by Jules Boyle
For over two decades now, Russell Watson has been one of the most beloved and popular Classical stars on the planet. With a string of hit albums behind him, the man dubbed ‘The People’s Voice’ has performed for Popes and Presidents, opened global sporting events from Champions League and Rugby Cup Finals to the Commonwealth Games and more.
Now, with the live music industry opening up again, the Salford-born singer is finally getting back to doing what he does best, playing a series of live shows to celebrate 21 years since the release of The Voice, the debut album that made him a household name. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also released 20, a collection of newly recorded versions of his biggest tracks over the years. Naturally with a career as long as Russell’s, there was plenty to choose from, but he’s come up with a list that is sure to please everyone.
He said: “There were the obvious ones that had to be in there, those ones the fans always demand, like Nessun Dorma and Volare. They made it straight onto the record. Another easy choice was Where My Heart Will Take Me, the theme from Star Trek: Enterprise. That was such a career highlight for me, to be asked to sing something that’s going to go down in history forever. I watched Star Trek as a kid, so it was a real shock that out of all the artists in the world, Paramount chose me to do that. I’ve always been very proud to have been involved with that. The album kind of chose itself, though there are still a few that maybe could have been there too, such as You Raise Me Up.”
In deciding to make new recordings of the classics instead of just releasing a greatest hits album, Russell and producer Ian Tilley had to decide whether to rework the tracks or not, which was more complex than it seemed.
Russell said: “It was on my mind. Some tracks were definitely approached differently. Where My Heart Will Take Me for example, we completely rewrote that into a ballad. I’m so pleased with how that turned out, versus the old version which is very ‘80s rock in its approach, like a Rod Stewart track or something. We’ve brought that into a more modern sounding piece, it’s less of a statement and more reflective. Tracks like Volare and ‘O Sole Mio were changed more subtly, just in terms of tempo and rhythm, which worked really nicely. You don’t mess with the core classical tracks like Nessun Dorma, though, you don’t start rewriting Puccini.”
Russell has come a long way since his days grafting on a Salford factory floor by day and singing in clubs at night, but he maintains that to get where he is today has taken a lot of drive, resilience and even a little bit of luck.
He said: “I don’t know where the drive comes from, but it’s always been there. I lost count of how many times when I was working through that period of ten years in the clubs where I was told to forget about it, but the more I was told no, the more determined I became. It was like a red rag to a bull. Even 18 months before I had my first album at the top of the Classical Charts and flying up the main one, I was told by a major label that I would never be a classical singer and should maybe try Broadway or something. There was always something in my mind that just knew that I would achieve my goals in life, no matter how long it took me. That drive and determination has just always been in me.
I do feel in many respects that I have been very lucky with what I have achieved in my career. When I look back on it though, I feel that a great deal of that success has come from my own hard work and drive, as well as constantly thinking about what’s coming over the hill and responding to it before it arrives. I’m in charge of my own career now and am already planning two years ahead at least. The only way you can sustain long-term success is with drive and long-term planning, as you can’t stay in the same place forever. That’s why the repertoire changes all the time, too. Doing a soul record, or Sinatra and Nat King Cole covers brings new people into what you do. You need to follow your instincts, which is something the music industry doesn’t do enough of.
I’ve always known that my life, particularly where it collides with my career, was never going to be easy, though. I never thought I’d just fly through life being successful and making lots of money. There’s always been things cropping up that I’ve had to overcome, like my illness for example. There are always obstacles to jump over. Anyone that thinks they deserve everything are the ones who don’t stay around in my opinion.”
Russell’s famous work ethic carries over into what has been a relentless touring schedule across his entire career, so having live music put on indefinite hold as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a big change for him. Naturally his first concern is for people’s lives and safety, but he also admits not being able to do the thing he loves the most has been really difficult, making his upcoming tour all the more special.
He said: “It’s become much more relevant to me these last 18 months or so that I don’t sing to live, I live to sing. It’s something that is very personal to me, so when I’m not in tune with performance, the adrenaline rush and the thrill that it gives me to be on stage in front of an audience, it fundamentally affects me and who I feel as I am as a human being. At the start, it didn’t feel like too much of a struggle. It was more like a chance to regroup and think, as well as rest my voice, as I’ve been touring constantly for 20 years with only small gaps in between.
Once I had done the I’m A Celebrity… show and winter had set in, I can admit I really struggled. Obviously, we have gone through the darkest of times and there are many, many people way worse off than me, but it still wasn’t easy. The entertainment and hospitality industry has really been left behind.
I honestly cannot wait to get back on stage again, rolling around the country on tour, performing to audiences again all across the UK. It’s felt like an eternity these last 18 months, like I’ve lost my purpose. I just want to get back out on that stage again and do what I love doing more than anything in the world. I’m just so thrilled to get that opportunity to do that again. I cannot wait.”
22-Sep-21 Milton Keynes Milton Keynes Theatre
20-Oct-21 Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
30-Nov-21 High Wycombe Swan Theatre
For tickets, visit www.raymondgubbay.co.uk/whats-on/russell-watson-1