Last year Decca Records asked me to help them on their search to find a supergroup of singing nuns. I’m not really sure what qualified me for that particular job – perhaps because I got on very well with a group of Austrian monks who sang Gregorian chant and sold over a million records worldwide.
I was tortured by nuns at convent school and I’ve always had a fascination with them; a lifelong quest to find a different experience. Plus, who isn’t fascinated by a woman who has given up every essence of herself for God and lives in such an extreme way, cloistered in a habit among her sisters?
The search was long and fascinating and it answered my questions. Are nuns authoratitive and frightening? Or are they beatific and enlightening? Each community is startlingly different.
It took in over 70 convents in 15 countries (including Ireland, Spain, Wales, USA). The first thing we learnt was that nuns are extremely difficult to get hold of because their lives don’t revolve around everyday deadlines, and a lucrative recording contract seemed not to be of great importance.
First off we visited a remote order of Benedectines at Abbaye Notre Dame de L’Annonciation du Barroux in Provence. They are a cloistered order and may never leave their stone abbey. They are very traditional and we had to talk to them and photograph them behind a grille. No close-up photos allowed. It’s about the group, not the individual.
Also with us in front of the grille were the nuns lawyers hoping to sign an immediate contract. The Mother Abbess had a commanding presence. Immediately fascinating that this authoratitive woman would give a vow of obedience. She said, “It’s a paradox; obedience is freedom.”
The sisters range in age from 19 to 88 and they all have beautiful skin. Their sound is pristine and pure. I could tell that Tom Lewis and Oliver Harrop, A&R for Decca Records, felt that these were the perfect nuns.
My perfect nuns were in Wales – Poor Clare Colettines at Ty Mam Duw, Hawarden, north east Wales. They write their own songs, channelled from the source. There are 14 of them. They wear brown habits, are vegetarian and don’t wear shoes. They too are an enclosed order behind wooden bars, but from the minute I met them I felt no boundary.
Sister Juliana in particular draws you right in when she speaks. Although she is 55 and hasn’t heard any contemporary pop songs, the songs seem very of the moment. Mother Damien explains, “If you live a life in prayer you are never far from the world. God keeps you modern.” Their songs do not have the cool detached ambience of the French nuns who are pure Gregorian chant. The Poor Clare’s songs are intriguing, inviting and have wonderful lyrics. The sisters here write poetry and draw.
This community all had an interesting past before they joined. Some of them were not even Catholics. Sister Juliana’s conversion came when she was working for her gap year in a hostel for the homeless in Notting Hill, London. “A few houses down there was an old prostitute. Her name was Ruby. She was very ill, very drunk and very maudlin. She seized my hand and said ‘Pray for me.’ She taught me the rosary. After that I didn’t want to go on to university. I felt life was more urgent.”
I love them because they are as much of this world as separated from it. They talk inspiringly about the power of prayer. They get up at midnight for the first prayer of the day. Recently it’s been the feast of Saint Colette who you pray to if you want to have a baby. They’ve had many emails saying prayers worked better than IVF.
Their latest song Mother of Millions is inspired partly by this and partly by an underground Catholic leader, Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, in China, who has been constantly incarcerated and subjected to interrogation because he doesn’t support China’s state-sponsored Patriotic Church. Says Sister Juliana, “If you haven’t got a certificate you haven’t got the right to bring your baby into the world. If your child is handicapped it is also forcibly aborted.
Twenty years ago somebody left a badly damaged new born on Bishop Jia’s doorstep. He took it in and then others appeared.” Thirty nuns help him look after these children.
“In between prison and re-education camp and house arrest he has cared for these orphans. The Chinese authorities now demand the bishop should sign over the children or spend the rest of his life in re-education camp.”
The song is a prayer for help and to attract media attention to save the children’s lives. “In a way in our lives consecrated in chastity, we are mothers to millions.”
My final convent visit was to the west coast of Ireland in the Connemara countryside. We went to the beautiful Kylemore Abbey. It used to be the home of one of Ireland’s most exclusive convent schools. It is not an enclosed community and the sisters are very embracing, clever and funny.
They need a new roof and several of the older sisters have had to move out, some to a farm and the older ones to a retirement home. They really need a record contract. I felt incredibly touched by them. They talk about real things; relationships, depression.
Harrop and Lewis felt they simply didn’t sing well enough to be awarded the contract. I made a passionate plea that Madonna doesn’t sing well but she knows how to make people connect to her. The problem was I wasn’t connecting to anybody.
I had specifically asked that the documentary crew didn’t film any of my meetings with nuns. But if they’d filmed my meetings at Decca Records they would have had explosive television.
Decca wanted the French nuns – they sang Gregorian chant – they wanted to repeat the success of the monks. The brothers though could leave their convent and sit on a TV sofa. Plus their depth and timbre made Gregorian chant sound earthy and warm. I thought that people would not connect with the nuns who could never leave their convent walls. And not only had they taken a vow of silence – they are French!
The nuns in Boston are all about communication – make apps for iPhones and have a consistent Facebook presence. Lewis says, “Nothing ancient or mysterious about them. With them it was about how quickly can we get the next gizmo. They already have iPads. They are the complete opposite of Avignon. There is no mystery. We want a record where even if you ask an atheist you will be transported to another world
“The French nuns are a well-oiled machine. They move together and have a sense of overall oneness.” He felt their austerity and separateness was an appeal in itself.
For me the compelling hook was the paradox – being separate from this world but very much part of it – that’s real mysticism.
I have stayed in touch with the Irish and Welsh nuns because I wanted to help them. I had been in talks with another major record company about signing Kylemore Abbey.
Louis Walsh helped put together a list of great Irish songs for an album. The musical director, Sister Karole, is studying in Hungary for a year, so we await to see if the record will go ahead when she returns.
The community in Wales continue to write songs and have been asked to contribute to a record with the Welsh Guards celebrating the Royal Wedding, along with Shirley Bassey.
The French nuns record managed to do well internationally. How well remains a topic of debate. Industry insiders say that more money was spent on the record than was made. But a voiceover at the end of the documentary says they went to Number 1 in the classical charts. I am told it sold 100,000 internationally ( rumoured only about 15 per cent of that in the UK). So a happy ending, for the documentary at least.
Last year Decca Records asked me to help them on their search to find a supergroup of singing nuns. I’m not really sure what qualified me for that particular job – perhaps because I got on very well with a group of Austrian monks who sang Gregorian chant and sold over a million records worldwide.
The second I enter Andre Rieu’s Hollywood hotel suite a camera is pointed at me. A reality TV camera crew follows him at all times. There’s something about Rieu that enjoys to be always on, always the showman, and the man who never stops.
It is that specific drive that’s turned him from just a man with a violin to a kind of high priest of the waltz. Last year when he toured with his Johann Strauss Orchestra his shows outsold any other male touring artist in the world including Bruce Springsteen. His last album Forever Vienna reached Number 2 in the pop chart; in all he has sold over 22 million albums.
He started off as a violinist in a classical orchestra in Holland. Now he has an empire of which one of his sons, Pierre, is vice-president and here with him today.
The show is quite a spectacle. He plays his violin and conducts an orchestra that contains ladies in full crinolines. There are always thousands of flowers and hundreds of balloons. Once he performed with an entire castle which was rebuilt for each performance. But more of that later.
He’s Dutch, 61, with long flowing rock star hair. No comb over or transplant involved. He’s got this weird trick of seeing everything, missing nothing. Always remembering you, even if he only met you for five minutes. His eyes are beyond piercing. They can look at you from the stage and find you in an audience. And he can make people waltz. Unexpectedly rows of normal people find themselves swaying and mesmerised pied piper style into waltzing.
I persuade the cameras to go away. Rieu looks a little crestfallen as he tells me how much his popularity has soared even more in his native Holland and Australia since he engaged them. “They see me on the road, they see me on stage, they see in fact he’s a nice guy, somebody they can relate to. And they see me how I relate to my orchestra, a bunch of friends.”
Rieu loves to be seen, to connect. But he also loves to be in charge. “The tape is mine, the camera team is mine and I decide what’s in it.”
Rieu is so warm you imagine him always dipped in sunlight. He lives in a castle in Maastricht where the real D’Artagnon, who Dumas’ fictional character was based on, was said to have had his last breakfast before he died in battle serving Louis XIV. As a child he used to take piano lessons in that castle, but he dreamed of living in it and filling it with chandeliers. And this is the other extraordinary quirk: he’s the god of positive thinking; if he imagines it happening he somehow makes it.
“I think I told you once before I’m an unhealable positive optimist.” So what happens when things go wrong, he must feel not just disappointed but devastated? “That depends on what’s gone wrong. I had this huge financial crisis when I made a castle to tour with and sent it to Australia a few years ago. We copied it room for room from a Viennese castle. It was so beautiful. Playing in it I thought Strauss must have felt like this.” He raises his head and opens his arms like a lion taking the sun.
His son Pierre was the architect for the castle. He looks just like him, younger, without the wild hair. “Without him it wouldn’t have been done,” says Rieu. Pierre interrupts, “Without me there wouldn’t have been a financial crisis trying to build an exact replica of a castle to tour with.” Rieu says, “No, no, no. Without you it wouldn’t have existed. It brought us a financial crisis and it gave us media attention that you couldn’t pay for. Without it we wouldn’t be sitting here doing this interview. After the castle incident we were so famous in Australia we were able to get a record deal in the UK.” Indeed they are signed with industry giants Universal.
So what exactly happened with the castle? “We started to build one but it had to be scrapped because the fire people wouldn’t pass it. We started another one and discovered that the ticket sales were so huge that we had to build another one to play back to back otherwise we wouldn’t have time to take it down and rebuild it. So we had three castles: the scrapped fire hazard one and the two because of the ticket sales.
“So, when things go wrong there is always a positive side. The bank people were very concerned, but also very helpful and I was on the front of Billboard and sold more tickets than any other male artist. So that was no so bad. That was in 2008.
Last summer he had another crisis. He had to postpone his sold out UK arena tour because he had a sudden illness. A viral infection of the vestibular nerve which left him unable to stand up. “Yes, it was a real crisis. I was lying in my bed and suddenly the whole room started to shake. I couldn’t stand up. It was a shock to everybody. And now I’m here again standing on the stage. I see it as a positive thing because immediately the night it happened I started to change my life. My wife and Pierre’s as well (Marjorie, his wife of 37 years, works for him managing the concerts, creating the sets and costumes, as does Pierre).
“From the moment the doctor came immediately and said it’s a virus, there’s no pill, there’s only one thing for Andre to do and that’s rest. Rest is a strange word for me. I was at home for three months and had to cancel a British and Australian tour, or rather postpone.”
He spent three months in his castle – a beautiful place. He has an orangerie where he likes to sit in and relax and watch his collection of rare butterflies flutter. He designed and built the butterfly house himself.
“That was always a dream. Other people might want to buy a Ferrari, but I wanted a butterfly house. I’d built it together with a blacksmith. We designed it together.”
The virus made him lose his balance. “It was work pressure. It suddenly happened because I was very overworked. So I’m going to do much less. For example I made German television shows for five years in a row in the summer. That means everyone goes on holiday while I jump into a studio and sit in a dark hole editing. No vacation. And I was proud I never had a vacation.” He shakes his head.
Despite his constant touring the world he would will himself never to have jet lag. “Relaxing for me was sleeping.” The virus was a wake-up call. Perhaps enough of one, but he still seems fairly unstoppable. “On stage I feel much better. Somebody up there told me I needed a rest. It was a shock. I’ve never been ill in my life. I mean I might have had a cough or something, but when I went on stage I was always OK. Maybe I believed that I could go on and nothing ever happened to me. Perhaps it was a warning that I could have had a stroke or something much worse. So it was something telling me, ‘Andre, come back to your roots and just do what you like to do, and that’s making music’. I stopped all the rest.”
The rest included building projects, public speaking, public appearances at launching new businesses, “For me listening to music could never make me relax. It makes me alive. The waltz is a very important part of my life. It’s a very important way for me to express my positiveness, bringing humour to the world. The waltz can be sad, at the same time uplifting. You have to see life from both sides, and the waltz encapsulates that. If you’re in my audience you give yourself to me and the waltz will grab you.”
If he wasn’t making music what would he do? “I’d be an architect because I feel that building and music are similar. I’m building on stage. Not like a priest that wants to educate, but I’m building up an audience that loves music and I’m building in my way which is through the heart. I’m not against people sitting and listening to beautiful classical music. I sometimes feel something is missing and it’s the interaction that you will see tonight and me wanting to be together with them. That’s my job, I know what I’m doing. I can guide them.
“I think as long as you build you live. I think the Emperor Hadrian said that, and he built a very long wall. In Maastricht we are building the whole time. I have carpenters and construction people on my payroll. We have just finished a little house for Pierre around the corner from the castle. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world for me to visit my grandchildren. He has twins.” Pierre tells me they are 13 months and eight days.
“I think my whole crisis was due to them.” Being away from them? “No. They were born on the day I arrived in Australia and I was completely overwhelmed by emotion. He sent me a picture by text of the first and then the second. I was crying the whole day and I just wanted to go home.”
Pierre shows me pictures, very cute, Linda and Lyeke. He tells me that this morning he’s installed a webcam so that if they are on tour they don’t miss anything and this morning they saw their first steps.
“I am serious. The twins are what changed me. The birth of these two girls was so essential and so pure, I felt that this is life and I should leave the whole other shit behind.”
Did he not feel that when his children were born? “No, I tell you it is different.” He has two sons, Pierre and also Mark, who is a painter. “If Mark would run the company there wouldn’t be a company. He lives in the sky he paints.”
Why does he think having grandchildren is so much more affecting? “I suppose when you have children you are in the middle of your life. You’re young and you’re building up your life. Somehow having them now it has overwhelmed me, and perhaps because they are girls. We had two boys and all the dogs we had were males and suddenly – girls.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with his relationship with his sons. Pierre tells me, “We never argue.” Rieu says, “It’s not like I’m the father, you’re the son.” Indeed Pierre doesn’t even call him dad, he calls him Andre.
He is a strange mixture of a laid back person and one who pays excessive attention to detail. Most of all I love his eccentricity. He told me once before he planned to play a concert at the North Pole. He wanted people from all over the world to come to get attention for global warming. “I would earn no money but I’d very much like for the polar bears to waltz. They do dance, you know.” He is an avid conservationist and peace lover. He wants Israelis and Palestinians to waltz together to his tunes.
His optimism is indeed relentless. He tells me when he was first starting out he got invited to a meeting with a promoter in New York. They flew to New York to meet him “and then we got a call saying could we do a conference call with him which we could have done from home and he was two blocks down the road. A lot of people would say why weren’t you angry. I would say, why would I jeopardise nice concerts and disappoint my audience and I didn’t want to feel I’d wasted the money on the ticket. So I took the call and it was the best thing. It worked out really well. I suppose it takes a belief in yourself, something that no one can take away so you don’t feel diminished by these things.”
Growing up he always felt slightly displaced, different from the rest of his family. His father had been a conductor of classical music and believed in its traditions.
Perhaps the source of his passion comes from rebellion. “My father was a conductor and I would stand in the window and play melodies and my mother would try and make me play scales. There was a conflict. There were six children and I was the black sheep. The others were all white.”
Musically what he’s doing is not classical traditional, it’s changing time signature slightly to make everything waltzable. His background was straightforward classical. “I was convinced that this was not the life and it must be possible to play music with more feelings and more love. They always said ‘poor Andre, he’ll never be anything’.
“My mother would always say to me don’t look people in the eye. And that’s what I do every single night on stage: I communicate. I don’t see my mother very often. She met her great grandchildren for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Pierre contacted her and asked her. I don’t blame her for anything. My father died 14 years ago. He saw me in the beginning of the Strauss orchestra. But from the first moment we had success. He wrote me a letter and said there’s only one person who can do this. He didn’t tell me he wrote it, I heard it from other people that he was proud of me. You ask yourself why. I mean, I’m sitting here. What was the problem?”
Rieu was always different. “When I was a little boy lying in my bed I was convinced I wanted to marry a girl whom I worked with, and that’s true.” His wife, a former teacher, who financed the start of his orchestra, still works alongside him. “I wanted an equal. When Marjorie gave birth to Pierre I can still remember it was two in the morning and at nine she was there with her agenda and her phone.
“I met Marjorie when I was 11 and she was 13. She was in a class with my sister. We met again when we were 22 and 24 and went on our first date. But I think I really knew when I was 11 that she was the one.” Of course he did because that’s in keeping with his magical thinking. He’s very interested in space travel and other universes. When I was a little boy I would always look at plants in the garden and think of what other worlds go on in this plant. I knew then there was not just one universe.” We debate infinity for a brief moment in time.
“It’s cosy here I admit. But yeah, of course you think about death. I’m afraid of death. Everybody is. I want to stay here with my wife and children and grandchildren. I want to be on stage. I want to live as long as possible. In Oxford there’s a professor who says in five years we will be able to stay alive forever. Not us, we are too old, but future children can decide how many thousands of years they want to live for. You can still be young, you won’t be old and ill. I would definitely do it. Imagine the wisdom you’d have with 2,000 years experience. But more importantly, I like it here now. People tell me I’ve changed since the crisis I’ve had. Marjorie says I’m back to the boy I married. I take it as a warning.
“An Indian healer came to my concert and told me I was a very old soul here for thousands of years. People have said perhaps I’m the reincarnation of Strauss. I don’t know about that. But my whole youth I felt that something was not right. That I was here in this family but I was different.” Does he feel a bit of an alien? “Yes, perhaps.”
Perhaps it’s that feeling of being dislocated or distanced from the world that pushes him to be an uber communicator with his eyes always looking like they’re burning from within.
That night at the concert he was fully himself. His long hair flowing. His violin zig-zagging passionately. He strides an incredible line – sentimental but heartfelt. He does look you in the eyes. I watch him watch me arrive late and see exactly where I’m sitting amongst 40,000 people. Giant screens flank him upon which band members are highlighted. It’s all inclusive. He tells us that one blue crinolined lady has fought and won her battle with breast cancer; applause; music saved her life; more applause. Then a few tears. The waltzes keep on coming along with Michael Jackson tunes turned into waltzes. In the background an American flag. By the end of the concert the half of the audience that is not weeping is out of its seats waltzing. Even those who have never waltzed before.
Mr and Mrs Neil Diamond look strangely similar even though he is 71 and she is 42. The same eyes, the same slightly wary nature, sensitive and warm. And when they smile they smile with their whole face.
Katie has an obvious kindness about her. She looks after him both as a manager and as a wife. They met when she was working for the management company to whom he had recently signed. It was not love at first sight, it was business, until gradually she wove her way into his heart. They got married earlier this year.
He too has an almost puppy like desire to please her. Both of them seem to carry a kind of emotional weight.
He has spoken before about his life as a solitary journey – how he was lost in the creative process.
Diamond talks with his slow gravelly voice, it’s almost a purr. He’s talked before about being a loner, about how his past relationships have suffered because he was driven by his music and his songwriting.
With time and maybe love he’s realised he doesn’t have to enjoy only solitude and that he likes people as well. ‘There was no eureka moment where I went hey, I’m going to be with people and have fun. It was a gradual growing up, a gradual self-awareness. I always liked having fun with audiences.’
We are seated in a badly lit New York hotel room. Katie takes charge of pouring decaffeinated coffee. They seem extremely comfortable together. They met a year or so after he ended his long-term relationship with Australian production assistant Rae Farley. He met Farley the year after his divorce from his 25-year marriage to Marcia Murphey who he married the year he divorced his first wife, high school sweetheart Jaye Posner.
He felt a lot of guilt about the failure of his 25-year-old marriage. So much so that he didn’t bother to correct rumours that said he paid his wife $150 million, said to be the highest recorded alimony settlement at the time.
‘It wasn’t true,’ he says as he casts his eyes to the floor. He claims that newspapers simply made up the sum and he didn’t bother to correct it. Even his wife asked him about it. Was she happy with the settlement she did get? ‘She was. She got enough to live on for the rest of her life.’ Was he so generous because he felt such guilt? ‘Somewhat.’ He almost winces. ‘It’s true. I did feel bad.
‘I don’t have many feelings about my divorce now because we’ve been divorced for 20 years. I do have some feelings of guilt about my life. Guilty that I wasn’t with my kids more because I was travelling. But I’ve spoken to all of them a number of times about it. They all have good memories of growing up and I loved them completely when I was back in town. I was theirs full-time.’
Maybe it makes it more special and intense to have a father that works on the road. Maybe if you’d been around all the time there would have been more bickering?
‘That’s right,’ his eyes lighting. ‘I have never bickered with my kids. I was always happy to see them and they were always happy to see me. And I think they still are.’
He has had a lifelong relationship with guilt. ‘I see a therapist. She is very useful. I learned to express myself and I learned about myself with the help of a psychologist. She didn’t make me a better songwriter but she made me an easier person for me to live with. She had nothing to do with my songs – that’s a solo effort. She’s made my life a lot easier because I understand things a bit better, because I’m not torturing myself.
‘I used to blame myself for everything. I have moderated my feelings over the years. Guilt and achievement and responsibility, all of these things…’
You felt guilty for achieving? ‘No. Achievement is one of the things you have to deal with. Your self-achievement, your self-image. I never felt guilty for achieving anything because I always worked for it. but sometimes I feel I am worthless, useless. What am I here for, what am I doing?’
Does he still feel like that? ‘Sometimes. And somehow you have to deal with it. My psychologist has been very helpful in opening the doors to my mind and help me understand myself and the reality of life. I see her once a week, face to face. Occasionally I’ll call her on the phone if I’m out of town. But it’s almost always face to face and I have been doing it for ten years.’
There must have been an instant knowingness when he and Katie first met. ‘No, there was nothing. She was just another business person handing me work to do and another business person I was trying to get away from. I stopped trying to get away after a year or so, once I got to know the person she was, and I liked that person very much. Katie’s got a big heart and she’s very transparent. I can read her heart from a mile away. She does a terrific English accent which makes me laugh every time she does it. Katie, remember where we were staying last time we were in London, darling?’
‘Dawchester,’ says Katie, in a very strange cockney posh. But it’s a valiant attempt. Did it take Katie a year for him to weave his way into her heart? ‘No, she loved me immediately,’ he laughs, a very low naughty laugh.
Katie says, very politely, ‘I took my work very seriously. And when we first started working together it was work on both sides. I wanted to work with him. He was one of the biggest iconic singer songwriters of all time and as a manager I was thrilled to have him as a client. We worked very closely for that first year because he was on tour and we spent a lot of time together. When we first met neither of us were interested in each other. He was work as far as I was concerned.’
They were both single and available? They both nod. I wonder if he’d resigned himself to being alone for the rest of his life after his two marriages and long-term relationship had fallen apart.
‘No, I had not resigned myself to being single, but I wasn’t looking. I was busy doing my work and Katie appeared. It was totally unplanned and unexpected.’
How does he make sure that their relationship keeps working? In the past he’s said that music was his main mistress. Music demands from him emotions that are intense. His second marriage is said to have failed because he didn’t have enough time emotionally or physically left over for his family.
Is it complicated working together having a business relationship as well as a romantic one? ‘We are still working on that because there are times where the work will interfere with our personal relationship. There are times I want to talk about something and we might be in the middle of having breakfast together. I’ll want to talk about something coming up and Katie doesn’t want to talk about that. She wants to do the crossword puzzle and have breakfast, so she’ll say “Can we talk about this later or can we set up a meeting to talk about it?” And I have to say, OK. We’ll talk about it another time.
‘We’re still in the process of working this all out. It requires some give and take on both our parts. I respect her a lot. She’s a professional. She’s very experienced. She knows the business and that allows me to not be drawn into the business part so much. It allows the creative part of me time to blossom, time for me to write songs, time for me to do what I do best.’
Does he write songs more easily when he’s happy in love or more miserable? ‘Misery has never been a productive stimulus. I’d rather be in a good frame of mind because then you’re energetic, you’re outgoing. Although I have written some of my best songs when I’ve been down and not particularly happy.
‘I get unhappy if I get stuck on a song, if I can’t get a line that is satisfactory to me or if I’m working on an idea all day and it’s not working out. That can really preoccupy and distract me. If one of my kids is sick I’m unhappy. If I get a cold I’m unhappy. If I’m underworked I’m unhappy. If I’m overworked I’m unhappy.’
He says all of this with a sense of irony. Most of that severe unhappiness seems to be in the past. He actually strikes me as a very happy man.
Diamond’s many moods from dark to exuberant, can be found on his just released The Very Best Of Neil Diamond featuring all beloved classics like Solitary Man, Sweet Caroline, Beautiful Noise, Hello Again, and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, the duet with Barbra Streisand. He is working on songs for a new album and that is going well.
‘I’m happy because I’m occupied with something that I love doing. Keeping busy is the most important element of me being happy and of course having a wonderful wife makes me happy, to know that I don’t have to go through my life and bear it alone. That’s a happy thought for me. I have someone to talk to about it.’
Was he lonely when he met Katie? ‘I think I was probably lonely. I don’t like to be alone. I’d much rather be in a loving relationship with a woman any day than being alone.’
Did his last long-term relationship (with Rae Farley) end unhappily? ‘I’d say it did end unhappily. It wasn’t a serious relationship. It was going nowhere. There were no marriage plans. It was difficult. It lasted too long.’
Did it last too long because it’s hard to end things even though it’s hard to be in them? ‘I think so,’ he nods earnestly, still troubled by the thought of it.
On stage he has always been a flamboyant performer, over the top, fantastical gyrations that would seem impossible for a man of his age who today walks a little stiffly and places himself in a hard backed chair. He’s wearing dark jeans and a dark sweater, his face craggy and hair more salt than pepper, but he’s extremely magnetic. His eyes draw you in to their suffering and his need to connect. He has over 60,000 followers on Twitter and he follows no one.
‘I believe I am allowed to be over the top on stage and I enjoy that part of myself. Tweeting is expressive, I wouldn’t say therapeutic, I wouldn’t put it that deeply, but I like to share what I’m thinking. Here’s a picture of my dog. It’s funny.’
The Diamonds live in LA where they love walking their dogs Poker and Shamrock and Katie likes to ride horses and spend time with her rescued cat Brigitte. Diamond is particularly close to the dog he calls Pokey who he rescued from being put to sleep. They never buy animals, only ever rescue them.
‘There was something about his eyes that got to me. He was a funny looking guy (part spaniel part something else). I looked at him and he looked at me back. There was a little bit of communication. So I asked this person who was in charge of adoption do you mind if I take this dog for a walk so I can get to know him and see if we like each other. He said sure, so I took a leash and Pokey and I went for a walk and we had a heart to heart. I asked him how he was doing and where he lived before. He was a grown-up dog, mature, and he said, “I don’t want to talk about that right now” so we talked about life and he was enjoying the smells. This is all mentally. And we got to know each other and I got to like him. I think he got to like me. So I said I’m going to take this dog home because I think we can get along and I did just that. The guy in charge of the adoptions was called Chance so that’s why I called him Poker.
‘He’s a great dog and we’re great pals. I talk to him all the time. Don’t people usually talk to their animals? Our conversations are quite abbreviated. We haven’t discussed the Bible yet or the meaning of life, but we have discussed, “No Pokey it’s not a good idea to jump on the couch right now.” And he goes, “Oh okay.” He’s a very reasonable dog. That’s one of the things I appreciate about him.’
Shamrock was a golden retriever puppy who Katie fell in love with when she ran into him at a farm where she rides horses. ‘He’s a very affectionate dog and somehow you have to put a little control over his affections. He will climb up on your lap and sit there, but he is as big as a person.’
Possibly Shamrock is Katie and Pokie is Diamond. ‘That’s exactly right,’ he says. I’m wondering was Shamrock the first significant present he gave Katie and was this the gift that established their relationship? ‘I was her first big present. I’m not taking second place.’
When you decide to get a dog with someone it’s making a statement that you are getting domestic, that you are moving in a permanent direction.
‘Yes, I’ve heard that but I never thought that. I have given puppies as presents before because I love dogs and I thought it would be nice. Katie wanted Shamrock. ‘
Katie was at a friend’s farm where she rides horses and she discovered one of their dogs had puppies. She fell in love with Shamrock, a golden retriever puppy.
‘I didn’t really want another dog, I thought Poker was just fine. But Katie’s got a big heart so I grudgingly in a way said alright, Shamrock it is. And he turns out to be a good guy.’
He is quite a contradiction. On the one hand he loves to make people laugh and loves nothing better than to charm an audience. He is warm, easy to connect with, yet he has spent most of his life in his own head, even if he was in a relationship. His best friend is the one he met at high school who is waiting downstairs to have lunch with him.
He met Herb Cohen when he was 17 and Herb was the captain of the high school fencing team. They had an instant connection and Diamond joined the team. ‘He was the best, I was the worst. But scouts offering scholarships for college came to look at Herb, so they took me as well. We went to NYU together.’
He once said that he didn’t make friends like normal people. ‘I do have other friends. I made a point of opening myself up and allowing myself to make friends. Before that all I had was my work, my family and that was it. The only people I had contact with were the people that work for me and my kids. I’m in touch with my kids all the time.’
I imagine there was an unfathomable void in his life when his 25 year marriage disintegrated. Is he in touch with his ex-wives? ‘I am but not on a regular basis. When it is called for. When it is necessary. To talk about the kids. Sometimes to talk about other things.’
‘My first wife was Jewish. My second wife was not Jewish. My third wife is Catholic. There will not be a fourth wife by the way. I’ve been warned by Katie.’
I ask Katie what exactly did she do to warn him? She blushes. ‘I haven’t warned him anything.’ He interrupts. ‘She hasn’t. I just don’t want ever to lose her. She is too fantastic.’
What is being in love like for him? ‘Being in love completes the perfection of my life. If there was anything missing in the last 20 years it was that I was not in love with anybody and I am in love with Katie. I am in love and I love her.’
I ask Katie is she in love? ‘Absolutely.’
Does she think that’s different to loving somebody? ‘Yes, I do. And I both love him and am in love with him. I love him with all my heart.’ They look at each other. Their eyes lock. You believe them’.
The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ is Out Now
This holds true today. He walks into the room, his book publisher’s office, and his sheer charisma sets it on fire – tall, larger than life, black jeans, black polo, black soft jacket.
I meet him just as his autobiography Over The Top And Back comes out. It is a great read and funny. It charts his youth in the grim coal mining town of Pontypridd. It captures his Welshness.
He got tuberculosis for a year. His mother refused to send him to a sanatorium in Scotland so he was a virtual prisoner in his bedroom where he pined for his girlfriend Linda.
Linda’s presence is a haunting one throughout the book. Now his wife of 58 years he says that she is the only woman he has ever loved. You feel the love when they are kissing in the phone box at the end of their road.
You feel it when she becomes pregnant when they are both 16. They marry but don’t live together straight away. He works 12-hour shifts at the paper mill to support his wife and child. He didn’t want her to get a part-time job. He didn’t want anyone to flirt with her. ‘But most of all she didn’t like it. Linda is a very private person. She’s not a people person.’
When he goes to London to work on his singing career he sells his beloved leather jacket for the train fare back to Cardiff so he can see his wife and baby. In many ways he’s the traditional man. In many ways not.
The book is filled with anecdotes and encounters with Elvis, Paul McCartney, John Lennon – who tried to hold Jones’ hand at a curtain call for a performance in honour of Lew Grade. Jones dropped his hand. That was all too gay. It is something that he regrets now.
That and not standing his ground when Paul McCartney offered him The Long And Winding Road but his record company wanted to go with another. Other than that he is not big on regret.
Both his parents were ‘dressers’. They looked like they were going to a ball when they went down the club. Jones has always been a dresser. That image of him in the white open shirt, the hairy chest, the tuxedo trousers, is iconic. He says it came about because he was simply too hot to perform in a suit and when he took his tie off his then manager Gordon Mills knew that was the look – a raw macho look in the face of drippy hippy things. Jones recalls being on the same bill as The Rolling Stones once. ‘They turned up in suits and changed into their jeans to perform and I turned up in jeans and changed into my tuxedo.’
When Gordon Mills wrote the song It’s Not Unusual with Les Reed he was going to give it to Sandie Shaw but Jones had an instinct and that song changed his life. He could move out of Mills’ apartment in Notting Hill and buy a house, be reunited with his wife and have a red Jaguar. What’s New Pussycat?, Green Green Grass Of Home were the smashes that followed.
Jones moved to Los Angeles because of the tax imposed by the Labour Government in the late Sixties and has never come back to live. In the late Seventies through the Eighties he had a kind of identity crisis. He had put out some country albums and was playing Vegas-style shows in towns in the middle of nowhere around America where the most exciting thing about the show was going to the nicest restaurant in town afterwards.
Jones didn’t want to sign for another country album at Polydor. He might have got into a fight with his manager about that but Mills had been hiding the fact he had colon cancer and was drinking heavily. He died aged 51 in 1986.
Jones’ son Mark, who had been on the road with him since he was 16 took over and instantly brought him back to being authentic and current and being a voice. In 1988 he performed the Prince song Kiss on Jonathan Ross’s Last Resort. It was The Art of Noise arrangement of this song that made it a world hit. Another iconic Tom Jones song and his career was reborn. In 2006 he was made a knight of the realm and he also established a new fan base when he appeared as elder statesman in four series of BBC1 talent show The Voice from 2012 to 2015.
He was always known as The Voice and on his new album Long Lost Suitcase that voice is richer and deepened. Darkened. It shakes the senses with its power. Its title came from the fact that “ I have still got a lot of stuff in suitcases. Being on the road all the time you sort of half unpack or three-quarters unpack and you think, oh, I don’t need that right now so I can leave that there. So a lot of stuff accumulates in suitcases. Old records and old pictures. I found a picture of my grandfather, he died in the First World War and it’s the only studio shot that I have of him. He is standing Edwardian, with his leg crossed and his hat is on a plinth”
He is very much about paying homage to his roots. Is that what made him think it was time for a memoir? ‘So many books have been written about me by people that have never even met me so I wanted to talk about what it was like before fame, all those people in Wales that moulded my character.’
What he doesn’t talk about so much is how as a knicker strewn sex god there were many extra-marital temptations which he didn’t resist. He does say, ‘None of it meant anything.’
