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Russell Watson: Better than ever

18 May 2018

Bestselling singer Russell Watson talks about the power of music to lifts the spirits and heal the soul, and reveals he’s a homebody at heart.

Russell Watson relaxing at home

Even though it’s a cold, drizzly spring day, Russell Watson comes bounding down the stairs dressed in his usual daytime attire: shorts, a hoodie and trainers. All of which seems entirely out of keeping with the chandeliers of his grand Cheshire home with its highly polished black grand piano in the hallway. 

But the multimillion-selling 51-year-old singer has the enthusiasm, energy and aura of a man half his age. In company he is animated, rarely sits still or, by his own admission, stops talking. That boundless vigour sees him starting two new tours. This month it’s the Serenade series of six intimate concerts, accompanied by a pianist and choir. Then there’ll be a 27-date extension of his recent UK Canzoni d’Amore tour.

‘The other night I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this tour is called Canzoni d’Amore and, for those of you who want to know, it’s not a pasta dish – it actually means Songs of Love”,’ he jokes.

‘Last year, and to an extent the year before, I was not at my 100% peak. I started to get some crackles in my throat – I’d been working so hard and felt quite tired vocally. There is nothing worse than knowing that big note in Nessun Dorma is coming and thinking you’re going to ruin the song.

‘So I had four or five months’ rest. Today I feel happy with everything. And my confidence in the ability of “this thing”,’ he says, pointing to his throat, ‘to deliver is as high as it’s ever been.’
It was 2014 when we last met and a lot has happened since then, including his marriage nearly three years ago to Louise. Today, she is in the kitchen organising sandwiches and tea for all of us on the Saga Magazine photoshoot. 

‘I am over the halfway point in my life, and that scares me,’ Russell continues. ‘I had always been healthy before my little wobble and then wheels came off the wagon in a heavy way. It took a long time to build up my fitness and then my confidence. So I want to sustain my health now.’ 

The ‘little wobble’ he refers to is his battle back from the brink of death, following a brain tumour on his pituitary gland in 2006. A year later, a second growth was discovered when he also suffered bleeding on the brain. After emergency surgery he needed extensive radiotherapy. 

Brain tumour symptoms

‘I’m on treatment and medication for the rest of my life,’ he says. This includes three-monthly blood tests, a daily cocktail of drugs, and a self-administered injection into his stomach each night.
‘Recently I was talking about doing Desert Island Discs and I said, “Well, I’d be no good. I’d be dead in a couple of days without the hydrocortisone I have to take each day. I’d only have the chance to listen to a couple of records!”’ 

Not surprisingly, he is a passionate supporter of The Brain Tumour Charity, with collectors in place at every one of his concerts. One of his bugbears is that less than 2% of the £500 million spent on cancer research in the UK each year is spent on brain tumours, despite the fact that they are the biggest cancer killer of people aged under 40.

‘By rights, most people who have the type of tumour I had would not be coming back to work,’ he says. ‘And if they did, it wouldn’t be in the same capacity.’

Yet this year and next will be busier for him than ever. ‘That’s because I am never going to let something like that define me. I didn’t get from a factory in the backstreets of Salford to being the bestselling male classical artist in the UK without being a driven lunatic!’ 

Russell wasn’t classically trained and began his career in northern clubs and on cruise ships. But his first album, The Voice, topped the UK classical chart in 2000 and went to number one in the US. He has since sold many more albums worldwide, dined in the Imperial Palace with the Emperor of Japan, sung in the Vatican for Pope John Paul II, and performed for the Queen, and three US presidents. Make that four – he appeared at the Trump Taj Mahal Hotel, with a special request from Donald.

‘He rang to ask if he could meet me and introduce me onto the stage because he was such a fan.’ Russell bellows with laughter. ‘He was actually quite charming. I never thought he’d end up becoming president!’

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The singer, who is a mine of wonderful stories about his travels as the ‘People’s Tenor’, has been around the world many times. But stick our Russell in a squelchy field near Manchester to pose for our pictures today with his two rescue dogs, Blaze and Poppy, and he couldn’t be happier.

‘I’ve been to some amazing places,’ says Russell. ‘But it doesn’t matter where I go, there’s no better feeling when you’re flying home from overseas, looking down and seeing the green tapestry, and thinking, “Oh, I’m back”.’

