Michael Buble (Weekend, October 13, 2018)
Michael Buble is nestling in his London hotel suite. He’s looking suave and slim. Impeccable, yet there’s a strong smell of tomato sauce and meatballs – it’s coming from a half-eaten takeout. As ever he is a contradiction in terms. Trim but an indulgent eater. Joyful about his new album Love, yet still in the shadow of what he describes as “hell”. For the last two years of his life he stepped down from all music business duties to look after his son Noah, now 5 as he was being treated for liver cancer.
He’s very emotional and his brown eyes well up even just a mention of the words Noah and cancer in the same sentence. When he finds I’ve just flown in from California and it was touch and go whether I’d make it because of my unwell, senior cat he says, “Suffering is all relative. I know that you feel just as much for your cat as some people might for their children.”
Buble, now 43 has been married for seven years to Argentinian actress Luisana Lopilato. They have three children – Noah, Elias (two) and new baby Vida Amber Betty who is just six weeks old. Vida, he tells me means hope.
He fought hard or his career. When he was a teenager he slept with the bible. He prayed on it that he could one day be a singer. As a boy he already shared his grandfather’s love of Frank Sinatra. The crooners (of that era) became his heroes. His 2007 album Call Me Irresponsible was a worldwide No.1. In 2009 he wrote possibly his most famous song Haven’t Met You Yet. He went on to win 4 Grammy’s and sold 75 million records worldwide earning around $45 million a year. Yet all of it must have been meaningless as he faced his then three-year old son being diagnosed with cancer.
I tell him I never saw him as the person who lost hope. His glass seemed not just half full but brimming with a cocktail of fizzy optimism. He looks askance. “I don’t know if I’m that person. I don’t know who I was or who I am. Going through this (with Noah) I didn’t question who I was. I just questioned everything else. Why are we here? Is that all there is? Because if that’s all there is there has to be something bigger. This has been such a difficult exercise for me. Difficult because it’s such a conflict of interest. It hurts me. It hurts to talk about him because it’s not my story to tell, it’s his, but I know it’s my story too and I want to talk about everything I’m doing but everything, my whole being has changed. My perception of life. I don’t know that I can even get through the conversation without crying. I’ve never lost control of my emotions in public…”
Buble, a Virgo, is not an out of control person. His suits are tailored and so are his vocals. There’s passion within both but it’s measured. I’ve always believed that part of why he touches you is that he’s more interested in how you feel and he’d rather talk about that and sing in a way that connects to the public rather than himself. He doesn’t feel comfortable crying. This is a man whose heroes are all heavy-duty macho men like Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and the jazz players of the fifties and sixties.
“I can talk about it now. In a weird way it’s therapy for me. I actually thought I would never come back to the music business. I never fell out of love with music. I just needed to put it aside. Part of me wanted to move on but I couldn’t. Here’s what’s hard – to go to the store and buy hot dogs and toilet paper, go to a gas station. Go walk by the sea to clear your head but every person recognises you and each one says ‘how is your son?’ And if you think you are close to getting over it you’re sucked right back into it but at the same time I was given faith in humanity. Even the media helped me. They were not disrespectful. My record company in two years never asked me what the plan was. They said ‘we love you. We’re praying for you.’”
Two years ago I was all set to interview Buble as he was about to host the 2017 Brit Awards. That interview was cancelled as it was supposed to happen just around the time of the diagnosis. I was told then he may never come back.
“I had no interest in my career and I’m grateful I could afford not to. I spent a good deal of time with people who were not so lucky. The other day I was talking about how the road can be hard but my friend said, ‘So many of us go through the road and find it has cracks but sometimes the cracks are where the light comes in.
Just because he’s sad, he laughs easily and he likes to make everybody around him laugh. Today it’s through a display of accent. We go from Liverpool to Texas via India and then he decides to do the whole interview in a South African accent but then he swaps it for his version of a London accent which he says he loves a lot and he loves the voice of James Corden.
He loves Carpool Karaoke and it’s been a dream to perform with Corden. A dream come true because Channel 4 are doing a Carpool Karaoke special for Stand Up to Cancer with Corden and Buble.
