Changes: Robbie Williams
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:01] Hello and welcome to Changes. This is a podcast all about change and my name is Annie Macmanus. Change is universal. No one is immune from change, and it affects us all in very many different ways. We are on to series six of this podcast now, and through these conversations with a mad array of guests over the years, we are learning together how change impacts people's lives, how we can navigate it, how we can come through it, overcome it, and also use it to better our lives on the world around us.
Robbie [00:00:41] I have something internally, eternally, inside me that wants to pull me towards darkness, wants to sabotage, wants to isolate, wants to embrace hedonism to the point of oblivion. And it's it's a constant, you know. So I recognised that quite early and I thought, right, change or die. So, I'm quite used to change.
Annie [00:01:11] You probably recognise that voice, that is Robbie Williams, my guest on today's episode of Changes. A man who experienced monumental fame as a teenager when he joined the band Take That, but who started out as a working class boy. Robbie stats when you look at them are kind of mind boggling. It's easy to forget how hugely popular both he and his music are, now and over the last few decades. Since leaving Take That in 1995 to pursue a solo career, Robbie has had 13 number one UK albums. 13. He's received a record 18 Brit Awards and has sold 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best selling music artists of all time. Robbie emigrated to Los Angeles in 2006, and a few years after that he met the woman who was to become his wife, Ayda Field, and he's since had four children with Ayda. He has a brand new album out. It's called 25. Looking back at the last 25 years of music that he's put out into the world. He has a big tour coming up in October and a big movie biopic called Better Man being made about his life. It felt like a good time to speak to Robbie about the defining changes in his life. So, let's begin. Robbie Williams, hello and welcome to Changes.
Robbie [00:02:36] Hi, darling. I am very pleased and honoured to be on, like genuinely. I'm having a starstruck moment. We've spent a lot of time in your company, unbeknown to you. Erm, there is- do you know about this?
Annie [00:02:51] So someone sent me a link to this article in The Times about your art where you said that you listen to me, I think it was my shows, while you were doing your art and it blew my mind.
Robbie [00:03:03] Yeah. You've just been the soundtrack to all of these mad paintings and yeah, I'm fanboying right now, genuinely inside going, 'oi I'm with Annie Mac!' *both laugh*.
Annie [00:03:18] Thank you for listening.
Robbie [00:03:19] Pleasure.
Annie [00:03:19] How are you? You're on tour?
Robbie [00:03:22] No, I'm actually just finishing a few gigs that should have been done in COVID and they were delayed. I had this big gig in Munich and it's the first time that I've thrown up on stage. I had a fever before going on, and I felt dreadful. And there was over 100,000 people at this gig. And the sort of responsibility of being able to give them their money's worth and to stand in front of that many people whilst feeling that way was a heady mix.
Annie [00:03:57] God.
Robbie [00:03:58] Yeah. I was drinking double espressos to power through it. Cheers. And then there was Nicorette. Long story short, it was an amazing gig and through the love of the people and some Stoke On Trent grit, I got through it.
Annie [00:04:16] Wow.
Robbie [00:04:17] That was a long answer to how you doing. Have you been gigging back for a long time?
Annie [00:04:21] I've been gigging but I found after COVID, and that's what I was interested in then is like, all the things that you take for granted when you gig regularly, when you're on tour, you don't really think, you get in the rhythm of it, you don't really think too much about it you just get on with it. But when you come out of it and then you have perspective on what you're doing and you're like, fuck, there's whatever amount of thousand people in front of me, then it becomes terrifying all over again. And you have to kind of go through the nerves and the kind of absurdity of it I found. I've had to do a lot of talking to myself.
Robbie [00:04:53] I've had two of those things, like that and the opposite happened. So in 2006 I retired because everything came on top and I was too famous. It was just, it was too big. So I retired and then my head turned to swiss cheese and I realised after three years that I need purpose or else, you know, I kind of figured out that if you retire, you die. And when I came back, it was the most unnatural experience I've ever felt. It wasn't like riding a bike. It was the opposite of riding a bike. And all of a sudden I was walking like same arm and same foot, and everything felt robotic and everything felt the opposite of natural. And there's like, there's a performance on The X Factor that I did back then to a song called Bodies, and I was like real time experiencing this completely unnatural experience in front of millions of people. And, you know, it was detected that I looked a bit mad. But I was because I was just going, oh, I don't know what to do. I don't know-
Annie [00:06:09] Yeah, so it's kind of going through kind of like real time panic attacks or like a kind of attack of anxiety as you're singing?
Robbie [00:06:16] Yes. That being said, this time back I actually feel the opposite. I stood backstage at the Rod Laver Arena to do these gigs in Australia and I saw this packed house and genuinely I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for my job because you can be very laissez-faire, turning up to things time after time after time and seeing these rooms full of people like you're saying. And you know, just being like, yeah that's what happens, you know? That's it, yeah. And I saw this room full of people like I was seeing them for the first time, and I love my job. I know this sounds like American and insincere, but I'm so grateful to have an audience. And that's what COVID has done for me in this particular instance, is just go, wow, it's absurd, it's my absurd, and they're all here. How cool is this?
