To coin a phrase – or even nick a line from one of the defining pop songs of the past two decades – for Ronan Keating, life is a rollercoaster.
Since the original break-up of Boyzone, one of the most successful British bands of the Nineties, Keating has forged a soar away solo career: two back-to-back Number One singles straight out of the gate, 10 studio albums, multiple tours, 20 million records sold on top of the 25 million sold with Boyzone. In other areas, too, he’s happily stretched his wings: judging on both the X Factor and The Voice in Australia, acting for both television drama and film, a highly acclaimed stint on London’s West End and, now, bringing breakfast show entertainment to the nation with his morning radio show on Magic FM with Harriet Scott - accumulating the highest ratings ever in Magic Radio history.
In his personal life, too, he’s, ah, continued to produce hits: he’s expecting his fifth child, with wife Storm due to give birth this spring. At 42 years young, the ridiculously youthful Irishman is on fire in multiple directions.
But at the top of this new year, Ronan Keating’s focus is firmly back on his first (non-human) love: music. Over the past 12 months the singer and songwriter has been working on an album that encapsulates his many musical achievements since the millennium.
This is 2020, and it’s the album of Keating’s adult life.
“The idea behind the album and its title are, I’m 20 years solo this year," he begins. "And it being 2020 this year, it all felt good.” Equally, he adds, he wants to acknowledge a career that he certainly doesn’t take for granted. “There’s not a lot of artists that have been lucky enough to do 20 years and still be here.” (There are even fewer who have matched a successful band career with a successful solo career.) “I’m very honoured to have had that, so I wanted to mark it with an album like this.”
To help him celebrate, Keating made two inspired choices: to dive into his back catalogue and revisit three of his biggest hits and, for some of the new tracks, call in some friends.
With production assistance from his longstanding wingman Steve Lipson – most recently, producer of his last studio album, 2016’s ‘Time of my Life’ but also accredited with the successful hits of Annie Lennox, The Rolling Stones, Simple Minds, Whitney Houston and Paul McCartney to name but a few – Keating set about writing and assembling a pool of songs.
An early stand out in the sessions was the heartfelt, embracing glory of ‘One of a Kind’. “I guess I’ve been known for those first dance songs at weddings,” he begins, citing ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’, “and I guess Rollercoaster for some!” Keating adds with a laugh. “So when I first heard ‘One of a Kind’, I thought: this has me written all over it. It’s all about the night before the wedding, the day of the wedding and spending the rest of your life together. I knew it belonged in my repertoire before I’d even put a vocal on it.”
It was also a song that demanded a duet partner. For Keating there was only one choice. “I was completely honoured when Emeli Sandé said she’d love to do it. She came in, did her vocal and I was just blown away. She’s obviously got a brilliant voice, and she’s a lovely, warm person. So the personality she’s brought to the song is just incredible.”
Another collaboration, this time with Robbie Williams, was the powerfully emotive ‘The Big Goodbye’, and came about in particularly poignant circumstances. “It was the tenth anniversary of the passing of Stephen from Boyzone,” he begins. “And Rob emailed: ‘Mate, just saw you on Loose Women with the boys, you’re looking well – but I can’t believe it’s 10 years since Stephen died.’”
The loss of Gately had affected Robbie almost as much as it had affected the boys in Boyzone. The day of his death, Williams began writing a song. He kept working on it but it was never released. Now he asked if his old pal Keating wanted to hear it and together develop it into something special.
“So, he sent it and I listened and I was in tears. And Rob said: ‘Do you fancy doing something with it together?’ I said I’d love to. So we changed it round a bit, adapted the vocals so it worked as a duet. And it’s a song about Stephen, so it’s obviously a very emotional song – but the story behind how we came to do it on the album is remarkable, too.”
It was never Keating’s idea to make an album that involved some of his closest musical friends, but it ended up that way. Step forward, too, Ed Sheeran, Shania Twain, Clare Bowen and Nina Nesbitt. The man in the middle explains: “Ed’s a pal, and he said he’d love to play guitar on the new version of ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, which is incredible.”
“Then Nina, who’s an incredible young singer-songwriter, said she doesn’t write a lot of ballads but that she’d written this song called ‘The One’ and she thought of me, which was another honour. I fell in love with it instantly – it’s one of my favourite songs on the album.”
Then, Keating’s longstanding love of country music brought another superstar into his orbit. New track ‘Forever and Ever’ was written by the same team who wrote ‘When You Say Nothing at All’ – in the same writing session, over 20 years ago. It was recorded back then by country legend Randy Travis, but Keating had never put his spin on it.
“And there was something in that idea,” reflects Keating. “I’m here 20 years later because of that song – ‘When You Say Nothing…’ gave me an opportunity and a chance. It’s a career record – if you have one of those, you can spend the rest of your days working and touring. So I was really lucky to have that song early on.
