Gary Barlow: 'I'm not as confident as I was at 21'

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

  • Published
Gary BarlowImage source, Universal Music
Image caption,
Gary Barlow had had 16 number one singles and eight number one albums as a writer and performer.

When Take That wrapped up their exhaustive, 43-date Everything Changes tour in April 1994, the band were ready for a break.

Plans were made. Holidays in Ibiza and Greece were booked. But then Gary Barlow got a call from the band's record label.

"They said, 'We need an album written in a week,'" he recalls, "and I thought, 'Well then, I'm not going anywhere.'"

At this point, Take That were the biggest band in pop. Their last four singles had topped the charts and, earlier that year, Pray had won them two Brit Awards.

But there was an internal struggle over their musical direction. Manager, Nigel Martin-Smith had his eyes on America, envisaging Take That as the new New Kids On The Block. Barlow had other ideas.

"Nigel was hustling me to write Usher-style bump and grind," he wrote in his 2018 memoir, A Better Me. "All I wanted was to write these power ballads".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Everything Changes tour saw Take That play in 26 cities around Europe

The label's deadline played into Barlow's hands. If they needed a record that quickly, they'd just have to accept whatever he came up with.

"And so, this is the crazy thing, I sat down and I wrote Sure, Back For Good, Nobody Else - all in this one week."

Back For Good came particularly quickly - Barlow has claimed it took just 15 minutes - but it went on to top the charts in 31 countries around the world; and changed people's perceptions of the band.

Even Noel Gallagher was a fan.

"You know, people go on about Take That - but Back for Good said something to me," he told Mojo magazine in 1997. "If it touches people, it's a good song."

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Looking back, Barlow is philosophical about his week-long purple patch.

"You do it just because that's what you've been told to do," he reckons. "You don't think, 'Wow, this is so much pressure, everyone. How can I do this?' You just get on with it.

"I was full of confidence at the time because we were having hits all over the world. And that is a good place to be as an artist."

But does he miss those deadlines? No, he does not.

"I'll be honest, I don't think I've got that kind of confidence anymore," says the star. "I'd have been 20 or 21 when those calls used to come in. And that's a different person.

"I wouldn't trust myself now to think I could do it in a week."

Barlow's big band bonanza

For his latest solo album, the 49-year-old turned the tables on his record company. This time, he was the one phoning up with demands.

The singer-songwriter was in the last week of Take That's 2018 Odyssey tour when he came up with the concept for the record, called Music Played By Humans. It would see him playing with full orchestras, swing bands and string quartets. More than 100 musicians in all. Totally live, and very expensive.

"I went to Universal, the record company, and I said, 'Listen, I have got this idea but can I just record three songs? I don't mean demos, I want to put the orchestra on, I want to mix it, I want to get right down the road with three songs'.

"And so I did: Big string sections, brass sections, the whole thing. I really wanted to know that it was right.

"Then I played it to them and they just said, 'Listen, just go and finish the bloody thing. It's fantastic.'"

Image source, Universal Music
Image caption,
The star's latest album was inspired by everything from swing and jazz to the comedy of Morecambe and Wise

Now, the phrase "Gary Barlow's big band album" might be enough to give you night terrors. Who needs to hear another pop star massacre Mack The Knife, after all?

But Barlow is classier than that. Rather than bask in unearned nostalgia, he's written an album of originals - the majority of which swing convincingly along, from the finger-clicking grooves of Incredible, to the fleet-footed, tongue-twisting Bad Libran.

The standout might just be This Is My Time, a jazzy piano ballad that instantly feels like an old standard. "If love can kill you, I'll happily die," croons Barlow over cascading octaval chords. "Near something so deadly / I feel so alive."

'My favourite track'

It was one of the three songs he recorded in those initial "test-drive" sessions, but the star initially had mixed feelings about it.

"When I wrote it, I just thought, 'Well it's nice for me, but I can't release it. No-one's gonna play it," he says.

"And the more people I played it to, they were just like, 'I think it's my favourite thing you've ever written.'"

Barlow eventually recorded the song in Abbey Road studios, surrounded by the string section as he sang. To capture the emotion the song required, he decided not to use a click-track (a metronomic tick that keeps all the players in time), instead asking the players to follow his vocals for timing,

"I've never done that before, believe it or not, where we've done it in one pass like that. So it feels very human and very emotive - and it is my favourite track on the record, that is."

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

Ballads aside, the album has so much pizzazz it could soundtrack a special week on Strictly. And, after the diminishing returns of Take That's last two albums, it's a breath of fresh air - not just for fans, but for Barlow himself.

"When you write pop music, the one thing you're always trying to do is make it as simple but sophisticated as possible," he says.

"But with this, I was like, 'Oh, there's a major ninth, I'm gonna put it in!' I didn't dumb it down in any way."

Famous friends

To help complete the record, Barlow called in a few favours - with Michael Buble, Beverley Knight and Alesha Dixon joining him for duets.

James Corden even crops up on The Kind Of Friend I Need, a witty look at male friendships that was inspired by, of all things, TV comedy legends Morecambe and Wise.

"My dad used to love Morecambe and Wise," says Barlow. "We always used to sit down on a Sunday night and watch it and laugh. And one thing they had in their show, that I always wanted to write, was a buddy song. Not a love song, but two mates singing to one another.

"And there's only one guy you get in for that - and that's James Corden. He's just got that smirk while he's singing."

The duo were supposed record the track in London in February - but when Covid-19 put an end to that, the collaboration materialised over Zoom, with Corden punching up Barlow's original lyrics.

"The thing is that I'm not funny," says the star. "He's a comedian, so he'd be like, 'It'd be funnier if you said this'. There was a little bit of back and forth like that, which is fine."

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

The release of the album means that Take That are on pause for now, but fans will be pleased to know that the band's movie, Greatest Days, is moving ahead despite the pandemic.

Based on the stage musical, The Band, the film focuses on five schoolgirls from north-west England who are obsessed with a fictional boy band, whose songs just happen to be Take That hits. The story then jumps forward several decades later, as the band re-forms and the girls travel to Italy meet them.

Rosamund Pike, Cush Jumbo and Ruth Wilson had been cast in the lead roles before Covid-19 delayed production, but Barlow says filming will now commence in June 2021.

Director Coky Giedroyc (How To Build A Girl) has also found the five actors who will play "Take That" - but their identities are being kept under wraps for the time being.

"I can tell you that they're very good singers and excellent dancers," says Barlow. "So they're definitely not based on us."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Barlow says his fondest concert memories come from Take That's 2009 Circus tour

Although the film isn't a direct biopic, I wonder if there's a Take That gig Barlow would like to see immortalised on celluloid - in the same way Queen's Live Aid performance was recreated for Bohemian Rhapsody?

He knows the answer straight away. It's the moment in 2009's The Circus Live tour, when the band would ride through Wembley Stadium every night, perched on top of a giant mechanical elephant.

"There's very few things I've ever experienced in life to being stood on the back of that thing, as it moves through 82,000 people it," he says.

"It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.

"And I'll never forget the relief that it moved every night. Getting stuck up there would have been the Spinal Tap moment to top them all."

Music Played By Humans is out now.

Follow us on Facebook, or on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts. If you have a story suggestion email