Michael Bublé (Times Magazine, March 11, 2022)
I’m no stranger to the Michael Bublé encounter, we’ve met many times. This time, he starts off in Gestapo German, which I mistake for Cockney. So we settle for doing it in South African. Last time I met Bublé, it was pre-pandemic. He was about to hit a string of gigs in the O2 (it was 2018). We met in his hotel suite. He was looking svelte, and he smelled so clean yet, in the adjourning room, there were remnants of a big old Italian take out – meatballs and red sauce. One time, before, he gave me his grandfather’s recipe for spaghetti carbonara. Another time we met, he was tiny – in a doll-sized leather jacket and he didn’t eat carbs anymore. Yet today he seems middle-sized, he is a Virgo, full of extremes. His suits and his vocals are extremely tailored, his emotions unbridled. He is full of drama. Just when you thought “he’s a good boy”, he becomes a bad boy. And just when you got used to him being a bad boy, he’s everybody’s Mr. Christmas. A heroic father and family guy. He is everybody’s white Christmas in March. Tinged with tragedy, but he brims with hope. In fact, his glass is always brimming with fizz, all the more tasty because it took him pain to get there.
When he was first starting out, he slept with a bible under his pillow, asking God to make him a famous singer. And when God did make him famous, his relationship with Emily Blunt was so disastrous he had to go into therapy and read books about how to be happy. While he was getting over that, in 2009, he met his wife: Luisana Lopilato, an Argentinian model-actress who doesn’t drink and only eats healthy food. Their cute little blonde boy, Noah, got a rare form of liver cancer when he was three and was in heavy cancer treatment for two years. He is eight now and clear, but it changed Mr. Bublé profoundly. Of course it did. I think he made some kind of deal with God to always put his family first and never do long tours, fuelled by late-night debauchery. He is a full father now with baby number 4 on the way ( announcing on insta Oops we did it again ‘ Bebit en camino ‘ He is not religious, but he is spiritual. And in any case, he didn’t want to always be working on a new album. He became the family man that everyone always thought he was.
He appeals to all generations – the cool and the uncool. His heroes were all the macho crooners of the 50s and 60s, like Frank Sinatra. His best-selling multiple Grammy-winning song was I Just Haven’t Met You Yet, and then he did meet her, and he’s in it for the long-haul. And he’s also into his music; he has rediscovered it, because he’s not churning out a hit package anymore. He’s thrilled with his new album, Higher, and all the lush arrangements and seeing him thrilled is contagious. He’s now trying a Geordie accent, but it sounds like it’s from Pakistan via Wales. He takes the frivolity out just like that, he tells me that every time he does a show, he sings Where or When, he remembers my cat Slut, and dedicates it to mums and dads who love their children – and not just human children. Because love is love, right? And you can love fur children. He recalls Slut had a kidney issue, but he didn’t know that that song actually played her out – she died listening to it in my arms. When I told her it was OK to let go, we would see each other again, although we didn’t know where or when… Bubbles and I both start to lose it. But we go from tears to laughter pretty quickly.
When Noah was in the hospital, Bublé created a play tent made from sheets. It was inspired by Life is Beautiful, which was about how to make life in a concentration camp as playful as it could be. He can take a sad song, make it a drama, and that very extraction can be uplifting. That’s the way he connects to people, to make them forget everything in their life and lose themselves in his lush songs.
He tells me that, in fact, covering the Sam Cooke song, Bring it on Home to Me, might have been “one of the greatest moments of my career”. “All these incredible African-American voices, I took them all in the studio, it was during the pandemic. We were all there with our masks, we played the song, I turned around and I saw a lot of the faces were crying behind the masks. One of the singers, Angie, listened to it and said “if that doesn’t tell you soul has nothing to do with the colour of your skin, nothing will”. I melted. Like a candle. It meant a lot to me because, to be honest, I was very intimidated by this song and singing it with all these incredible voices and having my vision becomes a reality with no boundaries.” He shudders. The song captures Sam Cooke’s transition from gospel to pop star. It’s got love, and God – rather like Bublé in reverse. He tells me he made the song his own quite by accident. When he was first starting with it, he played a wrong chord, which turned out to be a right chord. This is an essential part of his talent.
