Leo Sayer: 'I reinvented myself out in Australia'
In 2005, Leo Sayer relocated to rural Australia in a bid to rediscover his love for music. Now 12 years on, he tells Joe Nerssessian how the move has given him freedom and a sense of motivation that he last enjoyed in the 70s.
As he poses for a series of press photos outside the BBC in central London, an energetic Leo Sayer queries with a high-pitched twang: "So you're a Nikon guy eh."
The quick snaps were supposed to last just a minute or two but the delay is no fault of the photographer who listens intently to the bubbly hitmaker.
Eventually pulled away by his publicist, Sayer's trademark afro bounces as he re-enters Wogan House, briefly stopping for a selfie with a fan and a joke with the building's security guard.
This peppiness can normally be expected of Sayer, but comes as a slight surprise as he is not long off the plane from South Africa, where he played a series of concerts in Johannesburg, the first time he has performed there in 30 years.
And it is even longer since he enjoyed the pinnacle of a career glittered with star stories.
Four decades have passed from when he achieved two consecutive US number ones with the Grammy-award winning You Make Me Feel Like Dancing and When I Need You (also his first UK chart-topper).
After struggling through some financial difficulties with management and his old label in the years that followed, he began to struggle for work in the mid-noughties.
Prompted by a request to appear on a tribute show wearing a wig, he upped sticks and moved to Australia, a decision he believes reinvigorated his song writing and drive for music.
"Leaving England at 55 was a real kick in the pants, it was a real challenge and I think you need those challenges," he says over a mug of green tea.
"Everybody who moves to Australia has reinvented their lives.
"Health wise I feel great, I feel physically better, I feel younger," he adds, sweeping a hand through his hair with a squeal of laughter, "I would've gone to seed if I'd stayed here. Most of this would have dropped out."
He delights in talking about life in his "Midsomer Murders-like" village of 400 where "everyone knows everyone's business" and he and fellow celebrity, Australian-Scottish musician Jimmy Barnes, are the talk of the town.
"You walk over to the post office to collect your mail and post-mistress Kathy knows everything", he jokes fondly, before adopting an unintelligible accent, "Ooh did you hear what Jimmy and Leo got up to the other day?". But the move was never meant to be a retirement plan. A studio has been constructed in his barn and a follow-up to 2015's Restless Years is on its way, with the working title Selfie. Sayer is playing everything on the record and the freedom to create without interference is how he likes it these days.
"No one is telling me what to do, it's a lovely position I'm in. Nobody is coming up with ideas, only me. If people suggest things I just run away," he chuckles.
"When I got to 55, I'd go for a record deal and they'd say 'we can't help you Leo, you've had your time.'
"But I would have new material and they would say 'nah we need something different'. And they had all these new artists but some of them have failed and had their careers almost.
"They have come and disappeared and here I am still going, isn't that weird?"
Slightly bizarrely, as their last album enjoyed critical and commercial success across the world, he adds: "Where are the Arctic Monkeys now? Please."
Although he's excited to be back in the UK and will celebrate his 69th birthday later this month during a countrywide tour which includes stops in Bromley, Exeter and Birmingham, he feels like a tourist and is a lot more motivated in Australia.
"In some ways I have bad memories of the UK where I got ripped off and some of that pushed me towards leaving but really I just realised I work better when I'm in exile.
"The records I made when I was in America in the 70s when I lived there were fantastic. I found myself being really pushed to work but if I'm in the UK I get lazy.
"I've got to be a long way away to work well. That's what inspires me in Australia. I have to earn my keep."
One high profile return from Down Under included an infamous appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007. Its arrival in the conversation draws Sayer's sole expletive during the 45-minute chat.
"Reality TV? No f*****g way. I was really set up on Big Brother, it was awful," he says.
He was recently forced to relive a the clip of him busting down the show's set with a broom before shouting at a Channel 4 producer to let him leave.
"They played the whole tape and I thought I'd be embarrassed but actually I didn't sound too bad. I was swearing like mad and really dissing the programme."
The only positive from the experience was forming a friendship with Russell Brand, then the host of CBB's Bit On The Side and, in an intriguing twist, he also counts Julian Assange as a pal. He plans to visit the WikiLeaks founder, who is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, during his stay in London. They met accidentally.
Sayer stumbled into a lecture Assange was giving in Denmark several years ago. A tale which makes sense given the singer's child-like intrigue and energy which shows no sign of leaving him just over a year from his 70th birthday.
"I make friends everywhere. Just before I left South Africa all the staff at the hotel wanted a group photo. They implored the manager to let everyone take a moment off. They all gathered in this great room and we had a picture," he recalls with boyish glee, "They said 'we've never had a guest like you'. I don't know why."
As his publicist brings the conversation to an end, informing Sayer he is due on air with a Tyneside-based radio station, he leaps to his feet, offers a bear hug and grabs the phone, bellowing "Hello Newcastle", before she can finish the sentence with the words, "They're on the other line."
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