As he leaves behind Lewis to promote his debut album, actor Laurence Fox talks to Sarah Freeman about his change of direction.
The list of actors who have used a long-running and popular television series as a launch pad for musical ambitions is more of a rogues gallery than a hall of fame. Think Robson and Jerome and their cover of Unchained Melody, think Anita Dobson’s Anyone Can Fall in Love and who can forget Jimmy Nail and those Crocodile Shoes? Some made it to number one. Most made a tidy profit for a few record executives. None troubled the panel at the Ivor Novello Awards.
In fact aside from Kylie – and even she for a while was tarred by the Stock, Aitken and Waterman years – the path from acting to singing is a notoriously troubled one. Next to chance his arm is Laurence Fox, who spent a decade years playing Detective Inspector James Hathaway opposite Kevin Whately in ITV’s Lewis.
When he announced he was leaving the show to give music a go, there was a collective intake of breath from those bracing themselves for another collection of classic covers and power ballads. They need not have worried.
Fox’s debut album, Holding Patterns, has just been released and not only has he avoided the usual pitfalls by writing every track himself, but to prove he is serious about his new role as singer/songwriter, his publicity shots are moody black and white affairs of him with guitar or looking thoughtful in the middle of a forest.
“This is an itch, which I have wanted to scratch for quite a long time and if I’m honest I wish I’d have done it a lot earlier,” says the 37-year-old. “I guess I came to music quite late. I bought my first guitar for £99 when I was 21, but it’s been part of my life ever since.
“Honestly, that guitar was a thing of beauty. In fact it still is. I’ve never had any formal lessons, I taught myself how to play and when I first started thinking about releasing some songs I wanted to do it the right way.
“That’s why when I recorded my EP, the first thing I did was to upload it onto the BBC Introducing website. It was a way of testing the water and seeing if anyone else thought it was any good.”
Fortunately they did and the EP got a bit of airplay on Radio 2. The reaction encouraged Fox to release the album, but even had those early tracks disappeared into the ether, you suspect he would have ploughed on regardless with what is clearly a labour of love. “I was ready for a break from acting and when the EP did well it felt like the timing was right to give the music a proper go. Most of the songs on the album were written in the last five years, but a couple of them are from much earlier – in fact the single, Rise Again, is from 15 years ago.
“I’m sure people will have their opinions and I’m sure some people will judge the album without ever having listened to single song. I guess that’s the only thing that bothers me. I don’t mind if people don’t like it, but I do mind if they say they hate it having never even listened to it.”
Born in Leeds General Infirmary, Fox who comes from one of Britain’s most famous acting dynasties – his father, James and uncle Edward are both actors as is his cousin Emilia, while his great-grandfather Major Robin Fox was a leading theatrical agent – spent his earliest years in Arncliffe in the Yorkshire Dales. His family later moved south and when he was 13 years old Laurence enroled at Harrow School. It wasn’t an entirely happy experience.
“I was not a pleasant child,” he admits now. “Although it’s probably fair to say that I was only as unpleasant to the teachers as they were to me. Music was a bit of an escape from all that. When I was growing up I was massively into the Tupac and Biggie Smalls rivalry.”
It’s hard to detect any influence left by the two American rappers, who were both murdered in the mid-1990s, on Fox’s album, but for a while he says he was obsessed by hip hop. Though he declines a quick karaoke moment, he says that he knew every single lyric to every single one of their songs.
“I still do, but no I’m not going to demonstrate. I was completely obsessed by hip hop for a while, but eventually that gave way to the likes of Counting Crows and Ryan Adams.”
A few weeks before his A-levels Fox was expelled from Harrow after “something to do with a girl at a dance”.
He went back to take his exams, but there was no shedding of tears when he walked out of the gates for the final time. He fared better at RADA – shortly after graduating he appeared in the award-winning film Gosford Park – but even now he says he still doesn’t bend easily to authority.
“The only person I bow down to is my wife and that’s because I learnt pretty quickly that life is easier that way.”
The power behind this particular throne is Billie Piper, who, before she reinvented herself as an actress was a teen pop star, releasing her debut single Because We Want To aged just 15. Piper has recently been filming the third series of the horror series Penny Dreadful and there are no plans, at least as yet, for a family duet.
“No. Absolutely. Definitely not,” says Fox, who has two children with Piper, seven year old Winston and Eugene, three. “Billie is a music lover, but she doesn’t play a instrument, so at the moment it’s me making most of the noise in our house. A little while ago I decided I would learn to play the piano. It’s pretty slow-going because I’m basically transposing songs I know on the guitar onto the keyboard, but I’ll get there. For Christmas. Billie also bought me a reed organ, so I’m giving that a blast too. I’m up for learning anything new, but quite a few years ago I did try the bass and I was terrible at it so I gave it up as a bad job.”
Fox has yet to announce any live dates, but should the opportunity arise – and he hopes it will – he has already put together a band together featuring a few famous faces.
“It would be quite nice to play some summer festivals, but nothing has been confirmed as yet. I’ve got Ringo’s Starr’s son, Jason Starkey, on drums and I’ve also stolen a member of Kasabian. They’ve had a pretty full on two years so they’re having a bit of a rest, which means if we do get any gigs later in the year we are ready to go with a pretty good band.”
While music is at the forefront of Fox’s thoughts at the moment, he hasn’t given up the acting and there are a couple of projects in the pipeline for this year.
“I’m definitely not leaving the acting behind. I love it, but I’d spent 10 years in Lewis and it felt like a good time to take a break and do something different. I honestly have no idea whether I can juggle the two together.
“Later this year it’s almost certain the music will collide with various acting commitments, so we’ll see how stressful that is before. I guess then I will know whether there’s a real chance of running the two careers in parallel.”
Fox won’t say whether there will be a second album – in fact, he says, he has never liked to plan too far ahead.
“Long-term I don’t really know what I want to do. I have never really had a plan and things seem to have turned out alright so far. I generally think that it’s best to leave things to fate, in this business you can over think your next step way too much.”
Holding Patterns, released on Laurence’s own label Fox Cub Records, is out now.