Name: Russell John Watson
Born: 24th November 1966
Marital Status: Divorced
Children: Rebecca & Hannah
Russell Watson sits forward in his chair and smiles. “The thing that I most wanted to achieve has happened. The voice is back. And not only that, but the infrastructure that generates the noise I make, the strength and stamina I need to perform all that incredible material is back.” He relaxes, his message delivered. “It’s been a long road and it’s been hard work, but we’re there…”
The last three years have changed Russell Watson forever. Changed who he is and the way he sings and how he feels about everything. Most people who’ve had a life-threatening experience will feel the same, and after a while, when the immediate pressure of their illness begins to dissipate, they may slip back into their old ways and their old lives. But not Watson. He has faced down one career-threatening illness and two life-threatening illnesses in the last five years. “That was particularly hard to come to terms with, psychologically,” he says. “The second one affected me so badly.”
By the end of 2007 Watson felt “devastated”. Just when he thought he was getting his life back the discovery and removal of one pituitary tumor he found out he had another one. All his confidence and strength had gone and a lot of what he does relies on knowing those big notes are coming. As a singer in his league, and there aren’t many, if your confidence gets rattled you lose everything.
“When I had the first tumor I only focused on the operation,” he says. “When I had the second one it was about getting out of intensive care. Then getting out of the bed. Each time there was a different focal point.”
When Watson finished his radiotherapy at the beginning of 2008 he decided to start his return. He had put on nearly three stone from the intense course of medication he was being treated with. The day the treatment finished he stared at himself in his full-length hallway mirror and said, “Right Watson, it’s time to get back to work…” The very next day he went to the gym – much to everyone else’s dismay.
“That’s the kind of idiot I am,” he says now. “Most people would rest. I looked terrible too…”
Six months of three-times-a-week visits to the gym followed before he was ready to sing again. Finally, in August 2008, Watson went to visit his voice coach, Patrick McGuigan. They began by running through scales. Suddenly McGuigan stopped Watson and said, “Oh my god! What has happened to your voice?”
“I expected something negative,” Watson says. “But he thought it was fantastic, with all this new depth and power. The tumor could have been growing for 10-15 years in my nasal cavity, so when I had it cut out I went from a V8 to a V12! All those experiences have affected the way I view my life, the way I view others and the way I conduct myself.”
Those changes are all over Watson’s new album, La Voce, which was recorded in Rome this June with the Roma Sinfonietta, Ennio Morricone’s orchestra of choice. Watson’s voice, as heard on Pino Donaggio’s Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te), Mario Lanza’s Arrivederci Roma or Parla Piu Piano (the theme from The Godfather) has never sounded better, stronger, more driven and powerful.
“I’ve truly given my heart and soul to this record,” he says. “It feels quite poignant – this is where I started. With everything that’s happened I’ve had a lot of time to focus on the record and make the one I really wanted to make. The performances are as good as they can possibly be at this stage of my career.”
Indeed, Watson says La Voce is the product of his life to date, the defining record of his life so far.
“I believe that I have come through all this for a reason and that reason is now,” he says. “There are great times to come, but this is what it’s all about for me now. This is the first record that I’ve made which has true continuity, La Voce is a very clear-sighted piece.”
Russell Watson never imagined he’d someday be the world’s greatest tenor. Born in Salford, he’d have preferred to make it playing football, the trouble was, however much he played, he never got any better. Watson’s says his father is “so laid back he’s lying down and I love that about him”, but that’s not the sort of person he is. Watson hated losing, hated that he was no good at the thing he loved. So he found something else to be the best at.
His mum would play Mario Lanza and Tchaikovsky, Mantovani, Chopin, Schubert, even The James Last Orchestra in the house. Her own father was a concert-level pianist, “[my grandfather] was amazing,” Watson says. “I’d sit on his lap and listen to him for hours…”
Aged seven Watson learnt to play the piano, and he was good, but he didn’t like it, never had a flair for it. “There was no joy there,” he says. “But when I started singing there was real joy. I started playing guitar as a teenager and started singing along with the Beatles and Jam records I loved.”
Watson formed a band called The Crowd (“we were not very good”) and his band mates would tell him he sounded just like McCartney or Weller.
“I’m a natural mimic,” he says. “I still do it now. I can do my A&R man, my manager and I can always do other singers. An old compere at this club in Stockport used to joke, ‘Russell Watson, 1001 voices – all of them crap’…”
Those old clubs were extremely hard work. People were more interested in talking about what was on Coronation St than what any singer was doing. The factory work Watson did for £90 a week was “mind-numbing” so singing became his escape.
“I’ve walked out on stage in some of the biggest venues in the world,” he says. “The Vatican, Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall, Old Trafford! – but nothing is as daunting as a Friday night at a serious working men’s club. If I ever start to feel sorry for myself I go back and remember where I’ve been, singing through a fog of Woodbine smoke…”
One night, a concert secretary appeared out of the fog in front of Watson. He had grey hair with a yellow streak and yellow, tar-stained fingers. Watson had just sung The Music of The Night.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘You have a smashing voice, have you ever tried any of that Pavarooty stuff?’…” Watson, determined as ever, went off and learnt Nessun Dorma phonetically and when he first sang it live he got a standing ovation. That was the beginning of a whole new life. A few short years later – in May 1999 – that standing ovation was at Old Trafford just before Manchester United won the Premiership. Since then Watson has sung for American presidents, Japanese emperors, British Royalty, an array of European Prime Ministers, Middle-Eastern Sultans, even the late Pope John Paul II who requested a private audience with Watson at the Vatican. There have been eight albums, each one winning more praise than the one before. His first, The Voice, went to No. 1 in the US and the UK and won two Classical Brit awards. Encore was No. 1 in the UK classical charts for 30 weeks and Watson won another two Classical Brit Awards. Every Russell Watson UK release has gone Top 10 in the UK and among them he boasts two Double Platinum certifications, one Platinum and two Gold. But this album, Watson says, is special.
“My best friend, The Colonel, listened to it and he said, ‘They’re all bloody good tunes, lad!’ and that’s it, La Voce has only great tracks on it. I’ve learnt more in the last ten years about music, life, performance and singing than you could ever learn at any music college. There’s no one on the planet that I worry about being stood in front of. No one is as genuinely impassioned about this music as I am now.”
Watson knows you don’t step off a factory onto a stage with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra without having something beyond talent. You need drive and desire, a need to make your mark, to make your voice heard.
“I’m a stubborn bastard,” he laughs. “My music is about making a connection. Put me in front of 90,000 in a football stadium and I feel all their energy. It’s what I live for, that and my kids. There’s nothing bigger than that feeling.”
Source: Roar Global 2010