Robbie: "I'm competitive. I want to win"
30 August 2006
In an exclusive interview to set up his new album, Rudebox, Robbie Williams talks to Music Week about the process behind the creation of the ninth album of his solo career.
We also spoke to Robbie about the writing process, his future in the business and perceptions of the UK’s biggest music star. By Stuart Clarke
Music Week: It sounds like you were really enjoying yourself on the new record. How did the album come about?
Robbie Williams: To be honest with you I made it by mistake. I was recording the last album and, while Stephen Duffy was doing over-dubs, I started fannying about on an Apple Mac. It was just me and Jerry [Meehan], who is my bass player, and we sort of share the same sense of humour.
At the time I was really into a song by Mitchell Brothers called Routine Check. I played it to death and I said to Jerry, for a laugh, ‘We should do a song like this.’ So we made a song called Dickhead, which is a hidden track on the album. Then I did a song called The Eighties, which is autobiographical rap territory, whatever you call it, and we followed that up with The Nineties.
I’d already had in my head that I wanted to cover Lovelight [Lewis Taylor] at some point and King Of The Bongo [Manu Chao] and within a week I had seven songs together. I thought, ‘Seven songs is nearly an album, you know.’
Following that I got together with Mark Ronson and William Orbit and, before we knew it, I’d actually found myself. It started off as a sort of hobby and a busman’s holiday, and then I went ‘Oh fucking hell this is me. This is what I’ve been trying to make for eight albums.’
Typically, do you enter the studio with a vision of the type of album you want to make or was the process this time unusual?
Well, yeah. I sort of had a moment of clarity [making this album]. I was in the studio with Kelvin [Andrews] and Danny [Spencer] listening back to Rudebox and I had this internal dialogue that went, ‘Oh yeah, do songs like the ones you like!’ It was one of those ‘Doh!’ moments, because I’m 11 years into a solo project. I tried to make Rudebox and wrote Rock DJ by mistake. This has taken a long time, but I think it’s all to do with confidence, being in my thirties and pleasing myself.
It does sound like the process was quite effortless this time around.
Yeah, with a lot of the other albums I suppose I’ve been trying to please a lot of people that are unpleasable. Now, I’m 32, and I’ve just gone, ‘Oh fuck yeah, this is me.’ I grew up listening to the Top 40, I taped it. And, one Christmas, Caravan Of Love by the Housemartins really took my interest and I’ve been trying to make these [sorts of] records ever since. Songs that, for want of a better expression, give a 14- or 15-year-old pleasure over Christmas.
How did you get involved with Mark Ronson?
Mark Ronson is somebody I met years ago. I had a meeting with him and his manager and Mark was interested in working with me and he’s always been in my mind as somebody to work with. Obviously, making a record like Escapology or Intensive Care, it’s not like a Mark Ronson kinda deal. This time, the moment I realised that I was getting an album together it was like ‘Now I can use Mark Ronson, that’d be fucking brilliant.’ He’s very friendly, is incredibly knowledgeable, multi-multi-multi-talented, and his got a hip-hop past. And that’s great for me. Plus he doesn’t mind working with Robbie Williams.
Working with him, was it a different experience for you?
It was just exciting to be in New York with somebody who’s got his finger on the pulse, who has the same sort of heroes and sensibilities that I have, and someone who can give me a hip-hop track – Good Doctor is a hip-hop track, and I’m on it! It was very exciting because I’ve always been a massive fan of hip-hop and I’ve always been a massive fan of rap and I’ve sold enough albums to do what I want now. For me, it’s like… I captained England against the Rest Of The World side at Old Trafford, that’s a box ticked; I’m on a hip-hop track, that’s another box ticked. I’m in a very fortunate position now where I get to live out all of my fantasies.
So what’s the next box?
Well, the next album’s on its way and it’s a return to acid house!
I presume the collaborations with Mark Ronson led to Lily Allen’s involvement. Were you with her in the studio with her much?
No I wasn’t. When Mark was recording the backing vocal I was in the studio with the Pet Shop Boys and William Orbit, so Lily came in while I was away. But I did meet up with her and spent an afternoon with her and just had a chat. She was fucking lovely. I think she’s great for pop music.
Do you see any of yourself in her?
She’s obviously got a good sense of humour, she’s obviously got something to say, she makes great songs and she’s interesting. When I was 21, they’d ask me how I was going to celebrate, and I’d say ‘Well I’m going to have a big bag of gak.’ And I’d think that was incredibly funny, and so does she, so that’s where the similarities are.
What was the most challenging part of the new album?
I think it was writing the lyrics for Keep On that I did with Stephen Duffy. It’s like nonsensical rubbish, but it is difficult to write nonsensical rubbish.
Lyrically, you’ve always tended to take a fairly direct approach with your subject matter. Does this side of the songwriting process come fairly easily to you?
Well, being in Take That was more of a blessing than a curse, because I’d already sold my soul to Santa, when I was 16. Coming out of Take That, I can hardly turn around and say, ‘Well now I’m going to be Radiohead.’ I don’t have to fit in lyrically or musically, I don’t have to have the same indie rulebook that my peers have. It’s difficult, because everybody seems to live by a set of rules, and I haven’t read the book. You know what I mean? Being in Take That has afforded me the opportunity to go, ‘Right, I can say and do what I want.’ And I’m never going to be Radiohead or Muse or whoever; I’m Robbie Williams.
What is your approach to writing lyrics? Do you have a structure?
