“My first three albums have been a taster, this is the main course”– Olly Murs opens up about new album Never Been Better
Olly Murs first tumbled into public consciousness on the 2009 series of The X-Factor when he came runner-up to Joe McElderry. Ever since then the Essex-born singer has set about earning himself a reputation as the hardest working singer in contemporary pop, During the period of 2010-2012, Murs put out three studio albums, toured the world and found time to host multiple series of The Xtra Factor.
After allowing himself a little time off last year, he’s back with Never Been Better, his fourth studio album, which arrives on Monday (November 24th). The album is Murs’ most confident to date, featuring collaborations with American superstar Demi Lovato and Gym Class Heroes’ man Travie McCoy, co-writes with John Newman, Ryan Tedder and Paul Weller and feels firmly like a push for the stratosphere, the kind of air Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow and, these days, Ed Sheeran, get to breathe.
As Murs himself admits during our interview, most X-Factor acts have a shelf life; you get a few singles, maybe one or two albums, then you’re gone. For every One Direction, there are 10 artists, including McElderry, who disappeared as soon as the public learned their names, but Murs has survived.
Not only survived, but grown; grown in influence and popularity, grown from a solid singer into the kind of turns up in record labels’ annual reports and record stores hope they get a new album in time for Christmas.
We sat down to talk with him about the making of the album, working with big-hitters like Weller and Tedder, his dream of headlining football stadiums and why his life has, quite literally, never been better…
How long have you had the album ready for?
“I got it ready at the end of July. We mixed it in July and August so it’s been a while. I’ve had to stop listening to the album now, I’ve not listened to it for a couple of months, I want to wait until it comes out and then start listening to it again. The whole thing’s been great, it’s been great to write, great to record, great to be involved in, I can’t wait for people to hear it.”
When did you start on the album?
“We started it on the Robbie Williams tour, September and October last year, these were writing sessions to test the water and not really for the album. We did about two weeks, but only one song came out of those sessions. End of January we seriously started writing and we didn’t stop until the end of July.”
How long did it take you to record after that?
“What happens is when you do a writing session, you do two days, you write on the first day, you tweak it on the next day and then you sing it. You get the good vocal down and, if you feel like you can do a better job, you re-record it. It’s a long process, every track I do I have to play it to my management, play it to my label, play to my friends and family, I get an idea if people like it and then settle on that.”
Does that mean you end up with more tracks than you need?
“Oh yeah. For this album we recorded 65 tracks. That’s a lot. I wrote with a lot of people. You only need 18 really, because you’ve got deluxe editions, B-Sides, things like that. But we recorded a lot of songs.”
How do you find the process of trimming down the number of songs?
“The way I do it is by how often I can play a song and not get bored of it. You like it the first time you play it and then I judge it by how often I listen to it over the course of a couple of months. On this album I’ve played the songs a lot and I’ve not got bored of them yet. That’s how you get a good album, you need to be able to listen to them 30 or 40 times at least. I want this to be an album people pick up next year and say ‘This is still a great album’, I don’t want people to just listen to it once, I want them to go back to Track 10, to go back to Track Two, go back to Track Six, I want them to keep coming back.”
How do you go about picking out your writers?
“I spoke to the label and said that I mostly wanted to write with the same guys I worked with before, but I also wanted to freshen it up a bit. There are people at Sony whose job it is to find new writers and they know. They’ll say things to me like ‘Madonna’s working with these guys, shall we try and get you a session?’, then, if it comes off, we do a session.”
“The best sessions are often the ones you don’t expect to be good. That’s how ‘Dear Darlin’ came about, I did a session with Ed Drewett and Jim Elliott, I wasn’t expecting anything at all, but we came out with one of my biggest singles.”
You’ve got Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic, co-writer on Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’ and Leona Lewis’s ‘Bleeding Love’ amongst many other hits) on there…
“Yeah, he sent a song over, right near the end of the process, I actually didn’t record it until September, but we really love the song, it’s a grower, the more you listen to that one, the more you like it.”
He’s a man who knows his way around a ballad…
“It was great to work with him, I spoke to him on the phone and he told me all his thoughts on the industry and how he writes. It was great to hear how much effort he puts in and I feel like I’ve been able to put a great vocal on the song, I’m so proud to have a song with Ryan Tedder on the album.”
