It’s been nearly 20 years since Michael Bublé's self-titled debut album. When the world met Bublé, he was singing jazz standards, and most often described as a “crooner.” Everything about his image seemed manufactured in a lab to make you believe the 1950s and 60s had returned. And the voice. The voice! One part Frank Sinatra, one part Dean Martin, one part Bing Crosby.
With an affable presence, a big smile and a tuxedo with a carefully loosened tie, Bublé took over the world. He sold a preposterous amount of records – more than 75 million – and played sold-out stadiums the world over.
Then, in 2016, Bublé's wild ride came to a halt. His son Noah was diagnosed with liver cancer. The singer cancelled his tours and all his career plans, and turned his attention to home. He considered never returning to music again. When he did return, it was with 2018′s Love, an album that made a smaller splash compared to his previous work.
He followed that up with Higher, his 11th album, released earlier this year. From afar, it looks like an exercise in the usual Bublé playbook: He wears a suit on the album cover and he covers a smart selection from the Great American Songbook. But look closer, and you’ll see things aren’t quite the same. For instance, Bublé has a new list of collaborators, including Greg Wells, who has worked with the likes of Adele. Bublé's name lights up the songwriter credits often, and even his son Noah has a credit. Bublé is in the driver’s seat in a way he has never been before.
The B.C. native is currently on tour, promoting Higher. Just before showtime in Portland, Bublé sat down for a Zoom conversation with The Globe and Mail.
Who are ‘Michael Bublé people’?
I think there’s something for everybody. I was influenced by Black music, by soul and jazz and I know that might sound strange for people who have a certain idea or image of me. In a concert like tonight, there’s 11,000 people and 6,000 of them are seeing me for the first time. I wish that you could ask them that question, because the answer would be interesting. And it’s something that I talk about every night – I talk about how divided we are by ideology and and culture and race and sexual preferences and politics.
And at the end of the night, I see no division. Somehow there’s this great sense of connectivity which is brought together by my music.
You once described yourself as a real guy’s guy, and I love that description because that expression means something different to everybody. Here’s how you put it: ‘I think of myself as a real guy’s guy who somehow gets to wear a suit and sing love ballads.’ What does being a real guy’s guy mean?
It means that on Sunday I should be getting up and cooking breakfast for my wife and I should be taking care of the kids and maybe planning a romantic dinner, but instead I’m in my underwear watching football and screaming about my fantasy football 0-3 start, and my wife is coming in the bedroom and saying, “You cannot continue to eat potato chips at 11 in the morning, in bed, in your underwear while screaming.” I know it’s not a good thing, I guess. It is what it is. I think I was not eloquent in how I articulated that answer.
It’s weird, because I had no control over how the record company would market young Michael Bublé. And I die. Now I just look at it and I just cringe. I understand it. I understand this was the best way for them to sell whatever it was they were selling. And I also understood the people they were trying to reach wouldn’t have found it as attractive seeing me swearing about football, so they put me in a tuxedo with a rose in my hand.
A lot of planning went into that image.
Yeah, but what’s been a joy has been that the longer I’ve done it, the more I’ve been allowed to just be me. Yeah, I play a character on stage, and that’s a different guy and that’s a lot of fun for me to play. But I lost him for a while, because of what I’d been through. I started to become myopic about how I saw my life, and I became even more of me, and the dad and the husband guy.
It’s been really fun to compartmentalize those things and to get to be my two favourite people, but not to mix them up as much. One of them is James Bond man, a guy who gets on stage and he’s Teflon. He’s cool and he’s a little bit dark and funny and you know, there’s sex appeal within the room and the band and, you know, and then I get to go home and be Dork Michael Bublé, the dad and the husband.
It was a really hard thing for me to separate those two. I found it hard especially after what I’ve been through. I didn’t really want to be open about it. I wish I wouldn’t have talked about it as I look back. I wish I would have kept that completely [to myself]. I think it made it hard for me to start going back to a place where I could separate again and say, do interviews. Like when the first question is, “How’s your kids?” It’s like, “Well, good. But that’s mine.”
