Letting the music play: Gary Barlow - The Music Week Interview

Letting the music play: Gary Barlow - The Music Week Interview

Gary Barlow has rolled back the years with his big band-fuelled solo LP Music Played By Humans. Here, the Take That legend, Universal Music UK chief David Joseph, Polydor’s Tom March and Ben Mortimer and manager Chris Dempsey unwrap one of Q4’s most anticipated presents...

True to form, Gary Barlow was thinking big. The Take That leader had mapped out the grand vision for his next solo album, but bringing it to life would require a helping hand from a longtime cohort.

“Thank God, I’ve got a great label and a great history,” says Barlow, cheerily reminiscing about his 2019 summit with Universal Music UK chief David Joseph. “I said to David, ‘Listen, I’ve got an idea: it’s no good me just doing a demo, I need to book a studio, so give me a bit of cash. Let me make two songs and, if we think they’re good, I’ll make the rest of it’.

“Of course, I went off and did two songs with a 60-piece orchestra, did the mix – we went the whole nine yards. I played David half of the first song and he was like, ‘I’m leaving now, just go and make the record!’”

The 49-year-old hitmaker had the benefit of three decades’ worth of credit in the bank with Joseph, who was head of artist development at RCA during Take That’s initial ’90s run and co-president of Polydor for the group’s incredible 2005 comeback to end (or more accurately start) all comebacks.

“We were in LA last February – and this February by the way, which feels like a lifetime ago – and we just hooked up to say hi,” Joseph tells Music Week. “It was Grammys week and he played me the basis of [current single] Incredible. In one second I got exactly where he was heading, which I adored. The question then was, ‘How was this going to become a complete album?’ He didn’t take the route of redoing big band versions of standards, so it was like, ‘How does Gary put his songwriting into a timeless genre?’ It was a big task he took on, quite frankly.”

The end result, recorded with a full 80-piece orchestra, is Barlow’s remarkable fourth solo LP, Music Played By Humans, which comes out via Polydor on November 27.

“He titled the album over a year ago, but clearly over the last six months that has become even more pertinent,” says Chris Dempsey, Barlow’s manager and YMU Music board director. “He always said he wanted the record to feel escapist in some way – upbeat and hopeful, but big and ambitious as well – that is why he did it with an orchestra. Nobody in pop is making records like that anymore.”

“It’s definitely the most musical I’ve ever allowed myself to be,” says Barlow, speaking to Music Week over Zoom from his Notting Hill studio. “It’s hard with pop music – I love it and hate it at times – because it makes you be as blunt and as simple as you can possibly be, and I’ve not been that at all on this album. I’m very proud of the recordings – the players were off the scale and it was a lot of fun to make.”

In a rare stroke of fortune by 2020 standards, formalities were completed in the nick of time.

“We pretty much finished the recording about two weeks before lockdown started,” says Barlow. “There wasn’t even a sense of rush to finish it. We’d all looked at Italy – those poor Italians, all locked up – little did we know it was all coming our way.”

Music Played By Humans’ sonic inspiration can be traced all the way back to the Royal Albert Hall in 1992, when the then 21-year-old Barlow saw Frank Sinatra in the flesh on his last ever UK tour.

“I probably speak for a lot of songwriters [in saying] that we all get influenced by something,” affirms Barlow. “It goes in and at some point it comes out again, and it could be the next week or it could be years later. But that night had a massive effect on me because he had a full orchestra with him and I loved the way he bossed the gig. “It’s always a tricky one for me because I’m definitely most comfortable in a band. When you do a solo tour, you have to become that character where you are the focal point and it’s a really different gig. But I thought, ‘This is it, I’m going to turn the Frank dial up on this record and try and boss it’.”

Barlow hooked up with Michael Bublé and Colombian artist Sebastián Yatra on the Latin-infused lead single Elita, setting the scene for the album’s vast roll call of international guest stars, which also includes James Corden, Barry Manilow, Chilly Gonzales, Alesha Dixon, Beverley Knight, Ibrahim Maalouf and Avishai Cohen.

