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Ronan Keating on imminent fatherhood, duets that didn’t work out and why he thinks Louis Walsh was bitter

With his new album about to be released, the former Boyzone singer spoke to Donal Lynch about imminent fatherhood, duets that didn’t work out and why he thinks Louis Walsh was bitter

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Ronan Keating

Ronan Keating

Ronan Keating and wife Storm

Ronan Keating and wife Storm

Ronan Keating

It's the day after Ronan Keating's 43rd birthday and in the dappled gloom of a private club, the singer is still celebrating with a large glass of red wine. His elfin features break into a huge smile as he recalls the night before: a dinner with his wife Storm, daughter Missy and assorted friends, who presented him with a huge cake at a restaurant in London's Soho.

"When you're young you almost doubt you'll make it this far; even 40 sounded ancient to me when I was in my 20s," he says. "But there's so much about to happen, getting to this stage of life, it feels like a new chapter, a beginning."

And he has a lot going on. He has a new album coming out, which he says is a collaborative effort, featuring duets with "some major international stars" (it was subsequently announced that these include Robbie Williams, Ed Sheeran and Shania Twain). He's also about to become a father again, a girl who is due in four weeks. "We're very excited," he says. "We can't wait. During Storm's first three months, she had quite bad morning sickness, but she's over that now. She's so tired and I keep telling her to take time and chill out, but she just doesn't stop, you can't tell that woman to slow down."

Ronan is also father to Jack (20), Missy (18) and Ali (14) from his first marriage to Yvonne Connolly, which ended in 2015. He and Storm's first child, Cooper, was born in 2017, two years after they tied the knot. She recently joked that the size of their combined brood meant that it was time to have 'the snip', but he says that the way that the younger and older kids have bonded has whetted his appetite to become a dad again.

When my mum saw me going off all of the time to rehearse with the boys in the early days she was worried I was joining a religious cult

"The way they all get on so well together it just makes my heart burst. Cooper just looks up to them so much. They have a great relationship, that's the best part of it for me."

Ronan has been a solo artist for 20 years, and looking back on it, he says it's been a mixture of great triumphs and some difficult moments. "My career was much more than I thought it would be to begin with. When You Say Nothing At All was massive… it must be what Ed Sheeran and Adele feel now because in literally every country it was top of the billboard charts. Everywhere I went I was on a high. Then with Life Is a Rollercoaster I hit it again. And then all of a sudden things didn't work out as well. That was hard because I was so used to success at that stage. When you've worked on an album for a long time and it doesn't go well, it can be a wake-up call. You can get deflated, and for sure it hurts, but you get over it. Thank God I'm alright now, but I can't deny there have been serious peaks and troughs."

The new album will feature a number of notable duets; during the peak years of his solo career he says he turned down collaborations with a number of artists who he felt "weren't really on my wavelength".

Yet there was also a sizeable contingent who felt Keating wasn't on their wavelength. Last year Sinead O'Connor gave an interview in which she said that over her long career Ronan was the one would-be collaborator who was given the elbow because, she "couldn't breathe" when she heard him singing with an American accent. She added: "I think I really, really upset him, which is not what I meant to do."

"I've never asked to sing with Sinead O'Connor," Ronan says when I mention it now. "I love her, she has the most beautiful voice and Nothing Compares 2 U is one of the most iconic Irish records ever. But I don't know a lot about the girl."

Ronan and Sinead could at least agree on one thing: their mutual dislike of Louis Walsh. "He was bitter," Ronan says when his name comes up. "Someone like Louis, he's been so successful and made so much money, he should be embracing everything about music that comes out of this country."

He acknowledges Walsh's pivotal role in his early career, as the svengali who gave Boyzone their start. Ronan was 16 when he spotted an ad in the Dublin-based newspaper, the Evening Herald, for auditions for an Irish version of Take That. He sang the old Cat Stevens hit Father and Son at the audition and impressed instantly.

"Boyzone happened because of Louis Walsh, he was fundamentally the reason we got our start," Ronan recalls. "Shane Lynch and another lad came to him and said 'we want to start a boyband' but it was Louis's ability to spin things that got us on The Late Late Show and on the Smash Hits Tour and all of the breaks we got in the early days. After that it was all down to us and what we did individually."

As he to-and fro-ed from rehearsals for Boyzone, Ronan's late mother Marie became suspicious, he explains. "When she saw me going off all of the time to rehearse with the boys in the early days she was worried I was joining a religious cult. She was extremely religious, a very Catholic woman. I said to her 'don't worry Mam we're in a boyband and hopefully you'll hear all about us very soon'."

And sure enough, she would. The group had their debut on The Late Late Show, where they gyrated and mimed frenetically in a much-mocked dance routine, to which Shane Lynch took grave exception when Ryan Tubridy replayed it during Boyzone's reunion two years ago.

"I don't give a f***," he told the host, who was gamely trying to humour him.

"I love Shanno (Lynch) so much and I'll always back him up," Keating says, smiling, when I bring it up. "The background is important there. Shanno's flight had been delayed and he'd missed the first song. So he'd just sat down on the sofa and they sort of caught him at the wrong time. But it was the place where that performance had happened and so I can understand why they felt that they had to show it. But it was not the right time."

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Ronan Keating and wife Storm

Ronan Keating and wife Storm

Ronan Keating and wife Storm

The differing reactions seem to underline the wildly varied images of Lynch and Keating. The former was the bad boy of the group, whereas Ronan was seen as the squeaky-clean prince of pop. After he joined the band a reporter asked him if he was still a virgin and he answered honestly that he was. And yet he says the perception that he was in bed early every night wasn't accurate either.

