The Greatest Showman: Robbie Williams - The Music Week interview

The Greatest Showman: Robbie Williams - The Music Week interview

What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. Just ask Robbie Williams. When the 28-song tracklist was unveiled for the Robster’s first ever Christmas album, one collaboration stood out like, well, a 6ft 9in boxer.

“Tyson Fury: an incredible character and an incredible athlete,” marvels the former Take That star, who was midway through his maiden Sin City residency when checking in with the Gypsy King in June.

“He was fighting in Vegas when I was in Vegas,” continues Williams, speaking to Music Week in London. “I was in his dressing room before the fight and tossed out the idea. He responded kindly to it and he followed through on his promise.”

The lineal heavyweight champion, who went on to triumph by second round TKO, co-stars on the knockout track Bad Sharon, a boozy, raucous standout from The Christmas Present, which drops via Columbia Records on November 22. “That’s not the single by the way,” notes Williams (that honour falls to disc two opener Time For Change). “But Tyson thinks it is for some reason and I daren’t tell him it isn’t...”

“Tyson was an interesting one,” smiles Michael Loney, co-MD of management company IE:Music, which counts Williams as a client. “We’d finished a gig in Austria and got on a plane to Switzerland. Then we got a plane from Switzerland to Los Angeles and then from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. We got changed in the airport and went straight to Tyson’s dressing room [at the MGM Grand Garden Arena]. It was in that moment that Rob remembered that Tyson can sing, because he sings after every fight he wins and sometimes even in the press conferences. We saw him maybe two hours before he was fighting and it was quite a surreal experience, especially having been travelling for about 24 hours.”

The double album’s star-studded guest list also includes Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, Jamie Cullum, German singer Helene Fischer, Williams’ father Pete Conway and the LMA Choir, who were mentored by Williams during his time as a judge on the 2018 series of The X Factor alongside his wife, actress Ayda Field.

“They’re all people that Rob knows and respects, and he asked each of them individually,” reveals Loney. “He waited until he could ask them face to face so they couldn’t say no!”

Blessed with the inspired working title of Achtung Bublé, the record is Williams’ 12th solo studio LP and is spread over two discs – Christmas Past and Christmas Future – both including a mixture of original songs and seasonal covers.

“From the off it was important to us that this didn’t feel like just another Christmas album and we got across the fact that – while there are new big band and swing versions of Christmas classics on the album – there are also a whole host of great new compositions,” explains Columbia UK MD Manish Arora. “To help with this, we devised a past and present aspect to help with the messaging around it and made sure we focused on dropping instant grats that showed both sides.”

“Rob’s always wanted to do a Christmas album. We can’t let Michael Bublé have it all to himself every year,” chuckles Chris Briggs, A&R consultant at Sony Music. “The idea for this has been discussed and song lists made and songs written for at least five years. This is Rob’s project: the tracklisting, the concept. We just helped execute his ideas.”

Williams’ longtime manager, IE:Music co-founder Tim Clark, tells Music Week the 45-year-old superstar has consistently been the master of his own destiny, pointing to his 2001 swing covers album Swing When You’re Winning (2,419,674 sales, OCC).

“Lots of people pooh-poohed it and, of course, it turned into a huge success,” says Clark. “What he gets the most satisfaction from is crafting songs and then performing them. His driver is writing great songs. And boy, he knows when he’s written one!

“The Christmas Present is the most heartwarming Christmas album I’ve heard in a long time. It runs the whole gamut, from comedy to wonderful traditional songs, and it’s extraordinary how the songs he’s written already sound like standards.”

Briggs recalls first meeting Williams in 1996, shortly after Chrysalis was absorbed into EMI.

“I went round to his flat in Maida Vale and we talked about music from The Beatles to Oasis to Dr Dre to Glen Campbell and back,” remembers the A&R man. “He gave me a book of lyrics and sang some melody ideas, about a foot from my face. That was enough evidence for me.

“He signed with EMI when RCA released him and after a few months we were introduced to Guy Chambers by [publishing exec] Paul Curran.”

Williams’ partnership with Chambers has assumed legendary status, producing the multi-platinum Life Thru A Lens (2,103,616 sales), I’ve Been Expecting You (2,598,031), Sing When You’re Winning (2,214,602) and Escapology (2,089,528) LPs, and a veritable truckload of hit singles.

