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Interview: George Michael

2009-12-14 08:50
George Michael

Outside, the grey, leaden skies are closing in, and it looks a lot like rain on this typical winter's afternoon in north London. Inside, though, very little could dampen the sunny mood of George Michael as he sits in his office pouring tea. Well, he does have a lot to be cheerful about. Christmas, his favourite time of the year, is fast approaching although the run up to the holiday season is likely to be a very busy one for the singer this year. His new festive single, the haunting, nostalgic ballad "December Song" is released this month, and he's also promoting his Live in London DVD, the first ever live concert DVD of his career. On top of that, Michael is putting the finishing touches to plans for his major tour of Australia, which starts early in the New Year. It's a continent he hasn’t visited since his Wham! days. With all that going on, will the star have any time to write out his Christmas cards at all? "I hope so!" says George cheerfully.

George Michael hit the road to superstardom in 1981 as one half of pop duo Wham! alongside old school friend, Andrew Ridgeley. With his amazing, mellifluous voice, charismatic stage presence and subtly-placed highlights, George was the coolest man in the charts. And, judging by his Live in London DVD he might also be the wittiest and most self-deprecating too. After all, how many mega-stars would find it amusing to be refused entry to their own concert?

"It still cracks me up!" laughs George. "Every time I think about it. And how great that it was caught on film! Did you see it?" he asks, referring to a moment in the special behind the scenes documentary "I'd Know Him a Mile Off" which forms part of the DVD. It shows George being driven to the back gates of the venue for his last night on stage, when his vehicle is suddenly stopped by an over-zealous security guard who simply won't believe that the passenger in the back of the car is actually the performer that everyone, now queuing at the front of the building, has come to see. "I'd know him a mile off!" proclaims the supremely confident guard to a very amused George Michael, before finally letting him pass.

Live in London which covers 23 songs from George’s historic career, including "Careless Whisper", "Faith" and "Everything She Wants" was filmed last August at London’s Earls Court Arena during the final two nights of his triumphant worldwide 25 Live Tour.

The DVD offers tantalising glimpses of George, now 46, before and after his performance, and shows him whizzing in and out of his costume during the interval break too. In fact, if you've ever wondered what might be happening back-stage as you queued for your souvenir concert t-shirt during the twenty minute interval, then you need wonder no more. "David was following me around with a camera backstage," explains George, referring to his childhood best friend, David Austin. "So I didn’t really take much notice, and I didn't even think some of that stuff would be included. Then we watched it back and decided to leave some of those scenes in the DVD because we thought the fans would love them."

And how right he is. Somehow it is utterly fascinating to watch George backstage, whether he's engaging in a quick, impromptu rehearsal with his backing singers, or blow-drying his hair while someone irons his shirt nearby. All mundane stuff, really, but somehow utterly gripping too. It's like being given an 'access all areas' backstage pass, just for one night.

"I'm incredibly proud of the whole thing really, and I think it stands as a great testament to an experience like that," says Michael. The performance is filmed and edited with an immediacy and freshness not often seen in any concert footage, and it makes compelling viewing. Sometimes we’re so close to George on stage, it’s like being in the band.

"Now seemed like the right time to do it, to film a concert of that magnitude," explains Michael. "This is the first time, and probably the last, that I’ll ever film myself in concert because it takes an awful lot of planning, preparation and hard work. But I'm very pleased with the end result. Actually, I had hoped to bring the DVD out last Christmas, but I was so busy – what with touring and everything - that there didn’t seem much time to do anything else.

"The 25 Live Tour began in 2006, and for the past three years we’ve been working on the lighting, sound, graphics and stage design, and I really wanted to get all of that as near perfect as possible before we filmed anything on stage. The technology is really amazing nowadays and I think that shows up on the DVD. Plus, the performances went really well over the two nights that we filmed them, so that was a relief."

As a double holiday treat for his fans this Christmas, George is also releasing "December Song" his first festive offering since the now iconic "Last Christmas" 25 years earlier. "December Song" is a wistful, evocative ballad that touches on George's memories of Christmas as a child.

