Ian Elmslie on literary life, cabaret & lockdown

Alex Klineberg November 26, 2020

Ian Elmslie is a cabaret performer who’s been around the block several times. He chronicled his life and career in his racy 2017 memoir, I Went To A Marvellous Party – fittingly named after a Noel Coward song. He keeps the queer spirit of cabaret alive in his music. We caught up with him to discuss his latest projects.

1. How’s life been treating you since becoming an author in 2017?

I titled the book “A Marvellous Party”, because that is how my life had felt up to that point. Little did I know the party was only just getting started! Like all the best adventures, the new journey began with a beautiful accident. In 2018, a passing visit to a Brighton record shop led to an invitation to present an evening of stories from the book, which I embellished with songs from the LGBT catalogue, The following year I curated “Torchbearer” with the singer Graham J. for a short season of performances. The show featured two of my original compositions, both of which were well received and this sparked the idea for a musical, which I completed and recorded this year.

2. How’s the new musical coming along and when will we be able to see it?

“Old Boyfriends” is no longer a musical! There are no chandeliers, no barricades, no dazzling special effects, no chorus lines dripping in bugle beads. No set, no plot, nothing at all. So I’ve chosen to call it a revue, or…pardon the pun…a review of past relationships, an occasionally ticklish but heartfelt reflection on the eclectic selection of gentlemen who entered my life stage right and exited stage wrong, but all of whom have left an indelible impression on my memory. The double CD, one piano and voice, one with arrangements, will be released on Valentine’s Day 2021, and there will hopefully be some intimate shows in suitable venues, pandemic permitting.

3. Tell us about the song “I Miss Him”, and your chosen support for GMFA.

The song was written when the show was still in the original concept of a musical, complete with a cast of characters. I was working along the lines of a “Boys in the Band” scenario, an established group of gay men, relaxing after dinner and reminiscing about the loves of their lives. I decided that one character would have lost his partner, to an unspecified illness, and had never found anyone to ever replace him. The song is a remembrance, an observation of the permanence of grief, how the smallest of moments can spark the most powerful memories. Like too many in our community, I have lost both lovers and friends to HIV/AIDS, and the song is a tribute to them. It made absolute sense to donate all artist royalties from sales and streams to GMFA, in order to support their magnificent and ongoing work.

4. How have you been coping with lockdown?

Some hours were better than others! I live and work alone, so I am used to the solitude, which I can often enjoy, and also to my own company, of which I got utterly fed up. But my time as a teacher kicked in, and I embraced the concept of a timetable. A daily 10km walk, piano practice, writing, reading, tending the garden, and working my way through the inevitable box sets. Like everyone, I missed the company of the ones I love, but if this whole nightmare has encouraged us to call rather than text, to check in on a more regular basis, to appreciate the value of those friendships that we sometimes take for granted, and to let the ones we love know that we do, then some of this agony has been worth it.

5. What is your process for writing a song?

With this project, it all started with a character. Who is this person, what do we need to know about them? Next comes the scenario. What is the situation? What is the story? Then I try to find the most appropriate musical style with which to tell the tale. I have always enjoyed jumping round the genres, and this collection veers from jazz to country and western, from Irish ballad to vaudeville, bar-room blues to disco, whatever worked best to compliment the narrative. Each song is based on a real person, which made writing the lyric far easier than finding some hitherto unexplored way to tell a tale of love on the rocks. As I am still in touch with some of the subjects of the songs, I was intrigued to hear their response. All good so far!

6. Who are your musical heroes?

Music has been at the very core of my life from the earliest age. As a pre-pubescent child, I loved the harmonies of The Osmonds, The Carpenters and The Manhattan Transfer. David Bowie took the throne in my teens, and has stayed there ever since, never failing to thrill me with his refusal to stay creatively static, even when the results were less than successful. Musical theatre, classical music and jazz, all have a huge place in my heart. Joni Mitchell never fails to make me wonder why I even attempt to compose anything. George Michael, Rufus Wainwright, John Grant, great gay singer songwriters all. Music will always be my constant companion, my inspiration, my challenge, my comfort and my joy.

“I MISS HIM” will be available to hear and download on Dec 1 on YouTube and all the major streaming channels.

“OLD BOYFRIENDS” will be released on Valentines Day 2021.

“A MARVELLOUS PARTY” is available to purchase from the Ignite Books website.