Russell ‘The Voice’ Watson returns
“THE thing I most wanted to achieve has happened. The voice is back and not only that, but the infrastructure that generates the noise I make, the strength and stamina I need to perform is back,” smiles Russell Watson. “It’s been a long road and it’s been hard work, but we’re there.”
Many people who’ve had a life-threatening experience eventually slip back into their old ways and their old lives, but not Watson who has faced one career-threatening illness and two life-threatening illnesses in the last few years.
“That was particularly hard to come to terms with, psychologically,” he says. “The second one affected me so badly.”
At the end of 2007 when Watson thought he was getting his life back after the discovery and removal of one pituitary tumour he was devastated to find he had another.
It sapped the confidence and strength so vital to his performances.
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“When I had the first tumour I only focused on the operation,” he remembers. “When I had the second one it was about getting out of intensive care. Then getting out of the bed. Each time there was a different focal point.”
His first encounter with serious illness was in 2003 when lumps were discovered on his vocal chords.
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“At the time it felt catastrophic because it was a career-threatening problem. A couple of years down the line, when you have a great big lump growing in your skull, you realise actually there’s a significant difference between career-threatening and life-threatening,” Watson laughs.
“Still, if things come in threes then they were my three.”
When Watson finished his radiotherapy at the beginning of 2008 he decided to start his return.
He’d put on nearly three stone from the intense course of medication he was being treated with. The day the treatment finished he stared at himself in his full-length hallway mirror and said “Right Watson, it’s time to get back to work”.
The very next day he went to the gym – much to everyone else’s dismay.
“That’s the kind of idiot I am,” he says now. “Most people would rest. I looked terrible too.”
Six months of three-times-a-week visits to the gym followed before he was ready to sing again. Finally, in August 2008, Watson went to visit his voice coach, Patrick McGuigan and they began by running through scales.
Suddenly McGuigan stopped Watson and said “Oh my god! What has happened to your voice?”
“I expected something negative,” Watson says. “But he thought it was fantastic, with all this new depth and power. The tumour could have been growing for 10-15 years in my nasal cavity, so when I had it cut out I went from a V8 to a V12!”
As you’d expect it’s changed him; giving him a completely different outlook on life, friendship, family and his career and - he says - made him a better person.
While he’s happy to talk about his brushes with death, it’s clear he wants to move on to more positive aspects of his life.
“It’s a period of time in my life that I will never forget but I’m not a victim any more I’m a survivor. If I was a boxer then I’d have been knocked down a few times in the fight but hey, you know what, I’ve got back up and won. I’m still here and I’m still doing what I love but with a renewed vigour for it.”
Those changes are all over Watson’s new album, La Voce, which was recorded in Rome with the Roma Sinfonietta, Ennio Morricone’s orchestra of choice.
Watson’s voice, as heard on Pino Donaggio’s Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te), Mario Lanza’s Arrivederci Roma or Parla Piu Piano (the theme from The Godfather) has never sounded better, stronger, more driven and powerful.
“I’ve truly given my heart and soul to this record,” he says. “It feels quite poignant – this is where I started. With everything that’s happened I’ve had a lot of time to focus on the record and make the one I really wanted to make. The performances are as good as they can possibly be at this stage of my career.”
Watson says La Voce is the product of his life to date and the defining record of his life so far.
“I believe that I have come through all this for a reason and that reason is now,” he says.
“There are great times to come, but this is what it’s all about for me now. This is the first record that I’ve made which has true continuity, La Voce is a very clear-sighted piece.”
It earmarks a return to what he became famous for; the last classical record he made or that was eligible for the classical charts being in 2004.
“Since then I haven’t been firing on all cylinders, I’ve had one throat operation and two brain tumours and that’s enough for anybody I think in life,” he says.
“That combined with the side effects and the illness generated through that, plus a slapping for good measure of 25 treatments of radiotherapy as well it’s been a heck of a tough time.
“I’ve not really had the mind set, the infrastructure, the stamina or the personal physical strength to be singing classical musical so this really is a pinnacle moment for me career-wise.”
Looking back, Watson never imagined he’d be where he his today. Born in Salford, he’d have preferred to make it playing football - the trouble was however much he played, he never got any better.
Watson hated losing and that he was no good at the thing he loved; so he found something else to be the best at.
His mum would play Mario Lanza and Tchaikovsky, Mantovani, Chopin, Schubert, even The James Last Orchestra in the house. Her own father was a concert-level pianist.
“My grandfather was amazing,” he says. “I’d sit on his lap and listen to him for hours.”
Watson learnt to play the piano aged seven and while good, he never had a flair for it.
“There was no joy there,” he remembers. “When I started singing there was. I started playing guitar as a teenager and started singing along with the Beatles and Jam records I loved.”
He even formed a band called The Crowd - “We weren’t very good,” he laughs - and his band mates would tell him he sounded just like McCartney or Weller.
“I’m a natural mimic,” Watson smiles. “I still do it now. I can do my A&R man, my manager and I can always do other singers. An old compere at this club in Stockport used to joke ‘Russell Watson, 1001 voices – all of them crap’.”
