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Interview: Joe McElderry opens up about new music, lockdown reflections and his passionate fans

The ‘X-Factor’ champ talks to us about his new music.

Joe McElderry
Credit: Joe McElderry

An incredible 12 years have passed since Joe McElderry won ‘The X-Factor’ under the mentorship of Cheryl.

Since winning the show, McElderry has gone on to release five studio albums and performed on London’s West End. Earlier this year, the singer put out new single ‘Baby Had Your Fun’, his first in years and it saw him mixing Country with pop for a different sound than fans have heard before.

I caught up with Joe recently to talk about the song, find out what we can expect from his forthcoming new album, and to discuss his passionate fanbase…

You recently released your new single ‘Baby Had Your Fun’ and I detect a little Country in the mix there…

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I’ve always, and I don’t think people knew this, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Country music, especially the Country crossover pop genre as well. I love bands like Lady A and I love artists like Carrie Underwood. I have always admired how Kelly Clarkson has mixing pop with Country as well. When we came into the studio to write this one, I pulled on all of those influences and just thought I’m going to pull on some of the things that I like to listen to and add flavours of that into the music. It’s definitely Country meets pop disco. We’ve thrown everything at it (laughs).

Is this single the hint of an album to come?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve been working, certainly in the first lockdown, I was doing two or three Zoom sessions of writing a week with all different songwriters and different people. I was just putting it together and getting songs in there, because obviously I couldn’t do anything else. I wanted the creative feel of everything to still flow. It’s been a crazy year for people like me, and artists, trying to still have those creative juices flowing. I’ve got an album’s worth of material. It’s ready. I just need to get into the studio and piece it all together and work out what’s going to actually be the collective of the album but I’ve got an idea. It’s very, very much on the way.

Is the sound of ‘Baby Had Your Fun’ similar to what fans can expect from the record or will there be songs from lots of different genres?

This is definitely a taste of what’s to come, and the style of what it is. I’ve worked quite a lot with a great friend of mine called Helen Boulding, she wrote with me on my ‘Here’s What I Believe’ album. We’ve become really good friends and also work colleagues. We’ve come up with so many different songs in this kind of style from uptempo and mid-tempo, to big huge emotional ballads, to songs that you can just dance to and sing along to and really anthemic song. There’s a real mix but it’s all of the same feel so it’ll definitely all be the same kind of similar sound.

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What was it like putting this together in lockdown? Some artists have found the past year very hard to be creative. What’s been your experience?

It’s been challenging. It’s kind of split in two really. When I’m on a full ‘Joe McElderry’ schedule, shall we call it (laughs), of maybe doing a solo tour and sometimes I do a musical theatre show then I’m back in the studio or I’m doing a TV show, you’re kind of always bouncing from one thing to the next. You never really have time to focus on one thing fully. You’ve got five minutes here and five minutes there, and you spread yourself quite thinly. It’s been nice to totally just concentrate on the writing of a song, going into the studio and spending that time. There was no timescale because of lockdown, so there was no rush to put it out there. We didn’t have to meet a deadline, because everything had stopped. It allowed us to enjoy that process more but on the other hand we had to shoot a video socially distanced, taking all the regulations into consideration, and we’re doing interviews like this (over Zoom), which is wonderful but normally we’d probably do something in person, and you’d normally do something down in London like a TV show, then up to Scotland to film something, then a gig in Manchester. It is strange, but I feel lucky that I still creatively have been able to do something, and something to mark this crazy time that I’m sure we’ll all want to forget but we will never forget it (laughs).

It feels like this pandemic is never going to end. There does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine roll-out at least so there may be an end in sight…

I think so. From what I’m hearing from people talking we’ve still got a little way to go. We should get some hints of normality in the next couple of months and then hopefully before the end of the year we can be back in a setting where we can have full concerts with people clapping and singing along, and hugging people and all of that. I think we’re on the way now that the vaccine is being rolled out. It has been a crazy time. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to work from home and do online shows and things. It’s a crazy time for everyone, but especially performing arts because our whole world of work relies on cramming as many people into the smallest space as possible and creating that amazing connection with a room of people. COVID doesn’t really allow for that but hopefully we’re nearly there.

I know from first hand experience that your fans are hardcore and they’ve been so supportive over the years. You mentioned you’ve been doing online shows but in what other ways have you been engaging with them?

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We’ve been doing quite a lot of different things. The online shows we’ve done, pretty much since August, on a monthly basis. We’re carrying them all the way through to March. We do them every Friday and Saturday and we’ve got a couple of themed ones like Mother’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. We’ve done quiz shows, game shows, merchandise giveaways where they come online and we do virtual guess my songs and guess the lyrics. I’ve been cooking, making cocktails, I’ve dressed up as Geri Halliwell and done a Spice Girls show (laughs). I think it’s just finding ways to connect and find ways to keep things fun. Like everybody, when you do the same thing in and out every day it’s hard to reinvent the wheel and it’s hard to stay in that mindset. I’ve really had to force myself on a weekly basis to virtually sit down with all of my team of people who work behind-the-scenes and help out with all my website stuff and everything like that, and be like, ‘right, this is what we’re going to do this week. This is what we’re going to do next week. We’re going to do that at the end of this month’ and just finding ways to always have stuff dripping out that people can get involved in and just have a bit of fun. It’s light hearted fun. We’re not saving the world we’re just having fun.