Annie [00:07:25] Yeah. You talked about pressure at the start, and I feel like pressure is a word that maybe people don't think about when it comes to being in your job. This idea of feeling a duty to the people who've spent the money to come and see you and this kind of enormous pressure to entertain. How has your attitude to that changed over the years? How have you managed to live with it when it comes to performing?
Robbie [00:07:48] Well, with a bit of maturity and time on my side and experience, I've realised that when the body says you're going to die, run off, you actually survive. But you don't know that at the start. I recognise that voice now and I go, it's, it's okay, I'm bigger than that voice. But what actually happened at Munich, the show I was talking about, the kids were there, my wife was there, our friends were there, 100,000 people there. And I had to do it no matter what, no matter how I was feeling, how Ill I was or how vulnerable I felt. And I was turning to my wife and I was like, I've got this, I've got this, I've got this, you know? And it felt good to be able to say that. And in the end, I got it. Then I went to do a gig in Bonn and when I arrived there in the afternoon, my wife wasn't there, the family wasn't there and I was in this tent. And in my head I was going, I haven't got this, I haven't got this, I haven't got this. *Both laugh* That was terrifying. But that being said, I did have it. The gig went really well. You were talking about the word pressure and people don't necessarily see the job being that, you know, if you wake up in the morning like I do and all you want to do is not wake up and stay in bed and isolate and not see the world, there's a lot of pressure to have 100,000 eyes on you. *Both laugh* It's the it's the opposite of what you want.
Annie [00:09:32] It's the opposite. Not just the opposite, but the extreme opposite.
Robbie [00:09:36] Yeah. It's like, you know, like when you wake up and you know you've got to go the gym, but you don't want to. It's like the equivalent of waking up and going, 'climb Everest!'.
Annie [00:09:46] *Laughs* so, so with the gym, you always feel better after. Do you feel better after you do your gigs?
Robbie [00:09:54] It feels like a relief, you know. And some of them, there is a high like no other. But most of the time it's just a relief that I didn't let me down and I didn't let them down. That's how it feels. It's not like- I think people see a snapshot of touring and they just see acclaim and hands and 'you're the best'. And yeah, of course that does happen. But for me to perform and to generate the energy to be able to facilitate that.
Annie [00:10:33] Mmm.
Robbie [00:10:34] I'm spending more than my body's got, and I'm creating my own drug inside me. And no matter how much love is coming at you and acclaim the next night, you're still paying for the drug that you spent the night before.
Annie [00:10:50] Yeah, yeah.
Robbie [00:10:50] Because of the adrenaline, the serotonin, the dopamine, the, you know, and then before you know it, you're ten gigs in, and you can't create your own drug inside you.
Annie [00:11:01] You're exhausted. Yeah.
Robbie [00:11:02] Yeah. So no matter what acclaim or what love- and you know, this isn't a moan, I'm just explaining what happens.
Annie [00:11:09] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Robbie [00:11:10] My job is absolutely phenomenal, like I said before. But this is just the mathematics of what happens on tour.
[00:11:19] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:11:29] Robbie, this podcast is all about change, that's the name. What's your relationship to that word. Are you a lean-in-er? Do you embrace change or?
Robbie [00:11:38] Um, I've had to adapt as to not die. I have something internally, eternally inside me that wants to pull me towards darkness, wants to sabotage, wants to isolate, wants to embrace hedonism to the point of oblivion. And it's a constant, you know. So I recognised that quite early and I thought, right, change or die. So I'm quite used to change.
Annie [00:12:15] What is the nucleus, do you think, of that pull to darkness. Where does it come from?
Robbie [00:12:20] I just think it's Russian roulette. I think it's genetics. I think it's genes. I think it's passed down. I think some of it is situational, but most of it is family based. Yeah, Russian roulette and I got it.
Annie [00:12:38] I was listening to you on Fern Cotton's podcast, Happy Place, nd you said something which I thought was really beautiful, actually. You said you were born raw. What are your memories of early childhood? What are your first memories, your sensory memories of that time?
Robbie [00:12:55] Well, I don't know what the sensory memories are. I can just remember snapshots, and it's not photographs of things that I've remembered as a memory because there's less than two handfuls of photographs.
Annie [00:13:10] Really?
Robbie [00:13:10] Yeah, I lived in a pub for the first four years of my life. My actually first memory is lucid dreaming.
Annie [00:13:18] Wow.
Robbie [00:13:20] Yeah, and um, flying.
Annie [00:13:20] In your dreams?
Robbie [00:13:24] Yeah, but leaving my bedroom and being able to fly down the corridor and then fly out of the window.
Annie [00:13:34] Wow.
Robbie [00:13:35] Yeah, but like the next day I woke up and I actually thought that I could fly, and I nearly threw myself down the stairs.
