What a difference a year makes. Last Christmas was a washout for everyone, locked down in our tiers and unable to see our loved ones. This year the shackles are off and we can look forward to a party, and the soundtrack may well be Gary Barlow’s new album The Dream Of Christmas.
It was the sheer awfulness of last year that inspired him to create his first Christmas album, when he began writing a few festive songs to brighten the gloom last December. But now it’s snowballed into a full-blown yuletide album, a mix of original compositions and covers of Christmas classics, laced with Gary’s sophisticated sparkle and good cheer.
‘I absolutely love Christmas,’ he says, ruffling the fur of the huskies co-starring with him in our wonderfully wintry photoshoot.
‘I wrote the original songs last Christmas when I felt like I didn’t have a Christmas, so it was my way of making it bigger than it was. I thought, “OK, I might put a couple of tracks out next Christmas” but then it started to get bigger and the label said, “You need to do a whole album.”’
Gary Barlow, 50, who lives in the Cotswolds, spent lockdown working on his new festive album, The Dream Of Christmas. Pictured: Gary gets into the wintry spirit with a pair of huskies
Which is pretty much a metaphor for Gary’s prolific career. He’s sold more than 50 million records, written 14 UK No 1 hits, won six Ivor Novello awards and his last album, Music Played By Humans, recorded with an 80-piece orchestra, debuted at the top of the charts last year.
On his latest album, one of the most upbeat tracks is How Christmas Is Supposed To Be, a duet with Sheridan Smith that will have you rocking around the Christmas tree.
‘I didn’t write it as a duet, but I knew I wanted to find somebody,’ he explains. ‘Then I saw the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special and thought, “Sheridan does West End theatre, she acts, sings, dances… she does everything.”
‘Just as I was thinking that, I did the Royal Variety Performance and Sheridan was on it too! We were waiting to go on in the wings together and she said, “Can I give you my Instagram account?” and I said, “Can I give you mine?” Then about two months later I got in touch and said, “I’ve got a song – would you consider it?” and Sheridan texted straight back saying, “I’m ready, let’s do it.”
‘So I went up to Manchester where she was working and we set up in a hotel room and we recorded it. Just like that.’
Gary has also crafted his own range of organic red and white wines in partnership with Benchmark Drinks. Called Gary Barlow Organic, they’re available now in Morrisons and online.
Gary (pictured) said his upbeat song How Christmas Is Supposed To Be wasn’t intentionally written as a duet, but he knew he wanted to find somebody to feature
‘For years and years I’ve wanted to do something with wine but I’ve never felt qualified,’ he says. ‘So in lockdown I just thought, “I’m going to do this.” I’m one of those people who when I taste a bottle of wine once, I order it for the rest of my life.
‘But about five years ago I was offered something and I loved it, a Spanish wine that I’d never drunk before. So we’ve now made fully organic wines which are among the most affordable on the shelves in the UK.’
He makes it sound effortless, but his journey has been far from it. Robbie Williams left Take That in 1995, leading to the band splitting the next year.
I didn’t cope well with sudden success
Robbie became a globe-conquering act, and when Gary went solo too, he was expected to become the new Elton John. But it seemed that the more Robbie rose, the further Gary fell. At one point, it was like Robbie was rubbing his nose in it.
He tells me a poignant story today of a moment when he had to pull his car over as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel’s duet Don’t Give Up – with its haunting refrains of ‘No reason to be ashamed’ and ‘You’re not beaten yet’ – came on the radio at one of the lowest moments of his life.
His two solo albums had faltered, his lyrical genius had deserted him, his confidence had crashed and he was reeling from the shock of being told his record label had dropped him.
Gary said he learned from the 90s that having success suddenly pinned on you is really unhealthy. Pictured: Robbie Williams, Jason Orange, Mark Owen, Gary Barlow, Howard Donald as Take That in 1991
‘I love that song,’ he says now. ‘It can be weird when music plays out the scenario you’re in. It was like a spell. I’d just lost my record deal.
‘I’d just had a phone call to say it’s all over. I was thinking, “Oh God, how did I get here?” And then this music started and I thought, “Wow!”
‘The biggest lesson for me from the 90s was that having success suddenly pinned on you is really unhealthy. I don’t think I coped with it well. I ended up thinking I was invincible, that I could do anything.
‘Then that day arrives where you get one thing wrong and this confidence that’s been built up over years starts to crack. Then slowly… bad decision, bad decision, bad decision.
HOW THE BARLOWS DO THE BIG DAY
Gary’s looking forward to spending a proper Christmas at his Cotswolds family home this year. ‘Christmas for us is pretty normal,’ he says.
