The quartet of men that make up Westlife are charming to a fault; a positive bellwether of good show-business manners. They had socialised together in their time off, most notably at Egan’s wedding in Barbados, but they had spent twelve crucial months remembering who they were as human beings, not as the collective face of the biggest selling act in Britain of the decade. The sums and rewards of their success had come to mean less than the graft they had put into it towards the end of their unbroken tenure at the top pop tier. It hardly needs pointing out that those millions of records don’t sell themselves. It takes time, effort and a whole lot of stamina being any one of the four quarters of Westlife. Not to mention the tapping of your vocal and performance talent on a daily basis. ‘We had almost forgotten who we were outside of the band,’ says Feehily.
Let us recap. When Westlife formed – before Flying Without Wings, World Of Our Own, What Makes A Man, Fool Again, My Love, their endless hit list of platinum balladeering, mostly punctuated with an iconic key-change standing-from-the-stools moment – they were barely out of their boyhood. Their ages ranged from 17-19. When they began, their competitors in an aggressively revitalised British pop market were All Saints, Steps and B*Witched. The long-deceased Busted were not yet a twinkle in their management’s eye. Whilst their friends from back home were preparing to go to college, to take up apprenticeships, to learn trades or to travel the world, Mark, Kian, Shane and Nicky were donning suits and scrubbing up nicely for a decade long campaign of top notch music-making directed straight at the heart of the international pop psyche. The thing is? They got there. At the age of the 29-31, it was time for a brief catch-up with themselves. To look back at all that incredible musical achievement and consider what happened next.
Shane spent most of his year off looking after his family, wife and two children, with the occasional foray onto the golf course and the football pitch. ‘It was a holiday at home, basically. Something I’ve never done. We’ve done life back to front from most people of our age. We started off with success and then we’ve had to take the time to develop as people. Now was the time to do it.’ It gave him a chance to ponder the madness of the first few years of Westlife mania, both from the outside perspective of the fans that christened them the nation’s favourite pop act, and internally, from the perspective of their own crazy diaries.
He thought about, to pluck a random example out of the air of what four boys might get up to whilst conquering the globe with pop, the time he and Kian engaged in a drinking competition on their first tour which lasted – wait for it with a deep breath now – sixty days. ‘I was counting!’ he says. ‘All fuelled by Smirnoff. We’d be on stage and we’d wink to each other from the side of the stage: ‘ so, are we out tonight then, boys?’ Even on our days off we’d go out. We just had to. We were young lads. 19, 20. That’s what we did. But Kian would get very boisterous on the Red Bull. There’s a famous night when he bit me in a play-fight.’ ‘There was always some dodgy bar owner in every town we went to offering to close his bar down for us and the crew for a night,’ adds Kian, ‘And we’d always take them up on it. It was madness. Dancing on the bar-tops and what have you.’ He too has grown up in his year off. ‘I mix my vodka with soda water now. I even leave the lime out. I’ve got it out of my system.’
For Kian, the year out had been underpinned by the tragedy of his father developing a brain tumour, the unbridled joy of marrying his long-term sweetheart and a new joint adventure with Westlife’s manager Louis Walsh, co-managing a new girlband. ‘I didn’t have a single day when I thought ‘ah, what do I do today.’ Life threw everything my way.’ For better and for worse. ‘A lot had happened to me but I was ready to come back. Because of all the sadness with my dad I didn’t want the time to sit around and wallow. I wanted to get back to the thing I love doing because I love doing it again. He didn’t manage to come to the wedding because he was too ill and we debated so long and hard about postponing it and putting it off for a year and his whole attitude to life was to get on and do it, so it felt like honouring him and respecting him more to do it. The same thing with the band. These things happen in life.’
Nicky had followed Shane’s familial path and for the first six months decamped his clan – again, wife and two children – to a newly acquired property in Portugal, before returning to spend half a year in his beloved Dublin. ‘The twins were a year and a half old when the year off started and two and a half when it finished and it is such a privilege to be able to see your kids develop at that age. Most nine-to-five dads don’t get the chance to do that. And it’s time you can’t get back. You can really bond with them.’