Annie [00:13:43] Okay *laughs*.
Robbie [00:13:45] To prove it. But that's kind of, you know, it's like thrilling to think that, you know, my first memory is a lucid dream.
Annie [00:13:55] Mm hmm. Absolutely. It must have had a massive effect on you. I mean it would, if you feel like you're flying for the first time. Is it right that your parents got split up when you were three?
Robbie [00:14:04] Yeah. Three or four, yeah.
Annie [00:14:05] So, did you live with your mam then?
Robbie [00:14:08] Yeah. Lived with my mam, yeah.
Annie [00:14:09] Who was in the house? Was it just you and your mam? Did you have siblings?
Robbie [00:14:12] My sister. She's nine years older than me, Sally, and my mum. And I, I've never really, well no, I never actually remembered a time when they were together. You know, my normality was me, my mum and my sister and then, you know, my dad at the weekends.
Annie [00:14:33] Yeah. What was it like living in the house with two older women? Like, how do you think that affected you long term?
Robbie [00:14:39] It was incredibly difficult for my mum to be a father and a mother. We're Irish and the lineage of our family is like navies and people that work down the pits and sort of frontline fodder in World War One and World War Two and all of that stuff. And for time immemorial, yeah we've, we've basically been in the financial dark ages. And what my mum did was incredible. She got a loan from the government and opened a shop, ladies dress shop in a like impoverished area of Stoke and made it a success, sold it and bought a coffee shop in the 'up-market' quote unquote area of Stoke on Trent. Made that a success, sold it, opened a flower shop, and then above it opened a lady's dress shop. Now, my mum at the same time raised me and my sister. And she made a success of both of those things. She's ambitious, driven, clever. And what she did to raise us from poverty to having a station above that is way more impressive than what I did. You know, it's like I got lucky and then kept getting in the car and turning up and fannying about. What she did is the impressive thing. And my dad, on the other hand, ultra charismatic, ultra charming, lives in his own film *Annie laughs*, everybody wants to be part of that film. You know, nobody's met my dad and not liked him, but he didn't have my mum's drive. My dad could have, you know, he could have been me. He could have done massive things, you know, but I don't think he really wanted it. So, I'm a combination of the two. Little story about my dad, he was living in a rented flat above a hairdresser's in Stoke, and he's getting on and the stars were like Everest, basically. And I go into him one day in his flat and I said, Dad, go and get any house in Stoke that you want. Any house. And he had a cigarette on at the time and he went, why? *Annie laughs* And I went, well, you know, you can have a garden. 'I don't want a garden'. Well, you know, you could have a nice bathroom and shower. 'Got one', you know, and it was 50 quid a week to rent his flat. He didn't want anything from me. And he found the process of going out and getting anything else, a headache.
Annie [00:17:48] Yeah *laughs*.
Robbie [00:17:49] You know, and I remember like going at my dad's on a Friday night and him having 20 pence to get him through the weekend.
Annie [00:17:58] Wow.
Robbie [00:17:59] So, there's the juxtaposition between my mum and my dad. And I have that overwhelming ambition and drive that my mum has.
Annie [00:18:11] Yeah. You clear- I was just going to say you clearly inherited her work ethic. Yeah.
Robbie [00:18:15] Yeah.
Annie [00:18:16] And did you find that as a kid, if your dad wasn't there as much, like you kind of end up taking the parent that you live with for granted?
Robbie [00:18:24] No, absolutely. But my- also on top of that, my father had been on TV and he'd also worked with some of the greats of his time, and all times, you know. He'd worked with Tom Jones and Tony Bennett and all of these people back in the sixties, and the seventies, and Roy Orbison. So not only did you have the effect of an absent father, but when he did come into your life, he was a celebrity in my eyes. So there was double, triple that. And yeah, mum, there was not the deference. But I think it's probably natural.
Annie [00:19:07] Yeah, totally.
Robbie [00:19:09] You idolise and create a narrative in your own mind about who this person is when they're not there, and you cherish the times when they are.
Annie [00:19:20] Yeah. What would you say Robbie, was the biggest change you went through as a child?
Robbie [00:19:25] I joined take that when I was 16, I auditioned when I was 15, and the change in my life was seismic. You know, from being part of a tribe and having common thoughts and feeling and journey and vibe and humour and understanding about how the world works and who were against and who we're for. And then all of a sudden, you're 17 and you're famous and you become removed from the tribe and become something other. And at the same time I thought I was joining a band of brothers and it was going to be like my school friends and it was going to be like a gang and we're going to have a right laugh. And what I actually got was, Gary Barlow that didn't want to be in a band with these Muppets, didn't understand why that was happening, you know, because he's a child prodigy and I get it, you know, he wrote A Million Love Songs when he was 12 months old or something ridiculous *Annie laughs*. Ridiculous. And then you've got Jason Orange that already comes from five brothers and was vying for position within five brothers. And now he finds himself with five strangers vying for the position again. Then you've got Howard, who's really lovely but doesn't say anything really. You know, he's so funny and he's an amazing man. But then you've got me and Mark and I was the runt of the band.
