Rus­sell Wat­son opens his doors and his heart to Teddy Jamieson


The Herald - The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - Rus­sell Wat­son plays the Clyde Au­di­to­rium, Glas­gow, on May 6. The al­bum True Sto­ries is out now

THERE are 20 odd miles be­tween Salford and Wilm­slow. Just over half an hour in a car if the traf­fic in Greater Manch­ester is light. Not so very far re­ally, if you’re talk­ing ge­o­graph­i­cally. But bi­o­graph­i­cally? How does Rus­sell Wat­son mea­sure the gap? Close enough for com­fort per­haps for a Salford lad, but far enough to mea­sure the dis­tance be­tween the man he was and the man he is.

Wat­son is the for­mer fac­tory worker and Manch­ester United fan who worked for 10 years in the work­ing men’s clubs be­fore singing Nes­sun Dorma at Old Traf­ford in 1999 and be­com­ing the clas­si­cal crossover act par ex­cel­lence, a multi-plat­inum sell­ing artiste (as he’s quick to re­mind me), a man who has sung for a pope, the Queen and three US pres­i­dents (four if you count the time he per­formed in front of Don­ald Trump years ago). He’s also a man who has sur­vived not one but two life-threat­en­ing brain tu­mours and duet­ted at var­i­ous times with Cliff Richard, Pavarotti, Lulu and even Shaun Ry­der (I am not im­ply­ing any equiv­a­lence, by the way).

It is Fri­day lunchtime in Wilm­slow and the Wat­son house­hold is full. Wat­son’s sis­ter (and man­ager) Hay­ley is talk­ing to Chris the pho­tog­ra­pher. Wat­son’s wife

Louise is nearby and I am sit­ting in the kitchen chat­ting to Becky, Wat­son’s older daugh­ter and PA. It’s very much a fam­ily busi­ness th­ese days. Becky is telling me how ex­cited she is about her first trip to New York to­mor­row with her dad.

On the shelf near where I am sit­ting there are four Brit awards. On the wall there are fam­ily photos and pic­tures of Wat­son meet­ing Pope John Paul II and Wat­son meet­ing El­ton John. There’s a piano in the hall and half a dozen cars in the drive, in­clud­ing a McLaren (ac­cord­ing to Chris. I am so not a petrol­head). I’m pre­sum­ing they can’t all be­long to Wat­son.

At our feet there is a res­cue dog. A cou­ple of weeks ago she was thrown from a car on the mo­tor­way. She is look­ing re­mark­ably chip­per given the cir­cum­stances. There are an­other two dogs, a duck and a few chick­ens out in the gar­den.

And here is Wat­son, look­ing pretty chip­per him­self as it goes. Now aged 50, it’s been 10 years since he un­der­went surgery for the sec­ond tu­mour and he has re­gained some­thing of the baby-faced ap­pear­ance he had be­fore (though I’m not sure he’s con­vinced of this).

WE re­treat to the front room to talk and he spends the next hour and a bit en­ter­tain­ing me. In that time he im­per­son­ates nearly ev­ery­one whose name he men­tions (putting on an Amer­i­can ac­cent, an Ir­ish ac­cent, a Salford ac­cent and even a Scot­tish ac­cent when ap­pro­pri­ate) and sings snip­pets of ev­ery­thing from Nes­sun Dorma (of course) to Buddy Holly’s Rave On.

He clearly en­joys sto­ry­telling. He’s good at it too, with an eye for the killer detail. Here he is de­scrib­ing his first agent: “Proper Salford bloke. Sov­er­eign rings and slicked­back grey hair and a few lit­tle yel­low streaks be­cause he was on about 50 Wood­bine an hour …”

Wat­son is about to tour to support his lat­est al­bum True Sto­ries, on which he sings arias, show tunes and his own songs ac­com­pa­nied by En­nio Mor­ri­cone’s 75-piece orches­tra and mu­si­cians who have played with Blondie, Por­tishead and Oa­sis. Next month he will be per­form­ing ma­te­rial from it in the Clyde Au­di­to­rium in Glas­gow with a full orches­tra.

