Manchester has no shortage of swanky hotels with penthouse suites, seemingly tailor-made for the pop stars and footballers who roll though. But Gary Barlow was having none of it.
fter performing his one-man show at the city’s Lowry theatre, Take That’s frontman opted to stay the night just up the road in the sleepy Cheshire town of Frodsham. It’s where he grew up and where his mother still lives, and it’s the place he opts to go to get away from it all.
The house looks like a cosy spot. There are ancient wooden beams in the ceiling, and books and ornaments are carefully arranged in the shelves behind him.
Barlow is in good form, too. He’s sporting salt-and-pepper whiskers and tortoiseshell Tom Ford spectacles, and his grey-flecked, honey-coloured hair makes him look younger than his 51 years.
He has been doing the odd interview today, but he’s also been in creative mode. He is sitting at a large table and, as he pans his camera around to show off his surrounds, there are microphones and recording equipment spread out in front of him. He says he is in the early stages of writing new songs for Take That. The plan is that they will go on the road in 2024, as a trio. Original members Robbie Williams and Jason Orange haven’t been part of the Take That story for years.
Barlow says he is used to the slimmed-down incarnation featuring himself, Howard Donald and Mark Owen, but he says that he would like for all five to be reunited in the future. “We’re only 50-ish,” he points out. “If we can get though our lives and not have Rob back again, it would be a miracle. I don’t know when, but at some point [it will happen]. We all love being together and we’d love to tour again.”
He admits that there was a rivalry with Williams in the past, especially when his former bandmate’s solo career seemed to be heading in the right direction when his own was not, but he insists that their platonic love far outweighs any issues that might have been there long ago. “I flicked on my Instagram this morning and there’s Robbie doing a 12-month world tour. He’s still got it! He still has that drive. You never lose that.”
Right now, Barlow is hoping that some of the germs of songs he has in his head and have started to come alive on piano will take their place among Take That’s finest. He has been a songwriter since his middle teen years — he was just 15 when he wrote A Million Love Songs. It would be recorded by Take That seven years later. Although it wasn’t one of 11 Take That songs to go to number one in the UK Singles Chart, it remains a defining landmark in the early success of the band.
Take That’s first flush of success is among several topics of conversation in his new theatrical show, A Different Stage. An accompanying book tells the story of his life in a playful, idiosyncratic manner, and the stage play — which has been four years in the making — attempts to do the same.
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Although he’s playing to far-smaller venues than Take That normally occupy — he’ll be at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre later this month — he quips that he is far more nervous doing these shows than when he plays to 80,000 people at Wembley. “I always think smaller audiences are more nerve-wracking. We put [an embryonic version of the show] on stage early last year and we were doing it for audiences of 15, friends in the business, directors, lighting people, and so on, and they were really nerve-wracking. I don’t remember being nervous going on stage before, but I was this time. When you’re doing a smaller show, you’re more naked.”
A Different Stage tells the story of his childhood, his early forays into the music business, the roller-coaster ride with Take That, the stop-start solo career, as well as aspects of his personal life and unforeseen challenges, but more of that later.
A reading of the book leaves one in no doubt that Barlow had strived to make it in music from an early age. He had a belief in his own talents as a kid that can’t be faked — just as well when it came to the high-wire act of being chosen to lead Britain’s answer to New Kids On The Block, then among the biggest pop stars on the planet.
More so than any other member of Take That, Barlow had done his apprenticeship. “When we were put together as a band, I was the one who came in with all the experience and the drive to do original things. For me, it was never about singing cover versions — I actually didn’t think I was a good enough singer to do cover versions.”
And, yet, it was well-chosen covers like Relight My Fire which made Take That stratospheric. But, as a songwriter who had been well used to the live environment, Barlow was anxious to make his own mark.
“I was precocious,” he says. “I did my first gig when I was 11. At that point, I was only playing keyboards or a piano and I’d play these clubs from something like 7.30pm to midnight and all they’d want you to play was standards. At the point where I started to write songs, I had the jumble of these classic songs in my head, and that gave me a bit of a head start on the songwriting. And, because I was a singer, I would use my voice like an instrument, and that helped me muster up tunes quite early.”
Take That began in 1990 when Barlow was barely out of his teens, and the quintet — assembled by Manchester music impresario Nigel Martin-Smith — became the most popular British boy band of the decade. Their success, undoubtedly, paved the way for Boyzone and Westlife.
Several other boy bands were assembled at that time, too, but many faded away while the remainder failed to even dent the charts. Beyond talent, why did Take That succeed? “We all wanted it so badly,” he says, without hesitation. “We had that hunger, that drive, at 18 to just work really hard and to make it.”
From the outside, it looked like a glamorous life — and the money and fame came quickly — but a Stakhanovite work ethic was required to fulfil pop’s insatiable demands. You sense that Barlow was up for the challenge, although he admits there were times where the rigours of constant touring, early morning TV show interviews, incessant studio sessions and more felt exhausting.
