Waitrose and Partners Weekend Issue 579

11 25 NOVEMB ER 2021 Where were you during the great cancelled Christmas of 2020? Gary Barlowwas at home, trying to stave o a case of the glums. “Like everyone else, by Boxing Day, I was feeling like, is that it? Is that Christmas this year?” Gary tells Weekend . “I couldn’t quite believe it, so I kept trotting back tomy studio, determined to try to extend it, and ended up writing some Christmas songs, just to bring themood up.” To anyone who knows Gary, this burst of festive industry won’t come as a surprise. “I’m terrible at doing nothing, terrible,” he says. “And the thing withmusic is, it takes up so much time, I don’t have anything else. Other than family, I don’t have any other hobbies. It’s all I’ve got. “I don’t even need a reason,” adds theman who’s written 13 number one singles (11 for Take That, three solo), sold 50million records and earned six Ivor Novello Awards. “It doesn’t matter if it’s stu I’mnever going to release. I’ll happily sit at a piano for a couple of hours anyway. It’s sort of mymeditation, really.” In the case of those Christmas songs, the boss of his record label was very keen that he did release them, and the result is The Dream of Christmas – an albumof Barlow originals, seasoned with a few festive classics. A sprinkling of Christmas stars have turned up for the album, too, with Aled Jones joining Gary on amusical version of Dylan Thomas’s prose poem AChild’s Christmas inWales , Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing cello on The Colder it Feels , and the Puppini Sisters lending their vocal harmonies to a modern jazz take on WinterWonderland . And then there’s new single HowChristmas is Supposed to Be – a spirited duet in which Gary and Sheridan Smith play a bickering couple calling a Christmas truce. So is this his Fairytale of NewYork ? “I don’t know if anyone will quite challenge that song,” he says, of The Pogues’ hit with Kirsty MacColl. “ Fairytale of NewYork is one of the greatest songs ever, never mind greatest Christmas songs. But Sheridan is amazing. I thought of her as soon as I came up with this song, andwithin days of asking her, we’d recorded it.” So Gary got his wish of extending Christmas – and then some. In fact, for large chunks of 2021, it’s been Christmas every day for him. “It’s been quite funny,” he says. “We were in Abbey Road studios inMay – it was boiling hot outside, and the orchestra was all wrapped in tinsel.” In a sense, it was probably always Gary’s destiny tomake a Christmas record, as that’s how he first introduced himself to the world – as a 15-year-old Cheshire schoolboy performing his own composition, Let’s Pray for Christmas, in a fetching white jumper-and-scarf combo on the BBC’s A Song for Christmas competition (he came second). “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually, because Aled was the guest singer on that show – we’re the same age, he was 15, likeme,” says Gary. “So it’s quite a nice completed circle.” Of course, it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that Gary is following in the footsteps of a certain RobbieWilliams, who released his own Christmas album two years ago… “No, it chases me round the world, that does,” says Gary. At least now it’s a friendly rivalry: two decades ago, when Robbie was the biggest pop star in Britain and Gary was everybody’s whipping boy, it would have been a subject of genuine anguish. “Listen, my audience knows that things have never been better betweenme and Rob,” says Gary of the pair’s rekindled friendship. “We do have a laugh and a joke about it. But Christmas albums are interesting. I guess most artists have done one at some point, and everyone’s interpretation is di erent. Yes, Rob did one a couple of years ago, but this is my version.” Has he heard Rob’s album? Is it any good? “His stu is always good,” he smiles. “You knowwhat he’s like. It’s annoying.” With Ed Sheeran and Elton John joining forces for a Christmas single, Gary and Sheridan’s duet has some serious competition for the festive number one… “We haven’t got a chance, believeme,” says Gary. “I think Adele is out as well. It’s a blockbuster Christmas. “You just keep putting things out, and hope that people somewhere connect with it,” he says. “It’s not like in the 90s, when we would just release things and you knew they were going to number one. You’re just hoping and praying that people are still there, and still care.” (He’s possibly being a littlemodest here, as his most recent solo album, 2020’s Music Played By Humans , was both a number one and the year’s fastest-selling albumby a British artist.) In January, Gary turned 50, just a few days after celebrating his 21st wedding anniversary with wife Dawn, a dancer hemet on a 90s Take That tour. “It’s a big number, isn’t it?” he says, of his milestone birthday. “I was planning a gig at the London Palladiumbut [because of lockdown], it ended up just being me and Dawn and the kids [Daniel, 21, Emily, 19, and Daisy, 12]. Which is a fall fromgrace, but also kind of perfect.” How does Gary look back on his half-century so far? “I guess the thing I’d say is, I’ve had a lot of luck,” he reflects. “The work I’ve done found amoment, and we’ve ended up HITS & SPLITS Next week, Gary will be embarking on his Covid- delayed All The Hits arena tour (with guest Leona Lewis). “It’s a bit more of a show than I’d normally do,” he says. “Usually I save that for the Take That concerts. But it’s Christmas, so we can make it snow, we’ve got Christmas trees, we’ve got dancers and a 12-piece band. I want to do something special.” When Take That announced they were splitting up in 1996, fans were so distraught that The Samaritans famously set up a counselling helpline. Gary has since said that he will ‘never announce another Take That split’. Is he sticking to that promise? “I just couldn’t bear it. I mean, it’s a band of sliding doors – people come and go as they wish. I’ve been with Mark [Owen] this week, actually. We’re always planning something. So no, I don’t believe there’ll ever be that announcement. I don’t know why there would be.” ‘I’ve had a lot of luck. The work I’ve done found a moment, and we’ve ended up with an audience we’ve had for years and years’