” Hearing ‘Forever and Ever’, Keating realised the Randy Travis approach – more fast-moving, more trad. country – wasn’t right for him. So, he broke it down and turned it into a slower, more acoustic song.
“But something was still missing,” he says, picking up the story. “So, we reached out to Shania Twain. Now, Shania and I were meant to do something together 20 years ago, on one of her songs, ‘From This Moment’. That never came about, so it felt especially right to reach out now.”
Again, he points out, things were coming full circle. “Her vocal on this song, my God, it’s unbelievable! She has such a distinctive, beautiful tone. I never planned on that song being a single but now I hear what we did together, I think it has to be.”
Inspired by the country world, he and Robson then wrote a new song. “Robbo and I have written a lot together over the years, one of which was ‘Last Thing on my Mind’, a duet with Leanne Rhimes. So, we wrote this new country song, ‘Love Will Remain’, with Rachel Furner. It was hands down a duet from the minute we wrote it. My wife and I love the TV show ‘Nashville’ and there’s a brilliant young Australian actress/singer who is one of the leads in the show (Clare Bowen) who I thought would be a perfect fit for this track. We’d chatted a bit on social media about collaborating, and I realised this was the perfect song for her – she has this wonderful and fresh tone to her voice with this Dolly Parton-esque tweak. Which was exactly what I wanted for the song.”
The album was taking shape, even as Keating was pulling double-duty on the Boyzone farewell world tour, which continued to run throughout 2019.
“That was almost a two-year run on tour with the boys, wrapping up the 26 years and celebrating the life of the band, saying one last goodbye, thank you and goodnight. Yeah, it was rocky, it was up and down,” he admits. “To be honest, there were times when all of us had problems with different people in the band. But we were exactly that: honest. In the Nineties we were thrown into a room and made to get on with each other, but we became brothers and those were some of the best years of our lives. Now it’s all very real and raw.”
On reflection, he notes, they all agreed that when Gately died, “we probably should have called it a day. We thought the right thing to do was celebrate his life and continue with the band. But it was broken, because we could never be the same band again... not without our fifth brother.”
“So, it was hard. It was an emotional end, travelling the world together for one last time. Being in a band like Boyzone keeps you young and every time we are together, we feel like we were 18, 19 again. We share such great memories and we are family. But we knew it was time to hang up the boots and we got to write the last chapter ourselves, which not a lot of bands get to do.”
And for sure, the fans needed a farewell, too. Some of them in particular have been there from the very start. “At the last shows in London there were a couple of people in the front row who’d met us off our very first flight into Heathrow from Dublin in 1993 – two girls were waiting for us with signs!”
That felt totally mad then, and it felt totally mad now. “And it’s a full-circle, again.”
Indeed, it is, especially with the addition of two more cornerstone Keating tracks, ‘Life is a Rollercoaster’ and ‘Loving Each Day’.
“’Life is a Rollercoaster’ has been the biggest challenge,” he exhales, still weary from the effort of doing creative justice to a beloved song. “I kept going back to Gregg Alexander, who wrote it, to get his input.” And inspiration struck: “I said, forget re-recording, let’s get a remix. So that’s what we did. And now it feels like a new song. It’s Daft Punk meets Gregg Alexander with a little sprinkling of current dance. That’s what Rollercoaster 2020 feels like."
And reimagining ‘Loving Each Day’? “There’s more tempo to that, so it already felt like a dance track. So we enhanced that and it’s now all-singing, all-dancing, bells and whistles. It feels like a big live song,” he adds – just one of the reasons he’s excited about the 2020 world tour he’ll be starting later this year.
This, then, is Ronan Keating and 2020, an album the man himself accurately describe as “a greatest hits of brand-new music”. Pushed to pick a favourite, he plumps for ‘The One’.
“It’s a simple love song, a special song that came out of nowhere. I didn’t expect it, or Nina, and she’s been a breath of fresh air. And I’m a romantic at heart – I lean on my wife a lot, she helps me every day. Having someone like that by my side is incredibly important, and I was incredibly lucky to find her, so The One is important for that reason too.”
And, finally, if he could describe 2020 in three words…
“A life’s work!” he laughs. “It’s 42 years of figuring out who you are and what you're capable of. Now I know who I am and what I’m about. As a singer, performer, artist, and as a man, I now feel the most comfortable I've ever felt in my life. Whatever the scenario, whether it’s a stadium of 100,000 people or a room with four or five people, this is me. And I battled that for a long time,” Ronan Keating admits. “When you’ve been in a boy band, you’re sometimes made to feel that way by the industry and I guess that's also because I've had to earn my craft. I'm not the same singer or performer I was when I started, hell I'm not even the same person. I've had to work hard and understand my weaknesses, strive to be better. Evolve. Grow. Use my strengths and not stop evolving. And it's been a real journey, one I am truly grateful for. I am a singer and a musician. This is my job, and I love it more than ever. So, this album is a life’s work."
5 days of maximum music magic!
Klein Strand Oostende 25-29 august 2021