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April 2018

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Rick Astley Interview: “I Don’t Want People to Think I’m Reliving ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ Because of the Rickrolling Thing”

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Image attributed to Rick Astley

Rick Astley

English singer-songwriter Rick Astley is one of the music industry’s most distinctive voices, and he’s set to return to the United States for a Spring tour this year. Kicking off on April 13, 2018, at the Opera House in Toronto, Ontario, the tour follows Astley’s 2016 mega successful album release 50, which went straight to number one and became the eighth bestselling album in the UK that year.

Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up” was a number one single in 25 countries and won the 1988 Brit Award for Best British single. By the time of his retirement in 1993, Astley had sold approximately 40 million records worldwide. He returned to the music scene in 2007, becoming an Internet sensation when the music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” became integral to the meme known as Rickrolling.

“When I go to see a band I really like and I’ve liked for 25 years, it moves me when they do a certain song because it makes me almost feel like I’m 25 again, and I can relate to that when I’m on stage kind of fulfilling that for someone else. Even if it’s just for an hour or whatever, it just transports you to a different point in your life, and I think that’s what music can sometimes do. Movies can do that as well.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rick, thanks for taking the time today.

Rick Astley: A pleasure. You’ve got an amazing accent, by the way (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thank you! So do you (laughs).

Rick Astley: (laughs) Where are you from?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Birmingham, Alabama. Have you ever been down this way?

Rick Astley: You know what? I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been very close, and I’ve kind of driven the freeway around it because a friend and I, a couple of years ago, did a road trip across America, and we didn’t stop. So I’ve kind of been there, but not really, to be honest.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, perhaps one day.

Rick Astley: Yeah. Absolutely in the future.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What can the fans expect from your upcoming tour?

Rick Astley: Well, I would be foolish if I didn’t play any of the hits I have. I didn’t have that many, but I’ve had a few, so obviously, I’m going to be playing them. But also we had a record about two years ago for my 50th birthday called 50, so we’ll be playing a few songs that that. We didn’t really have any success in America with that, to be honest. In the UK, it went great, and that was really out of the blue, and it was just a really great experience. We had a number one album, and that was freaky. We were all a bit weirded out about that to some degree because it had been a very long time since something like that had happened (laughs). But fans will find the music even if it’s not a hit in their territory. They’ll find it on the internet somewhere, so I’m comfortable about playing a few songs from that record as well because some guys will know it.

I just try and have a bit of fun, you know? I kind of respect the fact that it’s definitely an element of nostalgia, I think, coming to see somebody of my age (laughs). But in a way, it’s sort of nostalgic for me as well because I haven’t really played in America a lot, not for years really. I did a bit of playing there recently, but not a lot, you know, so it’s kind of nice to put your toe into a totally different world really, and that’s the way I feel.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it a different feeling for you now on stage as compared to 30 years ago?

Rick Astley: Yes. My knees hurt (laughs). It is different. Of course, it is because, to be honest, in a bizarre way, I didn’t have the same connections to the songs back in the day even though that’s when they were hits. They kind of turned into something else because they’ve been a part of my life, and when I sing those old songs for people, they’ve been a small part of their lives, you could say. Then I get the connection. You know what I mean? When I go to see a band I really like and I’ve liked for 25 years, it moves me when they do a certain song because it makes me almost feel like I’m 25 again, and I can relate to that when I’m on stage kind of fulfilling that for someone else. Even if it’s just for an hour or whatever, it just transports you to a different point in your life, and I think that’s what music can sometimes do. Movies can do that as well.

I have a bit of respect for that now, and I think, as a kid, I just took it for granted because I didn’t know any better. I had nothing to compare it to. It was just what I did. But now I think I can relate to how lucky I was to have those songs and to have the moments I have now replaying those songs because a lot of people who have been in my position don’t get the chance to do that because of whatever reason. I look at athletes sometimes and think how unfair it is that in music or movies, you can keep going until you can’t do it anymore, but with athletes they’re pretty much stopped after a very short time. Whether they want to do it or not, there’s no choice. They’re done.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of stopping, you retired when you were 27 years old.

Rick Astley: Yeah (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were those years away from the music business worthwhile?

