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Bright Light Bright Light 7-07-2017
BRIGHT LIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT
“I had a bit of a cry after I heard the mastered album,” says Rod Thomas, Bright Light Bright Light, of his third long-player Choreography. Rod is not usually the sentimental sort. But he is a man born of the Welsh Valleys. It comes out. Why so emotional this time, Rod? “Because I can’t believe I managed to do something I feel so proud of.” In the course of its production, Choreography answered a personal and artistic conundrum for Rod. “I’ve been in a weird position of being too indie to be pop and too pop to be indie. This time I wanted to make a bold, colourful record that celebrates its pop self.” This time, he did it.
Rod Thomas is possibly the most independent pop star in the world. He is his own label boss, A&R, manager, tour manager and one time booking agent. He publishes himself and organises all his own artwork. The occasional club he runs, Romy and Michelle’s Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance, at the brilliantly named C’mon Everybody bar in Brooklyn, is his concept, execution, playlist and NYC pals. His musical collaborators – Elton John, each individual Scissor Sister, Alan Cumming – are drawn from his own rolodex, free from label interference of what might make bank, invited along to suit his specific tastes. However indebted to classic pop methodology and dotted with indisputably ace pop people they become, his records are every note and beat his own.
After moving from London to New York three years since, multi-instrumentalist, singer and for one night only – ta-dah! – dancer Rod Thomas has gone and done it his way. “This one is so close to what it was supposed to be,” he says of the record, still looking a little startled at what pop fairydust he managed to sprinkle over the project. “It’s a really special thing. The whole thing was about making a record that I give a fuck about with people that give a fuck. That is a joy.”
Work began in earnest on Choreography in January 2015. The story of its’ unfolding reads like the script for an unmade Richard Curtis film. At the close of his massive world tour supporting his great friend, mentor and chief Choreography collaborator, Elton John, the maestro took Rod aside invited him to open for him on New Year’s Eve at The Barclay Centre, a stone’s throw from Rod’s new home in Crown Heights. “The whole room went crazy. Just down the road from my flat. It was, no word of a lie, the happiest night of my life.”
It was snowing in Brooklyn last January, a neat analogy for the blizzard of emotions the genial popsessive was filled with after completing his live duties. Housebound, satiated and raring to write again, he settled down with his favourite films and vowed to write a song a day for his forthcoming third album. “I knew I wanted to call it Choreography and thought about what it was that interested me about it; the unison, how dance makes you feel.” He watched Flashdance, Footloose, easy starting points. “I thought about dancing being banned in New York and about how good it makes you feel. I thought about choreographing my life in London and New York. I DJ a lot, my job is to make people dance and I love watching people dance. That was important for me for the record.”
He engulfed himself in visual imagery. “I watched Big Trouble in Little China, Romy and Michele, obviously, Amelie, A Bout de Soufflé. Loads of films from French New Wave to 80s cheese, independent shorts to blockbusters and picked out moments that made me happy and made me think.”
The unusual starting point for all this inspiration was Kim Cattrall’s dance sequence in Mannequin, the jump-off point for album highpoint, Symmetry Two Hearts. “I wanted to feel as cool as her.” This is game talk from a proper 21st century pop idol. His Jake Shears duet, the scorchingly sensual Kiss For Kiss was inspired by another unlikely filmic reference. “You know the bit in Alien: Resurrection where Sigourney Weaver is writhing in that pit of aliens? That’s what I wanted it to feel like.” It’s an unsurprisingly physical song. If you are spotting an ongoing thread to the references here, you might like to bracket them under the umbrella ‘intelligent camp.’ Rod wouldn’t argue with you. “There’s much more humour and honesty and my own personal energy to this record. There are camp touches to backing vocals, references to Little Shop of Horrors.”
There is a serious point beneath all this showmanship and Hollywood glitz. Rod Thomas opened his pop hand almost a decade ago, when as a London subway busker he was signed temporarily to Elton’s management company. At the time, due mostly to circumstance (“I couldn’t afford to buy the equipment I needed to make electronic music”) and something voguish in the air, he fell uncomfortably into the lineage of the new folk denizens, the Lauras, Noahs and even the nascent (gulp) Mumfords. “I even recorded a song on a Ukelele,” he notes. This was categorically not a place Rod wanted to be. “It was very of a time. I do remember feeling that I didn’t want to be vocal about being gay in that world, partly because it didn’t really seem to be present, at all, in it. There’s a gorgeous freedom to pop music. I wanted to feel that.”
Rod underwent a seismic career change, lifting his new name Bright Light Bright Light from another childhood film reference, Gremlins. “I got really fucking bored of being this sad guy who plays a guitar singing about broken hearts. I’m not that person. I can be ridiculous. I do want to make pop music. I couldn't work out how to translate the absurd side of my personality in folk.” On Choreography, he makes peace with his great personal and musical shift. The opening single is All In The Name, his most balls-out 3.30minute pop moment yet. The lyric centres around the constant need for approval on social media, something the feels familiar to Rod having tried to fit in musically. “It’s a take on how people go absolutely out of their way to be absolutely adored by everyone,” he says, “The lyrics are piqued, delivered from somebody who is desperate to do that.” The one strike stick of the chorus is emboldened by all the album’s collaborators joining in for the ride. He may be a singular man, but Rod is fond of a bit of group therapy. This kaleidoscopic DIY approach feels fresh and unforced, a proper free-for-all under his unique and pleasing orchestration.
Which brings us circuitously to the final cog in Choreography’s wheel. The actual choreographer. Rod was on a visit back to Britain when he spotted his old touring buddy John Grant sitting in the corner of the East London restaurant, Hoi Polloi, sitting with a friend. “This guy said ‘are you Bright Light Bright Light?’” he recalls. With a serendipity you couldn’t invent, the fan in question was multi TONY, Laurence Olivier and Drama Desk award-winner Steven Hoggett, possibly the most in-demand theatrical choreographer and movement expert working on stage today. Steven was happy to take a tiny break from his schedule working on the forthcoming Harry Potter play to take up the role of the Bob Fosse to Rod’s Liza Minelli, to turn Choreography into a full dance escapade.
“He’s a smart guy, with killer tunes,” says Steven of Rod. “He mentioned he wanted to call the album Choreography and to have a video concept across all the single releases. We met in New York a couple of times and decided to go guerrilla and shoot three videos in four days. He had a tonne of ideas and had a great time referencing a load of shapes from 80s and 90s videos. There are a lot to spot if you're into that kind of thing.” Rod finally got to unleash his inner Janet Jackson. “He inspired me no end. I love the guy and he worked his ass off in an environment he had no previous in. I could bang on about him forever.”
This was about more than just creating arresting imagery and a dynamic backdrop to Bright Light Bright Light’s best record yet. It was about Rod Thomas allowing himself to be just that, in all his glorious extremes. It was about fulfilling his proper potential, entirely on his own terms. “Carrying on with how amazing this whole process has been of making the record,” he says, “Steven was the icing on the cake. I was kind of terrified that I’d be really shit at dancing. I had to up my game and use my brain in a very different way. This is exactly what the whole album has been about. Each new album should be a new challenge. With this one, for the first time I got to make the album exactly as I wanted to, shoot the videos exactly as I wanted them, with exactly the people I wanted to work with. How brilliant is that?”