Right. Like you’re trying to be something different at the moment.
Right. Listen, the truth serum of how I really feel is: I feel like it’s my time. I feel like I am in a place where I have never been so good. I have never been so healthy. I have never been creatively such a badass. I am on fire.
And you know what? It’s been a rough 10 years. And then COVID came. But it’s been a lot of fun for me to find myself again and to really love what I’m doing and build a show where I walk off the stage and we all look at each other and literally go, “We’re killing it.” It feels liberating.
Maybe it takes that contrast to even become aware of how much you’re on fire. Like Garth Brooks took 10 years off to go be a dad. Now he’s like, “let’s go, it’s back on.”
Yeah, and I had to protect myself. Even last year, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Christmas album. And that’s a huge record. I’ve had every person you can imagine, every star you can probably think of and stars you would never imagine [want to collaborate for the 10th anniversary edition]. And it’s like no, I want that for me. I want Christmas for me. I want it for me and my kids. Maybe when I’m 52 or 53, I’ll say you know what, I’d love to do that again, but for now it’s time to get back to doing what I want to do.
It’s been the most fulfilling time in my life. But also the hardest time of my life, probably the hardest part of my career, because I felt like I needed to not be the nice Canadian guy.
How do you switch gears?
People know. They go “Oh, he’s a nice dude, we can do this and we can do that, and he’ll just be kind and he’ll just do it. He’ll be polite about it and he’ll do the job.” But it took me not to have to pretend to be something else. To say, “Here’s the vision I have for who I want to be, and so the answer is no. No, I’m not doing that, not singing with him and not doing that with her.”
As much as I wanted to just be kind and sweet I just wanted to make sure that I could continue to be ambitious.
You probably had a lot of resistance. Something like, ‘We will hit all the right benchmarks, all these sales goals,’ if you just do some of the things that maybe you don’t want to do, but will definitely work because they’ve worked in the past.
Yeah, but I think I realized that nothing’s the same. This business has completely changed. It is not the same. And I mean, in just five years, it isn’t the same.
You mean because of streaming?
Because of everything. I don’t think it’s just streaming. I think the world has changed. For the first time in my life, I started reading contracts. For the first time in my life, I started taking an interest in business at that level.
I spent the first 15 years sort of, you know, artistically making the decisions, but trusting that management, record company, promoters and publicists would tell me, “here’s what you’re going to do.”
Right. They’d bring the car, you’d get in the car.
Yeah. But I’m 47 years old. I just felt, “They taught me a ton, and now it’s time to start making those decisions.”
What do you think people get wrong about you?
Oh, everything. But I don’t think I can say it. I think time will just prove it.
What do you mean?
I don’t feel like I am disrespected. I don’t feel like I have some chip on my shoulder. But I saw an interview with Paul McCartney, this was maybe 15 years ago, and the journalist says “Hey, some people say that John Lennon is the true talent and you’ve just ridden his coattails.” And McCartney said, “John is amazing, so is Ringo, and so is George, and I know what I brought and I know who I am, and at some point people will know.” And guess what? The [Peter Jackson Get Back] documentary came out, and we all found out.
We all saw the work he put in.
We went “oh!” and he didn’t need to tell anybody because he was pretty confident. And what I’m trying to say is that I’m pretty confident in myself, and I have a good feeling that time will be on my side.
Like so many times, I don’t say anything. But I’ll do interviews and people will say, “Well, would you like to write your own songs too?” and I go, yup [grits teeth].
That doesn’t seem fair to you.
No, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. Tonight, I will ask the audience how many people are seeing me for the first time, and I’ll bet it’ll be 50 per cent. And they will have a preconceived notion of who I am and what they’re going to see. Twenty years since I got signed with Warner, and I’m still auditioning. And it’ll never change.
I’m going to be thrilled that there’s 10,000 happy people, but I will be playing to the one dude who looks bored and I will be trying to win him over.
This interview has been edited and condensed.