Robbie Talks To The Big Issue
Robbie Williams outsells Coldplay and James Blunt, and aside from Elvis, no other male solo artist has had more No.1s. So how has this success affected the boy from Stoke? Nearing the end of his current world tour, Williams invites Hattie Collins to his LA home, where he candidly discusses his insecurities, life in America, critical recognition... and how to give up chocolate.
I f**kin love it here," says Robbie Williams, drawing deep on his Silk Cut and surveying the bright lights of LA that twinkle below him.
There are two things you might want to know about Robbie Williams: 1) He loves smoking - "I'm really f**kin' into it right now" - and 2) He likes to swear - the word ‘f**kin' is a particular favourite, apparently.
"D'ya want a cup of tea?" he asks, moving from the garden to mooch about his chromed-out kitchen. In fact, there are three things you should know about Robbie Williams. He's also really f**kin' nice. "Glass of water? Piece of fruit?" he continues, before giving us a guided tour of his four-storey home. Set high in the Hollywood Hills in a gated community, chez Williams is far from the insane sleaziness of Sunset Strip. The only bright lights round here are the white fairy ones that decorate the trees out front and back. His cream and brown Beverly Hills home is stylish but not overstated. The most ostentatious it gets is the sleek silver Jaguar parked out front (which Williams hardly drives as he doesn't have a licence), the full-sized football pitch at "me other place down the road" and the lift that whisks you from the ground floor hallway to the second floor studio.
Far from offhand about his surroundings, though, he still gets excited by showing stuff off. "Look," he whispers, pointing towards a pair of black football boots in a room stacked full of brightly coloured Bathing Ape and expensive Adidas shoes. "David Beckham's. He signed 'em an' all." There's a pair of Wayne Rooney's trainers in the downstairs office, too. In a glass box and everything. "I've been doing this for so long that those ‘pinch yourself' moments sort of disappear as time passes on," he says, picking up a pair of Vans. "When I was a kid, I couldn't afford these. Now I've got four pairs. The only time you see or experience those ‘pinch yourself' moments is through other people's eyes. It just becomes what's normal, it's just... your life."
His life, as we know it, is pretty successful. Elvis aside, no other male solo artist has had more Number 1s than Robbie. In 2006 alone, he easily outsold Coldplay and James Blunt with 12 million combined sales of new album Rudebox, 2005's Intensive Care and a Greatest Hits. In two days' time, he'll leave LA for Australia to finish the final leg of his seven-month stadium tour, which has seen him play to over 90,000 people a night.
No wonder he's got quite a nice gaff, then. "Cost less than my two-bed in Chelsea," he mutters as he walks past the walls decorated with original Banksy and Warhol pieces. First moving to the Sunset Marquis hotel, Williams lived for a brief spell in Dan Aykroyd's old house before settling into his current home. Loving the weather and a degree of anonymity, he quickly made the land of bright lights and faded dreams his main base. "One of the biggest kicks I get from being here is that I don't need anything from it. Everybody here is trying to make it and I can just sit and watch it all happen," he muses. "I can go for a coffee, go to a concert, I can go on dates. But as soon as I get to the airport, it all starts again."
The ‘it' to which he refers has been both the making and breaking of Robert Peter Williams. From those early days as one-fifth of Take That and throughout his solo career, the press has dissected the 32-year-old's every move. He, in turn, examines the reviews, interviews and scandalous story-mongering. The temptation to self-Google is something he tries to resist, but lurking among the Warhols and Wayne trainers is his Apple Mac. Word from home is never more than three Ws and a dot away. "The thing is," he says slowly, settling onto a huge sofa. "You can always find what you're looking for. And who cares about the good stuff, really? Being an addictive personality or having a mental problem of sorts - you search for the stuff that's going to tell you that what you think about yourself is true. And when you do, it's heartbreaking, because you validate your own insecurities."
So why look? "It's a sickness. I can't stop looking at the moment, and I really want to. It's like being in a room with a paper-thin wall and the people in the next room are talking about you. How long before you pick up the glass?" It's not just pop stars; who hasn't pored over a poor work appraisal or an email from a friend following a falling out? It's just that Robbie's tend to be read by a few million more people. His current fixation with reading his own press is partly down to the tour, he reflects.
A massive drain emotionally, mentally and physically, now that it's nearly at an end, he's ready to recharge his batteries. "It's time for a change on how I view things," he announces emphatically. "It only affects me when I'm working. When I've been in LA for a couple of months and I'm not doing anything, I couldn't give a shit. It's very, very important not to read stuff," he says. "But I can't... yet."
