Robbie Williams on drugs, demons, One Direction and his new 'Icon' status
Williams is the third ever person to be named a Brits Icon after Sir Elton John and David Bowie
It has been a good day for the British charts’ most successful ever solo male musician. Robbie Williams woke up buoyed by the news that his new album, The Heavy Entertainment Show, has entered the album rundown at number one.
It’s his 12th time at the summit, a feat bettered only by the Beatles and Elvis Presley. To mark the occasion, the 42-year-old, accompanied by wife Ayda Field, appeared on ITV’s Loose Women to talk about his depression – and show off his pants.
Now, however, the man who’s sold 75 million albums is back at his baroque ’n’ roll mansion off Kensington High Street in west London pondering the exact nature of his latest success.
His new album had first-week sales of 67,000 copies. How do those figures compare with sales in what he calls (with credit to Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, who coined the phrase) his imperial era?
“Well,” begins Williams, over the sound of wailing children drifting in from the kitchen, “one album sold 460,000 in the first week.”
Which album? The boy band alumnus, who fled Take That in 1995 for a soar-away solo career, ponders the question. “I don’t know... I just know that was the figure for one of them.
“The music industry is obviously in rapid decline,” frowns the lad from Stoke-on-Trent, still sounding very Potteries. “I don’t understand it but it looks like record companies are running for cover behind Spotify. Streaming seems to be a big deal. There must be some sort of Cold War covert [dealings] going on, because you get something like 0.006 pence per play. I’ve probably had a Spotify royalty cheque, but it won’t be very weighty. I’m not a [cough] streamed artist. But we redefine success. Number one is number one, and you can’t argue with popularity. Well, you could, but you’d be wrong.”
Take That, 2010
I’d have brought something bubbly to celebrate, or I could’ve tried chocolate. But then I remember the so-called Minstrels Years, when this fundamentally addictive man alternated sacks of sweets with long stints in the gym.
Actually, it would’ve been all right.
“Monday is my only chocolate-eating day,” he explains.
We’re talking today, not just because this once troubled troubadour is top of the pops again, but because he’s also been anointed as the Brit Awards’ 2017 Icon. It’s only the third time the honour has been given, his predecessors being Sir Elton John and David Bowie.
Ahead of the actual ceremony in February, Williams recently performed an intimate London show in front of 3,000 fans and the ITV cameras, with a special appearance from his old Take That bandmates: “That felt like genuine magic; there was a crackle in the air.”
The award adds to his unequalled haul of 17 Brits. Where does he keep them? “I’ve given them away,” he says, now sprawled on a sofa in a living room a bit further from the noisy pre-bath-time antics of four-year-old Theodora (known as Teddy) and Charlton (Charlie), two. “Dad’s got one, my mum’s got a couple, Wayne Rooney’s got one...”
Williams won the Brits-25 Best Song for Angels in 2005
Cue a typically colourful Williams tale. “I was stoned and Wayne got injured in a match, and I shouted to my manager [slurred voice]: ‘Michael, will you send a Brit to Wayne Rooney... Tell him to get better from me...’ It was like those shopping decisions you make on Amazon when you’re on Ambien [a sleeping pill]. But it was well intentioned, and he sent me a pair of signed football boots. So, good deal!
“But,” he adds, “there’s nothing in the house that says I’m me.”
It’s true. Looking around the “public rooms” of this giant family dwelling, formerly the home of film director Michael Winner, I can see lots of Lego, Disney, Snoopy and Rupert the Bear, lots of lovely art, lots of Kew Gardens-worthy plants. What kind of rock star lives here?
“Absolutely no idea,” he replies, chuffed. Not even any gold discs in the toilet? “Nope. All been auctioned.” Also true, I check – although when I avail myself of the downstairs loo, I notice a burnished gold cistern stamped with the legend “Say drugs to no” and an ecstasy-evoking smiley.
The no-hint-of-the-day-job furnishing is deliberate. It’s a kind of ego-cleansing sorbet, put into action when the family moved in two weeks ago, three years after Williams purchased the Grade II*-listed 1781 property for, reportedly, £17 million.
He’s mortified at the ongoing public nature of his spat with his neighbour, former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. The dispute over Williams’s plans for remodelling the house has been rumbling for four years. It’s in the news today. Appearing on an Italian radio station Williams, thinking his mic was turned off, laughed that: “The same is happening to Gary Barlow with Brian May. Maybe I should apologise to Ed Sheeran for what I’m going to do to him in 15 years!” Leading to more headlines.
“Which is embarrassing,” he says with a wince, “because I’m a people-pleaser. And even though [Page’s] been...” – he pauses – “...more than a t*t, I feel as though I’ve done something wrong. But,” he brightens, “at least he knows!”
Barlow and Williams
He’s come a long way from working-class kid of divorced parents to mansion-dwelling icon. But push him to isolate the best highs and worst lows from his years in Take That (the manufactured band he joined in 1990 as a 16-year-old), or from the rollercoaster solo years (when he was insanely successful and successfully insane, dropping in and out of rehab and lost in LA) and he struggles.
