Back in the early noughties, Robbie Williams invited music journalist Chris Heath to his document his (comparatively bizarre) life for two years. The resulting book, 2004’s Feel, was an extremely candid bestseller that, perhaps surprisingly for an officially sanctioned biography, also a became a critical hit. Fast-forward to 2017 and they’ve repeated the trick, with Heath catching up on Robbie’s life after marriage, children and 18 years of teetotalism. We called the pop star to talk about the new book, Reveal, and to extend yet another invite to the NME Awards (since he didn’t take us up on the offer last time).
Robbie, what compels you to continue analysing yourself in this way, rather than just singing the songs?
Robbie: I’m sort of blighted with a condition where I want to overshare and tell the truth. It’s not until I’ve started doing the interviews for the book – which is today – that I’ve had to go, “Where is that from? Do I need to address that? Is that a problem?”
One of the book’s anecdotes, about your awkward first meeting with your wife, Ayda Field, made headlines earlier this year. Does she ever get mortified by stuff like that?
Robbie: No, she doesn’t – we’ve got a unique relationship in that way. We sort of like to one-up each other on the terrible things we say about each other. That being said, I was on Graham Norton last night and she did the red chair bit at the end [where guests are asked to tell a good story or be ejected]. I pulled the lever as soon as she sat down and that, weirdly, was the thing that did it. All the other stuff, she’s been fine about – and there is a lot of other stuff – but for some reason I came off Graham Norton going, ‘How well did I do?’ She just looked at me and gave me a dirty look. I was like: “Oh, the pulling of the lever?” “A bit, yeah, that.” I thought she was going to power-hug me and I was going to high-five because it got a big laugh. But that chair goes back very quickly, let’s just say that.
Feel was a massive critical and commercial success. Were you wary of trying to recreate that?
Robbie: That was a big moment for me, the book Feel. The reviews were incredible and it was received amazingly, and I just wanted to do that again. But the main thing for me was getting to hang out with Chris Heath again because I really love his company. I’d read both of Chris’s books on the Pet Shop Boys, and loved both of them and I believe that I’m entertaining and slightly interesting. I knew that he’d do an amazing job and he did.
Isn’t it difficult for Chris to maintain a critical distant and give an objective account if you’re someone that he’s close to?
Robbie: [Repeats the question to Chris, who’s in the room.] I’ll put him on.
Chris: Well, doing a book like this isn’t like doing any other kind of journalism because it’s a very unusual kind of relationship where it’s not about having an objective, critical distance. It’s about knowing that you both understand that you’re telling the same kind of story and you’re on the same page.
That’s very insightful, Chris, thank you.
Chris: I’ll put Robbie back on.
So, do you think you’re a very different person to the one you were when Feel came out?
Robbie: I would say that it’s like my accent: you can tell that I’m from the North and maybe if you know your areas up there you might say that I’m from Stoke-on-Trent, but a few of the colloquialisms have fallen away and a few of the vowels have fallen away too. I think it’s the same with me, and who I was and who I am now.
Have you had much feedback about the book from fans?
No, not really – when the book came out, I got ill, so I went back to Los Angeles and this is the only time I’ve been able to come and promote it. Nobody knows who I am in the States, so nobody’s going to come up to me and be like, “I’ve read the book.” I made a decision in 2000 to not promote there, not work there, not do anything there and go and just live there. So I haven’t done anything to jeopardise that.
That’s quite surprising from someone who seems to enjoy being in the limelight.
Well, no, along with my career there’s been this depression and mental illness, and I just made a decision around that time: “I’ve sold enough records, I’ve got enough money, I’m going to go somewhere where I’m anonymous.” And that’s where I ended up.
You were talking about depression and mental health more than a decade ago, when people in the limelight were less open about this kind of stuff. Do you feel like it’s becoming more normalised for people in your position to talk that way?
Back in the day, you didn’t know what’s going on with yourself; you just knew that you were living in your head and you didn’t understand what it was. You’d heard words that are called “depression”, but you didn’t equate that with what’s going on with you. There wasn’t anything really in the media to describe what I was going through or how I was feeling. When it was described – not particularly about me but me whenever it was brought up – it was kind of like, “Well, can’t snowflake pull his socks up and get on with it?” That did feel shaming. It was like, “Well, I’m still trying to come to terms with what this is and I feel bad. Should I pull my socks up?” It just made me more introverted. Now it’s different. I turn on the TV and people are talking about these things all the time, and it’s more accepted.
Liam Gallagher is NME’s Godlike Genius at this year’s NME Awards. Would you come and do a song with him?
Yeah, I’d do a song with him. My favourite song of the year is his track ‘For What It’s Worth’. I think it’s the best song either Liam or Noel has written in the last 20 years.
What do you love so much much about it?
It’s amazing and timeless; it just hits that sweet spot. It’s universal and speaks straight to the heart. He just got it completely right. I love it. Would I like to perform it with him at the NME Awards? I would like to see his face when you ask him.