Sunday 17 December 2017

Let the reason be love: Ronan's stormy weather

On the eve of the release of his new album and as he looks to buy a house with Storm, Ronan Keating opens up to our reporter about grief, insecurity, the aftermath of his divorce, the falling out with Louis Walsh, and how he really feels about Yvonne's comments last year

Family man: Ronan Keating has a very special relationship with his three children, Missy, Jack and Ali who all get on with his new wife Storm Uechtritz.
Family man: Ronan Keating has a very special relationship with his three children, Missy, Jack and Ali who all get on with his new wife Storm Uechtritz.
Ronan and his first wife Yvonne.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The Arts Club in London's Mayfair doesn't feel like the type of place you'd be allowed throw your underwear at the stage.

One of the swankily suited waiters hovering around with trays would surely wrestle you to the ground if you attempted such a move. And besides, Ronan Keating, who's perched on a stool at the front of the room, has long since grown out of such hormonal displays of adoration. He's telling a small group of journalists about how he's matured as an artist - the old record company used to have him working with several songwriters a day in Nashville - and, with nervous glances to new wife Storm, is belting out a couple of the new numbers. In the between-song banter he says he's nervous, but the rave-reviewed recent run in the musical Once has clearly sharpened his performance chops. Even without studio technology or a wall of backing singers he is a surprisingly good singer - his voice is strong and clear throughout - and, in perhaps the ultimate sign that the boyband days are mostly past, he now plays his own guitar (although, he later tells me, he's "still insecure" about his playing). The much-maligned Elvis-inflected delivery has softened somewhat - it's now a more standard windblown Californian. But even that changes abruptly for the last song - about "tall poppy syndrome" in Ireland - which he sings in an incongruously guttural brogue. He later tells me that the number one thing that his friends slag him about is still his singing voice.

"Shifting accents can be seen as a sign of inauthenticity" - Sinead O'Connor once said that she wouldn't work with Ronan because he didn't sing in his own accent - but psychologists also say that the tendency to do it also denotes a heightened sense of empathy. And you feel that must be how Keating himself sees it; after all Storm Uechtritz, his Australian TV executive wife, has already a hint of an Irish lilt going on. They've spent much of the last year in the headlines, whether because of the breathless coverage of their romance - they were married last August - or because of the comments from his ex-wife Yvonne, who herself has moved on with cameraman John Conroy; Last year she officially reverted to her maiden name of Connolly.

Storm is the official inspiration for the new record but there can be no doubt that the Yvonne fallout is something more than a background note. She and Ronan were married from 1998 (when he was just 21) to 2011, but they parted ways when it was revealed he had been unfaithful with a backing dancer, Francine Cornell. (Yvonne later met Francine in a hotel room and was quoted as saying: "We talked for a long time. When I look back, this is what it all boils down to. It was basically two girls in love with the same boy who, over a five-hour conversation, realised that boy was not who we thought he was. The details really don't matter.")

It was sometime after that when his relationship with Storm began although he remains adamant that nothing happened with her while he was still married. "I remember the first time I saw her was on the set of (Australian) X-Factor in 2010", he tells me over a glass of wine upstairs at The Arts Club. "You get that feeling straight away but nothing happened; we just got talking. I was friendly with everyone on set. But with her I just clicked. We stayed in touch and when things changed and when I was single and she was single we took it to the next level and the friendship became more. I fell in love with her a long time before that, I just didn't realise it."

Storm had been married to Sydney-based financial director, Tim Ivers, since 2009 and as her romance with Keating played out in public Ivers was quoted by Australian and British press as saying he still loved her. Ronan says that the similarities of the situations he and Storm were going through provided an extra bond in their relationship. "I wouldn't have said that we had blood on our hands, as such, but we were certainly coming from similar situations and we could compare and talk. I felt a kind of love with her that I hadn't felt before."

Their wedding, last August, took place overlooking the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Ronan's son Jack (16), was best man at the open-air ceremony, while daughters Missy (14), and nine-year-old Ali were maid of honour and flower girl, respectively. Meanwhile, the family's pet pug, Aussie, was ring-bearer and scampered along a petal-strewn aisle with the wedding rings tied around her neck.

The coverage of the wedding, at least in Ireland, was very much coloured by the wreckage over Keating's shoulder. He is careful to emphasise that he tried everything he could with Yvonne before walking away. "I worked very hard in my first marriage and I travelled constantly to make money for the family and when I came home I would be the best father that I could be. I got married very young, and that's OK, we decided to do that. But I think in hindsight I can say we weren't the people that we thought we were and we really drifted apart."

The aftermath he says, has "not been easy. Anyone who goes through it will tell you that. It's no bed of roses. There's a lot to deal with, especially when you have three children. There was the added pressure of the media being there to record everything. Yvonne is a human being and she has her opinions and she says what she says but…"

How did he feel about what she said regarding the kids being used to his absences? "I do have a major problem with what she said about (him being an absent father). That was ridiculous. I worked very, very hard and I was a very good father. I provided in every way. If I didn't work nobody had any money, nobody has a life. I think possibly (her saying that) was the hurt of the moment coming out. I have a great relationship with my kids. I think it's not right for herself and myself to have a battle in public like this."

When asked if he and Yvonne are still on speaking terms he simply says "Yes", without elaboration. Does he foresee a time when things will bed down to a great degree of cordiality? "Who knows?", he responds. "I know I'm happy and she should really concentrate on her happiness."

The divorce, he says, had a serious impact on his personal wealth. "I'm not incredibly wealthy. When you go through a divorce that diminishes rapidly, because you're supporting more than one household. I have had a very wonderful life, a long and wonderful career, and I feel very blessed."

