Mark Owen is an implausibly nice bloke. Emerging from a room at his press company offices where he’s been holed up in another interview, and dressed in the sort of multi-coloured woolly jumper and hat that only a pop star could get away with, he’s about to walk past when he spies me sitting on the sofa and asks in his broad Mancunian twang, “Are you interviewing me next? Hi, I’m Mahhhk.”
Five minutes later and we’re standing on a balcony facing the backs of buildings and the perpetual construction work that goes on in Central London. Why? Well, Mr Owen fancied a fag and it seems that pop stars, even those who used to be in the most influential boy band this country has ever seen, have to follow the rule of no smoking indoors…
After he’s checked that I’m not too cold (ah, bless), and after acknowledging the unorthodox nature of the interview area (“So here we are, stood on a balcony in the middle of London town, on Tottenham Court Road, looking at a crane and, er, yeah, it’s great in’t it?!”), we’re ready to go. Given that his debut album, Green Man, came out in 1996 and that he pretty much disappeared until winning Celebrity Big Brother in 2002, what the heck was he up to for all those years?
“I was writing songs. I always say I’ve got the most B-sides in the world. I went through a phase after the Green Man album of prog rock where I went into the studio and I thought I could do it all myself and I found out that really… I couldn’t.”
“I came out with all these 12-minute, weird, no-chorus songs where there was a vocal on 6 mins 30 seconds that went, “Hello.” It wasn’t really much use for the guy who’d come from Take That.”
“Shortly after that I got dropped by my record company at the time, so I built a studio at home and tried to get a deal through other means. I always wanted to make a record but it just wasn’t ready to be made.”
The record in question is In Your Own Time, an ironically-titled set of guitar-based pop songs that will appeal to anyone with an ear for good melodies, an eye for witty lyrics and, most importantly, a mind that is open enough to give it a chance. So was he writing songs throughout the Take That period? We thought that Gary Barlow wrote all the songs.
“It was probably about three years into Take That that I first started to write tracks. I bought my first keyboard off Gary – Gary Williams.”
Gary who? We didn’t know Mr Barlow had married Robbie Williams…
At this point, he falls about laughing.
“Gary Williams?! Do you know him?! He’s a breed of them both!”
We won’t linger on such a scary thought. Pray, continue…
“I bought my first keyboard off… Gary Williams.”
– Mark Owen gets his ex- bandmates, Mr Barlow and Robbie, mixed-up.
“Gaz sold me an 01 keyboard, so I started to learn basic chords on that and then started trying to write melodies over them. Towards the end of Take That my writing started to get a little bit better. And then on the last couple of albums there were a couple of co-writes with Gary, and Gary and Rob, and Gary and Howard, that I was involved with. But really, I properly got into writing when the band was closing up, coming to an end. That’s when I really started to take it a bit more seriously.”
It’s clear from his excitement when talking about it that he now LOVES writing songs. So was it was one of the most positive things for him that came from the split-up of Take That?
“Yeah, I suppose so… It was something that I never really realised I could do… Some people might say I can’t!”
“I’m pleased that I bought that keyboard off him, although he charged me a bit too much for it (!). I’m pleased that I took that step. I’ve had many many days and nights in my studio that have been great days since learning how to write songs, where you can experiment and try things out. So, yeah. If I didn’t learn how to write any songs… then I wouldn’t be here now and I’m pleased to be here now.”
Another place that Mark was patently pleased to be was onstage with Robbie at his Knebworth concert earlier this year when they performed a rocked-up version of the Take That classic, Back For Good. His face lights up as he explains how it came about.
“I’m really glad I did it. I’m grateful that he gave me the opportunity.”
– Mark Owen on that Knebworth appearance with Robbie.
“I went round to Rob’s and played him some of the tracks from my new record and we had a nice evening. And then, as I was leaving, when you’ve got pop star mates you try and blag some tickets don’t you, so I said, “Anyway mate, I’ve heard you’re playing Knebworth in a few weeks. Any chance of me and couple of mates coming down and watching it.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, no problem.” And then the next day he said, “You know, if you’re coming down, d’you fancy doing some kind of singing with us, like, getting up on stage.” And I was like, “Ooh my…,” and I cacked my pants.”
“But I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be up for it. If you want me to, yeah I’ll do it.” But then the story broke so we thought if it’s not going to be a surprise then there’s not really much point in doing it. But then the story kind of went away again and then when I turned up on that Sunday he said, “Yeah, it feels right, let’s do it.” So we had a little rehearsal backstage with his guitarist and made sure we knew the words. And then did it.”
“I’m glad it happened that way ’cause I probably wouldn’t have turned up if I knew… I would have seen the crowd and thought, “Nah, forget it.” It was nice being back up on stage with him, and it was a great crowd, and a really good day as well. They had great support acts on there. The Darkness and stuff were playing. It was a really hot day, a nice day with good catering (!). And I got up on stage and had a great time for a few minutes and buggered off. But I’m really glad I did it. I’m grateful that he gave me the opportunity.”
“I’d love us all to sit down and write an album together even if it never got heard.”
– Mark Owen reveals what it would take for Take That to rise again.
All of this begs the rather obvious question of whether he can foresee a day when the five members of Take That will be up onstage singing together again, even if it’s not a full-time reformation. Well, Mark? The world wants to know…
“Erm, no… I don’t know. My immediate reaction would be no, probably not. But, if you’d asked me a year ago, “Will you have an album out in a year?” I’d have said, “Probably not,” so it’s really difficult to know. Time sometimes takes its course. Maybe one day something might happen. At this moment in time I’d say no but in five years’ time – who knows?”
And then, unprompted, he reveals what would really make the difference for him in terms of Take That getting back together:
“My biggest regret about us as a band is that we never wrote an album together, with all of us actually sat in a studio. Gary pretty much wrote all the bits and now and again we chipped in. I’d love us all to sit down and write an album together even if it never got heard. I think it’d be quite good fun for us to do. But I don’t know if it ever will.”
There’s not a trace of bitterness in his voice, just a winsome longing for what might have been and what could be. Still, you can’t keep a nice man down and upon being asked a final question, his chipper demeanour returns.
“The proudest moment of my career? Erm, I think maybe it would be seeing the new record on the shelf… It’s taken a long time and it’s not always been easy and I think to know that I’ve finally got there… There are 13 songs on there that are my songs and that’s good. So I’m proud of that.”
And he’s got every right to be…