Though the duo went their separate ways in 2002 they later reunited for 2013’s Swings Both Ways (746,279) and 2016’s The Heavy Entertainment Show (353,425), Williams’ first record since signing with Sony. Chambers produced the majority of The Christmas Present with Richard Flack.

“It was meeting and working with Guy that first opened Rob up as a songwriter,” suggests Briggs. “In publisher speak, he is a lyric and topline writer and he has gone on to write with many different writers in a variety of styles. He enjoys writing enormously and never stops demoing new ideas.”

Clark, who co-managed the Stoke-on-Trent-born singer with business partner David Enthoven prior to Enthoven’s death in 2016, believes Williams’ songwriting talents have not always been given the respect they deserve.

“If you listen to any Robbie Williams album, [you realise] there is no way that any of those songs could have been written without Rob,” he stresses. “You only have to listen to the lyrics to know that these are absolutely driven by Robbie Williams. We think he is actually the most underrated writer of the past three decades.”

The entertainer’s achievements are well-documented, but bear repeating: 75 million albums sold worldwide, seven No.1 UK singles, 10 No.1 albums and a record 18 BRIT Awards. Williams also drew 375,000 people to Knebworth over three heady nights in August 2003, 12 months after signing a groundbreaking £80 million record deal with EMI, and shifted 1.6m tickets for his 2006 Close Encounters tour in a single day. Even that year’s divisive Rudebox album, his sole commercial misstep, has moved in excess of half a million copies domestically.

Rejoining Take That in 2010 for their 8x platinum Progress LP (2,394,394 sales), the group’s subsequent 29-date stadium tour is the biggest in UK history, with ticket sales topping 1.8m. And while hit singles have proved harder to come by in the streaming age (his last No.1 was 2012’s Candy), Williams has quietly amassed 7.4m monthly listeners on Spotify, where his most streamed songs are Angels (178m), Feel (124m) and Rock DJ (84m).

Promoting a seasonal record, however, presents a distinct set of challenges.

“You’ve got what looks like a five-week campaign versus a four or five-month album campaign, so we’ve had to be clever from a marketing perspective and use every tool available to us,” asserts Loney. “There is not a free day between now and Christmas. There are the two Wembley shows, we’ve announced an ITV special for the UK and various other broadcasters internationally and we are, of course, doing all the TVs that you’d want to do.

“We’re also working with his brand partners including WW and Audi, which started off as a straight licence for Let Me Entertain You and has turned into a 360° deal including re-recording, interaction with the brand and a retail solution.”

Columbia’s Arora adds: “Going in, we knew getting Christmas songs played in October – when the album was announced – wasn’t going to work and doing pre-release promo was going to be difficult even in early November, so we focused on a strong album visual on socials instead. The weekly multiple instant grats and accompanying visuals have allowed us to get news out to the fanbase while we hold back our main single, Time For Change, for airplay in December.

“We’d obviously love for the album to become a part of everyone’s festive celebrations this year and for years to come. There’s a real sense of fun and celebration to it, as you’d expect, so the hope is it becomes the first iteration of an ever-evolving Christmas album that can be refreshed with new material down the line.”

Loney feels confident that at least one track has the potential to become a staple of the festive period.

“The tricky thing with a Christmas album, especially when it’s two discs, is to get everybody to hear all of the songs and turn them into classics,” he muses. “But I’m sure Time For Change, which is the main focus of this campaign, will become a classic.”

Repped on the live circuit by agent Ian Huffam of X-ray Touring, the star wowed a sold-out British Summer Time Hyde Park in July and returns to the capital next month for two special shows at The SSE Arena, Wembley, billed as The Robbie Williams Christmas Party. He will also play an intimate gig at the BBC Radio Theatre on November 29 as part of Radio 2’s In Concert series and appear at the Royal Variety Performance, as well as Hits Live Manchester.

“Rob’s live craft is better than it’s ever been,” declares Loney. “He’s a student of entertainment and the research he does to get his performance right is extraordinary. It came across in a huge way in Vegas and that carried through to Hyde Park, and the reviews were incredible.”

Following his successful 2019 residency, Williams is returning to the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas for eight dates next spring.

“It’s his spiritual home in so many ways,” reflects Clark. “The Rat Pack was the music he listened to when he was a kid – Sinatra, Dean Martin and so on. He’s a proper scholar of that era of music, so it was like a homecoming.”