“This isn’t about features, this is about collaboration,” insists Joseph. “Gary writes a song and then figures out who could enhance it. Obviously, to be able to reach out to the biggest stars of Latin America and then Michael Bublé is not a bad way to start! That shows the respect other artists have for him.”

“There are some fantastic collaborators on the record, but it’s hard to capture all the content exactly the way you would want to because we can’t get around the world at the moment,” laments Polydor co-president Tom March. “We’re just having to be resourceful and creative. When Michael Bublé was filming for the Elita video in Canada, Gary was up at 2am on Zoom, watching it being shot, which was a lovely moment.”

In spite of Covid-19, a host of special guests will join Barlow for an ITV festive special, Gary Barlow’s Night At The Museum. The star’s new single Incredible, meanwhile, has landed a prime sync spot as the soundtrack to Argos’ Christmas advert.

“We went to the studio at the start of the year and heard two tracks,” remembers March. “Gary then sat us down and was like, ‘This is the idea for the TV special and I’m going to play the album in the most famous concert halls in Sydney and New York’. We were going to do a series on the back of it, but obviously that wasn’t possible. Luckily, we are still having a brilliant TV special, but the idea had to adapt.”

“There are a really exciting couple of moments in the can,” enthuses Polydor’s Ben Mortimer. “Working with Gary is the most incredible experience because he just makes stuff happen; he’s an absolute force of nature. The last Gary solo album was such a huge success – I think it did about 750,000 copies – so if we get even halfway towards that we’ll be over the moon.”

Going it alone again evokes contrasting emotions in Barlow, who spent half a decade out of the spotlight following the underwhelming performance of his 1997 solo debut Open Road (297,405 sales, OCC) and the outright failure of 1999 follow-up Twelve Months, Eleven Days (33,108 sales), which led to him being dropped by BMG.

Chart-topping 2012 EP Sing (189,530 sales) and 2013’s double platinum Since I Saw You Last (723,156 sales) offered vindication, freeing the six-time Ivor Novello Award-winner to approach his latest project with a clean slate.

“I really think this is the first solo album I’ve made that’s not been under duress, actually,” he chuckles. “When I think back to the first one, I was leaving the band and everyone was like, ‘You’ve got to be the next George Michael’ so I was like, ‘Oh, shit’ and that was a panic. Then the second album was a complete disaster because I partnered with Clive Davis, who loved everything about me except my songwriting, so that was quite a big problem...

“The third one was great, but I was doing it to almost exorcise the other two from my system because it was such a damaging experience, especially that second one. It took me years to get my confidence back after that. So when I did Since I Saw You Last it was a lot of fun, but it was almost like an exorcism rather than a release of a record. This is the first one where I’ve gone, ‘I feel like I can do whatever I want here’.”

Barlow did his bit to keep the nation’s spirits up during the first lockdown via his Crooner Sessions online duets with the likes of Chris Martin, Ronan Keating, Cliff Richard and Paloma Faith, as well as his Take That allies Mark Owen and Howard Donald and former nemesis, turned friend, collaborator and sometime bandmate Robbie Williams.

Another crooning partner was Beverley Knight, who is set to join Barlow on his 2021 UK arena tour. “We toured together in 2006 when Take That came back from the wilderness and we’ve been mates ever since,” she says. “Gary is really easy to work with because he’s just so open. He’s not guarded with ideas and that’s what you want when you’re collaborating.”

So how does Barlow feel about releasing a new album during a pandemic? “In July, most people told me to not release it this year,” he confides. “So I really want to prove them wrong that releasing in this period is going to be fine, which I feel it is going to be, but you never know. I just hope it makes a little dent in the music world.”

“It’s difficult as we try and pull this promotional plot together,” concedes Dempsey. “He’s made an orchestral record, so that requires a lot of people. It’s called Music Played By Humans and it’s about human connection, so how can we do that? Well, that’s what we’re working on at the minute. As this promotional plot develops, you’ll see a couple of significant weighty moments where we can really get across the concept of this record. But it’s a challenge we all have to try and work through.

“The first song he wrote for this album is one of the most achingly beautiful ballads you’ll ever hear, called This Is My Time. He played it to me on the Take That tour, just before they went on stage in Manchester and I was nearly in tears, which was not the greatest look for a manager backstage amongst the tough crew! There is orchestration in that song, for sure, but it’s more stripped back, so maybe we’ll find a moment for it within the campaign because it is a standout track, no question.”