Who’ll be there to see him? Women, mostly. “Even in an au­di­ence that’s mixed the male per­cent­age would prob­a­bly be around 30,” he says. “Some­times I can see in the au­di­ence a cou­ple of blokes who clearly look like they’ve been dragged out by their wives and don’t want to be there.”

He re­mem­bers once singing on a match night dur­ing the World Cup. He even asked the au­di­ence who would rather be watch­ing the football, “and all the fel­las raised their hands”.

What about you, Rus­sell? Did you put your hand up too? “I did, yeah.”

The Salford lad he was is never far away, re­ally. I sus­pect that’s an is­sue some­times. In con­ver­sa­tion he can be bullish but you won­der if that’s just the other side of the coin to in­se­cu­rity.

When he first came to national promi­nence, back in 2000, and started turn­ing up in stu­dios with or­ches­tras, he could be in­tim­i­dated at times. “I very much felt a sense of class di­vide. I felt like I was this lit­tle rag-arse from Salford who had been thrown into this world that I didn’t par­tic­u­larly un­der­stand very well. I felt like I had landed on my feet and got lucky, es­pe­cially when I re­leased the first record and it went to num­ber one in the clas­si­cal charts and stayed there for a year, which turned out to be a world record.

“At the time I did feel a sense of: ‘My God,

One of the things about the mu­sic in­dus­try is in rel­a­tive terms achiev­ing suc­cess is dif­fi­cult but not im­pos­si­ble. Sus­tain­ing suc­cess? Hard work

I’m here with the Royal Phil­har­monic Orches­tra in Ge­orge Martin’s stu­dio and look­ing round think­ing: ‘I shouldn’t be here.’”

As a re­sult, he thinks, “maybe some­times the orches­tra viewed me as a bit aloof be­cause I didn’t know how to re­spond to be­ing with such a level of mu­si­cians.

“But I would say that over the last 17 years I’ve not just sat on my arse. I’ve prob­a­bly done more study­ing in the last 15 years, more study on the voice and the vo­cal struc­ture than most peo­ple would do in mu­sic col­lege in five years.”

Does he feel he’s now got to a point where there is re­spect? “Some­where like Italy or Amer­ica or Ja­pan I’m not judged on my back­ground.” And here? “I think there’s a lit­tle bit of sniffi­ness.”

Wat­son’s “rag-arse” to riches story isn’t over­played. He left school at 16 with a CSE grade one in English, went to col­lege where he “p***** around” for a cou­ple of years and then blagged a job in a fac­tory. Pre­ci­sion en­gi­neer­ing. Life there sounds very Arthur Seaton.

“It was a pro­duc­tion line. You’d have the lathe and pieces of metal here.” He in­di­cates an imag­i­nary tray to his left. “And you’d put them in the lathe. It would spin round. Pol­ish, splash, drop in the side. It was the most mind-numb­ingly bor­ing job ever.”

Mu­sic was to be his es­cape. It was Wat­son’s grand­mother who got him in­ter­ested in clas­si­cal mu­sic in the first place. She would al­ways be play­ing Chopin and Schu­bert when he vis­ited her. At home it was more Cliff Richard and Meat Loaf.

Wat­son was in a band in his teens. The Crowd, they were called. Half a dozen mates. They did cov­ers of Green Onions and the like. “I played the Ca­sio key­board with one fin­ger. Never re­ally had the con­fi­dence to step up and sing.”

But his mates knew he could and even­tu­ally coaxed him to sing in a com­pe­ti­tion in a pub. He gave the au­di­ence a bit of Neil Di­a­mond. Love on the Rocks. He won. Soon he was in the grand fi­nal of Pic­cadilly Ra­dio Search for a Star. He won that too. That’s when the agent ap­proached him and and he started play­ing work­ing men’s clubs for £55 or £65 a gig.

For the next 10 years he did the cir­cuit, sup­port­ing a wife and two young chil­dren. “Bloody hard work. And re­mem­ber it was the 1990s, so it was dur­ing the re­ces­sion. We were ab­so­lutely broke. We nearly lost the house three times. In the street we were liv­ing on there were re­pos­ses­sions left, right and cen­tre. It was a re­ally tough time.”

