Interview: Rick Astley20 min read
The 80’s was such an incredible period for music. The age of the synth brought us many of musics classic hits and iconic artists including one that still today holds the record for being the only male solo artist to have his first 8 singles reach the Top 10 in the UK – Rick Astley.
Over the course of several years under the songwriting wings of Stock Aitken Waterman, the team who also helped steer the careers of fellow pop icons including Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, Dead of Alive and Mel & Kim, Rick enjoyed phenomenal success as he turned out hit after hit with his distinctive, bass-heavy vocals. During his peak years Astley released some of the decades biggest singles including Together Forever, Whenever You Need Somebody and his signature hit, Never Gonna Give You Up and sold an incredible 40 million records before deciding to call it quits and retiring from the music industry in 1993 at the age of 27.
After 17 years away from the spotlight, Rick decided to relight the flame on his career and took back to the studio and stage to deliver songs to his enormous fanbase once again. Now the singer is due to touch down on Australian soul for a string of dates around the country beginning next month. Ahead of the tour, billed the Together Forever tour, we got the chance to talk to Rick about the upcoming shows, his views on the music industry and what encouraged him to return to the world of pop music after so many years. Here is what Rick had to tell us…
Brendon Veevers: You have recently announced a few shows throughout Australia for November. What can you tell us about the upcoming shows in terms of the songs you will be playing and what can fans generally expect from a Rick Astley show these days?
Rick Astley: Yeah, it’s gonna be great fun. I travel with a band. I know why most people come to see me – they come to see me do a lot of the older songs and I get that. I’m totally cool with that. So I always throw in all the singles that I did as well as different songs from different albums and stuff. I also usually thrown in a couple of cover you know, to keep me entertained. You know, just because I’ve been singing some of those songs for a very long time and I still love singing them so don’t get me wrong, I still really enjoy them but I think like anybody doing any kind of a job, you need to freshen it up a bit so I get the band to learn a couple of new things every now and then just to keep it a little but fresh for us to really enjoy it you know.
Like I have always said though, if I didn’t sing Together Forever and Never Gonna Give You Up and songs like that I think I’d be cheating people anyway. Like I say, it’s a really weird thing because, well, I guess certain artists aren’t keen to sing some of their biggest songs but I kind of retired for a very long time so I’ve sort of only been doing this for 7 or 8 years again so I kind of enjoy it really. It’s a bit of a thrill to be on the other side of the world and singing songs that are 25 years old and just the fact that I am still able to be doing it.
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BA: Like you said, you have been performing some of these songs for quite a few years. Is adding the covers and mixing things up a bit something that you deliberately do in order to keep things interesting for you as the performer?
RA: I guess it is really, yeah. Having said that, every gig is kind of the same but also different. It’s really, really weird that. I’ve been doing some really big festival type gigs this year. A lot of the retro ones where it’s just a weekend full of bands from my era and round about that time and some of them are massive, like 25,000 people in a field. It’s just crazy. So one day you might be doing something like that and the next minute you are doing an intimate 500-1000 person club date or theatre gig somewhere.
I’m going to Japan before I head down to Australia and they are all kind of different. I did a couple of gigs in South America this year; we did 5 gigs down there. The ones we did in Brazil, I went on stage at 12am. I’m usually tucked into bed with a cup of tea at 12am (laughs).
So yeah, they are all kind of slightly different and I think one of the nice things about going to somewhere like Australia is that you can talk with the audience properly because obviously we share the same language and I like to have a bit of a chat about stuff and I like to make fun of myself a little bit and make fun of the audience as well, you know, for being there (laughs) and I think I miss that sometimes when I’m in a place like South America or certain parts of Europe or whatever because I’m not fluent in any other language aside from English. I’m not even fluent in English half the time (laughs). You just have a little more connection in that way.
BV: Will those famous dance moves be making an appearance during your Australian shows?
RA: (Laughs) you know what; my knees can’t handle it no more. I don’t really do any dancing anymore. I do a shuffle for about 4 seconds during Never Gonna Give You Up and that’s about it. I just walk up and down the stage and point at people because it’s much safe. It’s safe for them and its safe for me (laughs).
It’s a funny old game that. When I see artists that have crossed my age and all the rest of it, and they’re still dancing and what have you, I kind of think “um, ok?” I mean, some people who do it can really pull it off. When you see certain artists – Madonna for example – some of those artists can get away with it. I just think I look like somebody’s uncle at a wedding, do you know what I mean.
So yeah, I try to contain myself and not get myself too excited. I try to let my voice do the talking, literally, you know.
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BV: When you go on tour, how do you feel about performing songs like Never Gonna Give You Up and Together Forever. Do you still feel good performing these songs or do you prefer to focus on your more current material?