We meet on the day of Sparkgate. A paper had reported him saying, “Linda has lost her spark.” He corrects, ‘I didn’t say that. I said SHE FEELS she’s lost her spark. It’s not the same thing. She has emphysema and she’s not happy with the way she looks. I did not say she doesn’t look as she did before. I carry a young picture of her wherever I go because it’s a wonderful memory. I remember when she had that picture taken. But not because she looks better on it. I’ve asked her if I can take a new picture and carry that around, but she doesn’t want me to. I did say I love talking to her on the phone because when we talk on the phone we’re young again. Age doesn’t matter on the phone.’
Just like when he was on The Voice. That was about turning the chair at the sound of the voice, not because of the looks. But more of that later.
‘Linda is the only person with whom I’ve been in love. We fell in love as teenagers. We were lustful as well, but it was love. And the longer you are together the more you realise when the sex gets less important in a marriage the love is even stronger because that’s what you’ve got left. That and the same sense of humour and coming from the same place.
‘People have said to me do you ever think about getting a divorce? I say no. We are family, a family that I could never separate from.
Linda is a strong woman. She didn’t exactly condone his extramarital activities, because she knew that she was loved.
‘I don’t condone it. It was just something that happened. It went along with my career. I felt it was just fun and games and it didn’t hurt anybody. We came through it. My wife loves me, my son loves me, my grandchildren love me.’
Did he ever think that Linda would leave him when she found out about his affair with Marjorie Wallace? ‘No, but I didn’t like the fact she didn’t like me. I was ashamed of myself. Ashamed that she knew about something that was not important via a newspaper.
‘If I had said to her that it was happening she would have said, “You’d better stop that now or there’d be trouble.” And that’s what would have happened. I would have stopped it. Definitely.’
In the book he talks about how Linda got colon cancer and how he could never perform without her. ‘Every song I sing is to her. They cut out a foot of her colon. They also took a foot out of my colon some years ago because they found a growth (benign). I used to say to Linda, “I’m a foot short.” And now we’re both a foot short.
‘When they are at home she doesn’t like hairdressers and manicurists coming over because she doesn’t like to talk to them. She likes me to do her hair and her nails.’
Whatever you might think about Tom Jones you don’t imagine him doing hair and nails. I like this devotion. It dispels the chauvinism myth completely.
He is really easy to talk to and we laugh a lot. In his book he talks about his surprising dismissal from The Voice. He writes, ‘What a cold place the BBC is. Sometimes you wonder if it is run by humans or a machine.’ He refers to the Controller of BBC1 Charlotte Moore thanking him personally for his services, but in a press release.
Mark, his son and manager, got a call saying that Sir Tom, the stalwart of the show, would not be returning. This call came at the very last minute possible. He was expecting to start rehearsals as he had done for the last four years in mid-August. Instead the call came that he would not be needed. ‘Apparently someone told Mark, “We don’t think Tom is going to like what it’s going to become.”
‘I like The Voice in America. That’s what got me interested. I did a show called Imagine with Alan Yentob and he said the ratings were so wonderful would I do The Voice UK.
‘Will.i.am said in the beginning that he did The Voice because of me. This season Paloma Faith said the only reason she signed was because she thought she was going to work with me. I’m curious to see what they do with it. I will watch it, of course.’ Will he miss it? ‘No. But I want to see how it does and how the ratings go.
‘They kept telling us we needed to turn our chairs more. And I said no, it has to be real. I don’t want to be lumbered with somebody I don’t like. I have a reputation for picking good voices. But they were pressing on me, and that’s exactly what happened. I ended up with this red haired girl that I didn’t like. They hate it when we don’t turn but I kept telling them it has to be real.’
It doesn’t seem very real at all. ‘The real coaches are singing coaches who keep us informed about how far the contestants can stretch themselves. We talk to them daily and discuss songs, can they handle it, that’s not working let’s change it. But they are the ones who do the real coaching work. We are just the faces. We pick them and they work with them.
‘I loved the blind auditions where you had no cloud what the person is like, you’re just getting the voice. And now they want to put in more backstories.’ Isn’t that making it more like The X Factor? Perhaps you can be a judge on that next year? ‘Nothing is out of the question,’ he says with a smile. And you really believe that is true.
Susan’s house in on a council estate that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Down the road there is a small town with a cinema, and a tesocos but Susan’s house is tucked away in the middle of a ubiquitous estate. It’s the house she grew up in. the house she lived with her parents, now long deceased, but it’s important for her to be in this house. it’s a touchstone of who she is, who she was and a life that she’s always grounded in no matter how fragile she may seem or how extreme her life got after she dreamed a dream and became the most famous runner up ever on Britain’s Got Talent.
What the world saw in her then, an enormous vulnerability and uncanny ability to feel other peoples pain and centre it in her voice, it was as if all the pain she had suffered and could never talk about was articulated in those sweet, pure unmistakably lush vocals.
Her house is cosy and stuffed full of ornaments, mostly gifted by her fans. Theres porcelain cats, paintings that her fans have lovingly etched. Our Lord, Our Lady, religious artefacts, angels and framed postcards that say, “If you can dream it, you can do it” and for awhile that was Susan, she dreamed it, she did it yet over the past year there have been all kinds of rumours, her record company had dumped her, she was in her own personal meltdown and couldn’t cope anymore, the death of her beloved sister Bridie, she who was the stabling force in an often crazy family, we’ll come to them later.
Today Susan is nothing but sweetness. Delicious shortcake biscuits and an array of sandwiches “pieces” on offer and the entertainment we play her latest CD, the one the press said would never happen, called A Wonderful World, out on November 25th. The ultimate Christmas gift that transcends Christmas. The songs are love songs, classics that have been Susan-ized. Oh the sweetness, the plaintiveness of wonderful world, the deep emotion of When I Fall in Love, a duet with Nat King Cole, it’s so milky, creamy, her vocals are like a big cashmere robe on this song.
“It’s very romantic, isn’t it? Perfect for a couple who meet for the first time.” and of course it’s all the more sad and all the more deep because of course Susan has never been in love or been part of a couple, not really. So who is she singing it for?
“It’s a favourite of my Mum and Dad’s.”
Theres a picture of them on the wall, her father looks movie star handsome, she giggles “oh I wouldn’t have told him that”.
She does a version of Robbie Williams Angels, and again makes it her own. Does she believe in Angels? “We have a guardian angel with us everyday, I know that. You’re not supposed to see them but they are there.” She says all smiley and cherub like.
She’s wearing a pink tracksuit top and grey sweatpants. Pink cheeks, giant eyes and softer hair. There were even reports her hair fell out and she had to wear wigs, clearly all ridiculous!
She’s actually lost two stone in weight because she’s been walking everywhere, “Yes I walk everyday to where ever I want to get to. I used to walk, but then I stopped but now I like it again. I even walk to the gym and yes I’ve even been going. I like to meet people, I’ll walk to the Regal- theatre in the neighbouring town of Bathgate- see a show and thats me quite happy. I was beginning to feel a wee bit unhealthy so I started a walking regime and I actually like doing it.” Have another shortbread she says, I’m not going to eat them I’m diabetic, type 2.”.
It’s taken her awhile to accept she’s diabetic and I’m going to eat the shortbread and she’ll stick to the tuna. No delicious shortbread? “No, it’s all about healthy living” and laughs at herself. She knows she’s had a ravenous sweet tooth and never wanted to be healthy before.
Despite what people think, she says she’s in a good place. This is the first time she’s heard the finished album. Is she pleased with it?
“I think so, I had a lot of fun making it. Simon picked the songs, she said proudly. I’ll always put my trust in Simon, he’s a bit of a genius.” But wait a minute rumours were that she never saw Simon and he’d lost interest. “No he’s been here to Blackburn, I don’t see that much of him but I hear from him a lot.”
And what about her mate Piers? Her original champion on Britain’s Got Talent. Didn’t he actually kiss her? “I’ve haven’t seen him at all recently but I wish him well with everything he does. He does Good Morning britain now, perhaps he’ll have me on it”. She giggles. “He had me on his other show for CNN”.
She seemed to have her first school girl crush at the age of 47 on Piers, “No. he’s married” she dismisses as if I’m mad. Somewhere Out There is playing in the back ground. It’s Susan duetting with Michael Bolton, “It’s very romantic isn’t it? Especially at the time of year when people are looking for something extra specials.
Is she looking for that? has she got a romance going on? “No, I wish I had though.” she sas very wistfully and I’m drawn in to the ultimate pathos of Susan. Her voice, sometimes is almost childlike when she sings, so full of hope, so persuasive. Especially when she sings Angels, her voice is like a seduction surely she could seduce anyone with that I say to her half joking “even Piers” she says “now you’re just kidding me on”.
The only hint of romance for Susan was with a doctor she met when touring America. She met him in Clearwater Florida. Is that all over? “Well, he’s not over, I just haven’t seen him for awhile. He’s a nice man, he took me out for a meal, but we got friendly, you know. Everyone was going daft looking for me and there I was with this lovely guy. Long pause, “potentially it’s not finished”. She hasn’t seen him but they have stayed in touch.
I’m more and more intrigued that she lives in the house she grew up in. It’s very humble, nothing fancy, yet we’re listening to not any old album, her album, her 7th in fact and the picture of Susan with a horse is to commemorate her world wide smash Wild Horses. “You have to have balance because balance keeps you focused. I’ve got a posh house but I thought it best my neice have that one as this is more me.” By a posh house we are not talking about a mansion.
Her albums, especially I Dreamed A Dreamed, that one album did 10 million. Her total record sales are in excess of 23 million. She could have bought a mansion, in fact she could have bought the entire town of Blackburn, but she prefers to be in three up two down. She didn’t feel relaxed in her posh house, “I’m more relaxed here, theres a lot of nice memories of my family growing up and stuff and theres people all around me if I need help with anything. The Posh house was too big”. I’m told it had four bedrooms of larger proportions and the reception rooms were larger. “Not me” she shrugs “here I have all my lovely familiar things around me and it makes me feel secure.” Security is obviously nothing she takes for granted. And she likes being at home.
“I have had holidays, I’ve been to Ireland a few times, France and Portugal. In Portugal I like to go out and sunbathe.” Her celtic skin must have become inflamed, “Yes, I was a red as a beetroot.” Was she wearing at least factor 50 I say because to be with Susan for half an hour is to be drawn into her life, to care about her, to want to protect her. “Sometimes” she says in a way that I know means whats factor 50? and then she laughs. “You’re very pale aren’t you? And you’re from Ant and Dec Land”.
I tell her we share a love of Cats, her famous cat Pebbles has now died, but says “my Tess is upstairs sleeping, a ginger girl, quite unusual. I got her from Cats Protection in Edinburgh.” Tess does not emerge but theres evidence of a litter tray and Whiskas.
Susan is looking forward to seeing a Streetcar named Bob at there local cinema and also Bridget Jones baby and she reassures me theres a lot going on in the Regal in Bathgate. “We had Ross Kemp there the other week and there nice places to eat, the Cairn Hotel. I do go to these places, but I like to keep busy in the house as well.
Always on My Mind is playing on the CD player, “It’s very reflective, a relationship thats gone wrog, misunderstandings and maybe that person is trying to say sorry. You don’t go around saying sorry, you show it. The best form of communication for me is through music.” and indeed she can sing other peoples words and make it everything she’s ever felt, thats why it’s so emotional.
She nods, “I’m best with music, it’s been well publicised I have Aspergers and it’s a form of autism and communication can be difficult because I can’t find the right words or phrases. If I’ve got a script like a song, I connect with that song and thats the way I communicate.”
I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that, Susan communicates intensely and you don’t have to have Aspergers to feel pain that you can’t articulate in words. I’m also confused, autism is about disconnection and not feeling empathy for the other person, where Susan feels an excess of it.
“Music is about connecting emotions, it’s a love song, it’s not about me, its about someone else circumstances and the circumstances I’m singing about having meaning for them. Thats what my job as a performer is all about, connecting to the listener.
Susan’s Aspergers syndrome has been well documented and usually in the setting of when she’s been unable to cope with something. Like in a recent situation in an airport lounge at Heathrow where she was flying home to Scotland and she had a meltdown and caused a disruption. She was crying and shouting from a place of fear. I don’t like airports I tell her, I got in a fight with security coming to Scotland this very day, “Oh dear, you have to watch it” she says earnestly.
Aiprots make everyone vulnerable, right? “Of course, of course, perhaps you were feeling too rushed” Is that what happened with her? “I want to put it behind me and think of the positive. I wrote an apology to the airport and now everything is ok. Aspergers charities criticised her for writing an apology, saying she shouldn’t have to but there is a lot of ignorance.
What actually happened? “I can’t tell you but it was a misunderstanding thats been resolved and I am going to look at airport travel much more positively in the future. I feel we can all be taught to make things less difficult. I’m struggling at the moment but with time that will improve.”
Does she feel things more sorely because she’s instantly recognisable and people are always coming up to her and she can never travel anonymously? “Yes, but I’m working on that. And although that might be one of the less good sides, there are many great things about my life now. Enjoying the work I’m doing, making albums and hoping that will make people happy.”
Before Susan sang, she trained to be a social worker. “It was good because I like people, I’m a people watcher and theres a lot of psychology going on watching people and their interactions and when I was training it was my job to try and help them. I wanted to work with teenagers who were vulnerable and needed guidance. There are some very mature teenagers, some are parents and I wanted to help them with the changes that came as a result of that. I did this at the local community centre and then Edinburgh and did training there. I would ask questions, “do you have the ability to let go” and I was young and very immature myself.”
Was that question poignant because you couldn’t let go go things?
“Yes, it was, as you get older you learn to say maybe it’s not so important.”
When you say letting things go do you mean arguments or a particular object?
“I think you are over simplifying it. Things that happen in peoples lives that make them the person they are. Letting go of the past, emotional baggage. It depends what you’ve been through.”
What did you have to let go of?
“A lot of things, my father, though a very good man, had a temper, he showed it to me and he hurt me. He didn’t mean to but I held on to this for years and when he was dying, I had to let it go. You have to accept it, thats maturity.”
Accept someones hit you, I’m confused? One gets the impression that Susan isn’t underplaying it but not talking about it as it’s all part of the pain and insecurity that comes out when she sings. Having a parent with a violent temper, has got to be confidence knocking.
“It’s not easy, it’ not easy, but you have to let it go and replace it with a new self, thats what I’ve been focusing on in the last 6 months. It’s difficult, I’ve a lot of good and bad memories, you weigh up the good and the bad. I’ve been coming to terms with it. All of these things that happened in my life and all the things happening now, you have to let go of the bad. I’ve seen the Queen and sung at her Birthday, the Mull of Kintyre by Paul MCcartney. all of that is wonderful.”
You see her struggling here, getting rid of the bad memories, being shouted out, feeling worthless and becoming someone who sings for the Queen.
She was the youngest of 9 siblings “there were no favourites in my family, we all had different talents, Mary is a better singer than me.”
Now she’s playing me her version of “Like A Prayer”. More gentle than Madonna, and more etherial. When she sings it, it somehow pierces your heart. “But Madonna is a great Lady.” In fact Susan has always been a Madonna fan, although they don’t seem at all similar. “I know I do things more intensely, I like this song because it’s emotional and releases emotions in other people. It’s all about releasing.”
That is of course her extraordinary gift, I wonder if Mary can do that? “Mary’s not been given charge. MeI’m all about releasing, releasing in a healthy, safe, environment.”
The track Wish Upon a Star, she says “I wished upon a star and everything came true”
What did she wish for? “To go abroad and meet the Pope. I say Make me a channel of your piece to Pope Benedict. I love Disney, it reminds me of a comic I had that I bought every week. Mickey Mouse, Snow White. It brings back all my childhood memories.”
So what was her childhood really like? “Theres a 23 year age difference between me and my eldest sister. I look back at photographs and I see myself pictured by a piano, I’m only just learning to play it now. I’m rubbish at it. I think everyone was loved equally but theres always a natural conflict within families. Mary, the eldest, was always very wise for her age, there was never any competition there, as I say she can sing better than me. Bridie, was the glue of the family. She shows me a picture of her, she will be sorely missed. I found it hard when she went. I couldn’t cry at her funeral. I felt frustrated, I didn’t want to allow my emotions to come out, months later Bridie died in October 2015, this February, it really hit me and all of these things that were wrapped inside me came out in the recording studio. For Bridie, I sang May You Never Be Alone.
I wonder about her other family members, I’m always hearing about her brother who likes her money and then they fall out and then back in again. “We all get on great she says” with the same expression as yes of course I wear factor 50. Really? “They come and see me, we’re all reunited” But why were you un-united with them? “Well there were differences of opinion, stuff that happens in all families when one person becomes successful. Oh theres been water under the bridge, but we’re beginning a new era”
Is she sure? I’ve read so many stories about how certain family members wanted large donations like a £100,000. “Well that was to begin with, maybe I did feel taken advantage of, but thats what I mean, I’m not hanging onto that. Lets make a fresh start. That’s the way forward.”
You can’t help but worry for her. “It will be fine” What does she enjoy spending her money on? “Well I once invested in a fur coat, it was £300. Thats probably the most expensive thing I own, I love perfume as well, Cartier, Chanel no.5 I used to buy them at duty free but i’m trying not to fly much now, because you know, I don’t want to get agitated. I’m dealing with it” she says sweetly.
Will she go on tour? “I’m not sure? If so what does she have on her rider? She looks at me, scented candles, blue M&M’s, prawn cocktails before the show? “Oh no, I make no demands, although she does like to bring her tea bags and to have a kettle”
Earlier this year she was in Zoolander 2. It was a great appearance. “Weirdly in an airport, but that was really enjoyable because they closed down the airport so we could film. It was in Rome. Ben Stiller was very clever and very funny.” Apparently they had an amazing bond and she’d love to do more. So much so she’s taking acting lessons, “Yes I’m doing improvisation and textual reading.”
What? I thought she’d just said sexual healing, “No, it’s about analysing characters and building things up. I was very nervous about doing Zoolander and very excited.
Theres also talk of making a movie of Susan’s life, a cinematic version of the stage musical. Who would she like to play her? “Oh Julie Walters” she says instantly. But Susan she’s 20 years older than you, “She’s a very talented lady”. But that is interesting that you see yourself as someone so much older? “Yes, perhaps it’s because I had older parents, perhaps I do have an older outlook, but I’m also very young at heart.”
And what acting roles does she feel she would be good at? “I’m open to suggestions”
Did she see the Paul Potts movie One Chance? “Well it was very moving, I’d like my movie to be more funny, ironic, thought provoking” Will she sing on the soundtrack? “I’ve no idea” There would be more money if she did, does she care? Does she know how much money she has? “Oh, thats private!
Is she private about how she voted in Scottish independence? “ I voted No. I didn’t want to be cut off with our own currency, but after Brexit does she think an independent Scotland could remain in the European community? “I’m not going to be drawn into politics, I’m not a politician, I’m an artist.”
When was the last time she saw Simon Cowell in the flesh? A couple of years ago, he’s a very busy man but I watch him a lot on X Factor.
How did she feel when she read stories that Simon Cowell was about to drop her? I read she was in tears at the thought of not being able to sing. “All those things were totally untrue and I had had a very successful meeting with Syco records.” In fact Sony has extended her contract for more albums.
Does she think there is anything in her life missing? “Yes, I’d like to see the man from Clearwater. I’m very busy, and it’s been a long time but I would like someone. I’m very sensitive, I can be loving and loyal and then sometimes I can be pretty hard to get” she laughs.
A typical day in my life, I get up, make my breakfast, sometimes its a Tuna sandwich and Tess breakfast is whiskas. I’ll go for a walk and meet people or sometimes go to the regal for a show. I’m quite happy.” I’m told her neighbours all love her and invite her in for dinner, she;s not short of invites. So she’s never lonely. “It’s difficult without Bridie, but it’s getting easier. She was always there at the end of the phone, but she’s not anymore. I speak to her daughter and she takes on her role of being the glue of the family.” Does she think she’s a little too tolerant of her brother Gerry who seems to be always finding ways of getting hold of her money? “I’m learning to stick up for myself, but theres a balance you always have to be nice to people. How did you find me now? Was I nice?” Susan you were so spectacularly nice!
We say goodbye and you understand why this woman makes you feel love and I want someone special to love her, she deserves it.
Barry Gibb is holding court in his local Indian restaurant – it’s just around the corner from his not often visited British family home in Beaconsfield. He’s lived mostly in Florida for the past twenty odd years but finds himself reclaiming his British territory since signing as a solo artist to Sony UK. He is of course the soul surviving Bee Gee, the band who wrote one of the soundtracks to the seventies. Often mocked for the size of their flares and their medallions but always revered for their creation of the perfect pop song. Staying Alive? Has there ever been a better groove written?
For me it was always Barry. The eldest, the most handsome, the most charismatic, the most complicated. But this is his first album alone without the support/rivalry/competition/banter of his brothers Maurice who died 13 years ago at the age of 53 and Robin who died in 2014 after a protracted battle with cancer.
Just recently there was his rapturous appearance at Glastonbury with Chris Martin and Coldplay. He performed Staying Alive to blissed out ovation. People love the irony. The sole remaining brother. Yes he is staying alive – at 69 he looks still leonine, with a full-ish mane of hair and thick beard.
Barry was always the leader of the pack but finding himself suddenly pack-less was of course devastating and not an easy trajectory. “After Rob died I just sat moping around thinking that was the end of it and I would just fade away. I thought I was quite happy about fading away but then the President of Columbia records, Rob Stringer, came to see me and signed me and said “We’re gonna move your ass.” And I thought, oh well that’s OK. So I’m back. Glastonbury came out of the blue. The whole experience is amazing. Chris is such a gentleman and I met Gwyneth.” Before I have a chance to ask him how they were getting on with consciously uncoupling he also tells me that he also met Noel Gallagher and that was fantastic and he too is coming for a curry.
He seems incredibly self-effacing. He’s written some of the greatest pop songs of all time, yet I’m not sure he believes in himself. “I’ve never had self-esteem. Every person that I’ve met and admire has the same lack of self-esteem. I’ve seen it with Michael Jackson, I’ve seen it with Barbra Streisand.” He goes on to explain, “Self confidence and self-esteem are very different things,” and weirdly I remember Streisand telling me that too. “I’ve always been trying, trying, trying and I think that’s good. That’s the hunger that keeps you alive no matter what and there’s been bad times where I didn’t really want to.”
After the death of his remaining brother he certainly had a slump. “You are in a kind of tunnel. You have to come out the other side and I waited for that and I watched television. Downton Abbey, that got me through it and Ray Donovan and Billionaire. I love them more than movies. I love the cliff hangers. We get English television in America because I have Apple TV.”
So television got him through it. I’d read it was Paul McCartney? “Well, sort of. He always got me through everything. I met him for the first time at the Saville Theatre in 1967. He brought Jane Asher to see a show and he said “You guys have got something. You should keep going and I always found that very encouraging.” The last time I saw him was at Saturday Night Live when we were both playing. We had adjoining dressing rooms. We started talking about the time before we had any success. We talked about being naïve. Not understanding what was happening. About being a great band and being happy and not competitive.”
Does he mean competitive with the Beatles? “No. about not being competitive with each other.” He’s in a cloud of nostalgia now. “Those days of not understanding the business and not knowing why everybody wanted to know when for a long time they didn’t. That naivety.”
There’s something about Barry that really cherishes naivety. To him it seems to symbolise purity, something unspoilt and unspoilable, untainted. “Ultimately McCartney hasn’t changed his keys down. He’s still singing in the keys he always did and I’m still doing that. A lot of artists have lowered their keys. He never said ‘Just get on with it. Don’t worry’, but he’s always been inspiring to me. What he said was ‘always look down on your highest note,’ and I said yes, OK. So he’s basically did say just get on with it in an abstract form.” Does he mean McCartney gave it to him as a musical metaphor? Stay doing what you’re always doing. “Yes, definitely.” Could he explain more about the competitive elements? “There was always competition within the group. We weren’t competitive with the Beatles. We were just another pop group but they changed the world.”
We circle back to talking about his album In the Now which has certainly changed his world. It got him off the couch. It’s a ridiculously emotional album. It dwells on the past, wanders into the future yet the title references the present. Isn’t that ironic? “Hey, that’s right, but it’s all about the past. It’s about the denial of the past and the future. Yet it’s about the moment and how to seize it. It’s about the loss of the people closest to you so it’s live in the moment, grab every moment because you see what happens. The eyes tangibly sadden. Mo was gone in two days.” Maybe that’s better than long and tortured? “Which is what Robin went through. Andy (youngest brother) went at the age of 30 (drug overdose). All different forms of passing and for our mum devastating. She’s 95. She had a mild stroke two weeks back.”
Ever attentive to detail he notices I’ve got chocolate on my cappuccino when I’ve asked for none, because I don’t want chocolate on my lips. He tells me that his greatest fear is, “a bogie on the nose. Although if you’ve got a moustache it’s a great danger for drinking milky coffee.” I would have thought that by now he would have learnt to navigate a whiskery face. He’s always had facial hair. “Not always. I grew it in 1968 because McCartney grew a beard for Long and Winding Road. He’s always been that big of an influence on me. Even when the Beatles broke up I thought that’s it, we should break up.”
Is that why he is not finishing his coffee? He doesn’t want to have white froth on his face? “No, it’s because I don’t want to get too wired. I only drink coffee in a restaurant. In the morning I have a Red Bull to kick start me. Coffee has never appealed to me. I never drink alcohol except sake which I love. You don’t get a hangover. You never feel bad.” I tell him the last time I drunk sake I fell over. He tells me that the last time he got drunk was as a teenager. “I got so drunk mixing different drinks at a convention, I woke up in the bridal suite. I was so violently ill they put me in the room and left me but when I woke up I did wonder to see if there was a bride. Fortunately there wasn’t.” We laugh, we giggle. We’re having a grand time, then suddenly there’s sadness which he doesn’t navigate around, he tackles head on.
There’s been so much passing in my family that at one point I said I’d prefer to go in my sleep or on stage but I never said while singing Staying Alive.” Perhaps that was made up because it’s a funny line. He nods while he’s thinking about the irony.
Does he have a bucket list? “No, I have a fuck it list.” I laugh but I am mystified. “I have a list of things that I know I’ll never do. I’ll never walk through the Grand Canyon, not with my ankles. I’ll never get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I hate heights. I just think in terms that I’m going to be quite happy with whatever comes around the corner. I don’t plan. I’ve grown up in three different cultures. I’ve seen the pyramids and I’m a real fanatic on the ancient worlds. They lived as if they would come back but at that point there was no evidence. There is no evidence of how that civilisation developed. Those people might already have been there before. I’m fascinated by civilisations that were around twenty, thirty thousand years ago that could be advanced as we are now in different ways. I don’t believe that the beginning we think was the beginning was the actual beginning.”
Does he feel he’s been here before? “Perhaps. I’ve had a few incarnations. I try not to question it. There’s been so much loss in my family, for me it’s a standing mystery.” Does he believe he will see them again? “I really don’t want to question it. Don’t want to go there.”
Chris Martin got him back on stage. Did he also get him writing songs? “They were already written. It took six to eight months to write the songs.” Some of the most famous Bee Gees songs like How Deep Is Your Love and Jive Talkin’ were written in less than a day. “Yes, there was a half day when we wrote Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Shadow Dancing and a couple of other songs in one afternoon. I think we were high. Amphetamines, nothing heavy. We never took heavy drugs like heroin or cocaine. There were no songs written on that,” he says adamantly. There were twelve songs on the new album and three bonus tracks. “Daddy’s Little Girl is one of them and that’s written for my daughter Ali. She’s 24 and still lives with us and I’ve never met a lady with a stronger opinion. Star Crossed Lovers is written for Linda. When we first met your manager didn’t want you to have a girlfriend so she always had to stay at home. I always had to seem available. Everyone was against it but that made her stronger and we’re still together 49 years later.”
He describes her as “an incredible power in my life. She is the one who will tell me exactly how it is and Ali too will say ‘you’re not wearing that’ even if I think something looks nice. They are both incredibly honest.” Today he is wearing beaded bracelets under his black shirt and a discreet silver neck chain with a mystic symbol on it. “I’ve outgrown all that gold and diamonds and chains that I used to wear but I do love jewellery.”
The Bee Gees in their heyday, late sixties, early seventies, were known as Medallion Men. They were never style icons. Kenny Everett used to do a fabulous version of the Brothers Gibb, falsettos and flares. They were mocked at the time when the cool kids were into Bowie and Roxy, but over time Bee Gees songs have been reassessed with How Deep Is Your Love being referred to as a pop song as flawless as Bohemian Rhapsody. Of course within the group there were highs and lows. With the world saw them and how they got on with each other. By the time they created the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever their falsetto came into its own with expert and inspirational grooves – their long awaited moment in the sun. Barry also had a massive hit and place in chart history with the Barbra Streisand album Guilty.
Does he feel that people didn’t understand their complicated sibling dynamic? “Well, I don’t think it’s any different from any other brothers or sisters.” Does he mean there’s a mix of rivalry and closeness? “Yes. All of those things and you have enormous arguments. Then you become incredibly close and you have really angry moments with each other. Nothing different from any other family except our obsession with music. That’s how it was.”
Did he feel as the oldest he was always the leader? “Yes, yes, because the oldest brother is always put in that position. Watch over Maurice and Robin, watch over Andy. And often they didn’t want to be watched over. Maurice and Robin were twins so they were always secretly chatting. I was the one that had to make sure we got paid. I had to look out for business. I enjoyed it. It was important that we were not cheated and I think that was pretty common. You hear all these horror stories about the manager making a fortune. Robert Stigwood was kind to us. We were all given about £100 per week and in 1967 you could live well on that money – and that was before we had any real success.”
You feel him working hard to be happy and in the moment. You see his struggle. This year there’s been a pop icon death overload. Bowie, Prince. How did this affect him? “Prince!” he says adoringly. “I’ve always loved Prince. I didn’t quite understand a lot of David Bowie because he was such an artist. I admire it but I was more involved with people like Prince. The R ‘n’ B influence, the falsetto is more me. We worked in his building where he lived in Minneapolis. We did a performance for the music industry of Minneapolis at one point. He was there but hiding behind a speaker so we never met.” Hiding behind a speaker I say incredulous. “I know. You can’t be that shy, right? But there you are.”
Barry, of course is ready to get rid of all his natural shyness again. “I’ll happily hit the road if this album means something. It’s an enormous effort to go on tour without that momentum and I want that momentum.” Is it harder to go out on stage when he’s been used to his brothers standing beside him? “It’s not hard if your eldest son is standing next to you. He’s not a Bee Gee. He wouldn’t like that. He’s Steven. He’s covered in tattoos. He’s a metal head with a heart of gold. He plays on the album. He’s part of the band, in fact it’s the best bunch of musicians I’ve ever had. I want to be on tour so I need to create a reason for people to come and see me.”
In the Now is incredibly moving. It gets you when you’re least expecting it, as a Bee Gees song has always been able to do. His eyes well up with gratitude. “You’re making my day! I need to feel that full cycle feeling, you know that I can come back.”
Many people think he never actually went away. Whilst there was no conscious decision to stop, there was no decision to write a new album while Robin was alive either. Although they did the odd performance here and there, Robin’s illness really took a toll on any creative output. “The feeling is I am reintroducing myself as an individual.” When he did Guilty with Streisand he was an individual, not a Bee Gee. “But I was never allowed to go on about it. We won best duet at the Grammy’s and my brothers never mentioned it. It’s that kind of brothers and sisters thing. If I would ever say we won this many Grammy’s they would always go one less saying ‘No, no, it was THIS many.’ They co-wrote the song with me. I don’t know why they didn’t want to say anything about the idea that we won best duet but they wouldn’t talk about it. And probably I wouldn’t have if they had won a Grammy. I might be a little bit, oh shit. I don’t know. I feel that it’s absolutely normal if you have success with something aside from what you’re all supposed to be doing.”
Does he see the Bee Gees influence in any of the current music makers? “I always felt that I used to hear it with Prince and Michael Jackson. The multi harmonies, the grooves. A lot of people have told me that I made a difference to them and I’d like to keep doing it for as long as I possibly can.” This time there’s no lounging on the sofa watching Downton Abbey to get him through a difficult period this time. “That’s the trouble.” He shakes his head. “We really loved it and my wife was sitting next to Maggie Smith yesterday at Wimbledon. It was the thrill of a lifetime and then her back went out. She said to Maggie ‘I have to leave. My back has gone out.” And Maggie said, “Well, you haven’t got the serve.” He laughs. Perhaps she’s the same character. Being there at Wimbledon was fascinating. I played for ten years straight and then my ankles gave up on me. I’ve got arthritis. My ankle comes and goes of its own accord.”
How is he with flying? I remember him telling me years ago while I was at his house in Miami that he was terrified of flying. It made such an impact on me, I’ve never been able to fly without thinking of him since. Now he says, “I’m getting better. I’m very fatalistic. If it happens it happens. People always used to talk to me about being frightened of take offs and landings. To me that’s OK. I don’t have any fear of those. It’s being at 30,000 feet. It doesn’t go away. It’s just less. The worst thing is I can’t get a sake because they don’t have it on planes and you’re not allowed to bring it on because it’s liquid.”
Is there a vault of unreleased Bee Gees songs? “No. Robin always emptied it out. I would always say, ‘that’s not good enough to go on the album Robin’ and he would say ‘yes, but it’s another song. Let’s put it on.’ In the eyes of the record company the more songs you give them the better deal it is for them but I don’t feel it was necessary. I don’t even remember what songs they were although I do remember Robin insisting we put on a version of Islands in the Stream and it just wasn’t for me.” Is that because he’s a perfectionist? “I thought the groove could have been more conscientious.”
Part of him is very modern. His black shirt and subtle bracelets, his attitude. And part of him is very old school, very proper, very gentlemanly. “I don’t do Instagram or emails but I do text. I have a Twitter account that goes through Ashley, my second eldest son. I try not to think about that stuff too much.”
It’s not that he’s closed to new technology or new music. “In fact I love the new Chinese artists that are coming up. There’s a group called Versailles that come out of Japan that wear more make up than David Bowie. They look a little Samurai.”