There's certainly plenty to keep him busy in tabloid-dom. That week alone there are stories that Kylie invited him to Christmas dinner in Melbourne (he's actually spending it in California with his dad and some friends), while yet another piece reports that he's about to sell some of his own ‘Warhol-inspired' pictures to an art gallery in Wales. "Totally untrue," he sighs, well used to hearing stories that are simply made up.
But it's not all secrets sold and lies told, right? Over 45 million people have bought Robbie Williams' music. Countless more pay 45 quid-plus to see him live, buy his DVDs, subscribe to his website and spend cash on the merchandise. This is a man with fans. Bloody loads of them. "The thing about the love - and this is why it's so sick - is that I don't recognise that guy onstage or in TV interviews as being me. It's a character I've created and it's the character that is being loved or being criticised." It bothers him that it bothers him. "It warps your head. It's looking into a mirror at the funfair and you don't get the reflection back that you understand or recognise, but then the reflection becomes you," he frowns. "That sounds a bit silly, a bit airy-fairy, but it's the only analogy I know."
Google isn't the only thing Williams is trying to quit. As much as he loves it, the smoking needs to go. "I've been praying a lot recently for the willingness to give it up. Because I don't want to. But I'd like to want to give up. And as soon as I want to, I will." The willpower is there; indeed, he announces that he recently stopped eating chocolate. He's been off it for three weeks now. "I was very addicted for f**kin' ages - anything food-wise is bad for me - but I just stopped and I haven't had a craving, which is amazing." How does he do it? Chocolate patches? Meditation? "I think there are certain times when - oh no, I'm not going to put chocolate into a spiritual context, am I?" he laughs. "It's like anything - you've got to be ready."
They say fame always comes at a price, and in Robbie Williams' case the cost has been high. Depression and addiction have haunted him throughout his career - one that, until recently, he seemed to get very little critical acclaim for. During Take That's indomitable reign, Gary Barlow was touted as ‘the talented one'. Until Robbie left and became the real solo star. But then history sort of repeated itself with the arrival of Angels co-writer Guy Chambers, who many viewed, once again, as ‘the talented one' of the two. Together they wrote Rock DJ, Old Before I Die, Let Me Entertain You, Millennium, No Regrets, Feel...
Having been somehow overshadowed by Barlow and Chambers throughout the majority of his career, does he finally feel vindicated now that the Chambers-free Intensive Care and Rudebox have sold nigh-on ten million between them? Surely he's finally getting a bit of credit? "I have from me," he says lightly. "If some people don't believe that I write, then they never will, and if they do, they do. I got some nice reviews from Britain on Rudebox and some terrible ones. But I wouldn't necessarily say that I've gotten my full props, no." Acclaim aside, he's much more into the process of making music these days, anyway. "Escapology came out and I finished writing songs with Guy, and in my mind I thought that it was important that I do a Robbie Williams album that was successful."
Intensive Care went on to to be his biggest selling record, clocking up 6.7 million sales to date. "I found myself with friends from Stoke and the whole process of songwriting became what it should be about for me. I've often found, throughout my career, that I was the only one excited about the stuff that we were doing. And then I found myself in rooms full of the same people feeling the same thing. That was the excitement I needed from Rudebox, and I got it."
The album is perhaps his most experimental one to date. Littered with electro, reggae and hip hop, it features production from people as diverse as Mark Ronson, William Orbit and the Pet Shop Boys. He's known Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe for years: "Since the Take That days," he remembers. "Behaviour is a Top 5 album of mine. I wanted to be a Pet Shop Boy, because I love the music and I love how steadfast they've been about pop. They embrace it, absolutely, and I admire that. When I listen to them, I feel like the only straight in the village; it's like it brings out the gay in me. I just get lost in it." He hangs out with them quite a bit when he's home. "I don't get on with many people because I'm kind of difficult to get to know. But we get on really well - we have a laugh. We go to Heaven nightclub and I f**kin' love it - it's great. They enjoy seeing it through my eyes, I think, and I enjoy being with them and being accepted."
