*By far the most famous person I’ve met/interviewed, I was a little star-struck by Robbie Williams – not least because I’ve been a Take That fangirl since I was 9. He was very likeable, though; witty, surprisingly self-effacing, but a little bit (understandably) guarded. I think he genuinely believed that nobody gave a damn about him anymore.
Originally published in The Irish Times, October 16th 2009
ROBBIE WILLIAMS was driving down the M6 with his girlfriend last November when he realised that he wanted to be a pop star again. But don’t call it a comeback: although he’s been ensconced in his Los Angeles home for the past three years growing a fantastically bushy beard (now sadly gone), falling in love and indulging his love of ghost sightings, UFO-hunting and conspiracy theories, he’s never strayed far from music. Not really.
“I’ve written all the way through those three years, and that was the hobby that kept me going. But it’s been like … not feeling like a pop star for three years,” he says. “I can’t explain how that feels.”
ON THE SABBATICAL: “JUST GO OFF, FORGET ABOUT BEING A POP STAR AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS”: A year later, and he’s about to remember how it feels with the release of his eighth studio album Reality Killed the Video Star . It’s his first since 2006’s Rudebox , an album that was deemed a flop despite its brave forays into electropop. An album that knocked the wind out of his already-deflated sails.
“With Rudebox , I think a media monster kind of took over, and kind of gave the impression that it failed abysmally and went down the shitter,” he says with a resigned shrug. “Commercially, it sold two and a half million records. There wasn’t any promotion. It was kind of a stop-gap album, going ‘Look what I did during the summer on me holidays!’ And I didn’t convey that message at all. I love that album. I’ve said before that it’s more ‘me’ than any of the others.
“But yeah, it did affect me. And also, I’m a cyclical, neurotic pop star. Start of the album, it’s all like ‘Heyyyyy everybody, how’s it going?! Check my new stuff out, it’s absolutely amazing! And then reviews come out, and you go ‘No, it’s shit’. And then you go on tour and you have a nervous breakdown. Not everybody does that, but looking back at my career, it seems to be the thing that I’ve done consistently. And then after a while, you start to notice the pattern emerge, and you think: ‘This can’t be doing good for your health. Just go off, forget about being a pop star, forget about doing or being anything, and see what happens’. And then you just sit on the sofa and eat donuts and watch reality TV shows, and nothing really happens.”
ON STAGE FRIGHT: “I STEP ON STAGE AND IT STAYS WITH ME FOR TWO HOURS. IT’S HORRENDOUS” Still, there’s little he would have done differently. At 35, the face of Stoke-on-Trent’s favourite son may be a little more lined, and his hair may show the faintest signs of greying – but at heart, he’s the same cheeky-chappie with a self-deprecating sense of humour and an undeniable charisma seeping out of every newly-tanned pore.
He speaks openly and honestly about his insecurities. And boy, are there a lot of them. Yeah, Robbie Williams, the pop star with a supposed ego to rival Liam Gallagher’s, is insecure. Robbie Williams also suffers from stage fright, one of the reasons he didn’t tour Rudebox and won’t be touring this album, either.
“I’m not the first person to be struck down with stage fright, and I’m not the first person whose stage fright worsens with age,” he shrugs. “It used to be you step out on stage and it used to disappear. Now I step on stage sometimes and it stays with me for two hours, and I can’t even explain what that feels like. It’s absolutely horrendous. I’ve got this album that I love, and I want it to be out there, being listened to, and hopefully someone enjoying it as much as I am, but I don’t want to – yet – put myself in the uncomfortable position of having 300 million quid’s worth of tour in front of me, and come the third or fourth night, going ‘I’m terrified’.”
This may be hard to believe for anyone who saw his much-touted live comeback on the X Factor last weekend; breathily making his way through Bodies , he worked the stage and the audience as confidently as ever, a handshake here, a flirty wink there. It was clear from his face-splitting grin and wide-eyed disbelief that he was surprised by such an emphatic reception.
The viewers, meanwhile, may have been equally surprised by the fact that he chose not to add to Simon Cowell’s brief tribute to his one-time boy band contemporary, Boyzone’s Stephen Gately, who had died less than 24 hours before. .
Despite all his fears and apprehensions, however, the new album is undoubtedly his strongest in several years. Being responsible for some of the best pop songs of the past 15 years, not to mention some of the most anthemic, has its pitfalls. Yet several of Reality Killed the Video Star ’s songs – the Beatles-esque Morning Sun , the swinging 1950s jukebox swoon of You Know Me , the aptly-titled Eurythmics homage Last Days of Disco – are dazzling enough to bring back the fans driven away by Rudebox’ s comparatively experimental bent.
With former songwriting partner Guy Chambers still out of the picture, much of the album’s polished pop perfection could be attributed to its producer, Trevor Horn, a man who’s had to build a house full of bathrooms just to store his platinum discs.
ON CATHOLICISM: “I DIDN’T FANCY THAT. IT WAS BORING, DAMP AND THE SEX WAS AWFUL”: Heck, there are a even a couple of songs that tackle religion. Where does Robbie Williams stand on that subject these days?
