Interview with Russell Watson | From Salford to Pluto
The Story of an Opera Underdog
ULSTER HALL, BELFAST • POSTPONED TO 01 FEBRUARY 2018
Interview: Anna Wherrett • Photos: Brian Morrison
Four-time Brit Classical Awards winner Russell Watson is coming to wow Belfast at the Waterfront Belfast, bringing his ‘Songs from The Heart’, featuring a stunning collection of his best loved songs along with tracks from his new studio album ‘True Stories’. Russell is the only artist to ever be number one in the Classical Charts in the UK and US at the same time, he has recorded six Top 10 albums since his Decca-released 2000 debut album, The Voice went double platinum.
Salford, the city that graced us with an array of working-class heroes; Lowry, The Smiths, Peter Hook, John Cooper Clarke, Sean Ryder, footballer Paul Scholes, just to name a few from an exhausting list. It’s a city that seems to endlessly churn out complete legends, of every genre. The northern municipal has also given us Russell Watson, known to many as ‘The Voice’.
CultureHUB was lucky enough to get a half hour chat with the international superstar. I was immediately put at ease as we started talking. Russell is a genuinely nice bloke, very northern and down to earth. He’s the sort of person most people could go for a couple of pints with.
Russell is somewhat of an enigma. I was genuinely intrigued as to how someone from a staunch working class northern background became a classical-opera styled, international singing superstar; without classical training as a youngster. I was eager to find out what guided him to this path to stardom. So, Russell, where an earth did that voice come from? “It’s something that happened organically as a child. From the age of seven, my mum sent me to a lady called Miss Whitfield down the road for piano lessons, so that’s where my initial music interests began. From there, I started playing guitar, which then led to me singing, then singing and playing the guitar. Slowly the voice just developed over a period of time.” Someone remind me when I have children, I must get them guitar and piano lessons!
Russell continued: “But it’s a fallacy, I have had lots of vocal coaching. I didn’t go to a music college in the initial stages of my career But I’ve worked with some of the finest vocal coaches on the planet.” Explaining the environment, he grew up in: “In Salford, particularly the area that I come from – Irlam, it was football, football, football and more football.” Reminiscing back to his childhood, Russell continued: “We weren’t encouraged to sing. I can only remember one school play, where I played a sheep. That was the height of my school acting and musical career as a youngster. Great starring role isn’t it, a sheep! Who would have thought, 30 years later, I’d be playing Parson Nathaniel on the stage in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, when I started off as a sheep.” I quipped in, it’s very Lancashire though, isn’t it? Russell answered, “This isn’t a joke either, I was a black sheep. There were two white sheep and I was the black sheep, the black sheep of the family.” I think most people would agree with me, that isn’t the case!
You would have thought this classical superstar was raised listening to the likes of Claramae Turner, Luciano Pavarotti; it seems not. Asking Russell what his choice of music was as a teenager, he answered simply, “The Jam”. That’s right, The Jam! Seems Russell and I share a lot of common ground here. Russell continued: “And the Style Council. When the Jam were out, 1977, the first single ‘In The City’ and then all the stuff from then on, it was an event. When the Jam released a record in the 70s, it was all about getting on the number 10 bus from Irlam to Manchester and buying a record. So, whenever they (The Jam) released a single or an album, it was an event, as we were all Jam fans. There was a bit of Madness (the band) as well, some of the lads liked UB40 … To be fair music was different back then, it’s when buying music and records really meant something. Over the last 15 years, the downloading ruined everything.”
Well, where, I’m wondering, did the classical influence come in? That was a completely different answer to what I had expected. Russell continued, “When I was a kid, when I was growing up, the household that I lived in, my Dad liked Jonny Cash and Dire Straits. My mum was into Cliff Richard and ABBA. I’d then go around to my Gran’s, she was always playing classical music. Schubert and Schumann.” Ah ha, so was this was your introduction, was your appetite whetted for this genre? “I think the reason why my taste is so varied, is because I was introduced to lots of different styles of music from an early age. So, if you have lots of different types of music being played all the time as a kid, you naturally gain an appreciation for it. To be honest, there was some of the stuff I really didn’t like, the stuff my mum played. I won’t say who though!”
