Tenor Graham J told David Hennessy about working with the producers who have worked with Beyonce and Sam Smith, dealing with the grief of losing his husband to suicide, suffering three strokes and how far Ireland has come regarding its attitude towards same sex relationships.
After the trauma of losing his husband to suicide, Dublin tenor Graham J couldn’t bring himself to sing. It was when he was asked to sing for a suicide awareness charity that he got his voice back.
Now he has teamed up with esteemed music producers FHBlock who have worked with names such as Adele, Beyone and Sam Smith to bring his classical training to his contemporary sounding new single, For the Best.
Graham told The Irish World: “I really am excited about the project.
“The guys from FBlock came across a video of me singing and they said, ‘Look, we really love your voice. The high male voice is in. You’re different because you sing with this really emotional quality to your singing and you clearly know your stuff. We would like to work with you’.
“I love For the Best because it is very different to everything that I’ve done before because even though it is a song about reconnecting with someone after a difficult time and it has that slightly melancholy undertone, it’s actually quite a positive and upbeat song. Most of my stuff is big heavy ballads which is what I’m drawn to artistically.”
Graham says the follow-up single will be a ballad like the music of Adele with the man who does the strings for the London-Irish singer working with him on it.
“All these incredibly amazing, intelligent, creative people are coming in and it’s so chilled. Everybody thinks it’s going to be rock ‘n’ roll and stuff. Actually most of the time we’re sitting around with a pastry and a cup of tea chatting.
“We had a very frank discussion and they said to me, ‘You will have to trust us and we will ask you to do things that you don’t like to do’. And I kind of sat there and I thought to myself, ‘You know what? That’s just lilfe and you guys know what you are doing and I would be very very foolish to question you’. So I just went with it and I’m very happy with the result so far and to work with all these different songwriters is quite because it’s influencing me to have a little bit more freedom in my own songwriting. Working with these guys has really blown my mind. It’s just given me a bit more freedom to take risks.
“I love working with them because they’re so supportive and they’re so encouraging and they really do want you to be you.
“They gave me these songs. They said, ‘Look, you can change whatever you want, put in little bits to make it yours’. I said grand because some of the lyrics were a bit young for me, let’s put it that way. They were expressions that I just would not say.
“For someone of my age to be singing those kind slang sentences, it would just make me sound like I was trying to be down with the youth and people would look at me strange.”
Graham reveals it took a lockdown for him to get to grips with some of the technology that can help an artist.
“I’m doing all these broadcasts and everything else from my apartment. The whole lockdown has forced me to look at technology in another way. I’ll be honest. I’m a luddite. I’m absolutely terrified of technology in case I press something and something goes up in flames.”
Did Graham think he would never be onstage again back in that time when he had lost his voice? “I kinda did. It’s not that I thought I would never sing again. Because it was an emotional block that was blocking the voice as opposed to a physical one. It was just because I was so sad, I just couldn’t muster the energy to do it after my partner died. I didn’t have the will to do it.
“The way I look at it, it was the only selfish act that he ever committed in his life. It really wasn’t anything to do with me. There wasn’t anything I could have done. Anybody who wants to commit suicide will go away and do it in secret, you’re not going to get a warning. It literally came out of the blue. Even today I’m still kind of wondering, ‘What the hell happened?’
“What led to that? I still question, ‘Is it something I missed? what behaviour did I miss?’ The last physical memory I have of him, I was going off to sing in London and he came in and he gave me my morning cuppa, a peck on the cheek and off to work as we did every day. That is literally the last physical memory I have of him. We spoke that evening, over the next few days. There was no indication as to what happened or why it was going to happen.
“Even now although it’s seven years ago nearly, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him or what our life could have been or what our life should have been.”
The loss sent Graham into a deep depression of his own.
“I don’t like people feeling sorry for me or being in the spotlight for anything negative. I just completely go to ground and shut myself away. That’s how I deal with anything sad and serious. I like to be upbeat and positive so anything sad and painful, the barrier comes down and I retreat and nobody sees me.
“I didn’t see a lot of people except my family. I don’t know how I got through that. I moved back in with my mother because I couldn’t face living in our place. I just couldn’t face it. I came back and I lived with them and the only thing I did every day was to go out every day on a long walk with the dog and back. Friends kept wanting to see me and visit me and I just said, ‘No’. I just wanted to be alone.
“I’m single. I’ve been single since because I can’t get into the head space of allowing myself to be in relationship with somebody because the fear of ever having to go through that again. You have to learn to be. When you’re in a long term relationship, you learn to be with that person and you learn how to exist as a couple as well as being individuals.
“But then what happens is afterwards the whole life you had planned is gone and you have to start from scratch and not only that, you also have to find out who you are no longer being part of this couple. You don’t want to take on the persona of being somebody’s widow. You still want to be a singular identity.”
It was when asked to sing for a suicide prevention charity that Graham agreed to return to the stage.
“He used to sing in an amateur choir and they asked me to sing at a fundraiser and after having a chat with my family about it, I said, ‘Fair enough’.
“I hadn’t sung in months and I forced myself to do it. I have to tell you, it is the hardest performance I have ever done. I was literally nerve racked because I did not know what was going to come out of my mouth on the night.
“Then I realised, ‘I need to get back to work’. What’s the use of being a singer who doesn’t sing? The greatest pleasure and the greatest pain in my life is being a singer. It’s the first thing I think about getting up in the morning and the last thing I think about going to bed at night.
