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- Posted on May 22nd 2008 5:00PM by Steve Baltin
But his re-emergence Stateside, thanks to his appearances as a recurring singing hallucination who haunts the title character of the hit TV series 'Eli Stone,' his career-spanning '25' collection that was just released in the States and his surprise appearance on the finale of 'American Idol' are just a precursor. Michael will embark on his first U.S. tour in 17 years, one of the most anticipated treks of the summer. In a wide-ranging interview on the eve of his long-awaited return to North America, Michael talked to Spinner about how the success of 'Faith' overwhelmed him, the anger he felt in the '90s, his musical heroes and his renewed love for performing.
Was there ever a point where you realized just how long it had been since you toured America?
Well, the incredible thing is I really didn't think I would do it again. I've so kind of detached myself from a professional life in America. Ultimately, when I took on Sony in the early '90s I had a very good idea that I was shooting myself in the foot when it came to my career in America. Luckily for me, the people who decided I really should no longer be a part of the industry in America or should be seen to having paid a price for what I did didn't give a s--- about the world outside of America. So my career just carried on beautifully outside of America, and in a way I was prepared to let that happen because ultimately I really do believe that if there are things that are bad about being famous, then they're worse in America. In terms of the way your life changes, it can be very distorting, especially for an English kid. It all very much overwhelmed me when I was younger. And I was perfectly prepared to give that up, and I knew that if I wanted my ego stroked I could just stay in Europe, and if I wanted some proper peace of mind I could go to America.
For most people, the ego stroke comes here in America, where the attention is constant.
Exactly. In 1987 or 1988, 'Faith' was the biggest album in America. You can just imagine how that feels if you're 23 and you're really not used to being kind of bigged-up, as it were, 'cause that's not what the English do.
Being older and having a different perspective on life, do you feel like you're more ready to handle America?
Oh, totally. I'm there to absolutely acknowledge there are a million people in America that carried on seeking out my music even though it wasn't on the radio. And in a way, that's more special than anywhere else. It's a very strange thing 'cause you have the radio rejection and not selling albums the way I do in Europe, and yet you've got this other thing going on, which is a million people who almost every single time show up to buy my stuff. That is really special to me.
You say it was an industry-directed thing. Does the fact the industry almost doesn't exist anymore make it easier for you to come back here?
I just chose to come back. I really didn't know I was going to be touring; that was something that only really occurred to me a couple of years ago. And yeah, ultimately, the truth is, the things that used to annoy me 'cause I'd lost them in America are actually not things I chase anymore. And I'm much less angry than I was; I was so angry in the '90s. I was just angry about losing my partner and losing my mother. Those feelings of anger are completely gone. I just understand it and I feel really blessed to be able to come back and I feel very blessed that the whole 'Eli Stone' thing happened. I'm just much more positive about these things than I used to be.
'Eli Stone' was just renewed for another season. Will you be involved with it again?
I know they want me to be. I think it's just a matter of the time because obviously I'll be touring and they're going to have to start filming again soon. So I'm not really sure. I think it'd be nice to follow it up. In talking about television, I nearly forgot, my managers would kill me -- I'm the surprise guest on 'American Idol' next week. That's the most bizarre thing to me -- the whole phenomenon I find bizarre.
How did you get involved with 'American Idol'?
I'm just guessing, but I know that Carrie Underwood, who nobody really knows who she is over here [in the U.K.], performed 'Praying for Time' on, I think, it was a charity 'American Idol,' 'American Idol Gives Back' or something, and it became a Number One download and apparently it's a hot shot on the Billboard chart and everything. I think maybe just the response to that song generated a bit of that, I'm not sure. But they only just asked me last week. I'm just wondering if I can get a judgment from Simon Cowell on my performance.
What do you think Simon will say of your performance?
I think he'll probably tell me I shouldn't have done a George Michael song [laughs]. He's told plenty of people that in the past, so I think that'd be quite funny.
After all this time, have any of your songs changed for you at all?
Yeah, I think as I'm older I can acknowledge how good some of those songs are actually. Some of them when I play them live I have more appreciation of them. I have a very kind of dual thing going on; one part of me, my ego is massive when it comes to what I do. And the other part of me is constantly doubting my talent and constantly expecting too much almost from myself. But ultimately getting up there and singing those songs and watching people sing every word, things like 'I'm Your Man' or 'Everything She Wants,' earlier things that I didn't really have that much respect for in terms of my catalog, now I realize how good they are.
Is there anything that surprises when you look back?
A lot of it seems really sad to me when I hear it now. I saw an interview [from 1987], the kind of stuff you can see on YouTube that you never would see otherwise, and for someone like me you get to see all this old stuff you didn't even realize was on film. And watching it, I just thought, "God, you were miserable." It was the height of everything, but I look so unhappy, and I didn't think that at the time.
Isn't it funny, though, if someone would've told you when you were a kid you'd have the biggest album in the world and you'd be miserable?
I wouldn't have believed them about it either, 'cause when I was young I really didn't get depressed at all. I was very happy about everything and it was so delicious, the beginning of my career with Andrew [Ridgeley]. It was so amazing to have all your feelings about yourself kind of vindicated at the age of 19 or 20. It was quite an incredible experience. I wouldn't really have believed that by 24 I would be so desperately unhappy. I wouldn't have believed it would be possible to be that unhappy when you have all that privilege and good fortune.
As a music fan, what has it meant to you record with the likes of Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin and Elton John?
I couldn't possibly want for more in terms of career. Obviously, if I'd wanted some more, then I guess I would have promoted myself through the '90s in America, but it was a matter of "I've got to do whatever it takes to stay sane enough to write." And I had fame to deal with, and that was OK. I kind of got through that. And then I had bereavement to deal with for such a long time, and again I somehow managed to keep my head above water career-wise, and I think my writing stayed of a certain quality. When I look at the track listing for the album, I can't imagine that I could be prouder\, actually.
Has there been anyone you've worked with that you learned a lot from?
My musical mentors would be Stevie Wonder, Queen, Elton and maybe Pink Floyd. Those were the records and that was the time in the '70s that really all the mentoring went on just by me sitting and studying with my headphones on arrangements. And I suppose going to see people like Freddie Mercury and realizing that was something you wanted to aim at in terms of a physical presence onstage.
You mentioned the dual personality and how sometimes it's never good enough for you. So when you hear you're the most-played artist on British radio in the past 20 years, does that blow you away?
Totally -- just the actual presence of the songs here in Europe blows my mind. Deep down, my ego always thought that I would outlast a lot of people that I was competing against, but I didn't think to this degree.
The reviews of your shows in Europe were amazingly positive.
I couldn't believe them. I'm just not used to that kind of praise for anything I do. I've never had it for albums or anything I do.
Are you finding that with longevity the praise is getting stronger?
Oh, absolutely. It's finally getting to the point where people kind of assume that your talent is not really debatable anymore, which is a nice feeling because it's been debatable forever as far as I could tell. And as far as I'm concerned, I'm up there for two hours absolutely making sure that they have a great time.
When you look at the '25' collection, what is it specifically that stands out to you?
I'm proud of one, the energy of it as a collection of music, and two, the kind of variety of it. Within the scale of it being black-influenced music, I pushed it all around as far as I could. Within my natural territory I've tried to move as far between ballads and jazz and I've really tried to keep the style of things fresh, and I think it really stands up as a collection of songs. The truth is I never would have believed I'd be able to achieve those things.