Waitrose & Partners Weekend Issue 617

54 22 SEPTEMBER 2022 Weekending In January, Mark Owen – once themost boyishmember of Britain’s most famous boy band – turned 50. In an industry that’s obsessed with youth, youmight have expected him to downplay this significant lifemarker. But you’d be wrong. “I decided that I’dmake the whole year about me,” laughs Mark, when Weekend catches up with him in London over the summer. “I’ve carried that forward, and it feels good. I think saying, ‘let’s just forget about it’ is the wrong way to go – you have to just jump in and embrace it. And, sixmonths in, I’m having the best birthday party I’ve ever had.” He also has another reason to celebrate – on the occasion of his half century, Mark has just made the best solo record of his career – an albumof wall-to-wall pop bangers that sounds like the work of aman half his age. Where RobbieWilliams was once the obvious benchmark for post-boy band success, Harry Styles is now theman to beat – and Land of Dreams does a convincing job of operating in the former One Directioner’s territory. Lead single You OnlyWant Me is a huge, feelgood summer earwormwith a slyly self-deprecating lyric (“You only want me for my good looks…”); Magic is an infectious disco-funk workout that findsMark channelling his inner Bee Gee (via Daft Punk), while Boy marries a trippy, Flaming Lips vibe with a touching message of self-care addressed both to himself and his 15-year-old son Elwood. (His daughtersWillow, 13, and Fox, 10, make cameo appearances on the record.) Mark is quick to give credit to the album’s young, Grammywinning producer, Jennifer Decilveo, who’s worked with Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Anne-Marie. “We ended up talking about the record for around a year before we recorded it, because all the studios were closed [due to Covid],” he explains. “During that time, I just kept writing, and we’d send songs back and forth, so by the time we got in the studio, we were sort of ready to go. Jennifer brought in some great players, and that energy just propelled us forward.” The fact that Mark and his wife, actress Emma Ferguson, moved from their Hampshire home to start a new life with their kids in Los Angeles three years ago also fed into the album’s vibe (and, presumably, its title). “I was excited about making a record in a new place,” saysMark. “I’d never really worked there before, so it felt a bit like starting again.” Despite being – as any former SmashHits reader will tell you – themost popular member of Take That, Mark’s solo THE DREAM career has been amore stuttering a air. Though his first two singles, Child and Clementine, bothmade the top three in the immediate aftermath of Take That’s 1996 split, his debut album Green Man stalled at number 33, while 2005’s prophetically titled How theMighty Fall didn’t chart at all. (His most recent, 2013’s The Art of Doing Nothing, made number 29.) So with Land of Dreams, does he feel that he’s still got something to prove as a solo artist? “I don’t knowwhether it’s just related tomy solo work,” he considers. “But I did have the realisation that I’vemaybe got three or four more records inme, inmy lifetime. So I feel like everything I do has to be worthwhile. TerenceMcKenna [an American ethnobotanist andmystic] talked about trying to take art and the colours of life forward. And I do feel I’mat a point inmy life where I’m just trying to expandmyself and sort of be a better version of me than I was a year before.” Mark talks like this a lot. He’s smiley and amiable, adorable even (“I love everybody, and I think everybody’s a good person,” he declares at one point), with a butterflymind that means his answers are prone to stray all over themap. Ask, for example, if he still believes in rainbows at the end of the road (a line fromhis recent single Are You Looking for Billy?) and he’ll reply with a list of his favourite characters from TheWizard of Oz. (Which, for the record, are “Dorothy and Scarecrow and Lion and TinMan – and the little dog, Toto.” So all of them, basically.) It’s also impossible not tomention his striking new look, in which that still-boyish face is framed by a shaggymane of long blond hair – and adorned with a proper, full-on 70s moustache. Is it an LA thing? Actually, he says, it’s more of an Oldham thing. “My dad had a ’tache when I was growing up, and I used to think, ‘I’m never going to have one’. So I don’t knowwhether it’s to bringme a little bit closer tomy dad.” What would the teenageMark, growing up in a council house in GreaterManchester, where his dad Keith worked as a decorator and his mumMary in a bakery, havemade of the idea he’d one day be living in a swanky LA pad? “I don’t think he’d have given it much thought,” saysMark. “Wemainly knewAmerica through films – like Ghostbusters or The Goonies. America tome was about as real as Star Wars was. “I went back to Oldhama fewweeks ago,” he adds. “My mumand dad still live up there, and it felt good to be back. It was great to see family, but also just the energy of the north.” Mark was a promising football prospect in his youth (he At 50, Mark Owen is enjoying a new life in LA – and has just made one of the year’s best pop records. But he still has no idea what he’s doing, he tells Paul Kirkley STILL L IVING had trials forManchester United), but when injury put paid to that dream, he worked in a clothes shop and a bank. At 19, hemet Gary Barlowwhile doing odd jobs at a recording studio in Stockport – and the rest is the stu of pop legend. For a few years in the early tomid-90s, Take That attracted Beatlemania levels of hysteria: when they split up (a year after RobbieWilliams had quit), the Samaritans famously set up a special counselling hotline for distraught fans. A decade in the wilderness followed, before the band reunited for what would prove an extraordinarily successful second act. With 12 UK number one singles, eight number one albums, 45million sales and eight Brit awards under their belts, Take That are still a going concern, now down to the rump of Mark, Gary andHoward Donald. Recently, Gary assured Weekend he plans to stick to his promise of never announcing another Take That split in his lifetime, telling us “I couldn’t bear it”. “Well, if we say we’re not going to announce another split in our lifetime, that’s probably not that long o , really,”