RA: Yeah, I do feel like I have to do them. There’s no doubt about that. But I do think – and I’m not comparing myself in any way – but artists like Frank Sinatra, there were certain songs that he had to do. It was the same with Elvis. So do U2 and so does artists like Madonna. You know, you can take the biggest artists in the world and they’ve still gotta do it, do you know what I mean. So for me I just think it is part of the tradition of being a performer and a musician.
People are known for the massive songs in their careers and the massive hits that they have had and if you don’t do those songs for your audience then it is kind of unfair I think. It’s kind of almost bizarre if you don’t do it, do you know what I mean. I think with the odd exception like if someone tours all the time then you can say “well, we went to see them and they didn’t do those songs because they’ve got this new album but we’ll see them again next year”.
For an artist like me, I kind of think that I owe it to them, you know. Unless I’m coming to Australia to do some sort of African drumming tour or something like that where everyone would expect it to be different, at the end of the day they want those songs and I think that it is my responsibility and my duty to do them. But I don’t do it in a cringey way – no way do I do them like that.
I think I’ve come completely full circle with it. I think when I was in my late twenties and I had retired and I didn’t want to do it anymore, if someone had said to me “you are gonna be in your late forties and you are gonna still be singing those songs” I would have said “get off it, your joking” but now that I’m doing it, I kind of really appreciate it. You know, I’ve got a 22 year old daughter and I’m in a totally different place in life in every respect.
I’m not really famous in the way that I was back in the day. I live a very normal life and so I just have to get on stage and sing the songs that hopefully people will remember and don’t get tired of listening to and the day after I can kind of forget about it and that’s it. It’s kind of contained in that evening.
Both me and my wife see it as sort of a treat really. We’re going to Japan and Australia and we’re really looking forward to it (laughs). I just think I am really lucky to be in that position. I think there are a lot of artists who came about at the same time that I did and who can’t get close to doing some of the things that I’m doing right now. So like I said, I really appreciate the fact that I have the opportunity to be doing this.
BV: I just want to go back in time a bit so we can be brought up to speed with where you are at these days. You initially decided to retire from music in 1993 after selling millions of records. Were there any regrets about deciding to retire so young and at the time that you did?
RA: No, there really wasn’t because I had really had enough. I just wasn’t very happy and even doing something that you thought you were gonna love, it turns into something that is making you so unhappy and it sort of made me unstable. Never mind just being unhappy, I was really going downhill at the time. I didn’t want to get on any planes anymore. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I just felt like a bit of a black hole really, do you know what I mean. It was just like, “you’re gonna go and put out this record again in one other country in the world and go on that TV show and mime this song and sing that song” you know?
It became so little to do with making music. I just felt a little bit like a travelling salesman. There is of course nothing wrong with being a travelling salesman but when you dream was to be a musician, a singer and a performer and what have you, and you’ve had a bit of that but then for it to turn into what I felt was something that to be honest was quite unrelated to that really, it just used to drive me made, do you know what I mean.
I didn’t really come through that whole live performance thing. In the eighties it was all about making videos and doing promotion and while there were some amazing live bands back in those days, a lot of it was about promotion and the record was important in those days whereas now, live music is probably more important than the record and one helps the other and vice versa but back in my day you kind of went on tour to support an album and now it’s totally the other way around, you know.
Yeah, so I’ve never really regretted it, no. I had a really fantastic opportunity to walk away with my sanity intact pretty much and a really healthy bank balance, I’m not ashamed to say that. I’m never ashamed to talk about the money that I make because that’s given me the life that I’ve had. I very often that the audiences for paying for my hotels (laughs). But I really do appreciate it.
I think I’ve had just enough time away from it and still be able to see some friends what have you who have never been able to get the opportunity that I have had and I haven’t had to go through some of the shit that they have. It makes me think just how lucky I was.
Obviously you’ve got to say there was a bit of talent and there’s been some drive and there’s been some effort on my part, of course there has. But you’ve just got to be in the right place at the right time and I don’t care who you are – its goes for Frank Sinatra, for Elvis, for U2. You’ve just got to have a bit of something that clicks for you at the right time and obviously it did for me. So I have a different view point of it these days but I don’t regret stopping when I did, no way.
I just appreciate that I’ve got it back on my terms and that I’ve got it back the way I want it.
BV: If all of those things were the driving force behind you leaving the industry, what was the driving force behind your return? What made you decide to return to the music industry and recording and touring again?
