Russell Watson went from working 12-hour night shifts in a factory to becoming the UK’s best selling classical music artist. With his fair share of ups and downs, the ‘People’s Tenor’ is now fighting fit and ready to take on the major cathedrals in the UK for his ‘Candlelight Christmas’ tour, including a performance at Liverpool Cathedral. We had a chat with Russell ahead of the show to find out what life has in store for him now.
You’re about to embark on your Candlelight Christmas tour. Are you excited about coming to Liverpool and singing in the cathedral?
The tour is an idea that I’ve had for a few years, to play cathedrals around the UK. I know whenever I’ve visited these types of places in the past, when I walk into a large area like that the first thing I think is ‘I’d love to sing a couple of notes in here’.
To get the opportunity to perform in the UK’s most prestigious cathedrals and churches is something I’m really excited about. There’s nothing more exhilarating for a singer than belting it out in a great big space like that.
And Liverpool Cathedral is a special one too.
It’s probably the biggest. I sang there for ‘Songs of Praise’ back in about 2003, and I remember when I first arrived thinking ‘crikey, this is huge!’.
I have a real affinity with Liverpool as well because of constantly performing in the area, even in the days going back 20 years when I was singing in the clubs of Liverpool like Huyton Royal British Legion. I’ve always had a great time there and everyone’s been really welcoming.
So you’ve gone from small clubs to the cathedral?
And others in between. A couple of years ago we did a sell-out concert at Speke Hall and that was fantastic too. I also sang on the back of a ship at the Tall Ships event earlier this year, singing British standards like ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’. That was a really great event.
Do you still feel nervous about big tours and shows?
Not really now. The only time I feel any kind of apprehension or nerves is if I don’t feel well. If I’ve got a sore throat or a cold, then the apprehension starts to set in about whether I’ll be able to sing ok. I don’t really get nervous if everything’s working as it should be, then I’m on stage and ‘wallop! You’re having it!’.
You’re going to sing the Christmas song with the most requests – have you had any strange ones? What’s your favourite Christmas song?
‘Christmas in Smurfland’ by Father Abraham and the Smurfs was requested. Needless to say, we won’t be doing that! I really love ‘Silent Night’, but the most requested song I’m going to do is ‘O Holy Night’. It’s really beautiful.
Do you have any special Christmas traditions?
I don’t really have any traditions; it’s just what naturally happens. Normally on Christmas day I’ll have family and friends round, basically whoever will come, so it’s just a big gathering.
We open our presents in the morning; I love to see people’s faces when I give them a gift. Then we’ll have dinner around 3pm, watch telly and play a few games. I do like to watch the Queen’s Speech, I love it!
Your tour coincides with a celebrity carol concert performance for Age UK. You seem to sing at a lot of charity events.
Yeah, Age UK approached me a few months ago and asked me if I wanted to be involved and I said yes. It’s a fantastic charity and I’m really looking forward to performing at St Paul’s Cathedral as it’ll be my first time there.
I wouldn’t say I didn’t get any kind of personal reward from charity events prior to my illness, but certainly afterwards I now get a lot more personal satisfaction for doing things for other people. I think that doesn’t just come with personal circumstance and illness, but as we progress in life we become more attuned to certain things and we mellow.
In 2015, it will have been 15 years since you released your first album. How does it feel to reach such a milestone?
2015 is going to be a big year, concert touring wise. I think it will be the biggest that I’ve ever done, so yikes! I’m actually going to be doing a date in New Brighton at the Floral Pavillion in March. Specifically on this tour, we’re going to do smaller venues; I did a show in Japan where I just sang with a piano as opposed to with a 50-piece orchestra and the fans enjoyed the fact it was more intimate and personal in a smaller venue. I like that that you can actually see the people’s faces you’re singing to.
For 15 years I’ve been doing tours, year after year, in theatres, arenas and those types of venues and I just thought for this next period I’d rather go to places we’ve never visited before and do a more intimate type of performance where I can really involve the audience.
What has been the most stand-out moment of your career in the past 15 years?
Performing, for me, is where it’s at in terms of stand-out moments. One that does stand out is when I performed for the Emperor of Japan in the Imperial Palace and had dinner with him afterwards – that was quite surreal. We ended up talking about football, which was bizarre! He knew of Manchester United, they had a liking towards a football team called Urawa Reds. They are the Japanese version of United; they were in exactly the same kit except in Japanese. I ended up singing at one of their games which was quite something actually.
Also, singing the theme tune for Star Trek was brilliant too, for the new Enterprise series. I don’t really get to watch it nowadays but I loved it when I was a kid.
You’ve had a difficult few years, especially health wise. Is there anything in particular that keeps you going strong through the tough times?
I think it’s just the nature of who I am that keeps me going. If you put health to one side, you don’t get from being the son of a welder and having spent six years working 12-hour night shifts in a back street factory to becoming one of the best-selling classical artists in the world without any formal training, without being a driven lunatic.
It’s that drive and mentality I have of saying ‘I’m not letting this stop me; I’m just going to keep going’. That’s the one thing that I’d say about anything in life; if you want something then you pursue it and go for it, keep your eye on the goal and keep driving towards it. If you don’t make it then at least you can look in the mirror and say ‘I gave it my best shot’, and feel proud of yourself.
I’ve always viewed life and anything I’ve taken on, even if it’s just a game of tennis, as wanting to be the best that I can be. When I was ill I think that’s one thing that got me through that period of time, saying I’m not letting this beat me.
A Candlelit Christmas Concert with Russell Watson will take place at Liverpool Cathedral on 13 December. For tickets and further information, visit www.liverpoolcathedral.org.uk