Gary Barlow

I was never the cool kid at school

Gary Barlow celebrates turning 50 with a new album 

Interview by Jason O'Toole/Hotfeatures

On January 20th, the Take That superstar had booked the London Palladium to perform a special gig for fans on his 50th birthday, but owing to the coronavirus pandemic those plans are on hold. Here, Gary talks about how he is at a reflective time in his life, what his plans are to celebrate that milestone and how he looks back on the huge success he has had over the past 30-odd years.

He also talks about his new music, the debt he owes to his late father for starting him on the road to stardom as a musician, spending lockdown with his family and more….

So Gary, You're coming up to your 50th Birthday - does that make you reflective about life in general?

I’ve been reflective for a few years, I’ll be honest. I don’t know whether it’s just 40s or going into 50s but yeah, I’ve been reflective for a few years. And the thing is the things that make you reflective as well, like a couple of years ago we did like a 30-year anniversary of the band, so you’re forced to sit and listen back to all the multi-tracks and then you can hear voices of people who you haven’t seen for 20 years. So that was a whole experience, that was. So, you know, often music forces you to be reflective. But I think this period as well, the crazy things that have happened this year, make you reflective because, you know, you want everything to get back to normal. So you’re trying to remember what normal was and how it felt. So yeah, I don’t know what that’s all about, might be just a getting older thing. Because our youngest child is like 20 now!

WOW!

Yeah, they’re getting old our kids. So I think, again, that forces you to be reflective. So I think I’m just in a reflective time of life now.

It’s his first solo offering since 2013’s double platinum ‘Since I Saw You Last.’

‘Music Played By Humans’ sees Gary add a contemporary take to the orchestral and big band music he fell in love with as a child with an album of original compositions.

The record leads with the Latin inspired single ‘Elita’ with Michael Bublé and Colombian star Sebastián Yatra and includes songs recorded with an 80-piece orchestra.

Further collaborations on the album include Beverly Knight, Alesha Dixon, Chilly Gonzales and James Corden.

Have you made any plans for your birthday? 

Well, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of my Instagram stuff but I had booked the London Palladium, I was going to do a show on my birthday. Of course, I’m not doing that now. And I’ve got my guest list, it’s six people, the government’s told me I could only have six, and now me wife has told me that three of them are me kids! So yeah, it’s going to be tricky. So what I’m going to do is I’m actually going to put it back a year and I’m going to stay 49 and I’m going to 50 next year – that’s alright isn’t it? [laughs]

You were ten tears old when you first decided you wanted to be a musician – Is that right?

Yeah, I was 10 when I started playing and I was just 11 and about three weeks when I got my first gig, in a little social club in North Wales. Played every Saturday night there. That went on for about eight months and then I got another gig round the corner that was open more nights and I was playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday night there, when I was 12. By the time I was 14, I was playing in a working man’s club which had comedians on. We were doing Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday night as a trio. There was a bass player, me on piano and a drummer. And so yeah, by the time I joined the group when I was 19, I’d done 2000 gigs or something. I’d done loads and loads of shows, so I’d just wander onto a stage at that point with no nerves or worries whatsoever.

Starting out as a musician, did you have any misgivings about joining a boyband?

Well, do you know what? That word wasn’t around. It come later, it come at sort of towards the end of us being together because then these other bands, there was a lot of other versions of what we were doing then and that’s when the word ‘boyband’ [came about]. But when we started that word wasn’t around. However, to go back to your question, I didn’t want to be in a band, I was doing all my shows by myself at that point, even the act I had out in the clubs when I’d started singing it was just me. And when I first met our manager and he told me about this group he was putting together I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in a group’ because I just don’t want to be lugging drums and amps up stairways and things like that. And then he told me, ‘No it’s not a conventional group, it’s like a vocal harmony group’. And he played us The Jackson 5, New Kids on the Block, The Drifters – that was the type of group he wanted to make. And that was a bit more interesting to me. So that’s why I went along and thought, ‘Let’s see what happens here.’

"I didn’t want to be in a band, I was doing all my shows by myself at that point, even the act I had out in the clubs when I’d started singing it was just me. And when I first met our manager and he told me about this group he was putting together I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in a group’ because I just don’t want to be lugging drums and amps up stairways and things like that."

Did the sex-symbol element when it came to selling yourselves as a boyband bother you?

