We caught Billy Cullum last year when he starred in new gay play Leave to Remain opposite the fabulous Tyrone Huntley, which featured songs written especially for the show by Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke. We loved it – and would happily see it return to the stage when theatres can reopen – and we’re delighted that Billy has spent the last year being so creative.
We had a quick catch up with him over the weekend about his new single – which has a haunting, ethereal quality, reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell album – alongside his future music plans and his role in Russell T Davies’ new Channel 4 series It’s A Sin.
You’ve released a new single just in time for Christmas, Table In My Heart – can you tell us a bit about the song? What inspired it?
My boyfriend is a children’s book writer, he started writing a Christmas story and one of the sentences had ‘table in my heart’ and I was like, oh that’s a nice idea. I’ve lost my nan and I’ve lost my great auntie over the past year, and my boyfriend lost his grandad and we were talking about how this Christmas is going to be so different. I just wanted something to be really simple and comforting, and allow people to reflect about their lost loved ones. I wrote the song, I think… two weeks ago? It sort of just came out on a Sunday night and I started writing, I sent it to my producer Jamie and then he was like… let’s get it done in the studio. A little bit later, it’s released! It’s really spontaneous.
2020’s been a strange old year, we’re sure it’s not turned out as you planned. Have you still had an opportunity to be creative?
Oh yeah, the first lockdown especially. My boyfriend, we live in a tiny flat, it turned into this creative hub. The first two weeks I found the lockdown quite gimmicky, I found I was doing all the live workouts, trying to be all like Zen Buddha kinda thing! But you know what, I always want time to write and I never have enough time to create, because I’m either doing part-time jobs or jobs that need to pay the bills, so it was a gift to have all this time to just create.
When can we expect to hear more about your new music?
Table In My Heart, it’s a standalone single. The first single of the new era of music is gonna be released in February, it’s called Kiss Away (Bang Bang). The first lyric is “the boy is mine” and it’s an indication of me being really open about my same-sex relationships, because it came to a point where I was having music meetings and I was constantly getting compared to other queer artists just because I was queer, not because I sounded like them or anything. And then I was listening to those artists to see why they have said that. They never actually refer explicitly that it’s a guy singing about a guy or a girl singing about a girl, it’s always more ambiguous. I get it’s for universal appeal, but we need to hear more guys singing about guys, girls singing about girls, in a more explicit way, like straight people do about the opposite sex. My first album, Lonely Hearts Club, I was talking about all different relationships, but it was more set in an ambiguous tone. I guess it shows how I’ve become much more comfortable in who I am, and how I want to express it in my writing. And I’m going to be dancing in the video, I can’t wait!
Without giving too much away, can you tell us about your role in It’s A Sin?
I play a character in episode two called Hector, who has an intimate encounter with Olly Alexander’s character Ritchie. He’s a barman who works on the Isle of Wight. They have a moment under the pier – it’s interrupted by the news that Ritchie is living in London now, so it halts the situation. I guess it establishes the absolute fear of the mystery illness that the media are putting out that is affecting gay men only. The scene is at the beginning of the episode – it’s confirming people’s fears outside of London, what they think because it’s a city. It’s a really condense scene that says a lot – I don’t want to give too much away!
Can you tell us a bit more about the experience – what was it like working with Olly Alexander and Russell T Davies?
This is my first ever screen job, I’ve only done theatre, I was learning so much. Luckily, the first day, I was doing scenes where I was just behind the bar, I didn’t have any lines, so I could literally just watch Olly Alexander, Lydia West, Keeley Hawes, Shaun Dooley do this scene. I was watching and trying to learn from them, because it’s such a different craft acting on camera. And then when it came to my scene with Olly, it’s intimate, and I’m a big fan of Olly… I was so nervous! But he is just such an incredible talent to work with, and I’m really happy with how the scene turned out. Russell’s amazing, he knows what he wants down to the look of each character, it’s just incredible how his mind works and what he’s doing for the queer community with his writing. Also for the show to be set in London, because I feel that a lot of shows or plays dealing with the AIDS crisis, they’re set in America, mainly. So it’s really interesting to see it from a UK perspective and how it affected London in particular.
Billy’s new single Table In My Heart is available to stream now on Apple Music.
It’s A Sin will premiere in early 2021 on Channel 4 in the UK and HBO Max in the US – watch the trailer here or below.