“I’d been frustrated by a few things, particularly the queer / gay music I’d been hearing,” says Sam Vance-Law about the motivation behind his remarkably forthright debut album, HOMOTOPIA. “It seemed to focus on two themes: victimhood and pride. Thematically and musically, that seemed relatively impoverished, and the gay rights movement was moving quickly. Who cottages anymore? Who comes out in middle age? You can watch Paris is Burning and see a whole way of life that simply doesn’t exist anymore. I wanted to capture, through various narratives, some of the gay experience, as it is now, without judgement – so far as I was able – and, perhaps, controversially enough to engender interest in those narratives and ways of being.”
Not so long ago, it seemed that the world was closer than ever to acceptance of ‘non-conformist’ lifestyles. But, in just a short time, it appears the freedoms we’re used to have become more vulnerable than at any point in recent memory, with bigotry and intolerance now seemingly legitimised as acceptable forms of discourse. HOMOTOPIA, consequently, is a timely album, one which offers a series of vital, vivid and revealingly candid snapshots of life for a gay man in the 21st Century. Fearless and frank, wise and witty, it finds 30-year-old Vance-Law spinning tales of love, lust, beatings and babies against an ingeniously realised musical backdrop.
From the chamber music of ‘WANTED TO’ and the ornate balladry of ‘STAT, RAP.’ to the breathless indie of ‘PRETTYBOY’ and the charming ‘GAYBY’, via the hallucinogenic sweep of ‘I THINK WE SHOULD TAKE IT FAST’, the raging ‘FAGGOT’ and the satirical, sensitive ‘NARCISSUS 2.0’, HOMOTOPIA is a notable exercise in literate pop rooted in classicist traditions. A collection that could sit comfortably alongside the likes of John Grant, The Magnetic Fields and Father John Misty, it’s also unafraid of nodding to – among other forms – theatre, operetta and orchestral pop. Given Vance-Law’s upbringing, however, perhaps that’s unsurprising.
Born in Edmonton, Canada, Vance-Law moved, at the age of five, to Oxford, England, where he soon joined the renowned New College Choir, juggling five services a week with violin lessons, having first begun playing the viola when he was four. “It’s hard to separate interest from inescapability,” he smiles, “but I learned there a love of music that, though it’s changed, hasn’t left me yet.” After three years at one of the UK’s most distinguished boarding schools – “I honestly think any school would have been difficult for me at that age,” he says – the family returned to Canada when he was 16. It was here that, especially once he’d begun studying English Literature at university, he began, slowly, to broaden his horizons.
When he was 23, he returned to Europe, and – having first settled in Paris – visited Berlin, a decision that would prove momentous. “Within 24 hours, I’d decided to move here,” he explains. “The city afforded me the space to figure out what the hell I wanted to do next.” Three years later, a trip to Ummanz, an island in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Northern Germany, sparked his creativity, delivering the album’s songs in just four days. Back in Berlin, he completed the arrangements, before scraping together the Euros to record the first three songs, then unhurriedly repeating the process until the album was done. “The record was really supposed to be for me,” he notes. “I really hadn’t intended this to be anything bigger than my own very enjoyable pet project. Then people started telling me they liked it.” Amongst them, conveniently, was producer Konstantin Gropper aka Get Well Soon, who ended up helping to co-produce the album.
Though HOMOTOPIA’s ten songs are all delivered in the first person, Vance-Law is careful to point out that they’re “based on stories I’ve heard or read. None of the characters should necessarily be taken at his word, but part of the importance of the narratives are those truths of personal experience outside of any particular – and therefore normally contrived, and to the detriment of the other – objectivity.” HOMOTOPIA finds Vance-Law confronting, head-on, what are still seen – by some – as taboos, always sincerely, never sanctimoniously, and sometimes with tongue in cheek. It pulls no punches, and is all the better for it. Boldly going where few dare these days, it’s as provocative as it is thoughtful, and as entertaining as it is warm-hearted. “The release,” he concludes, “is about putting issues of equality front and centre. About testing audiences and their abilities to relate to the stories I’m telling. About calling on empathy and compassion as the first and necessary response to a person and his or her situation, not as a luxury doled out sparingly if and when deemed fit.”
Destined to galvanise, enlighten, and shock, HOMOTOPIA may even prove to be one of the most audacious albums to come out all year…