Text by Wyndham Wallace
“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. Many people spoke warmly of diversity, and even the most reactionary were, for the most part, mindful of the injustices of prejudice, even if they failed to act upon this. But, in just a short time, 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 to an academic mother and journalist father, 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. Musically, it was – and remains – the
foundation for everything. Regardless of what I do before I die, I’m pretty sure that’s going to remain the incontrovertible pillar of my musical life. My demeanour on stage is still pretty choirboy – ‘rock star’ was never really what I was aiming for – but I’m working on throwing a little ‘giving-a- fuck’ in there every now and again.”
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, “but I was figuring out my sexuality, which is sadly not a particularly fun thing to have to do” – the family returned to Canada when he was 16. It was here that, especially once he’d begun studying English Literature at university – which, he says, “meant that I could write a line, and also critique it once I’d written it” – he began, slowly, to broaden his horizons. “I met a bunch of people I didn’t really know were musicians,” he explains, mentioning the likes of Mac DeMarco, Sean Nicholas Savage and Tops’ David Carrier. “I spent a lot of time with them and others, playing pool, biking around, working a bunch of different jobs, drinking coffees, drunkenly eating pizza at 3am and going to uni. That might sound laidback, but I was wholly dedicated and focussed on every one of those things.”
When he was 23, however, he returned to Europe, and – having first settled in Paris – he 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. And it happened by accident. Someone said the word ‘homotopia’ seemingly at random in a conversation, and me and my friends thought it would be a great name for a record.” By this point he’d been in the city three years, and though it took another few months, a trip to Ummanz, an island in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Northern Germany, sparked his creativity. “The songs were mostly written over a period of four days in 20 minute bursts,” he says, “for no reason I can fathom.” 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.” The process, he says, was liberating, and that he never foresaw an audience allowed him to express himself with unusual autonomy. “The goal of writing it was to try, however poorly, to paint a portrait of gay life as it’s lived now and, musically, to see what would happen if I sat down and tried to write a pop song. It was also about, thematically, lyrically, melodically, having the absolute freedom to make any choice I wanted and then to see where it might lead.” It enabled him, furthermore, to tackle serious subjects without ever
becoming overly earnest. “There were no strictures placed on what might or might not come over well or poorly,” he continues. “If a line came out that made me laugh, I was pleased and normally kept it. For me, it’s the humour that opens people up enough to let the knife slip in.”
When it comes to influences, Vance-Law casts his net wide. Musically, he admits, “I’m in a constant state of ignorance which is taking a while to alleviate.” He mentions Animal Collective and Caribou, who “taught me that what others might call ‘busy’ is often just lush and complex arrangement”, before admitting, “but I don’t sound like those projects. I also don’t sound like Shostakovich, Bach, Britten, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Palestrina or Bill Evans, though they all inspire me as well. I’m inspired, too, by those moments that other writers, musicians and thinkers give me that shake the foundations of my world view and widen it a little. I love Virginia Woolf for her thoughts on creativity, James Baldwin for his unflinching demand for equality, Herman Melville’s ability to read the universal in the specific, Hamlet’s directions for good performance, and that’s only the beginning of an almost endless list. All of these moments add up to new ways of thinking about how and why I write, and how and why I perform.”
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. ‘LET’S GET MARRIED’, he says, is about “the banality of most first encounters. It’s about the ineffable nature of love. It’s about being shit at pickup lines. It plays with the heteronormative desire for a car, a dog and a white picket fence, and marriage in general. It doesn’t come down on either side of any argument.” ‘TAKE IT FAST’ – “the daftest of the bunch, and it has a place in my heart because of that” – finds him announcing “Maybe you think I’m hasty/ But what else are we doing at this peacock parade?” and addresses “preconceived notions of gay hook-up culture, whether justified or not. In either case, the fact that our protagonist gets super tired during the, uh, climax of the song, should stick at least a small pin in the vision of the virile and always at-it gay man.” ‘WANTED TO’, meanwhile, is “about those moments where the potential for something beautiful is undermined by bigotry,” and Vance-Law admits that its candour sometimes proves confusing for audiences. “I notice that audiences laugh pretty hard when his nose is bleeding and his heart is breaking. I cried when I wrote it.”
Then there’s ‘ISLE OF MAN’, the tale of a married man with homosexual impulses, which is, he states, “the song that best exemplifies the non-judgemental narrative approach that I’ve attempted in the record, and the response I’m looking for is therefore the one I’m generally seeking: that the listener feels compassion for the people in the story regardless of their relative merits morally speaking; that the situation lends itself to a more thoughtful approach to subjects that are otherwise thorny.” On ‘FAGGOT’, written, he says, in “an absolute rage” about “another way faith and rigid dogma can harm”, he raises the spectre of Westboro Baptist Church – “I guess I could go and get corrective therapy” – while ‘STAT. RAP.’, arguably the album’s most contentious track, challenges assumptions about the age of consent. “It’s about coming to terms with lives other than our own,” he elaborates, “and if that provokes controversy it should, to that same
degree, question what the fuck we’ve failed to change by now. The record’s about capturing a moment in time, and the time we live in is filled with an incredibly wide spectrum of responses to homosexuality. I assume the record will be met with the same range of reactions.”
He is, almost certainly, right. Musically and lyrically, HOMOTOPIA 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. I look for those moments in music and elsewhere where the way I see the world shifts slightly and for the good. It can take a chord, or a paragraph, or a quick one liner for me, but I hope that people, when they listen to this record, have a similar moment. If I can accomplish that, I’ve done alright.”
Destined to galvanise, enlighten, and shock, HOMOTOPIA proves that Sam Vance-Law’s done better than alright. It may even prove to be one of the most audacious albums to come out all year...