You’ve got a song with Paul Weller on there too…
“Weller was ridiculous. I met him at the Royal Albert Hall. I said hello, got a picture, I told him I was writing the album and he said I’ll send you a song. He sent it, I said I wanted to add a bit of my character to it, so he came in and we worked on it together, now it’s on the album. It was such a great experience, he’s a top, top guy.”
Do you get intimidated in situations like that? The guy’s been at the top of his game for 30 years…
“Yeah it was, but he made it easy for me. He was very chilled out and he knew that we both loved music. We went into the studio as artists and came out with something that we really love. Everyone who’s heard that song so far really loves it too.”
You’ve got Demi Lovato and Travie McCoy on the album. Were they guests you wanted? Or were they suggested to you?
“I wanted them. We know their management and we contacted them, sent them the song and they loved it. They sent us vocals and it’s great. It gives the album diversity, and, they’re two artists who are big in the American market, it gives me a push in America.”
How quickly can you tell if a writing session is going to work out or not? Do you need to work with people two or three times?
“Oh god no. You know very quickly. I’ve done a few sessions where I just know instantly and I’m just there thinking ‘This is going to be such a painful four or five hours’, others you know within half an hour that you’re going to do something good. You need a good connection and that’s why so many artists work with the same people, you need people that know you. Sometimes people can not know you, but they can write an amazing song for you, but that’s really once in a blue moon. You need people who know your personality.”
Are you better and faster at writing now? Or does it take as long as ever it did?
“I’m better at knowing if something’s worth pursuing. If you work on an idea for an hour or two, and it’s not flowing, I feel more confident about saying let’s scrap it. I’ve got more experience, my instincts are better, and, if anything, I’m more precious on lyrics and what I want to say.”
Are you better at preparing for albums now?
“When I first started writing, I’d have a few ideas, but not many. Now when I think of an idea I write it down straight away and I walk into the studio with loads of ideas. I used to be more ‘What happens, happens’ in the studio, now I go in more prepared.”
What kind of album is this lyrically?
“It’s a real rollercoaster of emotions. There’s a bit of anger, a bit of love, a bit of heartbreak, some sadness, some cheekiness, lots of funs, but darker moments too.”
Do you always write directly from personal experience?
“Yes and no. Sometimes you sit down and think ‘I really want to talk about this today’, but I don’t want to make them too personal, they have to be relevant to everyone. I quite often sit down and think I’m writing about one thing, but then I listen to it back and I’m thinking it reminds me of an ex-girlfriend, or even an ex ex-girlfriend. We have a laugh in the studio and we try and come up with something good.”
Do you ever feel like you’ll be drawn towards something bigger? Maybe write a political song?
“I want to keep it personal. Writing about religion and politics are tricky and that divides opinion, writing about break-ups is much easier, it’s something everyone can relate to.”
How do you think you’ve grown as a lyricist?
“I’ve grown loads. When I first came in, I was such a whipper snapper, I didn’t know what I was doing. On this album, I feel like I know exactly how to write a song, I know what feel I want, what production I want, what environment I want.”
Has your level of control grown with each album?
“The label I had for the first two albums was very steady, very safe, but the last two have been a bit choppier, people have been coming and going and it’s been a bit more disjointed. I’ve had to step up and get much more involved, which is great, but also frustrating, I’d rather let people do their jobs. I have enjoyed having much more of a say, but I will never be afraid to listen to people around me.”
Having come out of X-Factor, did you feel a pressure to stay in the public eye and always have new material out there?
“The first three albums, I knew I had to work quickly, I knew that I had to establish myself and show people what I was all about. That felt like a cycle, that’s why I went away for the last year. I needed a break, my fans needed a break, I didn’t want to saturate people. Three albums back to back felt crazy and it was right to have a break.”
Is there more pressure this time?
“Much more pressure. Much more. My first three albums have been a taster, this is the main course. I really want people to listen, it’s the best thing I’ve done.”
Is that where the title comes from?