“It’s been a huge success,” chips in Loney. “The ticket buyers were 70% from America. He does have a fanbase there and those that don’t know him and come along out of intrigue are completely won over by the end of the show because his performance is next level. In fact, he’s the best in the world.”

Plans are already afoot to mark Williams’ 25th year as a solo artist in 2021 and, as Clark asserts, the world is still very much his oyster.

“He has an insatiable desire to work, so where does an artist go?” he ponders. “Well, where did Frank Sinatra go? Will he make a film? Maybe. But one thing is for sure – it will be driven by Rob.”

Music Week goes straight to the horse’s mouth, meeting Williams in a suite at The Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge. Here, in a frank discussion, the singer lets rip on the music biz past and present, the chances of another Take That reunion and his “fucking long list” of enemies…

How was Las Vegas?

“Vegas is incredible. It’s a compact, more exclusive [show]. It’s fucking smaller. I get to go into the toolbox and really be my heroes. All of my heroes were from the ’80s and then the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s: people who could do multifaceted things like sing, do a bit of dancing and then tell stories and be funny, which is what I’ve always wanted to do – and I get to do that. I have increased my armoury with these performances. When I came back to do Hyde Park in the summer and people were saying such nice things about me, it was because I’d gathered more tools.”

What inspired you to make a Christmas album?

“I’m always writing. I’ve never stopped writing since I started, and my diary was a bit boring. I’m a middle aged man that’s married with three kids. Pain is a good thing to write about – people respond to that – but I’m kind of sorted. I’m in a place where I still want to write and still find the need to write something that hopefully becomes the fabric of people’s lives, but I have to figure out a different way to attack it. So I wrote a Christmas song in one particular session – because I wanted to own Christmas, New Year and birthdays – and I really enjoyed it, and I thought could do a whole album of it. Three years later, here it is.”

Do you think there is a hit single on there, or are those days now behind you?

“I just think the oxygen that I need has been taken away because streaming is massive and my audience don’t stream. If we were still in a market where people bought records I’d be in with a shout for Christmas No.1 but, as it happens, my audience don’t stream so it’s going to be very difficult to even get in the Top 20.”

How did you persuade Rod Stewart to guest on the LP?

“Rod and I were having a meal together, I suggested him singing on the Christmas album and he graciously said yes. A year and a half later I hadn’t forgotten – and I think he had – but he said yes and he’s lent me his talent, his charisma and his voice and I’m very proud to do a song with him.”

Your songwriting partnership with Guy Chambers is up there with the best, but what is your opinion on the multiple co-writer trend?

“Whatever way you get to the destination is OK. I mean, I don’t like it for publishing splits. It seems a very American way of doing it, but however you get there is however you get there.”

We sadly lost your co-manager David Enthoven in 2016, what impact did he have on your life?

“David Enthoven single-handedly had the biggest impact on my life of anybody I’ve ever met. He guided me, loved me, gave the best advice, saved my life. At David Enthoven’s funeral it was just full of people walking up to me and saying, ‘David saved my life’. [It’s] just fucking incredible that he had that impact on people. He was smart, stylish, loving, empathic, ferocious, giving of his time... He is somebody that I could only dream of being. He was just an exemplary human being.”

What’s your relationship like with Tim Clark?

“Tim is an absolute fucking bulldog and I am so happy that he’s on my side. It’s like having Mike Tyson in my corner – and he’s never stopped being peak Mike Tyson. It’s like, ‘OK, you want to fuck with me? Deal with him!’ Because what Mike Tyson was for boxing, my manager is for business.”

How happy are you at Sony?

“I’ve got a great home there, I like the people. Jason Iley is easy to get on with and we’re both heading in the same direction. They feel lucky to have me, I feel lucky to have them. I have zero complaints. I’m in a happy place with my home life and a happy place with my business life.”

Looking back, how do you feel about the famous contract you signed with EMI in 2002?

“It completely blew my mind, that deal. People talk about charlatan syndrome and I’ve had that all my life, but it’s not the main voice now. It’s still there, but it’s not the main voice driving the car. So when that happened to me a) I didn’t feel as though I deserved it. And b) Well, what was it – £80 or 90 million or something?”

The headline figure was £80 million...

“Eighty... What does an £80m artist perform like? Jesus Christ, I’m not Prince! As much as it was a blessing financially, internally, it messed with the wiring.”

What does the music landscape of 2019 look like to you?

