“We know we can sing. That’s the easy part,” says Shane Filan, one quarter of the most successful boy band of the last decade.
Twelve years, ten albums and 44million sales into their career, Westlife came to a crossroads earlier this year.
Did they stick to the winning formula that had produced 14 No1s (only three less than The Beatles), or tear themselves away from their comfort zone, shred the rule book and start again?
The latter, as it happens. And in emphatic style.
The quartet’s eleventh offering, Gravity, sees the Irishmen sail into uncharted waters, wrestle an unprecedented level of creative control and most critically of all – start believing in themselves again.
“It’s a really good album,” insists Nicky Byrne. “It’s one producer. It’s one sound. Maybe it’s taken us twelve years to get there. But it doesn’t matter. We’re here now.
“It’s the kind of record we knew we could make and we just needed the right person to deliver it with us.”
And that individual was legendary producer John Shanks. He steered Take That’s last two collections, was responsible for Bon Jovi’s recent reinvention and sculpted some of Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion and Sheryl Crow’s most enduring hits.
As sessions sprang into life this summer, first in London and then Los Angeles, it quickly became clear that the recording process would be radically different from anything the lads had ever done before.
Nicky recalls, “From day one John said, ‘I’m not going to be ringing Shane up and saying I want him in on Wednesday lunchtime and Kian in on Friday morning.
“’’If I’m going to do this, we’re all going to be in the studio together.’
“That was the first time anyone had ever said that to us. He made us feel like a real band again.”
And injecting that sense of coherence, togetherness and freedom was critical for the group.
They had to confront some painful truths about how much creative steam they were lacking.
Shane admits, “We made some choices over recent years that we weren’t happy with. We got to a point where we were selling so much, we didn’t think twice about doing a Rat Pack album or an album of covers of love songs. They were selling millions, but we eventually realised we needed some original songs again.
“For us to keep going as a band, for us to remain excited, we had to write our own material, not just record other people’s songs.”
And collaborating with Shanks saw the lads flex song-writing muscles that had been little-employed over the previous decade.
Nicky explains: “It’s not like it was in the past where we had a lot of covers. John insisted we get involved. Now we’ve got an album of twelve tracks and four are co-written.”
Shane reiterates: “It was very natural the way we bonded with John. He really wanted to get us involved in each song. We really feel like we’ve made this album together. We were there from the start to the finish. It feels like we were in the happiest place we have ever been making an album.”
Yet, one track confronts one of the most painful experiences two of the lads’ had ever gone through.
Kian and Nicky’s respective fathers both passed away over the last twelve months and they explore their grief in the most personal song the group have ever recorded.
Too Hard To Say Goodbye is a tender, tear-jerking ballad that many will identify with.
“Myself and Kian lost our dads last year. My dad died of a heart attack over night and Kian’s dad died over the course of a year” says Nicky. “We were discussing the loss with John over lunch one day and he said, ‘Let’s write a song about it’. We had tears in our eyes when we were putting it together. But it’s one song we’re all really, especially proud of.”
Elsewhere on the collection can be found the results of a conscious effort to erase some of the preconceptions that have weighed heavily around the four piece’s necks for many a year.
Nicky explains, “I’m not boring. I know I’m not boring.
“I’ve never liked the fact we got tarred with the brush that we were just these four lads who sit on stools, wear suits and sing slow songs.”
Beautiful Tonight echoes the crisp, euphoric electronic pop of Erasure, claims Shane, while banger No One’s Gonna Sleep Tonight is “Westlife does the Black Eyed Peas.”
“We’re twelve years in and all at least thirty years of age,” says Mark Feehily. “We could all go home now and we’d be alright for the rest of our lives.
“So, if we are going to make more records we want to do it well otherwise we don’t want to do it at all.”
And Gravity shows these four individuals to be men of their words...
Westlife’s album ‘Gravity’ is out now!