Annie [00:21:11] You were the youngest, yeah.
Robbie [00:21:13] The youngest, the annoying, the brat. You know, all of a sudden I was in a grown up world, allegedly not being looked after very well by the people, the powers that be. And then I'd come home and I would experience this resentment and jealousy. And, you know, I've said it before, but there was instantly a contract out on me to kill me. So and, you know, the amount of times that I just barely got out of scraps where something really bad could have happened to me. So there was no safety at work and there was no safety at home, and that was the biggest change of my childhood.
[00:22:01] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:22:05] I mean, they say change starts in the cracks, right? So if you think about how any change begins, like the crack in a bone, the fucking splitting of the atom, tectonic plate, a relationship, whatever. You had a crack in your identity from that moment when you joined Take That. As in you then, you realised there was a public persona of you, a public perception of you, as opposed to who you were. Is that fair to say? You became Robbie Williams as opposed to Rob.
Robbie [00:22:32] Yeah, I can understand it now. In the lived experience, you just on a joy ride to mental illness and you don't know, you don't know what it is.
Annie [00:22:47] I mean, that's I was going to say, was there a moment when you became conscious of that? You know, that idea of a kind of- not split identity because you were always you, but this idea of being able to use the fact that there's a public perception of you, that isn't you, to your advantage and be like, okay, I'm just going to act out this guy on stage and that's going to keep me sane.
Robbie [00:23:07] Yeah, 32 years later. I would say for 30 years out of the 32 I've understood that.
Annie [00:23:16] Got you.
Robbie [00:23:16] You know because, who people talk about, who people write about, more so now than back in the past because like, you know, that intense spotlight that once shone on me now doesn't. And it's something else and it's truly enjoyable. I get to do what I dreamt about doing when I was 14, you know. But back then, you know, the order of the day was to lacerate, dehumanise, vilify, pull down, put a contract out on them to kill them, you know, beat them up in public wherever you go, you're not safe. So this person that they talked about, this person that they wanted to beat up, it's not me, you know. And then also the name Robbie wasn't my idea. The name Robbie was given to me by my manager. 'Right, okay, you're not Robert anymore, you're Robbie'. And I hated it because it made me sound cute. And I didn't want to be cute. I wanted to be street and cool. And Robbie just not. But it was the best thing that he ever did because Robbie Williams isn't me. Never was.
Annie [00:24:32] It gave you separation.
Robbie [00:24:33] Yeah, yeah.
Annie [00:24:34] Yeah. Wow. Like, what would you say was the absolute peak point of your fame when it was undeniably unsustainable?
Robbie [00:24:43] 2005. 2006. You know, I live with charlatan syndrome as well. This feeling of, I don't deserve this, this shouldn't and can't happen to me yet it is. And then I got in the Guinness Book of Records for selling the most tickets for a tour in a day.
Annie [00:25:08] How many?
Robbie [00:25:09] It was 1.6 million in a day, but like 4.5 or 5 million altogether for that tour. And I just got the biggest record contract in the history of music and you know, famously I shouted, 'I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams', which was- I'll come back to that afterwards and explain that. But I didn't feel as though I deserved any of this. And the march into that tour, having to generate a feeling for stadiums of people all the way around the world, whilst feeling at the same time that you just- they just don't know that I'm not very good and I don't deserve this. They should be told. They should be informed.
Annie [00:26:02] And you've relentlessly done that your whole life in interviews. You've always made a point of like, self-deprecating going, 'no, I'm not that good a singer', you know.
Robbie [00:26:10] No, no, listen, I fanny about to the best of my ability and somehow it's filled stadiums and I don't know why, but it just has. So not only that, at the same time there was different rules with the press at that point. You know like when Britney Spears is shaving off her hair and whacking paparazzi cars, I live just down the road from Britney at that point and there would be 20 to 30 cars waiting outside her house to follow her 24 hours a day. Outside of mine, there was five. There was five or six, but they were there 24 hours a day. And you can't live like that. You can't live like that without going crazy. It's just not possible. And at the time, if you said something, who were you to complain? Look at this person moaning in their mansion. Oh, we feel really bad for you. Blah, blah, blah, blah. Yeah, I'm going to kill myself. I feel that bad. I'm going to kill myself. Now, cut to 48 year old where that doesn't happen. I keep saying this because I mean it. My job is phenomenal and I'm so grateful to have it.
Annie [00:27:27] You found the sweet spot.
Robbie [00:27:28] I found the sweet spot but look, you know, like I said before, that intense spotlight that once shone on me, now doesn't. I'm allowed to, you know-
Annie [00:27:38] Live a normal life, as such.
Robbie [00:27:40] And normal-ish life. I'm allowed to be a dad. I'm allowed to be a husband. I'm, you know, I've figured out how to work this existence and I'm incredibly lucky. And I say that for the people that did or would have thought, there he goes moaning again, I'm not, I'm really not I'm just telling you the mathematics of what that does to somebody in that moment.
