‘WHAT I’ve come to realise is that a man needs a purpose,’ says Robbie Williams, as we meet in a London hotel suite.
His adorable pooch Wall-E is ensconced next door, and the tell-tale fag-ends of a newly relapsed smoker lie on the coffee table. ‘My life is better for getting back on the treadmill. Every time I come back it feels like a risk to the very core of who I am — but it’s addictive, it’s my purpose and it’s my job.’
The success achieved by Williams, an artist who claims to have ‘stretched an elastic band from Stoke-On-Trent to Venus’, cannot be exaggerated. With two stints in Take That and 11 No.1 solo albums, he’s likely to bolster that tally with the release of new album The Heavy Entertainment Show on Friday. Yet Williams, propelled rocket-like by a combustive mixture of staggering confidence and intense self-doubt, is still nervous.
‘It’s a savage world out there,’ he says. ‘But the temperature for me in the press and social media around this album is warm.’
And warm it should be, because the record, which sees Williams reunited with Guy Chambers (recreating the alchemic partnership of Angels and Feel fame), is a sure-fire corker.
Controversial first single Party Like A Russian, which lobs Prokofiev strings on to a song that out-rudeboxes Rudebox, acts like an attention-grabbing firework but is atypical of an album big on the traditional ‘Robbie magic’ of yore.
As someone who grew up circling hearts around pictures of Williams in Smash Hits, I feel more nervous than I usually would about our interview. Which pop star will I get? Will it be cheeky charming Robbie? Wildcard press-baiting Robbie? Juice diet LA Robbie? What I get is an eloquent, insightful, occasionally prickly but always good-humoured character. ‘It’s all a mixture of self-deprecation, theatre and incredible sincerity,’ he says at one point, talking about a song, yet it could quite easily be a description of himself.
Ten years ago it was: ‘You’re a millionaire, what have you got to be unhappy about?’
Williams sounds resolute that The Heavy Entertainment Show — which features a stellar cast including John Grant, Rufus Wainwright and Ed Sheeran — isn’t going to resonate as a complete album with a post-millennial generation for whom CDs seem like quaint relics. ‘Look, I’m 42, I’m a pop star,’ he says. ‘And in pop stars years that’s one thousand and something.’
He talks like the veteran he is but, having become terrifyingly famous at the age of just 16, Williams has been through the mill when it comes to addiction and mental health issues. ‘In 2006 my head exploded,’ he says. ‘The mirror was held up to me of this gigantic success and it didn’t make sense to me and it crushed my being. I ended up in rehab again.’
For a while, Williams disappeared from public view — ‘Sitting on the sofa, growing a beard, looking like a serial killer, eating Kettle Chips.’ But he is pleased that modern pop icons such as Zayn Malik and Justin Beiber, and in fact all of us, are starting to talk far more openly about mental health.
‘Ten years ago if I talked about depression, it was like: “You’re a millionaire, what the f*** have you got to be unhappy about?”’ he says. ‘And that drove me further and further into myself.’
Having faced innumerable demons, Williams has clearly found deliverance in the form of work, love and family life in LA with his wife of six years, actress Ayda Field, and their two children Theodora and Charlton. ‘Since the kids have arrived, it really makes total sense,’ he says. ‘I’m a working dad.’
And how about his old ‘manband’? ‘I will be in Take That again at some point,’ he promises. ‘But it won’t be next year.’ For now, you’ll have to hope and pray you can get tickets to The Heavy Entertainment Show European tour next year, details of which are yet to be released.
‘I take myself being the conduit to a good time very, very seriously,’ he says — and we wouldn’t expect anything less.
The Heavy Entertainment Show is out Friday
His enduring obsession with the paranormal...
‘Am I still into things like UFOs? The paranormal? Yeah, I suppose I am. My interest is driven by incidents that happened when I was a child, trying to figure out whether it’s actually mental illness or the paranormal. Look, I’ve had one right above my head when I was completely sober. It was silent. Matte-black underneath, with a yellow stripe, weirdly. There it was, and it was 100ft up. When things like that happen, it would pique your interest.’
His family dynamic...
‘My wife – well, we’re all unique – but my wife’s unique in many ways. She’s unshockable. She’ll talk about oral sex in front of her mum. She will say: “Oh my god, Gwen, who did you f*** last night?” And I’m used to it now because I’ve been around her for ten years. This is the environment that the children are going to be brought up in. I am shocked sometimes – I had the Catholic equivalent of that, which is growing up and never talking about it. So when she does that in front of her mum it’s uncomfortable. When she does it in front of mine it’s unbearable! I’m guessing the future will involve much honesty.’
Working with John Grant and Rufus Wainwright...
‘Rufus exists in a musical plane that for me is God-like. Just like John. This unique way of viewing the world, the essence, the soul – it’s in a realm I don’t inhabit.’
Highlights from Robbie’s new album
Originally written by Brandon Flowers’ stadium rockers The Killers for themselves.
A touching tribute to Williams’s manager, the late David Enthoven.
Featuring Ed Sheeran and Benny Blanco on songwriting duty.
The Heavy Entertainment Show
Bombastic title track with a good dollop of Serge Gainsbourg.