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Big interview – Rick Astley: ‘I think there’s been a lot of change in my confidence’

Rick Astley plays at First Direct Arena, Leeds in November. Picture: Rankin
Rick Astley plays at First Direct Arena, Leeds in November. Picture: Rankin
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Rick Astley was a forgotten pop star from the 80s until a couple of years ago. He talks to Duncan Seaman about the comeback that keeps on giving.

Long renowned as one of the nicest people in pop, Rick Astley these days carries the air of a singer whose confidence has quietly been reborn on the back of renewed success.

Having a number one album in 2016 – knowingly titled 50, after his then age – has certainly helped, so too has playing the new songs live in venues of growing size.

Last month he proved it was no fluke, by having a top-ten follow-up with his new album Beautiful Life. A tour of UK arenas will wind its way to Leeds in November.

Initially, Astley’s ambitions for 50 had been modest, he confides in modest Lancastrian tones – and certainly a far cry from 80s, when he was one of British pop’s most successful exports, with hits such as Never Gonna Give You Up, Whenever You Need Somebody and When I Fall in Love.

“I made the record really just for me and a few fans on the internet,” he says. What he hadn’t counted upon was it restoring him to the top of the UK charts or total sales of more than 300,000, making it the 18th highest-selling album of that year.

The day I stopped flying I was on my way to New York to do a big TV show to promote the next single and I said ‘I can’t do this any more, I’m going home’. I didn’t do that lightly, I had tears, but I’d just come to an end and I wanted to quit.

Rick Astley

Encouraged to give the music business another go, after walking away from it when he was just 27 years old, feeling family life was more important than grappling with the rigours of fame, his self-penned new songs are very much in the vein of modern-day chart rivals such as Rag N Bone Man.

“The reception to [50] was great, especially in the UK, and I think that, and playing those songs live, has given me a bit of confidence to realise that even though I’m older, and obviously a lot of the audience is, they still want to dance sometimes and they still want to listen to music that feels like it can be played on the radio today,” says the now 52-year-old, considering his new place in the world of pop. 

He recalls the response of his road manager to someone at a gig mentioning the word ‘retro’. “He said, ‘That’s not true any more because Rick’s a contemporary artist because it’s happening right now, he’s got a number one album – what do you need to do to be more current?’

“I think that was a nice way of putting it, but also I think I’ve got one foot in either camp, to be honest, because obviously a lot of the songs that people know me for, if they’re going to remember me, are the old ones. And also the old ones allowed me to do this. I don’t think many record companies around the world would love the story of a 50-year-old guy making a record in his garage and bringing it into them if he hadn’t had a past.

“But it’s a nice situation to be in because I make the records at home – I made the last one and this one in my garage – and I do it with a sense of pleasure and joy and doing it for the fun of it, rather than doing it because I had a hit a couple of years ago and I’ve got to do it again. I don’t have any of that hang-up at all.”

Astley remains a student of pop but also admits he “loses interest at certain points” in what’s happening in today’s charts. However he says there are certain artists he can “relate to in a huge way because they still write melodies that could have been written in any decade almost”.

“If you listen to Adele’s records, who’s possibly one of the biggest artists in the world, some of her songs feel like they could have been written in the 60s and one or two of Ed Sheeran’s to be honest could have been recorded by Al Green. I don’t think that kind of songwriting is ever going to go away but obviously there’s also room for people to do new things.

“In my day my pop hits, as it were, were songs that you would hear in a place that you went to dance – a nightclub, a disco, whatever you want to call it. Dance music is not the same any more, it’s moved on a few gears, they don’t just deal in a three-and-a-half minute pop song. Having said that, ironically that has sort of come back. In the 90s and maybe early 2000s they went off into ‘we don’t need a song, we just need a groove and a beat and a hop’ and now I think it’s come back. People like Calvin Harris, and some of the biggest DJs in the world, they write pop songs – they just do it a track you can dance to then when they do their live DJ version of that it’s something else altogether, but for the radio it’s a pop song.”

The current vogue for singers working with songwriting and production teams might on the face of it be reminiscent of the days when Astley was working with Stock Aitken Waterman in their Hit Factory, but he sees a significant difference. “I was just a kid when I met Stock Aitken Waterman, I was a teenager, and to be fair it was their label and I was going to sign directly just to their label, that changed and we did go with RCA in the end and it turned into a bigger thing, but for me that was just like ‘I’m going to hang out here and see what happens’. It wasn’t more than that, really, it just turned into something a lot bigger because they turned into something a lot bigger.

