Monday, July 17, 2006

Raised Up

This is possibly my favourite interview of all time. It's quite a few months old now, but it's probably the most genuine, thoughtful and candid interview I've ever read. It asks all the questions the fans want answered, but isn't intrusive, and the lads seem comfortable and, most importantly, honest.

Anyway, on with the article. Just a warning, it's very long.

PS. Click on the links to see the photos from the shoot.

Raised Up

They’re the biggest phenomenon in pop, but when Sarah Camden spent a couple of days face to face with Westlife, she met the four men in the boyband: one cripplingly shy, one fiercely organised, one a born performer, and one an obsessive perfectionist.

A couple of hours before transmission time, a Late Late Show producer comes into Westlife’s large shared dressing room. Jackie Collins wants to meet them. Nicky Byrne turns to Shane Filan and checks that this is the one with the books, right? Shane confirms this and the producer adds that Emma Thompson would also like to say hello. Nicky, Shane and Kian Egan look a little more impressed. The producer goes off to arrange for this to happen and the waiting goes on in the dressing room.

Shane shuffles through a handful of DVDs someone handed to him earlier and delivers Emma Thompson’s courtroom speech from In The Name Of The Father in a cut-glass English accent. Kian laughs at a newly-arrived text: “Yes”, his father has replied to Kian’s enquiry as to whether the family knows Westlife are on the Late Late. Nicky phones his wife, Georgina, to check if a car has arrived yet to bring her to the studio. Mark Feehily is not present, having left the RTE campus a short while earlier to get something to ear. Nicky’s decided against eating, while Shane and Kian are still trying to decide on whether to risk the RTE canteen. They make a half-hearted attempt to blame their indecision on Shane’s wife Gillian (who is also Kian’s first cousin); she is feeding three-month-old daughter Nicole in a separate dressing room.

We are in the limbo hours that characterise one half of Westlife’s work, the down hours in between switched-on performances and interviews. Periods of intense activity, where the four are completely switched on, are followed by hours of waiting, during which time they disengage. They’re like a TV in standby mode, the little red light on, ready to jump into action in a split second, but conserving energy until that moment. They chat and banter and keep themselves ticking over, but it’s an unreal time by anyone’s standards – even, it seems, when you’ve been doing it for seven years.

The first time we meet, it is early October. It’s two weeks until the release date of Westlife’s new single, You Raise Me Up, and three weeks before it becomes their 13th number one. This is one of their promotional days and, according to Nicky, an easy one. The day’s schedule sees them conduct interviews in the morning, do a magazine photo shoot, grab lunch and the arrive at RTE in the afternoon to rehearse for the Late Late. They are in civvies, slightly weary-looking, storing up their star quality for later, when it matters to be sharp, suited, and in good singing voice. The elaborate You Raise Me Up they will mime, but World Of Our Own will be live and acoustic. And after talking to Pat, the four will part company, with Mark heading to London, Kian, Shane, Gillian and Nicole returning to Sligo and Nicky going straight to Limerick, where Georgina has her college graduation the following day.

In reality, Westlife put up no public front behind which their true personalities hide. Their personalities are not subsumed into stardom. For sanity’s sake, if nothing else, they are themselves most of the time, chatting about regular things, concerned with the usual twentysomething-male preoccupations. There’s more talk about the Discovery Channel and plastic surgery gone bad than you might expect. Their dissection of Charlotte Church’s reinvention is less music-biz insider than you might hope and only once do they venture into millionaire-bling territory, with a discussion of how much it might cost to run a yacht. At moments, you’d nearly think it all quite normal, until someone comes up behind them and starts running fingers through their hair and tweaking their clothes, and the boys don’t even blink. Then you remember, yes, these are ordinary guys, but this is also Westlife, the biggest thing in pop. Nothing, but nothing, ordinary about that.

