“It’s one of our best albums and definitely our most personal album” - Westlife talk about reuniting, processing grief, importance of positivity and a new outlook

Westlife - the UKs biggest-selling album group of the 21st century - are back with a new album and they’re set to embark on a tour in 2022 that will see them return to Sheffield’s Utilita Arena for the 38th time. I spent a little time speaking with Nicky Byrne and Shane Filan about the newly released Wild Dreams.

Monday, 13th December 2021, 10:28 am

Nicky spoke about their return and an unconventional approach to recording an album at home. “We’re genuinely, and I don’t know if you can hear it in my voice”, it was obvious, “we’re so looking forward to this tour”, and who wouldn’t be. Almost eight years after they originally called it a day, they got back together going on a record-breaking reunion tour back in 2019… performing to 600,000 fans in 27 countries.” Pretty successful then, but then the world came to a shuddering halt, as we all know.

Nicky though, as cognisant of its impact as he is, is keen to put a positive perspective on things. “This is a bit like a reunion tour within itself, especially coming three years later. But you know what, we’re absolutely buzzing. The memories we all have, whether it’s Sheffield, London, Dublin or Glasgow, people really enjoyed it, we loved it, and then you throw in a lockdown and pandemic…”

I asked how he found the experience of recording an album during the various lockdown periods, “it was difficult, just like anybody would say. The first lockdown was a time when we took a bit of a break, we’d only just completed 70-plus shows worldwide on the reunion tour. It was this sense of achievement, we were at home and planning the next steps, and then Covid hit”.

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“The first few weeks and months it was ok, I have a young family so we were dealing with that. Homeschooling, which was challenging but we were getting through it. But then… as things went on we began to think about its impact on what we do”.

“Our livelihood and business is about bringing people together and now we’re asking people to stay away, we were thinking… when will this situation come back to normal?” As elevated as their status may be in comparison to so many others, a stark reality hit home. What could they actually do in such unprecedented times?

“We decided that we’d do an album over Zoom. So, we reached out to writers and previous collaborators, and we had this portable studio that went around our houses and we recorded our vocals at home.” A pop-up studio? I ask. “Exactly, we had studio-quality mics, got some laptops and we just had to keep the kids away, stop the dogs from barking. We even had the Amazon delivery guy ringing the doorbell on one of the tracks. Everything was mad… but we got there in the end.”

Shane shared his thoughts.

Westlife.

"There were a whole bunch of different things we got to do during lockdown, we took up kayaking, and I even started playing guitar. 40-years I’d been wanting to play guitar, so I just picked it up and a year and a half later, it definitely came in handy.”

Shane found the experience of writing, recording and producing the new record very different.

“It’s been incredible, so exhilarating and such a release. You know that my mum and dad unfortunately passed away over the last couple of years, it was a tough year, emotionally for my family and me.”

“It was very different, singing, and writing songs was a great escape from everything that was going on. It brought me to a happy place. I kept my focus on that rather than focusing on what happened to my parents.”

Westlife's tour will include arena dates at Nottingham and Sheffield.

Sometimes we can forget that people in the public eye have to deal with so much while being essentially under the microscope, yet to hear how Shane not only attempted to process his feelings but also how lovingly he spoke of his parents, it’s heart wrenching. The singer’s father, Peter passed away last October from cancer, less than a year after his mother, Mae, succumbed to the same illness.

Often, when I speak to people we have these meandering conversations that touch on all sorts of topics, but rarely grief and mourning. I didn’t speak, I just listened as Shane took me on a journey through where he has been both mentally and creatively over the course of the last year and a half.

“I was just trying to celebrate them rather than focusing on the sadness, it was really… liberating. Looking back this was one of the best things I’ve ever done, for all the right reasons”, quite cathartic you could say? I add.

“Absolutely, 100% you go through so many emotions and you do go a little deeper sometimes. There are some songs on there that are totally about my mum and dad but also the love story of how my dad felt without my mother, there was only nine-months between them both passing.”

Westlife.

“Absolutely, 100% you go through so many emotions and you do go a little deeper sometimes. There are some songs on there that are totally about my mum and dad but also the love story of how my dad felt without my mother, because there was only nine-months between them both passing. And it was the first time he was without her for the first time at least in my life, so that must have been very different for him and for any parent to lose their husband or wife must be, very horrendous and I suppose in real-life you don’t quite understand how that is until you’re writing a song about how heartbroken your dad is. It was nice to do it though, we spent about four-months getting it right and we finally nailed it. So, it’s a beautiful song.