No wonder he was devastated by the bombing last year of the Manchester arena, so close to his home. 

‘I still find it very difficult to talk about,’ he says, choking with emotion. ‘My wife and I were out in the garden and we heard the bang. Louise said, “That’s a strange time for fireworks”. And I said, “That sounded like a bomb”. As the news of what happened filtered through, I went cold.

‘Firstly, it was the fact that it was an attack on my city where I was born and bred and intend to stay for the rest of my life because everyone I love and care about is here. Secondly, I couldn’t believe that it specifically targeted people and their kids who went to watch a pop concert. It made me want to get my girls and hold them close,’ he says, referring to his daughters from an earlier marriage, Rebecca, 24, who now works for him, and Hannah, 17.

‘I’d sung at the Arena so many times and have so many amazing memories. I don’t think I’ll ever see it in the same way.’ Russell now includes a dedication on stage each night to the victims. 
‘The daily news is so constantly bad, it’s quite frightening. Music is a great healer and I think people are using nostalgia as a form of escapism. They listen to Gregory Porter singing Nat King Cole as it sends them back to a happier, brighter period.

‘I’ve always bought into nostalgia. A lot of the songs I sing on tour have a specific meaning to me. Like the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, which was my gran’s favourite tune. I was on stage the other night and it almost felt like it was my gran stood next to me. It’s a wonderful feeling.

‘Music is the only medium that can make you connect to incredibly vivid and beautiful memories. And it does it instantaneously. Sometimes it can be a good memory, sometimes sad, or a song that meant a lot to someone you have loved and lost, but the memory of that person wouldn’t have been there that day if that song hadn’t been on the radio.’

He already has many happy memories of his relationship with Louise, whom he met nearly nine years ago by chance at a nearby restaurant. She travels the world with him, this year taking over the admin of his career from his sister, Hayley.

Before they met, he'd lived alone in the same house for four years. ‘Don’t get me wrong, lots of friends would spend time here. But then they’d go home and I’d wander upstairs on my own, and the house was completely empty. It’s such a nice feeling now to walk in and see a pair of muddy boots by the door if Louise has been horse riding, and paw prints over the floor in a kitchen I would always keep immaculate. It’s a home, not a house.’

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As he looks round the beautiful lounge where we are drinking tea, he says: ‘Sometimes I sit here and think, “How the hell did I pull this off?”

‘I had such a brilliant childhood – the least complicated you could imagine. But it wasn’t a big house, and we didn’t have much money and just a little Hillman Imp.

‘There are plenty of scenarios where I feel like different people. At home I’ll happily sit and watch a bit of telly, have a wander round the garden, pull a few weeds up. Or go out for a meal with Louise. That person is pretty quiet. On stage I feel like a different person. If anyone from the audience says anything, I’m on it with quick-fire answers. I think it’s due to my singing in the working men’s clubs!'

You get the impression that nothing much fazes this man as he enjoys family time.

‘So long as I have breaks in between, I’m happy to just keep rocking through the year. As much as I love being at home, for me the biggest infusion of energy and adrenaline and excitement, if I am looking for a thrill, is walking out from the side of the stage and that light hitting my face, and the cheers of the audience. That is: “Wow! I’m alive!”’

For details of Russell’s shows

5 things you might not know about Russell Watson

1. Sir Cliff Richard once suggested that Russell change his name to something 'Mediterranean' – such as Watson Russo. 

2. The first time Russell met Prince Charles, Camilla revealed she was a fan. The Prince wrote a get-well letter to Russell after his second operation. And the singer is on their Christmas-card list.

3. While working on cruise ships, Russell and a friend jumped over a fence to try to get into the ruins at Pompeii without paying. They landed in an area of particular historical significance that had been cordoned off and couldn’t get out – they were rescued only when someone heard their cries for help.

4. Russell is a friend of the shoe designer Jimmy Choo, who designed a pair of crystal-encrusted shoes for his wife to wear on their wedding day.

5. A couple recently walked out of a concert, demanding their money back, insisting that he was not the genuine article but a tribute act. ‘The real Russell,’ they said, ‘is much larger and a lot older.’

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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