It's 2 in the afternoon, and Andy Bell of Erasure is just waking up. The British singer loudly clears his throat over the phone. He's not sure where his hotel is.
"Nashville?" he says. "No, no. Las Vegas. I'm in Las Vegas."
Bell and his musical partner, producer Vince Clarke, were in the entertainment capital of the world last week for the first date of the True Colors tour, which stops Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.
Created by '80s pop star Cyndi Lauper, the national 15-city tour, featuring the veteran British dance-pop duo, Debbie Harry, Rufus Wainwright and others, benefits the Human Rights Campaign and other organizations that support the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The HRC will receive $1 from each ticket sold throughout the tour.
"It's lovely to be a part of this," Bell says. "We were all a bit nervous. But for all of the artists to come together for this, well, it's amazing."
The True Colors tour also coincides with promotion for Light at the End of the World, Erasure's new CD. It's a return to form, so to speak. Since 2003, Bell and Clarke have stretched their sound on different projects - remixes, acoustic live music, classic pop covers - largely eschewing the pulsing, electronic beats that 20 years ago established the duo as an international force in dance music.
Bell says he and Clarke were eager to return to modern disco, their roots, but this time the lyrical content has deepened.
"As you get older, the songwriting matures a bit - at least you hope it does," the singer says. "As I've experienced more stuff, the songs have gotten deeper and more optimistic. Like with the album title, it was kind of poetic and describes the optimism of the record."
Two years ago, Bell, an openly gay man, publicly revealed that he was HIV positive. As he was writing material for Light at the End of the World, he wanted to convey a strong sense of self-acceptance.
"It came down to a personal choice, revealing my status," says Bell, 43. "I've known since 1998. And Paul, the guy I lived with, had been positive since 1990. I was very nervous about going public. ... But I've gotten a lot of support from people, which is beautiful."
For the album, Bell penned vivid, compassionate tales of dysfunction and freedom, such as "Storm in a Teacup," a song influenced by his mother's battle with alcoholism. Although that cut and a few others (namely, "How My Eyes Adore You" and "When a Lover Leaves You") are lyrically sullen, the music maintains a spirited mood. The production recasts the classic Erasure sound: rubbery beats overlaid with bubbling synths as Bell's vocals soar over it all.
"Vince is always using new technology," Bell says. "I'm always coming from another end, more of a pop approach. Our sound really doesn't change that much. It's quite unique."
It's a sound more celebrated in the United Kingdom than the United States. From 1986 to 1997, Erasure placed 24 consecutive Top 20 hits on the charts in its native country. The American breakthrough came in 1988 with The Innocents, a platinum-selling album that spawned three hit singles: "Ship of Fools," "Chains of Love," and "A Little Respect." A 1992 retrospective, Pop! The First 20 Years, eventually went gold.
For fans of Erasure's pop-slanted approach to dance music, Light at the End of the World is a more seasoned return. But after 20 years of adventurous, internationally celebrated music and after selling more than 25 million albums worldwide, Bell says it is through his participation in the True Colors tour that he realizes the magnitude of his accomplishments.
"Any other time, I don't feel like a star," he says. "I'm really full of wonder seeing other pop stars, sharing the stage with Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper. I often don't realize I'm a star, too."
See the True Colors tour at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia on Sunday starting at 6 p.m. Tickets are $41-$126 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or going to ticketmaster.com