“There’s a movie called The Gruffalo that I watch about five times a day because my kids love it and James Corden is the voice of the little brown mouse so he’s in my house ‘all the day’ as my little boy would say.”
Buble enjoys being a family of three now. He’s a proud daddy but again there’s that contradiction because sometimes he just likes to play.
The next night at his show at the O2, he refers to this cosy family unit and says that being here without them is like “a paid vacation.” And then he threw in the raunchy song Me and Mrs Jones. When he recorded that he was dating English actress Emily Blunt who sang backing vocals on it. Then he wrote for her the song Everything. He decided he had not been a good enough boyfriend and that next time he would get it right. So one gets a sense with his wife, he never lets himself put a foot wrong.
He tells me, hopefully not seriously, “This is my last interview. I’m retiring from the business. I’ve made the perfect record and now I can leave. Leave at the very top.” I don’t think he means it. Who could not be seduced by the rapturous reception he received when he played his one-off date at the O2. He has the uncanny ability to appeal to audiences across all ages.
His last album Nobody But Me released in 2013 was platinum selling, yet the new album Love you can hear something special in his voice. A clarity. It seems to reach inside you. It knows love, pain and everything in between. He can take a song like When I Fall In Love or Only Have Eyes for You and give it something special. He can remain faithful to the essence of the song yet ‘Bubler-ise’ it, just as he did with hits like Feeling Good and Cry Me A River.
He perks up at the compliment but explains, “When all of this terrible news came in I realised I wasn’t having fun in the music business. I’d lost the joy and at some point before the Brits I was starting to lose the plot. I had become desperate to hold onto something I thought I could lose and I was so desperate and thinking that I had to do something special to keep it, I started to move in ways that weren’t in my comfort zone (like presenting) and the truth is it had been a while that I hadn’t been having fun. I’d started to worry about the numbers and worrying what critics said, what the perception of me might be.”
He grabs the voile from behind the curtain and puts it over his face and says, “It’s hard to explain. I felt like I was living with this sheer over my face and the reality I was seeing was disguised by that. And the moment the diagnosis came (he tosses away the curtain) I realised how stupid I was to worry about these unimportant things. That they had affected me made me embarrassed. When I had clarity I was embarrassed by my ego that had allowed this insecurity. And in that moment, I decided I would never read my name again in print, never read a review and I never have. I will never use social media again and I never have.
“I realised for many years I didn’t believe I was on the same stage as my heroes, that I was sharing a microphone with Tony Bennett, Diana Krall. I couldn’t believe I was looking across at someone like Paul McCartney and I would be saying things like it’s hard to get here but my God it’s harder to keep it… who cares? Many people come to their deathbed before they think I should have pursued real things like love and family. I would trade it all in now…
“However, then I woke up and I thought, after ten years of trying to get there and five years of being scared it was going away, I think I can enjoy it.”
Despite all his huge successes, “I was insecure. I’d been learning from my heroes for so many years. Even though I was learning with passion I was afraid I had become a photocopy of my heroes. But when I came back from this terrible time I realised I’m not a photocopy. I’ve learned everything I can from them, taken it and found it in my own soul, my own voice, my own style and now no critic can take that away. It needed clarifying.”
He says that if his son’s life-threatening illness hadn’t happened, “It could have taken me another 15 years but now I don’t worry about the numbers. I’ve never asked what the pre orders are doing or care if the tickets are selling. I’ve done that already. Now I’m just singing the music I love. Maybe when you let go, maybe that’s when it comes back to you. Like love.”
He means the minute you stop chasing your obsession it comes to you. The looser the grip the tighter the hold. “Exactly. How many times have you been in a romance where you say I love you, I need you and they run away, but if you suddenly go yeah, maybe not for me, they want it. That’s how it works. I’m fascinated by watching my wife if she’s waiting to learn if she’s got a part I was more panicked about it. Did they call you for the part? She doesn’t care. How did the movie do? ‘I don’t know.’ What do you mean you don’t know? What was the opening box office? ‘Meh’.”
Some people are just more secure than others. Watching the numbers is surely a sign of insecurity. “I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. The celebrity narcissism.”
He doesn’t know if it’s because he’s more secure now or because his priorities have shifted. “I never saw this coming. I lost the plot. I started to crumble. I lost the joy.”
