Joe McElderry: How I perform now is very different to five years ago
Some X Factor winners find that commercial success can be elusive, but 2009 victor Joe McElderry, who plays Belfast and Londonderry this weekend, tells Simon Fallaha he's happy with how it's worked out.
Joe McElderry looks fairly cheery and chirpy when we meet in Belfast's Ramada Encore Hotel. Perhaps their tea has planted an extra spring in his step. Perhaps the arty surroundings of the Cathedral Quarter have rubbed off on him. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the South Shields-born singer, songwriter and model still has the X Factor.
He's here to promote his current tour's impending arrival in Northern Ireland, which will see him perform at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, and Londonderry's Millennium Forum this Sunday and Monday respectively. And it's clear he's really looking forward to it.
"I love it here," says the 23-year-old in his Geordie brogue. "When people meet you, everybody's, like, 'Hello', 'It's so nice to meet you', 'Congratulations' and so on. There's a really positive desire to do or be part of something in the arts."
It took time for a positive artistic desire to seep into this young man's psyche, however. Raised in a small Tyneside flat by his mother after his parents' separation, Joe initially had his heart set on the medical profession.
"I was really interested in everything hospital-related, in becoming either a paramedic or a nurse," he says. "And then, when I was about 14, I started to get a passion for singing. I realised I wasn't quite academically bright enough to do medicine, so I decided I'd stick with the creative side of things instead."
To Joe, his coastal home was, and still is, full of community spirit, which played its part in developing the stage presence of someone who felt no confidence in performing in front of anyone until his mid-to-late teens. The town was also not short on performing arts venues.
"There were many karaoke nights and amateur theatre spaces in South Shields," says Joe. "And I used to work in a theatre restaurant. So I was always around the arts, always on the outside looking in at something to do with performance. But I never made the commitment and decided I was going to do it as a job until later on."
His Northern Ireland shows fall in the midst of his new Evolution Tour. Having started, perhaps unsurprisingly, in his home town's Custom House on February 21, he is set to visit numerous locations in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland over the course of 2015. The tour's mission statement is to show how Joe has changed, or rather, evolved as a performer over the years, and features several markedly different aspects of the musical scale, a mixture of material from classical tunes, to famous pop songs, to Joe's own songwriting. "It's like giving my life story to people through music, letting everyone experience my journey in performance," says Joe.
"There's a massive difference in how I perform now to how I would have performed five years ago. And my audience are really hyper, passionate and excited about the whole thing.
"Watching them, I see that they're really enjoying it with me in the moment, and I find that really refreshing. It's a real boost to both me and the stage crew during performances."
Of course, it was The X Factor that originally set Joe on an upward trajectory toward national stardom, under the stewardship of his mentor and fellow Geordie, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini. "I really enjoyed being mentored by Cheryl, she's great," Joe says. "We got on very well, and the fact that we're both from the same area made it a really special working relationship."
Joe triumphed in 2009, defeating Olly Murs with his take on Miley Cyrus' The Climb, which almost but didn't quite knock Rage Against The Machine off the Number One spot at Christmas.
But, I wonder, has winning the competition really been all that of a big deal for Joe, as sometimes the losers become equally as well-known, if not more so, than the victors.
"Yeah, I think that at the end of the day, there's far too much emphasis on who does well and who doesn't," he says. "But The X Factor experience is a platform, and how much you get out of it depends on how well you use it.
"I used the platform. I work really hard, and I am lucky enough to have a really loyal fan-base. That is literally it. There's no other recipe. If you put in the required effort and have a large group of people that are eager and willing to support you, you can't go wrong. For without the fans turning up at your shows and buying your records, it won't matter how much you want it; you won't get it."
And what of Simon Cowell? What's the high-trousered one on the judging panel really like behind his wisecracking, blunt and controversial nature?
"He's exactly how he looks on TV," laughs Joe. "Everyone thinks that he's totally different when not on screen, but he's exactly the same. I'm very thankful to him, too, for giving me the massive opportunity of being in the spotlight on the show and for signing me to his record label for my first album."
After winning, Joe went on to release a remarkable four albums in two years: Wide Awake; Classic; Classic Christmas; and Here's What I Believe. It's something he puts down to making the most of the situation, a way of capitalising on doing really well at that particular moment in time. He also realised, however, that he needed to take a bit of a breather and go live as a performer. Cue touring.
"Being a recording artist and performing live are very different, because you can almost create something in a studio, yet it won't fully work if you can't also do it on stage and enjoy it as a live performer," he says. "So I wanted to get out there, go on the road and enjoy the experience of playing with a live band in front of an audience. Now that I've done that, it will be a huge part of my career for however long it lasts. And now I'm ready to get back to work on an album again. It will probably be released after the summer."
The X Factor isn't the only reality show Joe has starred in. In fact, Joe has become something of a reality show specialist, winning Popstar To Operastar in 2011 and winter sports show The Jump in 2014. It is The Jump experience that Joe recalls most most fondly. "When people see you in that environment, they see a completely different side to your personality. It's quite exciting."
Meanwhile, the issue of being gay in such a media-driven universe has actually never remotely been an "issue" at all to Joe, who came out in 2010.
"The best way to look at the whole thing, for me, is to not think of your personal life as a serious issue, or to not treat it as one," Joe says. "I'm not ashamed of who I am, nor am I ashamed to talk about it. I just try to not pay it any attention and concentrate on enjoying my life and making people happy. Nobody asks how difficult it is to be straight, so why should one's sexual orientation even be a problem?"
As well as singing, touring, recording and appearing in panto, among other things, Joe has his heart set on helping young people to succeed in the music industry. He believes, as no doubt many here do, that it is a tough world to both thrive in and learn from, adding that the only way one can really learn in music is by trial and error; by making mistakes. To him, there is no "rule book"; what may work for someone may not work for another, and vice-versa.
"I actually think music's different to any other job, because in other jobs you know the format of what you're doing, whereas in music, particularly performance, everything is an opinion," Joe says. "Everyone's view of what you do is different, so I would like to believe that I can help people in a way by assuring them that if they do slip up, it's not the end. It's all about taking the rough with the smooth - with no risks, you won't get far in life."
- Joe McElderry performs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on Sunday (www.goh.co.uk) and the Millennium Forum, Londonderry, on Monday (www.millenniumforum.co.uk)
When X doesn't always mark the spot
- Is The X Factor always the ticket to stardom it seems to be? Fortunes have certainly been mixed for some victors...
- Steve Brookstein - he was the X Factor's first ever champion, in 2004, but a Number One debut was as good as it got for the jazz and soul man, who later became involved in a public feud with Simon Cowell and the show itself
- Leona Lewis - a star was born in the 2006 winner, the best selling act to have emerged from the show to date. She has recorded the theme for smash hit film Avatar, twice toured the world and is currently working on her fifth solo album
- Alexandra Burke - tipped to follow in Leona's footsteps, it hasn't exactly worked out the same way for the 2008 winner. But she's still had numerous hits, toured with Beyonce and starred in West End musical The Bodyguard
- Matt Cardle - the 2010 champion has enjoyed moderate chart success and duetted with former Spice Girl Mel C, despite parting ways with Syco/Sony three years ago. In 2014 he performed at Portadown's Got Talent