Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Michael Ball Interview

Michael Ball on the X-Factor, Les Miserables and his latest album, One Voice.

It's a grey Monday morning when I meet Michael Ball at Universal Music Studios in London. He looks surprisingly fresh considering he has been up since 5am this morning for a GMTV television appearance and an interview on Lorraine Kelly's show.

"It's always a nightmare getting up at that time in the morning, especially when you know you've got to sing live and have been up watching great telly the night before. I went to see Tom Stoppard's brilliant new play Rock 'n' Roll on Saturday night, so I had the whole of Strictly Come Ballroom and X-Factor to catch up on."

"X-Factor is really good this year; I think Ben is brilliant. He's got a terrific voice and definitely has the X-Factor, although he needs to learn to not just do the shouty bits but to sing quietly and gently too. Leoni has also got something special about her."

Of course Michael shot into the public eye himself in 1989 by reaching number 1 in the pop charts with the song Love Changes Everything, taken from Aspects of Love, the musical he was then starring in. Seventeen years later he has just released his fourteenth album, One Voice, named after the Barry Manilow song.

"I have always wanted to record One Voice and when I was thinking of a concept and title for this album, this song sprang out at me. It is a beautiful anthemic number which also gave me the chance of doing intricate harmonies with myself by tracking my voice and making a choir out of it, which has really worked well."

The rest of the album contains tracks previously sung by a diverse array of artists including Andy Williams, REM, The Eagles, Rainbow and Aerosmith. A choice, he hopes, will illustrate the range of his musical tastes.

"I am an interpreter of songs. As a singer and actor I am used to using other people’s words to express my own emotions. I love the fact I can include Since You've Been Gone by Rainbow and make people think; Is that really Michael? Is that his kind of music? And it really is my kind of music. It's a great theatrical rock song, just like the Aerosmith song, I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing. That was originally a Dionne Warwick number and a big power ballad love song, and I do love those. They are great to perform and great to listen to."

One other song from the album that is particularly special to Michael is Boublè's Home, because it expresses all the emotions he felt last year when he spent eight month's on Broadway in New York, playing the oily character Count Fosco in The Woman In White.

"You have to travel a lot in this business, and as actors, we know we are lucky to be having these experiences and mixing with amazing people, but there is a price to pay. You spend a lot of time on your own sitting in hotel rooms or in a rented apartment watching telly and working really hard, and it gets very lonely. Sometimes you just want to be curled on the sofa with the one you love, a bottle of wine watching X-Factor basically! That song is beautifully written; it expresses all the emotions we feel, and it is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When you come home after some time away, it's as if your shoulders drop - it's such a lovely feeling."

Perhaps there has always been a sentimental streak in his musical tastes because it seems that even as a young boy he was captivated by heart-felt songs that evoke deep feelings.

"The first record I ever bought was Maureen McGoven singing There's Got To Be A Morning After which was the theme from the Poseidon Adventure. I saw that film when I was eight or nine when we were living in South Africa. Gene Hackman is in it, and Shelley Winters; it's fantastic - just a great movie."

"One of the passengers who survives on this ship that gets rolled over is this blind cabaret singer who was played by Carol Limbey, (how do I remember these things!?), and she's in the ballroom just before the wave hits, singing that song. It is very cheesy moment, but I just thought it was great! How embarrassing," he laughs.

There is no denying the fact that Michael has had a fantastic career since leaving Guildford School of Acting in 1984. He has starred in some of the most well-known musicals, sold in excess of three million solo albums in the UK alone, hosted his own television show and still does BBC Radio 2 special broadcasts. What's even more astounding is that he achieved the two ambitions he set for himself within a year of leaving college.

"One was to be in Coronation Street and the other was to be part of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and within a two week period I had suddenly achieved both because I got the part in Les Miserables. I didn't know what to do with myself; I was very lucky."

"It was my first year out of college and I was doing Pirates of Penzance in Manchester. I was an obsessive Corrie fan and was lucky enough to meet the cast and scriptwriters so I asked if I could be in it. They found a two episode part which they thought would be alright for me, and it is just hysterical when I look back on it."

"I played a tennis pro in the smallest, tightest white shorts you've ever seen and I had to get into a fight with Mike Lavell who plays Kevin Webster. The thing is, he’s tiny and such a nice bloke, so when he had to push me over, I just kept laughing. It took nine takes, and on a soap they are not happy about that. It was a dream come true at the time though and especially nice because it happened at the same time that I was cast in Les Miserables."

This year Les Mis as it is fondly known, celebrated its twenty-first birthday, becoming the longest running musical in history. They asked the original cast back for the celebration show.

"We came on at the end to recreate our characters, and a fantastic party took place afterward," he says with a smile.

"It is incredible that it has run for so long, and in thirty-two different countries. You look back with real pride and think; I can't believe I was a part of something like that, especially with a show like Les Mis because you are so much part of the creative process.”

“When we started rehearsing half of it wasn't written so we had a long rehearsal period built around improvisations to create the characters which populate this piece. It was extraordinary. None of us knew it would go on to be this phenomenon that it has, and all of us, no matter how we were involved, from the stage crew right up to the writers, take real pride in the fact we were part of that."

Now back in the UK, Michael's schedule is as busy as ever with a tour planned for early next year and a part in Kismet with the English National Opera in the summer. Fans can see him before then as a guest at Petula Clark's concert in London, at the end of this month (November 2006).

"We first met for the Queen's jubilee at Olympia years ago, then a few years back I was asked to do a special two concerts of Sunset Boulevard with her in Cork that was going out on radio, and we just got on brilliantly. I am a great admirer of hers, not only as a performer, but as a person. I think she is a lovely, grounded, special lady - and a great kisser too," he laughs. "She is - we had to have a snog in the show!"

"I was there like a shot when she asked me to be her special guest at this concert in Drury Lane. I will be singing songs from the new album but as far as duets go, that is still in discussion, although we will definitely be doing one song - Couldn't Live without Your Love."

At 44-years-of-age Michael hasn't lost his fresh-faced boyish good looks, those cherub-like dimples or his hearty laugh, and you can't help but leave with the impression that he really is as genuine and down-to-earth as his public persona.

"Someone told me to have a look at a website called You Tube and I found all sorts of things on there which I had forgotten I'd done. I've never looked back at my old TV shows, and I've never seen them so to have them online was amazing. So I had a browse out of curiosity, and it just made me think, where has he gone, that young lad. They've even got clips going back to Aspects of Love. I am a nostalgic person and I look back and feel really proud. Proud that I did it then and proud that I am still going, still doing it, and coming up with new things."

Michael Ball's album One Voice is available from all good music shops, and from Amazon for £8.99.

By Rachael Hannan: Interview 2006

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