Those clubs were extremely hard work. People were more interested in talking about what was on Coronation Street than what the singer was doing. But the factory work Watson did for �90 a week was so “mind-numbing” singing became his escape.
“I’ve walked out on stage in some of the biggest venues in the world - The Vatican, Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, Old Trafford - but nothing is as daunting as a Friday night at a serious working men’s club.
“If I ever start to feel sorry for myself I go back and remember where I’ve been, singing through a fog of Woodbine smoke.”
One night, a concert secretary appeared out of the fog in front of Watson. He had grey hair with a yellow streak and yellow, tar-stained fingers. Watson had just sung The Music of The Night.
“He just looked at me and said ‘you have a smashing voice, have you ever tried any of that Pavarooty [sic] stuff’.”
Determined as ever, he went off and learnt Nessun Dorma phonetically; gaining a standing ovation the first time he sang it live.
A whole new life soon beckoned and a few short years later that standing ovation was at Old Trafford just before Manchester United won the Premiership.
Since then Watson has sung for American presidents, Japanese emperors, British royalty, an array of European prime ministers, Middle-Eastern sultans, even the late Pope John Paul II who requested a private audience at the Vatican.
Every album since has garnered more praise; this latest, believes Watson, is special.
“My best friend, The Colonel, listened to it and he said ‘they’re all bloody good tunes, lad!’ and that’s it, La Voce has only great tracks on it.
“I’ve learnt more in the last ten years about music, life, performance and singing than you could ever learn at any music college. There’s no one on the planet that I worry about being stood in front of. No one is as genuinely impassioned about this music as I am now.”
Watson knows you don’t step off a factory on to a stage with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra without having something beyond talent. You need drive and desire, a need to make your mark, to make your voice heard.
“I’m a stubborn b*****d,” he laughs. “My music is about making a connection. Put me in front of 90,000 in a football stadium and I feel all their energy. It’s what I live for, that and my kids. There’s nothing bigger than that feeling.”
The tenor, who practically invented the classical crossover genre, fans include former Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash who invited him to audition for lead singer of his new band a few years back.
“My career was just starting to ignite in the US and I was asked to do all kinds of different programmes. One of them was a programme with regards to rock music and classical music and the similarities if there were any between the two - the passion that both evoke and so on.
“I did all these different interviews with various different rock stars from Paul Stanley from KISS, Meatloaf and Slash was one of the people I met.
“We met in a bar in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard called the Viper Lounge, quite a renowned place and he was sat in this bar with a pint of Guinness, a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
“I walked in and,” remembers Russell, adopting a thick American drawl, “he went ‘hey how you doing man’. I said ’yeah I’m good’ and he said ’listen, I got one of your records what a voice, what a voice; you ever tried the Guinness’
“I said no and he says ‘it’s good for the chords man, try some’. I had a pint, we got chatting and he says ‘we’re doing auditions for my band. Man you’d be able to sing the s**t out of that stuff. You should come along and join us, have a sing with us’.
“I said ‘uh I’m busy meself [sic], I’m at the Royal Albert Hall this weekend Slash,” he laughs.
He’s also the only person to record a theme song for one of the Star Trek TV shows, Enterprise.
“In all fairness, when you listen to he track you’d probably think Rod Stewart would have been better suited,” Watson laughs. “But it was a career defining moment, nobody before had ever sung a Star Trek theme tune. That was kind of the focus for a lot of discussion with all the Trekkies.”
Controversary at the time aside - personally I liked it - Faith of the Heart has become a much-loved, inspirational tune which crops up at weddings quite a bit.
It was penned by friend and renowned songwriter Diane Warren.
“She rang me up and said ‘we’ve got this beautiful track for you and we’re looking at pitching it to get it as the theme tune for Star Trek would you be interested’
“I was like ‘yeah, what do you think’,” he laughs. “I just went into the studio, recorded it and the next thing you know it’s a piece of history. Long after I’m gone they’ll be showing re-runs and that song will be playing; that’s the legacy that as an artist you have the opportunity to leave behind - music never dies.
“That’s the great thing about being an artist and an artist that’s been around for a long time and has got a bit of a story; these days success seems to come then disappear so quickly. If you look at male solo vocalists in the UK, you probably wouldn’t need much more than two hands to count solo, male artists that have lasted for the last ten years.
“My success has come at a cost, it’s a hard fight but I’ve always said achieving success is relatively easy, maintaining success impossible.”
Watson is looking forward to wrapping up his current UK tour at the Ipswich Regent on May 7.
“It always feels good to get through a tour in one piece with no colds, flu, sore throats or hiccups along the way. I think Ipswich was the first of the concert dates to sell out so it’s really good.”
Perhaps he could do a second night, I suggest.
“That might be an idea,” he laughs. “I always have a good time there and it’s a nice place to work. It’s one of those places that feels quite intimate which is one of the appealing factors to me.
“My fans much prefer me in the more intimate venues, 1,500 up to 2,000 and 3,000 seater venues as opposed to the 10,000 seater venues where they get lost at the back and they don’t feel that sense of connection with me that they get in the more intimate venues which is really what I love as well.
“That’s what it’s all about for me, it’s not just about striding on stage and singing a few notes. I like to entertain my audience and have a chat with them, get to know them a bit.”