Annie [00:28:10] It sounds like you've got stick in the past for speaking in any way negatively about the reality of being that famous, you know, in that, you know, you are kind of reassuring the people listening like, I'm not moaning, I'm not moaning. And it feels bizarre because anyone who really thinks about what fame is, if you really think about that life of being followed, of being watched, of course it's bizarre and strange and unsettling and going to feed into all of your insecurities and you're going to want to obliterate yourself because it's so fucking weird.
Robbie [00:28:45] Well, name me one person that's come out of that unscathed. Let's go through the boys of Take That, right.
Annie [00:28:51] Okay, right.
Robbie [00:28:51] So, we've got-
Annie [00:28:54] Well Gary? No? He's done alright, no?
Robbie [00:28:55] Bulimic.
Annie [00:28:57] I never knew that.
Robbie [00:28:59] And he talked about it in an interview this week. You know, he had an eating disorder, went to a very, very dark place. Didn't leave his house for a couple of years. Couldn't write songs. Thought about ending it all. Couldn't be seen in public because he felt like a national joke.
Annie [00:29:19] That's so sad, man, that he. It's so good that he talked about that, too.
Robbie [00:29:23] Yeah. And, you know, so that was Gaz. Then you've got Mark who's been to rehab, that struggles with his own addictions, that struggles with his own darkness. Then you've got Howard that contemplated committing suicide when Take That finished, and then you've got Jay that just can't have it at all.
Annie [00:29:42] Hmm.
Robbie [00:29:43] So, there's five stories about being blessed with the gift of the job that we were given and what it does, we can't all be arseholes. We can't all be moaning narcissists. You know, it's statistically- okay maybe I'm the only one, but like, I've met them other four lads, they're really nice *laughs*.
[00:30:07] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:30:18] What's the biggest change you went through- have been through as an adult, please?
Robbie [00:30:23] When Theodora Rose Williams came into my life.
Annie [00:30:29] Aww. Tell me. So she's your oldest, right?
Robbie [00:30:32] Yeah. Yeah. I couldn't look after myself, so I was buggered if I was going to have the gargantuan task of caring for a precious little soul if I couldn't look after me. But then I met Ayda, and she really wanted to have a baby, and I really love her and so we did. And when Teddy arrived, the first couple of years I thought, yeah this is, it's true, it's true. I can't look after this person. I can't look after me. And it was overwhelming. But then what I thought was, which I think is kind of natural for guys to do, is go, what I can do is build a moat and a castle and provide for us and make us safe. And then slowly what started to happen was I experienced the love that all of those songs promise you when you're growing up, that you become cynical about because that's not what loves like. But then Teddy just absolutely blew my mind and carries on blowing my mind on a daily basis, so much so that we've had another three since then *laughs*.
Annie [00:32:03] So how does being a father change how you think of yourself?
Robbie [00:32:08] Makes everything make sense. Makes my, you know my um, you know, I always call it my job because that's the only way that my job makes sense. Because there was times before a wife and before kids where I'll be going on stage to provide entertainment for a stadium full of people and wanting to run off and be terrified and think, there's no reason for me to do this. There's no reason for me to put myself through this. Why am I doing this? I don't know. No answer. Then you'd just be bouncing off a room in a hotel, trying to figure out why you can't adjust to this new way of life and to enjoy the gift that you've been given. What happens when the kids turn up is daddy goes to work. Daddy goes to work. You know, and it makes everything make sense. It makes my job the perfect job. When I'm terrified before I go on stage, I don't get as terrified as I used to get. I don't get as panicky or as scared or as you know.
Annie [00:33:17] Yeah. You have a purpose. Yeah.
Robbie [00:33:19] I have a purpose. And, you know, my my purpose is steadfast. And, you know, 1,000% believable and real. And it's a joy to be able to provide for them. Like I said before about, you know, from time immemorial into the dark ages, you know, my family have been in poverty all of a sudden in this one generation, we're not. You know, and there is a lot of sort of- for me, I want to see how far I can push this. And I want to see how many generations I can gift this elevation to. There is lots of other ideas that I've got to dream even bigger. And the dreams are based around providing generations of Williams' with the pharaoh blood elevation. Because, you know, it's a good life. It's more enjoyable than where we've been as a tribe.
Annie [00:34:32] It's funny living, you know, growing up in England, which is so hierarchical when it comes to class. It's an elitist country, it's run by people who went to Eton, it's still so divided, more so than ever. And then living in L.A., which is kind of a democracy when it comes to wealth, anyone can make it. Anyone can be rich. You know, it feels class-less. I've never lived there, but there's no such thing as old money in America compared to England, right. How much does your working class-ness- how does it show itself? And do you still feel it?
Robbie [00:35:04] Um, I see myself definitely as being from Stoke on Trent before I see myself being English. And um, I relate more to Coutts. I relate more to Welsh people, to Scottish people, to Irish people. And that sort of ambition and that sort of generational nout-ness. Nout. Nothing. I wake up with it every day. You know, I wake up with the fear that we go back to nout.