Rick Astley: Definitely. Definitely because, if I’m brutally honest, if I’d been singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” and a few others for 30 years, I think I’d have driven myself mad. I think that having a 15-year breakaway from it was really good and healthy. I became a real person. I grew up a little bit as well. You just start to view life differently, I think, and when you’re in that bubble, you have to do that. You look at someone like Bruce Springsteen who’s had an incredible career, and he’s never really gone away. He’s always done records that meant something and always been a great artist, but he still seems like a human being when he’s interviewed. He doesn’t seem to be completely affected by it or anything. But I think he’s one of the few.

You could probably pull up a couple of handfuls of people who have managed to do that with a life. So I just think, for me, it really worked well, and I only have a very small pop career really. But even that for four or five years can drive you nuts. So I think it’s quite good to get away from it really.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love the video of you and the Foo Fighters onstage in 2017 singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Dave Grohl called you “Rick ‘badass’ Astley.”

Rick Astley: I have a tattoo now of that, by the way (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) Was Dave not familiar with your boyish charm and Mr. Nice Guy reputation?

Rick Astley: I don’t really know what he was familiar with, to be honest, because it was such a weird thing. I happened to be doing a festival that they were headlining, which is a pretty eclectic mix. Let’s face it. But it was in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. I was watching them from the side of the stage, and the next minute I’m singing with the Foo Fighters and singing my old tune. That was the weirdest thing in a way because if they knew I was a bit of a fan of theirs, which I have been for years, and maybe if they heard that, you could kind of understand it. Maybe they’d think it was ironical or comical or weird to invite me up.

Even when I went and did it, and then came off stage, I was talking to my crew and saying, “Did that just happen? Am I going mad? Did that just actually happen?” So it’s pretty weird. But what a great bunch of guys. It’s amazing really. What a good bunch of guys and just a phenomenal live band. It was a real treat to do that because it’s just kind of like full on, you know what I mean? Yeah.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was awesome! What can you tell me about the new album to be released this summer?

Rick Astley: I did the last one at home, and I just stuck to that really. It wasn’t even that conscious of a choice. The last album called 50 that I made, I did it to mark my 50th, and it was just a personal thing and the lyrics were quite personal, so I just ended up making the record really. I’m not a great musician. I can play everything, but I like to do it in a dark room on my own, and given enough time, I can make it sound okay. I’m not one of those guys who’ll jump up and start going through the Beatles’ back catalog. I’m just not that gifted in that way, and I approached this record the same way because I think, in certain ways, my limitations are going to make it what it is. Dare I say that there’s even some really big bands doing that over the years. They’re not necessarily the best musicians, but what they make up for in that is they have a sound, they have a feeling and an emotion together that makes them what they are. So I just kind of stuck with that.

One thing I’ve done is I’ve allowed myself to slightly open up in terms of doing a couple of tracks that you could actually dance to because I was a bit nervous of that, thinking last time, “Don’t start pretending that you’re 21 or 25 because you’re not.” I was a bit like, “I don’t want people to think I’m reliving ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ because of the Rickrolling thing.” Then when we went and played the album 50 live, everyone seemed to love the kind of songs you could possibly dance to, and it dawned on me that people my age still want to dance, and what’s wrong with that? So I’ve done a couple of tunes you could dance to. So, yeah. I’ve just freed myself up from that one, I think.

I just had fun with it, you know? I’m not necessarily expecting to repeat what we did with the last album because I think it was a bit of empathy there as well from people. You know, kind of saying, “Wow, some old guy.” I’m not saying “old” as in old, but I’m saying for pop music it’s old, some 50-year-old guy playing records who hasn’t had a hit in years and years. I think there was some empathy.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever personally done any Rickrolling?

Rick Astley: I kind of have, yeah. I Rickrolled the Macy’s Day parade actually. Somebody got in touch with me that had a float in the parade, and I won’t lie to you. They offered me a lot of money as well, and I’m like, “I don’t think I want to do that.” We know what it is, by the way, the Macy’s Day parade, obviously Thanksgiving and all that. We know what it is, but obviously it doesn’t mean anything to us because it’s not our culture. It’s not our history. But I know what it is. Then I called a few American friends and a few English friends who live in America, and every one of them screamed down the phone to me, “You have to do that! You have to do that!” (laughs) So I did it.