I do it line by line – as you do [laughs]. With a song like The Nineties, nothing came off the top of my head. It’ll be a case of grabbing the Apple Mac and going, ‘Right, I’ve got this line, put one rhyme into another’, and I’d sort of get egged on and spurred on by Jerry [Meehan] and we’d both be giggling at what we can and can’t say. You know, ‘Take a Stanley knife and go and play with someone’s eyes’ [The Nineties], is pretty hardcore, but I think that’s funny. We fucking giggled all night.
The 90s deals with your time in Take That. Was it a hard song to write?
Not really. It was just a case of, ‘We wrote The 80s, so we need to write The 90s now.’ To be honest, it wasn’t difficult, hard or soul searching in any way. It was just very exciting and very entertaining.
What is your ultimate ambition?
I’m ultra competitive. I want to win. My aim is pure, my aim is true, I set out to make really fucking big songs with good lyrics and melodies. Now whether I achieve that is in the eye of the beholder, but when I’m writing, there’s a whole group of people that fucking hate me and I’m like ‘Right, I want them!’ It’s a battle that unfortunately I don’t think I can win, but it’s not through any desperate need to be loved, it’s through a desperate need to win. I’m brought up on facts and figures and, for me, I try and sing from my heart and then win the race. There’s some people that I’m trying to compete with and compete against who are in a different track and field event than I’m in.
How do you think you are perceived?
I’m well aware of the many different things people perceive me as. To some people - the six million people that keep buying the records - to a huge majority of them, I’m the best fucking thing out there.
Then there’s a whole group of people who think I am what is bad about the recording industry; people who think that I am a fucking joke, that I am some end-of-the-pier entertainer, which I am. I was brought up on holiday camps. My father is a cabaret artist – in the Eighties I saw shed-loads of cabaret, it’s where I grew up, that’s where I learnt my craft, so that’s what I am.
Now some people like to pretend that they never went to Blackpool on holiday, and some people like to pretend that they never spent a week in their caravan in Great Yarmouth, you know. I fucking did, I’m a bluecoat. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be an entertainment manager in Carnarvon Bay, if I hadn’t written Angels.
Some people will look at that and go ‘Well, that’s un-credible and shit, and it comes from a naff place.’ Yeah, we do! That’s fucking Britain! That’s where we come from.
We didn’t all come out the womb and put a parka on, and Wallabies and say, ‘Listen, I’m 18 months old, but what I’d really like to do is ride a scooter.’ We didn’t do that. We all went on holiday to fucking holiday camps. That’s where I come from and, as I say, I’m not Thom Yorke. Don’t know where he went on holiday [laughs], he probably went to museums and burlesque theatre or something. But I went to fucking Tenby!
There are five covers on the album, including the second single Lovelight by Lewis Taylor. How did you come across the track?
I found it on a Tom Middleton compilation. I was sat there for ages with that song. I nearly sent a letter over to Justin Timberlake and said, ‘Have a listen to this song, you have got to do it.’ I’m glad I hadn’t now, because I’ve shot the video for it, but it’s just huge. I think it will be as big, if not bigger than Angels.
A cover of the My Robot Friend track We Are The Pet Shop Boys sees you collaborating with the Pet Shop Boys. How did that come about?
I’ve always had it in my mind that I wanted to make an album of covers of covers. You know, I want to make a cover version of a cover version and We Are The Pet Shop Boys fitted perfectly into that.
With the Pet Shop Boys, you’ve been a fan first and foremost. Was it hard then going into the studio to record with them?
For me, I don’t get on with a lot of people. I don’t find it easy to socialise. I’ve got my group of friends and I’m happy with them, but the rest of the world I don’t really know, and feel kind of shy around. What was great for me was getting in with my heroes and having a laugh with them and feeling really comfortable. And on top of that we created some great music. But first and foremost it was like ‘I’m with Neil and Chris and I’m making them laugh, and they make me laugh, it’s great’.
You also cover a Stephen Duffy track.
Kiss Me is paying homage to Stephen Duffy. He’s quite funny about that song, because I think that’s his Take That moment and he’s equally cursed and blessed to have written it. I sat down and had a listen to all the Take That songs recently and fucking loved them. And there’s part of me that’s doing this cover to take the piss out of Steve, but also to show Steve what a great song it is.
Do you still enjoy the touring?
To be honest with you, I’m a weird artist. I’m an artist that prefers doing promotion to touring. I would rather sit all day being interviewed and then go and sing a couple of songs on a TV show in Mexico, or Chile or Argentina, than I would do getting up in front of 80,000 people.
I’m not very big on commitment and, with the people buying a ticket, I’ve committed to them that I’m going to be there and give them two hours’ worth of a great show. When really, I can get my ego topped up by going and singing my single to a backing track on some TV show somewhere in France or Chile or wherever. The thing about this tour is, it’s not giving me a nervous breakdown, so there’s a plus.
How do you feel about mobile phone video footage of your shows ending up on YouTube 20 minutes after the concert finishes?
To be honest with you, because I’m so excited about this album and so excited about Rudebox being the single, I come offstage and I go and have a look at YouTube and see what people are saying about the record. I love YouTube, I like all those viral things. You get some great ideas on there. Somebody’s done a – I think the youngsters call it – mash-up of SexyBack and Rudebox; now that’s fucking brilliant. I wanna do that. So people come up with an awful lot of ideas that I can actually use. I’m a big fan of people feeling as though they’re part of it.
Have you ever considered an involvement in the other side of the business?
God no, that sounds like work. I didn’t get into showbusiness to work.
© Music Week
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