Ex-Westlife singer, Shane Filan has had a tough few years but now he’s on tour with a new album. Duncan Seaman reports.
As one quarter of Irish boy band Westlife, Shane Filan experienced some remarkable highs, including 14 Number One singles in the UK and total career sales of more than 50 million records.
But four years ago his financial fortunes nosedived when the property company he and his brother Finbar ran went bust, taking with it £8m of his own money.
The Sligo-born singer, 36, credits his wife Gillian for helping him through the trauma of bankruptcy.
“I think she was the main reason I got through it,” he says. “She just kept me focused on what was positive in her life. We were very lucky to have three healthy children and a very healthy marriage and that’s what life’s all about. If anything went wrong with that then you’ve some serious problems.
“For me I was very glad that money wasn’t an issue, because money is money, you make it, you spend it, you do different things with it, you can always start again.
There were not many bands from the west of Ireland who did a lot of stuff, it was usually bands from Dublin that got more of the opportunities. We set our own standards and went for it.
“I was lucky enough, I was singing and I was able to start a career again, and thankfully I’m through it now and looking back on it I wouldn’t change anything in my life. Everything happens for a reason and it’s made me the person I am which is quite an optimistic and very realistic happy person about the way my life has turned out because I’ve got from that stage to this stage.
“That was probably my greatest achievement. Westlife was amazing, of course, but to get through something like I did was not easy.”
His first solo album, You and Me, has been described as a love letter to his wife. Filan admits writing it was therapeutic. “It really did help. I was writing a lot of it about Gillian – I didn’t intend to do that, I think I just started writing about love stories that were true to my life and just stories from within my life.
“But it’s amazing when you’re writing songs like that and what you can do – that’s why the first album was a bit more upbeat, a bit more chirpy, because I wanted to make a happy album. I wasn’t happy in my life at the time but music was a great escape and to focus on singing was what I love to do and it helped me completely.”
His latest album, Right Here, continues in You and Me’s pop vein albeit from a slightly different and less personal perspective. “They’re not a million miles away from each other but I think vocally it’s more me this time,” Filan says. “This album it’s not necessarily more serious but I think lyrically it’s a bit more universal, it’s not just songs about me, it’s songs that could be about anybody’s love life or anybody’s life in general.
“I’m just trying to get better as a songwriter and really challenge myself vocally.”
The stark reality of being declared bankrupt does seem to have made Filan determined to make a success of his solo work following Westlife’s break-up in 2012. “That’s why I think I wouldn’t change anything because I might not have gone solo, I had plenty of money and all that kind of stuff. I think I would’ve eventually but it might have taken me two or three years to do it.
“At the time it was more serious because I had a family to look after and I had no money, it was literally starting again and it did give me the confidence to focus quickly on if you put your mind to something you can achieve it. That’s what I’m proud of because I didn’t do it just for the laugh, I did it because it had to succeed and I made it succeed to this level.”
Filan has described singing as his “dream job”. He says it was something he wanted to from an early age. “When I got to seven, eight, nine years old I was very much into Michael Jackson and got into the whole Jackson mania at the time. It was definitely the reason I started singing. I loved watching him perform, I loved everything about him and I realised I could sing songs like Michael Jackson. I tried to copy him as much as possible and it gave me the confidence then to start singing other songs. I didn’t get on stage until I was 12, though, it took me a while but that first night that was it, once I got on stage I wasn’t getting off.”
In his late teens he formed I.O.U. with Kian Egan and Markus Feehily. Under the auspices of Louis Walsh and Simon Cowell, and with new members Nicky Byrne and Brian McFadden, they became Westlife, natural successors to top-selling Irish boy band Boyzone.
Filan says their international success was “a very big deal” for the coastal resort of Sligo, his home town. “There were not many bands from the west of Ireland who did a lot of stuff, it was usually bands from Dublin that got more of the opportunities. We set our own standards and went for it.”
Of Westlife’s 14 Number Ones, Filan says there are three that stand out for him. “The first one, Swear It Again, because it was our first Number One and it was something that we didn’t expect at all. Then when we got our 5th Number One [Fool Again], which set the record for the most Number Ones by a band from debut in a row, then we ended up getting seven Number Ones which had never happened before, that was probably our greatest achievement.
“When You Raise Me Up was Number One, I think that was our 12th, that came at a time when the band needed a massive song. We’d done a Rat Pack album, Brian had left the band and we needed a monster hit again. It was Louis’ idea, Simon Cowell would probably take the credit for it but Louis had been banging on about this song for a few years and we recorded it and it was just a monster song all over the world for us and something that I think is my favourite song to sing. Looking back on it it gave us another seven or eight years for Westlife.”
He says he gets asked “every day” if Westlife would ever consider reforming. “The honest answer is we don’t know,” he says. “Down the line of course there is a possibility it could happen but there’s also a possibility that it might not. Only time will decide if that will happen. There’s a lot of people that would have to be involved in that decision and a lot of people that would have to be 100 per cent behind that decision, there’s no one person that can’t be, so it’s not as easy as you might think.”
Six or seven Westlife songs will figure in his live set on his current tour. “Probably a third of my setlist is always going to be Westlife songs because they’re the songs that people want to hear too,” says Filan. “It’s part of my history, it’s part of my life and 90 per cent of the audience are probably Westlife fans and they want to hear the songs.
“I’ve so many Westlife songs to choose from, that’s the hardest thing, picking the right ones, because you’re going to disappoint somebody in the crowd. You can’t do them all, unfortunately. We had the same problem in the band, it’s just one of those things.
“My setlist is very strong, thankfully, and I’m in that luucky position where it’s songs that people want throughout the whole night including my own songs. These are hardcore fans in the audience, they have my album and they love it and it’s an entertaining show, thankfully, which is great.”
Shane Filan plays at York Barbican on Monday March 21. For details visit www.yorkbarbican.co.uk.