Interview with Rick Astley: “Why Rick is still on a roll”
- Credit: Archant
Rick Astley is one of the stars performing at Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May. Katie Jarvis did some quick research into 60s childhood, 80s fame, and millennium rickrolling
So, it’s like this. When you know you’re interviewing someone – megastar or person-down-the-road (it matters not) – you research like crazy. Toss aside your Jilly Cooper and devour any books written about your subject instead; take copious notes from newspaper articles; stare incessantly at videos of them on YouTube. The whole shebang. So that, after a week or so, you know things about them that would astonish their own mother.
I’ve got 24 hours’ notice that I’m interviewing Rick Astley. And I’m tied up for 23 of them.
To be fair, there’s not a huge amount of research stuff out there. A Smash Hits interview from 1988 in which Rick Astley looks about 12. “Are you frightened of the dentist?” (He used to be.) “What do you think of Smash Hits?” (Oh, come on! How honest do you think he can be?)
OK. Numerous, numerous interviews; but no books.
But the real reason I wanted more time was this.
I absolutely love Never Gonna Give You Up (We’re no strangers to lu-uh-uhve/You know the rules and SO do I...) I love the fact that everyone (you have to do ultra-rapid showing-off when you’ve only 24 hours’ showing-off time), from age 20 to 60 is mega-excited I’m getting to interview Rick.
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But...I want enough time to practise subtly slipping in the really fascinating questions. About rickrolling. (You know, the prank where, every time you click a link, Rick Astley unexpectedly pops up.)
Like (allegedly) Rick’s helped the fight against terrorism after the hackers group, Anonymous, rickrolled every ISIL hashtag they could find on Twitter. Like (allegedly), constantly being bombarded by Never Gonna Give You Up on surround-sound speakers forced General Noriega out of hiding in the Vatican embassy.
Not even Bowie could claim that. Or Mel & Kim.
The second time I call Rick Astley (“Welcome to the messaging service”), I get through.
“Sorry I didn’t pick up the first time,” he says (gorgeous deep voice; still a smattering of Newton-le-Willows). “To be honest, we don’t ever use this line anymore as the phone’s a bit dicky.”
Millionaire since the age of 22 and has a dicky phone! It’s the kind of info that puts you right at ease.
AND it means I can add ‘end up with a dicky phone’ to my torrent of initial questions, which all start: How on earth did you...?
Because, when you look at his life, it’s full of conundrums. Full of things that – in a logical universe – should never have happened.
He laughs at this. “OK...”
“Because it is amazing when you think about it,” I continue, on a (rick) roll. “How on earth did you create such a stable family life (after a pretty creaky childhood)? Or give up fame (voluntarily retiring, aged 27, with sales of 40 million racked up)? Or make such a comeback (in 2016, his album 50 hit the number one spot 29 years after his last chart-topper)? Or avoid pop-star clichés? (Or end up with a dicky phone?)
“Fair enough. Which one do you want me to answer first?”
“I don’t know!” I say, unable to stop. “How about: Or even get more fans, not fewer, from rickrolling? [I’ve said it! So early on, too.] How on earth have you done all this?”
“Um,” he contemplates. “It’s very weird. Luck plays a big part in someone’s musical career, that’s for sure.”
(And – do you know what? – I could stop the interview there. Because that’s pretty much the answer to all those ‘How on earths’. (Though not the phone one.) You hear it in every interview he does. Here is one decent, down-to-earth, feet-on-the-floor, genuinely nice guy. That’s how he’s dodged all those ‘How on earths’.)
“It does!” he protests, when I try to gainsay the ‘luck’ bit.
“I’ve got friends who are mega-talented. Never made it as artists; just didn’t get their break in the right light on the right day. We’ve all got albums that we love, that no one else has heard of. How did that happen?”
He’s now on a rickroll, too.