Elsewhere on Rudebox, he spits witty words about his own life as a teen in The ‘80s, while The ‘90s is a frank, behind-the-scenes look at Take That. Drawing inspiration from Mike Skinner, Robbie sort-of raps lines such as: "I met the other guys/ One seemed like a cock/ I think it's going to be like New Kids On The Block." It's all there: Gary-gate, dinner with Diana, doing drugs, getting laid and getting paid, right up to his eventual departure. "The dream's turned to shit/ It ain't broke but I'll break it in a little bit." He has left nothing out: "I probably draw the line at family, but everything else is up for grabs."
What he would like to point out about those two tracks is that while he's a hip hop fan (he knows all the words to Eazy E's Eazy-Duz-It album), he's not trying to rap. Really. "I absolutely, positively know that I'm not a rapper. I'd love to be, but I'm me, I come from Take That." He'll leave all that to the experts, thank you very much. "I think me and 50 Cent might do something. He called... well, ‘his people' called this week," he reveals. "He's someone I wouldn't mind doing something with, actually. He's a bit like Tyson - softly spoken, but he could f**k you up. He's like a teddy bear... with a gun."
He tried to get hold of the producer Timbaland to see if he fancied working on Rudebox but "there was no joy back from anybody" so, 50 Cent aside, he's decided to stick strictly to UK rhymers from now on. "Do you know who I really like? Stig Of The Dump. He's f**kin' brilliant."
All this talk of music gets him very animated. "My hobbies are playing football and writing songs," he says, popping a piece of watermelon in his mouth. While he's pleased with Rudebox, he's more excited about what's going on in the room above him. "D'ya wanna come and have a listen to some new stuff?" he asks before leading the way to his studio. Upstairs are ‘the lads', aka Danny Spencer and Kelvin Andrews, aka Soul Mekanik, who Robbie knows from Stoke and who wrote on Rock DJ and produced four tracks on Rudebox. "I've got a feeling that I'm just about to do my best stuff," he says, before asking Kelvin to press play. "All the other albums have sold a great deal and been really successful. Half of me thinks it would be shit if my best stuff wasn't half as successful. But the other half of me doesn't mind. I'm veering more towards, whatever will be will be okay. At the moment," he says with another grin. The songs are guitar-laden but not overly rock. His vocal in particular stands out. From someone who once said he couldn't sing, his voice sounds pretty great. He's cautious about releasing anything too soon, though, despite reports that another Swing album is on the way.
In fact, he's been thinking maybe it's time to take a break from Robbie Williams, pop star. "Back home, I feel like I've overstayed my welcome a little bit. I can feel a kinetic change," he says, sparking up another ciggie. "Like, ‘Oh, this is where it goes downhill a bit.' I've enjoyed tremendous success for over ten years now - far more than I should have or I ever would have dreamed I'd have. And now it's the time for Robbie to go away in people's minds. I think that it's time to not be in Britain for a bit."
It's not hard to see why Williams would want to stay in LA. As he sits in his living room, playing Fifa on the cinema screen-sized TV with his mates, deciding whether to stay in and watch Little Miss Sunshine or go and see the Dixie Chicks, the inner-demons he continues to battle aside, life must be pretty good for Robbie Williams. Looking around him, he decides, he's got all he needs.
"Everything I wanted to achieve, I achieved a long time ago. There's not one country I want to break, there's not a stadium I want to play, there's not a film I want to be in." Pause. "It's all personal stuff now."
What's on the to-do list, then? "Well, I don't know if I want to be in a relationship and I don't know if I want kids. I don't believe that to be fulfilled as a human being, you have to have kids. I maintain the right to change my opinion at any time, but what's the point of having kids? I can't guarantee that I won't father a child that won't be in pain, cos that kid's going to be in pain at some point in their life, and I don't want to see that. It's too much." He goes quiet for a bit. "I'd like to be in a relationship 'cause I've never had one, but then I don't know if I do want one... either which way."
Love is the last thing on his mind, he declares. He's concentrating on making music that makes him and his frame of mind happy. "As human beings, we all get affected by people's interactions with us and I seem to be some kind of open wound," he admits. "It's a lot better than it was, but I'd like to be able to keep other people's actions, and my own, in the right size. I'd like to keep my side of the street clean," he concludes.
"I'd like to be able to put my head down on the pillow every night and go: ‘Stuff's okay, I've been good today, I've looked after myself. Yeah, they've said this or they've done that, but it's not personal,'" he says, heading out to the garden to take a last look at LA's fading twilight. "There was a time when I thought I was f**kin' Superman," he shrugs, reaching for another fag. "But I'm not."
Courtesy of The Big Issue
Interview by Hattie Collins
Location: Los Angeles