In person Keating looks younger than his 38 years. While his singing accent has shifted somewhat, his speaking voice is still down-to-earth Dublin. He comes across as open and honest, answers each question with a clear-eyed integrity and poses patiently for pictures. Through some long and involved answers he never once utters his most famous catchphrase: fair play. He is lean and fairly covered in tattoos. One of them, he tells me, has long since been removed; a memory of a silly afternoon in Soho - just down the road from our interview - when he was 17. "I was here with the boys (from Boyzone) we got some stupid Chinese tattoo - I got rid of that pretty quick."

Another tattoo - the one he got for Yvonne - has also been removed, he confirms.

In many ways Ronan, who grew up in Swords, was almost a child star. He was plucked from obscurity at 16 after spotting an ad in the Evening Herald for auditions for an Irish version of Take That. Boybands were huge at the time and Louis Walsh, a veteran of the show band era, was determined to cash in. Ronan sang the old Cat Stevens hit Father and Son at the audition and instantly impressed. Despite getting a place in the group he still continued working in Korky's, a city centre shoe shop, for a few months afterward. The group had their debut on The Late Late Show where they gyrated and mimed manically in what has since been hailed as a comedy classic. "That was a car crash. And sometimes a car crash is entertaining to people", he says, smiling ruefully. "I think initially people nearly tuned in to Boyzone just to see would it continue as bad as that but we got better and eventually we drew in an audience. We were decent looking lads and we had a lot of female fans." Shortly after he joined the band a reporter asked him if he was still a virgin and he answered honestly that he was. This became a further source of mirth and the media felt sure that they had Keating's number: the squeaky clean virgin prince of Ireland's boyband era.

Boyzone's music was, he concedes, "pretty shit sometimes", but it was also phenomenally successful. They had nine Irish number one singles, sold 25 million records, and Keating's image graced the walls of an entire generation of teenage girls' bedrooms. He was always the star of the group, singing the majority of lead vocals, and, dare we say it, provoking the majority of knickers thrown. It seemed natural therefore when he was the first one to go solo. In 1999, while still a member of Boyzone, he recorded the single When You Say Nothing At All from the movie Notting Hill and was launched into solo superstardom; it entered the UK album charts at number one and his debut album, Ronan, sold in the millions.

Throughout it all he was still managed by the man who had guided him to fame in the first place, Louis Walsh. The two men had a fractious relationship and eventually agreed to part ways, with Louis later saying: "(Keating) wasn't the most talented one - he's not a great singer and he's got no personality." Ever since then the pair have traded barbs. "Louis wants press and the best way Louis can get press is to slag someone off", Keating says, thoughtfully sipping his wine. "He should just try to enjoy his life".

So what was at the root of the rancour? "The fact is that I decided to not work with him any more. That was a fine, decent decision to make. Out of respect I had hired him as my solo manager. My record label and my other manager were making the decisions. I went to Louis and I said 'let's just part ways.' I met him to say this, I didn't send him an email. He threw a strop like you wouldn't believe and I've had the wrath of it ever since, but hey, that's that."

Keating concedes the pop guru is "very talented at what he does" but adds. "I wish he would concentrate on that". He suggests that the current war of words can't go on. "At some stage someone's going to have words about Louis and Louis won't like that. My kids live in Dublin and I'm not going to let them open papers and see that stuff. I'm not threatening him. I'm saying somebody else might do it."

He says he looks back on some of the things he said in the past now and regrets them. "There would have been interviews where I came across as jumped up or arrogant. But, you know, you can only learn on the job, learn to be better."

He says the most difficult moments in his life and career were the deaths of his mother and bandmate Stephen Gately. Marie Keating was not even 50-years-old when she died of breast cancer in 1998 and her passing hit Ronan hard. He began drinking heavily and for a period fell out with his lorry driver father, Gerry; they have since reconciled.

"On my wedding day it was very hard and very emotional not having her here", he tells me. "She would have been so proud to see me happy. She witnessed a bit of (his success) during the Boyzone years but she never got to see me solo. I miss her all the time. It's still hard, to be honest."

Gately's passing, in 2009, came as a bolt from the blue. The music world had seen rock gods torn from life before but as music critic Brian Boyd noted it was "the first time that the boyband genre has had to deal with such a tragic situation."

Keating and the rest of Boyzone flew out to Spain where the post mortem revealed the cause of death to be a congenital heart defect. "As regards Stephen, to be honest I still think he's alive sometimes", he tells me. "Nobody expected it, obviously, and even now it's still very raw for us. Sometimes, even when I'm on stage with the boys, I look over and think he might be still there. That was undoubtedly the toughest moment of my career - getting that call to say that he had passed.

"We're lucky that we have so much footage and recordings of him. Every tour we do we do a song for him onstage." He holds out his arm to show me the tattoo with Gately's birthdate; all of the Boyzone lads have it, he adds.

As far as his career goes, he says you can "forget about musical credibility. I think unless you're Radiohead or whatever it's pointless striving for that. What I would like is some respect. I'm 38 now, 23 years in this business, and I hope I've been building to this.

"Commercial success would be nice for touring reasons; selling albums does help in terms of selling tickets for concerts and people are buying records again as we saw last year with the success of Adele and Ed Sheeran. I have a great core fan base of people who love my music."

He's optimistic about the future. He and Storm are looking for a house in Dublin - they've seen properties in Ballsbridge and "out by the airport." He says he can see himself having children with her: "I think we would both love that."

He remains close friends with all the other Boyzone lads and there is another reunion coming up at some point soon - bandmate Shane Lynch recently hinted that they may even join forces with Westlife.

He doesn't care about the money, he tells me, that's not why he does it. But he would just have one caveat. "I don't think I could handle getting knickers thrown at me again", he smiles. "I'm well beyond that."

Ronan's new album Time Of My Life will be released by Universal Music on February 12

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