Hair, makeup, and gender-bending fashions aside, what singer/songwriter Boy George does best is write a prime pop tune. I'm thinking about chart-topping '80s singles like "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," "Time (Clock of the Heart)," "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," "Church of the Poison Mind," "Karma Chameleon," "Miss Me Blind," "It's a Miracle," and "The War Song." His later, more dance-oriented solo material and DJ gigs won a club following.
With the March 25 release of "This Is What I Do," Boy George's first studio album in 18 years, the music icon returns not to the '80s but to the '70s glam and rock sounds that influenced him. He also returns to the moving, self-revelatory songwriting that won over adults and children like me back in 1983. I chatted with George about the new album, returning to the US for the first time after his legal issues, conquering personal battles, a Culture Club reunion, and his favorite apps.
"This Is What I Do" is your first pop album after decades of electronic albums and DJ releases. What made you go in this direction?
I wouldn't say this is pop in terms of today's pop. I would say this is the pop from when I was growing up -- '70s pop. I didn't want to do something that felt like I was trying to be current, so I went back to all the things I loved when I was a kid, like Bowie, Marc Bolan, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, all those things, and also the reggae I listened to. So it was really going back to being a kid again. I also asked myself what I wanted to say and about the point of view, without being too corporate and writing a mission statement.
Two themes that stand out are war and religion. Are they on your mind a lot these days?
When I'm talking about war and faith, it's more the internal wars I'm discussing. It's about conflicts we have within ourselves or with other people. I think all conflict starts within the human heart. So I'm really talking about it as a more emotional thing and relationship thing. I think about the battles we have with ourselves, trying to grow up, and I think life is about finding clarity and figuring out what's important and what's not important, which I generally try to deal with when I write lyrics.
Check out Boy George's "My God" video:
When I last interviewed you, almost three years ago, you couldn't even enter the US. But last fall you were able to undertake a six-week DJ tour here. How did that all get sorted out?
It just took a bit of time and good behavior [laughs]. I went to the embassy just before Christmas in 2012, and I got my visa really quickly. It was quite amazing. But I guess that because things were good with me, I got it in like three weeks. I did a little dance because I had a visa.
I came to America and I had a fantastic time, but it really felt like I was starting from the beginning, like I was an up-and-coming DJ that there was buzz about, rather than in a blaze of glory. And there were places that were amazing, and everywhere else it was hard work, and people were like, "Who's Boy George?" I understand that, because a lot of people who go to clubs now, when I was last in America, they were in high school. But it was exciting, and the gigs that were great were really great, so you get a feeling of how good it can be. Plus, what I play is different than what's popular in the mainstream dance scene. I don't play big-room kind of drama. I play quite authentic house music, so I was happy that there was still a market for that.
Describe the emotional experience of being back on US soil.
Well, the first place I went to was Seattle, and I got through and did a little dance [laughs]. I was in. I was really happy. I just got another visa for America last week, so I'm happy, and you'll be seeing a lot of me.
Do you DJ with software like Serato or Traktor?
No. It's all old-fashioned style, and I play off a USB, but it's live files. And I travel a lot, so I never know what's going to work where. So there's no way I could have a programmed, preplanned kind of set. You have to think on your feet, which is what DJing is all about. You always have to be ready to adapt or find your way around a situation, and the unpredictability of that makes it really exciting.
At your DJ gigs, are people still coming up to you, offering you drugs?
No. They are respectful. It's not really cool to do that anymore. I think people are much more careful. The hedonism of the '80s and '90s is very out of vogue, so if that's going on, it's going on in the back rooms and the toilets. I think once you've made it clear that you're not taking part, people can see that.
You always hear that when people quit any substance, they should find something to replace it with. What's become your replacement?
Are you a big juicer?
I'm a big juicer. I'm a big mincer [laughs]. Yeah, every time I juice, I'm going to think of that.
I guess I really walked into that one.
Yeah. Now I guess I replace it with exercise and work. I love my work and really enjoy what I do. I also make sure I have a break from work and time to do nothing and see friends and family and recharge my batteries. I enjoy that. I never used to enjoy downtime; it would make me crazy. But now I really enjoy time to go to a movie or sit and have a coffee. So when I am working hard, it makes it more enjoyable, 'cause I have a break from it now and again.
Are you able to just relax?
I've always been someone who's liked my own company, and that's a big bonus. I do like company, but I also like when people leave, so I can mince in private [laughs]. I think it's important to enjoy your own company. If you don't like being on your own, it makes it more difficult to relax.
When I was young, I thought you were either happy or you're sad. But as I've gotten older, I've realized that even being happy takes work. You can actually invest in being happy and can work on it, and it can be a skill. And the same applies to chilling out. You have to learn to realize that the world's not going to fall apart if you're not busy. And if you never take a deep breath, sometimes I think what you do can really suffer. Your work can benefit from a bit of reflection.
Particularly for me, I spend a lot of time talking about myself, so it's nice to be quiet. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more "What's going on with you?" rather than talking about myself. Unfortunately, one of the perils of fame is that you can start thinking that everything about you is more interesting than everybody else, and if you're lucky, you realize that you can be quite boring [laughs].
You said in a recent interview that you sleep alone.
It sounded like I was being sad, but I wasn't at all. People think that if you're not in a relationship, then you must be lonely. And I'm not at all. I'm not someone who has to be in a relationship. To be in a great relationship is brilliant, and to be in a dysfunctional relationship -- nooo thanks. If someone right comes along, I'll make room for them, but until then I'm not going to hold my breath. I have friends and so much to do that my life would only be improved by someone great. I have friends, however, that are so desperate that they'll take anything. They stand on the freeways with signs that say "Last boy before the motorway," and that's not my style.
You look so fit right now. How did you lose the weight?
It's all the clichés, really. Eating less, exercising more, eating at regular times -- that's all true. But I think that being fit starts in the kitchen. I am still obsessed with food. If you follow my Twitter, you see that I tweet about food all the time. I'm always thinking about what I'm going to eat next -- or even tomorrow.
I've read that you're writing songs with Culture Club.
It's the very early days, so there are no concrete plans. But we're getting together on Monday, and we'll see what noise we make. I'm looking forward to it. I think it's going to be fun. What we do together is kind of unique. The band is the sum of its parts, and there's magic to what we do. There'll probably be a few days of revving up and getting prepared, but I'm very excited about it.
'80s flashback: Culture Club's "Time (Clock of the Heart)":
Switching gears, what are your top five mobile apps and why?
I don't play games. I'm not interested in anything like Angry Birds. That does nothing for me. But I love things like Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. Then I have a few fitness apps like Fitbit, which is a timing thing when you're training. And obviously the music. My iTunes account is hugely important, because I'm always buying music, and, of course, Beatport. It's a very essential DJ app, 'cause you can buy all your dance tracks there. So it usually has to do with communication, sharing photos, and music: Those are the main things I'm interested in.