“I always think of my voice as being almost a separate identity. My real name is Graham Joseph Norton, that’s were the J comes from. For obvious reasons I had to shorten it down so Graham J seemed the obvious choice. I think of Graham J as a character, a completely separate identity. When I walk out onstage this creature takes over and I’m still in the wings watching what’s going on. I kind of think of him as my voice.
“Being a singer is a very interesting thing because we have to expose ourselves but we have to do it in a way that we’re also protected so you need this armor that can protect the person on the inside but yet still allow you to be vulnerable when you’re singing. It’s a very tough thing that you keep having to expose yourself to all things but you also need a shield. This industry is tough and you need to have a thick skin.”
Before suffering this tragedy, Graham had three strokes and had to have risky but life saving surgery.
Although some people falsely believe strokes do not happen to young people, it is more common than is perceived.
Graham realises this himself when he says: “I’ve changed doctor’s surgeries in the middle of all of this and the new doctor was kind of going, ‘What?’
“I’m diagnosed with a condition called atrial fibrillation that meant that the chambers of the heart weren’t beating in time together. I went to London and this is the reason I came back. I was quite ill. I was 29 and I just had no energy, literally no energy.
“For years I was going in to get things looked at but they could never get to the bottom of the atrial fibrillation. Then they discovered I had a wasting disease of the heart.
“I was in bed one night and I got this terrible pain in my head. I had gone to bed with what I thought was a headache. I woke up and my whole body was paralysed down one side and my youngest brother came in and he found me on the floor. I had managed to get out of bed and get onto the landing. He found me so I was rushed to hospital. Then they disovered that I had cardiomyopathy but I recovered remarkably well.
“I had two other strokes and no real problems from it. I still suffer from atrial fibrillation despite the operation but my health is perfect. I go on 20k walks every day and I go to the gym twice a day so I’m fairly fit.
“It’s just every now and again there’s this wave of crippling tiredness and I have to lie down for half an hour. I’d say that’s once every six months. It’s not like every day I’m at death’s door.”
Was this another moment when Graham thought he may not sing again? “No, I was determined to get back onstage because it was coming up to Handel’s 250th anniversary and I was asked to do a big concert to celebrate that.
“When I had the operation, I had ten weeks to recover and that’s what I did. I had a goal. I knew I would go back to singing. I remember when I went to see the doctor, my father was in floods of tears. The doctor said, ‘Look, this is the only thing we can do for him. It’s very experimental, it’s very new. If he doesn’t have it, he will be dead in six months’.
“I was like, ‘Okay, fair enough’. I had no fear or anything going into it. I’m very pragmatic. It’s like, ;Well, if something goes wrong. I’m really not going to know, am I?’ That’s kind of the way I look at it. As my mother used to always say, we all have to go sometime.”
Graham came to London to train at the National Opera Studio living in Southgate with family there. Although he says he found the big city a bit more accepting of gay people at that time, he is amazed by how far Ireland has come since then.
“I have to say I can’t believe the leaps and bounds that Ireland has made. When I was a teenager, obviously there was a lot of homophobia in school.
“I was growing up in the 90s, it was still quite heavily homophobic. There was still quite an air of prejudice in the country and particularly in that uber Catholic mindset we used to have. When I went to London, I could breathe and it was a bit more free.
“Yesterday on my walk I went out to the Phoenix Park. There were gay couples holding hands, there were people lying in each other’s laps. I’m kind of thinking to myself, ‘You wouldn’t have seen this 20 years ago, people just doing their own thing and nobody batting an eyelid’.
“Even as I’m talking to you I’m looking out my window and two men have just gone past holding hands. I couldn’t have asked for that. Lads, well done.
“Ireland is such a different place. In fact, I think in many ways- I’m probably gonna get shot for this- I think we’ve passed out the UK in our acceptance of things. We’ve become quite forward thinking and free.”
Although he acknowledges it was hard to be gay in the 90s, Graham says the support of his family got him through it.
“My whole family knew. In fact my mother used to take me on walks and say she knew and that it was okay. I was never to try and pretend I wasn’t who I was. My mother knew that I was going to have a hard life growing up in the Ireland of that time.
“She was saying, ‘We don’t want you to feel like your home life is as bad as your school life’. I’m very lucky with my family. We’re all very close,” he says before laughing and adding: “Well, we’re as close as we can be with this going on.
“But in general we are very close and my mother is the matriarch of the family and my dad is the silent one going, ‘Oh my God, what is she up to now?'”
Although he has been through a lot, Graham says he has a lot to thankful for.
“I do believe there is somethign guiding everything. A lot of stuff happens in my life by chance and accidents. I always believe that I’ll end up in the right place eventually. Somebody said to me, ‘Do you belive in God?’ I said, ‘I do believe in God but I’m not entirely sure he believes in me’.
“I’ve actually had an extraordinary life. I’m very lucky, I’ve seen things that most people don’t get to do or see. I’ve had a lot of adventures and I’ve had a lot of fun. Yes, I’ve had a lot of hard things happen but swings and roundabouts.
“I don’t like the side of the industry that can be bitchy and nasty. Since I have moved into jazz and pop, I have found nothing but support and encouragement. People are so willing to help you out and guide you.
“When I was a classical musician, it was so elitist. It really was dog eat dog. The thing about this new life is everybody is trying to be authentic to themselves. You really are only in competition with yourself, there’s no point in being jealous of someone else.”
For the Best is out now.
For more information, click here.