Music interview '“ Michael Ball: '˜Sharing success is what it's about'

Michael Ball is enjoying his singing partnership with Alfie Boe. As the duo head to Leeds, he spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Michael Ball and Alfie Boe. Picture: Paul Harries
Michael Ball and Alfie Boe. Picture: Paul Harries

For a man who is hurriedly having to learn lines for a comedy sketch that Miranda Hart has sprung on him only a few hours before that night’s Royal Variety Performance, Michael Ball sounds remarkably cheerful.

“I’ve just been handed the script so I’m doing that as well as everything else, so it’s brilliant,” the singer, West End star and broadcaster beams. “What an honour, what a laugh, it’s just great.”

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While admitting – in no uncertain terms – that he does get nervous before such big occasions, Ball seems fully appreciative that the recent success of his partnership with the tenor Alfie Boe has enabled the pair of them to close the Royal Variety Performance with a rendition of the Morecambe and Wise classic Bring Me Sunshine.

Michael Ball. Picture: Peter Sharp

Two Number One albums, CD sales in the hundreds of thousands, and a winter arena tour, has made them one of Britain’s most popular acts and it seems this is a moment for both of them to savour.

“We were just about to do the rehearsals for the finale and we both looked at each other and went ‘This is surreal’. We’re headlining the Royal Variety, we’re about to do a big song and dance routine and we didn’t expect it, it’s brilliant,” Ball says.

“We both realise – and you want to get it right, you want to do your best work – you also need to take a moment and to relish it and to think ‘Ah, look where we are, mate?’. It’s fabulous.”

Their chart-topping triumphs have excelled all expectations. “We never even dreamed of going past the first couple of gigs,” Ball says. “It was just an idea to do some gigs and then the album happening and becoming so successful and having such a good time with it you always think lightning can’t strike twice and it seems to have. We seem to have hit on an idea and a formula that people like and that we like, and it’s lovely.”

Michael Ball. Picture: Paul Harries

Such is their current profile Decca Records have handed each of them a solo deal on top of one to continue their partnership. “I’ll be starting in the studio in February, I think Alf starts quite soon after that, so we’ll have solo albums out next year and then who knows, maybe another Ball and Boe, probably. I hope so.”

Together Again, their new album, includes two songs from the show Kismet, that Ball and Boe starred in a decade ago. The English National Opera production may have bombed spectacularly but he and Boe were spared the critical brickbats and the first seeds of their friendship were sown. Hence now, he says: “We thought we’d have a nod to us first meeting and the lucky day that we met and celebrate this gorgeous music and also lay the ghost to rest of the most disastrous production that I’ve ever been involved in. So, boom, done it.”

What has come across in interviews and television appearances is that in middle age – Ball is 52, Boe 44 – the pair are having a considerable amount of fun. “It’s that and also we love the music and we work hard at the music, we don’t take that for granted,” Ball says. “We want to sing our best, we want to bring out the best in each other, so we respect the music and we love the sound that we can create together but we also like having a good time. We make the most of the fun that we have as well and the banter, it’s ideal.

“Sharing success is what it’s about. Both of us have been on stage alone and discovered that it’s better actually if you’ve got someone with you on every level – apart from the money, of course,” he chuckles.

Michael Ball. Picture: Peter Sharp

Their partnership works because they “both bring different things to the party”, Ball says. “Vocally and personally we’re different people. We both like what each other does and are aware of each other’s strengths and how we fit into the puzzle that’s Ball and Boe.”

Their approach to songs such as New York, New York and White Christmas that are fixed in popular memory from versions by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby are respectful. “You can’t muck around with them too much, they’re what they are,” says Ball. “They’re iconic because they’re brilliant songs, so you’ve got to think ‘How can our voices do something that a solo voice can’t? What harmonies can we find? Where can we go with the arrangements in the recording process that will add something, that doesn’t detract from the original and pays homage to it, if you like?’

“Especially with White Christmas actually being able to sing with the voice of Bing Crosby is so cool – in fact it’s beyond cool, it’s ridiculous.”

Ball and Boe’s concert at Leeds Arena next week will give them chance to perform Bring Me Sunshine in Ernie Wise’s old home city. Ball says they are both “huge” fans of Morecambe and Wise. “We absolutely love them and you actually forget what a great song it is in its own right. It’s their theme tune but it’s a great song and a great tune. We umm-ed and ahh-ed, are we brave enough to do this but we don’t do it like Morecambe and Wise, ours is a big band, jazzy sort of version, so it’s definitely a homage to them.”

Michael Ball. Picture: Paul Harries

Before their UK arena dates, Ball and Boe toured Australia. In February they’re off to Japan.

“No one’s more surprised than me,” Ball says. “We keep adding extra dates.”

Still he’s determined to fit everything in with his regular Sunday morning show on BBC Radio 2. “I wouldn’t miss it, I love it.”

“It’s a busy life,” he reflects, “but it’s a bloody good one. Make hay while the sun shines.”

Together Again is out now. Michael Ball and Alfie Boe play at First Direct Arena, Leeds on Friday December 8.