‘I’ve still got my voice, my hair is still growing. I can’t complain’. Leo Sayer feels like dancing all over again at York Barbican

THE rearranged show must go on for Leo Sayer at York Barbican tonight.

Delayed by the pandemic, it now forms part of a 2022 tour to mark the Shoreham-by-Sea-born singer and songwriter’s 50th anniversary in pop. “I was supposed to be playing in 2020, but then had to hold off the tour for Covid, but all the shows have been rearranged, and if anything, it’s better doing it now,” says Leo, who moved to Australia more than 20 years ago.

Back on home soil, Sayer and his band will perform a Seventies and Eighties’ hit-filled set sure to feature Thunder In My Heart, Moonlighting, One Man Band, I Can’t Stop Loving You, More Than I Can Say, Have You Ever Been In Love, When I Need You, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing and, yes, debut smashThe Show Must Go On.

At 74, “I’ve still got my voice, my hair is still growing. I can’t complain. It’s been lovely coming back. I did a show at the start of the year in Sydney Harbour…one show and then I got Covid,” says Leo, whose home is in a beautiful village high up, between Sydney and Canberra.

“It’s the equivalent of the Caingorms. I love the space, the freedom. I moved there in 2001, and I’ve no regrets at all, but it’s lovely coming back [for the tour].”

Fifty years, Leo, fifty years. Can you believe it?! “It’s like time compresses in an incredible way. You forget the years passing. I’ve got three stents in my heart, a partial kneecap replacement and Crohn’s disease, but with the right medication you can deal with it and I can feel fantastic,” he says.

“I’m still ambitious, I’m still the same guy who started out 50 years ago, still trying to prove myself by finding avenues that mark me out. I’ve always been a great believer in individuality.”

Leo had to break into a dog-eat-dog Seventies’ pop world. “We all hated each other. It was like a war,” he says, the laughter in his voice giving away that he might just be exaggerating. “It was such a competitive industry. If you look back, you can remember all the songs in the Top 40. That music really counted.”

Managed by pop star and actor Adam Faith, Leo struck up a partnership with songwriter and producer David Courtney, co-writing such songs as Long Tall Glasses and Giving It All Away (a 1973 top five hit for The Who’s Roger Daltrey).

“Adam Faith was very dynamic as a pop star, who did the Budgie TV series and a movie with David Essex [Stardust], and wanted to get me a record deal with Warner Music in America. He managed to get Joe from Warner down to Brighton, where David was based, and took them to a fish and chip shop,” recalls Leo.

“Just around the corner, a little guy called Leo Sayer was playing, and on the way back, I was told I had a deal with Warner.”

Sayer’s love of individuality was reflected in his decision to paint his face in the Pierrot clown mode for his early performances. “I loved Les Enfants du Paradis – Children Of Paradise – a movie made at the end of the Second World War by Marcel Carné,” says Leo, recalling the classic French drama that charts the ill-fated love of a mime artist and a sometime actress in 1840s’ Paris.

“I loved how he [the mime artist, played by Jean-Louis Barrault] could describe himself in gestures, rather than speech.”

Sitting with Roger Daltrey, “on the wall were all these big Pierrot pictures, and he said, ‘how do you see yourself’, and I said, ‘like that’, like Jean-Louis Barrault,” says Leo.

He duly borrowed a costume from a street performer called Julian. “He was 6ft tall, I’m 5 ft 4! It became my signature look, and it was extraordinary when we first did it, getting in a famous make-up lady from Australia,” he says.

“They wouldn’t let me look at the mirror as a black bathing cap was put on and the make-up applied, the dark eyes and the dots on the cheeks, and then suddenly I could look at the mirror, and from that moment I knew I’d found my look to be released to the world and really be transformed into Leo Sayer [he was born Gerard Hugh Sayer].

“After shows, I could rush around the block, stand outside in my T-shirts and jeans, and I’d hear people saying, ‘Hey, that guy Leo was amazing’. I got to find out at first hand what they thought!”

Later, Leo would shed that skin. “That was terribly scary. It was me that decided to stop it, which shocked people, but I only ever wanted to do it for a year. I’d seen Gilbert O’Sullivan being stuck for ages with that image of the little lad in the shorts and cap,” he says.

Leo made the transition when he was invited to be the opening act for Rick Wakeman at the Crystal Palace Bowl, South London. “Once I was without the mask, I thought I’d be terrified, but my [now ex-] wife and I put together this Great Gatsby look with the cloth cap, when you had to go from one image to another, as you did with all that glam rock going on, and though it was a baptism of fire, it felt right.”

The hits stacked up, the songwriting continues to this day. “It’s important to still write songs, but over the last couple of albums I’ve been working through a backlog of recordings, like the demos from when I worked with Alan Tarney in 1983. It’s time to put those songs out there,” says Leo. “It’s amazing how those songs from the Seventies and Eighties still sound so current.”

During the pandemic, Leo penned a couple of lockdown songs. “One was about Melbourne, the most locked-down city in the world, My City In Lockdown, which came out on YouTube,” he says. “Then there was How Did We Get Here?, about everyone blaming each other, in the way that disinformation becomes reality.”

Covid-19 reintroduced Leo to wearing masks – albeit of a different kind – all those years later, and although they have now been largely discarded by the public, “I wore a mask on the Tube in London the other day and the negative comments I got really surprised me.” he says.

Leo Sayer plays York Barbican tonight (7/10/2022), 7.30pm. Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.