Mark spent the first three months of his off-time doing, ‘Absolutely nothing. I was craving being back in Ireland so I went there and then four or five months in I had a bit of a panic, thinking it’s almost half way through the year now and I haven’t done anything. So I went straight onto the internet and booked flights to start travelling round the world. If I didn’t do it then I never would have done it. Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, India and then to Kian’s wedding in Barbados. I’d seen a lot of places before but I wanted [his partner] Kevin to see them and when I got there I realised I’d mostly seen the inside of hotel rooms. We went on our own adventure together.’ Mark spent a lot of time asking life’s bigger questions. ‘What makes me happy and what makes me sad. Sometimes you need to go away to consider that stuff.’
If the four corners of Westlife are beginning to sound invested with a new found maturity, their year out gave them the opportunity to develop it. When they met up again to talk about recording again, that maturity was ready to be invested back in their pop operation. ‘The truth was that we didn’t want to come back unless there was an album that we wanted to come back with,’ says Mark. ‘It would have been very easy to waltz back into the record company, refreshed,’ says Kian, ‘and say ‘OK, we want to sell 1 million albums again, what have you got for us?’ and go off and record whatever they said. Instead we had the meeting at Mark’s apartment, only us, we went through the music and then went into the record label and said ‘look, we are completely and utterly willing not to make a record here. We want to start, we want to record, but if we are going to do this it has to be a collection of songs that we all love.’’
The title of the album, Where We Are, turned out to be prophetic. Where Westlife were in 2009 was a very different place from the teenage boys who conquered the pop world at the end of the last millennium. ‘We started thinking about people that had never been interested in Westlife before,’ says Nicky, ‘About people hearing a song on the radio and hearing it was us and thinking ‘wow, really?’ We wanted it to feel special again. Not like part of the furniture that fans add to their homes.’
They came back with Backstreet Boys’ Millennium album as a touchstone for the possibilities of 21st century pop music in mind. ‘We didn’t feel like we had an album yet where every single song on the record is a potential single,’ says Shane, ‘There isn’t a weak song on that album and that was what we wanted for Where We Are.’ This refreshed thinking dovetailed perfectly with the iTunes age, where the customer has become accustomed to picking and choosing the three songs they like from an album for the sum total of £2.37, spread over a year, and leaving the rest to simmer on an internet portal. ‘We’ve got to the point where we personally, as a band, understand what a great song is,’ says Mark, ‘it isn’t just about listening to other people and taking everything they say. It’s about our gut instinct as to what makes songs work for a modern pop band.’
The recording sessions began in LA, with a completely fresh team of producers and songwriters. The first song they recorded was the haunting bereavement ballad, I’ll See You Again, a personal favourite of all four. A new sound began to develop, that conjured a brave, epic sound-scape somewhere between Bryan Adams, Jim Steinman’s productions for Meat Loaf and the more moving end of the Celine Dion spectrum. New flourishes were added to what we had become well used to as the Westlife sound; that rousing, choral, hymnal and heroic slow-burning crescendo that seems to find the exact cross-point on the musical graph between the traditions of lullaby folk music and contemporary pop. A rolling keyboard motif underpins the beginning of Sound of A Broken Heart. The harmonies have been ramped up, making it as much Kian and Nicky’s album as Mark and Shane’s. There is a complete absence of percussion for the first verse and chorus of No More Heroes, only to be embellished by a winning marching band timpani riff for the climactic breakthrough of the second verse. Mark’s lead vocal performance on Talk Me Down is invested with pure man-on-the-edge-of-his-sanity emotional overload, a towering achievement that packs a hard punch. The doctored background vocals that open The Difference are a little nod to electronica. The opening single What About Now has tinges of a rockier flavour, and already cements the new path as a bona fide radio smash. Where We Are is distinctly Westlife, but somehow more so.
The boys have a stricter sense of ownership of the record. ‘We’ve starting striving hard again,’ says Mark ‘and we’ve lost the fear of losing what we had. We’re as good as any other pop band in the world now. But we had to learn to use the word ‘no’ when it came to song choices.’ ‘We’re with this record for the long haul,’ says Shane, ‘hopefully we’ll be promoting it right into 2011. We’ve stopped thinking about time spans. We’re not even thinking about when the next record will be made. We want to tour this record, play it around the world in everywhere that wants to hear Westlife. There’s a lot of life in us yet.’
A lot of grown-up life, it would seem. On this occasion, a rest is as good as a change. Where We Are finds Westlife at peak performance, match fit and ready for the second chapter of their incredible story.