When it comes to album sales in 2016, you can forget Beyoncé, Rag’n’Bone Man and Justin Bieber. Last year belonged to Ball and Boe.
Michael Ball and Fleetwood’s Alfie Boe enjoyed the biggest seller of the year, achieving double platinum status (and the festive number one) with Together. Now the pair are back for more with a tour, TV special and a second collection called Together Again. Given the phenomenal success of their initial collaboration, I wonder how they set about following it up.
“It was a big ask,” Boe admits. “But we went into the project with the same level of enthusiasm and excitement as last time and did the best job we could. We both believe this new album is actually stronger with a lot of really powerful songs that will appeal to our fans. It is exciting when you get a good chart position but we’re not obsessing about sales. We just go into projects to have fun. We’re especially excited about the tour and putting on a show for the public because we love performing live.”
Each singer attracts their own fan base to the show, as well as converts from their work as a duo. But it’s clear that any rivalry or competitiveness remains firmly in the dressing room.
“We both have our strengths so there’s no showboating,” says Boe. “Michael’s ability to phrase a song is amazing and he can really deliver a lyric beautifully. I have a big, high voice and can hold notes for a long time, so we bring different things to the table. It works because together we make quite a formidable team.”
The entertainment industry loves to pigeon-hole artists but Boe has successfully managed to skip across genres, lending his trademark operatic style to pop, evergreen show tunes and even classic rock. Earlier this year, he appeared in The Who’s Quadrophenia shows in the US alongside Pete Townshend and Billy Idol.
“I’m finally being seen as someone you can’t put in a box or in any sort of bracket. I can go off and sing opera, then do a musical or record a contemporary song, then sing with Pete and Billy in the States. I love that I’m very fortunate to be able to do that. My big loves are classical and rock music and, to me, the two are structurally the same. I see music as one big world. It’s like having a wardrobe full of shirts – checked, denim, dress – they’re all shirts, they just have different uses.”
The youngest of nine children, Boe was born in Blackpool and brought up in Fleetwood. Despite having a base in Utah and a home in London, it’s clear you can take the boy out of Fleetwood but you can’t take Fleetwood out of the boy.
“My heart is still there,” Boe admits. “Whenever I go back, I’m just Alf from Fleetwood. I still have friends I meet up with and, although I have a little bit of celebrity status, nothing like that flies in Fleetwood. No matter what you do or where you’re from, you’ll always get a chorus of who the hell do you think you are?”
The way Boe’s musical career came about is the stuff of fairy tales. Can it be true that he was discovered working in a car factory?
“Nah, it’s all made up just for the hell of it,” laughs Boe. “Actually, it’s absolutely true. I was singing along to the radio at the car factory, as everyone did, and this guy who was buying a car there heard me. He told me I had a good voice and that a company [D’Oyly Carte] in London were auditioning for people to join the chorus for their next tour. I went down to London for the day, got picked, packed in my job and went on tour with the company for 12 months.”
He continues: “I went on to music college and got my degree. It was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot but there were a lot of struggles that went with that time. I was homeless at one point after getting kicked out of a revolting flat I shared with four other guys, and ended up sleeping rough on park benches for a while. I spent as much time as I could in college before I had go to sleep at night and it was hard going. One time I performed a concert in formal tails and bow tie, singing my heart out in front of dignitaries. When it was over, I got changed, packed up my stuff in a plastic bag then spent the night on the street because I had nowhere else to go.
“It wasn’t until a councillor put me in the halls of residence that I got myself together, but it was a crazy time. I also lost my father when I was at college, so it was a tough road, but that’s what makes you grow and sets you up for life.”
One of Boe’s biggest successes has been singing the role of Jean Valjean in the musical Les Miserables. After playing the part to great acclaim in London’s West End and on Broadway, surely he must be sick to death of singing Bring Him Home by now?
“I honestly can’t say that I am. It’s a great song that’s done wonders for me and my career and I like singing and presenting it to the public. I always make sure I do it justice because the reaction I get from the audience is so special and beautiful, and so I can’t fault a song that makes people feel so much emotion.”
Given the success of the Ball/Boe collaboration has been so successful, I wonder if Boe has thought about expanding the franchise and adding a third ‘B’ to the mix?
“Well, if Gary Barlow wanted to join us we’d have to have a think about it and see how it went. We’re really enjoying things at the minute, but it would be cool if anyone else wanted to come on board. Michael and myself would be more than happy to welcome them and give it a go. Who knows? We might end up with quite a few Bs in the band.”
Ball & Boe’s UK tour runs November 30 to December 14, 2017, including performances at Manchester Arena and First Direct Arena in Leeds. Visit the website for more information.