“But I do also think there are certain things that happen – like the rickrolling thing. [He kind of said it first.] It wasn’t like I could say, ‘Do you know what? I don’t fancy that’. It just happened. And, to be honest, it’s been pretty amazing. I think there are lots of artists in a position like mine, who’ve been big in the 80s, and who’ve been thinking: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to get something on the internet!’ Because it’s really hard to get new songs on the internet. It’s really hard to generate that [interest] with somebody who’s ‘from a different era’, if you want to put it politely… Old buggers, in other words.”
So let’s do more of the ‘How on earths’.
Because he’s been with his wife, Danish film producer Lene Bausager, for nearly three decades; they have a daughter, Emilie, born in 1992. Such longevity of relationship is rare in celebrity circles; I’d imagine it’s even rarer in someone whose childhood was so lacking in stability.
He was born in February 1966, child number four. A brother had died, very young, of meningitis before Rick arrived – a tragedy never really spoken about, he says. None of this could have been easy for a lad growing up in a traditional Lancashire market town. But then, as he points out, he has no knowledge of what an easy childhood might have looked like.
“Being a kid at school [in those days] with divorced parents was quite unusual. I was brought up by my dad and not my mum. I saw my mum a lot but I wasn’t in the house with her every day, and that was very unusual, too.”
Something he once said about his early life interested me. That, when he was on stage (he sang in the local church choir and, later on, played drums in various bands), he felt strangely safe. Because he was in control.
“Yeah, I do still feel that to this day, even though I feel very safe and comfortable in my life. But it comes down to something primeval – and that comes from my childhood. It comes from not being safe, and thinking: What the hell’s going on? These two people who are meant to be there… Every Walt Disney movie you see, that doesn’t happen: parents are there for you all the time.
“When you realise that may not be the case, it pulls the rug, and I don’t think you can ever put the rug back. So you spend the rest of your life doing things to put that rug back.”
Hard. Very hard. And utterly tragic for his parents to have lost a child.
“Absolutely. I can’t even imagine what that was like for them. So I have no judgement. My dad had a little [market garden] business at the time as well – just a lot going on. Even having a bunch of kids back then. I dunno. Tough.”
He’s not going to upset anybody, he says, if he reveals that his sister and two brothers are also still with the partners they’ve been with for over 20 years.
Yep. Big achievement.
“Well, in this day and age, that’s unusual, let’s say. But I think there’s something within us that’s saying: ‘That just isn’t happening; we’ll work through things and we’ll make it better’.”
“I don’t want to come across as like...I’ve had every opportunity in the world to keep my family together. I’ve been rich since I was 21 - I don’t mean that to sound crass. I’m trying to say that I’ve never had to worry about money. My wife has never had to worry about: ‘I’ve got to do this job or we’re never going to keep the roof over our heads.’ So we’ve wiped that slate clean straight away. It’s more been: How do we make things good between us with all the opportunities we’ve got?
“So I do look at families and think: No wonder they split up. And I can look at my own parents and do that.”
Indeed. So important was the family he went on to create that, when Emilie was born, he took a long hard look at life. He was only 27. Mega successful. Pretty darn rich.
“But certain switches went on. I went: You’re a dad. You’ve got a child who’s going to look at you and go: What are you doing?”
He loves music – all kinds of music – but he wasn’t quite as in love with the industry that surrounds it. Plus, he wanted to enjoy his good fortune; spend time with his new family.
I read he had a breakdown – emotional – on a motorway; a real catalyst?
“Yeah. I didn’t want to fly anymore. I do fly now and I don’t love it but I do it. But I just thought: I don’t want to be getting on planes all the time. Being scared of it. Going away from a family that I’d like to be around.
“You start to realise what it’s about and what it takes to have a hit record. You kind of think - it’s not really to do with whether this song is better than that one or more people even like it. It’s almost about trying to get more people TO like it rather than it being genuine.”
He’s passed his wisdom-gene down. It was Emilie, his daughter – a teenager at the time - who took him aside when rickrolling really took off, years after he’d retired.