In the olden days he always used to see himself as a lion with his virile big mane. In a 1979 authorised, illustrated biography of the brothers called The Greatest, there were caricatures of him as a lion, Robin as a red setter And Maurice as a badger.
I assumed he would have been a Leo and he says, “I’m actually a Virgo. I’m ambidextrous, left footed, play the guitar right handed and I think I’m a little too old for a lion but I’ve still got a bit of a mane going on.” Pause. “Although I have always associated myself with a lion,” he says rather proudly. “In South Africa I bought a walking cane with a silver lions head on it so if there’s ever a time when I can’t walk I’ll be able to be helped by the lion and it’ll still be lion walking.”
Although he’s known pretty well at his local Indian he says restaurants are rare for him. He says, “Restaurants are rare for me because I’m such a homebody. I don’t rise early and I don’t get going till about noon. I’m still useless to everybody till about 2.00pm and then I get sharp and I start to look forward to what’s on television that evening. I read three books at a time. I love ancient history. At the moment I’m reading a book about the French revolution, another about the conscious mind and I’m obsessed with Egyptology. I’m in to the unknown, the supernatural. All that world. I like things that can’t be explained like ghosts.” Has he seen ghosts? “Yes and it’s not fun because you’re not quite sure what it was about. If it was real. I’ve seen two brothers.” Which brothers? “I saw Robin and my wife saw Andy. Maybe it’s a memory producing itself outside your conscious mind or maybe it’s real.” He likes pondering the big questions. “Yes. The biggest of all, is there life after death? I’d like to know.”
In the meantime his album In the Now ponders the past, the future, all kinds of shadows, all kinds of ghosts and it all feels pretty real and emotional. Yet he’s not a sad man. He laughs a lot and jokes with me. “And I love a good curry,” he says. We hug goodbye and I make him pose with a selfie. He doesn’t complain.
I’m in Malibu. Not quite in Barbra Streisand’s house but at a studio just down the road from it. She’s been doing some TV interviews. Lights are set up, so bright that I have to peer to see her face. I sit opposite. Her eyes stare out, pierce me. She’s wearing a soft drapey black dress, multiple long gold chains and strappy sandals that have spikes across the straps. Dark red toe polish. The feet are very maitress – dominatrix even, the rest of her soft. She’s always loved that kind of juxtaposition, masculism meets feminism, strong meets vulnerable.
The TV light is shining so brightly, so harsh it floors me for a second. I want to hug her hello. This is Barbra Streisand whose songs I’ve known all my life, whose voice is so familiar to me, whose voice has been a comfort in its complete emotional empathy. Whatever I’ve felt or whatever you’ve felt, Barbra’s felt it more and she’s showed us. Unlike any other performer she acts out her songs so we feel them. That’s part of her charm, part of what makes her an icon.
My arms are in a clumsy outreach and I remember her telling me before hugging doesn’t come naturally. She had a complicated relationship with her mother who was perhaps so full of fear for her that she might fail, was always discouraging – she told her her voice was too thin. Her mother wasn’t a toucher. She never hugged her. “For a long time touching felt alien.” Now she can just about do it, touch that is. She could never please her mother. “But I owe her my career. I was always trying to prove to her that I was worthy of being somebody.”
Of course there’s less angst about Barbra now, more composure, more polish. Instead of a hug I deliver her a cake, one which was made from the same recipe as her favourite bakery in Brooklyn (Ebbingers which closed in 1974).
My friend’s grandmother was the manager. He has all the recipes It’s a mocha almond cake and more powerful than a hug or a kiss. If Streisand was a little wary, a little suspicious, she’s overcome by that other emotion – food is love.
She’s always loved food a little too much, always on a diet although she’s never been fat. She once used a cake onstage to make her cry. Didn’t she have a girlfriend waiting in the wings with a cake so that she could feel yearning? “That’s right,” she says. “It wasn’t a girlfriend, it was someone from the production. It was a chocolate cake and it was put on the stool where I could see it. It wasn’t that I had to cry,” she corrects. “I love details about truth. It was that I was supposed to be in love with the actor but I couldn’t feel anything for him. I didn’t even like him so I put the piece of cake in the wings so I could pine for the piece of cake.” We laugh. A real proper laugh, the composure gone. “The play was Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent.”
I tell her I know the play. It’s an awful play. I too acted in it and had fallen out with the lead actor. I could have done with a piece of cake. Perhaps that’s why my acting career plummeted. I love that we were in the same awful play.
Streisand though is still thinking about the piece of cake in the wings. “It was a piece of chocolate cake, a slice the perfect size to fit in the mouth. I would have preferred it with some vanilla ice cream but that would have melted on the set. It was a good enough tool. Use something that’s real for you.”
That’s the thing with Streisand. She always seems real and not afraid to be herself. I remember the story of when she was asked to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Real life Brice had had a nose job. “She cut off her nose to spite her race,” quipped Dorothy Parker. It almost cost Streisand the part. They worried that Streisand looked too Jewish to play a Jewish star with a nose job.
You think of Streisand being all about perfection, control but she’s more about not being afraid of who she is. Vulnerability and fearlessness is always an intoxicating mix. She loves her Jewishness. She loves to eat like a Jew, even if she can’t cook like one, although she has told me that recently she studies recipes.
The thing that gets you about her album Encore is its absolute Barbra-ness. I wonder has she improvised some of the words of the songs. For instance in At the Ballet her character is told to bring it down. Did anyone tell her that in an audition? “No. They could have but they didn’t. It’s in the play.” It seems like she wrote it. “I know,” she nods, “that’s good writing.”
The songs are all rediscovered classics with rediscovered artists. Any Moment Now with Hugh Jackman paints a scene of a relationship falling apart, with details that seem so graphic it’s painful. I’ll Be Seeing You which she sings with Chris Pine is a revelation and Jamie Foxx singing Climb Every Mountain is so soulful it’s probably the best version of the song ever. “Good, because I don’t really love the song. I wanted to make it stand on its own rather than just something from The Sound of Music. We improvised some of the new lines. Some of them weren’t in the original. I knew he had a good voice but he surprised me with an even better voice and he sings from his heart.”
Foxx and Streisand seem an unusual juxtaposition, but somehow she brings out a softness in him that she couldn’t have imagined and he brings out a certainty in her that is properly moving.
There’s also a duet with Anthony Newley, probably his most famous song Who Can I Turn To which he wrote with Leslie Bricusse from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint and the Smell of the Crowd. It’s the one song where the partners’ voice is more distinctive than Streisand. Newley in his shaky cockney tones sounds like David Bowie Laughing Gnome period. “I’ve heard that David Bowie was very influenced by Tony Newley. I was doing Funny Girl and he was doing The Roar of the Greasepaint and I met him that year and thought he was fantastic and then we became friends,” she says casually. I tell her that at one point I was friendly with Sasha Newley, his son and briefly we worked on a musical about his father’s life and in the course of that I uncovered a song called Too Much Woman. It was a song that Newley wrote about Streisand who, according to his son, he was completely in love with. Newley loved women. One can say they were his addiction but for him Streisand stood alone, the unconquerable too much woman. Did she ever know about this song he wrote for her? “Tony Newley sent it to me when he was dying and I thought wow.” She sings it to me, “I heard you on the radio today…” She sings it in a Newley style voice. It’s a wonderful song. I love that song. Her voice is slightly shaky now. She smiles. She wasn’t expecting that I knew about that song but she’s far from floored by it, or the idea that for all these years he held a candle that was more than a candle, that he was deeply in love and she was too much woman for him.
“Well you have exclusive knowledge for your article don’t you because it has never been written about. I’m proud of that song. I’m proud that he wrote it for me.” What does she think of the concept of being too much woman? Surely she as one of the ultimate women could never feel there is such a thing. We have a woman Prime Minister in the UK for which both left and right seem grateful that she’s sensible and safe. Isn’t this a new age where there’s not such a thing as too much woman?
“I don’t know much about your Prime Minister. She’ll probably have more balls than the old one.” Is Hillary Clinton too much woman for the United States? “I hope not. I really hope not but I think the British have always been…..” her voice trailed off. “I might have told you this before but when I made Yentl as a first time director I made it in England. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minster and you had a Queen, so powerful women were no big deal. I think this country we still think of powerful women as suspect, you know like they’re too ambitious or they’re control freaks which is such a shame.”
Does she think it’s the end of the glass ceiling and it’s a world power moment for women? “I hope so. I pray that we will have Hillary as our President and I think that informed, smart people are going to vote for her, at least I hope. I’ve met a lot of people who are powerful and smart like Michelle Obama.” On the day we meet, Donald Trump’s wife had stolen most of Michelle Obama’s speech. Streisand looks irritated. “They are that stupid? Golda Meir,” She says suddenly. “She was one of the first women to head a country (1969-1974 when she resigned). I had a conversation with Golda Meir when it was the 30th anniversary of Israel and that shows you all that women can be. She could declare war on one hand and say ‘would you like a Danish with the coffee?’ with the other. She was the grandma – a very warm, sweet lady, yet a powerful leader. Women can be many things, angry and forgiving, have PhD’s and manicures.”
Streisand always has a beautiful manicure. A little defiant touchstone. Her mother told her to cut her nails and learn to be a typist. Of course you can type with nails and if you’re Streisand you probably have a super power to type and have good nails. I have none. She looks at my fingers and looks a little mournful but it’s because she’s distracted. I’m thinking that we’d segue way from God Meyer into racism, hate crimes and what it means to be a Super Jew but she’s like, “Can we talk about Newley some more? What happened to this musical? Why are you not working on it anymore? Did you disagree?” Not really, he just went off me. “Why was that? What year was that? Is that why Sasha was calling me and I could never find out exactly what it was that he wanted? I’ve met Sasha. I’ve seen his artwork. He came to my house with this kids and his mum. The little girl wanted to see my dolls houses.”
In Streisand’s actual home she has an annexe where she keeps dolls houses, old fashioned. I’m not sure if they’re vintage or modelled on vintage. She told me once that she didn’t have a proper childhood so that’s why she likes the dolls houses. She was bullied for looking too weird looking, too Jewish and constantly criticised by her mother Diana who was herself a soprano. Typical of Streisand to be able to play like a little girl when she feels most womanly. She tells me she’s happy with James Brolin to whom she’s been married for 18 years. Her manager Marty Erlichman she’s been with for 50 years and her assistant Renata Buser (43 years) somewhere in between the two. She’s a striver but she thrives on stability. Growing up there can’t have been much of that, her critical mother telling her she’d never amount to anything. It was a painful sharpening of her drive. Her father Emanuel died from complications after an epileptic seizure when she was only 15 months old. It was brought on when a hospital gave him a fatal dose of morphine to treat his constant headaches.
In her childhood the high point was cake from the bakery. Now at 74 she can still remember the cake and how she strove to find her father. She sees herself in two parts – the feminine that loves ruffles and lace and she sees her father. He represents her masculine side. “I found him during Yentl. I created him. I was the director, I was the one in control. I was the male figure. It was all very cathartic.”
She started off singing in clubs at 17 or 18. For her first record she agreed to take less money as long as she could have artistic control. “That’s right. That’s called a control freak but why would any man or woman not want to be in control of their own lives.” Now she belongs to a small coterie of luminaries who have collected Oscars, Emmy’s, Globes, Grammy’s and Tony’s.
Her white fluffy dog Samantha, a Coton de Tuléar , gives a yowl of appreciation or maybe it’s of desire because she’s just realised there’s a cake. She brings the subject back to Tony Newley. “He had a fantastic voice and he was so lovely and very handsome, yes. I loved his looks. He looked like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.”
Streisand’s always liked beautiful men. She told me once it was the one thing they all had in common. Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal, Don Johnson. “All attractive. I love beauty whether it’s in a piece of furniture or a man. My husband has the perfect forehead, the perfect jaw, the perfect teeth. Even if he makes me angry I get a kick out of his symmetry.”
She’s referring to her husband James Brolin. Her first husband was Elliot Gould who she married in 1963. They have a son Jason now aged 49. They divorced in 1971 I wonder if she was too much woman for him too. This was after her iconic performances in Funny Girl and Hello Dolly and I wonder if he felt in her shadow.
Even now she’s not terribly at ease with the interview process. “People make up stories about me. Maybe it’s more interesting.” She’s still working on an autobiography and says her relationship with work has changed. She says she’s become lazy. Although she told me once over the years the happier she’s become, the less she’s needed to work, she’s still a worker. There’s the album, a tour and soon she starts work on Gypsy in which she plays Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother.
I can’t understand why so much has been made about her never looking the perfect leading lady. I don’t think it’s a question of she grew into her face either. I think she carried around the sense that she was an oddball, a misfit and became a champion for other misfits. Because she believed it, other people believed it and when you look back at her in The Way We Were and Funny Girl it wasn’t just as critics said, her talent was her beauty. She was actually gorgeous. A proper star. She has used her stardom well. These days it means more to her to have her name on the Barbra Streisand Woman’s Heart Centre than in lights. More women die of heart attacks than breast cancer, yet more money is raised for breast cancer. Streisand is a lobbyist. She wants more funds. She tells me that recently she was given mice for a trial and she demanded all female mice. It is after all a women’s heart foundation with women’s hormones and physiognomies. “It was a fight,” she says. So in the day of potential female world leaders she still has to fight to get an all women trial, the next step after getting all female mice.
She doesn’t look exhausted by the thought of it, rather excited. She’s made me laugh, made me think. Would it be appropriate to hug her goodbye? Not really.
We are back stage at Madison Square Garden. Hospitality is piled high with eclairs, pink cakes and hot dogs. Billy Joel is in a tailored suit and a tie with skulls on it. He’s quiet and concentrating on his game. His gait is slow and deliberate. He’s a man with two new hips. Once on stage he’s exuberant and makes the giant venue feel like a living room – he holds the record for selling out 36 shows in 3 years, more than any other artist.
The crowd itself is not women of a certain age. It’s people from their 20’s up. The front row is always pretty girls, he tells me “years ago we decided to be Santa Claus, I got tired of seeing these gold chain guys with their babes sitting at the front, ‘going entertain me, Piano Man.’ ” He’s speaking in a gnarly, Gangsters of New York style accent. “So I said ‘to hell with this, the front row is not on the market.’ I send my road crew to the cheap seats and they pick who they want in front – the cutest girls they can find. So we look down and see nothing but beautiful women. That amps it up”.
Onstage he’s fully amped and says to the crowd, “at least you don’t have to listen to any new shit!” He hasn’t produced any new music for 23 years. But more of that later, for now, everyone loves the show where they can sing. When it comes to Piano Man at the end, his voice is totally shot. The audience sings it for him.
The crowd roar till they are hoarse, and he’s gone. A limo across town to the awaiting helicopter and on to his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island where he had the tennis court turned into a personal helipad. He was born not too far away. A couple of days later I go there to meet him. It is like visiting the Gatsby mansion. It’s beautiful beyond belief. A reconstructed arts and crafts mansion, with high ceilings and sweeping views, manicured gardens, waterfall, pet cemetery and looking out on the bright blue water. The bay is sparkling. Boats bobbing up and down.
He tells me, “I used to work on oyster boats and look up at this house and hate the guy that was living here with his inherited money and now it’s mine, can you believe that?” It’s almost like he can’t. “Oysters was all I was eating when I was on the boats, I had no money and up at 5am in the middle of the winter”. He takes me to the gazebo and points across the bay to a red brick house. “That was my old house where I lived with Christy Brinkley. My first daughter Alexa was born when we lived in that house”.
In the kitchen his 8 month old daughter Della Rose is scooting around on her walker. She has his eyes. They can stare you out “I grew up in a nothing place called Hicksville, but I used to come here, this was a magic land, I’d ride my bicycle up and think wow. I never forgot it,” he says.
We go under a canopy off his front drive overlooking the bay to talk. He’s 65 (66 May 9th) and he has an air of composure and pride. The anxious ambition long gone. He has a beautiful blonde wife, Alexis (34?) – who gave up her job risk managing at Morgan Stanley so they could spend more time together and raise their child. With three marriages behind him, he’s anxious to do things differently. “Sure it’s different, but it’s different because of who she is. She didn’t have to give up her job, she wanted to. I wanted her to be around. She’s a good mate. I’ve always taken out the trash and changed diapers. I don’t want to have staff or a lot of people around me. I want to walk around in my boxers if I feel like it. I don’t like people all over the place. So we’re pretty much on our own. I do the cooking and she does the cleaning. It’s easy.”
Does he have a signature dish? “Yup, pasta. On a Sunday I make a big Sunday sauce, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic. Pasta is my downfall. I love to eat. My metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Jack Nicholson once said the trouble with this country is all the guys with flat bellies and he’s right – there’s nothing more icky to me than a woman going out with a man and he’s picking at his food and only ordering low calorie. A guy on a diet is not a guy as far as I’m concerned. I can even judge a woman I’m dating by how she eats. If she picks at her food she’s not going to be good in bed.” I laugh wholeheartedly. How lovely to have such an unpolitically correct guy.
He has two rescue dogs, one very fat pug called Rosie and a boisterous mini pin macho mix called Jack. He showed me where his favourite dog, Sabrina is buried and has a lovely memorial. Sabrina, he tells me reminded him of his mother who died in 2014 at the age of 92. His mother was his role model. His father left when he was 10 and she brought him and his sister up by working very hard and insisting that he start with piano lessions. Joel is enjoying giving me the tour, he’s proud of what he surveys. He’s proud of his 12 albums worth of material and that it speaks to all ages. “How boring would it be if it was just people in my age group?” He sold out 36 Madison Square Gardens which takes him up to the end of this year. In the summer he has selective dates in huge stadiums including Wembley. “I hesitate to call it a tour, I don’t want to be a road dog anymore. I want to be at home. I’ve got a new baby, a new wife and I don’t want to be in hotels.”
Much is made about the fact he doesn’t write songs anymore. Does he have secret ones lying around that one day he’ll finish? “No I’m not even resolute about never doing it. People can say I’m coasting, but I stopped wanting to write songs. It took a toll on me personally. Your personal life goes to hell in a handcart because you’re like Cro-Magnon in a cave. All you’re doing is thinking about songs in your own hell. I hate writing but I love having written. I just stopped wanting to do it. Elton was always saying, why don’t you do a new album? Why don’t you write new songs? And I would reply, ‘why don’t you put out less albums?’ I guess he wants to remain relevant, but if these albums don’t sell what’s the point? I hate to think I’m a nostalgia act, but we all are, anyone who’s going to sell out arenas.”
He toured with Elton, the Piano player and Piano man for 16 years.
A couple of years back, Elton was quoted in the press criticising Joel, why did they fall out? Joel says, “We didn’t fall out, even though Elton said, ‘Billy is a conundrum and he’s got alcohol issues and is coasting,’ That’s NOT the reason we’re not touring anymore. I got tired of doing the same show over and over again and I think his agent told him we were going to do more dates that I never agreed to. I kept seeing in the press, ‘Billy cancelled the tour.’ I didn’t cancel it – it was never booked. I asked him, ‘why didn’t you call me? Don’t talk to my agent, talk to me.’ I had to have my hips replaced and that was the reason I was out of commission. I have had drinking issues in the past. So did he. I think at heart he meant well.
Elton had said when he went to rehab he had to clean floors and criticised Joel’s rehab as not being hard-core.
“At one point he said I went to a rehab that allowed me to have a dog. I thought you weren’t in rehab with me, you don’t know what happened. Once you go 30 days without a drink, you go OK, I get it. They dry you out. That’s what rehab does. So I told him, instead of speaking these words, why don’t you write a few- because he doesn’t write lyrics.”
Much has been made of Joel’s alcoholism. He had a couple of car accidents a few years back, which were not alcohol related, but people seemed to think he was sad and drinking away the pain.
“I drink wine with dinner, I don’t drink booze anymore. Elton had a terrifying lifestyle when he checked into rehab. I didn’t have that problem. My drug was booze. We haven’t spoken in a while but a couple of years ago I went to a fundraiser for his Aids foundation and we had a little godfather chat. I said, ‘don’t throw your friends under the bus.’ The last few gigs I did with Elton, I could barely walk, I had canes, canes on stage is not good. I used to do flips off the piano, climb up lighting cables and jump off them onto the stage wearing shoes. They told me my option was – do both hips together which is very painful and the recovery is 3 months or one after the other which would be 6 months, so I said just hit me. I did the hip thing in 2011 and I needed a lot of recovery. I was in a new relationship and I wanted to devote time to my personal life.”
His wife is Alexis, his daughter is Alexa and he has a half-brother Alex who is a classical conductor in Vienna. I met him at the show. “I named my daughter Alexa Ray Joel because that has a better Iambic pentameter. The Ray was after Ray Charles and the new baby is Della Rose after my mother who was Rosalind. My mom died 2 years ago. I think once in awhile you see them. The other day I thought I saw her.”
Joel was born Jewish and baptised Protestant and growing up all his friends were Catholic. Now he’s an atheist. “All my friends were Irish or Italian, I went with them to mass on a Sunday, because I thought that’s what you did. Mass was still in Latin which absolutely fascinated me. (He starts reciting Latin) and then there’s the guy nailed to the wall with a crown of thorns – what happened to him? It was very hocus pocus and kind of enthralling. The waving of the incense things – it was a good show. When I was about 10 my mom said that me and my sister had to have a religion, and she took us to the church of Christ. It was evangelical. They ask you at the end of the service, do you accept Christ as your saviour, step forward and be baptised. I felt bad no one was walking up the aisle so I thought OK, I’ll go and they baptised me. One Sunday the minister, a southern guy, unrolled a $ bill and said this is the flag of Jews and I said that’s it, I’m outta here, I never went back. I have no religion and I’m glad.”
Did he feel that he didn’t fit with the Jewish parents, the Catholic friends the Protestant church? “No, none of them fit me. My grandfather was an atheist, he believed in science, he was a very smart man who would read logarithms to himself and chuckle. If there was a God, it was Beethoven, he was the guy.”
Both his parents liked music, they met when performing Gilbert and Sullivan in college. His half brother also had the music in him. “I didn’t even know I had a brother until the 70’s. When my parents split up my father went back to Europe and I never saw him again. Never got a card, nothing. He had a very rough life. Jews living in Nuremburg, had citizenship stripped, businesses stolen by the Nazi’s. His family went to Cuba as there was a quota on Jews in America. When he came to New York he immediately got drafted into the army.
My grandfather was a male role model and some of my teachers.”
He shrugs. I can’t tell if the father leaving the 10 year old Joel was a heartbreak or something found easy?
“I did miss having a father but it was relief in some ways as my parents didn’t get on well, they argued a lot and I was lucky as a lot of the time the father wants his son to go into his business, to go to college and I said I’m not doing any of that. I’m going to be a musician. My mother encouraged it. A lot of my friends were afraid of their fathers and I didn’t have anything like that. I wasn’t afraid of anybody.
Then it strikes me, part of what sets Joel apart, absolute fearlessness. Doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. “I took piano lessons when I was young and the piano teacher also taught ballet and the guys down the street would say Billy, where’s your tutu? Bang, they’d sock me. I said, ‘to hell with this’. I went to the Police Boys Club where they had a boxing program.
Was he not concerned his fingers could be broken? “No, because I wasn’t that good a pianist and I’m still not. Rock n Roll, OK, but the classical, forget it! So the next time I got, ‘where’s your tutu?’ I decked them and nobody ever did it again. I stopped being frightened. I used to have a cute nose, now it’s busted up”. The nose is all over the place, but he doesn’t care.
Has he never cared what people think of him? I read that he used to call up reviewers who gave him bad review. “If someone has an opinion they can say ‘in my opinion, I hated the music, but if they were saying something that was not correct, I’d call them out. That was the neighbourhood I was from. I don’t care about that anymore. I’ve pretty much proven myself.”
Alexis in a pretty, floral chiffon dress is going into town. “Bye babe,” she kisses Joel and we walk over to the helicopter pad to wave her off.
Is that the real reason he doesn’t write songs anymore. He doesn’t want to be that guy who has something else to prove.
He looks right at me, thinks “no it’s not that. I’m still writing music, I just stopped writing words.”
SO the words are the things he wrestles with, they are his demons? “No, not demons, just sometimes, music speaks to me on its own. I started to write what could have been a song but the music was saying what I wanted it to say.
“When Christy and I got divorced I was missing my daughter who would come and visit me and then have to leave. It was heart-breaking. The music came naturally to me and it had all the emotion in it. But I’ve never closed the door on writing songs.”
Will he write one for Alexis? The helicopter noise claps away in the background. “I don’t know,” he says. It will take her 15 minutes to get to the city – a 2 hour drive.
He likes it when his wife and baby come in the helicopter with him to MSG. “It’s difficult to make the transition, on stage you feel like Mussolini and then bolt out of the building, you’re in a traffic jam (en route to the helipad on the West Side) and you’re just another schmuck on the highway. There’s a car in front of you and you think, does he not know who we are? But you learn from that.”
It’s not that Joel behaves like Mussolini in his domestic life. “I’ve always taken out the trash and done the dishes.” In his previous marriages he was helpful and respectful at home. Was there a pattern in the break-ups? “I’ve tried to figure that out. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. It has to be a pretty unique arrangement to find the right person for a lifetime. Very few people are exactly the right person, but when things didn’t work out, I never blamed my wife or myself, it just didn’t work out. I get on great with all of my ex-wives. I still like them and they still like me. The first divorce was horrible.
His first wife was Elizabeth Weber, they married in 1973, he wrote She’s Always a Woman for her. They divorced in 1982. “That divorce was a long drawn out affair. She was also the manager. She was protective of me, but it went to her head. It was not a smart arrangement.”
He married Christy Brinkley in March 1985 (the mother of Alexa Ray) who was born almost exactly 9 months after the wedding day. They divorced in 1994.
His third wife was Katie Lee, who when they got married in 2004, was only 23. She was and is a TV host for food programmes. Before Christy he went out briefly with Elle MacPherson, “I met them both together along with Whitney Houston, at St Barts. It was the first time I ever took a vacation. I started to play the piano in a bar, feeling blue because I’d just gone through the divorce and I look up and there was Elle MacPherson, Christy Brinkley and Whitney Houston standing at the piano. Whitney was only 16, Christy had a boyfriend and Elle was being flirtatious, so I started seeing her. Then she went to Europe to do the modelling thing, by that time I was already friends with Christy and she and her boyfriend had broken up, we started going out and I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought are you kidding me?”
Famously, he wrote, Uptown Girl for her. “She inspired the whole album really, I went back to being a teenager again. The rock star and the supermodel, that was a thing for a while. The hardest part of the break up was being without my daughter because Christy moved to Colorado with some other guy and I’d have to fly to where they lived in blizzards – it was a ski resort. After about a year Christy moved back to New York and everything was hunky dory. I dated for awhile before I met Katy, who was actually in college when I met her. We hit it off, she wasn’t ready for babies and I respected that. Now she has 3 TV shows, she’s a great girl but she was too young when we got married. In your 20’s you go through so many changes and I was too old to do the things people in their 20s; want to do. Go out, be seen, schmooze.”
Why does he always need to marry people? Wouldn’t it have been better to just date her? “Well when you start living together, you’re thinking of having a family, you want your children to have a name. I married Alexis when she was pregnant with Della Rose.”
He did say after divorce no.3 he’d never marry again. “You always say that after a divorce, ‘I’m never going to do that again’. During a divorce there is a certain acrimony that goes on once the lawyers are involved, once it’s over everything is ok. If I was going to have a baby I wanted that baby to have a name”.
He met Alexis in 2009 at a restaurant at the town down the road called Huntingdon. “I was with friends, standing at the bar waiting for our table and here was this pretty girl, I started chatting her up and then we started dating. When she started to live with me I said, why don’t you quit your job? Although I liked the businesswoman coming home in her business suit with a little attaché case, kind of sexy.”
He also has a bike shop and owns over 100 hundred motorbikes. They are his passion. Some years ago he ran into Bono in the Hamptons at the American hotel, which is old and splendid. “We got talking about music, shot the shit and then he asked for a ride back. But he didn’t know how to get to where he was staying. I had gone to the hotel in a little Vespa with a sidecar. I used to take the dogs in the sidecar. Bono went in the sidecar. We were driving around in Sag Harbour, a tiny place and he still didn’t know where he was going. I said give me some landmarks and he says, ‘there’s trees and some water’. We were surrounded by trees and water. People were looking at me with Bono in the sidecar with an “are you kidding me look? And it took about an hour to find his hotel which was five minutes away, but we had fun!
On stage he dedicated a song to Donald Trump – the entertainer, for obvious reasons and another to Ted Cruz, New York State of Mind. Why was that?
“He made a comment putting down New York values – meaning New York is a place of Sodom and Gomorrah, with all these ethnicities and dishonest people compared to the Midwest. So people in New York heard that and went fuck you! Trump is a strange guy – an inarticulate speaker, tortured syntax, I want someone who has eloquence, like Churchill. I never go into politics with an audience, that’s not what they come for but I like Hillary. If it’s her and Trump she’ll kill him. She’s bright and dedicated to public service all her life.”
We talk about his daughter Alexa who writes songs and plays the piano. She does cabaret at the Carlyle hotel. “I don’t know if she has the hunger or drive to make a career out of it. If other people do her songs, that’s great. She’s scared of the music business because of the celebrity aspect of it.”
At one point she had a stalker. Joel continues; “that scared her and she also doesn’t know how to deal with reviews.”
To be a good song writer you have to feel everything, “and when the slings and arrows come, it hurts, it’s a dichotomy. I’ve been thinking, if I am afraid of something it’s not that – it’s about being old and infirm. I don’t freak out about it all of the time. But I don’t want to be so old I can’t think or do anything. I’d like to think you have a light switch that just goes off and then that’s it.”
For now he couldn’t be more full of life, funny and having a great time. Of course that was not always the case. After his third marriage broke up he was miserable and in pain, physically (from the hips) and emotionally. “A tabloid story ran that I got a DUI and that got picked up – but the more you deny the more guilty you look. I never got a DUI. Now I rarely drink a second glass of wine, before I was drinking everything. I grew up in a pub culture, after work everyone meets up and drinks.”
Were you also self-medicating? “Yeah sure. Some people take pills, some people go to a shrink, some people do yoga, some people drink too much. I drank too much after Christy, I drank too much after Katy. When you’re no longer in control, that’s a problem, I don’t like that feeling anymore, I learned not to like it. I used to like eating too much food, but now I have a cut-off switch. I’m glad.”
A person who has written so much moody music and painful lyrics, is of course going to have his extremes, but it appears he doesn’t have them anymore, which could be another reason why he doesn’t have to exorcise the pain in song. When he was 21 he tried to kill himself by drinking furniture polish. “Nothing was happening with my music career, I didn’t have a job or a place to live. I had to live with my Mom again, which felt like a real failure. So I said that’s it. I’m going to off myself. There was stuff in the closet, bleach that will kill you and another one called Old English scratch polish and I thought that looked tastier. I drank it and farted furniture polish for two days.”
He was serious, he did write a suicide note. “And it became the lyrics to a song called Tomorrow is Today. When you’re 21 it’s a tough age, that transition to adulthood. I keep reading that I suffer from depression, but I don’t. Break ups will depress you. I got depressed after 9/11, I thought the new Millennium was going to be bright and shiny and then boom, the World Trade Centers. That was my town… but the rest of the time I don’t think I get depressed at all.”
Would he have cancelled his show like Bruce Springsteen cancelled his show in North Carolina over the states legislation over transgender bathrooms – saying transgenders had to use the bathroom of the sex they were born with – “I don’t think it’s going to change anything and it’s not the audiences fault. Some people probably bought tickets in a secondary market and won’t get their money back. But I admire Bruce for taking a stand, he’s a principled man and a friend.”
He’s also a fan of Coldplay, “a great band and Adele is the best singer to come down the pike since Whitney Houston, but I only listen to classical music now, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin”
It seems odd as he’s made his millions through rock music. He smiles very contentedly, “I like spending my money on motorcycles and boats. Lawyers who were supposed to be looking after my interests did not, nor did accountants, nor did managers but I’ve learned from that and I’ve learned to be a businessman and nobody should worry about me. When I come to Europe I’m going to take a bike and ride. Maybe I should have had my nose fixed all those years ago but I never did. I’ve never been a matinee idol. I’m never going to get work done. Changing my face isn’t going to make that happen. I’m a guy,” he says. He doesn’t mean he’s just a guy, he means he’s a guy and that too makes him happy.
Jennifer Lopez is in a simple dress, long bare legs outstretched in front of her. Her voice is creaky with a chest infection, her eyes bleary. But her work ethic is as strong as it was back in the Bronx days she immortalised in her 2001 hit ‘Jenny From the Block’. It’s been a long time – and many blocks – since the tough, determined girl born to Puerto Rican parents danced her way around Manhattan as a backing singer for the likes of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and there seem to have been many Jennys since then too.
We are in a sunny Beverly Hills hotel room. It is not a suite. There are no Diptyque candles. And the thread count on the bed linen is probably not more than 420. It certainly doesn’t meet the stipulations she was alleged to have demanded of her accommodation when she was J Lo the diva, who routinely rode in Bentley convertibles with her fiancé Ben Affleck, or went to gangsta-style clubs with her partner of two and a half years Sean Combs (P Diddy), and was chased by paparazzi.
Life is quieter now, with her husband of five years, Latin singer Marc Anthony, and two-year-old twins Emme and Max, but it’s certainly not simpler.
‘I just did two 24-hour flights back to back for a party in Kazakhstan that I had to perform at.’ Was it worth it? ‘I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Totally.’ The result is that she’s feeling exhausted and fluey, but she’s a trouper. She’s known worse (such as the trauma of cancelling her wedding to Ben Affleck hours before it was due to take place in 2003).
Her life has certainly changed pace. And her new movie The Back-Up Plan reflects that. It’s about a woman who decides that she doesn’t want to miss out on having children even though she doesn’t have a boyfriend. So she plans to have IVF and a baby on her own, and on the same day as the treatment she meets a man with the kind of romantic possibilities that she’d given up on. They fall in love and everything happens in reverse. Instead of romance, proposal, marriage, baby, it’s – she’s already pregnant with somebody else’s baby, then romance, then relationship.