“They’ve given me everything in life and it’s just nice to have a little tribute to them. They were together for 55-years, so it was a pretty cool love story. It was just nice to do a song about it that lasts forever.”

When you think of boy bands, technically man-bands now, and their musical content especially in pop-music, you don’t often factor in dealing with grief. But this project has been an opportunity not only for the band to respond to a world where so many emotions are swirling, elements of the unknown have rocked our collective worlds simultaneously, yet Westlife have found a means as a group to channel their feelings, exposing another side to them that we wouldn’t usually associate with their output. It adds a disarming element to their output, knowing that within the lyrics are the shared memorialisation of people who have had such immeasurable impact. It’s a celebration of love in a moment of loss. Quite beautiful really.

“When I now look back at that scenario, I’m glad that I did it. A lot of the songs on there are a lot more upbeat and happier. Starlight for instance is a very hopeful song, about looking forward to the feature and not looking back, and just hoping to get the whole world back to normal after the last couple of years, which have just been horrendous”

You can’t blame them for wanting to bring some positivity to the fray. Something that Starlight sets out to achieve, and succeeds. There’s no shame in enjoying something that promotes and empowers an uplifting feeling. I think we need it.

“All these songs tell little stories, we want to uplift and as a band we really got stuck into the songs. Songwriting was more important than ever, it was a chance to say… right, what can we do? Then we realised that the songs that we were creating ourselves were better than we expected”, it was a moment where the band really felt as though their creative output spoke volumes in a way they hadn’t really broached previously in their 22-years as a group.

Westlife play Sheffield Utilita Arena in November 2022- tickets go on sale on November 5

“It’s a very proud moment as a band and it’s taken us to a new dimension as a group and it’s genuinely exciting looking forward and what we could do as a band and blah, blah, blah… you know”, hearing the insight into the process but also the amusingly self-deprecating awareness of self, without being stoic or overtly serious… It's endearing and you can’t help but respect the process, the group.

I jokingly intone that due to the remote-recording experience, perhaps they should name the album, Songs in Silos, garnering a laugh from Shane who agrees before continuing.

“Wild Dreams was the first song we’d written for the album and Mark (Feehily) was just like saying I had these crazy wild dreams, mad dreams. Maybe he was just overthinking what was going on with the world in that moment, and literally he was like I’ve got this title, Wild Dreams”

“Rami Yacoub is this amazing producer, he worked on Lady Gaga’s last album (Chromatica), he produced ‘Why You Looking Like That’ years ago for us, he’s quite modern and always ahead of the curve. We sent him a guitar demo of the song, remember I’d only been playing for around six-months so it wasn’t very good, and we asked what he thought, and he said he loved it. That was it… and it kicked us off for the album and boosted our confidence”

The album saw the band sign with Warner Music and the project as a whole saw them step outside of their comfort zone in many ways, but it was an eye-opening one as it showed them a wholly new way in which they could approach future work. Wild Dreams even features the talents of Ed Sheeran and the writing contributions of Amy Wadge, who also co-wrote the hit Thinking Out Loud.

“She’s an amazing songwriter, she wrote a lot of stuff with Ed Sheeran as well as his first EP that he ever released, called Songs I Wrote with Amy”, so it’s safe to say that not only is she really good but Westlife are delighted to be working with her.

“It’s just amazing when you’re working with someone who’s that good. She’s complimenting us and giving us confidence, and that kind of spurred us on. Once that kicked off we really knew we could go for it. It’s one of our best albums and definitely our most personal album.”

Wild Dreams has been an opportunity for the band to empathise with a world where so many emotions are swirling, elements of the unknown have rocked our collective worlds simultaneously, yet Westlife have unlocked a means to channel their feelings, sharing another side of them as artists, as people.

It adds a disarming element to their output, knowing that within the lyrics are the shared memorialisation of people who have had such immeasurable impact. It’s a celebration of love in a moment of loss.

“All these songs tell little stories, we want to uplift people and as a band we really got stuck into the songs. Songwriting was more important than ever, it was a chance to say… right, what can we do?

Westlife will be performing at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena in late November, 2022. Tickets are on sale now. Wild Dreams was released on November 26, 2021.

Westlife's tour will include arena dates at Nottingham and Sheffield.
Westlife play Sheffield Utilita Arena in November 2022- tickets go on sale on November 5