There is the sense of a comeback about Westlife’s new album, Face To Face. It is their second album without Brian McFadden and they seem to consider it their first genuine effort as a foursome, all laughing a little at last year’s Rat Pack album Allow Us To Be Frank. “I felt like a 50-year-old man at the end of last year,” Nicky Byrne chuckles throatily. “I wouldn’t say that album was cringeworthy, but it was like acting, being those characters for so long, and, really, no acting job would even go on that long. It was fun, but it was an experiment for us.”

“It was like taking a year out, without taking a year out,” Kian Egan says. “It let people know we weren’t breaking up, but we got a break all the same.” The promotional and concert tours were shorter than usual, and afterwards, the boys got four months off, an unprecedented break for them. The four barely phoned one another, took holidays, and took stock. Kian surfed, Shane became a father, Mark toyed with coming out (more of which later). Nicky, characteristically, grew bored of idleness and took an acting course during a holiday in New York. Nobody knew him there, he says, adding, with an honest, hearty laugh, that the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

So, several months ago, Westlife returned to the studio refreshed and keen to re-establish themselves as the kings of pop. All four, along with manager Louis Walsh, are confident – weeks before You Raise Me Up becomes the biggest-selling single of the year – that this will bring their star to new heights. Shane, for one, is talking seven more years, which will bring all four into their early 30s and force us to find a new word for ‘boyband’.

You Raise Me Up is Westlife’s first single without Brian McFadden, who remains present in his absence, and may do so for some time yet. While rehearsing in the TV studio, the boys jokingly invite floor manager Don Irwin to join hem on the stools. “Well, you were once five,” Irwin quips, while Nicky replies, “Yeah, and you’re better looking.”

“Sometimes,” Mark says later, sipping a Red Bull in the hour before going on with Pat, “I try to remember what it was like when Brian was in the band, and I can’t. It’s like something you know happened, but you can’t remember what it felt like. Like, you can remember enjoying food in a great restaurant, but you can’t remember what it smelled like or tasted or anything. He’s still a very close friend, but it’s never going to be the same again, because the band is a unit, a very closed unit, and once you leave that, it’s over. It sounds a bit sad, but we are a bit bonded, a bit of a brotherhood, and Brian stepped out of that.

“We do talk and we text,” Mark continues, “but we don’t see each other a lot, and if Brian came in now and sat down in the dressing room with us, it would be really weird.”

Separately, Nicky and Kian comment on Brian’s choice of words when he told them he was quitting Westlife. On Thursday, March 4, 2004, Brian (then still Bryan) told them “I’m hanging up my boots.”

Both Nicky and Kian quote this, and seem irritated by it, though they can’t quite convey why, in the manner of people trying to find something on which to focus anger they’d rather not direct at their mate. Kian sys it’s because Brian’s not a footballer, because it seems so inappropriate. Or maybe so glib. Of the press conference, held the following Tuesday, Kian recalls that he cried “like an eejit.”

“And I don’t think Brian batted an eyelid,” he says. “It seemed like he was kind of smirking, but Brian always does that when he’s nervous.” Kian also cried when Brian broke the news to his bandmates. “Not in front of him,” Kian laughs, “but when he walked out the door. I couldn’t believe he was doing this to us, breaking our dream, walking out three weeks before a tour. But I don’t think Brian realised how much all this means to me, because when he was in the band, he always saw me as the one fighting with him – fighting with him as in trying to get him to do things, do the right thing. To Brian, it was just me annoying him.”

In between rehearsal time and the Late Late proper, the lads leave their dressing room to record some radio soundbites. While they are away, Gillian Filan, Shane’s wife, arrives with three-month-old Nicole. If anything proves these boys have become men, it’s the poppet in the pram. She is very cute, with her daddy’s dimpled chin and, Gillian jokes, his love of the mirror. When the four lads return, every one of them rushes over and gushes about the baby, with Mark the first to remember to say hello to Gillian. They laugh, and then he says hello to me, having averted his eyes from mine up to now.

