Rick Astley is back this month with Are We There Yet?, his ninth studio album and third with BMG.
It follows the impact of Kylie Minogue’s Tension, which debuted at No.1 on Friday (September 30) for BMG with stellar sales of 53,237.
The independent company steered Astley to his first No.1 in three decades with 50 in 2016 (324,686 sales to date). He followed that with 2018’s Beautiful Life (No.6, 73,517 sales) and 2019’s The Best Of Me collection (No.4, 81,885).
BMG has partnered with Astley at a time when he’s undergone a renaissance, including a debut Pyramid Stage Glastonbury performance this year, a major sync on Ted Lasso with Never Gonna Give You Up and performing live with Foo Fighters.
Rick Astley plays two dates at Royal Albert Hall next month (November 1 and 2) and London Palladium (November 25), followed by arena dates in February and March 2024.
Are We There Yet? is released on October 13, and will be presented at an intimate Electric Ballroom album launch show on October 16.
Here, Rick Astley opens up about his commercial resurgence, partnering with BMG and his attitude to streaming…
Apparently you recorded almost everything on your new album, Are We There Yet?…
“Yeah I did. Rob Taggart who plays keys live with us is on four tracks – on the slow ones you just can't substitute somebody who really plays – but otherwise I liked doing it all. When I made the first one  of these three albums over the last few years, I wasn't doing it thinking ‘I've got to sign a deal.’ I just made music in my garage which became a record so there wasn't any reason to get anyone else in. I'm probably still not brave enough to make a record the way that some of my favourite records were made, produced by a great producer with great musicians. I'd love to do that, but I also love the fact that I can go into my garage.”
While you weren’t sure there was an audience for the 50 album, you must have been aware people were waiting for this one. Was there a plan for what you were going to do?
“I don't think I necessarily had a vision in that sense of ‘people are going to hear it', but I am aware I've got far more chance now of somebody hearing it or it getting played on Radio 2. I don't think I'm conscious enough of it when I write songs. Most of the time I'm just noodling in my room. I'm playing, something occurs and I think, 'Ooh, what was that?' Then I chase that until it becomes a song.”
When did you chase enough ideas to realise you had an album?
“During Covid. That must be something you've heard a million people say, but we just had a lot of time on our hands. Then last year we went on a tour with New Kids On The Block, En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa which was bonkers but amazing fun. Have you heard about the New Kids’ Mixtape tour?”
Please tell us?
“Well it was proposed to me and I asked ‘Will I be first on?’ Their manager said 'No, the New Kids go on first' and I went 'Sorry, what?' It's a show that never stops. There are two stages, so as somebody is literally coming to the end the other artist is ready to rock. Their audience are bonkers – and I did the Take That tour, so I know about devoted boy band fans! So we spent three months on a bus in America and we went to all the music cities again, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and, obviously, Nashville. Even though I wrote some of the songs before I left, I didn't finish them deliberately as I wanted to leave them simmering. So now there's just more twang in the guitars. They're not country, but leaning towards a more chilled country way of doing things. Simple parts, just letting the lyric do its job.”
You have said your Smiths covers band with Blossoms came about because, during lockdown, you listened to artists' work in order of release. Does the request on Take Me Back To Your Place from the new album to “play the old records that we used to” stem from your hobby?
“Yeah, maybe. I'm less connected to albums now than I've ever been in my life. I'm not saying I like it – I don't like it, but I think it's true. I stream a track and then before I know what I'm doing, I'm eight songs into that artist but it's not an album. So the thing of going back to someone's first album started from there. If you do it with a David Bowie album or one of the gods, it's really interesting. It was good because – and I know it's corny to say – but I do like a greatest hits. I was very devoted to singles as a kid because I didn’t have the money to buy albums. Also, singles are put together to be an instant thing. Maybe I've got indoctrinated by Stock, Aitken And Waterman, but I still respond to that. There's a magic in writing something where it’s the first eight bars and you're in!”
Streaming playlists have sort of killed off those multi-artist collections, haven't they?
“I do get annoyed with the streaming thing because sometimes it's like, 'I didn't want to hear that song now.’ If you're a fan of someone, and you were around through that whole process like with The Smiths or whoever, you go 'No, no, no, too early mate!’ There was romance in the way that you got your music, looked after it and owned it.”
There's a magic in writing something where it’s the first eight bars and you're in!
With that in mind, how do you approach streaming with Are We There Yet?
“I’m grateful for streaming because we do pretty well. Never Gonna Give You Up streams really well! I'm not against it in any way shape or form, and I'm not an old fogey. I just mean there was a chance to collect records and you didn't have everything, so you’d absorb a record completely. In terms of today, my music doesn't stream massively because if people stream you they stream the old ones. Thankfully, my fans stream everything, but if you look at streaming figures for young successful artists compared to mine they're just mega! So I don't know how I feel about it really. Well, it doesn't matter how I feel about it because it ain't gonna change.