Annie [00:35:43] So you have this- I mean, it's common, isn't it, with people who grew up in poverty that they- it stays with them that feeling.
Robbie [00:35:50] Yeah, and you know, like I say, my mum lifted us up out of that to a different place. But, it's in the genes.
Annie [00:35:57] Mm hmm.
Robbie [00:35:58] You know, it's definitely, yeah, it's definitely in the genes. There's bad things about Britain, and there's bad things about America with personalities and how people think. The great thing about America, which I've caught, is you can be anything and do anything that you want. There's this whole thing in Britain where you're in your box. You're just in your box. That's what you do. You know, like, for example, in the nineties, if I'd have wanted to go and do a film, 'what's he doing a film for?!' *Annie laughs*. You know or, 'who does he think he is?!'
Annie [00:36:41] Who's he think he is?!
Robbie [00:36:42] For whatever it is. Who does he think he is? You know, well, I look at Jay Z and go, I want to do that. I want that. Why can't I do that? That looks like fun. And also, if I could create that, how amazing would that be? You know, and then you look at Kanye West and you think about all the creativity in the different avenues that he's gone, yeah, why not? He doesn't even think why not? He goes, I'm going to do that. And I pick that up. You know, it's like, I want that for me. I want that for my family. The infrastructure for that to happen in the UK doesn't exist.
Annie [00:37:27] Well, there's a shame around around speaking out about being ambitious. It's like being ambitious is a dirty word. Yeah.
Robbie [00:37:34] I don't get it. But here's the thing. One person ago, my grandma, my grandma's school report, the thing that it said at the bottom, the overarching thing about her whole life at school, 'will do well for the people over her'. 'Will do well for the people over her'. One person ago *Annie laughs*. You know, that's how generationally we think, you know, and my grandma and grandad didn't have an indoor toilet until 1985, and they had a silver tin bath that was on a hook on the ceiling. And she would boil the kettle a couple of times to warm that bath up, have a bath, and then put the bath on the hook.
Annie [00:38:29] Is this your mum's parents, the Irish?
Robbie [00:38:31] No, no, me dad's. Unfortunately, the Irish side passed away when I was younger and my mum was younger too. So, yeah she had an outdoor toilet and we're talking in my lifetime.
[00:38:46] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:38:56] You mentioned Kanye. This idea of broadening your creative spectrum, you know, thinking beyond just being a songwriter, which we have to stress you are. And I think it's important to say that obviously people know you write your own songs, but you're an amazing songwriter and it seems like you do that instinctively. You have to write songs as part of your happiness. Would that be right in saying?
Robbie [00:39:15] Yeah, I suppose it's therapeutic in many ways and it's something that I'm always whittling at to get better at it. I get it right, I get it wrong. I happen to be a lot closer to what I wanted to achieve than I actually originally thought, with a bit of kindness for myself, looking back. But yeah, there's over 100 songs in my computer, that are unreleased and I love music. I love all kinds of music, you know. I love what you play. I love what you play.
Annie [00:39:53] But you're doing a dance thing now, though. Is that right?
Robbie [00:39:54] Yeah, which we'll get to because I want to ask you a question. But like, I'm just erm, I love what you play. But then just before I started to do this with you, I was watching a guy that does impersonations of swing singers from the 1970s on Johnny Carson's show. And there's a guy doing impressions of Sammy Davis Junior and Tony Bennett. That was where I was. And then I jump into your world and go, I love that, too. The question I was going to ask you is this. So, I thought what was going to happen when I did this dance project was I was going to be an audience member but on stage. I play these records and everybody dances around, and then every now and then they turn back and they do that knowing look like, 'yeah, you, this', 'me, you that'. And I go, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. *Annie laughs*. That's what I thought was going to happen, right? So I turn up at my first electronic dance music gig.
Annie [00:41:00] Okay, where was it? Can you give us a bit of context.
Robbie [00:41:02] It's in Ibiza at a place called 52-
Annie [00:41:05] Pikes!
Robbie [00:41:06] No, 528. I'll tell you about Pikes after, it's the old Zoo Project.
Annie [00:41:10] Oh, right. Yeah, okay, I've played there. So you are singing and the people you're working with are DJing, is that it? No?
Robbie [00:41:16] Well, a bit of both.
Annie [00:41:18] Okay.
Robbie [00:41:18] Right. So I just thought I was going to be the bez of this project.
Annie [00:41:24] Given the maracas.
Robbie [00:41:26] Yeah, wander around, vibes, you know. And like I said, I thought I was going to be an audience member on stage. And then what actually happened was, when I turned up for the first gig, 2000 people faced the stage and just looked at me.
Annie [00:41:46] Phones. Phones as well I bet.
Robbie [00:41:47] Yeah, and like, you know, barely any movement and it was so awkward.