RA: To be honest, and I’ll be as absolutely blunt as hell about this but funnily enough I was offered a chance to go to Japan about eight years ago and I went there. My daughter, who was 14 at the time, and my wife both desperately wanted to go to Japan but to be honest I didn’t really want to have to pay for it and it’s unbelievably expensive there and I really wanted to do a trip like that nicely. But we got an offer to do some gigs there and I had been turning down offers to do gigs for years because I didn’t want to do it and because it was Japan I thought that because it was so different over there that you could almost be on a different planet but I thought “you know what, sod it. We’ll go and have an experience. It will be a great family thing to do”.
So I went there and I really enjoyed it. Partly because there was no pressure. It wasn’t gonna be in any of our newspapers. I just thought that I would do it and come home and I just ended up really enjoying it. As soon as I got on stage I had a really good time and I had a really good laugh. I didn’t feel any hang ups about it or whatever, you know. I just enjoyed it and I walked off stage and I just thought “why the hell haven’t I been doing more of that”.
At the same time over here, a really big independent promoter who came from the same neck of the woods as me in the north of England – I just met him at a friend of a friends showcase. He said to me “why don’t you go out and sing anymore” and I sort of explained all the reasons to him and he said “just go and pick all the songs that you want to do – it doesn’t have to be yours and I’ll put a little band together. We can go out and do a little tour and if you don’t want to do it anymore we’ll shake hands but if you do we’ll talk”.
So I kind of went and did that and I actually went out and sang all the songs that my dad used to sing. My mum played piano and she had done for years and years in wine bars and pubs and stuff like that and I just did a lot of old classics and favourites and I just really enjoyed it. It just made me think that “nobody is making you go out and sing Never Gonna Give You Up”, you know. It’s my choice to do that.
I just think that once you get something into perspective – I think it is that whole thing about being signed to a major record label and to be lucky enough to be one of the guys that are selling quite a few records – all that pressure comes on top of you all of a sudden and you start thinking “Oh my god, we’ve got to keep doing this” and music just turns into something else. It turns into a business, full stop. I just thought that I would go out into venues – big, small or whatever – and just sing and enjoy it and so that is exactly what I do.
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BV: What was it like stepping back into the recording studio after so many years out of the spotlight and were there any challenges that you had to overcome in terms of how different the process of recording music has evolved and how music is promoted these days with social media playing a big rolls in an artist’s career.
RA: Not really for me on an emotional level or a technical level because I’ve always had little studios anyway so I’ve always been pretty ok at putting tracks together. I’m not saying that I’m a producer but I can do things at home and make things out pretty good and I’ve kept up with a lot of that. Quite a lot of my friends are still in the business – writers, producers and those sorts of guys. I sort of made friends with those sorts of guys more than I did with other artists because I saw them more than I did other artists to be honest.
So I’ve sort of kept up in terms of making records and how you do it and all the rest of it but I think the biggest thing for someone like me, partly because I had my time so long ago and also partly because I’m 48, is just trying to keep up with what’s happening with the internet and the way that we do everything. Just the whole concept of not just music but movies and everything – it’s just a totally different world.
I think it’s a mindset to try to understand that people don’t necessarily want ownership of anything anymore. I don’t know about you Brendon but my generation, we wanted to go down to a record store, listen to a record a little bit and play around with the cover a little bit, take it home, digest it, quickly fall in love with it and all the rest of it. Nowadays, that’s kind of different and there’s nothing wrong with what happens today. It’s just different. I’m just slightly old fashioned in that I want to hold something and touch something because it’s what I grew up with, you know what I mean. Though, I’m not really in that position of trying to sell records anyway.
It’s like the U2 thing and what they did with iTunes recently. I think that was a bit of a misjudgement on both parts and in the truth of reality I think it shows that even though Apple is supposed to be right at the cutting edge of everything, I think they got that wrong in a big way. It just goes to show that you have to have your ear on the ground and really.
You know, if you want to keep up with the times and with how people feel about stuff but then again I guess you just have to be young. Maybe music as a business is now just a young person’s game. But then maybe that’s me being just a bit ageist but I’m saying in terms of releasing records, you’ve got to have somebody involved in it that really has their finger and their ear on the pulse of what the public actually think and want, you know.
BV: The music industry has changed significantly over the years and is almost a completely different beast from the days when your records were topping the charts. Music has gone digital and many of today’s singers come from reality shows like X Factor. What are your thoughts on the direction of the music industry?
RA: I think there is always good music around somewhere. I think with the TV shows, they are exactly that – they are TV shows but once every now and then it spits out someone who is pretty good and so whether they came through a TV show or whether they slogged it out in the clubs for 3 or 4 years, I’m not really bothered. If they’re really good, that’s all I really care about you know.
Sometimes you’ll get someone come out of one of those shows and while I might not necessarily buy they record, somebody else will because they absolutely love them. Not everybody bought my records.
