Features - Interviews

Dublin Gay Theatre Festival Preview: Graham J. Norton

Graham J Poster

Preparing for a triumphant return to the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, Graham J. Norton talks to us about his lifelong work as a classical singer, drastic changes in life and career, and the steps he took leading to the formation of the Orpheus Blues and Graham J Does Cabaret.

Hi Graham. So how did you go about forming the act Graham J Does Cabaret?  How long have you been training as a singer?

Well I’ve trained as a singer since I was four, and I have been, for many, many years, a classical singer, performing in operas.  But I’ve always performed alternative kind of stuff, secretly, because in the business, if anyone found out, I’d never have gotten booked again.  But I decided, after a couple of changes in my life, all I wanted to do was sing and be happy.  So I changed and became a…well, I’m not entirely sure what we are.  We’re sort of a multi-genre kind of thing.  We do jazz, blues, a bit of cabaret, a bit of folk rock.

And it’s mostly directed by you.

Yeah, I’m the singer.  But I’ve found an amazing music director who’s an ex-classical pianist who became a jazz musician, and we have quite a little eclectic group of ex-classical players who’ve come together and like to think outside the box: Graham J and the Orpheus Blues.  It’s very cool.

And is this the first show you’re bringing to Dublin’s Gay Theatre Festival?

Well I performed last year in the Gala Nights of the festival.  Brian Merriman [fstival director] contacted me and asked if I’d like to come and sing, so I came along and sang two songs.  And then Brian contacted me there, a few months ago, and he knew of the changes in my life, so he asked if I’d like to come and perform, and I said, ‘That’d be lovely!’  And it’s been useful for us because we’re working on a new album.  Our performance is gonna be very low-key compared to what we normally do.  With the space we’re in, we can’t have the full band, so it’s just going to be myself, keyboard, and double bass, as opposed to the saxaphones, clarinet players, and all the madness.  So I guess it’s not low-key, but just more pared down, and it’s kind of a tour de force of divas, some funny pieces.

So is there some dialogue in the show, as well?

Yes, I have a few transitions between each of the songs, explaining where they came from and what they mean to me.  Some of them relate to stories in my own life, and some of them just have interesting stories about how they came to be anyway.  So yea, I will chat to the audience in between which is wonderful because as an opera singer, you’re never really allowed to do those kinds of things.

So the cabaret represents major changes in your life.  Can you talk a bit more about that and how it all came to formation?

Well, it’s a bit tragic, actually.  I was an opera singer and I was in a relationship for many years, and my partner tragically passed away in 2013.  I was singing in London at the time when I got the contact from the police, and he had committed suicide.  So that led to a whole spiral of changes in life, and I decided that. I had been very trapped and very unhappy as a singer, and I wanted to be free.  So I thought, ‘Well, what’s important in life?’ and I decided I just wanted to be a singer who sings what he wants and be happy.  As opera singers, we get told by directors how to sing and how to feel which is wrong because at the end of the day, we’re the artists.  That may be very controversial to say, but anyway, what happened then was, eventually when I went back to work, I was getting more and more unhappy with the situation.  And then Gloria, who are Dublin’s gay and lesbian choir, approached me, as my late partner was a member of their group for many, many years, and they were having a concert in aid of suicide awareness.  They asked if I would come and sing, and I said, ‘Yea, no problem,’ and that was around this time last year.  The crowd’s reaction was amazing, and there was a guy there called Shane Hennessy who’s involved with Gloria but also runs Crash Records, and he said that he’d like to have a chat with me.  So we met, and he said he wanted to work with me and asked me what I’d like to record, and I said, ‘I’d like to have a go at exploring other genres, to be honest.’  Next thing I knew, I’ve got this amazing producer called Paul Murphy, and here we are now, getting booked and getting good reviews!  We’re pretty happy with it.

Sounds like you have some good friends around you.

Yeah, I have some very good people in my life, and I’m very blessed.

So would it be correct to say that Graham J Does Cabaret is a kind of triumph over more difficult times?

Yes, I’d say so.  But it’s got quite a bit of humour in there, too.  There will be some tongue-in-cheek stuff in the show, I mean gay men and dating brings a lot of that kind of humour.  But yea, it is sort of like a celebration of life.

And what do you hope to bring to the festival with that mentality?  Are you hoping to be the lighter end of the spectrum?