There are many songs on this album and in the past that are not just famous American songbook songs, but songs which have been made famous by other people. For instance, Feel Your Love, written by Bob Dylan, but made famous by Adele (whose was the biggest voice in his head? Dylan or Adele? “Dylan, of course. But the version I knew best is from Teddy Swing.”). It is intimidating to want to own that, as well as the Barry White classic, You’re The First, The Last, My Everything. Smile on High, written by Charlie Chaplain but covered by everybody who was ever on X-Factor, and Barbra Streisand. Surely that was very difficult to make his own? “A lot of this record was me being intimidated. But I was not going to allow myself to make decisions based on fear. Smile was the first song I started working on and it came about in a very strange way. I had been watching the news, like everybody else, and there was this man named Captain Tom who raised £33m to help people who lost everything (he did a sponsored walk when he couldn’t really walk, and had to use a Zimmer frame). “I was really moved by him and his story, I recorded this song and made a little video. I sent it to him. I did it just for him and nobody else. There was only one copy and it made me feel good. About five months after that, he passed away. His daughter wrote and asked, “do you think we can use that song at his service? He always loved Smile.” So I made a sweet arrangement and I thought it was a wonderful story of what we were all going through. A song written when we were at war, and here we were, at war again.” Every song has a little story, and they came together over time (lockdown time). “Like everyone else in the world, I couldn’t go anywhere, so it gave me time to settle myself and start to create songs.”
“Creatively, lockdown was good for me, I was in Vancouver. I got to be home, with a new baby (Vida). I got to be a full-time Pappi. I was the home-school teacher. My wife and I would try to advocate for different people every day at the same time. We would meet on our Facebook Live. And that’s when I realised I had so many friends who were living alone and struggling with their mental health. My wife and I knew so many doctors who were looking after families where one of the kids had cancer, and their counts were low and it was scary for them because they wouldn’t get into hospitals for treatment due to Covid. It hit us hard. Obviously. So we tried to take our energy and put it towards being in the lives of people we didn’t really know, but who we knew were suffering.” Lockdown was hard for everybody. Couples who locked up together ended up hating the noise each other’s eyelashes made when they blinked. “Yes”, he says enthusiastically. “I found I had over-empathy for people who were suffering – people who couldn’t get their chemo. I felt I had to be worked up about this, so I might feel less upset for myself. So many people with cancer weren’t getting their treatment because the hospitals were overrun and I became very upset about that. So many people I knew thought their mental health was fine, they had never felt vulnerable and then, all of a sudden, even the strongest thought “I am vulnerable”. I kept speaking about this and then people started to really fear for themselves and their livelihoods and they lost their greatest attributes – they lost empathy. My wife and I thought, “there’s gotta be something we can do”. We realised, of course, there was no magic fix.”
We discussed the time-twisting aspect of the pandemic. Two years, it felt like two minutes and also two thousand years. Noah was in remission before the pandemic, but he could have easily been one of those patients waiting for the chemo. “We were just so grateful, we wanted to help others. And I’m probably sounding really ingratiating now, but we thought “let’s just help people via whatever platform we have. It didn’t help that we were seen as ‘celebrities’, because so many celebrities lack self-awareness. Nothing was more glaring to us than celebrities doing cell-phone messages from their swimming pools in their massive mansions telling people “feel sorry for me, I’m trapped” – are these people out of their minds?” Michael Bublé doesn’t see himself as a big star even though he is aware of his celebritude and wanted it for so long, yet he sees himself as one of us, not one of them. One of the boys at the bar, watching the hockey game, who neatly transitioned into family man, playing Pappi, trips out with his wife and kids – always doing the ordinary, never the extraordinary. He is still agitated. Tangibly. “People were dying, people were doing calls from their mansions.” He never wanted to be one of them, but he always had this huge drive to succeed. “Let’s think of something more positive.” Although, he says, he sometimes feels like a little gerbil going round and round and doesn’t know where he’s going. But someone says “go shit little gerbil, and here’s some pellets for you. You did a very good interview here”.
Did he stay friends with James Corden? “Yes, I am, but there’s someone I speak to more – and that’s his father Malcom. We write to each other all the time. I tell him “I’m thinking of you and your beautiful family”. He was recently in LA, so happy to be together with his kids and grandkids. He was excited to film some Super Bowl stuff with James. They’re a very sweet family and I like him so much. I sent him all the songs from the record, and he especially liked that I used the saxophone so much.”