“I think music’s full. Everything that’s been written has been written and we are bereft of personalities. My formative musical years were spent in the ’90s, where having a personality was almost as important as the music – and I think we’re missing that.”

Any thoughts on why that might be?

“I don’t know. Maybe the arrival of computers and social media – and everybody being scared – has something to do with it. There’s so many people that shout now and they’ve got every opportunity to reach you – whichever fucking idiot on a sofa in Bromsgrove has an opinion about you, you can now hear it. And I wonder if that has an effect on people where they’re scared to be big or different or have sticky out edges because, like [the Japanese proverb], ‘Don’t be the nail that’s stuck up, because you’ll get hammered down’. No doubt that’s got something to do with it. The landscape is a bit drab. But also, I’m middle-aged, isn’t that what you’re supposed to feel like? You get to 45 and you go, ‘I’m not into this’.”

You recently told GQ you had a “fucking long list of enemies”, are there any music industry personnel on that list?

“No, not anymore. Not anymore. There was, but it was all [due to] things that happened during my formative years – because the gatekeepers for this industry are cunts. In TV and music, the gatekeepers are cunts and I’m glad that what I’ve managed to do with my career means that I fly above them and I don’t have to deal with them. That being said, the majority of the music industry has been very nice to me. People that stick out, stick out, but 99.9% of people that work in the music industry, I’ve really liked.”

What made you decide to reunite with Take That?

“I needed a place to go and hide in public. I’d taken three years off and my body, mind and psyche had just collapsed. I didn’t know who I was, why I was, what I was doing, or what I was doing it for. And I wanted to come back because I knew at some point I’d enjoy my job, which I am now, but I needed stabilisers. The boys helped me to come back to the public whilst, at the same time, getting rid of a bunch of rocks, resentments that I’d carried around with me for decades. So I got to unload a bunch of rocks, I got to come back and perform in public, I got to sell the biggest album of that year [Progress] and do the biggest tour the UK’s ever seen in the history of music. Us fucking herberts from the north did the biggest tour the music industry’s ever seen, incredibly special.”

It’s difficult to imagine anything topping that tour…

“Well, yeah. When Oasis eventually get back together in five or 10 years’ time, there’ll be a wry smile that they won’t sell as many tickets as we did.”

Progress was a well-received record, too...

“Creatively, we did something weird with that album and people responded to it. It’s one of those sweet spots where we did something weird that didn’t scare the audience and the critics gave us 5/5 for it. It’s the best work and most applauded any of us have ever been. It felt incredible to get all the boxes ticked.”

Do you foresee another Take That reunion down the line?

“I do see a Take That reunion in the future. When and where, I don’t know. I would think it would be more nearer pension age than midlife crisis age.”

How was your X Factor experience?

“Do you know what? It was really fucking great because, when you’re doing a gig, you’re the main focus point for tens of thousands of people and you’re thinking on your feet and always thinking three steps ahead, so you never get to be in the moment and enjoy it. With The X Factor, it’s live telly – you’re not the figure point and you can put your feet up, have a look around and experience what is actually going on and enjoy the energy. What I didn’t expect about The X Factor is how deeply you fall in love with the contestants, I wasn’t expecting that at all. But I liked TV, I liked how exciting it was.”

Some would say your wife stole the show, mind...

“My wife steals the show every day in my house.”

What are your memories of Knebworth?

“There was so much riding on my shoulders that week. I didn’t experience it. I now get to experience it, like most people do that were there or not, via YouTube. But I know that it happened and it’s literally the equivalent of winning the World Cup. It’s like I’m a World Cup winner – that’s what happened that weekend.”

You haven’t played Glastonbury since 1998, is there any unfinished business there?

“Not really, no, it’s not a burning desire. Do I have unfinished business? Sure, it would be a nice thing to do. But I’ve got many nice things to do.”

So what are your ambitions at this point in your career?

“When I took the time off I quickly realised that you need a purpose. If you retire, you die. I pulled the fruit machine of life and it came up 7s, and it carried on coming up 7s for the longest time. And then, after a decade, it was like two 7s and a plum. I still got a payout, but now there’s a plum there. What do I do with the plum? So I’m finding that it’s the circle of life for a pop star or a musician. You can’t be at the top forever, no one’s ever managed it. So what do you now, when you go to the machine and you get two plums and a 7 – how do you play the next hand? What I’m doing is just inventing different doors to go through and there are several things in the pipeline that keep me interested, give me purpose and make me feel vital.”

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