Joe McElderry exclusive
Joe McElderry shot to fame when he won the 2009 series of The X Factor. However, almost immediately, things didn’t go quite as planned with his anticipated pop career. He was held off the prestigious Christmas number one slot by a Facebook-fuelled campaign that championed Rage Against The Machine. His second single made its debut in the top five but swiftly dropped down the charts, while his third single failed to chart in the top 40 altogether. In spring 2011, barely 16 months after his X Factor victory, record label Syco announced it was dropping the handsome South Shields-born teenager, with a spokesperson for the label telling the Daily Mail: “Simon [Cowell] gave Joe the best chance possible of success by making sure he worked with some of the world’s top producers… Joe’s a lovely boy and it is a pity it did not work out, but no one can say Simon and his staff did not try to make it work.”
By conventional music biz lore, that would have been that… except the singer, now turned 20, may be about to pull off a remarkable comeback. Released from his former record label, Joe unexpectedly turned up as a contestant on this summer’s Popstar To Operastar, and duly went on to astound both judges and audience with his vocal prowess. He won the show and was snapped up by iconic label Decca, who are releasing a new album – a mixture of classically-themed covers, opera and showtunes – on 29 August.
Given his roller-coaster ride, one might expect a slightly older and wiser McElderry to be a little bit cynical about the music industry. David Hudson, however, sat down with him – to discover that he remains as optimistic as ever – humbled by his success and amazed at the new direction his career has taken. Just don’t ask him about his love life…
Out: Were you nervous about entering Popstar To Operastar?
Joe: Yeah, with anything, when you’re changing your direction in music, when you’re taking on something you’re not used to… I go into automatic gear when I do pop music now because I’m so used to that style of singing, so when I went into rehearsals for this, it was like learning how to ride a bike again, or learning how to drive again, because every time you do it, someone says: “Well, that’s a bad habit you need to stop doing”. A lot of pop singers pick up bad habits. There’s a lot of tension in your jaw when you sing, which is normal, and it’s how you create that kind of breathy sound, but with classical singing, it’s all about everything being relaxed and totally allowing that loud, powerful voice to float through your body, which is a weird sensation when you first start doing it.
Have you benefited, as a singer, from the experience?
One hundred per cent! It has helped me so much, not only with this album, with the crossover style that I’ve been doing, but also the more emotional ballads I’ve recorded as well. It’s strengthened my voice so much – unbelievably so. I have people coming up to me and saying: “Your voice has changed so much since you did that training” – it was so worth it.
Apparently you were getting the most votes each week in the show – did you know that at the time or do they keep it a secret from you?
No. You don’t find that kind of stuff out until after the final show, so you have no idea, which is quite difficult, because you don’t know whether you’re doing things right or wrong. All you know is that you’re getting through each week, but you don’t know how many votes you get. But that is amazing, to think that people not only picked up the phone and voted for me not only once but twice… I’m humbled by that. It’s amazing.
How did you feel when you won?
It sounds a real cliché, but it was like reliving an amazing dream you’ve had. It was like going through the whole X Factor experience again but in a different style of music, which was really exciting, so when I won I just couldn’t believe that people enjoyed me singing this style of music. It was really nice.
Who did you get on with particularly well on the show?
Everybody. Everybody was lovely.
Earlier this year, it was widely reported that you’d been dropped by your record label, Syco. Was that a depressing or difficult time for you?
[Deep sigh] I mean this in the least big-headed way possible, but it wasn’t a depressing time. Obviously, getting dropped by your record label is not an ideal situation, but I just kind of thought: “OK, what’s next? Let’s move on to the next chapter”. I didn’t dwell on it. I don’t want to say that I wasn’t bothered because obviously I care about my music, but I kind of thought: “Right, let’s go out and explore who I’m going to release music with next”. It was an exciting time, as well as being a kind of wake-up, I suppose.
Were you disappointed with the results of your time at Syco? Or how do you feel now about your debut album?
I loved everything about it. The album was number three, and I had a top 10 single. I was really proud of what I achieved.
Did you ever get the feeling Simon Cowell was prioritising Olly Murs’ career over yours?
Well, Olly’s not signed to Syco, he’s signed to Epic, so he would have had a hard time prioritising Olly when he wasn’t on the same label.
[Olly is actually jointly signed to Epic and Syco - Editor]
From the outside, one sometimes gets the impression that X Factor winners get little say in their music or first album. Is there any truth in that?