“Yeah, sort of. I’ve had time to reflect on my life over the last nine months and what I’ve been doing and it’s never going to get better than this. It’s an easy title. We wrote a song called ‘Never Been Better’, which all about being positive and not letting people drag you down. I’m feeling great, I’ve never been better, I don’t want bad things to happen to me. I don’t think my life is going to get any better than this.”
Are there other artists you’ve looked to for inspiration for your career?
“Kings Of Leon has always been one. They had three albums before Only By The Night and they took three years to build a fanbase and then it all went crazy. I’m not saying it’s going to happen to me, but I do feel like this is the album that can have a much bigger impact across the world.”
Do you feel ready for that kind of fame? You’ve been out with Robbie Williams, you know what it’s like to play football stadiums?
“Oh I’d love to. He really gave me the appetite for that scale. Hell yeah.”
Did you learn a lot on that tour? He’s one of the biggest British artists of all time?
“Every time I watched him, I was taking it all in, admiring how great this guy is. It gave me the appetite and the belief. I didn’t think I could do stadiums, but I know I can now. It might never happen, but it’s a dream for sure.”
Do you need goals?
“I analyse my career like you would a football career. I’m with Sony, one of the best labels in the world, it’s like playing for one of the best clubs in the world. I want to be scoring goals, I want to be winning championships, medals and titles. You can’t become complacent, we’re here to win. We’re here to win, we’re here to win awards, we’re here to win Brits and Grammys and VMAs, that’s my aim.”
You experimented with presenting a while ago and then decided to stop, why was that?
“The only reason was to focus on music. I love TV presenting, I’ll do more in the future, but I needed to focus.”
Has it helped you?
“Massively. It’s helped me onstage, helped me to be on TV shows as a guest, I’m more confident now.”
How crazy was the scheduling?
“Oh god, first year on X-Factor I don’t know how I did it, I just know I did.”
You’re going on a big arena tour next year, what have you got planned in terms of production?
“We’re going to go big this year, we’ve got a much bigger budget. I want it to be massive and to make it as big as I can. I want people to go away and tell their mates ‘That was a f***ing good show'.”
Were there other shows you saw and want to emulate?
“I saw Justin Timberlake’s tour last year and I saw Beyonce’s and I thought they were different level. Those things cost millions, I’m not there yet, but I want to be on that level.”
When you were making the album did you keep in mind how the songs would work live?
“Always. I’ve got a great band, same band I’ve had for four years, I was always thinking, ‘Big show, how is this going to sound?’. If it’s not a single, you need to know it’s going to sound brilliant live.”
What are your ambitions for America?
“I want to keep chipping away at it. I’d love to do well over there, but realistically I know it’s a long process. I feel a bit like ‘What will be will be’ for America.”
What’s touring like for you?
“I love it. I lose a bit of weight, get really fit and get into the new songs. First 12 days of rehearsals I get out there with a personal trainer getting absolutely beasted, then it’s straight into touring.”
What will make this album a success for you?
“The only way this album is going to be a success is if the singles are a success. If my first single does really well, then that’ll really drive it. Big singles make sure the album sells. But I do feel like whatever happens is a bonus, I’m four albums in, I never expected to get this far.”
What did you expect?
“I thought I’d get one or two albums in and the trap door would open and someone would push me in. But I’ve been able to keep going."
It seems to be growing though…
“Every time I do an album it progresses, my fanbase gets bigger, more fans seems to be following me places, it’s great.”
Have you noticed your fanbase changing? Is it getting younger or older?
“They’ve been very loyal, so in five years the fans have grown up as I have. I’ve got more couples coming now, group of lads, aunties, uncles and nans, as well as young kids, I do think it’s getting more diverse.”
Finally, what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever signed?
“An arm, which they then go and get tattooed. You sign it and they tell you and you’re like ‘No, don’t do that you doughnut, you’ll ruin your arm’. I don’t agree with it, I don’t like tattoos, but obviously it’s a compliment!.”
What about an animal?
“No, I wouldn’t do that. Or a banknote, I think that’s illegal. Animals and banknotes. Don’t bring any.”
Olly Murs’ new album Never Been Better is released on Monday (November 24th). He will be performing live and signing copies of the album at hmv 363 Oxford Street on the same day. You can