Interview: Alfie Boe on song to keep Christmas spirit alive

Alfie Boe and friend Michael Ball will be using their big voices to help lift the nation’s mood when they head out on their tour next year.

Boe was awarded an OBE in the 2019 Birthday Honours list for services to music and charity
Boe was awarded an OBE in the 2019 Birthday Honours list for services to music and charity

We’re Zooming today. Alfie Boe is on the other end of a computer screen, baseball cap perched on his head in a room that provides no clues as to his whereabouts.

We don’t normally do things this way. Traditionally, it’s a phone call and an extended chat as Boe reflects on a remarkable career that took him from being one of nine kids born in Blackpool, Lancashire, to starring in Les Miserables in the West End and on Broadway.

He’s one of the industry’s great workers, a man of prodigious talent who grew up listening to his father’s Richard Tauber records before taking a job as an apprentice mechanic and then unexpectedly being ‘discovered’ by a client who suggested he go to London to audition for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

But while the circumstances surrounding the interview change, the reason for it has not.

It’s Christmas and along with his good friend, Michael Ball, he’s looking forward to taking a sledgehammer to the album chart as he dominates the Christmas listings and shifts lorry loads of CDs.

The man who was awarded an OBE in the 2019 Birthday Honours list for services to music and charity was decking the halls with balls of holly earlier this year, as he teamed up with his charismatic friend to record Together At Christmas.

The record will be followed next year by an extensive UK tour, visiting Birmingham’s Resorts World Arena on November 29, before concluding at London’s O2 on December 19.

The record has everything you could want from a Christmas album – and more.

The pair breathe new life into favourites such as It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, Silent Night and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, to name a few.

Gregory Porter joins on The Christmas Song and the duo perform the heart-warming My Christmas Will Be Better Than Yours – a brand new, original song.

Michael says: “Me and Alfie, together at Christmas, I can’t think of anything better.

"In these strange times, we wanted to create an album of songs that we like to listen to at Christmas, plus a few surprises along the way, including an original song.

"Hopefully our fans will love listening to this for many years to come.

"This year it’s certainly going to be a Christmas we’ll never forget. Can’t wait to see you all on tour in 2021.”

Alfie adds: “Keeping the Christmas spirit alive seems more important than ever this year.

"We wanted to create a festive album that brings joy, love and happiness.

"Spreading the Christmas cheer is something we all need a little extra of during these challenging times, so however people are going to be able to spend their holiday season, we’ll be right here, Back Together At Christmas, with our fans who we are incredibly grateful for and can’t wait to see in person when we’re back for a brand new tour in 2021.”

Lancashire-born tenor Alfie Boe performing at the Gala Night of the 62nd Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, on July 13, 2008

Together at Christmas follows the phenomenal success of the duo’s previous three duet albums, their debut Together, which became the UK’s best-selling album of 2016 and beat the likes of Little Mix and The Rolling Stones to the Christmas No 1 spot.

Together Again brought the pair yet another No 1 album in 2017, while Back Together landed them the No 2 spot in the Official Albums Chart.

As a duo, they have now sold more than 1.3 million albums in the UK, received two Classic Brit Awards, sold out two headline arena tours and presented three ITV Specials.

After meeting in a production of Kismet at the London Coliseum more than 10 years ago, it is the combination of their incredible voices, instant camaraderie and loveable personalities that proves to be irresistible to countless fans across the nation.

In an exciting announcement, hailing the opening of theatres under appropriate Covid-safety restrictions, the pair are also set to return to Les Misérables: The Staged Concert in London’s West End for a very special Christmas run.

The show is on for eight weeks, from December 5, at the Sondheim Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.

Little wonder Alfie’s busy. As well as promoting his new CD with Michael Ball, he’s also been writing a solo album of self-penned songs and has the Les Misérables rehearsals to consider. So let’s crack on.

He remembers the production of Kismet – was there ever a more appropriate title, given the way things panned out for them? – as though it were yesterday.

“Me and Michael did a show together at the London Coliseum called Kismet and it was an awful show.

"It got such bad reviews but what came from it was our friendship.

"Michael invited me to join his concert at The Albert Hall and that was the first time we sang together.

"We just thought, ‘this works, you know, we sound alright’.

“A few years later we spoke about possibly getting together and doing a few concerts but that fell by the wayside.

"Then, five years, later I mentioned it to him again and I asked if he’d be interested in doing it.

"He said, ‘yes, let’s give it a shot, let’s get our management speaking and we’ll give it a shot’. But again, that was just about doing concerts, it had nothing to do with making records.”

Alfie Boe and Michael Ball gig enjoying a gig in Walcot Hall, near Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, in 2017

Then their record labels got wind of the fact that they were working together – and they wanted in, instantly.

“They decided to put an album out, so we did. And that’s the story, really. It’s gone from strength to strength.”

Their collaboration was based on a number of factors. Firstly, they got on. They became first mates. Relationships in theatreland are habitually intense and Boe and Ball simply liked one another’s company.

Secondly, they knew their voices dovetailed beautifully. Both were able to bounce off the other, reaching new heights as their partnership became greater than the sum of its parts.

