Sam Bennett interviews Russell Watson
In his late teens and early twenties Russell Watson was employed as a factory worker. He’d take his guitar in on the night shift and treat the others to Beatles songs. Now he brings a new tour, ‘Songs from the Heart’, to Oxford in May, having only just completed a tour of 90 concerts – the biggest he’s ever done. He’s famous, a celebrity if you like, but is he ‘showbiz’?
“I don’t think I am good at the whole showbiz thing,” he says. “I’m a singer and I love to sing. So as big celebrity dos go, if I’m invited to sing I’ll be there, but I won’t just go for the sake of going. I’m not one for going to movie premieres either; I’ve got a cinema room at home.”
Perhaps it is that focus on the music that has kept him in such a business for what is, relatively speaking, quite some time. “It’s a tough, tough industry,” he admits. “Sustaining success is incredibly difficult. I’ll tell you a little secret: if anybody in the music industry ever says to you ‘it’s 99.9% certain’, that means you haven’t got a fucking chance.”
Indeed, singers, frequently those born out of television talent shows, do disappear very quickly. “I’m all for the talent show but there’s too many now,” Russell claims. “We’re all geared up now on national TV every weekend for discovering new talent. The problem is when we’ve discovered them there aren’t any television shows for them to go on afterwards.”
What is to become of the television talent show? Bearing in mind the recent viewing figures for The X Factor, has that type of thing had its day? Russell states: “if anyone can reinvent the wheel it will be Simon Cowell. He’s an incredibly intelligent man, he’s not done the business he’s done without being shrewd – he knows how to play the market.”
While he’s full of praise for Cowell, as well as the likes of Olly Murs (“very shrewd and business savvy”) and Will Young (“one of the best to come out of the talent shows”), Watson isn’t complimentary of everything we talk about. He doesn’t criticise particular individuals, it’s more general than that. “There will have to come a time when the world of media and television says ‘how are we going to start building and supporting our talent in the UK?’,” he says. “Anybody now with any worth or value is heading off to the States. Adele is a perfect example. She went to America, sold stacks of records, came back to the UK and it was like ‘we did it; she’s one of ours!’ But they didn’t believe in her initially. She wasn’t the staple diet they were used to. They couldn’t see beyond the end of their noses.”
The performer applies his frankness to other topics, namely the two brain tumours he has suffered that led to 25 shots of radiotherapy. “When I finished my last load of treatment, I remember walking down the stairs one particular morning,” he recalls. “There’s a great big mirror in my hallway which I’d avoided looking in for quite some time. I saw my reflection; my hair had fallen out from all the radiotherapy and because of the steroids I’d gained a lot of weight. I looked absolutely exhausted. The reflection I saw was not someone I recognised. Before I could even think about singing again I had to regain the confidence to walk back on stage in front of an audience.”
That confidence is back and so it leaves us with a new tour to focus on. I asked Russell how he picks the set list for a show entitled ‘Songs from the Heart’; it’s specific but must encompass a lot of tunes. “I usually pick around 40 songs and we do 25 or so per evening,” he answers. “I like to keep changing things around. When you go into autopilot stage the sentiment and the passion you need to inject into the music is lost. Even though you’re singing the exact same notes the audience knows you’re not connected.” He can be ruthless with the songs, at the risk of leaving his audience ever so slightly miffed. “I’ve been singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ for 20 years and everybody wants to hear it. But if I feel like I’m not making a connection with it I will take it out.”
Russell has taken a two and a half year break from recording. But he has recently signed to FOD (Field of Dreams) Records, having left Sony. His new record is being recorded at Ennio Moricone’s Forum Music Village Studios in Rome, and is produced by Bob Rose. “I felt the whole classical crossover genre was stagnating,” Russell says in relation to his time away from the studio. “There’s a stack of songs that everybody keeps dipping into and regurgitating over and over again. I took time off to plan this new record and find some tunes that haven’t been recorded so much over the last 15 years.”
Tour, record, plus the documentary that’s being recorded about the performer; it’s going to be a hectic time. But a successful one that people will relish…I’m 99.9% certain of that.
‘Songs from the Heart’ comes to New Theatre Oxford on 15th May. Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting the website (phone and internet bookings subject to booking/transaction fee. Calls are charged at 7p per minute, plus your phone company's access charge).
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