"In the early years I was still in my teens and we weren't chaperoned as such, but Mark (Plunkett), the tour manager, looked after all of us. We weren't saints, we were normal lads at that age. Rock stars at festivals were trying to keep up with us."

Boyzone's music wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but it was phenomenally successful. They had six UK number one singles and sold 25 million records, and Keating's image graced the walls of an entire generation of teenage girls' bedrooms. But, Ronan concedes, critics were on to something when they alleged that the sound the group produced was not always exactly live. "We did mime a lot during the early days but it was our tour manager who said 'you have to set yourself apart from others'. Theatres are the best venues to play and you couldn't mime in those."

People had this idea that I was calculating but people who know me will tell you that I'm not calculating at all

In 1998 when the group were at the height of their success, Marie Keating passed away after a battle with cancer. "That was very tough," Ronan says. "She was still a young woman. It probably had a bigger impact on my life than anything else because you go through these milestones, such as having kids, and you do wish that she was there to see them. But going through the grief of that was a huge growing-up process. I set up a foundation in her memory."

Unlike other boybands Boyzone always seemed to be genuinely good friends and when tragedy struck again, with the death of Stephen Gately in 2009, the group, as Keating knew it, was finished. "2007 to '09 were the best years in the band but of course we had no idea what was coming. When Stephen passed, for me that was the end of the band. It never felt the same again. We all grieved for him, we all had our times when we broke down." The group released an album, dedicated to Gately, the following year, but their live performances became more intermittent as Keating's solo career took off.

As he rattles off his biggest hits, you realise that while they haven't endured like other classics, they did tattoo themselves onto the brain like few other songs of the era. For the rest of the evening after our conversation I'm reflexively humming Let the Reason Be Love.

Love was something that propelled Keating into the headlines for much of his career. He dismissively waves his hand when I ask if he ever felt he got a hard time from the press - "I don't give much thought to that" - but his personal life was a fairly constant source of press scrutiny. In the same year his mother died he married Yvonne Connolly, but they parted ways after 17 years when it was revealed he had been unfaithful with a backing dancer, Francine Cornell. It was some time after that when his relationship with Storm began.

"Regardless of what I say people will make their own minds up," Ronan says. "People had this idea that I was calculating but people who know me will tell you that I'm not calculating at all. Things just happened as they did."

He says he knew he loved Storm early on. "It was when we really got to spend time with each other that I really knew I was in love with her. The first year it was X-Factor, so it was the time after that when we really became close. She is an incredible person. She is so passionate and helps me in so many different ways. She's a great sounding-board for me. I lean on her. We don't have nannies or any of that."

He's been in therapy at various times over the years, he says. "It's so important to talk, you can't bottle stuff up. I did therapy in periods when I needed it. It's really important that people talk to someone if they need to."

The doyenne of press interviewers, Lynn Barber, once said that one of the best questions to ask any star is what their friends tease them about, as this tends to give a glimpse behind the practised PR spiel. Keating's friends' barbs tend to centre on his pretensions at youth and coolness, he says. "Sometimes even now I'll wear an earring," he says. "And when I have it in around them they'll say 'oh here he comes, he thinks he's still a pop star'. Or if I'm wearing my Air Jordans they'll say 'ah here, he thinks he's 19 again'."

Which he assures me he doesn't. But still, one imagines that being a former boyband heart-throb might make the ageing process a bit more difficult to reconcile with. He says that, in fact, he welcomes the (by the looks of it, very few) wrinkles that have come.

"I notice now that I have to train harder and eat better. Your metabolism slows down as you get older, that's just a fact. But it's also a great focus for me. I love being fit and getting in the gym. I don't mind ageing. I hope it doesn't sound big-headed, but I think I look better now than I did when I was starting out. I've had a very privileged life, I've had some great adventures and I've gotten to perform with some incredible people. And, at this age in my life, I'm very comfortable in my own skin."

Ronan Keating's new album, Twenty Twenty, is released by Decca Records and goes on sale April 24

Boys to men: three former stars who endured

Robbie Williams

Noel Gallagher once called him "the fat dancer from Take That" and there was little in Williams' vocal contribution to the boy band to suggest that a glittering solo career was awaiting him. But when he went solo, he quickly racked up a string of number one hits. Williams had the advantage of providing a compelling press narrative, full of breakdowns, drugs and mini-comebacks. In the UK, he is the bestselling solo artist of all time; 11 of his 12 albums have gone to number one there.

Justin Timberlake

It took a long time for the alumni of Disney's Mickey Mouse club to scrub clean its wholesome image. For Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera this was achieved by sexy video makeovers; Timberlake's journey to manhood took in membership of a boy band (NSYNC) in which he quickly established himself as the real star and graced the walls of a generation of teenage girls. A hugely successful solo career followed. Twelve Grammys and millions of records later, he can be said to have survived both a boyband and Britney; no mean feat.

Mark Feehily

It was said that every boyband had its gay one; NSYNC had Lance Bass, Blue had Duncan James and Wham! had George Michael. Westlife, when they first emerged, appeared to have corrected the mistakes of previous Louis Walsh efforts: all could sing, all looked good and they continued the tradition of having at least one Friend of Dorothy in the line-up. Feehily also had an epic set of pipes on him, taking the lead vocals in many of the Westies' biggest hits and holding his own in a collaboration with Mariah Carey. After the group split, Feehily released an album of solo work, and was named as one of the most influential LGBT individuals in the UK.

Belfast Telegraph