“I guess one of the amazing things is that anyone in the world can listen to your song on day one. I remember with Never Gonna Give You Up, it taking months of travelling around the world and promoting it to get people on board. Today a kid in the bedroom can stick something up and from time to time with TikTok, all of sudden people go 'We're signing this kid!’ They did the funny dance and they're off. So I'm not against streaming, it's just very different. Because I don't stream very well, I'm loath to say…"
“Buy the record”?
“No, I'm not even saying that. I wish people would stream my new stuff more. [laughs] But I'm saying I'm in a weird position where a really young person might stream Never Gonna Give You Up but then it stops. I'm grateful, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of connection between that and the record I've just made. It's frustrating, but I understand it. And to be honest, I do it myself. So I can't really blame anybody for not making that transition to a new record.”
Your album is coming out on BMG. Why has that relationship endured so well?
“I think we got really lucky both times. I signed to Pete Waterman's company, PWL, who then signed me through to RCA, which pretty soon afterwards was bought by BMG. They bought Arista, Motown, loads of things, and said 'Right we're going to have some hits here.' I did pretty well, and they had loads of artists who made a mark. Second time around for me, BMG were starting again [after Bertelsmann sold its stake in Sony BMG in 2008]. The guys in Germany were keen and there was a nice timing and synchronicity for us with the label here. Alistair Norbury [BMG president of repertoire & marketing UK] was brought in literally the same week. I think when something is starting there's an energy around it, and if you're lucky enough to be in that wake you've got a chance. So it's just been perfect for us.”
You had a very good Glastonbury this year – twice!
“I couldn't have wished for better really. It's a weird one because I was nervous about it. At a quarter past 11 we walked onto the stage and nobody was there. That didn't change until about a quarter to 12 and then all of a sudden you couldn't see grass anymore, it was just crazy. Sometimes, something of that size you end up just viewing through a misty fog, but I actually really felt I was in every minute of it. And then The Smiths thing with Blossoms is such another world. It's right on the edge of 'we shouldn't be doing it' and I get that, but we really love doing it. No one can say anything to me – I'm 57 and I'm fine – but Blossoms are in the middle of building their career. So if anybody wants to call me an arse that's fine, but for them I don't want that. But they seem to just love doing it…”
What is your feeling about the possibility of AI recreating vocalists?
“The AI thing is a bit scary because it's scary for everything! The weird thing is the more advanced any technology gets, the human race seems to be getting more scared of it. When someone invented something in the ’70s we all went ‘Great a cassette recorder I can have at home? Amazing!' Now it might actually destroy us. So if we take that down a few notches, just looking at music, it’s frightening for people who work in it. Why should it be okay that someone can completely copy somebody's vocals or musical style to the point where everyone else thinks it's that person?
“The reason I was a bit upset about the Yung Gravy one [Astley has reportedly settled a legal case with the rapper over a vocal performance created in the studio that allegedly impersonated his voice] is because it was kind of being sold to people as me. All my band and a lot of my mates thought it was me! So at that level, you have to go, ‘Hang on a minute!’ I'm not going to say any more because of the legal thing, but the main reason I got a bit upset was I thought, 'If they can do that with me they could do it to one of the greats.’ People like Bill Withers, someone who I really admire, could be copied. I just thought it isn't right that somebody can just emulate someone else to the point where nobody can tell. And obviously with AI that's just going to get better and better. The only saving grace is that human beings are amazing. I'm not sure computers can do it with the same emotion, but there are probably computer programmers reading this saying, 'We will!’"
Pete Waterman signed my copy of his autobiography with the message "Keep on keeping on, and in 25 years you might actually know something.” Considering your career trajectory and longevity, did he give you the same advice?
“Wow! I don't know whether he actually sat me down and gave me advice. He was too much of a whirlwind. I've got to give him his credit because as amazing as Matt [Aitken] and Mike [Scott] were, they were the two musicians who put the songs together, he had a lot of the ideas and definitely steered them. Those two would probably have been successful at some point, but he definitely had more than enough vision for all three of them and knew how to go about it. Some people don't like Pete, I understand that because he's really brash, but it was always bravado to get people to be the biggest thing they could be. All the kids around PWL kind of knew that, we all just went, 'Yeah! That's right Pete!’"
So 35 years on, do you feel you now know ‘something’?
“I think as you get older you realise the less you know, in truth. Obviously, the way the world is now, the technology side of things is so fast so it's really hard to keep up… but it doesn't stop Paul McCartney being amazing! I saw him last year in America and he was incredible. And he's 80! That's not technology, that's a guy who knows what he's doing!”
Interview by Paul Stokes