Michael Ball: I wish people would give me a chance
Michael Ball today
The challenge, he says, is just persuading people to listen without preconceptions.
Michael Ball certainly isn’t short of loyal fans: one of the biggest names in the business, he has been selling out concert halls for three decades.
Yet there are also an awful lot of people who think he isn’t the kind of singer that proper music lovers listen to. If Bruce Springsteen is the last word in cool then Ball is so painfully unhip he makes Barry Manilow look like Sid Vicious.
But his new album If Everyone Was Listening… is springing some surprises, proving there is more to Ball than those anthems from Les Misérables.
Reflecting his passion for Americana and the neglected corners of the singer-songwriter repertoire, the record might just be the best thing the singer has ever recorded. All he has to do now is to persuade the doubters to give it a try. He knows it won’t be easy.
“People will assume what a record is going to be like and they are loath to even give it a listen,” he says, sipping a coffee.
“I sometimes feel I want to release an album without people knowing it is me.” You can see why he might be tempted. After all, he attracts more than his share of derision. It takes quite a bit of courage to battle on in the face of so much hostility.
But after the success of his cross-dressing role in the hit stage musical Hairspray and his Olivier award for the recent, hugely acclaimed revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Ball exudes a new-found confidence.
He bubbles over with enthusiasm about his Sunday night Radio 2 show, his tour coming up in the New Year or, more incongruously, his passion for The Great British Bake Off. Just to prove he is really just as fallible as the rest of us, he came a cropper when he took part in the Sport Relief version of the show earlier this year.
“I worked hard before going on,” says the 52-year-old.
“But it’s different when you’re there. My first effort was good, the technical not so good and on the show-stopper I went to pieces.
Michael as Marius in Les Misérables, a major milestone
“It was hilarious. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Reality TV is a subject that is very close to his heart. He adores Strictly Come Dancing and the likes of Britain’s Got Talent: “I’m glued to it. I’m a punter,” he says.
But he has his doubts about the way talent shows propel wannabe stars into overnight celebrities. “If somebody’s good, it doesn’t matter how they are discovered. I think Ella Henderson who was on The X Factor a couple of years ago is really good.
“Leona Lewis made some really nice albums. But it should never be about ‘I want to be famous’.
“Just wait until they are – that will make them change their mind! The other danger is they’re not supported, dropped as soon as they have one failure.
“There’s no nurturing. And they’ll go mad. There will be – there is – a lot of debris from those shows. It takes away all your creative input and you become just a puppet.”
Thirty years of navigating a notoriously fickle showbiz world have instilled a passionate belief in the importance of staying grounded. He and his partner of more than two decades, Swinging Sixties star Cathy McGowan – 19 years his senior – lead a resolutely conventional life.
Although the couple did not have children, Ball adores the company of McGowan’s daughter from her first marriage, Emma, and Emma’s children Connor and Grace. The idea of a glossy magazine photo shoot in the family home in south-west London fills him with horror.
“I have a family who are desperately not interested in sharing their life with the world,” he explains.
“I have a partner who’s been as famous as baked beans. She doesn’t want to be in the public eye and I utterly respect that, so I would never let anyone into the house.
“Because it is ‘our’ house, not my house. And it’s nice to close the door. It’s nice to sit in your pants and watch telly. It’s really good to have a normal life.”
Does he have any regrets? Ball doesn’t seem the type to spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror. But he admits he regrets turning down the chance to appear in Sunset Boulevard after being passed over for the original production.
And he wishes the ITV series he made in the 1990s had come along a little later in his career. “I wish I’d known what I was doing because I sang with the most amazing people: James Brown, Montserrat Caballe, The Bee Gees, Cher.”
What troubles him more is the way the business has changed. The decline of the old school TV variety show means there are far fewer openings for performers to reach out to an audience. As for the record industry, he shakes his head.
“It’s unbelievable. No one is shifting anything. If you look at the charts in the States Taylor Swift owns the world. And in this country if you’re not One Direction you’re not selling anything. I don’t know what one does about that.”
Radio is one bright spot. Ball is clearly besotted with a medium that allows him to be spontaneous and chatty.
Michael with his partner of 20 years Cathy McGowan
As well as presenting his Sunday night show, he has also sat in for Ken Bruce and Chris Evans. “I love radio because having worked in telly, it is the most intimate, the most personal.
“You’re invited into people’s kitchens and bathrooms. It’s just you and them. You can’t be artificial on the radio.”
He even makes a point of running the desk himself, like a proper DJ.
If he makes a mistake and plays the wrong jingle, well, that is all part of the fun.
He still giggles at the memory of the time, desperate to fill dead air before the end of a show, he accidentally made a smutty double entendre which conjured images of him lying in the bath with his hero and fellow broadcaster, the late David Jacobs.
Yet his career has not been all laughter and high jinks. His voice still thickens with emotion when he looks back on the period, 30 years ago, when he was struck down by panic attacks and depression.
The problem began when he was playing in Les Misérables, eventually forcing him to drop out of the production. Not used to sharing his inner thoughts, Ball withdrew into himself, lapsing into what he now realises was a nervous breakdown.
The grey clouds of depression have never completely cleared. “I do get very dark times,” he admits.
“There are warning signs and it is really important to talk to people. I never went through therapy but there are people I know I can talk to that are non-judgmental that I can trust. And it’s about understanding the mechanism of the brain. If I get tired, if I get run down, I can feel it happening.
“The panic will turn to distress. People who have never been there would really not understand it.”
The anti-stress techniques he has learnt – involving tapping his face to distract his mind – was passed on to him by the late Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.
Ball recalls: “I saw him tapping his face once before a gig and thought ‘What’s that about?’ He said ‘I get terrible anxiety attacks and these tricks reduce it and focus the mind. I thought ‘B******s!’ but tried it and for some reason it works.
“It sort of resets the mind. You don’t keep going towards the anxiety, the panic.”
Even talking about the bleakest experience of his life he manages a wry chuckle.
The trouper in him emerges every time. Does he worry about ageing? He admits turning 50 was a major milestone: “It’s a proper grown-up number.”
Then again, his voice, he thinks, is better than ever. Maturity allows him to approach songs in a more thoughtful way. Not for the first time he sees the positives rather than the negatives: “You’re more controlled, more understanding, you’re wiser. You’re just fatter, less energetic and you can’t get over hangovers.”
- If Everyone Was Listening is out now on Union Square Music. Michael Ball’s tour begins in April.