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Why the show must go on for Leo Sayer even after four decades in the music industry

By Andy Welch

Published 30/07/2015

Leo Sayer
Leo Sayer
Leo Sayer in performance
Leo with the Muppets

I'm enjoying the fact people want to talk to me," says Leo Sayer. As you might expect from someone who's had a 43-year-long career, he's known ups and downs, huge waves of popularity, and times when he couldn't even get arrested, as the old saying goes.

Now, he's probably somewhere in between; far from cool (was he ever?), but around long enough to deserve some respect, with a good number of hits under his belt and fans all over the world.

His new album, Restless Years, is what has got a few people interested again. It's his first new material since 2008's Don't Wait Until Tomorrow, which was only released in Australia, the country he's officially called home since becoming a citizen there in 2009.

As we talk, his Aussie accent becomes stronger and stronger, veering from a native Sussex twang at the beginning, to full-on, Home And Away extra by the end.

He's excited about Restless Years, which came out in January but, he feels, wasn't promoted anywhere near as well as it should have been, despite hitting the Top 40 during its first week of release.

Tickets for a forthcoming tour are also selling thick and fast, leaving Sayer happy that 2015 is going to see him do "some very good business".

It's a bit of a change in fortune since his last tour in these parts, which again, he feels, was under-promoted and led to him and organisers making a loss.

This time around, he's got "a terrific team" helping him, has booked some better, bigger venues and, of course, has new music to perform, which adds a new dynamic. His days of being seen as a relic of the Seventies, when he first appeared, decked out in Pierrot costume and make-up, singing The Show Must Go On, are behind him.

"On the last tour, I was trying to break away from tours I'd done previously with the likes of David Cassidy and The Osmonds. Those Seventies package tours," he says. "I wanted to break that mould. I wanted to tell people, 'Yeah, I'm still recording', and that I can still sing as well as I could. I still view myself as a current artist. It's an attitude thing."

He says attendees on such package tours, unfortunately for him, only want to hear the Seventies hits - You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, When I Need You, Moonlighting, Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance) and One Man Band.

But it's understandable - You Make Me Feel Like Dancing reached No 2 in the UK, and topped the chart in the US, while follow-up single, When I Need You, hit No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Without dissing it too much, those tours are for people who want to revel in nostalgia, and they're not really fussed whether an artist has aged or can still sing well. I found those shows easy - I'm still in good voice," he adds, "but it didn't matter and it got rather depressing.

"They'd have accepted me if I'd gone up there and rolled through the motions."

It does rather sound like biting the hand that feeds him, and while the idea of endlessly performing songs from the mid-Seventies pomp of your career is likely to grate after a while, surely signing up to tour after tour of nostalgia trips isn't the way to get out of such obligations?

On the plus side, being stuck on the cabaret circuit made Sayer want to do something new, and spurred him on to put a band together, consisting of session players that he insists are Australia's best.

"They remind me of the guys I worked with in Los Angeles in the Seventies," he says. "They can play anything."

Sayer had recorded Restless Years - a collection of new songs and, in the case of Sometimes Things Go Wrong, old numbers he wrote years and years ago - in his own home studio.

But, knowing he needed to do something a little more spectacular, he took his recruited band into a new studio, and they "wisely disregarded" everything he'd done and rearranged the songs themselves.

He's very happy with the results, and hopes the album will reignite his career.

He talks about wanting to play Glastonbury - "people have told me for years I should play the Sunday afternoon heritage slot" - and is already itching to get back into the studio to record his next album.

"I was touring in Australia last year and I was piling the songs up," he says.

"I've just moved to a new place in the country where I'm building a new studio, and I want to get in there to start recording other songs I've got stored up.

"I must have 300 songs unreleased or unrecorded, lying around. I'm a production machine, it never stops.

"And I am happy about that, because the moment those ideas dry up, you're done. I reckon artists only record 20% of the songs they write or have ideas for, so I've got to keep going.

"For now, I've got Restless Years done, and I couldn't be more proud of the way it's come out.

"I'm 67, so very happy to be as lively as I was, and to be as active as I am," Sayer continues.

"To still be a player is great."

Idyllic summers spent in Fermanagh Lakelands

Leo Sayer spent childhood summers in Maguiresbridge, Co Fermanagh, where his mother, Teresa Nolan, was born.

The middle child of three siblings, he spent many summer holidays with his extended Northern Irish family in the border county.

"We used to spend a lot of time as kids in Northern Ireland and in the Republic as well," he says. "We had family in Cavan, Fermanagh, Meath and Londonderry. Every school holidays we'd pack up and tear over to Ireland and spend the whole summer holiday there, so that's where we grew up.

"I still remember my dad's terrible attempts at salmon fishing in Lough Erne, donkey derbies and wonderful ceilidhs in different houses.

"My mum came from an incredibly big family. Every time I used to come over to play, I was always meeting another cousin or niece or nephew."

The 67-year-old singer/songwriter, who has lived in Sydney since 2005, also has fond recollections of playing in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, when very few acts would risk coming here.

"I have so many happy memories of Belfast and the shows I played there. I remember on one occasion, towards the end of the Troubles, it had been a particularly difficult time with a lot of shootings and killings. Everyone was lying low in town.

"Then we steamed in on our tour bus to play the King's Hall, the American band hiding on the floor because they were terrified. But it turned out to be an amazing night, with everyone singing the songs back at us. There was a real spirit of Belfast that night and I've never forgotten it."

A stand-out memory for Sayer was when he bumped into the late snooker legend and notorious hell-raiser, Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins in Belfast one night and ended up partying with him.

"Alex was a great Belfast man, a real individualist who had a big heart, but his insecurity and shyness led him to get drunk all the time. And that was the problem. Either you saw this warm, lovely side to him, or else you saw the verbal fisticuffs.

"During that evening, we did actually hit a snooker room and though he could barely stand up, you could see the real beauty of his talent. He ended up spending the night on the floor in my hotel. It was pretty crazy."

From baby boy to Big Brother

  • Gerard Hugh Sayer was born in Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex on May 21, 1948
  • He was originally managed by former rock'n'roll pioneer Adam Faith, although their relationship ended with Sayer suing Faith for financial mismanagement. The matter was eventually settled out of court in 1992
  • There was a further legal battle a few years later, when Sayer successfully fought his former record label to regain control of his recordings
  •  His voice appeared on DJ Meck's No 1 single in 2006 - a remix of Sayer's 1977 hit Thunder In My Heart
  •  He appeared on the fifth series of Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, which saw him become embroiled in a row with Big Brother over clean underwear and escape from the compound after breaking a two-way mirror with a brush
  •  Leo Sayer's new album Restless Years will be released on August 28

Belfast Telegraph

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