Later, Mark talks about his habit of averting his eyes in discomfort. In rehearsals, earlier, it happened every time the camera zoomed in on his singing solo. Shane insisted Mark get more individual camera time, but Mark appeared as if he’d rather do without, thanks. “I could be sitting, relaxed, for two hours, and then, as soon as a camera comes on, it’s – ping! I completely change,” he says. “It’s something I’ve worked on, and I hope I’ll eventually master. It’s like I can’t stop thinking, ‘Oh God, there’s a big fat camera there and it’s beaming me into sitting rooms all over the country.’ I suppose you could call it a mini-complex. I prefer being in the studio than anywhere else, with no-one watching, and just singing.”

Mark talks about how the other lads can walk into a room and “be themselves”, and how he wishes he could. Instead, Mark explains, he retreats into himself with strangers and gives a false representation of himself. Mark’s friends will tell you he’s great fun, but he feels his shyness acutely. Several years older than him, I feel compelled to reassure him that being yourself is something often only achieved in your 30s, but there’s more to it with Mark. He has, after all, been concealing part of himself for years before recently coming out. You feel with him that there’s a blossoming only beginning, and want to assure him it’s going to be great.

For tonight, however, Mark’s a little apprehensive about Pat’s inevitable questions on the Late Late. “You know,” he laughs, “I’d be nervous going on talking about my favourite colour, ever mind this.” He talks to me about accusations that he lied for years about his sexuality, and explains that he was straight out of school and into Westlife, not sure himself for years about what he wanted. He’s happy now, though, in a relationship with Kevin McDaid from boyband V, but they’re not engaged, as has been reported.

Nor, for that matter, is Kian, who remains “totally in love” with his girlfriend, English actress Jodi Albert, but has no plans to marry. The others joke that Kian has a five-year plan, but it’s probably more like 25 years. “Thirty, 31 – that’s a good time to get married,” he tells me, firmly, “And you should know each other at least six years before that.” Kian is a planner, an organised, the day-to-day manager of the band. He lies awake at night sorting things to perfection in his head, determined that Westlife give everything their best effort. Throughout the day, he takes calls from the record company and talks sales figures and “where the market’s at.” He is the only one who gets phone calls from Louis Walsh, who earmarked Kian for this role from day one.

And Kian likes the role, jokes about it, and acknowledges that he’s more likely to have a career in management than music if and when Westlife is over. Which, they all insist, won’t be for a long time yet.

“We all have our own little roles in Westlife,” says Shane. “I’m probably more a perfectionist when it comes to the music, and Nicky loves the performing and the interviews, but if Kian wasn’t in the band, I don’t know if Westlife would still be together. He’s held it all together so many times. When some people would be thinking it was all too much, Kian would tell us not to be so stupid – look at how lucky we are.”

Luck comes up a lot with Westlife. Shane talks, almost moist-eyed, about the day they got the call from Walsh to support Backstreet Boys in 1998. Six months earlier, he had queued up for tickets for the same concert. He was in a pub in Sligo when the call came through – Gillian was working there as a waitress - and he cried like a baby. “I can remember, clear as day, what it felt like to want to be where we are now,” he says.

In person, it’s difficult not to be moved by their sincere gratitude for the success so far. Some of it is stock phrases we still associate with Ronan Keating, but a lot of it is raw from-the-heart appreciation. “You know,” says Nicky, “you can complain about what you sacrifice with celebrity, but really, you get this amazing life that maybe even your parents strived for.

My dad’s a cabaret singer with a band since he was 18 years old,” he goes on, “and he never got the breaks. And now he looks at me on stage in the Point and – now, he’s very proud of me – but he must think he would have loved that. Last year, we did a TV show and they had our dads perform a Rat Pack song. The dads all loved it, but it was my dad’s dream and, yeah, sometimes I do feel a bit guilty. I even feel guilty sometimes to live in my house. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all very proud, but sometimes I feel guilty and think, “Oh, Jesus, I’m one of the luckiest bastards alive.”

While Mark slips away from RTE for something to eat, Shane, Gillian, Nicole, Kian and I brave the canteen. Nicky doesn’t want to be bloated on camera, and decides to wait until later for something to eat. As it happens, the canteen closed the kitchen three minutes before our arrival, and so dinner is a hotchpotch of smoothies, banana, sandwiches and cereal. Shane decides they’ll have to stop at Super Sam’s on the way back to Sligo. It’s a chipper in Edgesworthstown, he explains, with the best chips in Ireland. “The frozen kind, sort of hard, but lovely with loads of salt. And their chicken burger with cheese, oh…” he trails off, in fast-food ecstasy.