The movie is cutting-edge funny and a return to form for Jennifer. ‘It couldn’t be more perfect,’ she says, ‘the whole idea, in a romantic comedy, that the pregnancy is the obstacle. It’s always, “Oh, my boyfriend can’t commit, I can’t commit, I’m in love with my best friend.” But this story seemed to me to be about a real problem. “Are you going to take on this child? Is it OK to ask somebody to do that?”
Does she think she would have used IVF to get pregnant if she hadn’t met the right man? She shakes her head. ‘It takes a lot of bravery to have a child on your own. I have a girlfriend who did it and I really admire her. Especially knowing how much help you need. It’s a lot to be a working mum and think, I’m OK on my own. I would like to think that I’m strong enough to do that, but honestly, I don’t know if I could.’ Several aspects of pregnancy come across.
In the movie she gets pregnant with twins – how much like real life is that? ‘Well, that’s very real life. I loved it. The woman who wrote it had just gone through a pregnancy, so it was all very fresh in her mind. And it was very fresh for me – the twins were about a year old.’
Several aspects of pregnancy come across in the movie as funny, gross, horrendous, embarrassing. Were they aspects she related to? ‘All of it. I wanted to put as much in as we could that was real: the overeating, the burping. Why not? It’s funny too. Pregnancy and giving birth are weird, strange. The growing life inside you – it’s like an invasion of the body snatchers.’
Jennifer did not have IVF herself. ‘A lot of people thought I did because I had twins, but what they don’t realise is that when you are over 35 the chance of twins increases, especially if they are in your family, and they are in mine. I was 37 when I got pregnant, so I had both factors going on.’ She knew she was having twins at seven weeks. ‘I didn’t believe I was pregnant, even though I had taken a pregnancy test. The plus sign didn’t look dark enough and I kept thinking that maybe it wasn’t a good test, so I called the doctor, who said I should come in and check. And then she said, “Oh, it looks like you’re having twins.” It was a big shock.’
But also a joy. Jennifer had been broody for years. Almost as soon as she got together with Marc (in 2004, a few months after the broken engagement with Affleck and after Marc’s separation from his first wife, former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres), she realised that their relationship was more bonded and grounded than previous affairs; they came from a similar place, both in touch with their Latin roots. The turbulence that had defined her love life with Affleck and Combs gave way to something else. She had already been married twice, first in 1997 to waiter Ojani Noa (an 11-month marriage that was eclipsed by her huge success with George Clooney in Out of Sight) and then in 2001 to dancer Cris Judd, whom she hoped would provide her with the mix of stability and edge she needed (they divorced in 2003, after Jennifer got involved with Affleck). But with Marc, she says, ‘it was the type of relationship that you dream about. You get to the point where you realise what’s real and what you are imagining to be there. It takes a lot of looking and getting past the disappointments.’ With Marc it seemed right to start a family.
How has she changed since becoming a mother? ‘I think it calms you down a little bit, even though you have less sleep. Everything is at hyper speed, which puts things into perspective: this is important, this is not important, this is something that can wait, this is something I need to take care of. You speed up your decision-making process and you prioritise in a different way.’ Jennifer redefined the way women think about their curves by never being afraid to display her tiny waist and wide, full derrière. She was used to having a dancer’s body – flexible, toned, sculpted. Losing that must have been difficult. ‘Yeah, I do remember distinctly when you don’t fit into your clothes any more. At first it’s cute when you have a little bump. You wear big sweaters. Then one day your jeans don’t fit and you think, oh no, it’s happening. I was on tour until I was six months pregnant, so I didn’t grow the way I would have if I had been sitting at home, but once I was just sitting around, that’s when I got really big.’ How long did it take her to get her body back afterwards? ‘A while, a year. Six months afterwards, I did the Nautica Malibu triathlon and I was still 16lb overweight. Over the next six months I got it back.’ Was there a strict regime? ‘No. I don’t get too crazy any more. There was a time when I really worked out, but I was never manic about it. I did what I could. I’ve got good genes. But I care less now.’
In the movie, her character Zoe craves junk food all the time. ‘I’m not a junk food person. I like food, though. And you do feel very hungry. Your body is asking for food. The baby is asking for food. It’s like a factory. That’s why I made the decision when I was eight months pregnant to do the triathlon after I had the babies. I wanted to know I was the same person as before I had them. I wanted to be that person more than ever for my babies. I wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted them to think, “I’ve got a special mum, she was amazing, look what she did!” I didn’t want to lose my ambition and drive to do amazing things.’
She always defined who she was by how hard she could work and how much she could love. How does she still work so hard and fit that in with the demands of motherhood? ‘I want to be the best at that too. I want to just do it all. When we travel we travel with the babies. I try to rehearse in the house. I’ve adjusted my life so that I can spend as much time with them there. I’m lucky to have that luxury so I’m going to use it to the fullest.’
Is she ready for another baby yet? ‘No. I think I just need to work right now. I do want another baby, because once you have one you realise what a blessing it is; what an amazing miracle and how much they enrich your life. But you still have to be an individual.’
Do the twins have a special connection? ‘They do. Max is always climbing out of his cot to get in Emme’s. But then they fight like cat and dog. And I’ve figured out the difference between men and women by seeing their innate characteristics. She is very careful, and you can see her thinking; men don’t think, they attack and deal with the consequences. We approach life and love in different ways.’
‘He is still that, and I’m the biggest challenge that he’s ever had to deal with, and that’s what keeps it interesting for us both. John Cassavetes [the director and actor] once said that he and Gena Rowlands battled their whole marriage. There was an intensity in their relationship. He said that in some ways they both knew that if the battle was over the.
Her own love life used to be like a roller coaster – enormous highs of passion with lows of betrayal. How does that translate into her relationship with Marc? Did she suddenly settle and find that stability suited her?
‘For all the stability we provide for each other, Marc and I are both artists. We both like intensity. We are both very passionate, and that still exists in our relationship. If we didn’t have that it would be boring. Too boring for me.’
She once told me that her perfect type of man was not a straightforward bad boy but a boy who was a perfect mixture of hard and soft. A little bit stubborn, a little bit of a challenge; you had to work to get to the sweet bit. Does Marc fit into that ideal? Is he still that? Hard and soft? relationship was over. They cared enough to battle.
‘People seem to think that when there’s conflict in a relationship it’s always a bad thing, but I think you need a challenge. The dynamic between us is passionate and that’s why it works. We are compatible, but at the same time we are different enough to make it interesting.’
I tell her that I’ve read a couple of stories recently that said they are different enough to be splitting up. Has she read those? ‘Of course. It doesn’t really matter to me. We know what’s true.’
Jennifer’s relationship with fame has completely changed since the early days. She used to think success equalled fame, which meant a constant accompaniment of paparazzi and tabloid fever. Then she realised artistic credibility came from getting on with it and headlines didn’t make a relationship work. But she’s used to controversy, to stories spiralling out of control, and seems pretty unflustered by it.
She hasn’t read the story about her first husband selling their wedding photos, she says (although there have been reports in the press that she’s suing him over it). ‘Somebody asked me about it recently but I didn’t see it. I’m not in touch with him at all.’ Is that your decision or his? ‘It’s just your life goes into different chapters. It’s like the first grade. You just get past it.’
What she doesn’t want to get past is the experience of love. All the different kinds of love she’s had – fierce, warm, treacherous; how to keep love going; how to stub it out if it’s bad. ‘I’m putting all that into a new album called Love?, because I still find love very confusing and challenging. I also feel it’s time to open up the dialogue about what that word ‘love’ means, what do people do in love? Should we have better standards in love, [agree that] it’s not OK to be dishonest, to cheat, or be pointlessly cruel?’
Isn’t it becoming more and more difficult to juggle children, acting, music? Does she feel she should decide to go in one direction?
‘Oh no, I’m not ready to do that.’ What about the crop of new girls that are storming the charts – does she feel threatened by them? ‘No, I love all the girls out there now – Beyoncé, Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Pink – all of them. I don’t feel in competition with them. I just want to be me. And that’s always been good enough.’
Was reaching 40 last year a watershed birthday? ‘It was the best party of my life and the best year so far.’ So she doesn’t worry about body parts moving in the wrong direction? ‘Not yet.
Somebody told me 45 is when that stuff happens. So maybe I can hold on for a while.’ What she’s really holding on for at the moment is a small part on the hit TV show Glee. ‘I’d just like to do an appearance because I love the show so much. It’s one of my favourites.’ But as well as her new movie, her new album and her ambitions for television, her social life in Miami is pretty full-on. Her husband owns part of the Miami Dolphins American football team, and they are also soccer fans and friendly with the Beckhams. Victoria commented recently that they were the same dress size. Jennifer’s eyes widen in shock at this. ‘I don’t think I could fit into her dresses. She’s a tiny thing,’ she says. ‘But she could certainly fit into mine.’
Alicia is always switched on.
She is wearing Louboutin ankle boots with the red soles well worn, Givenchy black jeans with faux cobalt blue rips. Her jacket is also Givenchy. Her face is fresh but for Cleopatra eyeliner that makes her look like a silver screen movie star.
Her hair recently shorn is slicked back close to her head. Her nails are a blood red oval with the half moons painted creamy, very 1940s.
It is an open and brave face. She is listening to one of her new tracks, Brand New Me, hands me her headset asking if I mind her ‘ear juice’. The track is at that time unfinished but she wanted specifically to play it because it best sums up how her life has changed, how she has had a personal revolution since finding love with Swizz Beatz (rapper and producer Kasseem Dean) and becoming a mother to son Egypt.
It’s been a slow but stealthy revolution that’s taken place within her that has seen Alicia transform from a feisty street kid from Hell’s Kitchen with her hair in braids, a girl who carried a knife and a defensive face, who expressed everything through her music yet was wary and defensive and not comfortable in her own skin.
Countless mega-selling albums – Songs In A Minor (released when she was only 20 was the biggest selling debut record of all time at more than 12 million), Tne Diary of Alicia Keys, As I Am and The Element Of Freedom – made her a worldwide superstar, yet she remained strangely ambiguous, never releasing any personal details about herself.
The public only knew her from her songs. No one knew who she was in love with or if she’d ever really been love. She once told me, ‘I’m not the person who runs around sharing things with everybody.’
The brand new Alicia is not only more confident she is more warm, open and trusting. She has allowed herself to be vulnerable for the first time.
She grew up an only child with her hard working Italian Irish mother Terry Augello who was an actress and legal secretary. Her father, Craig Cook, a former flight attendant turned masseur, left her mother when she was two and she spent many years having no relationship with him at all. But upon the death of her paternal grandmother in 2006, with whom she was very close, she gradually came to reconsider their relationship and only recently decided to give it a fresh start putting past pain, abandonment issues and fighting her mother’s corner behind her.
With each album there has been an emotional shift, Alicia becoming less and less afraid to express who she is. The album Girl On Fire is fierce.
‘Brand New Me didn’t happen straight away, it was an evolution. It was a whole journey to get there. Some of the songs on Girl On Fire are very vulnerable. Some are me talking to myself in a subconscious way. Some have a sense of abandonment, of letting go.
‘It’s been a long process sorting out my work life balance since having Egypt. The first process was just bringing him home and for three months just being with him. “Do I start to record now? How do I do that?” What I learnt from Egypt was I should not always be endlessly in the studio. I realised that was counterproductive.
‘I thought I got more done by staying there longer but in actuality I can get more done in less time by being more sustained and focused. I never even had a social life before when I was making a record. I would think nothing else should come anywhere near it and I was so boring. I’m much more fun now.
‘Even coming to London on this trip is a new level of learning about work life balance. What time zone should I keep him on? Egypt continues to change my life every day. (He is named after the country which she visited a few years ago).’I went on my own, completely alone. When I ran away to Egypt it was the first vacation I had ever taken in my adult life. It came at a time where I realised I could not hold everything together. I had been dealing with a lot. (Her grandmother’s illness and death and the onslaught of fame).
‘The wanting to control thing can be very detrimental. On the outside I’m calm and collected so nobody knows what I am going through. I realised if I wanted to grow as an artist and as a woman I had to let that ship go.
‘I went to the Valley of the Kings down to the temples and the tombs. I sailed down the Nile and I swam in the Red Sea. I saw the power of human beings and the inspiration of things that have lasted for thousands of years. I feel I have roots in Egypt, although I’m not sure of the exact origins.
‘Who knew one trip to Egypt would change my life. I would like to think I could still go on my own. Everyone needs alone time.’
‘I do love being on my own. And there are times when I’m not alone but I’m in my own space. Like in the gym. I’ve just started to do boxing. And even though there’s another person physically there with me I feel I’m in my own space.’
‘I’m loving boxing. I don’t care what music is that I work out to I just need a rhythm. Afro-Cuban is good, Spanish is good too. I learnt that it takes 18 months before you really shed the baby weight. It just doesn’t come off in the first 18 months.
‘I gained 30lbs, which isn’t that much, and once the baby comes out a lot of weight comes with that, but the rest, about 10lbs, seems to stay. You are constantly trying to figure out what to do. Eventually I resigned myself to this will take as long as it takes and at around 18 months I felt I’m ready, I’m really ready. And then the last 10lbs went.’
‘Egypt is awesome. He’s two and just so silly. He’s super light and super giggly. We feel so right together, we definitely fit. From the first moment I saw him I loved him. It’s a mixture of relief, he’s finally here, he’s safe, and who he is, a whole full person.
‘A lot of people when they get babies they take them home and think, who are you? What are you doing here? Then eventually they fall for them. Not me. It was love at first sight and it got progressively obsessional. I want to be there every second. I would like to have some more. At least one. Every woman thinks she wants a girl and so did I but I’m so glad he’s a boy. The mother son bond is really powerful.’
‘Women are more complex by nature. They are born complex. Daughters are often closer to their fathers. I grew up with only my mother. Recently I feel both me and my father have grown up. I think something happens when you become a grandparent. You have a different mind state. There’s less pressure on the relationship, so maybe it’s closer. He was with Egypt last week and he loved it.
‘My father and I are fine now. I would say in the process of growing up you realise you’ve been holding on to anger. I was angry then and am sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you’re hurting is you.
‘The process started from my (paternal) grandmother being ill. It caused a shift. You realise what’s important when you see a person you love dearly and you’re not going to have them for long. It was important to her. I saw his love for her. I realised he wasn’t an evil person so I said can we start from this point on? Can we be friends? I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.
‘It’s a great period in my life. All the relationships in my life I feel I’ve got to a place where I’m honest and I can cut the shit. Here is what it was, here is what it is, and here’s what it might be. Let’s just be in the moment.’
‘Definitely since Egypt I’m a more peaceful person. I’m a more comfortable in my own skin person. But it happened before that too. I was becoming more open. I started to understand things better. I stopped being angry with my father and defensive.
‘There’s some things you can’t change and some things you’re going to have to change. I think I put myself in I’ve learnt so much recently. I think I had boxed myself in because of other people’s opinions, other people’s fears and worries and thoughts so I stopped worrying what other people’s worries might be.’
‘I cut my hair and I love it. It really is the embodiment of everything I’ve been doing over these past couple of years. Letting go, freedom, empowerment, doing my own thing. I might never go back to long hair. The washing process, everything, is done in a few seconds and very spontaneous. It can go curly or straight.’
‘I feel connected to both my parents’ roots. My mother is Irish Italian. Her Italian grandparents were from Sicily. I have never been there so I would like to go. Whenever I’m in Italy people always ask me are you a little Italian? They can see it. I would like to take one of those DNA tests because it would be great to know where our exact lineage is from. I’m not sure of my father’s roots. He is African American, but what does that actually mean? I would like to know exactly where I’m from.’
‘There are so many babies born with nobody and having a son makes me now realise wow, what about those babies who for whatever reason are abandoned. Perhaps their mothers passed away and they have never known contact, that touch from their babyhood.
‘I don’t know if I wouldn’t adopt I just don’t know but it’s a beautiful thing to do.’
‘I really do enjoy cooking. I feel very at peace when I cook even though these days I don’t cook a lot because there’s often the question of do I sleep or do I cook? Definitely sleep.
‘My favourite dish is soy maple salmon. It’s salty and sweet and I always love a contrast.’
‘When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to study. I went for the experience and to find out what pulled me. Now if I went back I would study business and marketing. I’d like to understand the fundamentals behind the things I put in action every day. What are the mindsets and concepts?’
‘My collaboration with Emelie Sande came about randomly and I love how things happen like that. I was celebrating the tenth anniversary of Songs In A Minor with four shows. One of them was in the Royal Albert Hall, London and I was looking for a support act. So I got turned on to her. There was one song called Breaking The Law. I played it 70 times, so I said let’s have her open the show. We didn’t meet each other that night.
‘She was coming to New York and we ended up getting together and we decided to do some writing. It was instant chemistry. Rarely does it happen like that. She is a unique and important artist who will be around for a long time. We worked on three songs on this album which are all awesome.’
‘My husband and I knew each other for years. We were both in the same industry. We first met when we were something like 16. I didn’t have music out, I was just playing certain places and he was just starting on his music career.
‘A high school friend of his ended up being a girl who was managed by the same people as me. That’s how we ended up meeting and we used to hang out and say things like “Maybe we’ll work together one day.” We knew each other’s music. We were in the same industry. It’s cute that we knew each other when we were 16 but it was not an instant connection. You never know. Sometimes it takes years. It was a very slow burn but it does still burn and it’s beautiful. We understand each other.
‘I’ve never met someone who is like me and the more we are together the more I see we are alike. I’ve never met someone with whom I could be my whole self. I’ve always had to be part of myself with people, but with him I can be my whole self and he loves me when I am. And I love when he is his whole self.’
‘Sometimes we walk into a room together an everyone gravitates towards him, and there are times when we walk into a room together and everyone gravitates towards me. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable and I don’t feel uncomfortable. I love it when people love him. And he loves when people love me. It’s a really balanced thing we have and I’m so glad I don’t have to pull back this part of myself, pull back that part. We can just be “Here’s me.” It’s pretty special and now with our beautiful Egypt we just thank each other every day.’
Best book you’ve read recently?
It’s Isabelle Allende’s book about Haiti. Unbelievable.
What music are you listening to?
A lot of Afro-Cuban, Fela Kuti, Frank Ocean, Emile Sande and Alabama Shakes.
What are you wearing?
I’m in love with Givenchy. Also I love to wear sweat pants, low hanging tanks with heels.
Can’t live without make-up product?
Eyeliner. Always have loved my eyeliner and always will. I like the make-up line called Tarte.
Item that you’ve most recently splashed out on?
I haven’t but my husband bought a Morgan car. It’s a 1940s meets futuristic body style. Hand made and incredible. I’ll gladly hop in the driver’s seat and drive that bad boy.
Of course it’s New York. But outside of that Barcelona.
I have so many. I want to be able to try new passions, do things I don’t even know yet. I want to learn.
It’s midnight and there’s a bank of paparazzi in front of me surrounding Alicia Keys’ trailer like big fat flies with big fat lenses. They jostle and push, they feel very threatening.
I have just seen Alicia perform at St. John’s, Smith Square, the Black Ball. There’s been dinner, auctions, all to raise money and awareness for her charity Keep A Child Alive. There was a performance from Keys which was intimate and emotionally direct in a way that she’s made her own. Whether it’s on stage or on song, Keys can get you right in the heart.
Even my agitated mood had dissipated: I’d been waiting to interview her since 4.30pm that day, hence the agitation. I could have interviewed her after I’d been waiting about an hour, but that would have been while she was having her make-up done. I’d met Keys many times before. I wanted to talk to her properly, not while her eyes were shut to accommodate a make-up brush.
She’s on a world tour and she’s pregnant. I didn’t know she was pregnant at the time though. It was announced the following day, but I had a funny feeling… but more of that later.
Eventually I’m inside the trailer. Keys and her hair stylist, assistant, and several other integrals, all shout my name loud and cheer me in. You can’t be agitated with Keys for long. She’ll always find a way to melt it.
The trailer is a symphony of fawn and beige leatherette; dark and dank – chunks of newly cut hair from Keys’ hairpiece are on the floor. She says, “It’s like being in jail in here.”
She sprays herself with some Dolce & Gabbana, telling me she wants to mask the smell of performance. The smell is sweet, heady, a little bit salty. Performance was better.
She’s wearing a black draped, off the shoulder dress with a fabric corsage. Her shoes are ruffled platform sandals. I’ve seen her in many incarnations before. When she first started out she never wore a dress because she thought that was too vulnerable and too attention grabbing – there was always that paradox. And her hair was in braids. It seems a long time ago. In those days she was defensive and never wanted to reveal anything to anybody, be it friend, lover or interviewer.
She wrote her first song at 13 when she was coming to terms with the death of her grandfather. Her debut Songs In A Minor was one of the biggest selling debut albums ever. She has continued to be relentlessly successful, each album outstripping the last; and Empire State Of Mind is an inescapable modern classic, probably the most played single of the past year.
The first time I interviewed her there was no PR machine. I just turned up at the appointed time. This time I’m aware there is Alicia Keys the corporation, the entourage, the minders, a machine that’s rolling and controlling. I wonder if she feels separate from herself and just how is it to be inside the giant phenomenon that is Alicia Keys? “I don’t really have a gauge on it in the sense that I don’t know how it appears to other people. I don’t think I understand that too much because I don’t think I like that. I’m also hell bent on normalcy to the extent where people are like, ‘Alicia, you are delusional’.”
Keys really doesn’t like the unreal stuff, or the paparazzis outside. She says, “That’s London in particular I have to say. If it were everywhere like that I would possibly become violent. But since it’s just here in London you can smile through it and go ‘wow, weird’. The other day they were following us in a car and I could really see how it happened with Princess Diana. They could really kill someone because it’s dangerous and I was really freaked out by that.”
This time round she played two nights at the O2 Arena which houses 20,000 people. “It’s unbelievable,” she says. And she really does seem shocked at herself. “I’m thinking what am I doing, two nights at that venue.” Keys has always wanted this kind of success – success is what gets you appreciated. Success came from being strong, in control, and throughout her teenage years she’d carry a knife to protect herself on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, New York, where she grew up. It was a metaphor that she didn’t need anybody.
She was brought up by her mother, part Italian, part English, part Scottish, Terri Augello, an actress who worked long hours often until midnight as a paralegal. There was lots of alone time which harnessed her self-sufficiency. Her father was African American Craig Cook, a flight attendant turned masseuse. Her parents were never married and never lived together, but were amicable. Cook’s parents called Augello their “daughter-in-love.” Keys’ relationship with her father was minimal until recently.
Her songs and her diary which she still writes to this day are like therapy to her. Songwriting is her confessor. She once told me, “Most times your blessings are also your curses. And for me this is my ability to express myself so clearly with pen and paper, but when it comes to expressing myself verbally with a person I have a big wall I put up there.” Since then she’s worked to rethread that pattern and become more emotionally articulate and open.
She is very open when she talks. She’ll let you see exactly what’s going on in her head. She’ll let you feel her thinking. But she’s not very good about telling you about other things and people.
This album took only three months, it usually takes her much much longer to finish a record. “I don’t know what happened. I think I’m more playful in my attitude and my approach. I’m still a perfectionist, but just not so serious. It used to be I would never take a weekend trip or hang out. I think it’s a New York mentality, there’s a certain grind. An empire state of grind!”
Christian Louboutin steps into the trailer, exuberant because he auctioned the shoes that he designed for her and another pair for Beyoncé, and was one of the most popular lots. He is wearing shoes covered in metal spikes. The atmosphere is almost euphoric with the success of the evening. Keys seems to be soft and relaxed. I remember there was a time when she never used to drink coffee in case it affected her too intensely.
“I like it like a baby, with so much milk and sugar it’s more milk and sugar than coffee.” I tell her that there’s a psychological test which means how you like your coffee is supposed to symbolise your attitude towards sex, so basically this must mean she likes it hardly at all. “Oh that’s totally wrong,” she giggles in a totally naughty way.
You believe Keys when she talks about her charity, that she deeply cares and didn’t pick it up like a must have pair of shoes of the season. She’s been involved with Keep A Child Alive since 2002. “When 9/11 happened it was like, ‘What’s going on in the world?'” Consciousness in America shifted to fear and self-protection, but Keys thought of it in a different way. She wanted to know what was going on in the whole world.
“I wanted to know what was going on in Africa. I went to Africa to do a performance and I was so ecstastic to be known in Africa at that time. I had a phenomenal time learning about Africa, it was like school. There was a ton of information for me to digest. Then I met people my age who are dealing with hell, and I thought I can do something here, I want to do something special.”
Keys was preparing to go to South Africa to perform at the opening of the World Cup hoping that all the glamour surrounding international football stars will bring out the extreme contrast of the people in South Africa and what they might be going through, particular with their fight against disease, to get HIV medication and extreme poverty.
“The contrast is the beauty of it. It’s very positive to have the world cup happening in Africa. The whole world is turning to look at Africa at this event. Time (magazine) is doing a conference out there which will bring world leaders to Africa to talk about how businesses can partner. It could be an empowering time, but it’s important to think all these billion of dollars that are being pumped into the world cup for two weeks, couldn’t we just pump a few million of those dollars into something that is an issue every day.”
We saw films before tonight’s performance of villages that can be built out of shipment containers. A woman with HIV with young children who needed antiretrovirals to save her life. Then we saw her a few months later happy, rounder faced and able to be a mother to her children.
Keys says, “I try my best just to engage people in a way that’s simple so that you don’t think an Aids epidemic is only over there. It’s a very simple concept: here is the existing medicine, people take it and it brings them back to life. I’ve seen kids that were on the verge of death and then a few years later they are jumping around. ”
It’s not just dogma or a speech. When she says it, it hits you and you feel her voice like a melody. Life is injected into charity fatigue when she talks and I wonder if working with these children, some of whom have been infected with the Aids virus from family members who have abused them, has made her feel broody.
“Oh,” she says looking a little startled. I realise now I asked the question as if I knew something, so she must have been flustered, but answered in a way that would cover if I did know or I didn’t. “I love children and I love family and I love that interaction. Because I had a really close relationship with my mother I understand that deep powerful love, and it’s so beautiful. So as a mother to a child is the most brilliant gift, it’s gorgeous.”
Are you ready for your own children? “Yes. I’m definitely in a place where I have a different sensibility about things. I remember how I used to be. I’m going on the road and I’m back when I’m back and I’m probably gone a long time. I felt that that’s what I needed to do and there was nothing more important than reaching that place I saw in my head. Nothing could stop me. There was no amount of love. There was no amount of nothing that could drag me down. That was then. And now there is a desire in me to have more stability. I never think I’ve reached that pinnacle so to speak, but I do feel satisfied with what I’ve been able to achieve, so I don’t feel this endless need I’ve got to get there, I’ve got to get there.”
And what’s that been replaced with? “I’ve got to get peace. I have to be peaceful and I have to be happy. I think sometimes we confuse success with happiness. It’s easy to do because you figure that success is going to make you happy.”
And if it doesn’t make you happy there’s a crisis. “I think it screws a lot of people up, totally fucks them bad.”
How does she negotiate that one? “I don’t have a ton of friends but the friends I have are great ones. I don’t have huge family but the family I have is a great one. I have solid decent people around me and I believe that is all it is because you will get destroyed if you have people bringing you down.”
Keys seems to have given up on the idea that she can control everything. Much is made of the fact that she never talks specifically about her personal life. For a while nobody knew if she liked girls or boys. She was adamant that that wouldn’t become public property, part of a publicity machine that would steamroller her. But gradually that’s changed and she allowed herself to be papped with producer supremo fiancé Swizz Beatz. She used to be able to freeze away paparazzi by a certain don’t go there I’m not who you think I am stare. She doesn’t even try to pull one of those now. Perhaps being relaxed and in love was why her latest album was conceived in playfulness.
In a way she has always spoken from her heart and how she’s feeling in that moment. It’s more interesting to hear her say that “being in love feels to her like the first sunrise ever seen from earth” than the name of her boyfriend and what they did last night.
I wonder if her non-relationship with her father helped create the emotional reticence that appears now to be dissolving. Has she got closer to him? “I would say that in the process of growing you sometimes realise you hold on to anger. I was angry then and I’m sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you’re hurting is you.”
Did he come back into your life? Or how did you decide to give up the anger? “It came from my grandmother being ill. That was his mother and it caused a shift in the family dynamic.” She was incredibly close to her grandmother who died in 2006. She was with her on the night she died. She told me that they were so close she didn’t just look like her, she embodied her.
“You realise what’s important when you see a person you love so dearly and you’re not going to have them for long. It was important for her and I thought well, what is all this stuff. I saw his love for her and I saw that he didn’t mean any harm. He wasn’t being an evil person. Sometimes things don’t work out and it’s difficult to figure out how to put it all together.”
Does she think she saw it all through her mother’s eyes as she was so close to her? “I’m sure that was some of it, and just consistency was lacking at times. But I became more understanding and I said here is my beautiful grandmother, we can start from this point on, we can be cordial. We can be friends. I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.
“I think one of the most difficult things for human beings is to learn how to let it go because you want to hold on and on and you seem to be the only one that’s fighting.”
How does she let go now? “One is journalising. I like a place where you can be brutally honest. And I’ve also found I really enjoy meditating and chanting. The other thing is I try to be really direct with what I’m feeling. I will talk directly about and say ‘I’ve got to say this shit’ and then I can let it go.
“It was very difficult to be honest with myself because I was ‘I am steel, nothing hurts me, I’m impenetrable, nothing can touch me’, but I’m over that now.”
So she goes from steel to silk? “Definitely I do, although a lot of times I revert back to my steel and think, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be in this steel thing’. I recognise it a bit more. The triggers are pure fatigue, my patience goes.”
She’s looking forward to not being fatigued, taking time out. “I have a whole list of places I wanted to travel. I’ve promised myself a trip to Israel, but I don’t know if it will be this summer.”
She hugs me goodbye, still smelling of performance mixed with Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. It’s a proper hug with proper soul in it. She will always be working on shedding those layers rather than building barriers, even if her publicist is doing the opposite. And that peace she was looking for? She may well have found it.
Selena Gomez arrives to meet me for dinner at a cosy restaurant in the suburbs of LA. She’s alone, no entourage, no fuss. She is newly skinny in a cream plunging V-neck, leather jeggings and black-strapped stilettos.
Her face is endearingly shaped like a moon. Her skin impeccable, her eyes orbital. Her lips poufy and juicy in a pale crimson lip balm. She exudes sweetness and poise in equal measure.
You can see why she was credited with being the stabilising influence in Justin Bieber’s life when she was his girlfriend for two years until 2013. And there were a few hook ups after that. She is incredibly calming. She has always had focus, graduating from the Disney school of child stardom to become a fully fledged actress as well as pop star.
The video for her latest single, Good For You, showcases sexiness and devotion; how she likes to be with her man. Shot partly in virginal white T-shirt and partly naked and pouting in the shower. Except “I was covered from here to here,” she gestures from her cleavage downwards.
I read that the lyrics on her album Revival were inspired by her relationship with Bieber. I say his name. She doesn’t flinch. And that his upcoming album is about her? “It’s difficult for people to separate us. The internet wants to freeze this moment in time and constantly repeat it. There are a couple of songs, Every Step and Closing, that are inspired but it’s also just about two people.
“I want people to see that there is strength in it and there is pain. Hopefully the album will speak for itself. I’ve had no movie or album out for a year. What else are they going to talk about? The same thing over and over again. There’s going to be a day when there’s a new young person who is hip and I’ll be married with children and it won’t be as bad. This industry does not dictate my happiness. If I lost everything tomorrow I’d be devastated but also know that my self-worth is not based in this industry. I’ve seen how it destroys people.”
We are now sharing some ravioli, which is delicious. Is she in love right now? “No. I’ve been working my butt off. I’m dating but I don’t really want anything right now.” Does she fall in love easily? “No,” she says firmly.
She was 23 in July, a Cancer. “I’m true to the sign. I am very nurturing. I take care of my friends, I’m sensitive and emotional and I love being at home.” She lives with some flatmates, her mum and stepdad Brian close-by. For a while her mum helped manage her. Now they are producing partners. Her parents were only 16 when they had her. As they are close in age, did she and her mum feel more like friends? “Never, not at all. She’s always been my mother. She’s the reason I’ve never succumbed to the bad part of what this industry is. She gets very scared for me, when I get criticised, when I had helicopters above my home. Helicopters?” She shrugs. “Absurd. My past relationship was a hot topic.
“I don’t draw a lot of attention to myself when I’m in public. I don’t travel with an entourage. Of course there are ways in which I have to edit my life. Even just leaving my house I might take separate cars and bend down in the back seat because I don’t like to have photographers if I’m trying to have a nice day out. It’s absurd wandering around with 12 people taking your photo. They think if you have success they can do whatever they want to you. And that is a scary place. But I am not the kind of person that likes a fuss. I never say ‘I can’t do this’”.
She stays grounded by keeping the same best friends that she grew up with. She grew up following in the footsteps of Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. A specific generation of good girls who had to navigate growing up and their sexuality in public. Gomez has cited Britney Spears as a role model – which is weird because Gomez’s transition from being a poppet in the Disney empire has been far more graceful than Spears’s.
“I can count on one hand the people that I could call and they would be there for me. Taylor Swift I’ve known for seven years and she’s one of the greatest people. When I split up with my first boyfriend (Nick Jonas of the sibling then squeaky clean pop group The Jonas Brothers) and I was really sad about it, she flew into town with homemade cookies and a bunch of junk food. She was 18 and I was 16 and to this day if I call her she would do the same thing despite being one of the busiest people in the world. I knew her when I was with Disney. “Disney was good training. It prepared me for so much.. I was grateful.”
Why does she think she has such drive? She recalls, ‘I love Texas, my biological father lives there. (YES HE IS ALIVE) I moved here (to LA) when I was 13. I was excited but I would also sob every day because I missed home so much. My mum would ask me if wanted to go home. And even though I felt there was a hole in my heart I said ‘I can’t go home’ and I don’t know why that was.”
She intends to continue balancing a music and acting career. “I want to be challenged. I’m thirsty for that.”
Her fans call themselves Selenators. She has 39 million Instagram followers. ‘I feel like as well as the fans I’ve grown up with, there is an older audience as well.” Her voice on Good For You is a raspy purr.
