Life's silver lining for Shane Filan
Shane Filan faced the humiliation of a very public bankruptcy, but he survived and is back with a solo album
After 14 years spent belting out ballads from an arena stage, you might expect Shane Filan to have done the predictable thing when it ended; put the white suits in storage before disappearing off to a comfortable life getting paunchy and playing PlayStation. After all, by the time he and the rest of Westlife sang Flying Without Wings one last time at Croke Park, they had 12 hit albums under their belts. They'd travelled the world, serenaded millions of screaming fans.
But when Shane stepped off the stage that night in June last year, it was to face the sobering reality of total bankruptcy. He'd been in debt to the tune of €23m and had been forced through the humiliating ritual of heading to court to say he couldn't pay. All the funds he'd accrued over years with one of the world's biggest boy bands, lost in the crash.
Like a lot of people, Filan thought he'd use his savings to get into the property game and was in the process of building himself a little empire when he found himself desperately over-extended at the worst possible moment; when the market collapsed. When Westlife ended, he was broke and effectively without a job. "I remember the first couple of weeks feeling really, really weird, nervous, anxious," he says of the end of the band. "You don't have this Westlife bubble around you any more. You're literally on your own and you have to make something of yourself."
With the band, he says, "You have this security blanket. You put tickets on sale – they sell out. You put an album out and it goes to number one. Westlife was nearly that powerful. So to come out of that, and to have none of the above ... " he pauses, and laughs dryly, "you're kind of like, nothing's guaranteed. I don't have a record deal, I don't have money, I don't have songs. I don't have anything. I literally had my family and my wife and my kids."
And yet here he is, back in familiar territory – the boardroom of the swanky Universal Music offices in Kensington. It's a muggy London summer's day, but Shane's looking sharp – trim and bright-eyed the day before he turns 34; a boy no more. He's simply dressed in T-shirt and jeans, with pop-star resonances only subtly detectable in a certain careful styling of his hair, and in his one piece of bling – his diamond-studded wedding band.
Shane was always the lynchpin member of Westlife. Not one of the showboating blonds, or the breakaway maverick Brian, he was an archetypal nice-guy, mild and sweet with just enough tentative sexuality to inspire a million teenage fantasies.
His own personal narrative was textbook. While certain members of Take That and Boyzone have been regulars in the tabloids, exposing the dissonance between their romantic image and their real, messy private lives, the boys of Westlife had an almost old-world decorum. Shane got married at 24 to his childhood sweetheart who is from Sligo, like him. And they've been steadfastly together ever since.
"We did get married quite young," he says "But we started going out very young as well. I've loved her since I was very young. She was the woman I wanted to marry."
Turns out, it was a decision that was remarkably fortuitous. Because when the s*** really hit the fan, it was Gillian who carried him through. So much so that the most of his new album is written about her.
"Gillian, without a doubt, is my absolute rock," he says. "She is rare. What we have is rare. To get through Westlife and be 100 per cent solid, 100 per cent faithful to each other, I'm very proud of that. Some people think it's a bit soppy or whatever, but I am very proud of that. And very proud of the relationship we have. It's funny, that 10 years down the line I've started writing songs about it, but this is obviously my time for writing songs. I obviously wasn't meant to back then. Or maybe I wasn't able to express it."
I've been given a sample of four songs to listen to before meeting him today, and I have to admit, it's almost a relief – given how much is at stake here for Shane – that they're as good as they are. It's genuinely great pop, folky and heartfelt with great hooks and rousing choruses.
Even more surprisingly, many of the tracks have been written by him. Having been resoundingly humbled in the last few years – "let's be honest about it;" he says, "my name fairly got dragged through the mud a bit the last year on the financial scale. And it wasn't nice to read it. It's not nice to see it at all because you feel like you've let a lot of people down" – the discovery that he could write, and do it well enough to convince his label to invest the big bucks in him, was a crucial step towards restoring his pride.
Happily, the worst thing that ever happened to him fitted neatly into a pop-friendly narrative arc – with relatable and chart-worthy themes of redemption, lasting romantic love and triumph over adversity. The tropes of pop had become his real life, day-to-day experience just at the time he most needed to draw on it. That, coupled with his crystal-clear new focus, honed under the pressure of penury, made a bona-fide hit-maker out of him.
"The songs are either about life, or love," he says. "They're about my wife, or they're about my outlook on life – my optimistic outlook."