Tell me, was the big break ‘Nessum Dorma’ at the Manchester United Ground? Would you say that your life changed overnight? “It was 1999, that was the year that United won the Treble. There was a series of catalysts, it wasn’t just one thing. It’s funny, I remember when I started working in clubs in 1990. I Spent nine, nearly ten years singing in the clubs and working man’s clubs. There was an article in 2000, just after the record had gone to number one in UK classical charts. The article said, “overnight success,” and I thought, that was a long night, nine to ten years! … There was the Manchester United thing, then I got invited to sing at the Champions League final in Newham Stadium, in front of 92,000 people. Then, I was invited to do this huge tour with Cliff Richard; it was called ‘The Route of Kingdom’, which was in Hyde Park. I did five concerts with him, the audience was 70,000. So, I’d sang to a couple hundred thousand people in four or five nights. The exposure from doing this: The audience demographically, the type of music that I was doing, combined with the United thing, also including the Paul O’Grady interviews – the big season with him (that was fun); everything just catalysed. Everything just came together; almost like the planets lined up at that specific moment in time.”
I went onto ask, did it just snowball? Russell remembered: “The record deal, I didn’t have a manager at the time. I went in with this guy called Mick Balsky, he’s a bit of a musical entrepreneur, he said ‘I’ll take you; just to say record companies aren’t signing anyone at the moment. I’m just letting you know, as you might be disappointed, this will be the first of a lot.’ I did my bit, stood on the boardroom table, sang ‘O Sole Mio’ and there was a five-album record deal on the table when I got in.”The story of an underdog is unfolding. I state, ‘this is a bit of a rags to riches story, isn’t it?’ “Well, the background I came from; my father was a welder at the steelworks. I see artists – crossover artists, trying to sell the same story. ‘Oh, I came from a working-class background’, and I’m like, you went to music college mate! There was never any point in my life where I thought, I’m not going to go to music college, but I’m going to be a big classical star! It didn’t happen like that. It all happened organically, capitalised from nothing, like lots of things. I was in the right place at the right time, with the right story.”
“There’s this new trend, TV celebrities, people that do game shows and quiz shows, comedians; record companies have latched onto the fact that if you are game show host, and you’re a big hit, then make a record! They think that if there is one big hit, there will be a string of them. They have completely detonated the music industry romance, there is no romance anymore. I was watching the George Michael thing the other night (George Micheal: Freedom). The presenter said himself, where is the next George Michael coming from? Elton John? David Bowie? At the moment – there isn’t one.”
You have rehearsed with Pavarotti and sang for millions of people, what are the massive highlights? Russell rubbed his chin, “There’s been a few, I’ve sung for a few Presidents. The gig I did for President Bush for 420,000 people in Washington, it was where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Bill Conti, who did the music for Rocky, he conducted the Orchestra, that was pretty good. Stuff like, when I sang for the Queen’s birthday, The 60th Jubilee in that Garden. There were three concerts, 10,000 – 15,000 each night.”
Russell continued, “There’s so many; there’s the King of Malaysia, I did a concert for. The Emperor of Japan, that was pretty amazing! I had dinner with him and his wife, the Empress. We talked about football and champaign. The Pope, John Paul II. When I did the thing for the Pope, they said they wanted me to perform for a private audience with John Paul II. Alright, so there are 3,500 dignitaries invited from the whole of Europe. Forty red robe cardinals in the Teatro and a 140-piece orchestra, also a choral section of 400 people. Then there’s me stood in the middle of it all; the Pope in his own private box and a television audience of 500 million. I was stood on the stage thinking, this ain’t private! I wonder what it’s like when it’s not private?!”