“But there’s always been songwriting teams and all the rest of it, so I don’t think it’s alien to anybody’s thoughts and processes in pop music, and I would like to have a go at that way. If we do another record then maybe I will let somebody else have the reins and just turn up to some writing sessions and let them produce it and see where we get to.

“I’ve really enjoyed making these two records and I think this Beautiful Life record even more so in a way because the last one I made not really thinking many people were going to hear it, whereas this one I’ve been consciously trying not to get wrapped up in that too much but also in the back of my mind thinking ‘Someone’s going to hear it – we sold 300,000 albums so even if 10 per cent of those people get into it then that’s still 30,000 people’. In this day and age it’s hard to put numbers on things and not start laughing for me because [in the 80s] we’d sell 100,000 in a day, so I have to just remember where we are and what we’re doing and it’s a different world. Streaming and the rest of it have stolen a march on everybody in that respect.”

The reception for 50 was certainly a tonic. “I think there’s been a lot of change in my confidence,” Astley says. “There’s nothing beats having a number one album for one thing, but also hearing the song yourself, driving in the car and listening to somebody on the radio playing the song is pretty wild, and then to go out and extend that further and play concerts and watch people stay exactly where they are when I tell them we’re playing a new song, that’s pretty weird because a lot of people in a similar position know that when they say ‘Now we’re going to play you a new one’ is when people go to the bathroom. 

“I do it myself with bands that I go and see, I want to go and hear their big hits and I’m happy with that. Sometimes I’ll listen to their new stuff because I’ve got their album and I like it but a lot of the time I think ‘Oh, I’ll just go and get a beer’. It’s probably a bit rude but that’s just the way it goes. It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest band in the world or whatever people sometimes drift away at some point. But we’ve kind of nailed people to their seats with that last record and that’s been amazing.

“It does make you feel more confident and more comfortable about being in a studio and making a record and thinking I must be doing something right because the proof’s in the pudding. Who knows whether we’ll get that to happen again. I’ve said before that I think there was definitely a bit of empathy and also we had a bit of a surprise on people. I think most people thought I’d never make a record ever again or maybe I was even dead; they didn’t expect me to do what we did so that was a big surprise for me and everybody.”

Beautiful Life includes songs that were inspired by Astley’s wife Lene Bausager, a film producer, and their daughter Emilie, now 25. He feels they have been the bedrock of his career. “I think families hopefully for all of us are the most important things that we have. Family and friends are where it’s at. You can’t pick your extended family but I’m quite a romantic person at heart, whenever I strum a guitar or sit at the piano I think it’s a natural thing to write about things that are going on in your life and emotions and stuff. Even rock bands and bands that are far removed from that when you see them live if you actually listen to the lyrics most of them are about love, loving someone and being loved by someone or not being loved by someone, and I don’t think there’s ever going to change. I think it goes back to times when we had the first storytellers. Certain things haven’t changed in the way that you have to write a book or a script for a film, there’s rules in it that seem to work and writing about the people you love and hopefully love you is just one of things that seems to work because we’re all searching for that and if we’ve got it we’re glad we’ve got it.”

The album’s closing track, Good Old Days, namechecks a couple of Rick Wakeman albums. Growing up as the youngest of four siblings, Astley says he “didn’t have any choice” but to be a fan of progressive rock in his youth.

“We probably started off with one record player, like most families do, when I was born in 1966 but pretty soon my sister, who’s 10 years older than me, had a record player and then there’s my brother John then Mike. Everyone’s playing their own music around the house somewhere and I listened to loads of stuff.

“The first gig I went to was a prog rock band called Camel and this song is all about that in the sense that without my brothers and my sister I wouldn’t have got into music in the way that I did. I was force-fed it and I didn’t really have much of a choice, I wanted The Jungle Book soundtrack and Disney but that wasn’t happening most of the time, but I think I got my schooling from them, if you like, and it was a very broad thing. In that song I’ve only got about eight or 10 album titles in it and I would like to have done more but it’s a song, it’s not a book, and also they have to sound right and tell a little story.”

Astley’s decision to quit the pop world in 1993 earned him considerable respect. He admits to craving some normality at that point in time. “I’d had enough, really,” he says. “Most people in pop music don’t get very long. Some people who’ve had long careers – Kylie’s just turned 50 herself and she’s had 30 years in it, and Madonna, U2 on the rock side of it – that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, I think, to remain sane and make music for that long in the public eye. But I was different; I knew that I didn’t have that in me. I wasn’t at the top of the tree when I quit and I knew that if I was going to try and get back there it was going to take every moment of my time. 

