The title of Robbie Williams’ latest record,Take The Crown, reflects the mood in which it was recorded and his state of mind as he awaits its unveiling. There may sometimes have been moments in recent years when he may have seemed ambivalent about what it was to be the pop star Robbie Williams. Perhaps, he suggests, that even had its effect on the music he made. No more. “The album is called Take The Crown because I want to fight,” he says. “I want to fight anybody that wants to come in my way in the pop kingdom. I want to retain the crown that I once had. Still may have. I want to communicate to people that I love this job and I’ll fight for it.”
All the unprecedented triumphs over the first twenty years of Robbie Williams’ career – celebrated in 2010 by the expansive collection In And Out Of Consciousness – are well-known. After some early teenage feats and frustrations in a boy band, Take That, there followed a solo career littered with record-breaking achievements, punctuated by tours and one-off concerts that cemented his reputation as the live performer of his generation, and anchored by a remarkable imperial stretch of solo albums: Life Thru A Lens (1997), I’ve Been Expecting You (1998), Sing When You’re Winning (2000), Swing When You’re Winning (2001), Escapology (2002), Intensive Care (2005), Rudebox (2006) and Reality Killed The Video Star (2009). Then, in the unlikeliest of moves, he temporarily rejoined Take That for their Progress album (2010) and tour (2011), a further triumph. (The tour was the biggest ever in British history). And it was that which primed him for where he would go next. “It was hugely successful on every front – critically, commercially, spiritually, financially, everything was amazing,” reflects Robbie. “It was the break that I needed to reconfigure myself and be enthused again. After the Take That reunion I wanted to come back with a massive solo album.”
Even when he has taken time off to oversee other projects – the recent launch of his first menswear range Farrell, for instance, or his annual charity tournament Soccer Aid – Robbie never stops writing songs, one of the constants of his adult life. For this new album he would decide to use two from the many gathered from his fruitful rejuvenated partnership with Gary Barlow (“Candy” and “Different”). But the album’s core would be the product of blessed happenstance, and a newer association. Robbie has a long history of finding collaborators, and fresh creative energy, in unlikely places, and it was one that continued last year when he invited up to his Los Angeles home two unknown young Australian musicians and songwriters, Tim Metcalfe and Flynn Francis, who his rapper brother-in-law had met in a Los Angeles bar. When Robbie proposed that he and the two Australians try writing together, he never expected what would happen next. The songs just flowed out. “Song after song after song after song,” he says.
Take The Crown was recorded in Jacknife Lee’s garage studio in Topanga Canyon, just north of Los Angeles, an atmosphere Robbie relished as less formal and intimidating than a normal recording studio. The impressive cast of musicians included Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, Band Of Horses guitarist Blake Mills drummer Bill Rieflin (who played with R.E.M. for their last eight years), bass player Justin Meldal-Johnson (Beck, Air, M83), orchestrator Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys) and, on backing vocals, Barbara Gruska from Los Angeles’ brother-sister group the Belle Brigade who also wrote the album’s one cover version, “Losers”, on which Robbie duets with the American solo artist Lissie.
“I’m singing to the audience that has been with me for over twenty years going: ‘I still want this, I still want to be that beautiful thing that I thought would happen when I was 14, 15, 16. I got to be it, and I still want to be it, and I still want you to come with me’. And fortunately they have, and fortunately I’ll have an audience to sing it to, and I’m really looking forward to that.”