We start with a simple question – I think we’re exchanging pleasantries about the weather, or something. It’s been snowing and I ask whether it’s affected his day.
Russell slips into a Monty Python-esque Northern Accent. “Aye lad,” he says. “I’m oooop North now. We’ve had to dig ourselves out of the shed this morning, feed the horse and set the pony and trap up then get potatoes for breakfast.”
We both fall about in hysterics. I ask him if he’s had to do his daily chores – you know, like licking the road clean.
“Aye lad,” he says. “We put a bit of salt down this morning but unfortunately it didn’t stick, so we’ve had to shovel all the snow out. The wife was out at six.”
We laugh again.
Although being a northerner has had an effect on his career – and not always for the best.
“There’s this misconception by people who live in London. I had this manager once, a southerner, who used to speak to me as though we were all be sat round candles in the house. You know, I’d expect his next question to be: ‘When’s electric arriving in your area?’
“He’d ask me when I was coming to London for meetings and say: ‘How are you going to get here’.”
And then the accent returns. “London? London? Aye, I’ll get Bessie out of stables, give her a dustdown, put the coach on the back and head down. I’ll be there in three or four days.”
We laugh some more. I ask him if wifi has reached the North of England yet?
“Wifi. What’s that. We’ve only just got hi-fi.”
But we’re here to sell a show, too – not that his gig at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on February 17 needs much selling. The venue is already pretty much full with only a few seats remaining on the top deck.
Except something funny’s happened. Normally, interviews are predicted on the proviso that we’re flogging tickets to something or other. We dutifully play along, bigging up a show in return for access, but today that’s gone out of the window. We’re two blokes sitting down talking, having a laugh, being normal – for once.
So when we start talking about Symphony Hall, in Birmingham, Russell doesn’t trot out the ‘yeah, it’ll be amazing, you’ll have to come and see it’ schtick so beloved by most performers. Instead, he talks in colourful tones about his passion for the venue. He is unashamedly real, remarkably authentic.
“Well, what can I say about the Symphony Hall? I’ve sung at so many places in the UK and they’ve all got their own individuality and their own quirks and good and bad points about them. Some of them are extra special. You can walk into a venue and think it doesn’t look like much then the audience brings it to life. But the Symphony Hall has it all. The audiences are brilliant. I’ve travelled the entire globe and played some of the most beautiful places in the world. I’ll be honest, the Symphony Hall is in my top five.
“I think some venues are underplayed because they’re not in the most glamorous spots. The Bridgewater Hall, in Manchester, is another one like that. Because it’s not in Barcelona or Vienna or London, it’s not ranked with the same prestige. Symphony Hall is like that but it really is bang up there. Acoustically it’s absolutely wonderful. It’s one of the best on the planet and it looks stunning from the stage, with a mass of red and exposed wood.”
Playing in such spaces lifts Russell’s performance. Fans can look forward to an extra special evening because, quite simply, being in such a special space makes Russell happy.
“The audiences in the Midlands are buoyant, particularly at the weekend. They’re always up for a bit of a laugh. Humour-wise, I like to have a bit of a joke and a laugh with the audience. I know it’s a great big theatre but I like to give the feeling that they’re with me at home and I’m just doing a few songs. I don’t like it to be anything too grand because then there’s a disconnect. I want it to be like they’re in my lounge at home.”
The show will feature the Manchester Concert Orchestra, guest singer Laura Wright and conductor Simon Chalk while the programme will feature huge tunes: Bring Him Home, The Music of the Night, Jerusalem, Ave Maria, Una furtiva lagrima, If Ever I Would Leave You from Camelot and Land of Hope and Glory.
That programme originated because 10 years ago Watson decided to finish a run of 15-16 shows with a Last Night of the Proms-style finale. He wanted to see if he could lift the roofs from venues. So he did. “I did it everywhere and it was great. Then I got to Brum and it was unbelievable so I wanted to re-enact that and have the same experience again. You’ve got multiple tiers in the Symphony Hall and I remember once asking the lighting guy to put the lights on the whole audience so I could see them. Honestly, it was like an ocean of human beings with their arms waving. Every single person was on it. I remember thinking ‘this is good’.”
Watson is more than just a singer. He’s an entertainer. Book yourself tickets for an evening with The Voice and you’ll be laughing too much you’ll want to cry – as well as being astounded by the sheer musicality of the one-time factory worker from Manchester. He’s become increasingly relaxed down the years, feeling ever more comfortable on stage.
“I’ve been doing it since 1990. It’s nigh on 30 years and it’s been 20 years since the debut record. To me, it doesn’t matter how I feel. If I wake up and feel lethargic or flat or in a bad mood, all the things that happen to men at my age, rather than go out and buy a red sports car, I like to go on stage. As soon as I get to the venue and the light hits my face, it’s almost like an adrenalin rush. Something happens in my body and I feel alive and back in the room. It’s a wonderful feeling.
