Singer Michael Ball talks about Hairspray and his trip to the Echo Arena in Liverpool

~ Liverpool Echo by Catherine Jones- 31/07/09 ~

"A GROUP of us were on Hamilton island in Australia and there was a karaoke machine in the bar. The girls were desperate to do backing vocals, so I did Delilah."

“They didn't know who I was in there and the guy at the bar said: ‘You've got quite a good voice, you should do something with that.'

“I said: ‘Oh no, I'm quite happy in IT'.”

While a Tom Jones karaoke sing-a-long may not be on the set list of his new UK tour, Michael Ball is likely to have a few other surprises up his sleeve when he arrives at the ECHO arena on September 24.

And a little birdie tells me one of them could be a number from American rock band Kiss.

“Who told you that?” Michael laughs. “I feel I know how to give an audience a good evening's entertainment.

“I take them on a journey. It's not just me standing up on stage singing. And I am going to introduce new stuff people might not expect me to sing.

“I'm changing from my usual show. Normally I'm there with a 12-piece band and three backing singers.

“This time I want to have string section and I'm bringing special guests from the theatre. We can do other things as well, it's just a more theatrical show which I'm putting together at the moment.

“It's the first time I'll have done the whole evening too, rather than having a support act, and I can choreograph the whole event.”

The 47-year-old stage star celebrates his 25th year in showbusiness in 2009.

It's a career that has taken him all over the world, seen him at number two in the charts with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Changes Everything, compete for the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest (he came second) and win a coveted Olivier Award for his role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.

He extended his Hairspray contract to the end of this month, and is also relishing his radio show on Sunday mornings.

“It feels like I'm just starting out and yet I look back at things that I've done,” Michael muses.

“I've kept working and that's what I'm celebrating, that I'm still doing it.

“I've never had a game plan. That's the joy about this job, you never know what's coming and you have to be fully adaptable.

“I was doing Kismet when the call came through about Hairspray. And honestly, the truth is I've never been happier. I've had such an amazing couple of years.

“The radio show has been taking off and I've got this new record out (titled Past And Present) and it's just been so good.

“I'm old enough and ugly enough to know that it all changes, as all things do.

“It's great that I was able to leave Hairspray on a high, still loving it.

“I'll always have great memories. It never went sour, it's perfect.”

There is one thing he won't miss though, and that is larger-than-life Edna's costume.

“It is a relief to get out of the fat suit, especially during the hot weather,” he says. “I've taken to high heels, I've got to be honest! But heavy boobs are the worst, they murder your back.”

The star is the first to admit he has also piled on a few extra pounds over recent years – one of the reasons was giving up cigarettes two-and-a-half years ago – but says he's getting back in shape for his tour and has already lost a stone-and-a-half.

“Since I've stopped smoking I've found I don't get so many vocal problems and chest infections,” he says candidly. “I suppose it was a bit of bravado saying ‘look I smoke and I can still produce this sound'.”

And it's a sound that has won him a dedicated legion of fans who follow him wherever he performs, even as far as Australia.

Even more surprising then that Michael has never had any vocal training.

“I was always surrounded by music. My mother plays the piano and my younger sister is a good singer,” he reveals.

“I always enjoyed singing but I didn't think of myself as any good until other people gave me feedback. It wasn't really until I got to drama school.

“I did a straight acting course, I never had any singing lessons and it wasn't until I auditioned for my first job on Godspell and they hired me, I thought ‘I can do this'.

“You never know what will happen. If I hadn't gone for an open audition for Pirates Of Penzance I wouldn't have been seen by Cameron Mackintosh (who cast him in Les Miserables) and life would have been completely different.

“You get to a crossroads and decide to go left or right. It's chance meetings, accidents that happen.”

He's wary about saying too much, but admits he's currently in discussions about a possible post-Hairspray role in a stage version of Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd.

Meanwhile, one of those “accidents” he talks about led him to Radio 2, where he stood in for Johnnie Walker and Michael Parkinson, and did his own show called Ball Over Broadway.

The then controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, asked if Michael would like a more permanent role, and Michael Ball's Sunday Brunch was born.

“At first she had an idea for a show like Elaine Paige does and I didn't want to do that, I didn't want to be constrained. Then Parky announced he was retiring and for me that's the best possible slot I could have been given,” he grins.

“I was absolutely knackered (after two performances of Hairspray on a Saturday) but it was worth it. Because I got Monday nights off, I got time to catch up.

“I love the fact it's live and I like talking to people and I'm interested in current affairs.

“ It's been a joy and really different for me.”

Liverpool radio critic Gillian Reynolds is a regular and has, he says, “been very supportive of me”.

“I just love working,” adds Michael. “I need to have a challenge, I need to have something to be doing, I think everyone does.

“I'm really good at not working too! But I'd much prefer to be creative. I really enjoy that.”

Michael Ball brings his 25th anniversary tour to the ECHO arena on September 24.


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