“By that time I’d become a dad. I didn’t quit just because of our daughter but it was one of the factors, one of probably many. I’d fallen out of love with it and I thought I don’t have the energy for it. That probably sounds a bit spoilt, really, looking back but I also knew that it was beginning to affect my everyday life.

“I didn’t want to fly any more, I’d developed a fear of flying, and the truth to that is I think I just didn’t want to be where I was going, if I’m honest. The day I stopped flying I was on my way to New York to do a big TV show to promote the next single and I said ‘I can’t do this any more, I’m going home’. I didn’t do that lightly, I had tears and I knew that it was a big deal to do that because I knew that they weren’t going to open the door again, but I’d just come to an end and I wanted to quit.”

He was persuaded to return to performing in 2006 by the offer of gigs in Japan. “My wife and daughter really wanted to go to Japan so I said ‘OK, let’s do it’. I’d had lots of different offers to do retro gigs and things like that and I turned them down, not out of snobbery or anything like that, it was just kind of like ‘I don’t do that, I did that a long time ago, it’s not me any more’. Anyway we went to Japan and I thought ‘I’ll do these gigs and it’ll be like dressing up and pretending I’m me and doing a giant karaoke’, which is kind of what it felt like, to be honest, but it also felt great. It felt liberating and felt like I’d put something to bed and I’d gone full circle and thought ‘You don’t have to be that person who people perhaps thought you were at the age of 21 because you’re now 40, you’re a grown man with a teenage daughter and a life and you can go and do gigs when you want to but you can also say no to things’.

“When I was a kid, that period when I was 21, 25, 27, I didn’t feel I could say no to anything. I think instead of saying no to a few things I just said no to all of it and perhaps I should have said how I wanted things to be, a bit more relaxed and a bit more comfortable, but I don’t think pop is relaxed and comfortable, it’s either full-on or it’s not. Someone’s the biggest pop band in the world and then a year later people won’t let them in the building, it’s cruel but it’s the way it is.”

Astley still plays the old hits in concert, appreciating “100 per cent” the part they’ve played in other people’s lives. He accepts the ‘Rickrolling’ phenomenon – where internet users prank each other with an unexpected appearance of the music video for Never Gonna Give You Up - with equally good grace. “I am fully rounded on all of that,” he says. “I embrace it and I embrace the whole Rickrolling thing but not so much that it gets silly. I feel I’ve got it in a comfortable place. I’m proud of those songs and they did a lot for me but it’s also nice to have some new ones.”

What might surprise a few fans is Astley’s fondness for the hard rock music of AC/DC – even going so far as to occasionally play their song Highway To Hell. “You got to live, haven’t you? You’ve got to have a bit of a grin,” he says.

“I still have a band with two friends. We haven’t played for ages but we do charity gigs and we do punky rock songs. For us it’s letting off steam and because we do it for charity we get away with it, because it’s way too much for a midlife crisis, but that’s all right because we end up giving the money to somebody at the end of the day. I just like doing it and I’ve brought that into my other stage, if you like.

“Soundchecks, that can get a bit silly sometimes. Adam, who plays guitar with us, is a full-on rock guitar player really. He doesn’t get to do that with me, and I tease him about that, but if he had his way he’d just be playing Queen all afternoon or Steve Vai licks, that’s what he’d be into. I dread to think what clothes he’s got in his cupboard, he’s probably got some horrible Spandex in there which I hope he leaves in the cupboard forever.”

Astley also recently mentioned his affection for The Smiths. “The thing is they way from down the road,” he explains. “They were a band that took a certain part of the listening audience by storm and they made a sound that was uniquely them, and lyrically them as well, and that was amazing to think that they came from Manchester because that’s where we went to the Virgin store to buy records.

“I remember seeing the bass player [Andy Rourke] once in Manchester with his girlfriend just following him round without him noticing and just thinking ‘My God, that man’s actually in a band and he’s famous. They’ve just come back from America. What the hell’s going on?’ To feel that it was that touchable I think meant something to us and also lyrically they sang songs that were just so goddamn English, and that did mean something.”

Earlier this year at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Astley performed swing classics with Ronnie Scott’s Big Band. He says it was “a real joy to do”, adding that he hopes “that at some point in my life, maybe a few years down the line, it’s waiting there for me to slip into”.

“I want to own a nice Italian seaside restaurant, right on the beach, with my wife Lene and I to run it. I’ll wear a sequin jacket, a different colour every night, and just do Sinatra classics. Every now and again we’ll have a big band come but we’ll just have a pianist most nights or maybe a trio.”

Beautiful Life is out now. Rick Astley plays at First Direct Arena, Leeds on November 16. www.rickastley.co.uk