She is such an interesting mix of innocent and wise. Her father used to take her to Hooters [a sports bar famous for it’s buxom waitresses in skimpy uniforms] when she was growing up. “My father had me at 16. What do you expect a young guy to do? It wasn’t bad. I still go to Hooters today, I go with my boyfriends. I would sit there and colour in pictures and that’s when I fell in love with basketball because he would got there to watch sports. My dad loves me, I was his world.”
When she was dating Nick Jonas in 2006-7 they wore purity rings. “I did and I’m not embarrassed to say that. I’m also not embarrassed to say that that ring has come off. I got it when I was 13 and I respect so much what it represented. But it isn’t for everyone.” She was massively made fun of at the time. “Sometimes you have to lie to yourself to get through the criticism and then you’re in your closet crying. It’s been like that for me a couple of times. But I only want to learn from those things. Make them a part of me but not let them define me.
“At school I was not popular. I was not focused on my looks. I wasn’t a girly girl. I wore my hair in a ponytail and a hoody. It was vicious. I got through it because I was obsessed with Ab Fab. I walked around gesturing the martini and the cigarettes. The sarcasm and timing taught me to get through a lot of awkwardness in conversations.” She gestures the martini and cigarette. Laughs.
Gomez is even more beautiful in person than in pictures. Yet on a recent radio show she rated herself only a six or seven. “Every person has days when they wake up feeling super sexy and there are days I look like a hot mess. I want people to know that I don’t think that I am perfect.” She flutters an eyelash and looks at me rather pleadingly. She wants people to like her, she wants to be ordinary yet from a very young age she has lived an extraordinary life.
She was born in Prairie, Texas in 1992. Her father Ricardo is of Mexican descent and mother Mandy of Italian heritage. Her parents split when she was a few years old. Her mother struggled financially. When she was nine she got a role in Barney and Friends which led her to the Disney TV show, The Wizards of Waverley Place, when she was 15.
It seems that she has been working her entire life. She seems much older, an old soul. “I have been called that before.” Does she think she’s lived on this earth before? “Maybe. But I also think my work ethic has made me understand how the world works. I’m very much an observer. Maybe I was here in a past life but I also know that I’ve learned so much in this life and I have so much still to figure out.”
She has a teeny-tiny musical quaver tattooed on her neck. “That was my first, I have six now. My mum’s birthday on the back of my neck, G for Gracie, she is my little sister. And there’s a quote about finding your own strengths.”
Feeling strong is something that Gomez aspires to. Although there have been days where she admits to feeling “pressure” like the couple of times she found a helicopter above her garden trying to spy on her and her then boyfriend Bieber. She’s not a person who moans about the paparazzi. She accepts it comes with the territory. Does she Google herself? “Yes, sometimes,” she tells me. “Not everyday. But if I think there is something I should be aware of because people are talking about it.”
A few months ago, there were pictures of her looking like she had gained a few pounds. Today she looks super-svelte. “I have definitely been taking care of myself. I’ve been hiking and I have been cooking a lot. Before I was able to eat just what I want but that doesn’t happen anymore. I’m from Texas so I love fried food. Sometimes I make fried chicken and waffles for breakfast but I’ve had to cut back.”
She is wearing a solid silver collar. It looks like a dog collar. And a little S&M. It’s a statement piece of jewellery that says, ‘I have transitioned from being a Disney screen princess.’
“Most people have such a misconception of child stars, they think they are thrown into it and don’t want it. I think younger stars get targeted because it’s easier. I’m trying to figure my life out. I’m not saying I won’t make any mistakes but I am going to make my work a priority and stay extremely focused.”
Does she find it hard to navigate her sexuality and love life in public? She nods solemnly. “No one signs up for that. Every experience I have had has been beautiful genuinely. But it’s also been a huge factor that almost destroyed me.”
She’s referring to Bieber. “It was people having an opinion on a choice that you make and you don’t want to be criticised for that. I didn’t think I was doing anything bad by falling in love. There’s such an emphasis on people being the perfect thing and then destroying them because it’s good press. Also throw in the fact that you are a teenager it makes it more difficult. Now, at 23 I am able to step back and know that there are things that I will have to accept that are different in my life. The next relationship will be something dear to me…” Her voice trails off. She offers me some of her tuna tartar. “There is no way I will ever hide my life…”
It’s a tricky navigation, to be honest and try to preserve privacy. “Some days I wake up and I hate it. I wish I were never in the spotlight. Then I say ‘this is a life I chose.’ I work really hard, I love my job more than anything. It goes back and forth.”
I have interviewed many celebrities who have given me the ‘I don’t want to talk about my private life speech’, but never one so heartfelt. Besides, she’s not closed, she’s open. Choosing a role in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in 2012 was the first indication of her transition. The film was about debauchery on a spring break: sex, drugs, darkness, bikinis. Gomez was the only one who kept her bikini on.
“Spring Breakers was a crucial decision because I wanted to change the dialogue of who I am.” It was a rites of passage movie. “Yes, I was in that place for sure. Harmony wanted me to audition for one of the other girls’ parts. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.” (The other girls’ parts were more sexually overt, more reprehensible). “I was 19 and I could relate to (her character) Faith. I’ve lived her life a little bit. More innocent than the other girls.” And she never got naked. “That was a plus. I thought ‘I will save that for later’”.
Is faith still important to her? “I’m proud of having faith. The quote on my Instagram is ‘By grace through faith’ – one of my favourite lines from The Bible. It’s about handling every decision as gracefully as possible.” And with that she graciously orders the bill and insists on paying for dinner.
Aretha Franklin has been called the Queen of Soul since she demanded Respect in 1967. That’s a lot of years to be regal and I suppose you can’t expect someone who is constantly revered not to feel a little distant from the world, a little divaish.
Her new album after all is called Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Things like I Will Survive, People, You Keep Me Hanging On, and I Am Every Woman mashed up with Respect. Basically an album where she out divas every other diva.
It’s a compelling album. Her voice on it at 72 is not effortless. It no longer swoops and soars with dexterity, but instead it delivers something else, something that shows struggle, grit, terrifying emotional strength and triumph.
Of course I was excited to meet the diva of all divas. She rarely gives interviews. She hates giving interviews. For a large chunk of time she hated leaving her house.
Her last album with Arista Records – the company that first released her – was in 2003. Sure, there was a Christmas album after that merely to fulfil a contract and in 2011 there was a studio album made for Wal-Mart stores. But the Diva album is a proper return with music impresario Clive Davis at its helm.
The album has been generally applauded, as has her refreshed energy and weight loss. For some of those silent years where no one saw her it’s been said that she became huge. Her weight ballooned in the 90s after she stopped smoking because it was hurting her voice.
Last year she had a mysterious illness and undisclosed medical treatment. She came back after it fitter and thinner. Certainly there was a sense she was ready to take on the world again. What I wasn’t ready for was to take her on.
The interview had been on and off several times in several locations. Over a period of weeks. Finally it happens- within an hour of it being confirmed I find myself en route to Detroit, to the suburb of Southfield and the Westin Hotel, close to her home.
The interview is to be at 7.30pm. Would I go down and meet her to try to charm her? There was a fear the interview would be cut to ten minutes. Of course I would. At that time I didn’t realise she was uncharm-able.
It turns out she didn’t want to meet me first. She wanted to do the interview at 8.30pm, so I decided I would take a restorative bath. Five minutes in the bath I get a call she wants to do the interview now. Still wet I drag on clothes to meet her in the lobby. As the lift door opens and I go to get out she gets in.
She is wearing a black leather blouse, black trousers, black and gold trainers and a zebra print rucksack. She looks a little plus-sized but you don’t see her as fat, you see her as a presence. I would guess she’d be a UK size 16-18.
I wasn’t there at the exact time. Had she decided to leave completely? Was she angry? Will she come back? A few tense moments. Apparently she will come back and she will give me as close to my full hour as possible. The PR warns that I should ask any important questions first which does not bode well because you can’t really ask first off: Are you an emotional eater? What pain were you trying to bury? You can’t ask who in fact was the father of the son you had when you were 14? Or the next son a couple of years later?
You can’ t say how did it feel when your first husband Ed White used to rough you up and why did she want that bit deleted from her autobiography.
Her father was a super preacher who had a turbulent marriage with her mother who left when Aretha was six and died shortly before her 10th birthday. Just after her mother’s death Aretha began singing at her father’s sermons. She debuted with the hymn Jesus Be A Fence Around Me. That fence never came down. Can you even begin to ask her why? No, you cannot.
People become interviewers because they want to ask the questions we all want answers for. Asking questions requires a kind of fearlessness which has always come naturally to me. I have faced plenty of divas – pop stars, prime ministers and wannabe presidents. None of them have awed me. There’s something about Aretha. She’s absolutely terrifying.
I’ve seen her on TV interviews making mincemeat of fawning reporters. One look, an ever so slight roll of the eyes, reduces them to gibberish.
We are in the grand ballroom of the semi chi chi hotel. Me and Aretha poised opposite on low under-stuffed armchairs. There is her son, her granddaughter, a record company person, the British PR, and another man to whom I was not introduced.
There is a sort of wall around her. Later I learn from the staff at this hotel where she regularly comes often for omelettes they have dubbed her The Wall. One staff member who begged not to be identified says, ‘You just can’t get through to her and she makes everyone feel scared. It’s hard to be normal with her. Once I asked her son for tickets to her show but he said even he was afraid to ask her.’
Aretha is sat in front of me with the beginning of an eye roll and I am afraid, I am petrified. But unlike the song I Will Survive I fear I won’t. I tell her that her album is great. And it is. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says.
I tell her when Sinead O’Connor sang Nothing Compares 2 U you felt she was going to kill herself, but when Aretha sings it with her own lines added, that not even ‘a strawberry sundae or ham hocks and greens, or roller skates or garlic toast,’ compare, you feel she is expressing triumph and joy and power. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says, which I’ve come to learn is Aretha’s very succinct way of expressing what she feels which is that I’m full of shit.
She tells me, ‘That was Andre 3000’s idea to take the tempo up and just refresh that song.’
I tell her that on I Will Survive she sounds particularly empowered. ‘No. That was the basic thing that Gloria Gaynor did. Then we mashed it up with I’m A Survivor (Destiny’s Child) which is one of my granddaughter Victorie’s favourite songs. So I said “Hey, let’s put that there”.’
Victorie is here with us. I think she’s about 17. Hair in a ponytail and a striped T-shirt. ‘Victorie is going to be a singer. Every time I type her name in my phone it comes up Victories with an s. Maybe she’s going to have some victories. I hope so. I’m taking her there. I’m mentoring her. She performed for me on the BET tribute.
Does she coach her because she sees herself in her, because they have a special bond? Her eyes swivel and look through me. ‘I coach her because she’s my granddaughter and she wants to sing.’
I laugh nervously.
‘I’ve been around a while, so in terms of coaching her as a vocalist why not, hmmm? I did have vocal coaching at one time when I was a teenager and I was also taught choreography by Charlie Atkins who taught most of the Motown artists.’
I’d read that she wanted to be a dancer at some point. ‘Well, I could have been a prima ballerina. I took classes at the Academy of Ballet where I would do plies, semi-plies, grand plies.’
The barre workout is very popular now. Is that what she does for exercise? ‘No. Really. Is that what people do?’ She looks incredulous. ‘I walk. I have my fitness regime where I walk the big superstores. – K-Mart and Wal-Mart. I walk the whole store. Sometimes twice if it’s not a superstore. I don‘t do it with the cart. Security people mind the cart and I do the walking.’
Do fans recognise her and come up to her? ’Sometimes.’ Pause. Do they ask her to sign something? ‘Yes. Peaches or a lettuce.’ We laugh. ‘They are usually very nice and they want an autograph or a selfie.’
She smiles sweetly and for a moment she seems relaxed so I ask her why was there a period of no albums for a while? ‘Because I was between record companies and during that time I did a lot of concerts. I noticed somebody the other day, I’m trying to think who it was, and they said they hadn’t recorded for nine years, and I understood that perfectly. I love recording, but if you’re in concert as much as I was you’re just not thinking about it and of course you’re minding the store at home. I have four children, so that’s what was consuming my time.’
This puzzles me. Her four children, all boys, or rather men, are fully grown up. The oldest, Clarence Franklin, is in his late fifties, followed by Edward Franklin and Ted White Jnr., who by all accounts is a wonderful kind person, and Kecalf Cunningham, a musician who is known professionally as KPoint.
I want to ask her about why she still feels she needs to look after them but this is the first time in our interview there’s not been a silence. It’s been question, answer, silence. Her talking about walking the superstores is the nearest thing we’ve got to a conversation.
‘I love walking the superstore. You can shop, pick up things you need, and it’s good exercise.’
What is her favourite thing to shop for? ‘I love beautiful things, beautiful clothes. Pretty much what the average woman likes.’
The silence returns suddenly. There is no twilight moment. No cooling down, segueing in. There’s warm friendly and then cold silence. This is not your average woman. So I change the subject. She grew up near here, then moved to New York and Los Angeles.
‘Well, I had to come back to Detroit because of the incident that happened to my dad.’ She had been performing in Las Vegas when she got the news in 1979 that her father Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as CL Franklin, was shot twice at point blank range in his Detroit home. He spent six months in hospital and was returned home needing round the clock nursing care. ‘I came back to stay with him and my sisters and my brother so we could alternate looking after him.’
That must have been a terrible shock? ‘Yes.’ Long pause. Did they ever find out who did it? ‘They did and they were arrested.’ How did it happen, was it random or planned? ‘I couldn’t tell you, but let’s move on.’
Now there’s not just a silence but a silence with pins and needles in it. She was always extremely close to her father. ‘Yes, of course, sure. I travelled as a young featured vocalist. I would sing before he preached.’
I’ve read that his sermons were mesmerising, it was like going to a concert. ‘No. I would not say it was like a concert at all. My dad was a theologian and he ministered the congregation, very enlightening and educational.’ He had a compelling speaking voice? ‘Oh yes. He was famous for that.’ He recorded 39 volumes of sermons and he was quite the singer as well.’
Is she like him? ‘You could say that with respect to certain things.’ She was a daddy’s girl? ‘You could say that.’
And he had great friends? ‘Yes. Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Dr King. These people came into the city to perform on Saturdays and on Sundays knowing about his sermons came to our church.’
I want to know more about what it’s like growing up with all these legends and how does this compare to our modern divas like Beyoncé and Miley but before I can say the word twerk my throat closes up. I know she’s not going to talk about these things, I just know, and I’ve never had that feeling in an interview before.
I wonder if she too is afraid. When I heard that she was terrified of flying it seemed ridiculous that an artist of her magnitude with her 18 Grammys and over 75 million records sold and her constant breaking of Billboard records should have any fears at all. She is a legend.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ she says, almost savouring the moment that I’ve grasped she has fear. ‘Aretha is a woman like every other woman. Everyone has something.’ She looks at me sweetly. ‘I flew for 21 years and it’s just ridiculous for me not to fly. I’ve started working on it. One of these days you’ll see me back in London.’
Will she take a boat? ‘I don’t think so. There’s too much water. I’ll take eight hours on the Jumbo jet. I am thinking about that.’
What happened to create this fear? ‘A bad flight. A small plane. Two engines. Up and down, up and down. And I decided I would not fly again. I was not happy. Not a happy camper.’
It is at this point it strikes me Aretha has the wall because she feels pain like no other. She had a bad flight. She decides she can’t bear it. And that will never happen again.
The wall is not so much a fortress but a place where she traps herself inside herself. The wall I think would have come anyway, due to the tragedies in her early life and how in order to be the Queen of Soul she is the queen of sensitivity. Fame and being feted didn’t cause this wall, it just helped it stay in place.
‘I have a custom bus that I very much enjoy. I can go from city to city and see points of interest, get out and stretch my legs. If we go to California we have all these different things in the desert that you can see. I can do things on my bus that you can’t on a plane. You can’t stretch your legs at 30,000 feet.’
Does she have a bed on her bus? ‘No. I don’t want that. That’s too much bus. I get a good night’s sleep and then get back on the bus.’
Is it true the things she fears most are airplanes and interviews? ‘Where on earth did that come from? Never even heard that. Here we are in an interview and the planes as I said I’m working on it.’
Does she see a hypnotherapist? ‘No, no, no. I would never do that. I went to a fearless flyers class organised by US Air. I missed two classes. Last time I was standing at the gate when the rest of my class flew away because I’d missed a few lessons, but I am determined that I will graduate from that class. You do things like a rejected take-off where the plane goes down the runway, they start the propellers and everything, but then they stop and come back. We do that and actual classes where you watch films and find out a lot of things about planes.’ There’s another silence now.
Later on I speak to Versa Manos of Gorgeous Media Group. Manos was her PR at Arista Records 25 years ago. She looked after Aretha and Whitney Houston. I wonder was she like that then? ‘She is extremely sensitive, so if an interview becomes intimate or is about to discuss any of the big tragedies in her life it might make her cry, so it probably would be stopped before it got to that point.
‘She has had a very harsh early life. She expresses it in her voice all the time. Her detachment from the world is because she is so sensitive. That’s why she became slightly agoraphobic at some point.’
When she sang about demanding respect in 1967 it was when a black woman was rarely granted such a thing and now she is a legend she can demand it.
She sang for President Obama at his inauguration. ‘It was a tremendous moment. Certainly a historical one and I was delighted to be part of it. Throngs and throngs of people that morning as far as you could see. Unbelievable.’
She met him at Rosa Parks’ funeral. ‘Yes. That’s exactly where I met him. He was on his way out of the door and someone saw him leaving and said “Hey, Barack, you haven’t met Aretha and said hello.” He stopped, turned right round and came back. And that was a nice moment. He’s a very nice man. He’s very much in person as you see him on TV, charismatic.’
Did she maintain contact with him? ‘No, no, of course not.’ The eyes roll again. Did he ask her to sing again? ‘No. There is only one inauguration.’ But there’s a second term. ‘Oh. Well, how can that be an inauguration the second time? That’s not the same thing. The moment that was historical will only happen once in history and it happened when I sang the National Anthem. That’s the first time it ever happened. How can it happen again? I was there at one of the greatest moments in history. I was touched. That moment was the fruition for many who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly when we saw Reverend Jackson and there were tears flowing. I’m sure many, many things went through his mind, Dr King being one of them. It was the fruition of the hopes and dreams of a nation. Ah-hum,’ she says triumphantly. It’s an ah-hum that says her father would be very proud. ‘Ah-hum-hmm. Absolutely.
‘They were great friends Dr King and my dad. The march in Detroit was a precursor to the march in Washington. He actually did the “I have a dream” speech here before Washington. The applause was so thunderous the walls were shaking. There have been so many gains, but there’s certainly still a way to go.’
She says this with such passion I wonder how close she was to Dr King? ‘He was a guest of my dad’s.’ Not a personal friend? ‘Oh, please stop, definitely not. I understand exactly what you mean. None of that.’ She says this with a quiet ferocity, but then the moment passes and she becomes sweet again.
‘When he was a guest of Dad’s in our home we had a housekeeper who I used to call Catherine the Great because she was such a great cook. She asked Dr King what he would like for breakfast. Bacon, omelette, grits, or sorjetses because she couldn’t say sausages. Dr King thought for a moment and he says, ‘Well Catherine, I’ll have some bacon and I’ll have some of that sorjetses. He was such a gracious man he didn’t make fun of the moment or try to correct her, he just went along with it.’
At this point a voice comes in and says the interview must stop but Aretha is having none of it. ‘I love cooking. I do a great chicken and dressing and I do good spaghetti and omelettes. I also like banana puddings and peach cobbler. You know, these days I just very lightly taste. I don’t over taste when I’m cooking. If you mess up there you can gain a lot of weight. My favourite food to eat and cook and the most difficult thing for me to give up was ham hocks and greens. I just love ham hocks and greens.’
Maybe she should just stick to the greens? ‘Well no, I’d rather have the ham hocks with a little hot sauce, some cornbread. What could be better?’
A voice cries out, “The interview must stop.” Aretha says, ‘No. Let’s have another give minutes. She came all this way.’
So this is the even weirder thing. The minute she knows the interview is going to end she doesn’t want it. She becomes relaxed and super chatty. She tells me there are three deals on the table for the biopic movie of her life. ‘There might be Audrey MacDonald, Jennifer Hudson, or a gospel unknown playing myself. I don’t know yet.’
What about Alicia Keys? Aretha covers Keys’ No One on the Divas album so I thought there might be a connection. ‘That’s so interesting,’ she says animated. ‘There a possibility of Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of Grey’s Anatomy) writing it. Uh-hmm,’ she says savouring it. Would she control the script? ‘I would certainly have edit approval and I don’t think you could beat that except maybe with the ham hocks.’ She giggles.
Her posse want the interview to finish and now we have passed a few sticky moments I think Aretha doesn’t want it to finish. The hot and cold is perplexing.
I ask her if we can have a picture. I sit on the floor before her and it looks as I am kneeling at the feet of a queen. ‘Do stop with that,’ she says. ‘There’s only one Queen, your Queen, and she’s still handling it. I really admire that Queen of yours. Such maturity from such a young age, and such great walking shoes.’
The tape recorder is off now and she is much more relaxed. She wonders if the Queen walks around the palace maybe as she walks around the superstore. She admires my eye make-up, which is dark and glittery, just like her eye make-up, which is dark and glittery.
Suddenly there’s an incredible warmth to her, or maybe it’s relief that I’m going. Puzzled I speak to Roger Friedman, Showbiz411.com columnist and friend of Franklin. Sometimes she’s sweet, sometimes she’s not.
‘Yes,’ he concedes. ‘She can be a puzzle.’ He tells me that changing her mind about interview dates and times is just because she changes her mind a lot and nothing more should be read into it. He tells me that she comes to New York to learn classical piano and teaches her teacher gospel piano in return.
‘A critic in the New York Times had accused her of using Auto-Tune on her Divas album. I asked her if this was true. I heard her ask, “Do we use Auto-Tune in the car?” She had no idea what it was. Of course she doesn’t use Auto-Tune.
‘What you have to remember is Aretha is a living legend. James Brown is gone, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. She wanted to do this album as they were her idols. It’s so easy to make fun of celebrities. They are so daffy or whatever. But we have to appreciate who we’ve got and what they mean to us. Every singer wants to be Aretha Franklin and they never will be. She is singular. She can still make an album with all the trills and whoops and everything she adds that no one else can do. It’s easy to make fun of her as she is the ultimate diva, but all the other divas who are legends are dead. We have to treat her with respect now.’
She is indeed the ultimate diva and respect is something she not only demands, but has earned.
Michael Bublé is wearing a doll size leather jacket, a teeny red T-shirt and the skinniest dark jeans. I am shocked at how much he’s shrunk and tell him that his ankles are the size of my wrists. He looks pleased.
‘I suppose that I am supposed to be little. I was much much bigger and I really had to eat a lot to get like that. I was chunky. I look back at pictures at me,’ he shakes his head. ‘I remember seeing the cover of Call Me Irresponsible (his 2007 third and pivotal album) and thinking “Ooh, you’re fat”.’ It wasn’t so much that he was fat he was unhappy and eating to block out misery and insecurity.
‘Like everybody, I go up and down. I’ll probably put on ten, take off ten. My wife is really healthy so I’ve got used to eating her healthy food.
‘I used to eat pizzas and burgers and McDonalds. Now I’ll eat a nice piece of fish and vegetables. You just get used to it and you start eating like that all the time. It becomes the new normal.’
Bublé has always been a man of extremes, he ate too much pasta and loved too much and too many women. All that changed when he met his wife, Argentinian model/actress Luisana Lopilato, in 2009. They married 2 years later and are now expecting their first child, a boy, due in July.
When they first met she didn’t speak much English and he no Spanish. It was one of those coup de foudre moments. They met backstage at one of his concerts in Argentina introduced by the president of his Argentinian record company.
At the time he was recovering from his break-up with British actress Emily Blunt. He and Luisana took things slowly and carefully, a first for Bublé.
We are in a homely suit at the Sunset Marquis. It’s a classic rock and roll hotel where televisions have definitely been thrown into the swimming pool and late night tantrums are commonplace. But not with Bublé, not any more.
His latest album, To Be Loved, is seeped with cosy contentment. It’s a happy record. No pain. It’s not been an easy road to get there. He has described his break-up with Blunt as the” worst and the greatest thing” that’s ever happened to him. He bought books on how to be happy. He saw a therapist.
Then he met his future wife but continued with his therapist. ‘I married a girl who doesn’t drink, except once in a while. She goes to the gym every day, eats good. It’s part of her pattern so it becomes part of your pattern. It becomes your lifestyle.’
Does he never have emotional cravings for cheese? He laughs, ‘Let’s be honest, I could live on bread and cheese for every day of my life. If someone told me every day from now on you have to live on bread and cheese I would say “Yesss!”.
The difference is last time we met he gave me his family recipe for spaghetti carbonara – his grandfather is Italian and he has an Italian passport. It had gallons of cream in it.
‘I don’t make it any more. Pasta made me feel yucky, bloated and gassy. Maybe I was allergic to wheat. It’s something I’ve wondered about. I don’t drink any more either. That’s a lot to do with it. You are who you hang out with and my wife doesn’t drink and is very healthy, but four years ago I was tiny, so tiny when I went through the break-up. I was drinking every day, doing nothing, smoking cigarettes and I was really skinny. But I wasn’t healthy skinny I was heart attack skinny. I’m the kind of kind who if I drink I lose my appetite, boom, and if I have a bite to eat I don’t want to drink, I feel full.’
It sounds like he wasn’t eating or drinking for nourishment but to fill a hole of awkwardness, regret and insecurity‘I have never had a drink because I enjoyed the taste. And I don’t do one drink. I’m like Barney from The Simpsons, once it begins it begins.’ The trick is that these days he doesn’t let it begin.
The promotion schedule for this record includes flying from London to Melbourne and back to LA without an overnight stopover in either city. Just enough time to perform a show. He’s always been driven. A huge work ethic handed down from his father Louis, a fisherman, and his grandfather Mitch, a plumber. It must be hard at the top. Surely he’s scared of using his status of being one of the world’s top selling artists? He’s sold over 40 million records and when tickets went on sale for his tour in the UK (he plays six nights at the O2 from June 30) they sold out at the rate of 1,500 per minute. Everyone loves Bublé. He spans generations, both cool and uncool.
‘I’m not thinking like that. I’ve got the baby coming and then I might take some time off or I’ll try acting so I can have my wife and baby with me on set. Right now my priority is all those fans, those people who’ve supported me.’
Bublé doesn’t believe in getting something for nothing, he believes in thanking people wholeheartedly. He believes he has a duty. ‘I used to open for Jay Leno and I used to say “Jay, what is the secret?” and he’d say “Go to their back yards, don’t go to the hubs and expect everyone to come to you. Go to their back yards and when you are in those little c cities that’s how you build relationships, that’s how you build loyalty. And that’s the truth.
‘You can’t put out a record and say Germany, France, Japan, thanks for buying my record. Of course I love you but I’m not going on tour. You’ve got to, you’ve got to go,’ he says with urgency.
I ask him if he finds it hard to say no to things other than too much cheese? ‘Yes, I do.’ Is there part of him that’s now completely reassured with his success or is part of him thinking what if this record doesn’t sell, what if people don’t turn up?
‘Do you know what’s weird, that’s not happening that insecurity. Everything has changed. It’s all changed because of the baby. I’m having a difficult time doing these interviews. I’m proud of the record, it’s a beautiful record, possibly my best record. It’s different and I was brave but being brave stemmed from not caring. That sounds cold but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
‘When my manager says I wonder if we’re going to sell two million or eight million I’m thinking yeh, either is a great bonus, but let’s hope my wife is healthy and my kid is healthy. I’m 37-years-old and I’m starting to think what’s it all about. It surely isn’t about how many records I can sell or how many stadiums I can fill.
‘This has given me something else, a very different attitude. I’m saying I’m going to do this and if they don’t like it they don’t like it. My perspective has definitely changed. I have no drama to tell you about. I wish I could say these songs came from misery or heartbreak. This was a happy record, truly a joyous occasion.’
It is of course a wonderfully sentimental record. When I heard his version of Young At Heart it made me cry. Bublé has always loved old people. He is extremely close to his grandfather. He still loves to do family sleepovers where they all lie on the couch and sing the old standards together.
‘That song is special to me. I’ve been co-writing with my friend Alan who is a genius, he’s a wonderful arranger, he is my piano player, my musical arranger, my everything. That sounds gay but I would go gay for him. I love you Alan Chang. So he wrote this beautiful arrangement. By the way his girlfriend wouldn’t be happy with me going gay with him.
We were going to go to East West Studios here in LA to put the track down. We had all the musicians, all the strings, everything was ready. We had a bar set up so that when the musicians and I were all done we could all have a drink together so I could thank them. And the night before that day my mother called and said “Mike, your grandpa is not good.” So I just told them all “I’m sorry I can’t be there” and I just left and flew home to Vancouver.
‘They did the recording of the band and a week later I was to sing the vocal. My grandpa pulled through, he was okay. So the next week I sang the vocal and called the producer Bob Rock and said this is just not going to make the record. We are going to have to do something else. He said why and I said it’s emotionless, it’s cold and dead. Everyone was crushed because it was such a beautiful arrangement but I said I’m not feeling it.
‘About a month later I was in the studio and wanted to record a Peggy Lee song called Come Dance With Me. The producer said, “Why don’t we do Young At Heart again while we’re in the studio?” So I thought about my grandpa and I thought about myself. It was the first dance at our wedding. I love the song. And I though okay. And it just goes to show how different it was a few weeks later. I’ve just Skyped grandpa now. I Skype him all the time. I thought about him while I was recording it because I could. Before I was too upset. I smiled through the whole thing. I did it in two takes. It’s not perfect but there’s the emotion in it.
‘It just shows if your head is not in it and your heart is not in it it’s just not there.’
That’s the thing about Bublé, his head and his heart, his whole soul, is always in it. He pours his whole being into those songs so you feel him, you know him. He becomes an emotional touchstone. It’s not about the songs, the voice, it’s about how he puts himself in your heart.
On this album he’s written more of his own songs. Does it worry him that his own songs have to stand up against timeless classics? ‘Yes, sometimes. I just took my favourite songs but for every album you record you could make 50 others. But for this one I was in a good place and I wanted to make it authentic and gentle.
‘The producer Bob Rock agreed that this is a soul record. This is Phil Spector wall of sound. We got as many people in the room as possible, a small room. You hear every note, every background singer and Bob as a producer, he understands everything. His job is to listen to the artist and bring his vision into reality and he does that. I would turn gay for him too. Especially with that long blonde hair of his. I could ride him into the sunset. I would always joke that I was going to tickle him. I love to get tickled. My wife would be sitting with me tickling like this,’ he demonstrates a tickling motion with his slender fingers, ‘and I would go Bob, tickle me. And he would go, fuck off.’
At the mention of his baby he smiles so hard that even his cheekbones, now angular and sharp, seem to round with pride.
‘He’ll be born in Vancouver and raised in Argentina and Vancouver. Mum will only speak Spanish and dad will only speak English. I am a proud Canadian of Italian heritage and he will have all these heritages.’
He wrote the song Close Your Eyes with the wonderful Canadian singer songwriter Jann Arden, and he wrote it about his wife. ‘Jann is the funniest woman I’ve ever met and I love writing songs with her. This song happened one day, I sat at the piano. I can never write sober, but I started to think about my wife and how much she means to me and how much she helps carry me, you know. How she shares the load with me. I started to think about all women and how strong they are and how important they are in the life of a man and this song is about how we depend on them. It wasn’t just that I was missing her it’s that I get sentimental and I was just thinking; you’re always the one that pulls us through. And people call women the weaker sex. How foolish is that This is what this person is to me. All of these things that are strength and support.
‘I notice the stability my wife has given me in simple ways. In other relationships I would think let’s go on vacation and the girl would say, “Let’s go to Hawaii”, and I would say who do we call, what couple do we get to go with us? It’s like I always needed someone else there. With my wife it’s just we’re good together.
‘I had my father and my mum come to LA this weekend. We had a few drinks and I was sitting talking to them and I said, “39 years. How do you make it work?” My dad said, “I love your mum. But more importantly I like her too.” And that’s really something.
‘Lu is my best friend. Honestly, easily, she is. And I didn’t realise that if you are with somebody in a romantic capacity that they would become your family. I’ve always separated family. I thought romance and friendship was linked but different.’
Do you think perhaps the nature of romance is that you were idealising someone that was unreachable in the past. ‘Yes, and I think it was more obsession than love and I’ve lived that a million times.’
Do you feel that when those past relationships became more familiar and more friendly you lost interest in them romantically? ‘Yes, exactly.’ Do you think that some of the past relationships, although you loved them, you didn’t actually like them? ‘Yes, absolutely.
‘I went to dinner last night and I was alone. It was couples, couples, couples. All I could think of was I wish she was here because I would be funnier, more talkative and more interesting, although the truth is they’d probably like her more than me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to dinner and people said, “Mike, we love you, but we really love her”. And I love that, it’s wonderful for me.’
There is no doubt that what drove Bublé in the past was a need to be loved, and now that he feels that he is loved the dynamic of everything he does is different. I got the impression that he would never want to displease his record company even though he is their biggest selling artist.
He wrote a song with Tom Jackson called I Got It Easy. He tells me the story to illustrate the profound change that has gone on within. ‘We were on my tour bus having a party, my wife and everybody. Like I said, I don’t drink so much any more, but we were having a cocktail and we just came up with this song. It coincides with things I think are happening all over the world – economic crisis, disasters, shootings. There’s all of this darkness. But for the rest of us if you can afford to download a track from a CD then you’ve got it easy.
‘They told me that people wouldn’t like I’ve Got It Easy. The record company didn’t like it. They said it’s dark and you don’t sound like you. It’s not a hit song, it’s not going to get on the radio. But part of the new bravery I feel is I said, Maybe it’s not a radio song. For me it’s a thoughtful, personal, important song. I said to my manager, I want to grow. And he said, you write hit songs, why do you have to grow? He called the record company and said, whatever we have to pay for the mechanicals on the final song, we want it. I told the record company if it doesn’t get on the radio you deal with it. It’s a polarising song. My mum hates it, my sisters love it.’