“You’d know his family had a chipper,” Kian laughs. Kian buys two sandwiches, bringing one back to the dressing room in case anyone else is hungry. Then, they go off to prepare for Pat.

Westlife’s status has shifted by the time we meet again, a few weeks late, for their LIFE photoshoot. By this stage, You Raise Me Up is a sure-fire number one, with sales that have surpassed all expectations. The album Face To Face is tipped to topple Robbie Williams from his one week at number one – which it achieves a matter of days later – and they are about to fly off to South Africa to film the video for their Christmas single, When You Tell Me That You Love Me, with Diana Ross. Nicky admits he’s not sure if they’re ever going to meet Diana and then jokingly worries about stiff chart competition from Dustin and Chris De Burgh’s Patricia the Stripper.

The mood is different during the photo shoot. There’s a slight uncertainty about the “morning-after-the-night-before” theme and, as they’re all hanging around, some wrangling about who’s wearing what. Shane, for the most part, is more than happy in suit trousers and an unbuttoned shirt. Kian loves his towelling boxer’s robe, but won’t wear eyeliner, and Nicky isn’t sure about the pyjamas. Mark loves botht he eyeliner and the dressing gown he is given, and seems aware of the slightly dissolute figure he cuts, wandering around sipping Diet Coke from a huge brandy glass.

Because the camera catches the lads at only specific moments, and never unawares, they seem more relaxed at the shoot. And they also seem to be in standby mode. There’s more to do today, after all. There’s a TV spot and a radio interview, both scheduled for the same time, and a personal appearance in town. Kian snuggles into the sofa for a lengthy phone call with Jodi, slightly sleepy after a feed of porridge and a boiled egg. When the time comes for his close-up, he says goodbye to her in front of everyone – stylists, bandmates, photographer, all sorts of assistants and me, ssuring Jodi, “No, I love you more,” without a shred of self-consciousness. Then he immediately begins talking surfing and split-screen VW camper vans with Niall, the photographer, and telling us how he got the scar on his cheek.

Meanwhile, Nicky lies on the big Four Seasons bed in the hotel suite and cajoles the lads into poses they worry might seem ridiculous. Shane doesn’t want to hug the pillow, but Nicky tells him it looks okay, so he does it. Shane then gives us the low-down on high-quality bed linen, and insists that the price at which the hotel sells mattresses to customers is quite reasonable. Everyone tries the mattress and aggress it’s very, very nice. And all the time, Mark’s singing the poo song from South Park and pulling moves with stylist to the Beckhams Ben Cooke that turn out to be lifted from Madonna’s new video.

This is their world – not the real world, not real life, but definitely Westlife. To step into their world is to step into it completely. Time both stops and hurries by. You’re not sure if it’s night or morning, but there’s always the panicking sense of not enough hours to fit in everything. As an outsider, it’s a roller coaster that goes fast, then slow, rather than up or down, and it’s disconcerting. Shane, Nicky, Mark and Kian are used to it – seven years used to it, and hungry for more.

An hour after the shoot, I watch from the foyer as Westlife pile into people-carriers to head into town. They look exactly as Westlife should: sleek, hair in place, inoffensively trendy in baggy jeans and a variety of combat-style jackets. Their expressions are businesslike as they inwardly rev up for the fanfest ahead. Mark trails behind and says goodbye as he passes. Only a trace of eyeliner remains as he joins his mates for the next gig, the next chance to sell planet Westlife.


swedish_me said...

oooooooooh i havent read this interview before!!!

can i plllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllz post it on my forum?? =)

Grace Suter said...

Yep, go right ahead :-)

Lol, I won't make you spend an hour and half typing it up like I did. My hands were NUMB!

swedish_me said...

thank you very very much =)

awww poor ur hands...