What about his infamous Knebworth shows in 2003, when he played to 375,000 fans over three days? “No, that was just terrifying and overwhelming. That weekend forced me so far into myself that I probably haven’t fully come back out.”
And the lowest point? He thinks that might have come in 2006 when, to his ears, the clamour of the haters was louder than the wild enthusiasm of stadia full of fans the world over. “One of the big aspects of that was hating myself because of how many [negative] words had reached me. And I believed them.”
Ten years on, though, he’s learned to “sort of cradle the hate, understand it, and go, ‘Yeah, OK, I get it, I know that I’m annoying. How are we gonna work with that?’”
Meeting Ayda Field, an American actress, that same year – they married six years ago – helped save him. What else stopped him succumbing to the drink, drugs and demons?
Robbie and Ayda
“Myself, and my tenacity. And also, wanting to be a good boy... I recognised at 19 that it was a problem. And since 19 I’ve basically been sober; with blips in between that have been months rather than years. I could see the signs. It was death, institutions, hospitals – I knew that that was where it was going. And I got the basic fact that I was an addict, which is unfortunate because I liked drinking and l liked taking drugs!” he laughs.
Could he have a drink safely now? “No,” he says with a shudder. “No. Never.”
Could he do any drugs safely? He pauses briefly then cackles: “Yep!” But, he clarifies, “I’m not searching to do anything. But I definitely can’t drink. I definitely can’t do coke. I can’t do ecstasy. And I don’t fancy heroin. Or M-Cat [mephedrone] or ketamine or any of those things. But maybe there’s a once-a-year special voucher that I get for good behaviour. But not for any of those things. I’ll leave it to your imagination.”
As for the demons..? “They’ve been all right. But it happens to coincide with finding a different medication. For real,” he clarifies, meaning prescription drugs rather than illegal. “It’s called Brintellix. I had a really weird summer. Just couldn’t connect with anybody, apart from my wife. I didn’t know how to talk to anybody, even people who are with me every day. I was isolated, in my head. It was troublesome and sad. Then I tried this anti-depressant and things have changed. The demons are quiet.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Heavy Entertainment Show is a brilliant, triumphant pop album, vintage Williams on every level: robustly melodic, brimming with pithy wit and stuffed with clever collaborators, including the Killers, Ed Sheeran and Rufus Wainwright. But as he blithely points out, it took three years to make. It also required four producers, 20 co-writers, 80 songs and lots of “kick-bollock-scramble” effort to reclaim number one.
The Killers feature on Williams' new album
Meanwhile, he keeps an eye out for his rivals. Ask whom he rates and he replies “my peers” – Justin Timberlake (“an Olympian”) and Bruno Mars (“he and his team have the best songs right now”).
How about British talent? “There’s Adele, of course...” And the boys from the temporarily defunct One Direction?
“I think Harry Styles has beguiled the whole world just by being Harry Styles. He’s got a David Beckham-style quality. So he’s won in that regard. There’s a space for him but the music has to be great.”
“Last year I tried to work with Bruno Mars – didn’t hear anything back. Tried to work with [Swedish hitmaker] Max Martin – didn’t hear anything back. They literally didn’t return my calls. Then I met Harry Styles in an airport. ‘Oh, you’re writing, Harry? Great, who with?’ He goes: ‘Well, I just spent a week with Bruno Mars, and I’m about to spend a week with Max Martin.’”
Williams tried to put on a brave, generous face. “‘Oh, I’m super-duper happy for you...’ Bleurgh,” he relates, miming a sickened grimace. “‘You’re the new me. Good luck!’” The old Williams might have been laid low by that, and reached for the family-sized bag of Minstrels. The new Williams can’t afford to be.
At this point, Teddy enters the room and, cute as a button, announces in a small voice, “Daddy? When you were on TV today, I saw your pants!”
“You never did! What was on my pants?”
“Ah, my tiger pants. Are you going to give me a cuddle?”
Then in wobbles Charlie, shouting, “Papa!” before promptly falling over.
“Daddy’s got to do a bit more work, babies...” coos Daddy as Grandma Gwen, Ayda’s mother, comes to the rescue.
Before he returns to the bosom of the family, I ask: how does Robbie Williams wear his Brits Icon status?
“What does it mean? It means we’ve got a cracking bit of promotion for an album that I’m really passionate about. But owning a compliment is difficult for me to get through my DNA. I don’t rate what I do,” he states matter-of-factly. “I enjoy it, and it’s fun, I get to be creative; I’ve got the best job ever. But I do have Impossible Charlatan Syndrome. I’m not a ‘weighty artist’. I daren’t even call myself an ‘artist’. I’m vaudeville, end of the pier. I’ve stretched an elastic band from Stoke-on-Trent to Venus. That’s how lucky I’ve been.
“What a crashing bore I’d be if I accepted the fact that I was the most winning-est Brit Award winner, with the most UK number ones. But if that guy could put on those socks and feel that every day, he’d probably run for president.” Well, as we’ve seen recently, stranger things have happened.
Brits Icon: Robbie Williams is on tonight at 9pm on ITV