Music from the heart
Thomas Dolby found fame during the 1980s. Now he has a new album out, featuring several songs inspired by Suffolk - and one that has a particularly powerful meaning for his family, as he told Sheena Grant
Musician and producer Thomas Dolby has a new studio album out, his first for 20 years. It includes a song about a woman called Simone, who, we learn at the end of the track, used to be a man called Simon. The melody for the song came into Thomas’s head more than a decade ago but for years he had struggled to complete the lyric, lacking some sort of punchline to complete Simone’s story.
When the crucial part of the song finally occurred to him, Thomas shared it with his family. He can vividly remember the reaction of one of his children, Harper.
“The lyric was: ‘You’re like a timebomb in his blood’,” he says. “Harper was very emotional about it but at the time I didn’t fully understand why.”
Around that time, however, Harper, then “presenting” as a teenage girl, revealed to his parents that, like the fictional Simone, he believed he had been born in the wrong body.
The medical name for it is gender dysphoria and, according to NHS figures, one in 4,000 people in the UK is receiving medical help for the condition, although there are doubtless many more who have yet to come forward.
For Thomas and his wife, the American actress Kathleen Beller, Harper’s revelation came as a shock, but one that made increasing sense to them as time went on.
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“It was about four years ago that Harper first told us about the gender dysphoria,” he says. “It explained a lot to us, really, once we started to come to terms with it. We realised a lot of the social problems Harper had growing up stemmed from that. Harper was extremely shy, especially around kids his own age. He was very awkward socially. Later, he told us that the first few times he passed as a guy in a social situation was the first time he had felt free and he realised at that point that he wanted to live 24/7 as a guy.”
Harper grew up in San Francisco, although the family also spent summers at their home in Suffolk. Thomas’s great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Newson Garrett, built the maltings at Snape, and, further back, the family founded and gave its name to steam engine manufacturers Garretts of Leiston.
Harper wasn’t a particularly tom-boyish child. In fact, his parents remember pink dresses and blond curls. But there was always an underlying sense of unease, that only grew as Harper got older.
“As a small child there was nothing to hint at what was to come,” says Thomas. “It was party dresses and ponies. But by the age of six or so that was starting to change and Harper became quite withdrawn. He was always brilliant academically but unhappy at school.”
In 2007 Thomas and Kathleen left the US, relocated full-time to the home they already owned on the Suffolk coast and put their children in local schools.
“The kids spent every summer here but I wanted them to experience all my family’s links with this area properly – and the schools are much better here,” says Thomas.
Harper always found school difficult, even in socially-liberal San Francisco, and from his mid-teens was home-educated for much of the time. “He went back to school to do A-levels but even then never made many friends,” says Thomas. In his first year studying architecture at university, spent in the US, Harper decided to start living full-time as a man. “At that point he was talking about it a lot,” says Thomas. “Harper knew a lot more about gender disphoria than we did as parents and was in fact educating us. Eventually we became much more clued up about the biology, the psychology and politics and everything else relating to the condition.
“By then Harper was seeing a therapist who specialised in gender and we were independently getting advice too. We wanted to be supportive – but not of the wrong decision. We did not want him to rush into anything. But the advice we got was fairly unanimous: if someone is identifying and living as the other gender, there is nothing to be gained by denying it.”
Having lived as a man since starting university, Harper decided the next step was surgery and hormone treatment.
He is unusual in taking that route, says Thomas. “The majority of people in his situation are not able to go down the path of having surgery because of family or religious considerations but Harper has been fortunate.
“He had done a lot of research and had started corresponding with other ‘trans’ people online and was incredibly well-informed about all aspects of it.
“I am not saying it wasn’t difficult in some ways but intuitively it just made sense. Harper is a very bright, wonderful and creative person but was miserable and depressed from a very early age. That did not make sense to us. As a small child he might have been aware that something was wrong without knowing specifically what it was. By the time he spoke to us about it he could have given a lecture in gender issues he was so well informed.
“Of course there is a part of you, as a parent, that is hoping it will turn out to be a ‘phase’, because you know it will make life quite difficult in some respects, but we realised it was very real.”