Have you developed any new hobbies over the last 12 months?

I was always a quite an avid runner and I really got back into running in the first lockdown and I’ve carried it on throughout this one, although it’s not as fun running in this weather as it was last March, I have to say. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking. I’ve cooked for the first time in my 12-year career. I’ve cooked what I would call proper food instead of just throwing something in and grabbing it and taking it in a plastic container into the back of a car, and running to somewhere else or picking something up. I’ve properly cooked meals so I’m quite proud of myself for that.

A potential cookbook on the horizon?

Oh God! Listen, when I say I’ve cooked you should the state of the kitchen afterwards, so I’m not sure I’m skilled enough to offer advice to anybody else.

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It’s so hard to talk about what’s coming up in the rest of the year because so much is uncertain right now. Have you got any plans alongside the album?

If all goes to plan, we are going on last year’s postponed solo tour in September. We had a little chat yesterday about like plans and stuff, and we’re waiting to see what the next lot of government advice and guidelines are going through into the summer. If we can do some socially distanced events, we’re already hypothetically planning those things, if they can go ahead. The main thing at the minute is just keeping everybody safe and if it means that we can’t do something until September, then I’m happy to wait. I don’t want to force it too much if it’s going to put people in danger. I think we have to take this seriously. I hope we can do some stuff before then, and there will definitely be more music before then. As soon as I can, I will be out on the road with bells on, full show having a blast. As soon as it’s allowed, I will be there.

Every time I’ve seen you over the years, you’ve been rushing from one thing to the next and you’ve always been so incredibly busy. You mentioned earlier that this is the first time you’ve had to really focus on one project. Have you had any time to reflect on everything you have achieved these past 12 years?

I’ve never really stopped for 12 years. I might have had three weeks off or six weeks off but when you’re still on the treadmill of work, you’re still working even though you say you’re not. You’re still dashing off to do something that was already happening in the schedule and you break six week break to go and do something. It takes you another kind week after that to come back down to a relaxation period. In the first lockdown, I sat for a bit and after about six weeks, I started to think about all of the things that I’ve done and all of the things that I’ve experienced. It sounds a little bit sad, and I hope this doesn’t come across egotistical (laughs) but I spent a couple of weeks going on YouTube because I’ve never seen half of the stuff that I’ve done because you’re just constantly on to the next thing. I just went on YouTube and looked at old tours that I’ve done, old TV shows that I’ve done and clips that are on there. I really thought, ‘wow, what a journey it’s been and I’m not even 30 yet’. I definitely did reflect in the first lockdown. I hope I’ll still be doing this in another 12 years time but it’s definitely been a period of reflection in the first lockdown.

You’ve done so many things in your career from to pop to classical crossover, to the West End. What other ambitions do you have?

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It’s funny. I think having experienced a huge amount of success at such a young age, it’s kind of flipped my mindset now a little bit. I just want to have fun with projects and not plan too much. The industry’s changed a lot, even over the last three or four years, with this new era of social media coming in. It’s so fast changing now and it’s so instant. If something’s fun and somebody wants us to be a part of it, and I think I can have a great time and a great laugh with that, and I can do a good job of it, that’s kind of my mantra going forward. I’m not going to overthink things. I’m at a place now where I’m comfortable with what I’ve achieved and I do you want to achieve more, and I still have that ambition and drive, but it’s a different level now. It’s a more relaxed level of just enjoying the journey I suppose and I hate using that word, but life is a journey, I suppose (laughs).

Music consumption has changed so much too. When you won ‘The X-Factor’ streaming wasn’t really a thing…

The last album I released was two years ago but we didn’t do a single release, it was a full album release and that was it. This is the first single that I’ve released in streaming times so being a part of all of those conversations with the online team and through all that Spotify, YouTube, iTunes and Amazon… I’m learning about that now. It is all about that now and the charts have all changed. It’s not the same thing where you go straight in at the top, it’s now a slow build. It’s quite a strange concept. I don’t think I’ve done a proper single release since maybe the ‘Wide Awake’ album. Although I’ve done five albums, we’ve always just done a focus track around the album. It’s very different but it’s interesting learning about it all. I’m thrilled that it’s had the reaction it’s had. People seem to really love the song and love the video. A lot of people are like, ‘what’s next? Can we hear more?’ which is a wonderful thing because you don’t want to drop a new single after not releasing music for a while and everyone be like, ‘yeah it’s alright I suppose’ (laughs).

Your fan base is as passionate now as it ever has been. Every time we do anything about you, it just goes crazy…

I’ve got a wonderful, wonderful supportive fan base. It is a true testament of why I’m still doing what I do because honestly they rep me one 100%. I say this all the time, they’re probably sick of hearing it, but honestly I am so so lucky to have the support, especially during a time like this. I put four online stream shows out in August last year and I thought I’d probably only be able to do four or five because streaming is different to concert tickets sales but the demand has never dropped. We’ve been able to keep doing them all the time and they just love them. They join them and they get involved and they interact with me and make it special. I’m forever thankful.

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‘Baby Had Your Fun’ is available to stream and download now. Watch the music video for the track below:

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