I think there is room for every type and everyone. I don’t begrudge anyone coming out of a TV show, that’s for sure because usually, by the time they’ve gotten around to the final, yeah sure there are a couple of crazy nutters in the show as well, but there is usually someone fantastic in it.
I just think it’s a different format but that format has always been around. They’ve just got a lot better at honing them down really. We’ve always had talent shows on TV since the seventies or even the sixties or whatever so they’ve just kind of honed in on it more I think.
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BV: Are there plans to record a new album and what can you tell us about what style of music we might expect from you these days and when we might be able to expect a record to arrive?
RA: You know what, it’s really odd and it’s really frustrating because I still know loads of people in the business so I chat with various people and they say “we’d be interested in doing a record with you blah blah blah”.
The thing for me is that I find it really difficult because I feel like writing songs and messing around and making music and all the rest of it and I still hear songs that sort of make me think “god I wish I’d sung that” but I think to commit to doing everything that you’ve got to do to release a record properly and do all the rest of it, it’s just such a massive undertaking.
I’m doing over 50 gigs this year and for me that’s kind of enough, do you know what I mean. Like I said, I’ve been to South America already this year and there’s Japan and Australia. I’ve been around Europe, you know, Portugal, I’ve been to Slovakia and I’ve been to Norway so I don’t know if it is something that I really want to sign up to right now.
Having said that, I also think to myself “you don’t have to make LP, album or whatever you want to call it”. You can just do a couple of tracks; maybe sling one up on iTunes, whatever. Put them up for free, who cares, do you know what I mean.
So I don’t know. It’s a tricky one that. What I don’t want to do is get seduced into thinking that I’m going to release an album and it’s going to be this, that or the other because I think that could be the road to misery for anybody in my position. I think that you just have to do it because you fancy doing it.
Like I said, I still really enjoy writing songs and messing about in the studio so we’ll see. You can never say never but as I said I’ve got friends at the top end of the business who are releasing stuff and it’s just incredible today what goes on you’ve got to have the fire in your belly for that and I don’t know whether I do but we’ll see.
BV: Do you see this career resurgence being a long term thing or are you taking things one day at a time?
RA: I’m just taking it day but day to be honest, that’s what I do. I’ve already got various gigs plugged in for 2015 and what I tend to do if I’m absolutely flat honest – I’ve got 3 or 4 questions when I’m offered a gig, which are “where is it?”, “when is it?” and “how much is it?” (laughs) and I balance them all up. Sometimes I look at a gig and I think “I’m not really gonna make any money out of that” or “I’m not gonna get a lot of money if I want to take my band and do it this way or whatnot”. But sometimes I think “You know what, I really want to play in that place” because either it meant something to me as I was growing up or it’s a place I’ve never been to or whatever. Then there are other ones that I will be absolutely honest with you, I kind of think “Do I really wanna do that gig on that Friday because I’ve got one on the Saturday as well” and “I’m gonna have to get on a plane to get to that one which I don’t love doing” but then I will see that it pays a lot of money so I’ll go “Oh go on then” (laughs). So I just try to balance it out. There has to be a balance in life, in all things. There’s not enough money sometimes to get me to do any gig, do you know what I mean. It all works out in the end.
BV: I have to say Rick; your honesty is very refreshing!
RA: Unfortunately – or fortunately, whichever way someone wants to look at it – the way people are judged very often in a lot of things in life is how much money they get paid to do it. I’m not saying that someone like me gets paid the right amount of money or anything. It’s a ridiculous amount of money that I get paid to get up and sing but the bars been set by the industry and that goes for sports and all. You kind of think to yourself “if someone wants to pay me money to come and sing then I’m still worth something as a singer”. I mean, I still think I’m worth it if you don’t want to come and see me by the way (laughs) but that’s the way we look at it.
I’m not ashamed to admit that. I’m not ashamed to say “yeah, I get paid well to do this”. It’s like saying that I still have my mojo so I must still have something going on (laughs).
Rick Astley’s Together Forever tour begins on 19th November in Sydney. Click here for the full tour schedule.
::: RenownedForSound.com’s Editor and Founder –
Interviewing and reviewing the best in new music and globally recognized artists is his passion.
Over the years he has been lucky enough to review thousands of music releases and concerts and interview artists ranging from top selling superstars like 27-time Grammy Award winner Alison Krauss, Boyz II Men, Roxette, Cyndi Lauper, Lisa Loeb and iconic Eagles front man/songwriter, Glenn Frey through to more recent successes including Newton Faulkner, Janelle Monae and Caro Emerald.
Brendon manages and coordinates the amazing team of writers on RenownedForSound.com who are based in the UK, the U.S and Australia.