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Robbie Williams on new album ‘XXV’ and 25 years of solo fame

As Robbie prepares to release a reworking of his hits with the Metropole Orkest, he looks back on 25 years of fame

By Alma Rota

Robbie Williams, 2022
Robbie Williams, 2022 (Picture: Press)

Robbie Williams became an international pop star at 16 with Take That and could have easily keep going with this nice and clean image. Yet, it would be foolish to believe that the 47-year-old lad had only this to offer. Robbie had a real temper, ambitions and an innate talent of a showman. He launched his successful solo career twenty five years ago, sweeping away his image of a 90s teenage pop idol, changed his public to a more adult one and imposed himself sometimes as a flamboyant pop star. As he prepares to release his XXV album, which revisits his greatest hits with the Metropole Orkest, the pop icon speaks with Rolling Stone France.

You’re celebrating 25 years of your solo career by releasing a re-orchestrated recap entitled XXV. How was this project born?

I’ve already done a Greatest Hits package but I wanted it to have another life. Jules Buckley, a talented conductor and arranger, showed me what he could do with the songs and I was blown away with it. The opportunity to work with an orchestra felt like a great idea.

On the album cover you appear as Rodin’s Thinker, the poet who meditates in front of Hell’s door. What have you been meditating about?

I have been meditating about how awkward I feel socially, how uncomfortable I find crowds of people and how awkward I feel in general around other human beings, outside of being with my family. Once my life was governed by the discomfort generated from my psyche. It’s not as bad as it ever was but it’s still not in the place that I would like it to be. I’ve also been thinking about my state and the state of the world, wanting to be on the right side of history as it is created, not feeling quite comfortable with what we are being asked to do and how to think and how to live. I’ve also been meditating on how to keep being creative and facilitate this wonderful life that I’ve created for my family.

You expose yourself naked on the album cover, is it your provocative side again or are we finally going to know the whole truth about Robbie Williams?

It’s provocation I suppose. It’s unusual for a middle-aged man to be naked anywhere especially in public and when it comes to record sleeves, it’s not my wheelhouse. If you’re a pop star and you want your record to be successful, the best advert for that record, to let people know that it exists, is your own image. I find my own image boring and I don’t like looking at it so when it comes to be creative presenting that image I kind of put my head in the sand. The art director Tom Hingston, who has done a lot of my albums, came up with this idea and it ticked a lot of boxes:  it’s both provocative and interesting!

Your nudity reveals your numerous tattoos. Could you choose two to tell us a little bit about yourself?

There is a Keith Haring UFO and pyramid on my arm because I’m very much interested in the esoteric, the paranormal and some of the secrets that are undisclosed. I also love Art and Keith Haring! Another one is the silhouettes on my right forearm. They represent two comedians (his showbiz idols Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise) because they are the ones who entertained me and made me feel safe when I was a kid. That’s who I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a personality like them, not so much a rock and roll star or singer. I wanted to be an entertainer! I define myself as an entertainer who makes up melodies and writes lyrics. When I’m with musicians or other singers, I don’t feel as I belong to them. I am more like TV personalities or comedians. They are my kind of people.

Which artists have been major influences to you?

People with big personalities, people you live vicariously through: daredevils and eccentrics, provocative and controversial people. It’s not just one person. Everything and everybody has been an inspiration but above all, I wanted to be like the people living in the margins, outside of the law. But you cannot live like that forever because you just die. Right now my biggest inspiration is my wife and my kids. I want to facilitate an incredible life for them and I get to do that in a job that I love doing.

Throughout your career, you have experimented with different styles of music; do you have a favourite one that you feel more in tune with?

My love for music is eclectic and I completely inhabit each individual style of music. This is what I love the most. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a Mod but I also wanted to be a rocker, a B-boy who was into hip-hop, a new romantic. I didn’t’ want be a goth so much but I do now. I wanted to be all of these things. My love for all of the music is honest when I’m in that moment. There are so many genres that I want to embrace and make my own. I have recently done three DJ gigs in Ibiza. Dance music was a big part of my life. When I was 16 or 17, I went out raving. That’s another part of the musical palette that I inhabit right now.

(Picture: Leo Baron)

You’re a great fan of Motörhead and Lemmy Kilmister, would you try metal music?

I don’t think that is on the cards but you never know.

Looking back on your life, do you have any remorse or regrets?

People always say no regrets, but it’s rubbish. There are things I regret but nothing that I want to talk about right now. If you have no regrets, your life is unexamined and there is a saying that a life unexamined is not worth living  and I believe in that. So in a life that is examined, you must have regrets or you didn’t do enough in this lifetime!

Which advice would you give today to younger Robbie?

Maybe I would tell him stay off carbohydrates. I would also tell him to dream bigger… with no carbs (laughs)

After 25 years of your career, where do you stand on the issue of censorship?

I’m glad we lived in a time when we were kings for many different reasons: The record industry was classic, stars were stars and records were physical. Even with CDs, there was a journey to be made to acquire things that made them very special! Running alongside with this there were artists that were eccentric, odd, out of the ordinary. They were allowed to get things wrong, to get things right, to be obnoxious, to be sweet or difficult. This made the landscape exotic and interesting and I think it lifted people above the ordinary.

Now you are not allowed to have an opinion, to get something wrong. There are new rules that now make you be on the wrong side of history and it’s appalling, it’s beige, it’s boring! I would say that (before the pendulum swings back the other way because it will) there is a death of creativity because we are not allowed to free think anymore. We have a hive mind and if you are not thinking with the hive mind you’re going to get cancelled; you won’t be allowed to make money as a public figure. It is very scary andI’m glad that I have lived in a time when that did not exist because it was way more fun!

What about football?

I love football and I will always love it! It’s the working class meditation.

What about Britain?

I’ve been out of Britain for so long. I am definitely British but I have lived in a bubble since I was 16. I’m outside of the tribe. I cannot pass judgement on Britain because I don’t know what it is anymore. I don’t experience what it is to be truly British on a day-to-day basis because fame excommunicates you from normal living.

Would you say fame has stolen something from you?

For a while it did because it was overpowering and I did not understand why it was making me feel the way that it made me feel. But it has been is giving me tremendous amounts too! One you realise you can’t have your cake AND eat it, it becomes easier to deal with.

What do you wish for the next 25 years?

I’d like to be able to have more opportunities. I love having the oxygen to turn up at a meeting and have people say yes to my ideas. And I’ve got so many ideas that to carry on being facilitated is really important to me and my family and it is really important to my ego too because without people saying yes to me who am I?

Did the pandemic inspire you with new material?

There is a bottleneck of ideas! I wrote so many songs, came up with so many ideas for films, TV, business! Covid was a very creative time!

So there is a new album cooking?

Yes, more than one!

If you had to choose one of the songs on this album that would speak about you and that you could recommend to someone to get to know you?

I would say Feel. Which one would you choose?

The Road to Mandalay…I think it tells a lot about your and your life journey.

That is strange because when you asked the question, the first song that came to my mind was the Road to Mandalay and then I changed it to Feel. I don’t know why but The Road to Mandalay is my final answer for 64,000 pounds Chris! (Laughs).