Interview by Steve Baltin for Yahoo Music in 2008 when George Michael embarked on his first North American tour in 17 years, the 25 Live Tour. Baltin was one of the few U.S. journalists that sat with George for an hour-long interview just before the 25 Live Tour kicked off.
YAHOO MUSIC: Was there ever a point where you realized how long it had been since you toured America?
GEORGE MICHAEL: Well, the incredible thing is I really didn’t think I would do it again, and I spent a year and a half going around Europe twice. And the bizarre thing is that I’ve so kind of detached myself from
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 — other than the obvious, which are the tabloids, but 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, in a weird way.
It seems in America, the attention is constant.
Exactly. You can imagine, 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 and life, do you feel like you’re more ready to handle America now?
Oh, totally. I really feel that … Let’s be really honest, I’m doing these interviews because I need to sell tickets [laughs]! I’ve never been in this situation before, where I really needed to do stuff to sell tickets. Plus, having 18 years or nearly 20 years to play in America, my own material, of course I’ve waited until you guys are right in the middle of a recession to come back with a very expensive ticket, because it’s a very expensive show. 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 on one hand the industry rejected me at a certain point in America. And that was very much a directed thing; I don’t think that the industry had much choice, really. But it’s a combination of rejection, because 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, even though they’re not hearing it on the radio. That is really special to me.
Certainly that indicates you’ve developed a rapport with your American fans.
Absolutely. I would walk into the Virgin Megastore, one of those many places that doesn’t exist anymore, in the middle of the ’90s, and my singles from the older albums were literally No. 1, 2, 4, and 9 or something in their singles section — because I guess it was Hollywood and a lot of gay people were buying them. But that’s such a compliment when you know this is not being supported out there.
You say it was an industry-directed thing. Does the fact that the music industry almost doesn’t exist anymore, like it used to, 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 because 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. Really I was just angry about losing my partner and losing my mother. But I was very angry at the kind of rejection in America, and those feelings of anger are completely gone.
Has getting rid of the anger and having a new perspective changed your appreciation for music at all?
I don’t think my appreciation for music could ever be any stronger than it was. The way I see music is completely internal. It’s not something that my approach to could change, almost; it just is what it is. My feelings about music are so central to the way that I operate, I can’t even really imagine waking up one day and feeling any different about it.
Maybe, then, it’s a different appreciation for performing or for the relationship you have with your fans.
Well, that’s the main thing. I think I had no idea what a positive experience it was going to be to go out there again, and I was just absolutely blown away. It was a totally different feeling than the feelings I had about playing live when I was younger. I’m so privileged to be able to stand there and have the ability to make all those people smile — and Jesus, they smile. It’s a great show. I’ve never seen an audience have a better time. It’s really the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen, people’s response to this show. And after two years of it, I think my entire mood about everything has been lightened.
Well, what prompted the decision to tour in the first place?
It was the weirdest thing. I was sitting watching the TV one night, and it was probably kicked off by something that was on the TV, something that someone or a character had said on the TV. But it was about regrets, and I remember sitting there and realizing this wave of clarity, realizing how much I was going to regret not going out there and singing to people after my 20s, as it were. And I suddenly sat and thought, “You are going to regret this. Another 10 years and you won’t be able to stand unassisted [laughs]. But for the moment, you can get out there and still do a really good show.” And I just had this overwhelming sense of urgency to the fact that I realized I really ought to do it.
After all this time, have any of the 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 and watching their feelings about them — 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, even the simplest things.
Are there any songs that maybe have changed for you in meaning?
I think what it is, I realized that quite often as a writer I’m actually writing to myself. Quite often the kind of cautionary tales that I’ve written about, I quite often write entirely to my own subconscious and don’t really realize it until I’ve done it. Really because there’s so much self-analysis in writing, and even when you externalize it and write about other things, you realize listening back just how clear the conversation was with myself, whether it was about loneliness. I suppose a perfect example would be “Outside,” because actually it’s a bizarre thing, but I’m almost telling myself off in that song. And there are other things I didn’t realize at the time, just how my subconscious was screaming to say certain things. And when you look back these things seem much more obvious, because hopefully you’ve moved past that point in your life, resolved some of those things that you wrote about, if you’re lucky.