“I don’t know where I’m at with that sort of stuff at the moment. I was raised Catholic – didn’t fancy that. It was just boring, damp and the sex was awful,” he smirks. “And then I didn’t have anybody, but it was kind of like ‘Yeah, Jesus is cool’. Then I got myself a drink and drug problem, and I started to learn about the concept of a higher power that was not religious, that was just like … an agony aunt with 55-inch biceps in the sky, that looks after you and wants you to do well.
“Then that drifts away, and you’re kind of part atheist, part the-first-problem-that-comes-up-you-go-straight-to-God. I have noticed that – I did pray to Archangel Michael the other day. He’s a fantastic Angel,” he says with a cheeky grin. “He is huge. I want him to be me dad. No, but really … where I am with all that stuff at the moment is that I’m an atheist up until the shit hits the fan, then I’ll be on my knees quicker than anybody else.”
ON TAKE THAT: “THEY’RE HAVING A LOT OF FUN AND I WANT TO BE PART OF THAT FUN”: Eclecticism, both lyrical and musical, is the key to this album. “I want to be Jay-Z. I mainly want to be Neil Tennant. I wanted to be Stephen Duffy for a little while. I wanted to be Morrissey for a little bit. So there’s all of these people I would like to be, and considering I didn’t really have a music philosophy coming into Take That or leaving Take That – other than ‘I want this to sound great’ – I kind of allow myself to go all over the musical map, and I have done with this album again.”
The question on people’s lips is whether or not Williams will reunite with his former bandmates. He’s open – enthusiastic, even – about the prospect. All five members recently partook in a writing session at New York’s Electric Lady studios, suggesting that new material is underway and old wounds spanning fifteen years have finally been closed.
“We got together last year and put all the bad blood under the bridge, and instead of it blowing all out of proportion like other bands and y’know, family members, and then storming away from the table and slamming doors and never seeing each other again for 10 years, we all went ‘Yeah, I did that, and Im sorry’, and it was genuine from both sides. And then we just had a great night.
“The next day I was so buoyed about it that I got the Take That symbol tattooed on my arm, and they were coming up for dinner at the house again and I was excited, and they got out the car and I said ‘Look at that!’, and they just went ‘You’re a dick’,” he laughs.
“I love what they’re doing, and I think the show that they did raised the bar. I was looking at it and thinking ‘How do they top it? How would I top that?’ and I thought ‘I’ll just join them!’. So we will be doing something. When and where and how, I don’t know. But they’re having a lot of fun and I want to be part of that fun.”
ON WORK: “I COULD SIT AND GET FAT ON A SOFA, EATING DONUTS, BUT I THINK I’D GO MORE MAD”: There’s still a little voice in the back of Williams’s head that, despite his public persona, seems determined to keep him in check.
“In Take That, it was kind of drilled into us that this is such a short-lived thing. There are loads of rules that still remain in my head as a hangover from being in Take That – ‘You’ve got to be friends with the media, you’ve got to make friends with this tabloid, take them out to dinner and kiss arse’, and ‘Now you’ve got to go away and cause a vacuum, they’ll go off you if you don’t go away and cause a vacuum’. Those kind of things have been in my head for the last three years. I’ve been away ‘causing a vacuum’, a la my ex-manager Nigel Martin-Smith.”
In that case, why not just sit in your studio and churn out album after album of potential hits and shun the media world entirely?
“Yeah, but a man does need a job. At one point, I was gonna put the album out and not do any promotion and not do anything. That was about 18 months ago, two years ago. I had an album ready to go that would have petrified the record company,” he chuckles. “There were lots of bleeps and blobs and no choruses and strange lyrics. I wanted to just put it out online. Then I was actually speaking to [his biographer] Chris Heath, who’s very knowledgeable about everything, and he said ‘Y’know, that might come across as you not being bothered about the music, if you did that.
And that was a turning point where I went ‘Right, OK, I’ll just have to wait until I get my head around being enthusiastic and confident enough to come back’. And also, like I say, a man needs a job. I could sit and get fat on a sofa, eating donuts, writing songs and putting them out on the internet, but I think I’d go more mad.”
ON THE ALBUM: “YOU DANCE AROUND, AIR GUITAR ALL OVER THE PLACE. THREE MONTHS LATER, YOU GO ‘IT’S SHIT’”: “It’d be incredibly trite of me to say that this is the best album I’ve ever done, because this is the eighth studio album, and I’ve been saying it for eight albums. But I’m really, really proud of it. Your instant response to something that you feel is good is ‘Yeah!’. You dance around the studio, air guitar all over the place. Then three months later, you go ‘It’s shit, it’s shit. What was I thinking?’
“And that happens on a daily basis as it gets closer and closer to release date. I’m either a genius, or a charlatan or a half-wit, and quite often all three,’ he says with another of those cheeky shrugs and half-smiles. “That’s just how it is.”