Russell continued: “The Common Wealth Games ceremony, that was amazing! I sang slap-bang in the middle, all the athletes in the stadium, with all the banners around them, there was a choir of approx. 5000 gospel-like singers. There were forty odd thousand people. I remember us stood at the side of the stadium, it was packed. I don’t usually get nervous about big events, I actually thrive on them. But there was a steward there, and he turned around to me, ‘You alright mate?’ I’m like, ‘yeah, fine’. He then says: ‘You’re not nervous mate? A lot of people out there, mate, 42,000 people’. I say: ‘Honestly, I’m fine mate’. The steward continues: ‘Queens out there an ‘all’. Again, I say: ‘I’m fine’. Steward: ‘Big event though innit’. Me: ‘Yeah’. Steward: ‘I’ve heard there’s about a billion-people watching live on tele’, and I was like ‘shut it now!’ (laughs).”
It’s no secret that Russell has experienced a life-threatening tumour. I asked Russell; would you say, that following your recovery, your approach to music changed? Russell answered: “My approach to everything changed. Living what I live with is tough sometimes, but I’m alive and I won’t be defined by something that happened to me. I think everybody reading this, will on some level agree with this.”
In honesty, it was a question, I wasn’t 100% comfortable in asking. Russell contemplated, “Sometimes, it’s difficult; some days are difficult, but I give myself a slap and get on with it and try to stay focused. The second tumour nearly killed me. Anybody that has been in a situation where they have nearly died, a situation where their mortality has been threatened, will tell you that life will never be quite the same. You become in tune with mortality, you become in tune with a very fine line that we walk as human beings. When I was 16 and 17, getting on the number 10 bus, and listening to The Jam, I never thought about death, ever. You start thinking more about your mortality as you get older, I think it’s because you see people around you slowly start to disappear; making you feel more aware of the fragility of life. It affected my relationship with everybody, people that I know, my music.”
Russell did the soundtrack for Star Trek: Enterprise (‘Where My Heart Will Take Me’). I asked, what’s all this I’ve read about NASA? Russell laughed, “It was a couple of years ago. We got a call from one of the top guys at NASA ‘Bert’. I do wind-ups and voices.” Russell impersonated, in an American accent, ‘My name’s Bert and I’m ringing from NASA’ (as you do). We’ve got the Pluto Probe that’s about to pass Pluto, it’s been travelling up there for 30 years, and we want Russell’s song ‘Where My Heart Will Take Me’ to be up to the satellite so we can break it up, which will make Russell’s the furthest ever voice from planet earth, ever.’ So, I was like ‘riiiiggghhht’, and then we found out that it was real! And we did a recording of it, and sure enough, they beamed my tune – however many hundreds of millions of miles from earth up to the Probe. The next day all the pictures were beamed back to earth and then it was all over the news, the voice has been heard the furthest from planet earth in the history of mankind!”. You’ve got to admit, as far as CVs go, that is a seriously impressive stud on the belt!
We conclude the interview with me asking, if there were three things you could tell your younger self what would it be? Russell exclaimed: “Don’t trust anyone in the Music Industry!” Am I allowed to write that? “Oh yeah, they all know! Get a group of people around you that you can trust. There are people out there that you can trust; you’ve got to put your trust in someone, at some point. I think, that overall you need to make sure of that. Secondly, find somebody that not only you can trust, but that believes in you. They HAVE to believe in you. Because if they don’t, they can’t sell you properly. Thirdly, and this is the most important one of all. If someone ‘says’ they are 99.9% certain, means you’ve got no f****g chance at all. If they say 50/50 then you’ve got a chance. 99.9% means they are lying, it’s nothing at all. It’s this thing, artists being disposable; like trash when you stop selling records … I had a brain tumour, you’d expect a bit of support! But the phone just stopped ringing. I am then ringing people up and they are not answering the telephone. It’s disgusting, it was disgusting; I’ll never forget it. Every time now, every time I sell a concert tour out, every time I do an event; I won’t stop until something is done. It’s like ‘I’m here again. I’m back’!!!!
Wow, what a guy! Captivating to watch and enchanting to listen to, Russell continues to bowl over audiences with his enigmatic and entertaining live performances. Tickets selling fast! Russell Watson will play at the Ulster Hall, POSTPONED TO 01 FEBRUARY 2018. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE
Issue 11 – CultureHUB Magazine. Please contact email@example.com, if you wish to receive the printed copy.