Russell Watson on stage; pic ©Tilton

Hitting the High Notes

1st June 2018

Russell Watson – aka the People’s Tenor – is on tour, and he’s coming to Watford this October. Lisa Botwright talks to him…

As career highlights go, this is right up there. I’ve just had an international music star burst into song for me – and me alone – during an interview. Not only was this a private performance of a few bars from Where My Heart Will Take Me (the theme from Star Trek: Enterprise, and therefore perfect for this avid Trekkie) but the singer in question is Russell Watson: the UK’s biggest-selling classical crossover artist, whose debut album The Voice spent a record-breaking 52 weeks in the British charts and who’s sold more than seven million albums worldwide since. I’m quite weak at the knees.

Cracking jokes, talking rapidly and enthusiastically about every topic I quiz him on, and bursting into song every now and then, Russell is every bit as charming and charismatic as you’d expect from someone the New York Times once claimed ‘sings like Pavarotti and entertains the audience like Sinatra’. He’s just begun a six month British tour – named Canzone d’Amore, which kicked off in Jersey at the end of May and comes to Watford Colosseum in October – and he’s keen to tell me all about it.

“I know it sounds like something you’d order in an Italian restaurant – I’ll have calzone with extra cheese please – but canzone d’amore actually means ‘love songs’. The tour’s full of songs that mean a lot to me emotionally,” he explains – songs like the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, which reminds him of his beloved grandmother. “There wasn’t much classical music growing up in Salford,” he laughs. “Mum loved Leo Sayer, Cliff Richard, and Dad was into Johnny Cash, that kind of thing, so it was a real eclectic mix. Gran, on the other hand, was all about classical music. She loved Chopin, Schubert, anything with a shh, but this was the song she played the most.” Russell, who’s often dubbed the People’s Tenor because of his working class roots, has an abiding respect for the medium of music: “[it’s]… so powerful, and inspires such poignant and beautiful memories; and it can also be a reminder of tough times.”

And Russell’s had his fair share of tough times. In 2006 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which was removed the day before his 40th birthday. A year later it returned, prompting an emergency seven-hour emergency operation to remove it when it suddenly haemorrhaged. “Yes, 2007 gave me a wallop,” Russell confides. “I had a bleed on the brain, just like [Olympic champion] Darren Campbell. I was in and out of consciousness – all I remember is being rushed to hospital by paramedics.” Russell, who had just been through an acrimonious divorce, had to undergo an extensive rehabilitation programme and has admitted he suffered from depression. It’s reported he still has to inject a daily cocktail of hormones just to stay alive. “But now I feel good,” he declares.

Part of this is down to a pretty gruelling fitness regime. He tells me he trains nearly every day. “Yesterday, I did some weights in the morning, and some boxing later on. I’m addicted to tennis; I’d play it every day if I could. I did have a trainer for a while, but I’m quite self-motivated.” (For a man who once said, ‘You don’t get from a factory floor in Salford to singing for the Pope at the Vatican without being a driven lunatic,’ I’m sure this is an under-statement.). “People ask me if I’d change anything about my illness, and of course I’d prefer not to have gone through it all, but I wouldn’t change who I am now. It’s given me a much better appreciation of the gift of life and a heightened appreciation of my own mortality.”

Family life is also pretty good for Russell and his second wife, Louise, whom he married in 2015. The couple share a love of animals, and their Cheshire home is, according to Russell, ‘a regular menagerie’ full of dogs, cats, horses, chickens and ducks. “Louise is a female Dr Dolittle!” he smiles. The duck is a firm favourite (“it used to sit on my knee as a duckling”) but he complains that the cat is ruining his carpets with its claws. His dog, Poppy, is the one that brings out the biggest degree of soppiness. He saw a picture of her on Twitter just after she’d suffered the most appalling mistreatment; there was an online campaign to track down the abusers. “She looked so sad and she didn’t look like she had a nasty bone in her body. I said to Louise, that’s our next dog.”

He’s very close to his two daughters from his first marriage, Rebecca, 23 and Hannah, 16. To kick back while on tour, he’ll book a nice hotel and invite his family to join him. “I like to keep my family as close as possible; it’s a good feeling to have them around me.” Rebecca works as his assistant. “She’s great; she does all my promo stuff and arranges everything for me.” But since Hannah’s studying for her GCSEs, he explains that it’ll be difficult for her to come along to any of his tour dates until after she’s finished. We chat about the perfect storm of exam stress and hormones (my daughter’s the same age). “Teenagers can already be a bit of a nightmare,” he laughs. “Throw exams into the mix and it’s double jeopardy!”

Although he loved singing as a child, Russell left school without any qualifications and took a job in a factory working long, boring shifts as a bolt-cutter. It was only when Rebecca was born that he began singing in working men’s clubs, and purely to earn some extra cash, but it led ultimately to his stratospheric career leap via winning the 1990 Search for a Star contest organised by Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio. I wonder if his unconventional start means he felt at any kind of disadvantage when he was starting out, especially for someone singing challenging opera scores without any formal music education or training. “I’ve been called the Billy Elliot of classical music, and I definitely put the cart before the horse in terms of my career. I know that I wasn’t quite right vocally at the start, but I’ve worked with some of the finest vocal coaches on the planet since and studied all different styles. Acceptance is an interesting word, but after 18 years as a recording artist, maybe there is acceptance now.”

As well as working with famous vocal coaches, he’s also collaborated with some of the most well-known singers on the planet – including Lionel Richie, Paul McCartney and Luciano Pavarotti – and performed at the personal invitation of the Queen, the Emperor of Japan and Pope John Paul II. Does he get starstruck? “Not really. Oh… apart from when I met Sir Alex Ferguson. I’m a huge Man U fan and that was a big moment for me. I sang a version of Barcelona with Montserrat Caballe at Old Trafford in front of 95,000 people when they won the treble.” He concedes that career-wise, he’s been ‘very fortunate’.

For someone who’s performed in the most famous stadiums in the world, he’s endearingly enthusiastic about coming to the Watford Colosseum, which, according to Russell, is a great venue. “It’s a big place, a great design and it resonates beautifully. It’s perfect for a big noisy person like me”. He’s so loud, he tells me, that his drivers complain they need earplugs. “I do my warm-ups in the car as it’s always straight into rehearsals when I get to the venue. You can see them wince as I get higher up the scale,” he grins.

His aim with Canzone d’Amore is to take every audience on a journey, through a series of different emotions. “I want people to laugh, cry, remember moments in life: to feel something. The world is such a volatile place and there’s so much bad news being fed to us on a daily basis – something cataclysmic could happen at any moment – but music is about escapism and nostalgia. I want people to leave with a nice warm, loving feeling.”

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