Entertainment & Arts

Mark Owen swaps Take That for Doing Nothing

Take That's Mark Owen talks exclusively to the BBC about writing his new "self-help" album, recording at Abbey Road and dressing up as an astronaut in Berlin.

At the bottom of Owen's manicured garden, sitting alongside a tree house, is what he calls his "rabbit hutch".

But rather than fluffy bunnies, this "hutch" houses a studio filled with guitars, pianos and a vocal booth.

Mark could not be more welcoming as he shows us around. Yet as he shares his doubts about writing his fourth solo record, he becomes surprisingly emotional.

"At times I thought, I don't need to put myself through this now," he says as he recalls recording The Art of Doing Nothing, his first solo album in eight years.

"I thought that, if I could pull the plug right now, nobody would ever know and the world would go on."

The album, which he started writing when the band's sell-out Progress tour finished in 2011, was a painful journey for the singer.

"I was writing a self-help record," he says.

Since his last solo album, 2005's How the Mighty Fall, Owen had a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse after confessing to cheating on his partner in a series of flings.

Now reconciled with his wife Emma, the couple had their third child in August last year.

"I wanted this to be a clean slate, and I think this what I was hoping The Art of Doing Nothing would be as a record - almost like a fresh start."

Owen, who turned 40 last year, shows a contemplative side on the new album in such tracks as Heaven's Falling and The End of Everything.

"You can't help but reflect a little bit and look at your life, where things could have been different or where it might go."

Owen had seven number one albums with Take That and sold more than 45 million records. But he is yet to emulate this success on his own.

Mark Owen in 2013 and 1996
Mark Owen as he is now (left) and as he was in 1996 (right)

His first single Child, released shortly after the band broke up in 1996, peaked at number three in the UK singles chart.

His follow-up single, Clementine, also reached the top three. But his debut solo album, Green Man, only got to 33 after selling around 200,000 copies.

"I think I realised during this process what working with other people brings," Owen says thoughtfully.

"Gaz [Gary Barlow] is very straight and he brings a confidence to everything. When they're not around you think: 'Where's my really confident moment? It's not around.'"

So is he ready to share his new work with the world?

"I go through little flashes of being really excited about it, followed about two seconds later by mad panic fear - about a hundred times a day," he says laughing.

"You realise when the five of us are working together the cogs that work together, and then when you're doing it on your own, the cogs not being in place."

Owen is adamant his new album was made without the help of his band mates as part of his "life journey".

And although he was tempted to call his friends for help, he had to "live through the hurt a little bit" and work it out on his own.

Take That in New York in 1995
Take That first formed in 1989 but broke up seven years later, shortly after Robbie Williams (far left) quit the group

"I probably used to fill those hurts with other things which I don't do anymore - so it just hurt," he winces.

The Art of Doing Nothing, however, is not filled with self-pitying tracks and Owen wallowing in his past mistakes.

"In my head I can go grey and rain easily. But it's not always fair for me to ask people to listen to grey and rain, so I was thinking, 'let's try and bring the sun'."

The album is as mixed as Owen's emotions, with some tracks that could surprise Take That fans who are familiar with their rousing pop anthems.

The One, with its driving, piano-led chorus, could be at home on a Calvin Harris record, while Us and Ours sounds like synthesised indie pop.

Owen, who has worked in the past with Radiohead producer John Leckie and enlisted the help of Alt-J producers and singer Ren Harvieu for his latest project, finds it hard to pinpoint his sound.

"I'm something - alternative, maybe," says Owen.

Salford singer Harvieu, whom Owen first saw perform on Later... with Jools Holland, joins him on ballad S.A.D.

"Her voice is stunning. I suppose the fact that she's from Manchester gives me a half a chance to slightly blend with her."

Owen is restrained with his choices for duets. The only other, the chorus-led Heaven's Falling, features unsigned London-based rapper Jake Emlyn.

Mark Owen in a spacesuit
Owen's new video was inspired by the French street artist Victor Ash who painted an astronaut on the Berlin wall

"I could have done a duets album," he says jokingly. "I should have done one like Tom Jones - he does them, doesn't he?"

Although most of the record was recorded in his home studio, he "couldn't fit an orchestra in". So he went to Abbey Road to record the strings, arranged by Take That producer Wil Malone.

"Nobody's interested until you say you're going to Abbey Road, and then your grandma wants to come, aunts and uncles who you haven't heard from for years," he laughs.

"To hear proper musicians playing your songs - it's brilliant."

Owen, who has already put together a band to perform the record live, is looking forward taking the songs "out of the studio".

The visual mastermind for Take That's extravagant stage shows, Owen's whims would often be indulged with "an elephant or 60 foot giant".

He was allowed to get inventive again in his video for new single Stars, which sees him wandering around Berlin in a scuffed astronaut suit.

"Astronaut in Berlin was quite tame compared to some of the previous concepts," he says.

Stars, he says, is dedicated to his children, who already know all the words.

"First time I played it to them, Elwood and Willow held each other and started dancing. It was a bit of a moment for me," he says with glistening eyes. "They make it worth it, don't they?"

Owen, who wears his heart on his sleeve, says he hopes people are honest about his new album.

"It's like when you do your exams - as long as you do your best. I've done my best so that's all I can hope for."

Mark Owen's album The Art of Doing Nothing is out on 10 June.

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