The English tenor RUSSELL WATSON talks to Caroline Bishop about working with the creators of the musical Les Misérables on his latest album, learning French and holidaying in Normandy
Your new album, Only One Man, is the first time that the creators of the musical Les Misérables, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and writing partner Alain Boublil, have composed new material for a solo artist. Why you?
When I met Claude-Michel he told me, “We don’t write new material for artists.” That was that, until he asked me to tell him my life story. I gave him a potted history, all the amazing highs and terrible lows, coming back from the illness [Watson has suffered two brain tumours], the whole thing. He said, “You have lots of layers, and I like that. I’ve changed my mind, I will write for you.”
What was it like working with Schönberg?
He was very direct! By the time we had finished the project, five months in, it was almost like a father-son relationship. But when we began making the record, there was a sense that this was how he wanted to do things and I had to buy into that or we were going to have problems. It was almost like Claude-Michel became the artist and I was the paintbrush. He used me to paint this beautiful picture with his music.
A bonus track on the album is Bring Him Home from Les Misérables, Boublil and Schönberg’s famous France-set musical. Would you like to join the London stage show?
Every time I see Claude-Michel he asks me if I want to play the role of Jean Valjean. I went to see [Les Misérables producer] Sir Cameron Mackintosh a few months ago and we spoke about it, but it’s a massive undertaking. Of course I would love to do it, although there are logistical elements in accepting a role that would take up six months of my working year.
You don’t sing in French on this album, but you have in the past. Do you speak French?
A little bit. I have been learning because I am surrounded by French people – my manager is French too – so I try to speak the language with them. I’ve got a good ear for languages, and it has improved with time. I listen back to when I sang in French ten years ago and think it’s awful. But because I have been studying French, I now read it as it’s spoken. I might not necessarily understand every word that I sing, but I can speak it from the written page and sound as if I know what I’m talking about.
What characteristics of the French do you enjoy?
I like their directness, because you know where you are with them. With the British, you see something and think, “I don’t like that, but I’m not going to say it.” In a restaurant, if a plate of food doesn’t taste very nice, I would just brush the food to the side of the plate. The French would say [to the waiter or waitress], “This is horrible!”
Are you looking forward to touring in France this spring?
It will be my first real attempt at breaking into the French market, so I am very excited. There’s a big duet planned with a famous French male artist [whose name was still under wraps when FRANCE Magazine went to press] in a song that Claude-Michel has written. France is a very difficult market for an Englishman. Most of what I’ve been singing in the past has either been in English or Italian. It is an odd concept, an Englishman going to France singing Italian opera, so it has never quite happened. But this record has got a very French sound to it, obviously because of the writers, so we are hoping it will go well over there.
Which part of France have you particularly enjoyed?
My sister used to own a holiday home in Normandy. It’sa beautiful region (pictured below left). I love the narrow French country lanes and coming across someone selling fresh bread and cheese, and the little bars where you can pop in and have a beer. It is a fantastic way of life, very relaxed.
Which are your favourite French dishes?
I was on a TV show with [French chef] Jean-Christophe Novelli and he made an apple tart that was like a flan and the apples were almost caramelised. I have never tasted such an amazing dessert. My girlfriend and I often visit Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. He does some amazing terrines – they’re like works of art.
Russell Watson is on tour in the UK and France from March 2014. Only One Man is out now. www.russellwatson.com