I think about that. Especially with my own kids. Yeah, we were five - I mean I can’t include myself in this - but the other guys were four extremely good-looking boys [laughs]. And when we walked on stage, girls went mad. And the madder they went, the more we loved it. The funny thing was, the magazines that were catering to teenagers, they didn’t mind putting topless boys on the front of their magazines, in the early ‘90s. It was a very strange time. I’m trying to remember what was going on around us because this was also just before the Britpop thing happened. And so by the time the end of the ‘80s had come and Kylie and Jason and all those acts had gone, what you had for a couple of years was all these faceless sort of dance acts, which, you know, who are Smash Hits going to put on the front? So it was almost like they were giving us a chance, not because the music was any good, it’s because they could actually put faces on the front of their magazine that people would be interested in. So we were on the covers of magazines before we had any hits. So image and fashion kind of came first for us. And I’ll be honest, it’s always been an area I’ve struggled with, I was never the cool kid at school, I’ve always felt like I couldn’t be trusted to dress meself, I’m just a guy who writes songs and sits in a studio. So the bit I struggle with - as you can probably see as our career advanced – and we came back the second time it was then all of a sudden it was all about the music, coming back as men, I found my feet then at that point and it felt far more natural for me second time round being in this band than it ever did the first time around.

You mentioned your daughters so they are at that age now when you were starting out in Take That?

And they’re into Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, I mean it never really changes does it? I guess as long as there’s girls, there will always be boys out there making music and swishing their hair.

What were your parents like when you were growing up? Your Dad sadly passed away a while, back, which must have been a huge loss? 

Yeah, I’m lucky enough to have had a nice dad, he only ever encouraged me. And it’s because of my dad that I do all this because at the point where they recognised I had a bit of talent for playing, my dad took me off to a little shop in Chester and we saw this beautiful keyboard. And the guy that was in the shop selling the keyboard said, ‘If you want to progress, this is the one you need. And it was £400 or something, and this was like 1980, and my dad sold all his time off at work to buy me that. And if he’d have never have bought me that, I don’t think I’d be here now doing this, I’d be doing something else. It was completely the launch pad I needed. And I think it was because I’d seen what he’d done for me, I always felt like I wanted to repay it by getting better and working harder. So not only being a dad, but being someone who had done something very, very pivotal in my life - it was a massive for me.

Would you have seen bands like Boyzone as competition? 

Well, do you know what? They started as we were closing. I remember when we did our press conference to say, ‘Thanks very much everyone but we’re splitting up.’ I remember all of a sudden, all the boybands were like, ‘Right we’re going to…’ There’s was NSYNC, there was Backstreet Boys, there was Boyzone, they were all like, ‘We’re going to take that spot now. So I was never in competition with them because they sort of started [after]. And I’d met Ronan quite early on in my solo career and we’ve been mates ever since. So never had any chart battles or any of that stuff thankfully.

Music Played by Humans is the fifth solo studio album by British singer-songwriter Gary Barlow.

The album was released by Polydor Records on 27 November 2020 and is Barlow's first solo album in seven years, following Since I Saw You Last 

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Gary Barlow

The title of the new album is great and there are some great artists on this. What are the kind of themes you explore on this? Or is it just a feel good album that you wanted to produce?  

It’s a bit of everything really. I don’t do a lot of solo albums. I think my last one was about seven years ago. So whenever I get the chance to, I get quite selfish about it. And I thought, ‘You know what? One of the things I’d love to do is make music with an orchestra.’ Because there’s nothing I love more than booking a ticket to go to The Albert Hall and watch an orchestra, it’s like the best thing ever. So the idea of these big orchestras setting up in Abbey Road and playing my music was just exciting. So yeah, I come up with the idea, wrote some songs, booked some sessions, it all felt like it was going the right way, so I just continued to write last year until about November and then between November and two weeks before we lockdown here, I did my last session with 63 players. It’s weird because out of all the years that I’ve been making music, I’ve never had so many musicians on one record, in fact, I’ve never had so many collaborators on one record. And now we’re in a time where I can’t make this record at the moment. So it feels very poignant, a great memory and I’m looking forward to actually playing it live, I don’t know when that will be, end of next year I’d imagine. But, for me, making an album is only ever half the story, the next half is going out and playing it live – so fingers crossed we can do that.

You have been the soundtrack to the lives of so many people over the years? 

We’ve been lucky to have a long period and our audience that were with us the first time around are still with us. You go to those gigs and the only thing that has changed is they’ve got their kids with them now. It’s lovely to see and I always think that other bands must look in envy at our audience because they are so brilliant. I always call them The Army – because you don’t want to mess with them! [laughs] They’re very protective over us. But they’re beautiful and yeah, we miss them at the moment.