He also had to learn his trade. He stands up to show me what he was like when he started in the clubs, giv­ing me a ren­di­tion of Rave On as sung by a church mouse.

“I had no idea of any kind of stage­craft or move­ment or in­ter­act­ing with the au­di­ence. I spent a very long ap­pren­tice­ship where I de­vel­oped as an artist and an en­ter­tainer, some­thing which is sadly lack­ing th­ese days. Fame is so im­me­di­ate th­ese days par­tic­u­larly with [TV ] tal­ent shows.

“I think that we have be­come ob­sessed with dis­cov­er­ing new tal­ent. Once we’ve dis­cov­ered it, then what? It’s all very well dis­cov­er­ing tal­ent but nurturing it, mak­ing it grow?”

Did you feel nur­tured, Rus­sell? “No. I had to work bloody hard. One of the things about the mu­sic in­dus­try is in rel­a­tive terms achiev­ing suc­cess, at­tain­ing suc­cess is dif­fi­cult but not im­pos­si­ble. Sus­tain­ing suc­cess, holy s***. Hard work. You have to be a driven lu­natic.

“If you can’t take get­ting kicked in the balls ev­ery other week the mu­sic in­dus­try’s not for you.”

WELL quite. But where did that am­bi­tion

and drive come from? He says his sis­ter Hay­ley has al­ways won­dered that. He didn’t show it as a younger man and it wasn’t in­stilled by his par­ents, who were too busy giv­ing him a happy child­hood. And yet after the years in the work­ing men’s clubs he trans­formed him­self again into the afore­men­tioned multi-plat­inum sell­ing artist singing Ul­travox songs and Verdi arias and find­ing a huge au­di­ence for both.

Suc­cess had its costs. He sep­a­rated from his first wife He­len shortly after he signed his record deal (he once said it had been “a war­ring mar­riage and a war­ring di­vorce”). But the re­wards are all around us this af­ter­noon.

And yet how frag­ile a thing it is. A few years after the re­lease of his de­but al­bum The Voice, Wat­son started suf­fer­ing from pound­ing headaches. Some weeks be­fore he was to travel to Los An­ge­les to record an al­bum in 2006 (“coin­ci­den­tally called

I’d bal­looned to five stone over what my weight should be. My hair had fallen out in chunks. I looked like Friar Tuck

That’s Life”, he points out mor­dantly), he went to see a spe­cial­ist who told him he was stressed out and needed to re­lax.

In­stead he got on the plane to Cal­i­for­nia to record the al­bum in Cap­i­tal Stu­dios. But in the mean­time the headaches had got worse and worse, his vi­sion had de­te­ri­o­rated and he felt dread­ful. “I did ac­tu­ally feel like I was dy­ing,” he ad­mits.

He went to see an­other spe­cial­ist at Cedars-Si­nai hospi­tal in LA. He tells the story with hu­mour, mak­ing the spe­cial­ist sound like a B-movie ac­tor. “It was so Amer­i­can the way it hap­pened. He was sat on one side of the desk and he went, ‘Mr Wat­son, you have a tu­mour … And from the re­sults I’m get­ting, it’s a very big one.’

“I said, ‘I feel like I’m go­ing to die.’

“He said, ‘There’s noth­ing like know­ing you have a tu­mour to make the tu­mour seem worse.’

“‘Oh well, I’ll just go and have a bath then.’”

But you can’t get past the re­al­ity of that di­ag­no­sis, can you? “When you hear the words ‘brain’ and ‘tu­mour’ in the same sen­tence, it’s a very big one,” Wat­son ad­mits. “I had this to­tal and com­plete out-of- body ex­pe­ri­ence where who I was … who I am … left the build­ing and what was left be­hind was a com­pletely and ut­terly dys­func­tional shell.”

He was far from home, far from fam­ily, in pain and in fear. Per­haps it’s no sur­prise that he did con­sider sui­cide for a mo­ment. “I was at the Bev­erly Hills Wil­shire, stood on the bal­cony.