That’s a hard one… I mean, on one hand, yes.  As an artist I like to entertain, but I also like to inform, so some of my songs will be quite political, especially since the marriage equality referendum is a week later.  So it’ll be educational and entertaining at the same time.  It’s a big issue, I think, for me, and I speak about this very strongly a lot of the time, particularly for gay people in Ireland… you don’t really see all of the shortcomings of the situation, at the moment.  For example, I was in a cohabiting relationship, not civilly partnered, and if you’re civilly partnered, you do have less legal rights than married couples, but if you’re not even civilly partnered, you have less than that.  Declan and I were living together, and we had written our wills so that if anything happened to one of us, the other would get everything, but the law did not recognise that, and there are lots of little loop-holes which they don’t tell anyone about so they can take as much as they can.  So I am very much for marriage equality in general, but there are also lots of couples, both straight and gay, who, for whatever reason, choose not to get married, and there should be laws to protect them, as well.  Anyway, I’m getting off the point, but yeah, I hope to bring a bit of humour and enlightenment.

Speaking of the referendum, the timing of the festival before the vote does make things more interesting.  How do you feel about the role of the performing arts in this whole movement?

I think it’s very important.  The whole idea behind theatre in its original inception was to bring about healing and to inform us of what’s going on, and I think it’s incredibly important for theattre to inform us of what’s going on politically in our times, particularly with gay people at the moment.  We’re being swept under the carpet with ancillary issues like water charges, and, I mean, it’s hugely important that we keep hammering home the point that gay people have normal lives.  Theatre at the moment reflects the normal lives of people, so I think it’s very important that it’s used to further our cause.

And what are you hoping to do with the cabaret after the festival?  You said you guys are working on a new album?

Yeah, we are working on an album.  There are some new songs we’re doing that have been been written by Irish composers, and myself and Orpheus Blues will be performing those in the Sugar Club, and we’re hoping to do a bit of a tour after that.  And again, our whole line is very eclectic.  We’re releasing a single of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’, but very much my own version which is a bit freaky and weird.  I mean, it’s already a bit freaky and weird anyway, but my own version is freaky and weird because it’s quite theatrical.  It incorporates all of my operatic training and my jazzy-blues side as well.  So we’re working on that for a couple of shows, some touring, and concerts, so it’s a good time.  It’s a very cool, creative place to be in at the moment.

Do you watch American Horror Story?

I love it.  That’s exactly where I heard [‘Life on Mars’] for the first time, it’s really bad!  I’d never heard that song before!  It led me to a whole David Bowie discovery phase where I ended up looking to sing ‘The Man Who Stole the World’, and there’s a really bizarre Lulu recording with David Bowie doing backing vocals.  And I was thinking Lulu’s really great…but she’s doing the robot which is kind of strange!  But her voice and interpretation are incredible!  So yeah, I guess a lot of TV has led me into looking at a lot of different stuff.  Like I was watching Stella on Sky1, and the end credits had Amy Winehouse—I mean, her voice is unmistakable—singing a song called ‘Love is a Losing Game’ which I had never heard before.  Absolutely gorgeous.  So that, too, could end up in our theatre festival!

So the show is constantly evolving.

Yeah, we’re still trying to be fluid and current with everything, and sometimes we may rehearse a song and decide it just doesn’t suit me and how I do it and it might get excluded.  But we have a set list, and we always leave space for four songs that will be new in order to keep things fresh.  We were looking at a Sam Smith song called ‘Lose Your Lover’ which is a beautiful song, but when I sang it, for me it just didn’t go anywhere in my voice.  The notes were fine, and I love it, but it just didn’t suit me as a singer whereas other songs fit quite nicely.  For example, we took this song called ‘All Time Love’ by Will Young which was on one of his albums a few years ago, and I found the song very beautiful.  So we played with it a little bit, changed a few things around, and it worked out, so that song will end up in the show, and again, maybe Amy Winehouse.  Definitely Nina Simone, too, as well as Joni Mitchell.  We also have some interesting cabaret from the states, some tongue-in-cheek material, and maybe an operatic aria just to be a show-off!

Graham J Does Cabaret premieres at the 12th Annual International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival in the Cobalt Café, 16 North Great George’s Street, Dublin 1, May 15-16.