It was on Nickelodeon, I think, a kids’ TV show. When that float came in the parade, and it’s obviously on all those cameras, I came out and sang, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” So I Rickrolled the parade. It was just a bizarre and weird thing to do, and we spent the week in New York. We had a good time and stuff. But I’ve tried to sort of keep it at arm’s length, not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed or pissed off or anything like that. It’s because it really doesn’t have anything to do with me. It could’ve been anybody’s video. It could’ve been anybody’s song. It’s just one of those things, and I think the best thing to do is to keep it where it is. Whatever happens with it, it’s out of my control anyway, and the upside is I get to sing with the Foo Fighters (laughs). So it’s just one of those weird things.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What else is going on, Rick?

Rick Astley: We’ve got a bunch of gigs planned for later this year in the UK and Europe. But to be honest, that’s kind of it really. I think we’re going to focus on promoting that new record when we get back from the States. We’re going to obviously have some down time here and there. I like my holidays. If we’re touring, it’s nice to sometimes finish off and just have a week somewhere. We’re not going to do that in the States this time just because I have to get back to something.

I’m doing quite a bizarre thing actually. I really like singing all the Sinatra songs and all that sort of thing every now and then. I’ve done that with big bands, and I’m going to do that at a jazz festival in a town called Cheltenham in England. I’m going to do that pretty much as soon as I get back. So for the whole trip that we’re on the bus, I’ll have my headphones on, and I’ll be singing along to Frank Sinatra and relearning all the words (laughs). I just like doing things. I play drums in a band with a couple of friends, and we do rock songs. I just like singing and playing. I like being around music.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe you sang and played the drums on AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” in previous concerts, and that’s not necessarily your style when people think of you. Do you mix it up like that while performing live?

Rick Astley: Yeah. We do sometimes. To be honest, because of the internet, you think, “Ah, everyone’s seen that.” I don’t mean everybody. I mean everyone who’s interested has seen that. But the thing is, if you’re going to learn to play drums, play to the album Highway to Hell because it’s just super tight. There’s nothing played that doesn’t need to be played. It’s just where it should be. It’s totally in the pocket, and I discussed this with two very famous drummers, Mr. Grohl and Mr. Hawkins. But every now and again, if we’re doing a gig somewhere, and I feel the audience isn’t really feeling it or haven’t gotten into it, or if I haven’t gotten into it yet, I very often give our drummer, Simon, a look, and he knows what’s happening. He just gets off the drums, and he gives me the sticks, and we play “Highway to Hell.”

After I’ve done that, I just feel like a different human being. So every now and then, we just throw it in. That is midlife crisis stuff. It definitely is, and we’re aware of it. It’s okay We always give the money to charity, so that’s why it’s okay. If you give the money to charity, you can do anything you like. We also murder a couple of Foo Fighters’ songs as well. But we won’t talk about that. It’s just something about playing punky rock stuff that just sets me in the right place somehow because it reminds me of being a 15-year-old kid. I guess that’s the reason.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I imagine that the audience is fully into it when you sing “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and it’s probably the highlight of the concert.

Rick Astley: To be honest, I always play it at the end of the show or pretty much toward the end of the show because I just think that if I played it too early, people are just going to go catch the bus home. So, yeah. It’s a funny thing because that song has become that one song for me. I do have to embrace it, and I have to acknowledge that because I think I’d be stupid not to. It’s just the way it is. It’s a funny thing the relationship people have with their own songs because you can get too close to them sometimes, and you can’t see the woods for the trees. You just have to say, “Look. It is what it is. Just enjoy it for what it is rather than get hung up on it.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Can you imagine a time when you’ll retire for good?

Rick Astley: I’m enjoying it. It’s not like I’ve done a lot. I haven’t done this for years actually. Well that’s not true. Curtis Stigers, the saxophonist, was in London recently at a famous jazz club called Ronnie Scott’s, and I ended up singing “The Lady Is a Tramp,” with him (laughs). He’s a lovely guy and a fantastic saxophonist. We did that, and it reminded me again, that this big band music is just amazing, and there’s definitely a part of me that would like to do a bit more of that. It’s definitely easier on my throat to sing those songs than it is to sing the songs I recorded when I was 21. So, yeah. I’d like to do a bit of that as time goes on.

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  1. Donna Porter

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