Did he call the album To Be Loved because that’s how he feels now? ‘I wish I’d come up with the title. ‘My manager Bruce Allen came up with the title. We call him The Colonel, like Elvis’s Colonel. He’s managed me since I was 25 and Bryan Adams since he was 17. And Jann Arden and Bob Rock as well. He got emotional to see his record family together. He said, “I’ve got my family here. The kids are all together and making this beautiful thing. I’m getting sentimental. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved.”
Does he feel loved? ‘Yes, I’m very content, although I miss my wife. I don’t like that I’m missing the pregnancy part. She is in Argentina making a movie and doing a shoot for the lingerie company she is the face of. She tells me, “Mi amore, I have a big tummy.”
He shows me a picture on his phone of his pregnant wife. She is blonde with a goofy smile and pregnant belly. ‘Look at how happy she is to show me this. I think she’s sticking it out. She’s definitely a rambunctious girl.’ She also has giant breasts. ‘She does! Always! Giant!’ he says with a giant smile.
‘That’s the question most people ask. Are they real? They are real of course. They are bigguns though…… Everything makes me happy: my family, listening to music, dancing, life, hockey. Hockey is my number one passion. It would overpower music. Playing it, watching it, eating it, drinking it, I just love it.’
He tells me he could chat all day. He’s never been a nervous interviewee. He’s always liked to share and to make the interviewer laugh. You wonder how long he can make life on the roadwork now that he has the option of stability and fatherhood. He says he’s serious about acting.
‘I have anxiety sometimes when I think about new things I want to try. My first choice would be a drama, a serious drama. I wouldn’t want to do a musical or comedy. But I’ve made a record and it’s coming out in 42 countries.’
While his wife comes out to a show here and there he’s not fond of other people’s women on the road. He doesn’t for instance like women crew or musicians.
‘I say, “There’s no relationships on the road” and they say to me, “Of course we’re not going to have relationships. We are professionals and we have a boyfriend at home.” The next think you know they’re bonking the sound guy. And then the sound guy is fighting over another girl and it becomes a drama. It’s an incestuous life. Let’s make it easy. Every time I’ve had female crew we’ve had serious break-ups and yellings. Obviously I love women. It’s not about not loving women. It’s about I don’t want to be surrounded by drama.’
There was a time not so long ago when he courted drama, he danced to it like a moth to the flame. ‘You know what else I don’t like? I don’t like shimmery saxophones.’ What do you mean? He does his impersonation of a shimmery saxophone. ‘They creep me out. They remind me of The Muppets in a bad way. I don’t like it when I’m on the road and the brass section starts improvising. It’s like when someone takes a poop on a piece of paper and goes this is abstract art.
He and his wife have recently started a charity called lendafreehand.com to help dogs about to be euthanised because their owners can no longer afford to feed them. Bublé has always felt the underdog. ‘I am the underdog. I’ve sold a bunch of records. I’ve never been asked to be on the Grammys or any of that stuff. I do big business. I sell more records at any point than, well, I am in the top five touring acts in the world. But I don’t show up at the parties. I don’t have a reality TV show. I’m not seen shopping in Beverly Hills. There’s a difference between being famous and being a celebrity. Maybe I’m just too normal for everything like that. But my manager always says, “Hey kid, keep being the underdog. You’re doing the right thing.”
Michael Buble – April 15, 2013 (Hello Magazine)
I walk in to the giant hotel suite where I am to meet Michael Bublé. Giant bed, giant overstuffed couch, giant TV, but no Bublé. He’s hiding behind the door and jumps out to surprise me. He is giggling and excited, his arms and legs looking skinny and agile.
He is happy about his new record To Be Loved. But that’s not what’s making his heart dance. He has just found out that he’s having a baby with his Argentinian wife Luisana Lopilato who he married in March 2011.
His nut-brown eyes sparkle. ‘The baby changes everything. It comes first. This is truly a joyous occasion.’
I’ve seen Bublé ecstatic before, but this is different. This is not a high that’s been preceded by a low. This is grown-up contentment. He’s 38 and is ‘ready and excited for fatherhood.’
Last time we met over a year ago he said, ‘We are planning a baby for next Christmas. My wife’s a big planner.’
In fact it was Christmas when she discovered they were pregnant. ‘I was genuinely shocked about the baby. We’d been planning…..but hey, good luck planning, that kind of thing. And also my wife lied to me. Well, she didn’t exactly lie, but she knew she was pregnant but she didn’t tell me but she wanted to come to Vancouver and tell me in person to surprise me.
‘I thought, okay, she’s got her period the chance for this month is over because I’d asked her, anything happening? “No, honey. It’s not this time,” she said. He mimics her Argentinian accent. ‘So I was in shock completely.’
The first person he told was Reece Whitherspnoon.
One of the songs on the album is the classic Something Stupid, which has always been one of his favourite songs. ‘I had it in my head I was going to do a duet and I was thinking let’s get someone in the music industry who isn’t who you would think it would be. Let’s get Rihanna or Katy Perry. My manager said what about Reece Witherspoon. I am infatuated with Walk The Line. I loved her in that movie and I loved her voice, a little Peggy Lee-ish. Anyway, she was interested but she was nervous because it’s not her world.
‘I called her up the day I found out I was having a baby. No one else in the world knew but I told her first. That’s weird, isn’t it ? it was an incredible day and I just found and I was so overwhelmed. And I knew she’d just had her baby. I said, Reece, I’ve got to tell you this before we even get into a conversation. I’m having a baby. She was excited for me.
‘We talked and talked about baby stuff and then I just said, listen hon’, I’d like to have you on this record. I said, look honey, this is huge. This is the greatest day of my life and if you would do this it would awesome, it would be the icing on the cake. If you’re not comfortable with it I still love you. I get that you are nervous and it’s not in your comfort zone, but if you could just come in, if we don’t like it we won’t use it. She came in and she was perfect the first take.
‘ The second she opened her mouth I was so chuffed. It really was the icing on the cake. She’d obviously done a lot of work and prepared really well. It was the very last song we recorded on the record.’
He talks very fast and excitedly about the baby. He takes out his phone and shows me a picture of his wife wearing a brightly coloured bikini top and a slightly pregnant belly. At the time he didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl and we have since learned it is a boy.
‘I didn’t want to find out but my wife does. She’s the boss. She’s carrying the baby so she gets her say.’
I had read that if it was a girl it was going to be called Bella Bublé but I’ve since found out that’s the name of his publicist Susan Leon’s dog. Her old dog had just died and she was devastated ‘So I got this little puppy. We were working late and Susan was about to go but I told her oh just wait a minute, I’ve got somebody bringing something. The door knocked and there was this little puppy and I said “I love you Susan”. So the name Bella was already taken.
‘My wife loves the Twilight Saga so I was worried she wanted to call the baby Bella or Edward. My wife knew she was carrying a boy. “It’s a boy”.
He mocks her accent again. She kept saying before she knew officially ‘I’ll take either, I’ll take a healthy hermaphrodite.
‘He’ll be born in Vancouver and raised in Argentina and Vancouver. Mum will only speak Spanish and dad will only speak English. I am a proud Canadian of Italian heritage and he will have all these heritages.’
The last time Bublé and I met he ordered caviar and a hot dog from the room service menu, a kind of metaphor that he is an extreme character. Today it’s a simple coffee with a little cream. He has worked hard on himself with a therapist to moderate his extremes but the love of Luisana has helped more than any therapy ever could.
I remember when he was crazy in love, hence the album title Crazy Love, with the British actress Emily Blunt. He wrote the song Everything for her which went on to be a worldwide smash, but his heart smashed too when the relationship fell apart.
‘It would be weird for me to be in touch with her and her family as I have my own family now. He refers to his siblings-in-law as cunadas. He certainly speaks a lot more Spanish than he used to. He’s been taking lessons. ‘My wife tells me I still sound like a cave man.’
They met at an after show of a concert of his in Argentina. ‘There was a party at my hotel. I was drinking a lot more at the time because I was dealing with what I was dealing with and the president of the Argentinian record company said he would like me to meet Argentina’s most famous actor and actress. She walked in with a Brad Pitt looking dude and I thought this is the worst ever, the girl of my dreams walks in with her boyfriend.
‘She didn’t speak English but he did so we had a long conversation. I didn’t want to be rude and hit on her. If someone did that to my girlfriend or wife I would not be a happy boy. It’s code between boys. I was getting hammered and slurring my words and finally he said, “We are not a couple.”
‘Meanwhile Lu is texting her mother saying “I have met Michael Bublé and he is gay.” Then we started talking. She had just come out of a relationship and was not ready to get into one. I said to her, “You’re my wife. You just don’t know it yet. I’m coming back to marry you.” And that’s exactly what he did although she looked at him a little incredulous at the time.
He wrote the song Haven’t Met You Yet for her. People would joke to him in the street “Have you met her yet then?”. He knew in his heart he absolutely had.
‘I asked her father’s permission to marry her and we had a big beautiful Argentinian wedding. She lives mostly in their gated house in Argentina, just outside Buenos Aires. He has a house in Vancouver close to his beloved parents and grandparents and a house in LA. He says they are with each other whenever they can be. Sometimes if they have to be apart they watch a movie together in their separate beds in separate parts of the world.
‘I’ll get a bowl of popcorn and sit in bed and we’ll play the movie at exactly the same time. She can see me and I can see her. At the end she’ll say “Mi amore, I am going to sleep” but we keep the iChat going on all night as we sleep. I know it sounds very strange but it keeps me connected in a virtual way. And if it disconnects one of us in our sleep we’ll reach over and press the call button. I might be passed out but I’ll hear brrrng brrrng and I will press answer. It’s a nice feeling.
‘My wife is very conservative so lots of things I used to do I don’t do. I don’t drink very often and I eat very healthily. For the most part I like the place I’m in. I don’t need to be in an altered place. What happened to me after the ex was probably the most important time of my life. When we were done I was devastated. I had to do therapy, I had to. I knew if I didn’t change I’d never be happy or content in my own skin. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the greatest thing. It ended through both of us being young and naïve and making silly mistakes. I looked in the mirror and said wake up. I did so many things out of insecurity…’
Clearly he may still have anxious moments but that obsession for filling a deep dark space with spaghetti and cocktails has long gone. He doesn’t stop being grateful. He doesn’t stop working hard, but perhaps not just as obsessively.
He had his mother and father with him in LA last week but they don’t like to stay too long because carers for his grandparents. Does your wife come with you to LA? ’Yes, she comes everywhere with me whenever she can.’ She does not however come on tour with him very often. ‘I don’t like to travel with women. I don’t like to have women in the band. We are a family and we have this perfect dynamic and I don’t want to add something in. every time I have women on the road it ends up in tears.’
I imagine he likes to keep his work life a little separate from his domestic life. ‘But if I’m away I miss her like crazy. If you really love somebody why would you want to be with somebody else? These days if I see a good looking girl I think oh look at that girl, but I would never do anything about it. I was a different person before. I was insecure. I’m not proud of how I acted. I was reckless with people’s hearts, but I have learnt from it.
‘Am I happy now? Yes. And I’m happy making her happy. ‘You know my wife is a big advocate for animals. She’s rescued thousands of dogs in Argentina, so for Christmas we bought part of a company called Freehand. In the US they euthanize three million dogs every year because people can’t afford to feed them. For every bag of dog food you buy in the store we donate a bag to the pound. It’s like a pound for pound. We don’t pay for advertising. Celebrities help us by getting the word out. We have a website called lendafreehand.com. My wife has eight dogs and six cats. I’ll come home and there’ll be the scariest one-eyed dog looking at me and she’d be “Isn’t he so cute?” and I’ll be “ it’s the hound from hell.”
‘There are so many charities and worthwhile causes that the only thing people have to do here is buy their dog some dog food.’
He asks me please can I mention the dogs. He says he’d rather I mentioned the dogs than his latest album because it would make his wife happy. His wife and mini Bublé have changed his perspective and made him feel loved.
*To To Be Loved is out on April 15.
I am inside the library of MOCA in downtown LA. Outside we hear the haunting vocals of Katy Perry telling us ‘…let’s go all the way’. She is rehearsing for a charity performance at a huge gala. The day before she was in London for one of the first screenings of her documentary film Part Of Me.
She walks in purposefully, a tiny powerhouse who dismisses her giant security guard. She is in track bottoms and hoody, beige with peacock motif and cream scoop necked T-shirt. Her face make-up free except for a very pale base. Her newly purple hair pushed back into a ponytail. Most of the time the under her hoody. Her eyes look rather large and owlish behind glasses. There’s not even a trace of sleeplessness, jet lag; only focus.
Her wit is quick and her mind is sharp. You are swept up in her enormous drive. It seems like she is taking everything in her stride and that everything is within her dainty manicured grasp. But as the documentary Part Of Me shows, there are many parts of Katy Perry.
The super hard worker whose work ethic is beyond most pop stars or indeed women of her age – 27. An ambitious visionary who is kind to her fans and loyal to her friends, and a vulnerable woman who is not afraid to cry and be filmed without make-up.
The movie was filmed over the course of a year. A year which saw Perry achieve phenomenal success and endure tremendous personal heartbreak. She has filmed all of it.
We see her Pentecostal Christian past with her father the preacher. We see her strumming her guitar when she was 15 with hardcore lyrics about Jesus. We see how her first record company tried to mould her to be the next Avril Lavigne, the next Kelly Clarkson, when all she wanted to be was not the next but the first Katy. We saw how she always wanted to speak to a worldwide audience, to people who didn’t necessarily fit in.
‘My audience don’t necessarily want to go with the trends. They want to feel like they can be themselves and they don’t need any kind of accessory to make them them. It was really important for me to keep some of the more unflattering shots in the film to show at the end of the day I’m just every kind of woman. A normal girl with a big dream who really worked hard to achieve it. You don’t have to be born into something or be born with something. You don’t have to have a material possession or a label. A lot of times peoples perceptions on people like me is that we are perfect from the moment we walk out the door and I wanted to show that is not the case.’ And indeed she does.
We see her making sure she has relationship days. that may mean flying from Birmingham to LA to spend 36 hours with her then husband Russell Brand. We see her valiant juggling. We see the relationship disintegrate. We see her curled up, wrapped only in tears, unable to move. Your heart lurches as you see her wrenched on to the stage.
We see the moment where she makes recording history being the only woman to have five Number 1s from one album ( Teenage Dream) I was there with her in Nottingham when that news broke. Her team had asked to film the interview I was doing but I said no. if I’d known the resulting documentary would be so rivetingly good I would have been proud to be part of it.
‘I remember you didn’t want to be on camera but I didn’t know it was going to be this mega deal with a big Hollywood studio (Paramount) and in 3D.’ The film was made by two British boys from London Fields, Hackney, who filmed her every move for a year. ‘We had over 300 hours of footage. I sold it to Paramount in the spring and it started coming along like a massive train.’
Katy Perry remembers pretty much everything – words, phrases, details stick with her. She is not afraid to show us who she is and my suspicion is that the movie will be huge because it is in no way self-congratulatory. We meet her grandmother, sister, brother, parents, fans. We see her run ragged. We see the life drained out of her. And then we see her in a dress with rotating breasts. The lasting impression of this movie, which could have been the ultimate in cartoon gloss, is that it’s raw and it’s real. And that’s why people will connect to it.
Was she not afraid to show the heartbreak? The face with no make-up? ‘I was in the edit suite saying this is okay. I think my peers might be scared of that but hopefully I can open up a pathway for them to be a little less scared. It has become a big thing that girls have to become so painted and perfect. I certainly think there’s a time and a place for that.’
Her nails are painted black and off white with the ying yang design, a metaphor for the extremes that meet within. This is the same person who did an arena tour including a segment where she was dressed as a cup cake, and who over the last year has had hair of every colour of the rainbow, today is looking stripped of it all. She is looking… I’m searching for the word. She tells me ‘normal is the word.’ But for every part of her that is normal, there is another part that is extreme and extraordinary.
We see in the documentary that she is fearless. Not because she bungee jumps, but because she lets the audience see her heartbreak. ‘I love those documentaries where everyone is fabulous and always perfect, but that doesn’t relate to everyone and I like to be more relatable than that and I don’t want to be above my audience, I want to be one with my audience.’
It is her audience after all and their ability to relate to her that has made her. When record companies wanted to make her into something else she performed her songs in small venues and went by what her audience liked, not her record company. She always had her own vision.
‘It’s funny seeing footage that I’d filmed at 17, 18, 19 and having such a vision for where I am now and a foresight for where I wanted to be.’
She always knew? ‘I always knew it. It was such blind ambition. It was this is what I am doing, nothing is going to get in my way, I am just going to do it and keep doing it and keep trying until it is done.
‘People ask me all the time do you know what you are doing next? And I still have the same mindset as I did when I was first moving to LA when I was 17. I know what I’m doing next and then next just because my creative faucet doesn’t stop.’
Her Christian upbringing has been well documented, and little understood. One assumes that by the time she sang I Kissed A Girl some kind of gritty rebellion and rejection of values had taken place. Perry is more complex than that.
We hear how when she was growing up she wasn’t allowed to watch normal TV programmes and the only videos allowed were Sister Act 2 and The Preacher’s Wife. Her world was very narrow, the spectrum of colour muted. No wonder she loves the bold pastel of fairytales and cartoons. No wonder her show is a multi-coloured defiant dreamscape that shows limitless possibilities.
She grew up in sunny suburban Santa Barbara, California – a place that is terrifyingly safe and contained. She always had a passion for self expression and a need to stand out. Yet rather than rebel and reject everything she grew up with she simply transitioned. ‘Yes, it was a metamorphosis. But I’m still an insect of sorts.’
Perry loves words. She’s excited when she finds the perfect word. She favours it. ‘Yes, a transition.’ It’s how she got from being a gospel recording artist to singing I Kissed A Girl. It feels biblical.
‘I’ve always been an open person. Even in my faith growing up I was always asking questions, like what about this and why is that so. I needed education to back up faith. The landscape was black and white and then I found the colour. I think if you come from a really sheltered place, then you want to be open and free, it’s like naturally you want to see the other side of that. But it wasn’t as cold and dark and strict as people paint it in their minds.’
In the film she says you can never be too cartoon. ‘I think I’ve executed the cartoon side of me a lot last year and the year before.’
The layer cake dress, the spiralling breasted dress, the Alice In Wonderland dress… ‘All of those costumes will be displayed in different theatres with the movie.
I love that it’s becoming such a big event. And I didn’t know that when I was doing it. I had the seed of an idea. I love to go big. I’m not afraid of the mainstream and selling out in all the right ways. I’m proud of the things that I’ve achieved and the landscapes that I have covered and I hope the film does the same thing.’
Like the film Perry is mainstream but extreme. It’s a riveting combination. We see the intimate songs performed in huge auditoriums around the world. We see the audience connecting with the outsider, making her an insider, we see her being loved. There is a moment where she talks about how in the past, when she heard other women saying that if you become really successful you have to concentrate on that and not have a relationship. She always thought why can’t you have a relationship and be a success? Because surely the person who loves you would support you? She admits that that was wrong.
‘It’s that continuing blind ambition. For a modern woman it is important to be supported and that there is equality in every aspect and that it’s not two halves that make a whole it’s two wholes that make a whole. So I have learnt.’
There’s a brief pause, a space in which a modicum of sadness or regret may have once seeped in. It’s another emotion that fills that space right now. It’s an embracing of the truth. An embracing of pain that makes it less painful. An understanding that life is in the present and the future is exciting.
‘I’ve always been ambitious since I was nine years old and that was never going to change. That’s exactly me. And the theme of this movie is that everyone wanted to change me along the way and I’ve stuck to my guns. I am going to continue to be who I was born to be and if there’s no accepting of me you are not allowed to be part of me.’
It’s been six months since Russell Brand filed for divorce. They were married for 14 months and dated around a year before that. While her career went stratospheric, his faltered. Perhaps that fuelled the gulf between them. Perry, I believe, did everything in her power to keep everything going.
‘There’s a part in the film where I’m talking about it and I say, “I wont’ always be on tour, but this is the way it is now when you have an album out. then you do a tour. Then you come home, rest and recharge.” I had planned to rest and recharge in the beginning of this year, then I just threw myself back into work because I think when you are a little bit heartbroken you just throw yourself into it.’
Brand didn’t want to wait for Katy’s tour to finish before he ended the marriage. There is no way back now. I wonder if he’ll watch Part Of Me and see her heartbreak in 3D.
In Sao Paulo she had to be helped on stage. ‘My personal problems are not the audience’s personal problems and I had to separate the personal and the professional. That’s my job as an entertainer.’
I tell her she looked like she was going to die with pain. ‘Yes, and I slapped a smile on my face. I wasn’t being dragged on stage, I just needed a shoulder to help me walk up the steps. I had to bend over so that my false eyelashes didn’t come off. I couldn’t let the tears stream because it would ruin the make-up. But I got through it. I’m still here, I’m still singing, I’m still alive. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m moving forward one step at a time.’
On the Graham Norton Show recently she said her dance card was very full but she wasn’t quite sure who she was dancing with. ‘Yes, because that’s how you answer that type of question on Graham Norton.’
Well, how full is her dance card? ‘I really wish I had more time to be cuddled right now but I don’t, and I’m very particular.’
She has been pictured with Robert Ackroyd, guitarist with Florence and the Machine. ‘Yes, he is a boy, but there is no label. I’m just hanging out with lots of dancers. It’s not appropriate for me to have something serious right now. I need to let my heart heal and to to digest life and to take a break really.
‘As of August 1 I don’t have anything planned and I think it’s going to be alright for people not to see me for a minute. There are plenty of gorgeous peers out there to put out songs for them. I have to recharge batteries and hopefully I’ll come back with an abundance of things to say and great songs. I’m going to get bored and I’m going to stay bored. I’m going to enjoy the world on my own terms, do some reading, catch up on films, I’m just going to be. No plans allowed.’
She has started making notes and taking down phrases and moods for her new album. I am sure there will be some great songs inspired by recent events. She smiles: ‘Somehow you can say things more when they are on top of a melody.’
Is she afraid perhaps of falling love again? ‘No, absolutely not. I’m excited for the future whatever it brings. This is a year about me being creative and finding a new evolution of my music. I don’t think I can always be the candy queen. I might end up starting to become bitter sweet. I have to evolve and I have to continue to push people’s perceptions of me. As an artist I like to do that. I don’t always want to be pegged to the one thought or idea because I love keeping people on the edge of their seats.’
She is clever, funny, warm and despite her protests utterly beguiling with no make-up. More than all of this, courageous.
Katy Perry arrives for lunch in the Dorchester all tartan restaurant. She looks like a 1930s diva in a silk playsuit, the colour of You Don’t Know Jacques nail polish, beige grey, and Stephen Webster jewellery and a big fat diamond engagement ring.
The waiter is floured when she asks for cucumber, avocado and baked beans. She gives a naughty smile. She likes being eccentric.
Her single California Girls has just gone to number one and her album Teenage Dream, soon to follow, is set to establish her in the big time. Many of the songs have been inspired by her boyfriend soon to be husband Russell Brand.
“Russell’s coming in tonight and he’s going to watch the football (England v. Germany). I’m going to take his mum and go shopping because I’m sure he doesn’t want me there getting too animated.”
Would she be supporting England even though she’s American? “I feel really English sometimes. This restaurant is over posh. It’s like the servers haven’t left for 200 years and they continue to live as ghosts. And perhaps there’s a Scottish terrier that will be just wandering around. I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.”
I’m wondering if that’s something that she and Russell have in common? “I think I’m the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
People were a little shocked when evangelical Christian minister’s daughter Katy first hooked up with bad boy Russell who used to boast about sex addiction and drug cocktails. Since they met last September they have been inseparable and Russell completely monogamous.
Katy is of course gorgeous, clever and funny. But how has she managed to tame him? “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself. Everyone knows no one will change unless they want to change themselves.”
Do you think it was a case that he just met you at the right time? He was ready for a new phase of his life? “Yes. It was a cosmic collision.”
How do you think being a married person will change you? “I think it will be about prioritising things. I won’t be able to get smashed all the time, but I don’t want to. I won’t be able to waste hours on the internet, but I don’t need to. I have to be very precious with my time because I need time for myself individually and I want time with him. It’s just about the balance.”
Is there any talk of babies? “No. I’ve yet to get into that head space. Babies in a few years. If you see a bump it’s just water retention. I do have a new kitten, Krusty (Katy and Russell equals Krusty).
“She’s a lesbian,” she announces. Does that mean you’ve been kissing her? “All the time.” She shows me pictures on her Blackberry of the new kitten. Russell kissing Krusty. Krusty in a teapot. Krusty in a West Ham slipper.
She’s very excited about her cats – Kitty Purry and Krusty, and Russell’s cat Morrissey. Does she still get excited about number one records? “Of course I do.” Who does she call to celebrate? “Russell, my mum, Krusty, Morrissey, Kitty Purry. I collect them all into one room and say, ‘You’d better button up that tux, Morrissey. Straighten up and stop scratching me. We’ve hit number one.”
There’s not much chance of her and Russell and the kitties setting up home in London because Russell has just sold his place here. Aside from that she says, “I will miss it. I’ll miss the formalness of everything. I also like how English people, if they don’t like you they don’t like you to your face. But my serotonin levels would be all fucked up because of the weather. I’m a sunshine person. If the sun doesn’t come out my personality doesn’t come out.”
Her eyes widen. They are big blue kitty cat eyes. Her face is gorgeously glowing, flawless. “I have regular facials with Maki Maodus at Ole Henriksen. I tried different things to compare it to, but Maki, with the oatmealy honey smell that comes from her steam I crave. I’m addicted to all the creams she uses. I love her… If cats had jobs they would probably give facials, wouldn’t they.”
Does she have a diet or exercise regime – she looks kind of perfect, all skinny and curvy? “I skip rope and I eat greens,” she says succinctly. She exudes a kind of confidence that seems pure. She’s not afraid to stand up to her record company bosses. There’s a song on her album called Peacock – cute, double entendred, racy – that they didn’t like. “They were all a bit worried with the word cock and it gave me déjà vu because they did the same thing with Kisses A Girl. They said we don’t it as a single, we don’t want it on the album. And I was like, ‘You guys are idiots.'”
And what about Cheryl or Lady Gaga? “I knew Lady Gaga a little bit when she was coming up and I love her music. I’ve never met Lily but I’m a big fan. I don’t know Cheryl’s music but I love her dimples.” She smiles as if she wishes well on all the world and then tells me she’s very busy planning a wedding so no one will find out where it is. “My cats will be involved of course. Krusty will be the flower girl.”
She got her own way and I Kissed A Girl was a worldwide smash. “I feel very constant. I always try and make a lasting impression with the people who are letting me make a small music video or a big music video, you know. And I work very hard. My father has a saying, ‘You can’t be a flash in the pan.’ This record is important to me because it will resonate the fact that One Of The Boys (her last album) wasn’t just luck.”
She has a Jesus tattoo. Is that because she loves Jesus? “Yes. I got it when I was 18 and that is because I love Jesus.”
Her father is a minister and her parents were strict, yet she gets on fantastically well with them. “Because my ultimate goal was never to be rebellious towards my parents. I first started singing with singing in church. My parents were strict but they weren’t stiff or stuffy. We still had fun. I just wanted to be allowed to do some of the things that normal kids were doing. I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV or listen to any pop music.
“When I moved out I just became this living, breathing, eating, shitting sponge. It didn’t matter what genre music it was, I was just give it to me.” Because you felt you’d been deprived? “Yes, of course. I’ve always been an open person. I was never a kid who just took it. I was always like why, why, why. And that question has got me a long way. I moved, I transitioned. My parents and I now have a lovely relationship. Probably because they realise I am not going to turn into a crazy person or a prostitute or a Charles Manson.”
Do they worry about songs like Peacock? “They haven’t heart Peacock yet. There is a little red button that is constantly pushed with them and sometimes the red has pretty much worn off around it.”
Did it wear off with I Kissed A Girl? “No, it was still there then but it was wearing off when I called and said, ‘Mum, I’m naked in a cotton candy cloud.’ Or ‘I’m marrying Russell Brand.’ They really didn’t know about him. They always give people the benefit of the doubt and it’s up to the person to mess it up.”
Did Russell mess it up or charm them? “He’s very charming with them and he has an ongoing email love letter with my mum and she loves it. She flirts with him, which is totally inappropriate and I tell him to stop.”
Somehow I think Russell is never going to stop. But it’s probably better that he’s flirting with Katy’s mum than random other girls.
Another song, Firework, is inspired by Russell. “Russell showed me a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac and he said that this is what I am. The passage read, ‘I want to be around people that are buzzing and fizzing and never say a commonplace thing and shoot across the sky and make everybody go ah.’ So that has been my life statement.”
If Russell was a firework what would he be? “He’s all of them mixed into one. He’s the grand finale. I am one that has little gold leaves that fall like gold dust into the sea. He’s the one with all the noise.”
Are those two fireworks compatible? “They’re always in the same show, aren’t they.” She smiles her quirky little smile.
I wonder though if it is hard living with someone so flashy. Is there no ego clash? “All comedians are interesting characters plagued by their own genius; funny but very serious.”
Has she become more serious? “I think I could be more spontaneous but now my time off is more scheduled. I still love to go out with my friends and I still like Pinot Grigio. But I’ve learnt from some of my hangovers I don’t drink as much as I used to. My last big night out was probably Coachella (California’s Glastonbury). We had little golf carts to get from place to place but the golf cart broke and it was the middle of the night and we were coming back from a concert. We had to walk miles and then we saw another golf cart and got in it, but we got completely stuck again. I’m happy that Russell is sober because it’s had a good influence on me. It steers me in a more positive direction.”
Russell is about to start filming the remake of Arthur. He told me that he thought Katy would be perfect to play the Liza Minnelli character. “I guess she had dark hair and is a singer, but I could never beat Liza Minnelli, and he is going to be brilliant in it.”
Would you like to work with him though? “We work together well in the relationship because there’s no arguing. There is debating and you can do the same thing with a director. It’s really important to have your communication on the same level if you want to get the best out of both worlds. I don’t want to be the couple who make the mistake of working together and it ends up embarrassing. Who knows? I don’t think I’m ready.”
Besides, next year she plans that “I’m going to be touring my ass off. It’s probably one of the reasons I exist. I never want to come off as too mysterious, detached or unreliable. I love the personal connection between people.”
Has she ever said anything she regretted? I’m thinking some of the more barbed quips about Lily Allen. “I’m sure there are things that I’ve said that have been taken out of context. But just so everybody knows for the record. I like Lily very much.”
When I first met Katy Perry a few months ago I was overwhelmed by her huge sense of self. She seemed absolutely certain who she is, what she wants, with a kind of meteoric inner drive.
She comes though softly packaged in silky slinky clothes and super-sensitivity. There’s an urgency that she must grab everything now.
I first heard of Katy Perry a couple of years ago, long before she kissed a girl. My facialist Maki is her facialist. She told me as soon as her fingers had pitter-pattered across her her delicate cheekbones that her new client was going to be the most famous girl in the world. She was so naughty, so sexy, and so Christian.
The combination didn’t make sense to me. There were two failed record deals before her current megastardom. Perhaps it’s because of them that she makes sure she never relaxes. She is never less of herself as she believed that being moulded into what’s the vogue of the moment just dilutes you into failure.
Her current world tour is about expressing every particle of herself. Her cartoon sexuality, dizzying costume changes, fireworks, her love of her cats, and her love of “hubby” Russell Brand – it’s an enormous show in every sense. And the tour is almost a year long, and just after getting married that means there’s almost no domestic downtime. She’d never want that pause, give up on her music career. She wants to make sure it never gives up on her.
Marriage to Russell Brand could have worked against her, eclipsed her. But instead the symbiosis of their single fame has made for mega celebrity wattage. Their relationship seemed implausible chemistry at first. Minister’s daughter meets former sex addict and falls in love. But in fact they are more similar than different. Both love to be quirky almost to the point of outrage. Both have fast minds filled with funny lines. And both of them have a strong sense of spirituality which they manage sometimes to disguise. More of that later.
I am in Nottingham where Perry is to play the Arena. Outside little girls are in alien masks so they look like mini aliens from Perry’s video E.T. Although not quite like Perry in that video where her make-up makes her almost unrecognizable. The rest of her is taut, sinewy, and naked. First off she looks like a fairy and then reveals her lower half is that of a fawn.
Little girls love Perry and the show caters for this. It’s pink cotton candy. It’s Wizard of Oz meets Charlie and the cup cake factory. It’s David LaChapelle kitsch. It’s Lucille Ball kooky. It’s Carry On Down The Yellow Brick Road in the ultimate push-up bra. It’s kitty cats and red sequined shoes. One time there are seven costume changes in one song; it’s more of a magic trick. It’s glitter bustiers and cup cake crinolines that light up. It’s more is more. It’s a metaphor for her work ethic that nothing is ever enough, to make sure people are pleased. No tiny sequin of a detail has gone unchecked by Perry herself.
She’s on stage for two hours singing, dancing and bantering about the weird love triangle that is “my husband, myself and you, you sexy little Brits.” Then she’ll tell us that every song she’s put out has gone to Number 1. (Her last four singles California Gurls, Teenage Dream, Firework and E.T. got to Number 1 in the US). “And that’s because of you. I owe you. It feels nice to be loved.” She says it jokey but she means it. I got the same message backstage when I met her before the show.
I made my way through racks of multi-coloured fluffy costumes and dancers in candy-striped trainers. Perry has summoned me to sit on her hot pink sofa. It travels with her. She is wearing a plush cream bathrobe, nothing else, except a glossy black wig that’s part Wonder Woman, part Betty Page. She’s presented with a dark pink drink.
“Beets, carrots, ginger, maybe some pear. I have it every day.” It’s an LA style smoothie that’s made it’s way to Nottingham. “No it’s just by the end of this tour I’ll be looking like Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose if I don’t drink it. It’s really exhausting and I’m trying to build stamina. My knees have world tour written all over them.” She shows me bruised and bloodied knees, one deep cut. “I got that one a while back. I’ll have to get it lasered off at some point. It just adds to my tomboy look.”