“It doesn’t matter how I feel. We did a tour recently, there were 80 concerts, and when we got to the last two or three, I was tired. I spoke to my pianist, Mike Moran, and said ‘It’s awful to say but I don’t feel like it tonight, I just feel so tired’. He said ‘You’ll be alright when you get on the stage and the lights hit your face’ and he was right. Two or three nights ago, I had a really rough night sleeping. It was 3am and I went down to the fridge to get a glass of milk, I opened the fridge door and the lights came on. For a moment, I forgot where I was and started singing. I did an half an hour spot for the dogs.”
What did they say? Get back to bed Watson, I’m dreaming of cats?
And we laugh some more.
Watson’s story is utterly remarkable and to make sense of his remarkable journey the kid who left school with no GCSEs and started on a £29.50 a week Youth Opportunity Programme as a bolt cutter breaks things down into different sections.
“I have a boys’ night once a year when I get the lads round. We’ve got a Jacuzzi out back and we all climb in with a bottle of wine. The wife lets me have one night a year like that. So we’re sitting in the Jacuzzi and a mate of mine, Alastair, who used to do backing singing for me, he said it must be amazing, coming from where you came from and coming back from so many ups and downs.”
Watson agreed. And he compartmentalises so that things seem somehow normal. The first life happened before he started singing. He grew up in Salford with his mom and dad and worked at a nuts and bolts place for six years. “It wasn’t the most exciting life, making nuts and bolts. The clue was in the name of the factory: ‘Sabre Repetition’.”
He won a talent contest in 1990, though nothing on the scale of The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.
“What’s that other one called?” he asks. And we know where he’s going.
“Ah yes, The Voice. They named that after me. Except they had to put The Voice UK, so people didn’t think it was a documentary about Russell Watson. Imagine if they’d done that. The Voice – ratings only one million people. Nobody tuned in because they all thought it was a programme about Russell Watson. That would have been funny. ‘What’s on telly love? The Voice. Eee. I don’t fancy that. I hate that Russell Watson.”
We laugh some more.
“Hey, if you use that, put (he jests) in brackets.” We just did.
For nine years, Watson built towards the mainstream. He left the factory and did every pub and club that would have him. And then, in 2000, after his album had gone to number one and broken records by becoming the first to sell a million copies, the Daily Mail ran a huge article about his overnight success.
“It was a bloody long night if that was ‘overnight’. I must have gone to bed in 1990 and woken up 10 years later.”
You’re like Cinderella.
And Cinders went to the ball. After The Voice, Watson found himself playing for The Pope, The Emperor of Japan, kings and queens around the world. “That period was from 2000 to 2006 and life felt like a conveyor belt. I was just going and going and going and going. The success was coming and everything went fantastically well.”
And then came the third part. The nasty bit. The bit where the wheels came off.
“I went to LA in 2006 to make That’s Life. We were recording it at Capitol Studios and I’d had terrible headaches for months and months.
“I’d been to see a specialist and he’d told me it was just stress. I said ‘The only thing stressing me out is the headaches’. It felt like someone digging a knife into my skull. The wheels literally came off the wagon and I was diagnosed with a tumour. One of the things a lot of people have said since is that it was cancer. It wasn’t. If it had of been I would probably not be here now. It was a great big tumour the size of two golf balls. It got so big the pain I was getting around the front of the nasal bone was where it had gone through the bone and eaten into the nasal passage.”
Watson underwent surgery to save his life. It was successful. But the tumour came back. He went to bed one night and suffered a colossal haemorrhage. “I thought that was it.” Watson was rushed to hospital by paramedics and somehow survived. But life didn’t return to normal for four long years.
“That period from 2006 to 2010 was like another separate instalment of my life. I literally did feel like a different human being. It took me so long to start to feel like myself again. It was years, years. That was because of the shock of what had happened. I became totally in tune with my own mortality. You look your own mortality in the face a few times and it brings you slap back down to earth with a big bang. It was a rebuilding process to regain my strength and physicality but also to regain my confidence as well. I remember going to see my vocal coach, I was having a lot of trouble singing and my voice wasn’t working because I didn’t have the energy to sustain the high notes and I was getting dizzy.”
His coach, a little Irish fella by the name of Patrick McGuigan, told him he’d lost his confidence. “And he told me that the only way to get it back was by going out on stage. Patrick taught me that singing wasn’t just what comes out of your mouth – it’s also about what’s going on in your head. It’s a bit like being a footballer. Why does a footballer stop scoring goals? Is it because he’s all of a sudden just become rubbish at football or is it because something’s got into his head that when he gets in front of a goal his muscles tighten up and he remembers blazing his last shot into Row Z? I’m a football fan and I saw it with Paul Pogba when Mourinho was there.”
Thankfully, he got it back. He regained his elusive mojo. He was no longer apprehensive before he sang.
“There was a comment that changed everything and it happened in 2010. It was someone two or three rows back at a concert. I was singing mid-range, the more jazzy stuff from That’s Life, like Sinatra covers. I was doing the occasional classical piece but nothing too big or heavy. Then I heard this guy between the songs quietly say to his wife ‘The Voice isn’t quite what it used to be’. And I heard him say it. I came off stage and I thought: ‘Right, I’ll show you’.”
And life suddenly changed. Watson started to focus on his strength and range and the old magic started to flow. And now, all those years on, he’s back to his best. So when he returns to Symphony Hall, it promises to be an electric night.