the world. It depends on what you’re looking for. A lot of people come to England and go to McDonald’s, which is a crime. There are lots of great restaurants in England now.
VISCO: You don’t party like you used to, but you do go out sometimes because you DJ, right?
GEORGE: The kind of DJing I’m involved in is not the kind of high-end pop music, like a Calvin Harris stadium kind of thing. It’s more underground clubs and a smaller kind of vibe. That’s been amazing for me, because it’s helped me avoid nostalgia. Dance music is very progressive and it’s always changing and developing and spitting out new things, so for me it’s been a blessing and it’s allowed me to come back to making records with a refreshed attitude.
VISCO: Tweeting is one of your important activities these days. How do you feel about that?
GEORGE: It’s something you can do wherever you are, on your phone, on the computer, in an airport lounge. It’s easy to do, and I do find it fun to communicate with people. It’s quite nice that we can have now almost direct contact with anyone in the world at any time. I don’t know how important it is in terms of one’s career. It seems to be pretty much superfluous in terms of that, but it’s nice to communicate. I’m a Gemini.
VISCO: You seem to get involved with lots of discussion of social issues in your tweets.
GEORGE: It’s amazing what people have issues with in this day and age. The Internet can be a little bit of a cesspit in general in terms of negativity, but on the whole people are surprisingly quite nice.
VISCO: You’re focusing on your tour right now, but what else are you’re doing?
GEORGE: At the moment I’m working on some other dance projects, some writing projects, and I’ve got a new version of Taboo, a musical I had out a few years ago. It feels like a very fertile, creative time at the moment. As you said earlier, having your shit together means you can approach things in a different way, and I feel very ready to work right now, so there’s a lot of interesting things coming up and things on the horizon that I’m looking forward to doing.
VISCO: You were obviously a pioneer in the gay scene and in the mainstream world being out and cross-dressing. How do you see things now?
GEORGE: The world is less homophobic, depending on where you are in the world. One of the most exciting things, particularly in America, is you have black sports people coming out which is pretty radical. In the UK for the last few years, there’s been talk about homophobia and racism in sports. I’m surprised and heartened by America taking the lead in terms of sports players coming out of the closet. But around the world there’s still a lot of work to be done such as in Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa. My message from 30 years ago is the same. As a gay man I feel very strongly about those issues around the world—there’ve been huge changes and developments, but there are still places where things are scary. It’s important to speak out about those things. My thing has never been just about sexuality. Anybody who feels odd is welcome to be in my club.