Barlow’s most recent major release – Take That’s reimagined greatest hits set Odyssey – scored huge week one sales of 105,721 in 2018, according to the Official Charts Company. However, 94% of those sales were physical copies. Streaming has proven a tougher nut to crack thus far, with Take That and Barlow’s monthly Spotify listenership numbering 3.6m and 827,974, respectively.

“Gary has a very dedicated audience,” observes Dempsey. “A lot of them have grown up with him and thankfully they are very loyal and often want physical products. So, in some respects, that won’t change. But the guests that he’s brought in on this album give us maybe a little more access to audiences via streaming.”

“I’m expecting some really healthy streaming numbers for Incredible, with the massive coverage it’s going to get from the Argos advert, and some huge radio support,” adds March. “We’ve seen some really good pick up from Elita, especially from the Latin markets with Sebastián Yatra’s involvement, so we’re hopeful of hitting lots of new audiences.”

Pre-orders of around 20,000 guarantee Music Played By Humans a strong start – even in a sales week likely to be hindered by the tail-end of lockdown 2.0. And while not a seasonal record, March is convinced of its stocking-filling potential. “It’s almost not Christmas without a No.1 album from Take That or Gary Barlow,” he laughs. “Secondly, I don’t know if anything screams, ‘Hello Christmas’ more than launching an album with Michael Bublé and Gary Barlow on the lead single!”

Furthermore, Joseph believes Barlow may even have unwittingly made the perfect record for these (unprecedented) times.

“There was a little crystal ball into a time where people need uplifting,” he says. “Obviously, none of that was conceived in its genesis, but I actually think the timing of the music becoming everybody else’s and playing a part in their lives couldn’t be much better.

“Gary is building up the most extraordinary contemporary songbook, so each time I hear his new records I’m thrilled, but I also think, ‘This is adding two or three extra to that songbook’. He’s got an extremely high quality threshold and he clearly knew what record he wanted to make.”

A few weeks before the Christmas decorations go up, we settle down one-to-one with Barlow for a chit-chat on guilty pleasures, his songwriting secrets and what the future holds for Take That...

What’s the story behind the album title?

“The title was what I had first. I got it coming off the last Take That tour, so it’s not Covid-related in any way, shape, or form. It was a doorway to making an album full of musicians. I wanted this album to be absolutely packed with players. Then, weirdly, all this has happened where we’re not allowed to be near anyone anymore and it’s been so strange. I listen to it and just think, ‘Thank God I did it before all this started’.”

How would you describe your songwriting process?

“It’s a bit of a slot machine when I come in here, because I write every day. I have a little folder, it’ll have four or five songs in and I’ll pick at them every day for a week or so and then move on, so I’m always writing. It’s very seldom I go home and I haven’t written anything, but it is a game of patience. It can be bloody annoying sometimes, but the other thing is you can land on something you feel is great. God, it’s happened to me a few times and these songs change the course of your life, so when you’re dealing with something so powerful, you’ve got to take it seriously. I find that out of every 20 songs I write, probably one is good. So at some point you just have to put the hours in and almost get over the hump. Some people go, ‘I woke up and I dreamed this song’ and I’m like, ‘What? No! That doesn’t happen!’ But it’s a tricky one, you never know what you’re going to get.”

Has the rise of streaming platforms made you adapt your approach at all?

“Not yet. It may do in the future. I’ve been a little bit more exposed to it this time because my kids all stream music. But I feel like my audience still loves to own a [physical product]. We’ve done vinyl and cassette for this record and not small amounts, you put them on the website and they’re gone straight away. My audience are still collectors, which is nice. I like that.”

What are your memories of working with Max Martin in the late ’90s?

“When I was at Max’s, Denniz [Pop, late producer], God bless him, was still going for gold. He was the Pete Waterman in the set-up, he’d come in with the title or an idea and Max and Kristian [Lundin] were the guys I wrote with. They said, ‘Ooh, we’ve just done this song that we're really excited about ’. It was ...Baby One More Time and it did sound fantastic. I remember it being the middle of winter, there were only two hours of light a day and they were in this tiny studio in the middle of Stockholm. But you just had the feeling that these guys, through talent and hard work, were going to make it. They led the session and I tried to keep up. They were just starting on that journey and wow [laughs], amazing.”