Do you listen to your own stuff often?
I listen to my own stuff a lot. I never deny that. I don’t listen to old stuff. I don’t sit around listening to “Faith.” I always listen to what I’ve done recently, because that’s the only way I know whether I want to do it differently next time.
But it must be interesting
then to go back and revisit some of the older songs and see how you’ve changed from the stuff you were writing to yourself then.
I think I really moved past it. I think a lot of it seems really sad to me when I hear it now. I saw an interview — you know 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 I watched an interview I did with somebody over here in 1987, 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.
What if someone had told you when you were a kid that you’d one day have the biggest album in the world and you’d be miserable?
I wouldn’t have believed them about either, ’cause when I was young I really didn’t get depressed at all. I was very kind of 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.
What was the first record you remember hearing that made a big impact on you?
“My Cherie Amour,” Stevie Wonder. We were staying at one of my mother’s family’s houses down by the seaside, and I used to get up before everybody — didn’t matter where we were, whether it was at home or traveling. I was always up with the sun at dawn. And this particular morning, I went out in the morning, and I used to go down the road to look at all the butterflies. There was a tree very close to this house that used to get covered in butterflies in the summer. So I was on my way out to look at this beautiful tree, it was a beautiful sunny morning, I heard “My Cherie Amour,” and it stuck with me absolutely. That was my very first actual memory that includes a song. I was 9.
As a music fan, what has it meant to you to record with the likes of McCartney, Aretha, and Elton?
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 that was, again, I somehow managed to keep my head above water careerwise. And I think my writing stayed of a certain quality. When I look at the track listing for the [best-of compilation Twenty Five], I can’t imagine that I could be prouder, actually.
Has there been anyone you’ve worked with that you learned a lot from?
No one really in my adult life that had that kind of influence on me. All the influence was early. Absolutely my musical mentors would be Stevie Wonder, Queen, and Elton [John], 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. All of that was “mentoring,” definitely.
You mentioned the dual personality and how sometimes it’s never good enough for you, which I think is the case for any artist…
Yeah, I think any decent artist feels fraudulent half the time.
So feeling fraudulent half the time, when you hear you’re the most-played artist on British radio over 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. Honestly it’s so part of the fabric of English life, whether it be Wham! or me individually, it’s just there. I never would have dreamed, never would have dreamed, I could achieve that.
Is there anything recently you’ve heard that stands out for you?
Just the Amy Winehouse thing; it’s just beyond anything that I’ve heard in my professional life in terms of British singer-songwriters.
That’s a pretty big compliment.
Oh, my God, I would give my right arm to have that kind of sensibility. My ego is massive, but when I see someone I genuinely believe to be more special than me, I’m basically humbled by it rather than resenting it.
Speaking of judgments, the reviews of the shows in Europe were amazing.
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. But, my God, it was unbelievable. The reviews were just incredible.
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.
When you look at Twenty Five, what is it specifically that stands out to you?
To be honest with you, I think what I’m proud of is, 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.
What else do you want to add?
Are you going to get to see the show?
Oh, yes. No one is more excited about the fact you’re touring here than my wife.
Oh, really? You see this is the reason most journalists hate me [laughs]. I think it’s true, some people really do — not decent journalists, but your average tabloid hack, I think they really hate the fact their wives still like me even though they know I’m gay. I think it irritates them. I think most people, if they don’t have an appreciation for the songs, it drives them mental that they have to listen to George Michael all day.
And now they get to see you live.
At least you won’t be bored to tears, because you’ll know enough of the songs. You’ll have to thank her for me for having enlightened you.
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