“My head was bang­ing so hard and it wasn’t a case of: ‘I can’t deal with this.’ It was a case of the pain. ‘I just want the pain to stop.’ I just thought, ‘You know what? I feel like fly­ing off the end of this bal­cony and end­ing all this.’”

There is a si­lence in the room for a mo­ment. “But need­less to say I didn’t,” he con­tin­ues.

He came through surgery only for an­other tu­mour to be found a year later after it haem­or­rhaged in four dif­fer­ent places and he had to be rushed to in­ten­sive care.

Sur­viv­ing that wasn’t by any means the end of the or­deal. He had ra­dio­ther­apy to go through too.

“The ra­dio­ther­apy de­stroyed me. I would say that it took me five to six years un­til I started to feel like a hu­man be­ing again. It took a long time.”

Who were you in those years then, Rus­sell? “A shadow of my for­mer self. It was dif­fi­cult. Be­cause I was a fine spec­i­men of a hu­man be­ing. I worked out. I trained. I had a full head of hair. I was slim. I was ripped.

“But after be­ing wal­loped by two brain tu­mours and then 25 blasts, six weeks of ra­di­ol­ogy and steroids, I’d bal­looned to five stone over what my weight should be. My face had bal­looned up, my hair had fallen out in chunks. I looked like Friar Tuck.”

He points to a mir­ror in the hall. “I re­mem­ber I came down the stairs this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing and the re­flec­tion of what I saw back was com­pletely un­recog­nis­able. There was a pic­ture on the side wall. I looked at the pic­ture and I looked at my re­flec­tion and I went: ‘I’m fin­ished.’”

He picks up his phone to find a pic­ture of him­self in those years. In it I see a man who looks puffy, who looks over­weight, but noth­ing worse than that. You don’t look terrible in that pic­ture, Rus­sell. “I think I look f*****.”

So, how do you get back from that? “Here’s the driven lu­natic in me. The day after I fin­ished ra­di­ol­ogy the lady who was head of the de­part­ment came over and she said, ‘Now, Mr Wat­son, we know you’re a face­tious lit­tle chappy, so what I am telling you is im­por­tant. I don’t want you to go and do some silly things as soon as you’re fin­ished here be­cause I know what you’re like.

“‘You’ve told some­body here that you in­tend to go to the gym to­mor­row. Don’t you dare. It’s ex­cep­tion­ally dan­ger­ous after what you’ve been through.’ “The next day I went to the gym.” In the years since Rus­sell Wat­son has re­built his life, re­built him­self. In 2015 he mar­ried Louise, who is 20 years his ju­nior, which led to a few snide head­lines. “There was some stuff at the start that I was dou­ble her age. But not any more. I’d need to be 60 to be dou­ble her age.

“We have a good life to­gether. We have a lot of fun. It [the age dif­fer­ence] doesn’t even en­ter my mind.”

How did the ill­ness change him, I won­der. “I’m much more tol­er­ant of ev­ery­thing now. I wasn’t. I was a s***head, but I let things go now that I wouldn’t have done 10 years ago. Par­tic­u­larly in the mu­sic in­dus­try. You get an en­quiry to do a show and then a week later they don’t want you. Ten years ago I would have taken that in­cred­i­bly per­son­ally. Now it’s, ‘Great. I’ll go and play tennis then.’”

How far has Rus­sell Wat­son trav­elled? All the way back to some­where near the man he wants to be per­haps.

Now 50 years old, Rus­sell Wat­son is look­ing well again fol­low­ing a pe­riod in which he was, he says, ‘a shadow of my for­mer self’


Clock­wise from above: Wat­son singing at the Coro­na­tion Fes­ti­val at Buck­ing­ham Palace in July 2013; leav­ing hospi­tal after brain surgery in Oc­to­ber 2007; with his sec­ond wife Louise; and his big break, singing Nes­sun Dorma at Old Traf­ford in 1999

Wat­son at home in Wilm­slow, Greater Manch­ester, which is filled with re­minders of his suc­cess, such as four Brit awards and photos of him with Pope John Paul II and El­ton John

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