‘We generally have a rota, we’ve got my mum this year then next year we’ll have Dawn’s mum and dad, then the following year we’ll have a year off. That’s always a case of, “All right, where shall we go?”, but actually we like being here because the Cotswolds is the best place to be at Christmas – it’s magical.
Gary (pictured) said the Cotswolds is the best place to be at Christmas
‘On Christmas Day we do presents first. Last Christmas was our first where the kids weren’t up at 4am because Daisy, the youngest, is 12 now, so I’ve got time to walk the dogs, get organised and have a cup of coffee before everyone starts to trickle down for presents by the fire.’
With a glass of Champagne? ‘No, I don’t drink too early, if I do I’m asleep by 6.30! But we’ll sit and open presents while slowly putting things in the oven.
‘We have a turkey and we split the duties. Dawn does the veg and desserts, and I do the main course. I baste the turkey the day before and I’ll do roasties, gravy and pigs in blankets.
‘I don’t like Christmas pudding; I’d rather have a glass of dessert wine. And after lunch we take the dogs out and walk it off before settling into a film.
‘We’ve got a Pomeranian and a Patterdale Terrier-Spaniel-Jack Russell mix called Cookie and Hugo – that’s what happens when you let the kids name the dogs!’
‘All of a sudden you find yourself saying, “S***, how did that happen?” The rise is always quite slow, but the fall is fast.’
As one of the best-connected men in the music industry, Gary was lucky enough to be able to tell the famously reclusive Kate Bush how much the song meant to him.
‘Yes, I have told Kate that. I love her. I didn’t relate it all, as it would have been too long a story, but it’s one of my top five favourite songs, and I’ve met Peter Gabriel a few times as well,’ he says.
It wasn’t just Gary’s career that suffered, but his health too. He didn’t go out for months at a time and took to comfort-eating to lift himself out of depression. At one point his weight ballooned to just over 17 stone, but today, aged 50, he looks the picture of health.
So how did he get his mojo back? ‘I just woke up one morning and thought, “I don’t want to have this day again. I’ve had this day for years and I don’t want it again.” It was the first time I realised how amazing the mind is. If the mind decides today’s a different day, then it will be.
‘I had to work out how I could change that day. It was just doing different things like not having the same meal at the same time and not feeling the same guilt because I had too much on the plate.
‘It’s a weird thing, I hit 30 and the floodgates opened. I stopped exercising, which I used to love to do. And it sounds so boring to say but it’s such an important part of the day.
‘I try to exercise every day now, even if it’s only some yoga. I also do spinning and Pilates, and I like a run. I’ve got a trainer a couple of times a week. It makes me feel good.’
Yet even at his lowest point not once did Dawn, his devoted wife of 21 years, grumble or nag. ‘Very cleverly she didn’t,’ he smiles.
‘She managed it brilliantly. She never said, “You’re putting on too much weight,” because I would have thought, “I’m not going on a diet for you.” You have to do these things for yourself.’
The couple met in 1995 when she was a dancer on a Take That tour and have been together ever since. Their home today is a magnificent 18th-century former rectory in the Cotswolds where they lead a grounded lifestyle with their three children – Daniel, 21, Emily, 19, and 12-year-old Daisy – and dogs Cookie and Hugo.
Dawn is his soulmate, and testimony to that is that he wrote Forever Love – one of his solo chart-toppers – for her when they first met.
‘I was extremely lucky to find the right person. There’s never been a second where I’ve thought of life without her – I just can’t imagine it. I don’t know what the secret is, but we try and look after each other and be nice to one another, we try not to wind each other up,’ says Gary.
‘It must have frightened the life out of her but one of the first things I said to her was, “We’re going to have a son one day, called Daniel.” We’d literally just met, but we did!’
Gary (pictured) said Elton John encouraged him to carry on writing when he was dropped from his record label and treated like a pariah by former friends and colleagues
Just as he knew Dawn was destined to become his wife and mother to their children, Gary also knew as a boy that he was a talented songwriter, musician and performer.
‘I’m not going to lie – it was only ever going to be this, which is probably why it was so hard for me in those years off. I wasn’t doing what I was meant to be doing.
‘It’s probably a shallow thing to say, but what you do is such a big part of you and it doesn’t have to be about number ones or winning awards. It can just be about saying, “I’ve achieved something today.”
‘But I wasn’t doing any of that, and it went on for years. When it’s taken away like that, you realise it was a big part of you.
Writing songs is the ultimate vulnerability
‘I’ve tried to always use these obstacles as things to stand on, not let them stand on me. I’ve tried to turn them into positive things, rather than things that would taunt me.’
When Gary was dropped from his record label he suffered the humiliation of being treated like a pariah by former friends and colleagues. He could count the people who stood by him on one hand, and Elton John was one of them.