The sound is "a bit more folky than Westlife. Which I love and I feel very comfortable doing that. If you can sing it in a pub or sing it in an arena then it's a great song!"
All the time while writing, he kept in mind the importance of the immediacy of the music; the need "to be able to sing this in a bunch of 20 people and have people love it."
He seems almost surprised by how naturally he found his voice. "I'm talking about stuff that is important to me, I'm talking about life. I'm not talking about kiddie love. It's not like a boy band would go, 'I want you so bad and you're so fine' and all ... It's me just talking – having conversations and putting it into music. And writing about stuff that I wouldn't have written about when I was 24. Some of the lyrics of the songs, it was just like I was thinking it. Just like I was talking it to somebody. And you just put a piano or a guitar and suddenly you've a bit of a song. I found it easy to write the songs because I found that I was telling the truth. I was telling it like I felt it at the time."
Some of the first test vocals he recorded have ended up on the album because he felt he was in the right place emotionally on the day they were done. "I tried to resing it and I was like, it sounds the same, but it doesn't sound exactly how I felt. On (the single) All You Need to Know, the first take is what I'm going to use for the album ... I was very sad and I was very determined that day and maybe even angry, I don't know." The song is addressed to his wife and kids. I was like, "I'm going to fix this. I'm going to sort it no matter what, and you're never going to be on your own. I'm going to look after you ... And it ended up being this great love song now...It's such a proud feeling to do that. Because it is true, it's exactly how I was feeling."
"It's probably a bit like therapy," he concludes. "It's made me just feel better about everything and focus on what's important going forward."
Perhaps unusually for a pop star, he seems like a real gent; secure but not drowning in ego, and a bit of a softie too. He used to cry, he tells me, when life with the band took him away from his young family for too long.
"Many's the time I bawled my eyes out crying. I was missing Nicole at the start, because she was my first baby. I remember going away when she was one or two, and being in Sweden. It was horrific. I'd been away for nearly four weeks and it was I'm Already There, which was the Lonestar cover that we did. And I remember recording the song and the song is literally about talking to your daughter on the phone and how much you miss her and I can smell her hair and all this kind of crack, and I'm going, 'oh my God'.
"And I broke down in the studio, I literally started crying my eyes out. And the guys were like, (he puts on a Swedish accent), 'hey man are you OK?' I'm like 'yeah yeah! Just give me a minute'. It was the first time I'd been away for a long time from Nicole and I realised, this is my life, I'm going to be away from my kids a lot. And I don't like it when I'm away from them for that long."
It was sink or swim for Shane and he couldn't just give up because "at the end of the day, I financially have to start again completely. I've three young kids and a wife to support. I think it made me more determined to go... I HAVE to nail this. One way or the other. How big or how small, I don't know but I have to make this work in some way, that I have a career and I look after my kids. That's all that matters. That's what the song is about – everything to me. That's what it's about. The whole thing is I don't need anything except my three children healthy and happy, my wife healthy and happy and my marriage great. And I have all three."
Last month, his year of bankruptcy was completed. He filed in the UK where it only lasts a year, compared to our more punitive system.
It was a decision that raised a few eyebrows, though the truth is he's effectively been resident there for many years now and has paid more taxes in the UK than anywhere else. "Without a doubt it was very difficult," he says. "It was probably more difficult before the year. The last few years were very difficult. You just feel your world is crumbling. And that there's nothing you can do to stop it. It's like a cut that keeps bleeding. No plaster is going to fix it. It's not a nice feeling.
"The first six months of the year was very scary. I had no money, I had no job, I hadn't any definite future, and I'd three kids looking at me. So that was scary. And there were nights ... but once the record deal started and I started writing my songs, that's when it started looking like this might be ok. This is starting to turn. It turned after Christmas. But still, the whole way through the album it was very nerve-racking. Because it's not like I ended Westlife and I had loads of money and everything was great. It was completely the opposite to what you'd think would ever happen."
Today though, he's even prepared to consider that there might be a silver lining to all of this.
"Sometimes I feel like, all that happened for a reason. All the bad stuff happened for a reason. And I don't know why, because it's not really a nice thing to happen at all. But it's kind of like, now I'm starting to see maybe some positive stuff out of it. And maybe I wouldn't have been as determined, or maybe I wouldn't have been so focused. It's definitely made me have a stronger, more positive outlook on life."
Shane Filan is set to release his debut solo single Everything To Me on August 23, on Capitol Records.