Interview

Robbie Williams: Sing when you’re winning

Robbie Williams has been one of the biggest pop stars ever for a quarter of a century - and he has struggled with himself for just as long. In an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, he talks about the highs and lows - but also about his motivation to be the best version of himself. Today he celebrates his 50th birthday.

  • Interview
    Zane Lowe
  • Photo
    Leo Baron
Congratulations are in order: At the end of 2022, you celebrated your twenty-fifth anniversary as a solo artist with a compilation album and tour . .

Well, my management said you’ve got an anniversary coming up so we’re going to celebrate it. I’m not a look-back kind of person, but I relented and I’m glad I did. I’ve looked back and taken stock, and it’s given me a sense of pride. Success is kind of wasted on the youth, isn’t it? You just never feel it’s enough. It’s not that it wasn’t enough for me. It was just completely overwhelming. Now that I’m older, I often think about who handles success at a certain age better than others and why.

And?

The first person that comes to mind is Tom Hanks. He can inhabit a role and then leave it behind. So if someone comes up to him and asks, “How’s Wilson?”, he can answer, “No idea, it’s a fucking volleyball!” I was sixteen years old, and people were coming up to me telling me how much they love me and that they were going to write their diaries for me. I wasn’t ready for all of this shit. Fame felt like a huge collision. The only musician I know who seems to have handled fame really well is Noel Gallagher.

But Oasis broke up and Noel Gallagher has fallen out with his brother Liam . . .

Yeah, they broke up catastrophically. But they still achieved what they achieved. And he’s still Noel Gallagher. But look at Take That. Gary Barlow suffered with bulimia, didn’t leave his house, slept underneath his piano because he’d forgotten how to write songs. He was incredibly depressed. He even changed his name on his credit card because he didn’t want people to recognize him. That’s a low point. Howard Donald wanted to commit suicide after he left. Mark Owen’s been to rehab, and Jason Orange just dropped out and doesn’t want anything to do with music anymore. So that’s that. And then there’s me. What being in a boy band really does to you is mental health problems, rehab, addiction. And I’m sure if you sit down with One Direction five or ten years from now, they’re all going to report the same thing.

On the other hand, there’s this loyalty that’s baked into the fan base. Boy and girl bands can reunite at any given moment and people from all ages will fly into the stadiums. Why is that?

The thing about the Spice Girls, One Direction, Take That, NSYNC or New Kids on the Block and their fans – it’s like with football fans and their team. You’re a Liverpool fan or a Manchester United fan, you know? It’s etched into your DNA. It’s tribal. You never stop supporting your team.

“I wasn’t ready to be famous. Fame felt like a huge collision. The only musician I know who seems to have handled fame really well is Noel Gallagher.”
Robbie Williams
To stay with the soccer metaphor: You seem to have moved through your career with a really acute sense of competitiveness . . .

I think that’s the secret of a lot of musicians. Although I’ve actually got an amazing lack of self-esteem, I still want to win the world. I still have that hunger. That feels kind of odd, because the music world is not supposed to be competitive. I used to ask myself, “Am I the only one?” But then I realized that Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake do the same thing.

Where does your ambition come from?

There’s this town called Burslem, and it’s got the most closed shops in the whole of Great Britain. Every window is closed. That’s my heritage. Proper working class. World War One. World War Two. Down in the pits. In the mines. Building canals. Digging holes. Poverty is the power of naught. My mum picked us up out of that place of poverty by taking a loan out and opening a shop. The shop became so successful that it opened the doors for opportunity. I learned that from her. She gave me this burning ambition and drive to go.

He's cool:

Robbie Williams already had his own cover of rampstyle #24, photographed by Bryan Adams.
Looking back on that now, do you feel that you were driving your narrative for yourself? Was it you who ultimately said, I want this?

I was driven like that. I see it with my oldest, Teddy. She’s ten and she’s completely jazz hands. There’s no stopping what she wants to do and who she is as a person and what she’s passionate about. She’s just like me. She’s a show-off, and she spends all day writing songs and dancing and acting. It’s impossible to stop that. If I had been good at maths or if I had been good at physics or geography, that’s where my mum would have pushed me. As it happens, the mega talent that I had was that of a show-off, and she facilitated that, allowing me to show off in the best possible way that I could.

What if Teddy came up to you and said she wanted to follow in your footsteps?

She’s already getting things offered to her that are incredible that I would have snapped people’s hands off for. I don’t know what to do about it. There’s a part of me that wants her to wait until she’s at least twenty-five. But then there’s another bit of me that thinks this is an opportunity that might pass her by. I do have three other children. Like Charlie, who looks like he’s going to be my manager at some point. The other two are three and two. So I don’t know.

How was it for you when you became a parent? Were you prepared?

No, because I couldn’t even look after myself. I was absolutely terrified. I realized that all of a sudden I was going to have to be the grown-up who was going to facilitate all of these things for these precious, beautiful, brand-new souls. I still have a sort of guilt that I’m not the kind of parent that other kids have. Every day as a parent is a learning day. I’m confused by it still. But I love it. It’s the best thing ever. But I’m not a Lego dad, you know, the kind that’s down on the floor saying, “Let’s figure out what to build with this stuff.”

"I was absolutely terrified. I realized that all of a sudden I was going to have to be the grown-up who was going to facilitate all of these things for these precious, beautiful, brand-new souls."
Robbie Williams
But you seem to be good with your kids . . .

I face timed Teddy today, and she said, “Daddy, I miss you so much and I love you so much!” So I must be doing something right. Ever since Ayda came into my life, that’s changed everything.

Did you know right away that you wanted to start a family with Ayda?

I thought I’m not going to get married and I’m not going to have children. I didn’t think that I could be monogamous. I didn’t think that anything would last longer than Christmas. But with Ayda it was different. And even now, seventeen years later, it just feels really good.

It must also feel really good that with your new album you’ve broken a record previously held by Elvis Presley for the most solo albums to hit the top spot, with a total of fourteen to your name.

That is pretty cool. Maybe it’s a glitch in the matrix. I think Harry Styles will probably have to suffer with the same sort of thing. He came from a boy band. I think ultimately you feel like y

→ You can read the full interview in rampstyle #27 "By the Way" - or take an hour to watch the interview in the video above.

rampstyle #27 By the Way

rampstyle #27 By the Way

Mal ganz nebenbei bemerkt: Rund 30 bis 50 Prozent aller Entdeckungen lassen sich auf Zufälle zurückführen. Ob Klettverschluss, Viagra oder Röntgenstrahlen – man findet etwas, was man so überhaupt nicht gesucht hatte, doch dafür wird man mit anderem belohnt.

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