As a former judge on The X Factor and Let It Shine, do you think the talent show format is still effective at producing chart stars?

“I think it has been. It’s probably at its end, I guess, for a few years. But, like Opportunity Knocks and New Faces, it will be back – it’ll just have a different face and a different name, probably. It’s hard when you’re trying to judge someone on a 40-second performance. If you see the bare bones of something good, you try and give them a chance, but I don’t know what type of personality you are or who you’re going to turn into when you have a hit record. People react differently to the environment – some rise to it and for some, it’s too much. But for The X Factor, especially, they’ve had so much talent on that show that has come to something. One Direction are probably the biggest success and who knew in that audition that Harry [Styles], Niall [Horan] and those guys had those records in them that we hear now? Real artist records. I don’t think anyone knew, really.”

One Direction also made it in America, a feat that eluded Take That. Was that a matter of timing, perhaps?

“I don’t know, it’s not something I’ve thought about that much. But there was a little moment when we released Patience that we had label interest [in the US] and we were really honest with ourselves that we had small kids and didn’t want to go and do a radio tour for nine months. I did a lot of that with Arista in the late ’90s and it’s hard work, it’s time... It’s for young people, I think, and we just didn’t fancy it. However, there is an upside because I spend a third of the year in LA. I’m not bothered by anyone when I’m there and it’s absolutely beautiful, it really is! I don’t mind it here, it’s just a real break when I go there.”

How important was Take That’s comeback single Patience in re-establishing you at the top?

“Oh my God, if we’d have known how important it was going to be, I think we’d have been scared of it. At the time, we were just loving the tune. But it’s funny, it was almost being written for 10 years, that bloody song. I remember going in the studio and not even thinking about what the melody was going to be, and then it came from nowhere. In amongst two other songs we were writing, we kept going back to Patience.”

SJM Concerts MD Simon Moran has been your UK tour promoter since that 2005 reunion, how would you sum up his influence on your career?

“Pretty massive. If ever I had a big decision to make, he is probably one of three people I’d go to because he’s so unbelievably trustworthy and so bright and clever. Also, he’s got an opinion, which I like. I would play songs to Simon even before labels sometimes, he’d be one of the first to hear them. He’s got a great understanding of an artist, what their brand is and who they appeal to. He’s just a good guy, so I always trust him.”

Do you ever wonder what life would be like if you hadn’t got the band back together?

“I dread to think, because I wasn’t that happy to be honest. I was making a little bit of music, but I didn’t feel like the skills I had were being used. I did my first gig when I was 11, so by the time I joined the band at 19 I’d already done thousands of gigs and then I did thousands more. It was just a really strange time, I didn’t do anything in those years and it didn’t feel right. I love to sing, and I’d forgotten it. I just thought it was the act of doing music I loved, but it’s not; it’s all the individual things; it’s the solving and the chasing. I love listening to a piece of music and going, ‘Oh shit, that is so good. I want to write something like that’. They’re all the things that make what we do so addictive and so enjoyable.”

So what’s next for Take That?

“We’ve done tour-album, tour-album since 2005 and everyone just wanted a little break. I’m just crap at doing nothing, I’ve got to busy myself. I’m a songwriter, so I want to feed that muscle all the time. Doing the odd bit of film and TV is never enough for me. Albums take one to two years, so that was my decision to fill time before the band get back together again. Everyone is enjoying [the break] because, when we’re ready to come back, we can come back – and what a lovely position to be in. I don’t believe our audience is going anywhere just yet so I imagine, in a couple of years’ time, we’ll hit the road again and make some new music.”

Finally, will you ever make a Christmas album?

“Well, do you know what? I had thought about it a lot, but then Rob [Robbie Williams] did it last year and I thought, ‘You beggar!’ Because I love Christmas music. I’m a bit of a strange one, I love cruises and going to Las Vegas. I love all the stuff everyone else hates, so never say never...”

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