There is part of her that’s a gutsy tough tomboy, but the rest of her is extreme girl. A kind of Disney princess that has a superpower of extreme focus. She explains the bruising came from “a guitar solo interaction with my guitarist. And I had all this extra energy, so I slid through his legs and that felt very rock ‘n roll. So I’ve been doing it every night since.” Indeed she crashes on to the ground hard and slides fearlessly.
An assistant comes in with some vitamins. “Irons and Bs and multis. I take one pill that’s for moisture for my voice so that when I’m on stage I don’t get cotton-mouth. They are like horse pills. I also do no caffeine, although on my days off I might have a latte or something with cheese on it or a Bud Lite. But that’s cheating. I’m proud that I haven’t turned into a fully-fledged drug addict. I have no choice. I have to stay on the straight and narrow. We started the tour in February and we are going to extend it possibly to December. I think a year of being really good is important. It’s an extraordinary thing for me to play this size of venue three to four years into my career. I get to take chances and utilize a lot of different opportunities.”
She’s grateful. She never separates herself from that feeling of being knocked back and not allowed to be who she was. Although that seems a very long time ago. She was first discovered when she was 15 singing gospel in her parents’ church in sleepy Santa Barbara, California. She went to Nashville to record with country Christian rock veterans and learn the tricks of songwriting. The subsequent album failed. When she was 17 she moved to Los Angeles to pursue pop singing dreams. She was signed by Def Jam Island, released an unsuccessful album, then was signed by Columbia in 2004 and again was dropped. When she was signed by EMI Virgin she knew it could be her last chance.
“I’m a professional. I appreciate hard work and I know it takes an extra level of hard work to do this kind of thing. We’ve been filming everything. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it or to what end, but this moment is special and I want to document it.”
It’s like when people fall in love, they write poems because they want to remind themselves that these intense feelings of love existed. It feels so unbelievable they have to write it down to make it true. “We might put an episode online. It’s nice because it gets to show that this is a lot of hard work.”
There’s nothing covert about her. She doesn’t want to hide anything. There’s something refreshingly old school about her candour.
“I feel very indebted. Touring to me feels like a debt repaid but in a good way. When people support you so much you owe them actual face time. I’m not always feeling 100 per cent. Four days ago I was sick in bed and went to the doctor. And now I have this lovely bruise on my butt from a steroid shot. I didn’t want to reschedule. You have to have a certain level of accountability. People have bus times, baby sitters. I’m not saying I’ll never cancel because I’m human.”
She whips up her robe to show me the giant butt bruise. It’s large and purple. I’m not sure why she wanted to show me the bruise’s graphic detail. Maybe so I could see just what lovely buttocks she has. Maybe because she likes to show and tell.
“I got a B, an antibiotic and a steroid. I got it in LA so I could get on the plane.” For her four days off she decided to fly from the UK to LA to be with her husband and cats. It seems pretty tough to me, but she is uncomplaining and happy she got to spend time there.
Do they Skype? “Yes, of course. We Skype and Krusty talks (the cat that is the feline love child of Katy and Russell, hence made up of both names). They all love clicking on the computer. That’s when I feel most safe and comfortable when I’m sitting in my house with my cats.” It strikes me as odd that suddenly there is talk of a need to feel safe. She did tell me once that she didn’t like sleeping in the dark.
“I sleep with the lights on unless I’m with Russell. I think a lot of evil things go on in the dark. I have to cover my toes because I’m that kid who thinks there’s a witch under my bed who’s going to eat my tootsies off. I have nightmares.”
She plucks out a throat pastille from a tiny box. Her finger nails are striped in candy cane Minx. She designed them herself. “These are for my voice. I’ve got lots of tricks. I’m sticking to vegetables and steamed things, some poultry. I don’t like the taste of fish. No caffeine. No alcohol. “It sounds boring but I think what I’m achieving.”
In the corner is an elliptical machine. She says that she did 40 minutes on it today. “I only do 40 minutes on show days because a show is about two hours and I don’t want to exhaust myself. I hate it. I’d rather be lying in bed reading books and watching my favourite TV programmes. Lots of English telly. I like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. And I like Morgana. And I like Charlie Brooker.”
She’s very Britified. “Well of course,” she purrs, “with the help of my husband. I think the British always have a dial on the things that are cool first. The music over here is one of the things I loved first. Especially the women like LaRoux, Marina and the Diamonds. And of course Morrissey. I’ve just met him once and he was very lovely to me and very unique.”
Brand’s cat is named after him. “The cat has some of his attributes. He’s always coming into the room with this attitude oh you again, I can’t be bothered, not unless you are going to feed me, and I won’t eat, I won’t eat next to the other cats. He’s a black and white cat and it looks like he’s wearing a tux all the time but a bit disheveled. Kitty Purry just got a nice trim, a lion cut. That means she’s got hair all around her face and neck but nowhere else. That’s perfect. And Krusty, so adorable. When I was sick the other day she was really sweet to me. Very protective. Pets are wonderful because they are constant love, non-judgemental, so sweet.
“Krusty is a lesbian. She’s such a tomboy. But she’s such a girl and she’s very proud of who she is.” Sounds like people really are their pets and Krusty and Perry really are very similar. Perry even looks like a cat with big blue wide kitty cat eyes and little kitty cat nose. I wondered if that’s one of the things that first connected her with Brand?
“I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.” The earning, the working of her debt for people’s affection is core to her. Of Brand she says, “I am the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
Much was made in the beginning of their relationship that Perry and her Jesus background tamed him. “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself.”
I first met Brand three weeks after he’d met Perry and he pretty much told me the same thing. He’d changed. He was ready to be loved by one person instead of seeking the attention/affection of many. And even though they don’t see each other much due to extreme work commitments, they are extremely communicative, as you’d expect from the woman who first expressed her love in sky-writing. Her Twitter is full of “go hubby go” and “how cute is my baby boy” referencing picture of him in Arthur. “Yes, he’s working really hard right now and I’m working really hard right now.” Brand has had two movies out back to back, Hop and the unmissable Arthur.
Did she get to see much of him? “Yes, I see him. I planned my tour around being a professional and a married woman. I planned my tour eight months ago. I had four days off and those four days off were to see him. It’s a lot of pre-planning but at least the slots are there. He already came on the tour four times.”
Does she feel different when he’s around? “No, but I get certain tips from him about my banter back and forth with the audience. I ask him what all the football teams are because that’s good fo I am thinkr the boys who have been dragged along by their girlfriends.
“When I was in Dublin he said don’t forget Oscar Wilde is from Dublin and when I was in Manchester he said that is where Oasis is from. He’s always giving me bits and pieces.”
They are both over the top extreme, but have huge spirits and are not bored with one another.
Did marriage change her? “Well yes. I think when you’re a single person there’s an energy that you’re always looking for another half. The stresses and other things. Then when you get married you’re like ‘oh, I can take this energy and put it somewhere else’. You feel relieved in so many ways. When you find someone that is your other half you feel a sigh of relief. It’s a beautiful thing to have a partner that nourishes you and gets you and will always be there for you and gets you on so many levels you don’t have to do any explaining. You can make one expression and they understand the mood you’re in. your ultimate team mate.”
Does she believe in soul mates? “People label things however they want to and I’m not labeling him anything. He’s my husband. But I would love to think that that’s the case. When we’re on our deathbeds and forever is over we’ll know.”
The notion that forever is over is perhaps something that haunts Perry. The songs might be dressed up in pink and Firework sparkly and inspirational, its riff used on all the trailers for American Idol. It’s played all the time, yet there is darkness to it.
The song was first conceived when Brand showed her a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac which said something like I want to be around people who are buzzing and fizzing, who are full of life and never say a commonplace thing, they shoot across the sky like a firework.
“And I like the idea that when I pass away I’ll be put in a firework and be shot across the ocean in Santa Barbara. That’s always been what I wanted for my last hurrah. It’s poetic. But it’s not about romance.”
It is about the eternal though, what lasts forever and what doesn’t. She has Jesus inked on her wrist. Does she observe this? “I observe it because It’s on my wrist but I don’t necessarily make it a moment every day. Mostly it’s having a heart of gratitude and being appreciative. This is my job and it’s a fun one. I should be humbled every day, which is basically a head frame I have. Not to take the piss out of playing a stupid game of spirituality. That’s not who I am. Who I am if want to put my head and my heart in the right position, so when I’m giving out my energy it’s pure.” She got the tattoo when she was 18 “because I love Jesus.”
It’s impossible to erase her spiritual upbringing no matter how much she sings about kissing girls and loving peacock cocks and wondering what it would be like to have cream to explode from her nipples. Her parents taught her about God and the devil. Her childhood was seeped in it. She took it all in. she questioned it, but she didn’t quite rebel. She never fell out with her parents although there were some “transitions” involved.
I’ve always thought that Brand looked like Jesus, so maybe that was the main attraction after all. The depths of the spiritual instruction she grew up with doesn’t go away.
“No it doesn’t. I’m different. The roots are the same but there’s a sift. For me the general wonderful things I learnt about were about respect and integrity, the difference between right and wrong. I think everyone in their own upbringing had their own silly rooms. Each family is unique and they have their own quirks. Mine was no devilled eggs and no MTV. Instead we had to call them angels eggs, just really small nuanced things like that.”
For her Jesus is as indelible as that tattoo. The juxtaposition of spiritual integrity and overt sexuality is a fascinating one. She takes with her on tour a box of prayers. My grandmother used to have a similar box where you take out one prayer every day and it gives you guidance or wisdom for that day. She says, “Yes, my costume designer got it at an estate sale. They’re ancient. 60 years old. The King James’s version of the Bible. It’s nice to have a regime that we can all be part of. We go into a circle, read our little prayer. We do it at the top of the show. You’ll see it later.” She seems keen that I can see this spiritual aspect.
“I think I’ve always been looking for answers. Wherever you come from as a child you swear you are not going to be like your parents, you’re going to be totally different and never look back. And when you look back it’s right behind you, breathing on you.
“I started off in gospel music when I started singing in church. I’d moved out of the house and everything. It didn’t matter what genre it was, I was like give it to me.”
There is indeed something insatiable about her. The curious thing as well as wanting it all, she wants to pay for it all, feel like she’s earned it all. Quite punishing.
She hates flying, is scared of it even, yet makes herself do it she is so grateful to be on a world tour. “I get to the venue, work out, eat, dress, do make-up, we do our circle, do a meet and greet, do the show. When the show is over I’m on a tour bus. That’s the price you pay.”
It’s a recurring theme – price you pay, her debt, her bargain. Is she happy? “Yes, I feel very fulfilled. I’m not always in the Snow Whitest of moods because my humour is very cynical and sarcastic anyways. I’m here because people put me here. I’m responsible to give payback. I am close to my fans and I feel indebted to them. I wouldn’t say I’m the most spiritual in the world, but I’m very aware of how small I am in this big world and every day is a chance to remember where I came from, every day is a chance to ask for humility and grace. I have a constant feed between me and God and every day is like ‘don’t become too proud, remember where you came from, be positive.'”
Perry may well have encouraged spirituality in Brand but he was already on the way to devouring mysticism and acquiring his own spiritual guru Radhanath Swami. Her mother finds Brand charming. She feels that he is going to be “a great man of God and his transition is happening.” She says she has a “lovely” relationship with her parents. She is a middle child. Her older sister is on tour with her organizing meets and greets. Her brother is an actor in LA.
Is it true she bought her mother a facelift? “Oh no, I did not. She aged well and by her own choices. There are quite a few things that are written about me that aren’t true.”
Is it true that her mother slept with Jimi Hendrix? “That’s also not true. She danced with him.”
What about her father. Was he really best friends with Timothy Leary? “He was a hippy and he went to Woodstock and he was an acid dealer. He was associated with that famous dealer of acid and psychedelics. I’m sure he was just one of many, but that is his testimony.”
Testimony in that religion is like in AA when you say ‘I’m an alcoholic’ or saying aloud the act of contrition.
“So they’ve had their wild days too. Now they are ministers and they’ve been ministering for over 35 years. We all came from somewhere. I have to remember that not everybody knows and it would obnoxious to think that they all should know. I’m fine with it.”
I read that when she was in India she engaged the services of a mystical psychic parrot. So much weird stuff is written about her it’s hard to sift the truth. “I think it might have been trained. Sorry to burst your bubble. But the whole idea of the tarot parrot was the sound of those two words together. That was the only reason I hired it.”
You wonder how much she enjoys fame if it is indeed more of a restriction. Paparazzis chase her constantly. Stories with even less truth than the psychic parrot sprinkle the tabloids, made up fights with other girl pop stars, fictitious rows and melodramas.
“When I was nine-years-old and started singing I didn’t think ooh fame, I thought songs, stage, costumes, exciting performances, making your own record. Those were the key ingredients to it. Being on the cover of a magazine, those are byproducts and I try not to give it too much energy. I don’t like tabloids and I don’t like paparazzi. I don’t feel I owe them anything. I don’t necessarily mess with them. when I see them I never pose unless I’m working. I always take back doors. Never condoning this kind of activity because I think it’s disgusting. It’s spineless. Some places are worse than others. Nobody should want to sign up for that.
“I’m four months Google free,” she announces, sounding straight out of an addiction meeting. “I don’t Google myself any more. That was my New Year’s resolution. I don’t read papers. I don’t even look at reviews. I have a good team around me so if anything pops up that’s really good or bad I’ll know about it. All the things I need to see I see. Generally I feel much better being able to live my life like a normal person and not read yesterday’s news. It’s intense but I don’t play into it and I don’t give it any energy. I’m careful of certain things I say and I do. If I know the interview is being recorded I can be a little wilder because you’re seeing me. But if I’m doing a print interview where there are only so many words that are being put into an article and I know I’ll be edited so I’m just very aware of what I say.”
Has she changed in this respect? “I think I have become a lot more focused and my bullshit tolerance has gone. I like working with great people, I like putting on a great show. I appreciate good people and relationships, my family and friendships, and my fans are really important to me. If you fuck with my fans you fuck with me. You dn’t want to fuck with Mama Bear.”
Have you sifted out a lot of people? “No, I’ve always stayed away from those types of people. when you’re going to different levels not everyone can get there. if they have greatness within them they can rise to that level. Some people just don’t want to go there. I want to be a better version of myself every day. I want to evolve. I believe if you are not changing all the time then you are not moving forward. You’re stuck.”
Weirdly the whole arena smells of candy floss although there’s none of it in sight. It must be all the bubble gum pink that’s auto-suggesting it. In fact the backstage food is made by a team of chefs that specialize in delicious organic food. Both her managers are here on tour with her and one of them talks in a delightful Alabama accent which adds to the syrupy warmth. There’s a quiet announcement that her single E.T. is Number 1 in the US. Everyone cheers and their joy seems genuine and she much loved.
Perry and her band and dancers in multi-coloured pastel furriness and candy striped sneakers gather in their circle. Perry herself is looking more and more like Wonder Woman. She arches back as if she is mustering her super powers. I wait expecting a little prayer asking Jesus to guide the show into loveliness. All their heads go down like a rugby scrum and they shout “Robin Hood!” and head for the stage.
At the end of my last meeting with Kylie I walk away with the feeling that I know her. Not just as a result of many interviews over time but because she allowed herself to be known. Something that’s new for her. In the past she didn’t really want people to get her. These days she’s friends with vulnerability; sees its point, its strength even. Before, certainly before cancer, and even coming out of it she didn’t want to be known. That was just too invasive. She was too shy. She is a mass of contradictions she never wanted people knowing her business, yet her business is show. The cancer stripped her, forced her to let people in, in a way that she had not welcomed before, because she’s always been guarded, perfectionist, ambiguous. Comfortable being an equation in people’s heads that was something like Neighbours, I Should Be So Lucky, Michael Hutchence, hot pants, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, cancer, survivor icon = Kylie. She’s always been more comfortable hiding because she carried around longer than anyone else the image of Charlene the mechanic with the frizzy eighties hair. And she’s far too proper a person to ever want to exploit anything that happened to her; be it heartbreak or cancer. She would never do a documentary humiliating a lover like Madonna did, or an interview wearing only fishnets and a bra like Gaga.
Gradually there was a point where she thought, probably not consciously, that it was OK to be herself. I talked to Stuart Price, who was the executive producer on Aphrodite, not released yet, but already the buzz is that it’s her best album yet.
Price worked with Madonna on her Confessions On A Dancefloor album, so he knows his way around the pop diva. “Early on I said this should be 100 per cent you singing about the things that people had a feeling that went on for you in your life that you’ve never spoken about. It’s good to reveal ups and downs on record and what she brought to the studio was a combination of joy, sadness confusion and put it on a record so that you can connect to what she’s been through. Arrogance is not in her dictionary, but she stakes a claim in a way that is captivating and a way which shows that records are a truth serum.”
The record shimmers in Kylieness. When we first meet she smells of Kylieness. Her own perfume Sweet Darling, musky and slinky. Like everything she does she throws herself totally into it. She’d never wear a perfume that bears her name that she doesn’t wear. We are in Blakes Hotel. In exactly the same black lacquer room with orchids and Buddha’s that we met in a year ago. She likes it there. It’s old school stylish, covert.
She’s wearing black skinny jeans, platform suede clogs with a silver flash, a silver top and black tight leather jacket, clear nail polish and make-up made up to look natural. Her eyes a pale sparkling blue. I stare at her face which is much less mannequin shiny. There’s a couple of lines around the eyes and mouth. Her skin doesn’t look like what you’d imagine the skin of a 42-year-old who has cancer but there are not many reference points for that. She’s stopped doing botox. “It gave me a bad rap. Isn’t that the same?” It did seem very unfair that Kylie survived cancer, strove to get back to herself, to look as good as she could, to find only that people complained she didn’t look real.
“It fascinates me that I’m asked so much about it when advertising for face products is forced down our throats. There are some things you can do. Most people have done them. You can have microdermabrasions and micropeels. If these things are going to give you better skin why not.”
The tabloids ran with a line that these days all she used was Pond’s because her grandmother did. Is that your must have regime? “No. I use all different things. I’m always trying different things. I’m quite spoilt because a lot of products are sent to me. In Neighbours they used it to take your make-up off because Pond’s dissolved everything. It takes me back to the smell of your grandma. I have used it because one day recently we were in the States and I ran out of cleanser and somebody had some Pond’s, so I took my make-up off and it had a moisturizing effect. So that’s the story of what’s keeping me youthful.
“My face has gone through a lot of changes. If you look back to before I was ill there was nothing of me. I didn’t realise it at the time but in a way I looked much older than I do now. All of me is just fleshier now, but my face changed. It filled out, it puffed up with the drugs. It’s not puffed now but it was because of the chemotherapy and steroids. Nobody saw me much I was under the radar, but there are pictures of me. I could see from my peripheral vision my cheeks… I’d never noticed my cheeks before, but I could look down and I was like those are my cheeks.
” I tell her I remember the pictures of that time when she looked chic in a headscarf. “I try to keep it up just to lift my spirits if nothing else.” By keeping it up she means appearance, façade, telling the world she was OK even if she wasn’t. Do you feel that because you’ve been stripped bare you had less to lose and was less wary of people and more open? “I think I know what you’re saying… I was pretty much laid bare. I was at the mercy of all those different specialists, doctors, hospitals, other hospitals.
” I Imagine what it must be like if you’ve always been a person who liked to keep a certain control in your life to have nothing. To go to a doctor when you were feeling terribly ill and be told there was nothing wrong with you. To misdiagnose your cancer. To go back and insist that they were wrong and then have other doctors tell you what to do. After that making a documentary where you allow people to see what goes on in your kitchen must seem a whole lot easier. “I didn’t really want to do White Diamond, but Willy (William Baker) kind of got the better of me. But yes, I feel I can deal with that sort of thing now. But that whole getting back on stage and doing the Showgirl homecoming tour?” She wonders now not why she did it, but how she did it. “I can’t afford to be stressed and the more I let go of the better. So you’ve just got to find cruising speed… but I was trying too hard and being way too hard on myself and carry along old baggage.
I still had those layers from where they were in the beginning. Those nagging thoughts; she can’t do this, she can’t do that. I was like I can do it. I’m so stressed by it, but just do it. The point is I’m easier on myself.” I wonder though just how easy she is. Old habits she’s always been a connoisseur of the perfect leopard print, and I haven’t seen those spots changing too much. The album is euphoric. I’ve only listened to it on a computer stream which makes most things sound tinny and awful, but it still sounds great. She smiles when I tell her. Not a trace of smugness in that smile.
“I think the euphoria came when we brought Stuart Price on board. He’s so delightful and I was so relaxed recording with him because we got on like a house on fire. We just did it on the studio mic (not a recording booth). I wasn’t separated in another room. I felt confident with him. He allowed me to shine.” This is something that Kylie always does; compliment other people, express gratitude. It’s more than just politeness, it’s who she is. Price told me he wanted to get “something new that you haven’t heard from her before but at the same time it’s so unmistakably her. “Kylie must have visited the majority of vocal booths in the world and we wanted to break that mould. We recorded it in the control room, speakers up, designated dancing zone.
Kylie is one of the most accomplished singers in pop music. She rarely sings a bum note.” Was she confident working in that pared down way? “I love having the challenge and I loved having Stuart.” While Britain was gripped in the post-election standoff, only one thing could knock politics off the front pages, and that was Kylie’s bum. Wearing hotpants taken at a video shoot for the single All The Lovers She laughs, “I was not expecting to be wearing that kind of outfit ever again. In fact the brief for the video, pardon the pun, was long flowing dresses. But when I got there the director said ‘I think of you and I think hotpants.’ I was thinking everyone’s gone to so much trouble to call in white flowing dresses and I had to wrestle with my feelings about it and then I thought that the long dresses wouldn’t work for this video, so I would go with it, but some paparazzi were outside and that’s how those shots happened. But I survived.” More than survived. It was a celebration.
She looks falteringly and says, “Now it gets written about because I’m in that age group ‘she’s in her forties and she’s still got it.’ I’m suddenly in that age range where you’re spoken about like that, and I’m like shut up because at some point it won’t be.” I recognise this Kylie. The Kylie that’s super hard on herself. That doesn’t think she looks as great as everybody else thinks she does. As gorgeous as she really does. I remember when we met just after she was in remission. She was really hard on herself, coming to terms with her fuller face and noticing changes in her body, feeling grateful to be alive but finding her new body hard to confront because she lost a lot of weight then put on a lot of weight, and for someone who has been pretty much tiny all her life it came as a shock. She’s still tiny, but she notices more that she’s not as tiny as she was. “It has changed a lot and I still have to deal with it.” In what way do you feel it’s changed?
“Well, I’m here and that’s what I have to remember when I start to get down about it. I still take medication, and there’s a lot of women who stop taking the medication because they just can’t stand the side effects. You definitely put on weight.” I tell her again she doesn’t look like she’s gained weight. “But I notice it. Weight was never an issue for me. Before I could just eat anything.” But everyone feels that. Metabolism slows down after a certain age. “Well it does but it’s hard for me to tell what exactly it is because it’s over five years that I’ve been on medication. I have just under a year until I get my five year clear.” And after that you stop taking medication? “After that yeh. When I think back now going on that Homecoming tour I just can’t believe I did that. I get upset thinking about it.” I wonder exactly what she gets upset about.
That she forced herself to do it when she still was feeling unwell, that she wanted to prove that she could do it and it was harder for her than she thought, or because she did it because being on stage makes her feel alive and she wanted to know that she was alive. “That was it. I wanted to know that I could do what I do. Admittedly it was in a different way. We had to put an interval into the show.” She says this as if putting an interval in a show meant she was letting the audience down, making them suffer and a sign of terrible weakness. Lots of artists have intervals in their shows. “Mm,” says Kylie, unconvinced that she wants to be that kind of performer. “I fought against the interval and two nights before opening I realised if the show were to work an interval would be a good idea.” I remind her doing any show at all was an enormous undertaking for someone so recently after treatment. “It was,” she concedes. Will there be a tour for this album? “Next year, yes. At least I’m being positive and thinking at the start of next year I’ll be celebrating. That’s the first big mark.” It’s almost as if her cancer has been talked about so much it’s been sanitised, tabloidised. It’s been triumph over tragedy. But there’s very much a sense it shadows her. She tries in that very Kylie way not to make it a haunting shadow, but a let’s be in the moment sort of shadow. Despite the euphoric mood of the album and the euphoric reactions to it, she seems a little tired. Perhaps it’s the jet lag. Perhaps every time she gets tired she gets worried that it’s more than tiredness. Perhaps it’s the effect of the meds. What exactly are the other side effects of the medication you’re on now? “Not stuff I’d like to share,” she says, although she confirms tiredness is one of them. She doesn’t trade on sympathy, she trades on dance tunes, happy things. She really doesn’t want people to worry about her.
She doesn’t like a fuss. She’s very contained. The opposite of confessional. The opposite of Madonna. Price, who has worked with them both, says they are almost opposite personalities. “Madonna has a lot more of an aggressive and determined approach. Kylie is much more instinctive.” Madonna likes to show off and quote from the Kabbalah. Kylie’s intelligence is much less self-conscious. Kylie says she’s porous, by which she means she takes in other people’s moods and absorbs them. A record company insider who has worked with her for over a decade says, “There’s a lot of humility about the way Kylie operates. She operates with a concern for the people around her. Tours which are always such a difficult thing she manages to create an incredible atmosphere. She is very concerned with making other people feel good.” Has she changed over the years?
“I think she’s the same. She never kicks up a fuss. If she commits to doing something she’ll do it. She manages to be one of the most famous women in the country and very private.” Weirdly in all the time I’ve met Kylie I’ve never heard her moan. Even when all her hair fell out and I suggested she might have been depressed she said, “When you put it in perspective it’s a sign your treatment is doing what it’s supposed to do.” When she broke up from French actor Olivier Martinez she never bitched about him or was bitter. “I’m a fatalist. I always feel that a relationship runs for the duration it’s meant to.” There are some things that Kylie is sensationally chilled about, and others that stress her completely. “I do moan,” she pipes in. “I moan with my PA. We’ve been together over ten years. We have a good old moan together.”
She doesn’t moan with or about her current inamorato, Spanish model Andres Velencoso. They met about 18 months ago at a party for the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, and she says she’s still blessed out with him. “He just left this morning actually. We had take away Spanish last night because I’m very good friend with the Spanish restaurant. I liked it before I met him.” Do you speak Spanish? “No, but I’ve started to understand it a little and I recorded a version of All The Lovers in Spanish. Andres and I were in Spain driving in the car, listening to mixes, and I can’t remember if it was him or myself who said I wonder what this would sound like in Spanish.
So I thought let’s try it and he did a translation for me.” Interesting that she doesn’t remember who it was. It shows that she’s close. “Yes,” she smiles. Is there a lot of separation involved? “We try not to leave it too long between seeing each other. But he’s used to travelling. I’m used to travelling. That’s how the relationship started. It works for me and I think it works for him.” Do you prefer it? “In a way, to have time to do your own thing, to be compartmentalised like that, yes, I think you’re right. When I try to do everything at once, it’s when I have a meltdown.” We discuss the gemininess of the extremes of her personality. Some people call he Kylie, and her close friends call her Min, Min for Minogue or Min for miniature. “Not sure,” says one friend, “but she’s the maxiest min you’re ever going to meet.” “I think there are more than two of me. There’s a committee. The voices in my head have all been so loud I think I’ve said something and discusses for instance when we’re going on tour, but I’ll realise I’ve only discussed it with myself.” I imagine the committee all have different views about her future with Velencoso. Sometimes I imagine it seems relaxed and easy going. I remember one time I met her when she was launching a linen range she seemed intensely in love. She was doing a lot of golf and said she’d taken up cooking. At the time I asked her if she was a piece of her own bed linen what would she be? “The finest linen top sheet. One that goes over you in summer, that just skims you so you are not cold.”
Kylie has a lightness and a non-invasiveness. I wonder about the permanence of her relationship with the Spanish one. I get the impression it’s one of these things that she likes to love in the moment. For his birthday last year she got a blue topaz stone from India where she did a cameo in a Bollywood movie. “I wanted him to have something jewelleryish but not ostentatious. I had some string and I plaited it into a sort of web into which we put the stone. The stone was tiny and I knew it would be lost in the string, but that was the beauty of it. He wore it for a while and then the stone got lost. OK, gone to the universe. Then he kept wearing the string until that finally wore away. So that’s the jewellery I got him. Something precious and something from the kitchen cupboard. Knowing he would lose it and it wasn’t secure was the most beautiful part.” It seems like a metaphor for the relationship. Does she think she will have babies? “I don’t know. I would love to, but…” Her sister Dannii is pregnant. The irony is not lost on her that Dannii is the last person who you’d ever expected to get broody. “She’d say the same thing. Life’s funny isn’t it. She’s blossomed.” Kylie doesn’t know if she can get pregnant, but she’s always wanted to have kids.
“It’s very hard.” I tell her a lot of people who concentrated on their careers feel terrible that they put it off for too long. “Perhaps if you are resolutely sure that that’s not the path you want to go down that’s OK. But if there’s an element of doubt you can’t help but question it. It’s not fun.” I agree. It’s not fun. And what brings you out of that? “Pineapple Dance Studio does it for me,” she laughs. There’s also her ongoing lifelong relationship with busy. “Busy and I are getting on quite well at the moment. We are negotiating how fraught I will become. The committee meeting in my head has looked at the next week and is trying to be relaxed. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I slip into old habits. But I’m not as bad as I used to be.’ Do you find you throw yourself into busy to get away from other things that are not very pleasant and not easy to deal with? “Partly yes, and partly it’s a challenge.
I love what I do and the more I learn the better I am at it. It’s like discovering a certain freedom. “If I didn’t tour again I’d think oh no, I’ve finally just found my stride.” Do you mean that when you’re performing you know who you are? “In the broader sense, yes. I’ll be in the old peoples home trying to do a high kick down the corridor. I felt it at the end of that video shoot. I felt about 1,000. Dancing on those heels. I ached.” Yet she makes everything look effortless. “Yes, I try.” Why is that so important? “I like to make a happy environment. At the end of this video shoot I said thanks to the extras because they’d all been shivering for so long and the second unit director said in 20 years of doing video shoots he’d never seen anyone get on the mic and thank people. And that just astounds me because thanking people is just being a normal, thoughtful person. There are enough difficulties in life.” Don’t you think if you make things look too effortless people aren’t aware of your pain? People take you for granted? “There is that. But that’s a whole other… that’s not a barrier reef, that’s a big deep sea.”
I leave Kylie thinking about the deep sea of unsaid things and the unspoken burdens that she must carry around with her. We meet a week later. She is dressed in gold. Everything seems brighter and more flippant, but she says that’s because my mood has changed and she’s picked up on it. We talk about the importance of having a gay husband and how much she loves Will Baker. “I think the 2.4 family is down the drain these days. Every girl has to have her GBF. In my life it has to work.” Does Baker have to approve of her boyfriend? “Yes, they like each other. We all met on the same day and that helped. Before that I remember when I dated some guy for a little bit and he absolutely bristled and still goes on about it. It’s sweet, I guess.”
Does she think she wants to have a non-gay husband? “Mm. what I might have said before is marriage might not be for me.” I don’t think Kylie sees things that black and white or conclusively. Not living in the moment stresses her out. And she seems flustered by the question. We are in her management offices, which have an assortment of her lilac satin and feather cushions. Everything is very bright and I can see her skin even more clearly, and she seems extremely happy in it. “I think I’m at the point in my life where I’m feeling good within myself.” She agrees she is less guarded, more open, less afraid. “But I think that’s because the perception of me has changed. Not least because I was shown to be susceptible as everyone to a terrible disease and to be human, and perhaps because a certain amount of time has passed and I’m still here.”
It takes a long time to process going through cancer and come out the other end to actually admit it happened to you. I remember talking to her soon after it was announced she was in remission in 2006. She didn’t know how she felt about it. She needed to make an album because she needed to know that she could still sound like her. She needed to make a perfume to know that she could still smell and make a happy smell. But it’s been a long process and many decisions of what to keep in your life because it reinforces who you are and what to let go of.
“I’m prone to anxiety, that’s for sure. But my current motivation is to try and enjoy the moments that are good and address the moments that aren’t good because they colour each other. If you can get a number of moments in a row that are good, that’s a reason to be joyful.” Does she have plans of what she wants for the future? “I’d like to do some more acting. When I did Dr Who I felt taken back to my acting beginnings and in my spiritual home. I like that people feel the spirit in this album and I’d like it to be joyful.”
It’s one of those restaurants on the beach, a balmy summer evening in all senses of the word. We are on the Cote d’Azur. It’s special energy was favoured by artists like Picasso and dictators like Mobutu. Bono is holding court on another table with a man who would like to build a cathedral for all faiths. Larry Mullen is tucking into tempura and chips enthusiastically. His skin shimmers golden, even in the moonlight. He looks at least 15 years younger than his 42 years. He’s stuck besides a woman who has close links to Tony Blair. Sometimes he despairs of Bono’s appetite for the political arena, sometimes they argue about it, mostly Bono makes it work out. You wonder all the time how did he do it, straddle between the rock stadium and the politician’s ear. But then how has he ever embraced being a rock god, and, well, God. If you spend any time in his company you will know there’s a reason why Bono is Bono, and U2 is U2 – the biggest rock band of all time. But more of that later. What’s clear now is that the band of 25 years has survived a thousand tantrums or more, several heart breaking dramas, and they have moved on together because of the love and respect they all have for each other. It’s a very elegant co-dependency. Adam Clayton’s not with us tonight. Partly because he lives the wrong side of Nice and doesn’t like to drive in the dark after the laser operation on his eyes. And partly, I suspect, because he doesn’t torture himself by being around alcoholic beverage. He was so nearly lost into a self-destructive vortex. He is now careful in the other extreme.