“She sat me down and said, ‘You do realise that none of this is real and it doesn’t mean anything’. It was good to have somebody that age around me that I love and I trust because it made me think, yeah, she’s absolutely right.
“So I never took it seriously; I never rode it; I never used it; I never did anything with it.”
He’s had fun with it, though. Like when he bumped into the Foo Fighters in Japan, playing at the same festival. “And they invited me on stage to sing Never Gonna Give You Up with them, but in a very rock way.
“They’d already used that song as a sort of goof-around for things in America. They protested a Baptist church [the homophobic Westboro]; they’ve got this ongoing fight with them.”
Has he ever been rickrolled?
“The first time I heard about it was when a friend of mine, who lives in LA, rickrolled me. I was like, ‘We’ve known each other for years. What ARE you doing?’ I was on holiday in Italy and I called him. Even after he’d explained it to me, I couldn’t get my head round it.”
“Because I think, unless you are completely psychotic, you’ve got to have some distance to the fact that that guy in that raincoat in that video - yes, it’s me. But it’s me of a very long time ago. I’m not running away from it but – like your university or your leaving-school photographs – you have some distance from it.”
He doesn’t wear a raincoat, for one thing. Nevertheless, he has a fondness for the guy in the video. Wouldn’t mind buying him a beer; talking to him about life.
“I also have a laugh with it. I totally get that it’s funny.”
Fame’s a funny thing, too. He’s glad Emilie didn’t grow up with a famous dad. Glad that he dodged that bullet himself, for so many years.
He must still have been recognised in the in-betweens?
“Yeah, but I was like ‘proper’ famous before. I’m about to go to Tesco in a minute; I’m making pasta for me and Dan, who engineers and mixes the records [in the studio he uses at his home]. And not one person will bat an eyelid.
“And yet, if we’re going back all those years, I couldn’t have gone into a small shop in Tasmania. I’m not exaggerating; I’m using that example because it happened.”
He’s lucky, he says, to have experienced fame. But it had its limits. When you’re trying to have an intimate conversation with a friend, and five people turn up.
“And you go, ‘Oh! Just give us a minute.’ And they go, ‘What do you mean, give us a minute? We’ve got all your albums and we love you.’”
So now, maybe, he has the best of both worlds. A second successful career and the ability to buy pasta in Tesco without being mobbed. Before Cheltenham, he’s touring America. Later in the year, he’s releasing his next album.
Is it going to be very different from 50?
“I think, if anything, all I’ve done is to sit down with a guitar a bit more this time, whereas I sat down with the piano a bit more last time to write the songs. I’ve just tried to please myself. I did it with the last album – played every instrument, produced it and wrote every song - and I’ve done that again.
“I’ve tried to ignore the fact that the last one did well. I did toy with the idea of writing with big writers and going with in a big producer. But I thought, no. You’re not doing it for that. So remember that.”
He’s really looking forward to Cheltenham where he’ll be performing some classics - Come Fly With Me; I’ve Got You Under My Skin – with Ronnie Scott’s Big Band.
“When I was a tiny kid, my dad used to sing Sinatra stuff all the time. My mum’s a piano player and I know those songs really well. My dad had a really good voice – he still has – though I didn’t realise he was singing the wrong words half the time!”
I’ve forgotten to ask him about Noriega and ISIL. Maybe if I’d had 48 hours...
But I do say one important thing. Your talent, I suggest, isn’t just in music; it’s in understanding the word ‘enough’.
“Maybe. Yeah, maybe,” he says, with nothing but gratitude. “I’m not going to be the richest man in my neighbourhood but I live in a nice neighbourhood. It’s all cool.”
Cool, yes. And absolutely enough.
• Rick Astley is performing with Ronnie Scott’s Big Band at Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Monday, May 7, 4.30-5.45pm; cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz; 01242 850270.
For more on Rick, visit rickastley.co.uk.