The album is called Higher and it seems to be about his life being high-drama, or does he see it as low-drama? “My wife would tell you that my life is high-drama, although I would tell you that I’m just so easy going, but actually I’m a dramatic bitch.” I tell him he’s probably high-drama and easy-going. And that’s his hook. He laughs: “I suppose that’s possible. I like drama. I like painting pictures. I love everything I do. And now, in my kids I see it. when my eight year old tells a story and his eyes are big and so expressive, and I think “what’s that story about, it didn’t mean anything?” but he’s so dramatic. My wife says, “he is you!”, he mimics his wife’s Argentinian accent. Apparently, when they first met, she spoke very little English and he spoke very little Spanish, but together, they spoke with the language of love. “My kids are all dramatic. The other day, my wife’s parents, who lived with us for the whole of the pandemic, left to go back to Argentina. My kids reacted as if they were being dragged off to a camp of death and would never be seen again.” He mocks his children crying as if they were strangled kittens. “My wife said, “Michael, it is just you”.
“My wife is just so cool – not cold, but cool. She takes everything with the greatest irony and I am beloved of that. She is the opposite of me because I love the drama. I think you’ve gotta love it to perform. It’s part of what makes me creative and why I’m good at arranging. I loved rearranging the McCartney song My Valentine (he gives that song drama). That guy is so low-drama, he kind of floats, he doesn’t even walk.” I was once told people are either Lennon or McCartney, cat or dog, India or Africa. “I am McCartney, dog, Africa. I spent a lot of time in Africa, and that’s why we are so good at the accents. Hanging out with McCartney, I learnt that he was a special guy – not because he was a Beatle, nor because of the gravitas that comes with working with Macca, because this man is one of the greatest musicians in the history of music. I knew he would take me and lift me and bring that song to a greater place. I wrote to his manager just the other day to thank them for taking me under their wing.” Such a polite, dramatic boy. “I saw this interview which was about 20 years old, and the interviewer said to him: “So many people say that you were riding on the coattails of John Lennon, and he was the talented one. How does that make you feel?” instead of being defensive, he answered, “It doesn’t bother me because it’s not true. John was an amazing artist and so was George and so was Ringo and it was an honour to be in the with them. I know I’ve lost and I know who I am and I don’t worry about it because I know the truth.” 20 years on, nobody ever says those words, and I don’t think he gives a shit. That’s a substantial human being, there.”
Bublé is perhaps the opposite of that, in that he is dramatically insecure and he works really hard to connect with people. He has never felt comfortable with the understated, but very comfortable to put his whole being on the line: “I think I just need three other guys to work with.” I also read that he is renewing his wedding vows, is that true? “No, it’s not. I have a dry sense of humour and I know how it came about. My two boys, especially Noah, got so excited when we got pregnant with our little girl. He asked why he was not invited to that part where we fell in love to get the baby. Why wasn’t he there when we did whatever we did. Why was he not invited? My wife said, “We can invite you because we’re very much part of it”, but they asked can they be there when we get married. And I said “Well, we are married already. But listen, kids, one day we’ll do a thing where it’s just us and the family – we’ll get married and you can help us.” and I think that’s where this whole ‘renewing of the vows’ came from. The thought standing in front of 500 people and renewing our vows and telling everyone how in love we are actually makes me a little sick. I feel that people who do that are either getting divorced soon or hiding something.”
He has never been good with the work-life balance, how is he now? Noah getting sick certainly skewed him away from work, but how did he reconnect to it? “I will work hard, I will tour, but I will never allow that to take over my life again. I’ll never shirk my responsibilities of being a dad. I just know that that won’t be fulfilling for me, and it’ll end in tears. I would rather look back and think “If I had worked harder I could have sold more records and had bigger grosses on the tour”, I can accept that. But I can’t accept thinking “If only I had been with my kids more, my family more.” Anybody who knows me would tell you I just wouldn’t find that acceptable. So I will tour, but not for more than three or four weeks at a time. I have to be really strong with that because people would love it if I would go out for two months.” Michael Bublé, he’s always on some kind of edge of drama. That’s what makes him good and bad. He ends the interview by saying, “I’m also thinking of getting an eye tattoo”.
HIGHER is released March 25