It seems that his son’s illness and his fear of celebrity narcissism both conjoined. “I felt I’m going to lose everything.” But suddenly everything took on a new meaning.
“Why did I want to do this in the first place? I forgot it was about souls connecting because I’d become so anxious. I don’t want to blame certain individuals but there were people in my business life that kept saying if you had not done this or done that or written a better song, tickets might be selling quicker. I started to take all that on board – no one wants to take any responsibility. It’s much easier for people to pass the buck to me because I was insecure enough already. I had to eat it, digest it and say it’s my fault. I’m absolutely rubbish. It affected me and I started to think it’s all going to go. I’m going to lose everything.
“You know how insecure I used to be. When there were 25,000 people cheering in the stadium, I’d come off the stage and I’d say do you see that? They hate me. The insecurity probably made me more loveable.” He laughs at himself. “Clarity didn’t come in one moment, one shock.”
The process had started where he was finding less joy in the music business at the same time as learning about his son’s cancer. His return to music coincided with the news of his son’s remission. There was joy in his world again. Although the two are inextricably linked it wasn’t as straightforward as my son’s recovered. I should go and make an album. What was the moment that he decided to start again?
“That’s a great question. I told my manager I wanted to take a ten-year sabbatical. I just wanted to hang out and be bad. Part of it was I missed my friends, my guys who are my band so I said to them ‘my wife is leaving for Argentina. Let’s get shitfaced. Come over to the house, let’s drink, order pizza, play video games and jam.’ They came over, we partied and we were like ‘hey, let’s play some music.’ And then I remembered. It was like Peter Pan and I thought Wow! This is fun.”
He takes out his phone and shows me little videos of his friends who came over, jamming in his house, playing the various songs that ended up being the album.
“It was then I realised that I missed it. I didn’t even know I’d missed it. This was about a year ago and the songs in their rawest of takes were produced for the album by David Foster.”
What was happening with Noah at the time? “The doctors who told me that 93% of couples who go through this split up and then odd weird ones go on to have another kid. They told us that days into it.”
Is it not true that shared trauma makes a couple stronger? He stares at the floor and shakes his head. Did they fight?
“No, you can’t fight. You just want to die. I don’t even know how I could breathe and my wife was the same and in fact I was the stronger one of the two of us and I wasn’t strong. My wife was… I’m sorry I’ll never be able to make it to the end of the sentence… we find out who we are with these things.”
The way he got through it was to pretend he was the Roberto Bennini character from Life is Beautiful. “I don’t even know if that was a choice but that’s who I was.”
The Bennini film was set in a concentration camp and the way he and his son coped was to make a joke of everything. Losing everything and having a striped prison uniform became fun – like wearing stripy pyjamas. This was Buble’s own personal Holocaust. His way of dealing with the devastation.
“For instance, I never called it the hospital. I called it the fun hotel. And every single day I got extra bedsheets and I would build a tent from the lumber to the bed. I just made the best of it because life is beautiful. It wasn’t the choice. It’s just what I did. Survival.”
And Noah was in the “hotel” most of the time? He nods quietly and then comes back with. “There are three reasons I wanted to carry on and do this album. One, I felt a debt of gratitude, deeper than I can explain to millions of people all over the world who prayed and showed me compassion. That gave me faith in humanity. Two – I love music and I can be the man and continue the legacy of my idols. And three, if the world was ending – not just my own personal hell but watching the turmoil in America politically and watching Europe break up – there was never a better time for music.”
On the album there’s a song he wrote, Forever Now, which everyone assumes is THE song about his son but his version of Where or When is the song he’s particularly close to.
“This is the story about reincarnation, not knowing where we’ve been. A deja-vu and I’ve had that a lot.
“Everyone thinks that Forever is about my kids but this one has more of a connection. My fascination with reincarnation. I think to myself is this connection to Elias, Noah, Vida, my wife? Is this all meant to be? When you hold your baby for the first time it’s as if you’ve always known them.”
He’s still emotionally charged with this song when he sings it at the O2. His voice soars and then he’ll click his fingers, jump around and dance, inviting audience members to sing with him. He’s back enjoying himself and life and having fun again.