Not at all. I was involved in the creative process. When I came out of that show, I had just turned 18. I had no experience in the music business or recording industry, so I was more than happy to listen to advice from people on the label telling me to do things. You learn from those experiences what works and what doesn’t, and this time around, with this album, I’ve got more confidence in what I believe, whereas before I was a bit like: “Ooh, am I being stupid by saying this?”. Now I have confidence in what I think creatively, what might work or what won’t, which is great, and without The X Factor I wouldn’t have experienced that, so it was a great creative process to have been involved in.
You’re being very positive about it all, but it must have stung a little bit to read stories about you being dropped and going home to live with your mum…
This is another thing! This whole period of the whole Syco thing got totally blown out of proportion. I’ve always lived in South Shields, I’ve never moved to London, so I never “moved back”! I just looked at that article, and I was laughing my head off at what a load of rubbish it was. I think it was the day that article went out, I had just put down a deposit on my own house, so I just thought: “How far from the truth can it be?”. It was water off a duck’s back. I just thought: “Whatever – let them write whatever the hell they want”.
You came out as gay last year. Did you feel under any pressure to do so, or did anyone caution you against it?
Not at all. Once I’d kind of realised who I was as a person, I thought: “OK, I know who I am”. I decided I was going to talk about it because, you know, people always asked in interviews: “Are you single?”. I just thought: “For goodness’ sake, let’s just clear this up once and for all, and then I can get on with what I’m actually doing this job for, which is to sing”. So I just thought: “I wanna talk about it and be honest about it, and then I can move on”. Not because I’m ashamed about it but so I don’t have to keep going over these intrusive questions about my sexuality and personal life constantly!
Well, just one more question on that subject then! You said at the time that you’d never had a relationship with a guy. I wondered if you’d had any romance since?
It’s a private thing! Nobody needs to know whether I have or not!
You’ve played a couple of Pride festivals this summer – how were they?
Yeah, really good. They’re always a great crowd and always up for a lot of fun, and it’s a nice celebration, so it’s good to be a part of them.
Are you still in touch with Olly Murs?
Yeah! I think I spoke to him the other day, and yeah, we get on really well.
Cheryl Cole was your mentor on The X Factor. Are you still in touch?
Yes. We send each other text messages now and again and check on how each other’s doing.
Would you have any words of advice for Matt Cardle?
You just have to enjoy yourself.
Popstar To Operastar has been a ratings hit, and even George Michael is doing his own Symphonica tour. Do you think the media has underestimated the popularity of classical music?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s frowned upon a lot, which I think is wrong. It’s just because people aren’t educated enough about it, but you find that when someone is sat down and listens to it properly and hears these beautiful songs – really beautiful songs – some of them are not that far away from pop music. They could be a pop ballad with a different style of voice put on it. People are scared of it, I think, which is wrong, and I was guilty of that myself. I was totally guilty. I was like: “Oooh, opera – it’s not for me. I don’t know any songs”. But when I sat down and was in the rehearsal process, I was like: “Actually, I’ve heard this song before”. You find you do know a lot more about it, and it’s beautiful music.
The album also includes some songs from musicals. Would you like to do a West End show at some point?
Yeah, it’s something I’d like to go into eventually. It’s something that I’d be very committed to doing if I were doing it, and so therefore, at the moment, it wouldn’t work. When you’re doing a musical, you have to stay in one place at one time, which would be difficult with all the things I’m doing at the minute, but eventually I’d like to go into it and experience that side of performance as well.
Is there someone out there that you look at and think, “I’d love a career like that” – a John Barrowman figure perhaps – who mixes West End music with a bit of acting and TV presenting?
I’d love to have a career like Beyoncé. I know that might sound stupid, but let me explain it. It’s because she dips into everything. Everything she does, she does with total class. She’s done films, she’s done TV, she’s done music, she’s done tours. She’s done everything, and I would like to be that kind of artist where you dip into all different things. And she makes everything she does about music and nothing else, which I think is terribly important. Everything she does, it’s not about personal things or scandalous things, it’s just about good performances and making amazing music.
How are you feeling about the future at the moment?
I’m excited. I’m getting to do something I love every day, at such a young age, and I’ve been able to experience so many
things in my career, so it’s very exciting. If I can carry on the way I’m going, then I’ll be more than happy.
Joe McElderry’s new album, Classic, is out on 29 August.
Photo © Simon Fowler. Interview published in the September 2011 of Out In The City.