Although the spotlight glared constantly, Barlow managed to keep both feet on the ground. While Williams, in particular, seemed to become a tabloid fixture, Barlow was perceived as the sensible and, whisper it, boring one. Looking back, he reckons his parents played a huge part in his level-headedness. “I valued how we were brought up so much. It was such a happy home. I don’t ever remember them arguing once.”
Growing up in “a little town in the middle of Cheshire” kept him centred too. “You know what, everyone got on with it. Everyone helped one another. People left their front doors open when they went shopping. Look, that time is gone now — but what a wonderful time. Nobody had much and everyone worked. The mums and dads went out to work, and nobody had very much in this town, but everyone had a bloody good time. It was simple stuff, friendships, going out to the pub on a Friday night.” Fordsham, with a population of 9,000, has more than one famous son: James Bond star Daniel Craig also grew up there.
It doesn’t matter how famous you are or how successful you get — it’s still the same effort to sit down and try to come up with something brand new and something that people will love. There’s no shortcut to that
“The other thing,” he adds, “that’s always kept my feet on the ground is that I’ve a reason to be doing this: music. I’m not bad at music. I can get on a stage and I can sing and I can write and do the rest of it. It doesn’t matter how famous you are or how successful you get — it’s still the same effort to sit down and try to come up with something brand new and something that people will love. There’s no shortcut to that.”
Barlow’s songwriting marked Take That out as different to the usual manufactured band, but few critics gave him credit in their first incarnation. The band split in 1996, a year after Williams departed, but by the time of their return, sans Williams, in 2005, Barlow’s gifts as a writer were widely acknowledged.
Getting the critics on his side has never interested him, he insists. Having his songs sung back to him word-perfect by a full stadium is all the affirmation he needs. “There’s something special about drawing inspiration [as a songwriter] from something that’s happened in your day or a significant thing in your life,” he says. “You should never undervalue an audience — they know when something is real. And when you’re singing something that means something deep to you in your heart and in your soul, they get it. That’s the connection. And that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Barlow’s book and stage play take an unstinting look at his fat years. Around the turn of the millennium, when Take That were history and his solo career was failing to set the world alight in contrast to Williams’s all-conquering heroics, he struggled to keep the weight off. Mainlining chocolate and crisps pushed his weight close to 17 stone — a dangerous statistic for someone who stands five foot eight in his stocking feet.
It was seeing photos of his new body shape that pushed him to take action, but it wasn’t easy. Williams has also had his challenges with weight and, when he was interviewed by this writer in 2020, he said he would always have to be mindful of what he ate and how much he exercised.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Barlow. He says his weight still fluctuates and he has to watch what he eats, but he feels he has a handle on it now. It helps that he feels so much more content today than he did then.
“It’s challenging still and I think it’s always going to be,” he says. “I always think about Howard in our band. He never does a second’s worth of exercise. It’s so annoying!
“You design your own life,” he adds. “If I’m not happy with a particular image of myself, I always feel the need to change things.”
The support of his wife, Dawn, has been key in helping him navigate life’s obstacles. He writes adoringly about her in his book and talks about his kids, too. He mentions Poppy, who died at birth — but as several interviews promoting the show have centred on this personal tragedy, Weekend is asked not to bring it up again.
He has been with Dawn — a former Take That backing dancer — for more than half of his life, and has been married to her for 23 years. Theirs is one of showbusiness’s rock-solid unions. “I know,” he says, with a smile. “I’ve got so many friends who are in my industry and, oh my god, some of the things I’ve seen over the years! It is, unfortunately, an industry which attracts, possibly, the wrong people. I just think I was lucky.
“I don’t know if there’s a secret, to be honest, but we just try to look after each other. She knows that doing music or TV or whatever takes up enormous chunks of time. On the plus side, when I have time off — and it’s usually a month, rather than a week — we just make the most of that. We’re hitting a point of our lives where our kids, who are between the ages of 13 and 22, are of an age where we can spend a lot of time together.”
The dotage years are a long way away, however. He says the desire to be on stage burns just as brightly now as it did when he was a boy in Cheshire, dreaming of the big time.
And the prospect of writing a song that will be sung back by future audiences continues to excite him. He says he craves that “goosebumps feeling” when a seed of a song in his head is about to germinate into something special. “I write a lot — you might get those moments 10 times in a year — and it could be when you’re listening back to something you recorded and you go, ‘Stop, rewind that. That’s fantastic!’ I live for those moments.”
‘Gary Barlow: A Different Stage’ is on at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from October 26-30. See gaietytheatre.ie for further information
https://www.independent.ie/style/celebrity/celebrity-features/take-thats-gary-barlow-if-we-get-though-our-lives-and-not-have-rob-back-itd-be-a-miracle-it-will-happen-42062243.html Take That’s Gary Barlow: ‘If we get though our lives and not have Rob back, it’d be a miracle. It will happen’