He told Gary to carry on writing and working, but did Gary listen? ‘No… well, I did eventually. I know why he said it, because it’s the ultimate vulnerability to write songs. When you’ve been knocked down you don’t want to do anything that makes you vulnerable.
IT’S ALL DOWN TO MUM AND DAD
Growing up in Cheshire, Gary started playing music aged ten and was just 11 when he got his first gig in a social club in North Wales. He credits his late father Colin with helping him fulfil his dream when in 1980 he took him to a shop to buy a fancy keyboard for the then hefty price tag of £400.
Gary said his mum (pictured) and dad would drive him everywhere, and now his kids treat him like a taxi driver
‘He had two jobs, my dad. He was a factory product manager and worked on a farm. He sold his holiday time to pay for the keyboard,’ says Gary.
He left school at 16 and by the time he joined Take That at 19 he’d done more than 2,000 gigs. ‘Mum and Dad used to drive me everywhere,’ he recalls.
‘Now my kids treat me like a taxi driver but I never mind – I think, “God, the amount of times Mum and Dad spent the whole night listening to me.”’
‘You don’t want to expose yourself to anything. That’s why it was so difficult to write songs at that time. Of course, when you’re up and you’re feeling good it’s easy to open up and let it all come out.’
He says all his songs have been written from a place of vulnerability, in particular A Million Love Songs, the first top ten hit he wrote for Take That.
‘How did I write that at a time when I hadn’t even fallen in love? I don’t know where that came from. They just land.
‘They just come from the sky. That’s the reason I still run into a studio every day, you never know when a song is going to arrive. It’s terrifying. It could be tomorrow. It might never happen again. That’s the thrill of it, it’s the butterfly you’re always chasing.’
It took nearly ten years for Gary to claw back his mojo – and his waistline – after Take That split up, but his hard work paid off as he started to write for Atomic Kitten, Shirley Bassey, Westlife and N-Dubz.
Then, in 2005, Gary, Howard, Jason and Mark got back together and put out a Take That greatest hits album.
The album was a massive success, going multi-platinum, and they ended up filling stadiums and arenas on tour.
The band recorded two more highly successful albums, Beautiful World and The Circus, before something even more unexpected happened in 2010 – Robbie Williams returned to the band. The original five-piece recorded their masterpiece album, Progress, and toured again before deciding to take a hiatus in 2011.
‘When we reformed we were all scared to death because we’d all had a tough time,’ says Gary.
‘The thing that made it all possible was the audience. There wasn’t a choice. It was absolutely unbelievable. Our fans are like an army. The sound of the 90s was screaming, and we made them scream louder. It was brilliant and there we were again.
‘By the time we got together with Robbie again it was starting to feel a bit more permanent. The day we reformed we all had it in our minds to get Rob back – that was the end game because it didn’t finish in the 90s the way we wanted it to.
‘It wasn’t the right ending, so we put loads of pressure on him. It was a massive move for both camps. Then when we had that 15 months when we were all together, it was such a happy time for everyone because it really felt like we’d righted a wrong.
Gary (pictured) said he comes from a happy background and added his parents have been together for 43 years. Pictured, at The Global Awards in the Apollo, London, on 1 March 2018
‘Pretty much since then we’ve been at peace with the whole thing. It’s beautiful. I speak to Rob every week without fail and have done since then.
‘We take the p*** out of each other’s records. It’s great. In the 90s I was the worrier of the band, but now I don’t really worry about much, except the kids.’
The band is now just a trio, comprising Gary, Howard and Mark after Jason Orange quit seven years ago. So does Gary think the original Fab Five will ever work together again? ‘I think once you feel like you’ve done it, you probably have done it.
I speak to Robbie every week now without fail
‘I’ve still got so much more that I want to do. But the thing that keeps us all interested is that anyone can come back at any point, that’s what’s magical about it.’
And magic is something Gary cherishes, which is probably why The Dream Of Christmas came so easily to him.
‘I love Christmas songs. I love anything that’s family, people coming together. I like happiness. I really am a fan of all things like concerts, people having a great time. I love all that, and Christmas is that, isn’t it?
‘I come from a really happy background. My parents were together for 43 years. They barely ever argued. It was such an amazing home life.
‘My dad was very positive and my mum still is – they were never down. So I followed that on and I’m the life and energy at Christmas – “Come on kids, let’s go!” I love it.’
Gary Barlow’s The Dream Of Christmas is out on 26 November. Tickets for Gary’s All The Hits Live tour, which starts in November, are available from ticketmaster.co.uk and gigsand tours.com. Tickets for Ireland are available at ticketmaster.ie. Gary Barlow Organic Wines are available from morrisons.com or garybarlowwines.com, where you can sign up to the newsletter to receive 10% off your first order.