In years to come, Thomas believes, it will be easier for transgender people to “come out” as Harper has done, just as it has become more socially acceptable for people to be openly gay than it was even a few decades ago.
“We find ourselves in the role of some of the pioneers,” he says.
“I think it will get easier. The current generation of kids are more open-minded than, say, perhaps people of my generation. There is less homophobia and less racism. People tend to have a broader outlook.” Harper, now 21, post-surgery and taking hormone treatment, is back in East Anglia, finishing his architecture studies.
The family is prepared to talk about their experiences because Harper wants people to know there can be good outcomes for transgender people. He is also keen to promote Outreach Youth, which works with young people across Suffolk and North Essex, aged 13 to 19 years, who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sexuality.
“We slip up sometimes but I accept Harper as he is and so does his mum,” says Thomas. “There is a slight difference in the way I, as a father, relate to him as a son rather than a daughter, but we are always trying to steer clear of gender stereotypes.
“We now have two sons and a daughter instead of two daughters and a son, but the main difference is that Harper is happy and because of that we have a great relationship. Before, we had a withdrawn teenager.
“It is not like finding out your child has a terminal disease. They are still here and when your children grow up you lose them a bit anyway. Their happiness is the main thing and we are very proud of Harper. We think he is a courageous kid and he has always been willing to help others going through the same sort of thing.”
On the day I meet Thomas, fittingly enough in a tea shop in the buildings at Snape built by his ancestor, he is on his way to go sailing at nearby Aldeburgh. And he is feeling enthused about making music again, with the release of his new album, A Map Of The Floating City, which features contributions from Mark Knopfler, Eddi Reader and Regina Spektor, among others. It is divided into three sections – Urbanoia (songs with a city/world music vibe), Amerikana and Oceanea, which is inspired by Suffolk.
“For me, as an artist, it’s been a homecoming, really, to be in Suffolk,” he says. “I’ve got a studio in a lifeboat I bought on Ebay and which I had converted and is powered by the wind. It’s got the sea on one side and the marshes on the other.
“My family links on my mum’s side of the family are so strong with this area and it is just great to be here. When I moved back here into our little house by the sea I had a sense of my mum looking on, even though she was not here to meet my kids.” For all those 30 and 40-somethings out there who grew up in the 1980s, Thomas Dolby will probably best be remembered as one of the most inventive artists of the electronically-inspired music age, with hits such as She Blinded Me with Science and Hyperactive.
He took a break from the music industry in the 1990s to work in California, running a company that created the ringtone synthesizer that is embedded in billions of mobile phones.
“The early ’90s was a bad time in the music business,” he says. “There was a very negative music press and I don’t think they understood me. They were suspicious of me at that time in this country and the fact that I was hard to pigeon-hole.
“When I left the UK towards the end of the ’80s it was quite a hostile time in the music business; there was a lot of back-stabbing going on. It felt quite liberating to be in the States at that time. Nowadays it is a lot more relaxed and diverse and less cliquey. I’ve been away from music for too long. It was what I loved best.”
The new album has been a delight to do, he says.
“The songs on this album are not really electronic-sounding. They are more organic, really. When I was starting out, some of my contemporaries used the coldness of technology as a calling card but I think there has always been a warmth to my music.”
The new album has a companion Floating City computer game and poster, inspired in part by his own songs from the 1980s.
During the last decade he has also been involved in the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference which started in the US but has staged smaller events, known as TEDx in Suffolk, with the aim of spreading ideas for the future.
And Thomas Dolby will also be among the acts taking to the stage at the Latitude Festival at Henham Park in July. “I am very keen to do it because it is local,” he says.
It may even bring him to the attention of a new, younger fan base.
“I’ve got a small hardcore following of fans,” he says, “but most people under 30 have never heard of me.
“I feel I have got good music still to give. When you are young and starting out you want to get on the radio and TV, but that is secondary to me now. What’s most important is the music I make, which I know affects a lot of people deeply. I’m not going to be in a high street window anytime soon, but that is fine with me.”
For more information about the work of Outreach Youth visit www.outreachyouth.org.uk
Thomas Dolby is scheduled to be at the Latitude Festival on Sunday, July 15 at 3.30pm. For more information go to www.thomasdolby.com