Robbie Williams: From angel to icon
Robbie Williams might be a lot of things, but never let it be said he's not a great conversationalist.
Publicly, the former Take That star - who will soon become the third recipient of the BRIT Icon award - is a record-breaking solo artist, among Britain’s biggest-ever exports, singer, songwriter and, as he is at great pains to emphasise, an entertainer.
Privately, he’s agoraphobic, an Olympic-level depressive and is - his words not ours - a self-obsessed egomaniac.
Despite the latter - perhaps unfair - description, he loves to chat. At several points in our interview, which ends up running almost four times longer than was originally scheduled, he has to be reminded the interview is about him and that our chat isn’t supposed to be a two-way street. But the questions keep coming about anything and everything and resistance to the charm offensive is futile.
“I try so hard,” he says. “On my passport, it says entertainer. It doesn’t say singer, or songwriter, but entertainer. Because that’s what I do. I do these interviews and go on these chat shows and, with the meagre talent and skills that I’ve got, try to do something entertaining.”
He says chat shows are generally bland affairs and in the weeks leading up to an appearance, he’ll suffer extreme anxiety about coming over likeable and interesting, so perhaps over-compensates when the time comes.
“It’s like being in a bar fight. It could be an international shame fest but I want to be compelling and I grab for the first thing I can to get me through it, whether it’s an ash tray, a pool cue or a joke about a cleaner,” he says, referring to the tabloid headline-grabbing tale he told on Graham Norton’s chat show recently about receiving a sex act from a female stranger who sneaked into his room and whom he presumed was a cleaner. Norton was speechless, fellow guests Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake couldn’t stop laughing and a genuine TV moment occurred.
“As a kid, I used to watch Freddie Starr on Des O’Connor’s show, or George Best or Oliver Reed on Wogan, and no one knew what they were going to do. I’d be sitting there with my crisp sandwich and mug of tea thinking, ‘How do I get to do that?’”
Despite the experience of revealing a bit more than he should to Norton’s viewers, Williams, now 42 and rich enough to never need worry about another interview ever again, still seems hugely excited about promotion and the process of releasing an album.
“I think interviews can be boring and no one on them wants to give too much of themselves or divulge a secret, so I do the opposite. Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’, so there we are,” he says, beaming at the ridiculousness of mentioning Gandhi and his slightly vulgar story in the same sentence.
The Heavy Entertainment Show, released last week and on course to be No 1 this Friday, was three years in the making, and sees Williams working with former songwriting partner Guy Chambers, after their somewhat acrimonious parting of ways following his fifth album Escapology. They did reunite for Williams’ previous release, 2013’s Swings Both Ways, but that was largely a collection of covers.
The pair working together again on a new album of all-original pop is big news. The five albums they made, from Williams’ 1997 debut Life Thru A Lens to the aforementioned 2002 release, sold the best part of 30 million copies and bookend what Williams refers to numerous times as his “imperial phase”.
It’s hard to explain now, in an age when sales in the hundreds of thousands are rare, but for a time, Williams was a bona fide phenomenon. In 2003, he broke all box-office records when he sold 375,000 tickets for an unprecedented three-night stint at Knebworth in less than eight hours.
By 2006 he was so famous, he says, that life in the UK became unlivable.
“It was so out of control, with the papers especially,” he says. “But I’m so unbelievably competitive that I looked at all the photographers outside my house and thought, ‘Watch this’, and just stopped going out. I just stopped. By 2008, I’d come through it, went outside and thought ‘Oh, they’ve gone’ and the media spotlight shifted. With that came an end to the imperial phase, but life became 30 or 40% more enjoyable. Record sales dipped but quality of life went up.”
He, along with wife Ayda Field and two children Theodora and Charlton, relocated to the UK about a year ago and only last weekend moved into the house they bought. The house was subject to a long, drawn-out and public battle with neighbour Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, over building work. That’s now settled and Williams and his family are in.
“I was here a lot, but London’s going to feel very different for us now. Our stuff is here, we’re sleeping in our bed, we’re not renting any more.”
He still doesn’t think he’ll go out much, although he does join Field, an actor and occasional panellist on Loose Women, on acting jobs. “She’s been my trailer buddy for years, so now I’m hers, but I can’t really go out as such,” he says.
“I mean, I could, but I wouldn’t have the time or patience for everything that would be asked of me - sign this, photo, photo, photo, will you speak to my mum? But at the same time, if I didn’t do all of that, I’d be mad at myself and I’d feel guilty for weeks. I’m sort of diet agoraphobic, not full-fat - I’m not terrified of going out, I just don’t want to and can’t be bothered.”
When it’s put to him he may have been misdiagnosed - that he might just be lazy - he laughs and suggests it’s not the first time that’s been said.
We then wander around the offices of his record label. He nips into a room to tell one person to turn down their music, he pops up at the desk of another to compliment their dress, having fun surprising people.
It’s very easy to work out Williams’ enduring, massive success from spending a little time with him. He’s beyond charming, hugely talented, strikingly handsome but slightly broken and a little dangerous, meaning people fancy him, want to be like him, idolise his music, or want to fix him, possibly all four at the same time. And there’s little sign of that changing.
His most recent single, Party Like A Russian, limped into the UK singles chart at No 68. And while his imperial phase is most definitely over, the low chart figure doesn’t suggest he should hang up his microphone just yet.
“Yeah, I felt it, but the rules have changed. I thought ‘Ooh’, rather than ‘Ow’. Albums are the main game in town for someone my age, and I’m being judged against everything I’ve done before.
“My worst day is still a lot better than most other people’s best.”
:: Robbie Williams’ new album, The Heavy Entertainment Show, is out now. He will become the third recipient of the BRIT Icon award, and performed a one-off show to mark the occasion, to be televised on ITV in December. He is also touring Europe from June 2017, with St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton among the venues.