Annie [00:41:55] Oh God, that's not a good vibe.
Robbie [00:41:56] So awkward was just like, I haven't- I haven't planned to entertain these people. All I'm doing is showing you some tracks that we've worked on and dancing about, and now it seems I've got to do something else. And what I was actually doing, what I was actually doing to have a break from the energy of that- because I've got the lyrics to these new songs on my Mac, and I was looking at my Mac very intently every now and again just to have a break from the energy of these people staring at me. But you know what? I Googled, 'what do garage MCs say?', while I'm on stage, because I don't know what to do. So I Google, 'what do garage MCs say?'.
Annie [00:42:40] Inside!
Robbie [00:42:40] *In MC voice* Inside, inside. This one goes out to the ladies. *Annie laughing* Wait for the drop!
Annie [00:42:48] Did you do it?
Robbie [00:42:49] Yeah. Yeah. I didn't know what I was doing. I just repeated the top ten things, several times. *MC voice* inside!
Annie [00:42:59] Oh my God. Well now you know how every DJ feels when they step up in a club. You've just got 2000 people staring at you, but you don't have a mic. You have to just play songs. That's why I have so many issues with DJing, because I'm not a performer and I'm shit at dancing, so it's just me pressing buttons and it's just- like the best gigs are the ones where they can't see you, you know? When it's just about the music, but it's become so performative now.
Robbie [00:43:23] I couldn't believe how awkward it is.
Annie [00:43:26] So fucking awkward.
Robbie [00:43:28] Yeah, because you are just, you're basically. You're a barista. You're kind of, nearly making a coffee *both laugh* just pressing things for-.
Annie [00:43:41] Filter *laughs*.
Robbie [00:43:42] Yeah pshhh. Yeah, and it's err. It was a- It was a shock.
Annie [00:43:54] But you went to Pikes, though, didn't you?
Robbie [00:43:56] Pikes is great.
Annie [00:43:56] Some said you went to it. Because that's more the vibe, because that's a party atmosphere. That's the place to test your records out, yeah.
Robbie [00:44:03] It was- Pikes was great. And we did that small room.
Annie [00:44:06] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Robbie [00:44:08] And it was gay night and it was just like, these are my people, this is where the love is. And like, we played a couple of tunes. The guys that I'm doing it with are such chancers, right. I love them. I love them. Their two of the best mates. Australian guys. I'm two songs in and I turn to Tim and I go, is this your first time DJing in public? And he went, *Australian accent* 'yeah mate, they love us!'. *Annie laughs*. I was like whaaat. Then he goes, 'okay, are you going to do one of the songs, are you gonna sing?', and I was like, nahhh, I don't think I'm going to. And then I got from behind the booth and went down into the crowd and had a dance in the middle of everybody and it was just-
Annie [00:45:00] Perfect, yeah.
Robbie [00:45:01] You know what it was, yeah, it was incredible. And then we did Ibiza Rocks. But you know, I tell you what happened. So I go round to see these big clubs. And like I'm thinking, I'm Robbie Williams, and I wander into residency and that's what happens, right? That's what I think. And then I'm shown these big clubs and I'm like, yeah, yeah, I'll do this *Annie laughs*. And then they take you through to the back room and they go, and this is where you'll be playing, and I'm like, what?
Annie [00:45:35] *Laughing* Sorry?
Robbie [00:45:37] What, the what? Hey this is a cloakroom!
Annie [00:45:38] This is my dressing room, no?
Robbie [00:45:42] Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I get it. I get it. It doesn't matter who you are, this is where you start. But in that moment I just thought, gotta build my own club and residency at my own club.
Annie [00:45:55] *Laughing* Well, yeah, I mean that's a big jump down isn't it, from 100,000 people in Bonn to the back room of whatever.
Robbie [00:46:02] Well, you know, it's err-
Annie [00:46:03] Also you're doing it for the fun and the love of it, aren't you? You're not doing it to become fucking Tiesto. But maybe you are.
Robbie [00:46:10] No, no, no, no. But if I'm going to leave- you know how hard you work. You know, if I'm going to leave my family to go and do this properly, then, you know, I want to be recompensed properly.
Annie [00:46:27] Yeah, needs to be worthwhile, yeah.
Robbie [00:46:28] Well, you know, it's like I'm not leaving the house for a couple of months a year to go do this, for it to cost me money.
Annie [00:46:38] Yeah, understand.
Robbie [00:46:39] But the original vibe and feeling of why I wanted to do this was because of how that kind of music made me feel in 1990 and 1991. You know, I was at Cream, I was at Money Pennies, I was at the Hacienda, I was at Rain Dance. Whatever it was, I was there. Also, I was there as a member of Take That. Pre social media.
Annie [00:47:07] Oh, thank God for that *laughs*.
Robbie [00:47:11] Take That would have been over in 1993 if they just got any images of me and what I was up to. But it was a pivotal musical moment in everybody's life that most people are still paying for. You know, it's like my body's paying for it.
