Though his debut album, 1997’s ‘Open Road’, hit the top of the charts in the wake of the group’s break-up in 1996, the following ‘Twelve Months, Eleven Days’ suffered against comparisons to the incredible success of Robbie Williams, whose ascent was not without harsh digs at his former bandmate.
Having admitted to The Observer in 2011 that he battled depression upon subsequently losing his record deal, not only is it a wonder that he rose to the top again with Take That’s rebirth in 2005, but it’s nothing short of amazing that he has once again decided to go it alone with another solo venture.
Though Gary provided the bulk of Take That’s early material, their latter years have been more diplomatic, with the whole band taking credit for the songs, therefore the opportunities to focus on his own muse have been few. Two years ago Barlow played a handful of solo shows, and proceeded to venture boldly forward with not only penning the official Diamond Jubilee single for The Queen but arranging the celebratory concert. One successful UK tour later and the bug had definitely bit: he was itching to make a record.
November 2013 sees the release of ‘Since I Saw You Last’, an album that finds Gary Barlow OBE as a national treasure, confident in his powers, and in control of his own destiny. It includes the buoyant Mumfords-like ‘Let Me Go’, and the inspiring ‘Face To Face’, which sees Gary achieve a lifetime ambition by duetting with Elton John.
Clash caught up with Gary to find out just how the shadow of his past was lifted, and what he learned from the difficult experience.
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Gary Barlow, ‘Let Me Go’
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Why did you form a band in the first place, rather than going solo?
I never wanted to be in a band to start with. It was Nigel [Martin-Smith], our manager, who said, “Listen, I’ve got this vision: it’s a band, it’s five people.” When I went to see him as a songwriter I took a tape in, and he really liked the songs, and he said: “But I see you being the lead singer in this group.” And I was like, “Oh, a group? I’ve been in bands before. I don’t want to be lugging speakers up the stairs.”
But he goes: “No no no, it’s not that sort of a group.” And he played me a video of New Kids On The Block and I got it. I was like, “Well okay, this could be interesting.” We did gay clubs, under-18 clubs – six nights a week we’d do it, and we got an amazing reaction! And it felt fun; it felt like: “This is a show! I’m part of a show. We’re putting this thing on, we do routines and the audience are really entertained by it,” and it felt really good. And I love being in the group, I really do, but I think – like everyone else – when I do stuff by myself, it feels special too. It’s a different special.
And when I went out on tour last Christmas – it was my first tour by myself for about 11 years – I just got that little urge again: I can’t just do live shows, I need to tell people about my music, where I’m at, what I’m doing. Because it’s different writing for yourself and writing for a band. Because when you’re in a band – especially lyrically – you have to be aware that you’re speaking for everyone else, so it can be personal, but it has to be personal to everybody. And so there are lots of compromises and lots of moving stuff round. When you’re writing for yourself, you’re writing for yourself.
And there’s no hiding from anything that’s personal.
No. And that’s what ‘Since I Saw You Last’ is about for me: to just put a little bit of that on paper. And, you know, I guess secretly it’s something I would like to do every five years if I can. I’m aware that the record I made 14 years ago, ‘Twelve Months, Eleven Days’, it was for a different reason than this. It was fighting to be a solo artist so I could have a career. I’ve got other careers [now], so it’s fun, it’s a chance to say something, it’s a chance to get out there and play new music; it just doesn’t feel as serious this time. It just doesn’t feel like my whole world hangs on this.
The experience after your second solo album must have been so damaging to your confidence. Were you worried that going into this process would dredge up those demons again?
I’ve conquered a lot of them, just because the place I was at 14 years ago – when we came back as a group in 2005, to get back up on a stage, to put my music back onto records, to sing on a song, it answered a lot of that. Because we got so much back. To be in a group that’s bigger the second time around? It’s just unheard of! So it felt special. I felt lucky, I felt privileged, and a lot of that feeling from that time, it was gone. I could just wash it away because this was so good, what we were in. But you’re right, I had to decide: “Should I do this? Why do I need to do this? Do I need to put myself through this pain?” I looked back and went, “Well, I do, and I want to, because then that will really draw a line under where I was then.”
It would pale into insignificance.
You know what, though? I mean, I try and look for the positives in stuff. I wouldn’t be doing any of this now if it wasn’t for [the relative failure of ‘Twelve Months, Eleven Days’]. I almost needed for that to happen in order to motor forward. Those dark years were the most important years really, because they’re the years you can turn your back on the thing you’ve loved and lived for all your life. I didn’t do that, and what that tells me is how passionate and how much I love what I do, because I fought all those years to try and get back to where I was. And I’m only really there now. I’ve got that confidence all back so much that I’m able to go, “Right, I’m gonna roll the dice here with a solo record.” I don’t need to go back there, but I’m going to because I want to.
You must have learned lessons from the industry back in 1999, which mean you know now who to listen to and who not to?
Yeah. One of the big things about my last solo record was that I was being heavily A&R’d by Clive Davis. I had the whole Robbie thing that was going enormous at the same time, and it was like all those things distracted me. They did. They kept me from doing what I do best. And I think it’s so important to just block the world away and ignore everything: ignore who’s selling albums, ignore what’s on the radio, ignore everything. Do what you do, because if you do it well, people will enjoy it. And it sounds a bit cliché that, but it is true.
How did you get Elton John on your new album, on the song ‘Face To Face’?
Oh, I’ve wanted to work with him for years and years. We’ve been friends for years, and it’s just never felt right, but this time… He loved the record when I played it to him. He absolutely loved it. Yeah, I’ve waited a long time, but it feels good!
Was it fun in the studio?
It was amazing. It was cool, as well, because I knew I had him for three hours, and so I thought: “I’m not going to get him back for a video – let’s shoot the video at the same time.” So the video is literally us recording our song in Abbey Road on a Monday morning, and it was amazing, it really was.
Just an average day’s work!
I know! But it’s one of those things: I got home early – I was home for three o’clock, and the kids are at school – and I’m just sat there thinking, “F*ck! That just happened this morning!” It was amazing.
Were these songs freshly written for this album?
There’s a couple of songs which I wrote a couple of years ago that I’ve sort of brought up to date a bit, but most of it was written in February and March this year.
‘Let Me Go’ and ‘Face To Face’ are very positive and upbeat. Is that the mood you were in at the time of writing?
It’s everything, this record. I’ve had the chance to go to all different places. There are a few pretty dark lyrics on there. Yeah, it’s everything: it’s fun, it’s the age thing, there’s a little bit of religion on there – it’s just stuff that’s popped into my head that I’ve thought about that day and I’ve written them down. But it’s been done in a real tight time period, so it feels like it’s marked 2013 really well for me.
That’s probably because you had the time to sit and take everything in and think about what’s been going on around you, right?
It’s been nice, and I’ve really enjoyed that luxury. And I think, moving forward, you’ve got to make time for doing it. Because that is really what I do: being a songwriter, when I present songs to my audience, it’s got to be me.
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Words: Simon Harper
Photos: Liam MF Warwick
Find Gary Barlow online at his official website, here. ‘Since I Saw You Last’ is released on November 25th 2013.
Read Clash's Spotlight feature on Take That's 'Everything Changes' album here.
This is an edit of the full Clash interview with Gary Barlow – find out how he relates his own experiences to his X Factor charges in the Pop Issue of Clash magazine, on sale now. More information on that, also featuring Lorde, Boy George and John Newman, right here.