Robbie Williams: 'At least two times I went out in Ireland and woke up in London'
The singer has just announced a live date in Dublin's Aviva Stadium next year. Here, he recalls his hedonistic years and why he changed his mind and finally gave family life a go
‘It was the best of times and the worst of times,’ says Robbie Williams of his bad-boy days. Photograph: Columbia Records/Sony Music
It’s that boyish grin. It’s broken a million hearts, forgiven him his Adidas years, and kept him the UK’s leading male solo star 20 years after his first solo album. There’s the earworm songs and the showmanship too, and the heart he wears on his sleeve. But sitting opposite Robbie Williams in a hotel suite heaving with entourage, it’s the cheeky smile that best surmises why he’s sold 77 million records and is responsible for Ireland’s biggest concert of all time, at Phoenix Park.
Days before we meet, his promo trail for Heavy Entertainment Show began with a much smaller gig at the Roundhouse in London, then on the Graham Norton Show where he recounted a story of being, er, relieved by a lady posing as a cleaner during his years as pop’s premiere bad boy. And today he pitched up in Dublin to announce a live date at the Aviva Stadium on June 17th, 2017.
In person and away from cameras, he’s a little more on the clock, earnest, and more likely to recall those wild times with detachment.
“It was the best of times and the worst of times,” he says, raising that famous smile. “Ireland especially was a Mecca for hedonism, so I’ve been carried out of there twice: at least two times I went on the piss in Ireland and woke up in London.”
Lucky for his liver, those days are long gone. After his split from Take That in 1995 and subsequent wild years, he went sober in 2007 and renounced his playboy status upon meeting Ayda Field, now his wife and mother of his two children.
Some never expected him to temporarily rejoin Take That (a reunion which is likely to occur again, if the rumours are anything to go by), but no one’s more surprised about his reinvention as a family man than Williams himself.
“I made a vow to myself that marriage and kids just wasn’t going to happen,” he says. “I looked at others around me and it seemed like a pain in the arse. It looked tiring and awful and I didn’t want that for myself. Yet here I am: married, two kids, feeling better about my life than I ever could have imagined.
“Having kids is like an emotional atomic bomb,” he says, his mind turning to his family in their new Kensington mansion. “It’s a reason to live and a reason to go to work. And this is the best job in the world, but it is a job.”
This is his 11th album. While no stranger to duetting, previously sharing tracks with Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman, Heavy Entertainment Show is defined by collaborations, with help from Rufus Wainwright, John Grant, Ed Sheeran, Stuart Price and The Killers. Is it a tactical move for added popularity? Williams counters that creative partnerships are key to most high quality albums; this bunch happen to be performers too.
“When U2 go into an album, they work with 15, 20 different producers and it sounds like a jumbled-mess way of doing it, but they always manage to put out brilliant work. Now I’m not someone who writes 100 per cent of my songs so I can take me anywhere with anybody, in order to get the best work possible. I basically picked a lot of people that I wanted to work with, and they did too, so we did.”
Well, all except Bruno Mars. “It would have been amazing – if he called me back,” he sighs. “I didn’t manage to get in the studio with him, but I would have loved to work with him – he’s the benchmark for pop right now.”
Ed Sheeran’s not far behind, mind, but a surprise choice given the shaggy-haired one has made no secret about wanting to take Robbie’s mantle, particularly eyeing up his record-breaking Knebworth shows in 2003.
“That’s what he should be saying, and should be doing,” says Williams. “I remember quite clearly when I had my foot through the door, I read in the papers that George Michael was 30, and thought that was really old. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to take that, whatever it was, I want that level of success when I’m 30’. It doesn’t mean I don’t love or respect George Michael any less, because he’s incredible and has an amazing voice, but I wanted that mantle.
“I think the secret is – and Ed doesn’t deny this and nor do I – anybody that’s been really successful is also really competitive. I know Elton John, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney are, still. It’s like: ‘We’re all doing this for the art, we’re all doing it together, but I’ll f**king kill you if you sell more records than me.’ ”
Another new pop artist nipping at his heels is Niall Horan, an industry friend since Williams lent his singing support on the X Factor final. Has he listened to Horan’s debut track, This Town?
“No but I will take time to listen to it,” he says. “With all the 1D boys, not that they feel the same, but I feel like their showbiz uncle. And I have a soft spot for Niall, he’s up for the craic in a brilliant way.” (Williams considers himself Irish too, with a maternal family of Farrells – no known relation to Colin, he clarifies).
Any advice for his showbiz nephew as he steps out of the shadow of his former band? “Well those lads seem like they’ve got it together more than we did when Take That finished,” he considers. “There’s definitely a way to do it now, whereas the path was uncharted when we left Take That, we were left floundering. I think I should be going to ask him for advice very soon, because he’ll probably figure it out quicker than I did.”
His first album since becoming a dad of two, it’s inevitable his family are weaved into it, especially in the radio-unfriendly Motherf**ker, a song explicit in its title, and in telling his baby son Charlie the truth about his genes (“One of the things you get from me and your mother/Is you’re a bad motherf**ker”). On the other end of the spectrum, When You Know is a warming love song written about Ayda, which appears in the deluxe version.
There’s also allusions to mortality, in a manner more contemplative than the radio favourite I Hope I’m Old Before I Die. Dave’s Song is dedicated to his former manager David Enthoven, who died in August after managing and mentoring Williams throughout his solo career, while Time on Earth sees Williams become uncharacteristically existential.
“For me, until I was 30, I thought I was immortal. When I turned 30 I thought that maybe I shouldn’t throw myself off buildings into swimming pools because I could actually die. Then when I got to 40 I was like, ‘Ohhh, death. Okay.’
“I’m neurotic and tend to worry about everything and if I’ve got nothing to worry about I invent things, and death’s a real thing. So for that moment in that particular space in time in the studio, I was contemplating my own death.”
Did becoming a father contribute to the thought process? “All of the things that happened to me in the last few years made me think about my own mortality. Seeing others pass away. Wanting to be around for your kids. Also I kind of feel as if I’m hitting my stride as a 42-year-old. I feel like I’m only just getting into it. I’d like some more years because I have a pretty f**king brilliant life, and I’d like to carry on enjoying it.”
- Heavy Entertainment Show is released on November 4th