Celebrity Interview: Russell Watson

Back from a gruelling struggle with brain cancer, Russell Watson is about to embark on his biggest ever tour – including a date in Cheltenham raising funds for LINC.

YOU REALLY can’t identify a great singing voice just from a natter. When he’s chatting to you, Russell Watson sounds like the bloke next door: Lancastrian accent, northern humour, down-to-earth attitude, Black Eyed Peas on his iPod. Then he starts to sing and the world sits up and takes notice.

It’s certainly taking notice of his new album: La Voce. The mellifluous flow that made this English tenor a national favourite is there in full. But there’s a new power and depth apparent, too. So what’s changed?

Well, Russell Watson has changed. He’s back after a gruelling struggle with brain cancer, which began in 2006 with the discovery of a large tumour, and continued with a relapse the following year. When he finally started practising again, his voice coach was shocked. ‘Oh my god,’ he said, ‘what’s happened to your voice, Russell?’ Shocked and delighted, that is – he was referring to the rich extra dimension the singer had acquired, possibly as a direct result of physical changes brought about by surgery. For Russell, however, the biggest change is an emotional one.

“When I sing certain songs now, I’m an emotional wreck,” he confesses. “There are tunes that have a new significance because of what I’ve been through. Like the Schubert Ave Maria, for instance. It doesn’t become a song; it actually becomes a prayer and an extension of who you are. And that’s a remarkable feeling.” He gives a wry chuckle. “That’s why, when I see young kids singing Frank Sinatra’s My Way on a talent show, or whatever, I think: Crikey. Yeah, right!”

If you need more proof that he’s back on top form, Russell has just embarked on his biggest ever tour. One that takes him all round the UK, over to Japan and Taiwan – and back to Cheltenham Racecourse on June 25 for a concert in aid of LINC, the region’s outstanding charity that works to improve the care of cancer patients and their families.

He gets numerous such fundraising requests but this one struck a particular chord. “During the period that I was ill, I was very, very fortunate. I had a lot of people around me that cared for me; my medical care was very, very, very good – but not so many people are as fortunate. And a lot of people forget that it wasn’t just about me. When I was suffering, I had no idea what everyone else around me was going through.

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I did an article in The Times with my 16-year-old daughter Rebecca, and the interesting thing was that I actually had no idea how she felt about my illness until I read that piece. We’d never really spoken about it.” In the beginning, he says, it was cathartic to talk so openly about his illness. But he continues to do it now for another reason – because it inspires fellow sufferers. “I got a handwritten letter recently from a 12-yearold girl, which said, ‘I didn’t realise until I saw you on Piers Morgan the other week how much we have in common. My birthday’s exactly the same date as yours – the 24th of November – and I have the same pituitary tumour that you have.’ I read this letter and I just thought: Oh my god… But people will say to me, ‘I saw how you were talking about things and it really helped me to cope. If you can do it, I can do it’.”

He’s certainly proof of that particular mantra. Born in Salford, Lancashire, Russell left school without a qualification to his name. “When I was growing up, school was all about sport and there was no focus on music. Dare I say it, but one of the teachers I had at high school had the attitude, ‘Music lesson? OK, let’s put our feet up and have a bit of a natter’. The only quavers I was interested in as a kid were the cheesy ones!”

After school, he got a factory job on a Youth Opportunities Programme earning a pittance, which he supplemented by singing in working men’s clubs throughout the North West. It was a chance suggestion – a request for the Puccini classic Nessun Dorma – that got him singing opera. He received a standing ovation for his first performance and, in 1990, official recognition came when he won Piccadilly Radio’s Search for a Star competition in Manchester. His first album, The Voice, went to number one in this country and across the Atlantic, as well as winning two Classical Brit awards. Not bad for a factory boy from Salford…

“But if I look back on my childhood, I think to myself: if I knew then what I know now, I would have approached my education in a completely different way,” Russell says. “I wouldn’t have been the class clown, constantly trying to impress my friends. It’s after I left school that I really started to show interest in education and furthering myself as a human being.” At the same time, he’s aware that motivation has to come from within. And he’s certainly not pushy with his own children, Rebecca, and Hannah, who’s 10.

“If you have a child that doesn’t want to learn or isn’t interested, you can make them but they will resent it later in life. My youngest daughter, Hannah, plays the piano. Some parents take the line: ‘You will play the piano! Have you practised?’ It’s almost a drill and the child, as a result, maybe begins to resent it.

“With Hannah, I encourage her; I’ll listen to her play. Because I have musical knowledge as well, I will sit with her at the piano and, if she’s struggling with a section, I’ll show her: OK, here’s what you do. And when she does something well, I reward her by saying, ‘Well done. That was absolutely brilliant; I’m so proud of you and, one day, it would be fantastic if you could play the piano on stage while daddy sings.’ That makes her smile. And isn’t that what music’s about? It should be a pleasurable experience.

“Rebecca likes music but she isn’t musical…Having said that, when I was that age, I didn’t really show much flair for music. I’d play guitar but hidden away in my bedroom.” He’s no shrinking violet now – and rightly so. In fact, he’s raring to go. “I can say this wholeheartedly: I’ve never been so excited about a tour. I’m very, very, very much looking forward to getting back on stage again and blasting it out. We’re using a young orchestra called Arts Symphonic; they’re so enthusiastic about what they’re doing – and they sound just amazing. A really fresh, vibrant, bright sound.”

His Cheltenham concert will be a mix of material from the last decade but, predominantly, it will feature songs from his new record, La Voce – Italian for Russell’s long-standing nickname, The Voice. If you look through the track list, you’ll see much of it is sung in Italian: Parla Piu Piano (Love Theme from The Godfather), Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te), sung to the tune Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me; and the beautifully dramatic Solo Con Te. He recorded it in Italy, with the Roma Sinfonietta: “We really had to make it feel as though it had that authenticity and, of course, going to Italy gave it that,” Russell says.

“Listen to Arrivederci Roma, for instance, and you could be on the coast of the Med in an open-top sports car, beautiful sunshine in your face. It’s got that kind of feel to it – a real sense of romanticism.” It has received excellent reviews from critics, who are predicting renewed success for this talented singer. He’s delighted. But no matter how good sales are; no matter how pleased the doctors are with his recovery; there’s one thing that counts above all others. Standing up on stage signals that Russell Watson has finally got his life back. “Absolutely,” he says, with satisfaction. “Yeah!”

Russell Watson, ‘The Voice’, with special guest Natasha Marsh, will be performing an open-air concert on Saturday, June 25 at Cheltenham Racecourse. Tickets are on sale at �40 from Cheltenham Town Hall tel: 08445 762210 and Everyman Theatre tel: 01242 573573. For further information, visit www.lincfund.org. For more on Russell, visit www.russell-watson.com