Dan Gillespie Sells: ‘Some stories get told less often – they’re the ones I’m interested in’
Anyone who has seen the Feeling live will know that Dan Gillespie Sells is a theatrical performer, he explains with a light smile. Sells is the Ivor Novello award-winning lead singer-songwriter of the British indie pop band.
“There’s a storytelling in the way I write songs,” he reflects. “They’re in the pop genre, but they kind of suit theatre.”
That’s just as well, as we’re meeting only a few weeks before the opening at Sheffield Theatres of new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, for which Sells has written the songs. We’re speaking over coffee in a snatched half-hour break from final rehearsals at Toynbee Studios in east London.
The Sheffield-set musical – inspired by the 2011 BBC3 documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 – follows gay schoolboy Jamie on a life-affirming journey to being the person he wants to be. Directed by Jonathan Butterell, the libretto is by screenwriter Tom MacRae – an old friend of Sells. They’d wanted to collaborate on a musical for a while, even writing a few songs. But Everybody’s Talking About Jamie came about thanks to a chance meeting with British musical theatre legend Michael Ball at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Sells, who knew Ball from appearing on his BBC Radio 2 show, asked for his advice. “And he was very kind and came and listened to some of the stuff we were doing at my studio,” he says. Ball told them to find a good director, “who would collaborate and show us the ropes”.
In the meantime, Butterell – after several years working in New York – had returned to Sheffield, where he’d grown up, and pitched a musical based on the Jamie documentary to Daniel Evans, who was then artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. After Evans had commissioned it, he got a call from Ball. Butterell met Sells and MacRae, liked the material they’d been producing and the rest, as they say, is history.
But fortuitous encounters and connections only get you so far. Sells had never written for theatre and while MacRae’s CV included The Crash of the Elysium, Punchdrunk’s immersive Doctor Who kids’ adventure, most of his work until then had been for television.
I ask Sells what it was like adapting to a new medium. Initially, he reveals, Butterell had said: “Don’t try to write theatre, just do what you do.” He wanted Sells to write a concept album and MacRae to produce a screenplay. The three would develop the show from there.
In terms of the style and tone of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Sells and MacRae were keen to avoid taking the easy or cliched route, given the role played by drag in the story. “We’ve avoided camp for camp’s sake,” Sells says, then laughs. “Let’s face it, musical theatre is camp enough as it is. It’s there for free.” Their focus was on what was right for the story. “For us, it’s been super important to tell that truthfully and honestly. I’m more concerned with it being beautiful than camp.”
The musical took three years of development, “to make sure that the songs worked as standalone songs, but also within the context of the show,” says Sells. “And, weirdly, when it was right as a pop song, it was even more right for the show.” He points to the musical theatre precedents for this, to the scores of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, to “those people that can keep the melody and the hook intact”.
He credits MacRae with ensuring that creative tension during this process didn’t spill over into actual tension in their friendship. “He’s open-minded and a real grafter,” Sells says.
Q&A: Dan Gillespie Sells
What was your first non-theatre job? Working for the NHS, in an out-of-hours doctors’ surgery.
What was your first professional theatre job? Playing piano for an art/cabaret performer called Julie McNamara when I was 13. My first tour was playing guitar for Jennifer Paige in 1999.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Not to listen to all the terrible advice I’d already been given.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Influence comes from everywhere, all of the time.
If you hadn’t been a songwriter, what would you have been? A helicopter pilot or a film-maker.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? A little whisky before going on stage always helps.
From working with various designers on the Feeling’s music videos (which look like mini-movies), to partnering with MacRae and Butterell, Sells is fired up by collaboration. “Songwriting is at the core of everything I love,” he says. “I feel like that’s my job in the world. But when I get a chance to work with other creative people, it’s the icing on the cake.” He’s full of praise for Kate Prince, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s choreographer. “She’s done extraordinary things with ZooNation [as the hip hop dance company’s artistic director].”
Sells’ first experience of collaborating with a choreographer was with Javier De Frutos, on ballet piece 3 With D, which premiered at the London Coliseum in 2014. It featured dancer Edward Watson, principal at the Royal Ballet, who – as with MacRae – Sells already knew. (Around the same time, Watson also danced in the Feeling’s video for single Blue Murder.)
“It was crazy,” says Sells, reliving 3 With D. “I’m on stage at the Coliseum, playing my guitar, with these incredible dancers doing this modern ballet around me.”
Doing 3 With D gave Sells “the bug” that set him on his path to Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and, consequently, his current belief – invigorated by the rehearsal process – that “musical theatre is the ultimate collaboration”. It was “one of those points when I thought: ‘I love this’.” Meanwhile, the kick-starting of his enthusiasm for exploring the creative avenues of his music can be traced back to the Brit School, where his classmates included Amy Winehouse.
Sells joined the Brit School at 16, “which is such a formative time of your life”, he reflects. Arriving from a “fairly straight-laced state school”, he was suddenly around “all these creative people – who were not necessarily straight”. This was invigorating for Sells. From the start of his career, he has stood out for never making a secret of being gay. It was also at the Brit School where he met his bandmates from the Feeling, setting the path for the next 20 years of his life. “It’s this gorgeous environment,” he enthuses, “where you’re encouraged to think outside the norm.”
Celebrating diversity is important to Sells, recurring throughout his work. The Feeling’s Rosé is a chafe against neat social boxes, and Sells co-wrote the theme tune for Jonathan Harvey’s TV series Beautiful People (2008) “because it was about a schoolkid who’s completely happy with himself and being gay”. He felt strongly that people needed to see that. In this vein, while he recognises that “people have their own shit to deal with”, he wishes more in the public eye would acknowledge their sexuality. “When someone’s experienced shame and then they see someone dodging that question… shame is dangerous.”
Ultimately, Sells says, he’s a storyteller. “We’re striving for something different all the time, I think, as artists. And some stories get told less often.” Whether these are about race, class or gender, “they’re the ones I’m interested in”.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie isn’t a political show – “it doesn’t try to bang a drum,” says Sells – but the story it tells, putting Jamie front and centre, is important. “Those kids are everywhere,” Sells says. “They’re in Sheffield, not just in middle-class London; they’re in working-class communities around the country.”
Nevertheless, when the world feels increasingly bleak, Sells stresses that, primarily, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie “is bloody good fun”. He’s honoured to be involved in that rare beast, a new musical, and underlines its broad appeal: “It makes you feel okay about the world for the time that you’re watching it,” he says. “We take Jamie on a journey that goes to some dark places, but, at the end of the day, it’s funny, joyful and hugely uplifting – everything you want in musical theatre.”
And what of Sells’ own story? The Feeling are currently on a break, “for a lot of reasons” – not least because Sells wants a rest after 10 solid years of touring. “It gives me time just to write for the sake of writing,” he says. He has some projects lined up, but he’s in no rush. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has clearly got his creative juices flowing. “Every time you do something new, you learn a whole bunch of new skills,” he enthuses, then beams. “I’d love to write a score for a video game.”
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, until February 25