"I wanted to capture, in a very authentic way, that feeling of warmth, tinged with a slight melancholy that I used to feel at that time of the year," explains a reflective Michael, who co-wrote the song with David Austin, but arranged and produced it himself. "When I was growing up I remember my parents as being constantly stressed and always very busy, but at Christmas everyone would calm down and be nice to each other for a few days, and that used to make me feel very safe. I didn't feel particularly secure as a child, which I think came from my parents being so busy and distracted. Sometimes, if I was feeling frightened, I would lie in bed and think about Christmas, and just the memory of its warmth and the atmosphere that would fill our home, would make me feel safe again. Maybe a lot of children feel like that. David’s known me forever, so we have a sort of shared memory of those times."

Interestingly, the song samples Frank Sinatra's "Christmas Waltz" at the beginning, while a more obvious festive choice might have been someone like Bing Crosby, surely? "It's Frank Sinatra who evokes Christmas for me," explains George. "I think it's because, every year, during the festive school holidays, I used to work behind the bar of my dad's restaurant in Edgware, [on the outskirts of London] and he'd always play Sinatra records during December for the customers. So that association is very strong for me."

The video for the song is as haunting and wistful as the single itself. It depicts a solitary little boy whose dreams of a magical, animated world, come to life at Christmas, and the story could almost be inspired by George's own memories of being a child. Either way, this beautiful, heart-warming ballad is set to become as much a seasonal favourite as Michael’s last holiday offering. "I hope the fans will love it as much as I do," says George.

There is certainly one thing that Michael would like to reappear from those innocent, childhood days. "Why doesn't it snow at the right time anymore, like it did in the 60s?" asks George. "If it could snow on Christmas Eve or something that would be perfect."

The last time George experienced a perfect, snow-covered holiday might have been in his Wham! days when he filmed the video for "Last Christmas". It shows the singer, band mate Andrew and assorted friends, all enjoying their festive break on a scenic, winter mountain. Not so scenic, perhaps, was George’s artfully high-lighted hair. "Don't! It almost makes me cringe now,” says George, referring to his layered look from the 80s. Did he and Princess Diana share the same hairdresser back then? Anything's possible.

"In those days I wanted to have long, blonde, straight hair because I didn’t really want to be me," explains George. "So the short, dark, curly hair had to go. Looking back I suppose I could have done without those curtain rings in my ears as well. And the shorts with the shuttlecocks down them too," he adds as an afterthought. "I mean, how stupid did that look? But then again, Andrew and I were just young guys having fun, and that’s an age when you’re still experimenting with your image, so of course mistakes were made. To be honest, I don't think I was ever really confident about the way I looked when I was younger. But the one thing I did believe in, the thing that I absolutely had no doubt about, was my talent as a songwriter. Once I had my foot in the door of the music industry, nothing was going to shift me."

For Michael, there was one moment, he says, when he knew he had arrived. "When I was 19 I wrote 'Freedom' – the original version – and I thought 'I can’t believe I’ve just done that!' I was absolutely thrilled. Because until then I had no real understanding of my abilities, but with 'Freedom' I started to take myself seriously as a writer."

And how does he rate himself now? "As a solo artist I have a few favourites. 'Praying for Time', as well as 'You Have Been Loved' and 'Jesus to a Child' – both from the album Older. Lyrically, I think they're the best things I've done. Older is the album where I think I reach my peak as a songwriter. Unfortunately, I had to go through an awful lot of emotional pain to produce it, and I really wouldn’t like to go through that sort of suffering again. But still, it's a body of work of which I’m incredibly proud."

Right now, though, Michael has his eye on some new stars in the firmament, and two in particular have him turning up the volume on his radio. "In my opinion, Amy Winehouse is probably the most talented singer/songwriter to have come out of Britain in the last few years. And Lady Gaga has my full attention," he says. "She's a very original songwriter with quite a unique overall package." Let's hope a CD from at least one of his new favourites turns up under his festive tree this year.

George is planning to spend this Christmas at his north London home with Kenny and his family. Then, in the New Year, he heads down under for a tour of Australia, somewhere he hasn’t visited since his ‘Wham!’ days. The tickets may have completely sold out already, but there's always Live in London for anyone not lucky enough to catch the shows down under.

Caught on film, right at the end of the concert, there's a moment - just before Michael leaves the stage - when he turns to his massed throng of adoring fans and shouts: "Thank you for 25 amazing years!"

The immediate roar from the crowd suggests that – then as now - the feeling is entirely mutual.

"December Song" is released on Island Records. Live in London DVD is released through Sony Music Entertainment. Buy the DVD here.

George Michael shares his Xmas memories, chats about his first festive song in 25 years, his debut live DVD, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga and more.
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