Annie [00:47:28] Oh yeah, my memories paying for it. I can't remember anything.
Robbie [00:47:31] My serotonin is paying for it, my dopamine is paying for it. But if you think about it and that nostalgic cheekiness, it was all worth it.
[00:47:41] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:47:41] Hey, Robbie, before I let you go, you said earlier, when you got the biggest record deal, that whatever it was, I can't remember how much money, 80 million quid record deal or something, you said something, you said I'm going to go back to that.
Robbie [00:48:03] Yeah. Okay so, the set up to this is I've got charlatan syndrome, right? And they're give me 80 million quid. I don't deserve that.
Annie [00:48:17] In your head, you don't deserve that.
Robbie [00:48:18] In my head, yeah. On top of that, what does an 80 million quid artist perform like? You know, like the only people I could point to that deserve that is Prince, you know, that's what that looks like. I'm just from Tunstall in Stoke on Trent. Fannying about. How the hell has this happened? With that comes the cover up with the bravado and the sort of, you know, false narcissism or whatever it is that we used to do so well in the 1990s. And I turned up at my management office, and there's all the paparazzi there and there's the signing of the contract and the shaking of hands with the EMI bosses and I'm just feeling really uncomfortable. And then I'm thinking to myself, the paparazzi are taking pictures and they're going 'give us a quote, give us a quote'. And in my head I thought, the only thing missing is like one of those massive checks.
Annie [00:49:21] Yeah *laughs*.
Robbie [00:49:22] You know, like huge, well done, you've won the lottery kind of things. And then I thought to myself, oh yeah, like that lady that won the lottery and she said, 'I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams' and it became a thing that people remember her for. Which is why I said, 'I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams'. The thing is, that lady didn't say that. She said, 'I'm going to spend, spend, spend'. it was a lady from the early eighties or the late seventies that became very famous and that was her phrase, 'I'm going to spend, spend, spend'.
Annie [00:49:59] So where did you get that I'm rich from- Where did you get that line? The wildest dreams line?
Robbie [00:50:03] Because that's what I thought she said.
Annie [00:50:05] Okay, got ya.
Robbie [00:50:05] That's what it went in as. And I thought I was aping her and people would understand that that's what I was doing.
Annie [00:50:12] There's a reference, yeah.
Robbie [00:50:14] As it happens, yeah, it follows me around like an albatross around my neck.
Annie [00:50:23] But I mean, you were. There's nothing false about that. It was, it was fact.
Robbie [00:50:29] I think it's another one on British things. You'll be allowed to say that and people to rejoice with you in America when you say it in England. I remember I had this flat in Chelsea Harbour and I lived on the 15th floor and one day I woke up and I could hear somebody outside my window, which is odd because it's the 15th floor. And I just hear somebody going, 'I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams'. And I'm like, what? ey? And I just opened the curtains and there's two window cleaners on one of those things going up, going, 'uhhhhh'. I'm in bed, knobhead.
Annie [00:51:16] *Laughing* Leave me alone! Okay, Robbie Williams, last question. What change would you still like to make, if any, for yourself moving forwards?
Robbie [00:51:25] Um, the ability to let some of the joy in, let more joy in, and the ability to receive the love and to receive the respect that is shown to me when I'm with people. When I'm with people, they're happy to see me and, you know, excited to see me. And also, you know, there's this thing where I've created this thing where they think this thing. All the other stuff, the Twitters, the journalism that too exists, but I don't have to inhabit those words. I don't have to become those. I can be this thing over here that is respected and is loved. Obviously the health and wealth and all of that of my children. For me personally, I'd like just to wander through that and go, 'thank you', and feel like I deserve it and not be British about it.
Annie [00:52:26] Yeah, well, I wish you the best for that. I think you deserve all of it. I think you're exceptionally brave.
Robbie [00:52:32] Thank you very much. It's everything that I would hope that this chat would be.
Annie [00:52:40] Thank you so much to Robbie Williams for that conversation. I just loved talking to him. His new album, 25, is out now and that's celebrating 25 years of his solo career. It features all of Robbie's biggest hits, newly orchestrated by Jules Buckley and rerecorded. You can also buy tickets to his tour in October at Robbie Williams dot com. We'll put a link in the show notes for you. Let us know what you thought of Robbie. I'd love to hear from you. Go on my Instagram to do that. Annie Macmanus. Tell your friends and family all about it. Anyone who you know who might have the tiniest bit of curiosity about Robbie or who is a fan of him and his music. Spread the word, please. And also, do give us a rating where you can. It's always really helpful. And in case you don't know, there's a transcript of each episode of Changes on my website. So if there's anyone you know who maybe is hard of hearing or who would find it useful to be able to consume this podcast in written form as opposed to audio form, just please pass that on too. So we are going to be back next Monday with Dr. Brian Cox for a unique conversation about his life and changes to our planet and society, our understanding of the universe and the perspective it can give us. This episode of Changes was produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions, and I'll see you next week.