Each member of U2 is a little of an outsider. Either because their mothers were lost to them at a young age, as in Bono and Larry, or Adam who was lost to boarding schools. He’d grown up in East Africa. When he arrived in Ireland he felt bad, because although he was the only one in the class who spoke Swahili, he couldn’t speak Gaelic. Edge had a different kind of displacement. He was born in Wales and moved to Ireland but was cursed by not sounding like he fitted. He’s careful now to have an accent that reveals little because of that earlier sense of alienation. The girlfriend of the lead singer of Ash is talking to Bono about clubs in Dublin. He’s looking a little distracted as he’s trying to earwig on the Edge’s conversation. “What are you talking about Wales for,” he keeps on. Later on he tells me it’s his performer’s ear, he can hear everything that is going on in the room. More likely he heard his name being mentioned.
Edge was saying how Bono is different to other people because other people get in a pattern of thinking and he never thinks there are any parameters. That’s why he thinks there’s nothing wrong with phoning George Bush. Some Brazilian rhythms are playing. Some of us are dancing. The lights across the bay are getting more twinkly as the night gets blacker. It’s past midnight, the restaurant is shutting. It’s a short walk along the beach to the twin villas in which Edge and Bono live, separated only by two swimming pools. People find it odd that not only have they worked together creatively and sometimes compulsively for over 25 years that now they actually live next door to one another. There’s not even a fence between them. They never got round to building it. The problem with the walk across the beach is that it is a stone beach, not a speck of sand in sight, and I am wearing stiletto heeled mules. Bono offers to carry me. I opt for bare foot. It’s painful. I’m almost yelping. Then Bono offers me his shoes. They are Japanese inspired flip flops and a godsend. Now he is in pain, but he doesn’t yelp, says it’s like an intense reflexology. When we get back to his place he puts on the new CD How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It’s one of the first times that they have heard the completed work in its correct running order. Bono sings karaoke style along with it. One track begins with the line, “Take my shoes” which he sings directly into my ear. The Edge is looking solemn and worried. “Look at him,” says Bono. “He’s going through all those mixes, assessing it all in his head.” He is indeed immersed in a world of his own. Bono is now singing the line, “I know that we don’t talk but can you hear me when I siiiiing.” It’s a weird cry that vibrates into the night after the already vibrating note from Bono’s voice on the album. Haunting of course. It’s meant to be. “Yes,” he says. “I am hitting a note a man of my age shouldn’t be hitting. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I have a different voice. Where did that come from?”
One theory is that How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is actually about dismantling the life and death of his father (?) who was a big time opera fan and a perfect tenor. Since he’s gone he walks in a different way, maybe it’s his father’s walk, maybe he swallowed him.
“Or maybe something just lifted, like a very strange weight and I am more at ease with myself and this is as easy as I’ll ever get, and this is pretty good. “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. He is the atomic bomb in question and it is his era, the Cold War era, and we had a bit of a cold war, myself and him. Perhaps that was just an Irish male thing. But we had an unusual relationship early on. When he died I had no idea what would happen. I did start behaving a little odd, took on more and more projects.
“And looking back on it now, because I think now it’s finally ended, now I’ve finally managed to say goodbye, I think that I did do some mad stuff. I got a letter from a friend of mine that said, 1, don’t leave your job, 2, your wife, 3, take large sums of money out of the bank. I wasn’t doing any of that, but what he was saying was when fathers die sons do mad stuff. “I thought I was ready for it, and up for it.” Don’t know if you can ever be ready for death. “Well, he’d been ill for a long time (he had cancer and Parkinson’s disease) and I would go and visit him in hospital, take the night watch.” He was on tour for the final stages of his father’s life, but he would fly back to take a bed in the hospital. “I didn’t know that grief affects you in surprising ways. I didn’t know that a year and a half, two years later, when you’re walking down the street, there’s tears going down your face and you don’t know why. Then you realise why, you’ve got all that unresolved stuff you didn’t get a chance to work out and you wished you had, or pick up a phone call. “We didn’t talk. I don’t think I spent enough time with him, and it’s always awkward with Irish males what you talk about. We got a snooker table, that helped, but not when he was ill. I’d come home from gigs, get to the airport, meet my brother, have a pint of Guinness and a shot of whiskey, and go up to the room so in the morning I was there. In the last days I would read to him. Shakespeare, the Psalms, although that was bad timing because my father was losing his faith just when you really need it. I remember saying to Noel Gallagher that he just wasn’t sure any more and Noel says, ‘Well he’s one step closer to knowing, isn’t he.'” And that became another song, One Step Closer. Like all Bono’s lyrics, they’re essentially about embracing contradictions, humour and despair, celebration and bitterness, God and sex, desire and doom, devils and angels. All embrace each other and become different facets of the same thing. Sometimes they sound biblical even. Even when they are at their most throwaway they draw you in. You can hang from his every word and quite enjoy it. He is a person who wears his inside on his out and you are scooped into that force field.
“This turned out to be such an emotional set of recordings and I don’t remember writing them like that. I don’t know where it came from, just as I found notes I’d forgotten, I found melodies. I also noticed I was walking differently, and I noticed other people noticed certain mannerisms in me. I think you do that. As their manifestation leaves their central presence or being enters into you.” Bono has so much to say to everybody, George Bush, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the swing voters, the peace keepers, the warmongers and the rock and roll population of the world. But he didn’t have very much to say to his dad. Most of the time he drew him lying there. “I drew all the equipment. I found it fascinating with all those wires and tubes. I didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with things, my brother did all the heroic stuff, organising everything, the medical stuff. I think I was just drawing to try and figure it out rather than twitching and looking away. And I was writing because I was trying to figure it all out. That’s when I wrote Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own when he was sick. He wasn’t an easy man to help and I sang it at his funeral. It sounded like The Righteous Brothers, something from a very different age. What will the young people make of it?” he laughs. The song is reaching emotional parts that songs rarely locate. It is beautifully crafted, but also raw.
“The record is full of joy though. I don’t want people to think of it as despairing. My father really was great fun,” he says. The two trains of thought about his father seem entirely contradictory. That he was fun, and that he was unreachable. But somehow, when Bono tells you it you believe it. It’s a rare gift. You accept almost anything. He wonders where the drawings are. Perhaps they are upstairs. He will show them to me later. He says, “I have recently had to let go of grief and thank God for the gift my father gave me, even if I turned out like a Johnny Cash song. I am the boy named Sue, you know. His whole thing was don’t dream because dreams end in disappointment. And that’s it right there. That’s when the megalomania started. Don’t have any big ideas.” He waves his finger as if he is his father, and bursts out laughing as in that moment he knows he is the biggest rock star in the world because he wanted to be. He feels he personally can put an end to world debt just because he thinks so. And the AIDS crisis in Africa. We’re on our way. You see it in his eyes which sometimes flash with an inspiration you can almost touch. That’s the real reason he wears those dark glasses. As if on cue the song Yahweh which is the original name for God in Hebrew pounds out with such joy some of us are dancing on the terrace. The restaurant gave us champagne to take across the beach. More bottles of rose wine have been added, and now Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime is sighing and oozing from the speakers.
The next morning everyone had a hangover. Bono had a non-specific angst. Could be that he was very concerned that I would think that everything in his life was warm and fuzzy. Could be because the photographer Greg Williams was prowling in the gardens with a few hundred kilos of sugar. He was shooting an ad campaign for Oxfam and Bono was to be photographed underneath a sugar mountain. I believe Chris Martin got milk. And there was a brief discussion whether you’d rather be covered in milk, sugar or flour. But it is true that life for U2 isn’t always a cosy sugar cocoon. It hasn’t been exactly 25 silver spoon years. After the initial struggle, remember they used to worry were they too biblical to be cool, then it was simply were they too sated. That period around Achtung Baby and Pop in the nineties was their most turbulent and most arid. That was when Adam went off the rails with drugs and various other excesses. And that was when Larry, after finishing three years of touring (the Zooropa tour 1993) ended up in Japan and so didn’t know what a home was tried to persuade Edge it was a good idea to buy motorcycles and cross America for six months.
Bono refers to Adam and Larry as rock police. He says that Adam has an ear equivalent to a third eye. And Larry has an amazing instinct and decision making process. Everything in Mullen world is black and white, there is never any grey. The most stroppy and the most straightforward, and the most handsome. I first met Larry earlier on in the summer in my first visit to the south of France. The day I arrived the just finished not fully completed CD had been stolen from a photo session from the Edge’s CD player. The police enjoyed questioning all of U2, and the record company were in a general panic. But Mullen seemed laid back. “What can you do?” he shrugged. And when he shrugged, his arms, special drummer’s arms, ripple very nicely. In daylight he has an orange bronze shimmer. I’ve seen him referred to before as Dorian Gray. He says that his father is in his eighties and looks 62. I wonder is he most like his father then, or his mother? Not just in skin tone. He says sadly that he never found out how his mother would age. “She passed away in 1978.” A loud airplane tears across the sky and almost destroys the moment. “When I joined the band it was like running away to the circus. My memory of early U2 is really hit and miss because I just ran away when my mother died. Nobody was there to pick up the pieces. I was trying to do it myself. Impossible.”
He was just 17 and U2 became his replacement family with everything that involved. “Yes, my sister got married and the family unit was broken. Every Irish son is closest to their mother. She thought I’d make a priest one day, she’d be very disappointed.” But now you’re giving out a different kind of communion. “That’s right.” Do you think you were running away from loss all your life? “I don’t know, there may be some truth in that. There’s a sense of running because you don’t want to go through that loss again. In Ireland mother love is so big even married sons will go for Sunday dinner on their own. Anyway, it’s a little more expensive to run away now than back then, but it’s still a circus.”
It becomes apparent that the reason U2 are still together is that they need each other more than other bands. Bono thinks that Larry is the dad of the U2 family because he’s so good at making decisions. Mullen thinks that actually he’s the spoilt child. “Bono’s the mum. No doubt. You know, he’s larger than life and he’ll take on anything.”
Mullen doesn’t schmooze, he doesn’t mince words. He’s very direct and heartfelt. He says, “We’re not making music by committee which a lot of people misunderstand. Songs come as a sketch and we work around and add our influences. My passion is not drumming or drummers, my passion is music. Whereas Edge, and Bono to a lesser degree will be focused on the whole idea and will spend six hours in the studio while Edge is going on his guitars, I just go in and out so I can be more objective.
“We don’t fight, but we all have strong personalities. But in the end we want the same thing. You know we’re very competitive, we want to be on the radio, have big singles. We don’t want to be thought of as a veteran band. We like the fact that people mention Coldplay as our contemporaries.” (Coldplay are about 18 years younger). Then he says, “I got exhausted listening to our CD. It’s not an immediate record. We don’t make immediate records. But then I thought it’s actually really good. I didn’t agree with the title though, but I was overruled on that.” It was produced by Steve Lillywhite, but there had been many other producers involved: Chris Thomas, Flood, Jacknife Lee, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Nellee Hooper and Carl Glanville Mullen raises an eyebrow. “People work for U2 and are never seen again. The U2 black hole. Stephen Hawkins discovered a new black hole theory that things can come out of the end of the black hole. I guarantee if Stephen Hawkins looks closely enough he’ll find several old U2 producers, engineers and road crew.” So why are the four of you still together? “There’s nowhere else to go. What kind of a band goes on holiday to the same place? What kind of families just mix?”
We are sitting under a canopy on Bono’s terrace by the pool and several naked children, possibly belonging to Edge, run squealing by. “We are a tight family with all the pluses and disadvantages of that. But we don’t have an ego problem in the band. Most bands fall after the first hurdle, which is, I write the songs. We all are involved in the process. Also we are not slaves to our instruments. We are not virtuosos. None of us studied. So we all struggle together. “Different things come into play now that we’ve all got families. We don’t have the freedom we once had.” He’s got an eight year old son, five year old daughter and a three year old youngest boy. So even rock and roll must revolve around school holidays. What happened when you went a little crazed after the long touring schedule? “It was about ten years ago now and we’d been on the road with Achtung Baby and Zoo TV for about two years. We finished the tour in Japan. We all just disappeared off into the night and got into awful trouble. The last gig happened and Edge said he was just looking forward to getting back into normal living, but I just couldn’t stand it. I said, how about you and me buy bikes and tour America for six months. For a split second I thought it was a good idea.” Did you have that syndrome where your torturer goes away and you say can you come back and torture me some more. He says, “Yes, that’s exactly how it felt.”
What he did do for that time was go to New York for six months, to a drum doctor. A kind of chiropractor specially geared to rock drumming. He learnt how to stay in shape and do some martial arts. Now his thing is, “Whenever we tour and go to a different city, like women like to go shopping there, I go to the local gym. It’s just something I’ve grown to love.” He also likes the idea of doing something which is against his character. He is an introvert but enjoyed taking centre stage in the Electric Storm video. “I would like to be in a band that still makes great albums because I don’t think age has anything to do with it, and I like the idea that I might take on a new challenge of doing some acting. I like the idea of going to it late. But you know, the band is all I’ve ever wanted, and I get paid for it. I don’t want to sound smug because that would be awful. But it’s like, I’ve got the best job in the world, you know.” Sometimes it seems that Adam Clayton has always been an outsider, even within the band. But in the world of U2 extremes always meet. In many ways he is the driving force. It was he who out of, “blind faith and undeniable ignorance” said, “We are going to be bigger than The Beatles.” It was at the time when they’d only played a couple of gigs and were at their most wild and disparate. We meet in a rooftop cafe in Nice. He lives a little separate to the other members, although he thinks that might change soon. He orders a double espresso even though he’s recently given up caffeine. That’s just who he is. Worried about revealing too much, but anxious that I get to the core of him. I tell him that all the other band members remember the bigger than The Beatles moment clearly. “At that stage I really didn’t really know what I was saying, but I know you have to go into it with a passion, and that was my passion, doing it for real. Punk came roughly at the same time and it gave you the feeling that you could make a difference through music. I got swept up in it. It wasn’t about being a weekend flash in the pan. It was about being a world phenomenon.” He gives a slow smile.
He has a very unlined face, but eyes that are much older. No longer the peroxide blond, but he’s arrived armed with designer shopping bags. He’s in search of the perfect T-shirt. He says this album, “Was a very different experience. It wasn’t like we were running around crazy with no sleep.” Although Bono rarely sleeps more than four hours a night. He doesn’t think that he goes fast, just that the rest of the world goes slow. The time of Clayton throwing down his bass guitar and telling Bono, ‘You play it then,’ and storming off to some drug fuelled heaven or hell is long gone. Has something happened to make you more harmonious now? “My personal insight would be that we all turned 40 in the last two or three years and that does make a change. You can look back at how well the band has done and what a great band it is. You can’t help but feel great about it,” he says fidgeting. The waitress forgot his coffee order and he’s already feeling guilty about the double espresso. He says he felt he needed an altered state for the interview. The coffee arrives. He seems calmed.
“Not many people get to 25 years in a marriage or business partnership. You know, collectively I think we’ve come up with a few stinkers of bad decisions. We’ve survived them, and survival is how you deal with your bad decisions as much as it is with your good ones.” What was your biggest stinker? “I suppose the one that I’m most uncomfortable about is how we went off on one with the Pop album. We focused so much on going out on tour and designing the stage show, which was amazing, we forgot to finish the record.” At the time, Pop was panned. It was hailed as the doom and demise. Now in some circles it’s looked at as a bit of a quirky classic. “I think we just lost our way and now it’s just part of our history.” Was that when you lost your way? “No, I was fine then, that came much earlier.” The much earlier period was the Naomi Campbell engagement. You know, the rock star needs supermodel. I always feel it was a shame they met when he was off the rails. But the real Clayton is nurturing and polite, supersensitive, and in many ways they were good together. His affair with Campbell made him the celebrity he’s always tried not to be, although I point out there was that time for the artwork of Achtung Baby! Where he appeared naked to show the girls exactly what a supermodel gets. “Yes, but people still didn’t recognise my face. I was lucky like that. I have always been a little shy of the camera.” So obviously the way you deal with that is appear naked. He laughs at his own contradictions. A lot more comfortable in his own skin these days. He breaks the chocolate that you get with the coffee into four pieces and enjoys each miniature bite. Very controlled. He tells me, “I can neck it when I want to.” Each of the four know each others strengths and weaknesses and extremes very well. “In a way we are not hugely intimate with each other, yet there is tremendous tolerance, room and understanding and love and all the things that support people. There is intimacy, but a lot of the time it is a work situation and then everyone goes back to their families. It’s more adult. It’s not the four guys that you were in the back of a transit van for two and a half years. But how can I sum up where we are now. There is no sign of it slowing down or being diluted. In a way we are at the peak of our powers.” You once told me that it’s impossible to be an ex-rock star and that you were going to go on for ever. “Hm, that was a few years ago. I can’t blame naivety. But there’s always that question. What will U2 become? A parody of itself? A watered down version? Will it continue to have dignity and respect. It’s not getting easier but we’re getting better at dealing with it.” Are you your own family? “Essentially yes. But I’m trying to filter out the romanticism of what you’ve just said with the pragmatism of it.” In all of your families there are some elements missing that you found in each other. “Yes, we are our own survival mechanism. We were dependent on each other in our twenties in a way that you couldn’t have been in any other way of life. We were lifted up and forced together. It was a pressure cooked up till Joshua Tree and then the heat started to be let out. People had more choice in their lives and their lives were more complicated with success, money, options and family. So it became more difficult to be together in that same unit. Getting older means it’s harder to keep up the same disciplines that you had in your thirties.”
In this way Clayton is different to the others who still like a bit of a party. He is the loner. “I don’t go out very much, but I’m comfortable with that. When I was in party mode I was out every night. I am not seeking that kind of stimulation any more. Now I’m happy to watch the news, listen to music.” What do you listen to? “You know when I was using substances there were records I would go back to because they created certain moods. I don’t do that as much now. I listen to newer records. Current things.” You mean the ones that don’t have drug memories. What were they? “The drug records? Marvin Gaye and James Brown. A little bit morbid. And later on Leftfield.” It’s a place he clearly never wants to go back to. Most of the time he lives split between Dublin and London where his girlfriend works.
“There was a time when I wasn’t comfortable in England at all. But now I have a more positive approach to life. I used to feel gauche, as if I came from the provinces.” The thing about Clayton is he’s always felt he’s been coming from somewhere else. He’s always been between two poles. As a child, very early on, his father who worked for East African Airways, moved out to Kenya. Then it was Dublin. Then it was boarding school and Singapore for school holidays. In a way, even though part of him feels it’s crunch time to settle down, he loves to do what is known as ‘the geographic.’ “It’s much easier for me to say goodbye and go somewhere else than it is to stay and deal with whatever it is that has to be dealt with.” And is this the pattern that created the condition to be totally on the road? “Perhaps, but I still get jittery going to a new place. I don’t like to lose control of the environment. I get twitchy about losing control. I get stressed when I think things might not be going the way they should be and sometimes I just feel abandoned for want of a better word.” What Clayton has finally opened up to is frighteningly sensitive. “Generally I think there is work to be done with some of my issues. I don’t think I’ve cleared out the cupboard totally. But most days I move freely in the world and feel comfortable with it. What I’ve learned about coming into recovery is about acknowledging sensitivity and turning it down a little bit, but that doesn’t mean to say I can’t feel exhilarated.” Each U2 band member is exhilarating to be with in different ways. I can see why Bono sometimes has to change headset and think, let me make my life easier, let me think in black and white like Larry. Adam Clayton is the opposite of this. He doesn’t think in terms of grey, he thinks in terms of nuance, and treats everyone with the sensitivity he feels.
Later that day I was due to meet with The Edge, but he was suffering. It had been his CD that was stolen and he had been interrogated by the police interminably and wasn’t up to being interrogated by me. The next time I saw him was two months later on the beach in the restaurant behind that bottle of rose. His eyes are small but intense. He was born David Evans from Welsh parents in Barking, East London, moving to Ireland with his family when he was one. He speaks very softly, but very precisely. And for a person named The Edge by Bono because of the sharpness of his mind and his features, he is hugely gentle. A puzzling force, usually wrapped in a tight knit hat, even in the summer. When we met to talk again it was the morning after. Even with a hangover his mind loves detail.
Although I’ve assumed by now U2 are a co-dependent family unit bound by telepathy, talent, love and insecurity, each brings something and each makes a contribution. On some albums some contribute more. It is generally acknowledged while it may not be as official or clear cut as the Jagger Richards thing, that Bono and The Edge are the dons of the songwriting. Bono is the words, and Edge is the sound. So, last night, Bono was worried that you wanted to re-record the entire album. “Yes, listening to it made me want to re-record everything. I have been listening to many different edits, all within the boring mundane final mastering process. If you get it right the song just sounds better. If you get it wrong it makes the song sound different in a really bad way. Ten per cent of working in the studio is inspiration, 90 per cent is a very analytical painstaking process for us. And that’s the science part of my brain.” The Edge was almost lost to science. He promised his parents that if the band hadn’t made it in his year off he would start his natural sciences course. He actually began it, sleeping on manager Paul McGuinness’s floor which was near to the college. But he never actually bought the text books. “I didn’t want to waste my parents money but felt I owed it to them to do what they wanted.” The Edge is a person who immediately assumes responsibility for everything. Bono’s passion and political fervour has perhaps been hardest on him. But the reward is perhaps that the album sounds more like an Edge album than a Bono album.
Any other person might have been deeply frustrated by Bono’s absences to go and hang out with Bush, Blair and his work in Africa while they were recording. He took it in his stride. “And yes, it is like your family, and there’s nothing more annoying than your family. But in another way there’s a deep trust and commitment and a sense that for better or for worse, our destinies are intertwined. No-one is under illusion about solo careers being more fun or as successful or as challenging as being a member of U2.” His reasoning for the bond that never broke is that, “together we found we could something well. Even if we didn’t at first. When I first picked up a guitar I was, ‘Wow, I can play this, I can really do this.’ when we actually started playing together there was a sense that I have found my place in the scheme of things. I remember Gavin Friday saying insecurity is the best security you can have.” Didn’t Bono’s political activities cause conflict? “We’ve grown up as being a political band. We never saw a need to separate religion and politics from everything we write about and care about. And it always seemed to be a natural part of the work. Other bands that I would have related to on that level would have been Bob Marley and The Wailers and The Clash on the political level.
“We have always been well aware that steaming in on any issue was liable to get us into trouble, or just come off as uncool. And we have never never valued cool. Although my own real fear was that Bono was going to lead us into doing things that were desperately uncool and we would regret because we would be implicated to a larger or lesser extent. But I have to say, from time to time, even though I have winced on his behalf, I’ve had more times when I’ve just been so proud of him and just blown away with the success of what he’s done. Who would know that someone who stopped his formal education at 16 and had been writing songs and touring the world as a singer can get stuck into the body politic and actually make such a difference and is listened to on the highest levels.” We break for lunch of salad with cous-cous, salmon, chicken. Larry points out that Bono, “will have lunch with the devil himself if it gets him what he needs. I’d be loathe to criticise him, but I do think it is a dilemma, if you’re particularly associated with one politician or another. I admire tony Blair, he’s an alright guy, but I can’t figure out for the life of me why he went to war. I think Bono is in an interesting position to find his way through that one. “During the recording of the album Bono was away a lot and it ended up having zero effect on the quality of the work. It just seemed he’s a lot more active. He was able to speak to the Pope and record a lyric at the same time. I’ll be interested to see in a few years time what effect there will be on him as a songwriter and a lyricist. I don’t think the effects will be now, it’s going to be later.” Bono returns to the table, freshly showered from his sugar cavalcade and we discuss the psychology of hair. Like what does it really mean if he’s always having a bad hair day. He can’t control it, and how that relates to his need to control the world. And we discuss how people have got sex all wrong. We’ve degraded it. In our attempt to understand it we’ve missed the point.
Back by the pool with The Edge we admire the blissful view and the bizarre fact that he and Bono have two houses side by side, neighbours as well as band mates. Edge also has a house in Malibu because his wife Morleigh is native to LA. “And the kids love it because their cousins are there.” He thinks one day he may buy a boat. Ultimately though, “possessions are a way of turning money into problems. I don’t have a big car collection. I don’t have anything that I’d miss if it got stolen. I don’t do investments. That’s turning money into work and that’s not such a nice thing.
“I bought this house because it was about timing. I was going through a low point because I was just separating from my first wife Aislinn and things were tough and this was laying down new beginnings of another sort.” He met Morleigh when they were doing the Zoo TV tour. She’s a dancer and came to help with the choreography. It was a slow burn thing though. “We had known each other but were not very close for a while. And then a little spark happened.” Last night in our drunken conversation Bono had been discussing the fact that you know if you really love somebody if you can be yourself with them. If you try to perform well for them or impress them it’s not as strong a love. Edge agrees, “Yes, I can be myself.” From the slow and precise way he says that, you know it wasn’t always the case. In relationships do you prefer to be the person that is most loved or most loving? “I started out being the one who was most loving. Now hopefully it’s more fifty fifty. I think there’s a certain ego in that there’s a control in being the one who’s the most loving. To actually surrender and say I am going to be loved requires a certain humility. The paradox is it’s generous to be loved.” They all love a bit of a paradox. That’s just another thing they have in common. Suddenly there’s a change of atmosphere, an adrenalin rush, a palpable jolt. Larry and Edge disperse and Bono tells me, “Tony Blair’s just asked me to do an address at the conference.” I tell him I don’t think he should do that. He looks bemused and tells me that Mandela and Clinton had done this same spot for an international speaker. I tell him that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose, and why would he want to align himself with a party that is now alienating so many people.
He says, “I am happy to stand alongside him and say I believe in him. I think he’s one of the greatest leaders the UK has ever had. He has done extraordinary things for his country, and Gordon Brown is an astonishing man. There has to be applause. So far, it’s my job to give him applause for what he’s done, even though I didn’t agree with the war. He believed in it and isn’t it extraordinary for a British prime minister to do something that was unpopular with the British people and his own cabinet and his Labour base. I believe that he is sincere… But sincerely wrong. But at least it wasn’t appeasement.” He’s on a roll now and there’s no stopping him. I point out that he’s very useful to politicians who want to get the swing vote that they believe rocks with the 18-30 CD buying public. Would he do an address for President Bush at a Republican convention? “Not so close to an election, but I’ve been in photographs to President Bush after he made a commitment to the biggest increase in AIDS assistance for many years. I am not a cheap date, but it’s my job to turn up for the photograph if they’re ready to cut the ribbon.”
It can only get harder to straddle rock icon and political guru. “The band used to beg me not to talk about it in band interviews because they were sure that it was deeply uncool work. They wanted to keep it separate. However, what often is not written about is how they financially support me in this and it hasn’t turned out to be such a bad thing. Although I have had Edge with his head on the table just exasperated,” he concedes. There is no stopping him though. He’s looking a lot wirier than the last time I saw him. He says that he was shaking off his Elvis period. There’s nothing decadent, druggy, fat or Elvis like about him. Even the shades are off, and the eyes are that extraordinary piercing pale blue. They are at the same time ice and heat.
Everything about Bono seems contradictory. He is most at home with lyrics like Crumbs From Your Table which comes over like a bitter lover’s quarrel, but it’s actually about Christendom breaking the promise to the rest of the world. He loves the elliptical protest song. “You can’t get to the heart of the problem unless you get to the heart. This is the boring bit,” he says urgently. “In the 1970s there was a decision by the developed world that they would tithe 0.7 per cent of the GDP to the poorest of the poor, less than one per cent of the national income. It was called the Pearson Commitment after the Canadian Finance Minister who came up with it. Every prosperous country signed on and the 20 years that followed was unimaginable prosperity, and people went, we didn’t know it was going to be that amount of money and renegotiated the deal with God downwards. So how do we feel about the fact the richer we get the less percentage we give? Does that not strike you as a betrayal? It was deeply shocking and disturbing to me, so I’m going to write about that.” More than write about it, he really wants to adjust it. He talks with such clarity, in words that bypass cliche, or pragmatism. It’s a kind of passionate naivety. But he feels things so strongly and shimmers with that it doesn’t surprise me he played Tony Blair’s guitar. “I had to play it because I wanted to check the tuning. I heard he played guitar every day, so I wanted to see if that was true. And it gives me some faith that I picked up the Prime Minister of England’s guitar and it was in tune, he does play it.” He also believes that under his leadership and Gordon’s, he is quick to point every time he mentions Blair’s leadership it comes with “and Gordon’s” that thousands of people in Africa will live rather than die. More people than those thousands who have unacceptably lost their lives in the war.
Enough about Blair. Would you believe he moves on to say how impressed he is with Condoleezza Rice. “I have to say George Bush really did deliver on his promise to getting more help for AIDS in Africa. I was told it would be impossible and unachievable, but it was not. And I have to say I found him very funny. There I am, sitting in his car next to him, in his motorcade, chatting and thinking I could be arguing for the rest of my life with him on lots of subjects, so I just looked at the most powerful man in the free world as he waved at the crowd and I said, ‘So you are pretty popular round here,’ and he goes, ‘It wasn’t always so. See, when I first came here people used to wave at me with one finger.”
It has been suggested many times, Bono, do you want to run for office.
“And I say, I wouldn’t want to move to a smaller house. Horst Köhler said to me, he’s now the President of Germany, he was once the head of the IMF, in our first meeting. ‘So, you make the money, then you develop the conscience, ya.’ I thought that was cool, but I actually had the conscience before I got into the band.” Is that the Pope’s rosary round your neck? “It wore out so Ali had this one made up exactly the same. You see, Bob Geldof did a deal with the Pope. He knew that it would wear out. He asked for two. I didn’t think, but Bob did.” We laugh about that for a while, and he remembers his feet hurt. Of course they do, they walked hundreds of yards over pointy stones. He rubs them a little and the mood has changed as it so often does so quickly. If the record is about faith and fear it’s because Bono is. Love and desire, constantly inhabit him, as does the difference between them. “It’s great when they combine. But sometimes they are very different, love and desire. Love, sex, fear and faith, and all the things that keep us here in the mysterious distance between a man and a woman.” Just when you think you’re having a conversation you’re having a song lyric. That mysterious distance that’s always interested him. “My favourite relationships are always where there is that distance. The desire to occupy a person and know their every broom closet overpowers your sense of respect for who they are or that they have a life outside of yours. Domination of people through love would never have been accepted in our house.”
People have wondered over the years just how and what has been accepted with Mr and Mrs Bono Hewson. Ali is a childhood sweetheart. She has the thickest of thick black hair in a bob. I met her briefly on my first trip out. Friendly, kind of sophisticated, but accessible. Slim but curvy. A pin-up. There was a period six or seven years ago when she threw him out of the house. Reasons were never specified other than she deserved to be a saint to have put up with him for so long. In an invasion of that mysterious distance, for the first time they are going to work together on a project. “It’s a clothing line which will be made using Fair Trade and the developing world. We are lining up with a designer called Rogan who’s brilliant and he’s not an arsehole and he wants to work with us.” Have you ever worked with her before? “No, it came about because I said stop asking other rich people for money and actually create something that people want.” Christof, who is Bono’s housekeeper cum Basque chef, brings us glasses of wine, even though Bono says he is allergic to it, makes him fall asleep. Sleep is definitely something he hasn’t got time for. He asks me if I agree with Freud that sex is the centre of life. He thinks it’s just close to the centre. “It’s an extraordinary thing to relegate this subject to something that’s prurient or humourless or deeply earnest and dull. Look how it is used to sell products.” Sex is pretty fascinating and dominating, do you think that romance is more interesting than sex. “I think sex without romance is, is…” Dull? “No, it’s just not on my radar.” Really? “I can’t say it hasn’t been. You know, there are times when you’ve got to if you’ve been in a long term relationship, so I wouldn’t lie. Actually, I might.” Sex and death, love and desire all weave their way in and out of the melodies that haunt him and in turn he gives to us. “If you want to meditate on life you start with death, right. It’s not that I’m particularly afraid of it. But, you know, when somebody is not there for you there’s a sense of abandonment.” It’s this very abandonment that has created in him the need to bond with the world. “The Maoris have an amazing practise. When somebody dies they sleep with the body then get up and talk to them. They get it all out. I lent you two quid you bastard, how am I going to get it back.” Is that what you feel like saying to your dad? “Yes. He told me the thing I regret the most in my life is that I can’t play the piano. When I was a kid I remember my granny’s piano. My head was lower than the piano. I would put my hand up, find a note, I was really attracted to it. I loved it and I remember when they were selling this piano because my grandfather died. My mother died at my grandfather’s funeral, collapsed at the graveside. He wouldn’t have it in our home. It wouldn’t fit and all his life he regretted not having the piano. He listened to opera all the time but never showed any signs of enjoying it, it was all on the inside. He was impossible to know, just like Ali.” Oh right, you married your dad. “God forbid.” He tells me that he is reliving his own childhood, “Because I’ve got a six year old and you start remembering things, like I’ll sing songs while I’m putting them to bed that I didn’t know I knew the words of.”
And it’s also like he’s rediscovering the loss of his mother through the loss of his father. “Sounds like you feel sorry for me,” he says when he sees me thinking that. “But all rock singers have lost their mothers. There isn’t one that hasn’t. John Lennon, John Lydon, all of them.”
He can always turn a negative to a positive and after you’ve been with him for a while he can see who you are and what you’re thinking. He tells me that if he was a machine he’d be a bulldozer but that I’d be a film projector and that I could never be digital, only analogue.
Afternoon is blending into evening now. It seems like we could have this conversation probing our cores infinitely. He says, “You can exorcise your demons or you can exercise them. And someone described the analysis if it goes wrong as a glass of water with a rusty nail at the bottom. You examine it, you put it back, difference is the water is disturbed and it is dirty. I don’t know what I’ve discovered about myself from analysis. The thing to watch for is navel gazing, and I do have a very nice one, but I think the most of what I’ve learnt about myself you discover in other people.” There’s a song lyric that talks about being loved too much. “No, you can’t love too much. You can’t out give God.” he pauses, “But you should try, I think. That’s a great place to be. That’s where I’d like to spend the rest of my life. I’m not able to live up to it, but I think I try.”
it’s almost time for me to go, but he’s concerned that I think his life is too much of a bubble where no-one disagrees with him. “It’s not just warm and fuzzy, it’s gritty here. You know, working with U2 can be just one big row. Part of the sexiness is the friction. Rock star disease is where you are in the company of people who agree with you all the time… Although personally I might love a bit of that.” At some other point he quips that he needs to be told he’s loved at least a dozen times a day. And he probably is, one way or another.