“It started off technically. It started off because of the voices. But the more we got to know each other, the more we became close friends and stronger friends.

"That does nothing but feed into the music and feed into the support that we have for each other on stage.

"It’s lovely when that happens. It’s really a spontaneous and natural thing for that to happen.”

I suggest to Boe that another reason for their compatibility is that they’re opposites.

Boe is portrayed as being brooding and serious, a rock-solid bloke who tells it like it is and has a reputation for straight-talking.

Ball, in contrast, is lightness itself. A fizzy, slightly ditzy performer and radio host. He’s bubbly, effervescent and probably assumes everybody is called ‘dahhhling’.

Boe laughs at the suggestion, while acknowledging the grain of truth within.

“I won’t deny that. We are very different characters. If we had our way with this album cover, Michael would be dressed as Father Christmas and I’d be dressed as The Grinch.” We laugh.

“We’re different characters. We give each other the rap. But it’s all for show. It’s all harmless fun and banter. When we’re off stage we’re very supportive. It’s lovely.”

Their first record was Together, which received two platinum discs after selling more than 600,000 copies in the UK.

It debuted at number one before dropping down and returning to the top spot.

It gave Michael Ball his first number one since his own debut, in 1992, while the duo were also the oldest to gain the number one spot, then at 43 years (Alfie) and 54 years (Michael – but he wears a lot of make-up so looks younger) respectively.

“We didn’t expect that, no. I knew it would have an element of success but we didn’t know it would be a number one and then a Christmas Number One and that sort of thing.

"So we were fortunate. We were really happy with that and lucky. We had no idea that it would go the way it has. But it was a joy to make and it was wonderful to perform live on stage as well, our first tour was wonderful together.”

Boe enjoys the mix of live and recorded work. One is technical, the other spontaneous; one is disciplined and a quest for perfection; the other joyous and the bringer of unbridled joy.

“They couldn’t be more different. With the studio work, because you’re recording, if you make a mistake you can go back and do it again. If you need to take a break or rest, to get a certain phrase, you can take as much time as you want.

"But when it comes to live performance, if you make a mistake you have to keep trekking on and get through the show.

"If you’re feeling a bit rundown and not at full steam you have to find the energy to get through it.

"The discipline aspect of being on tour is that once a show is finished, then both of us get on the bus, eat and relax.

Boe was awarded an OBE in the 2019 Birthday Honours list for services to music and charity

"We don’t really part or go anywhere. We’re not discoing. We’re straight to bed and ready for another show.”

There’s a misnomer about performers on the road. Many imagine it’s all glitz and glamour, fancy hotels and fast cars, the adrenaline of a big crowd and the love of fans.

Some of that is true, of course, though there’s a flipside. The side that the audiences seldom see is the hard graft; the climbing onto coaches and driving through the night, the freezing cold afternoon concert halls and grouchy staff, the stress levels going through the roof as technical faults arise just as artists are about to take the stage.

Yes, it’s fun. Yes, it’s a privilege. But, goddam, it’s also exhausting.

“It’s important to just acknowledge it. We are looked after so well.

"The crew and the management that we take on the road will do anything for us if we’re feeling rundown or tired.

"I think just the inevitability of being on the road and travelling and sitting on a bus can wear you out a little bit. So if I’m close enough, during the tour, I try to get back home and have my own comforts and see my kids.

"That’s what I try to do. But normally, when we’re on the road, we just cope with it. We can’t complain.”

The audience, of course, take away any sense of frustration or tiredness. They are as much a part of the show as the performers themselves.

“This country is amazing because it’s made up of different cultures and different people.

"It’s wonderful to experience that, you know, it really is. It’s nice to play Manchester or Liverpool because that feels like home turf so I can connect more because I know the humour and the way they feel.

"And then we play Scotland and they are wild and they love it. Anybody comes up to Scotland and they are appreciative.

"And then there’s the London audience – show us what you can do and we’ll be the judge. But we love that. The O2 or the Royal Albert Hall crowds are so welcoming and warm.

"That’s the pinnacle of the tour. We usually end the tours in London.”

Playing such venues as The Royal Albert Hall provide Boe with an otherworldly experience.

He feels the weight of history and importance as he takes to the stage, treading in the footsteps of true greats.

“That building is just steeped in it. It’s soaked into the walls, the amount of incredible artists that have played there and the history that has been made there. You can’t not feel it. You have an emotional sensation flying around.”

The album dropped this week and Boe is less concerned about chart placings than his partner in arms.

“I know Michael always pushes for that. He wants that number one spot. I’m just happy that we’re getting the opportunity to even bring out an album.

"We didn’t expect it, we didn’t think it would happen, we thought it would be next year. So, given the year it has been, it’s nice to bring out an album and bring a cosiness and warmth to what’s been a rough year.

“This year we made it in August or September, so we’ve been celebrating Christmas for the last few months.”

They are, of course, national treasures. Two big name, big talent stars who have bought happiness and joy to hundreds of thousands.

As we head towards a locked down festive period, Boe and Ball are one sure fire way to find happiness this Christmas.

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