TORONTO – After the spectacular success of his “Christmas” — eight times platinum in Canada, thrice in the U.S., a Juno Award win for album of the year — Michael Buble might have felt a certain pressure in trying to create a follow-up, the sleigh bells ringing in his ear turning gradually deafening.
Instead, he says he went into “To Be Loved” — out Tuesday — feeling more blithely self-assured than he’d ever been in the past, committing to a breezy live-off-the-floor recording strategy and declining to polish away the resultant small blemishes in his production.
He had the most fun he’s had recording an album, he says. And the principal reason he was so unfettered? He says that the news that his wife, Argentine model Luisana Lopilato, was expecting their first child made everything else seem a little less pressing.
“I think the whole lack of trying (to top ‘Christmas’) came from me finding out I was having a baby — I think when that happened, it made me very brave,” Buble said during a recent chat in Toronto.
“The truth is, really, my priorities just flip-flopped, and I went: ‘What’s important to me?’ My wife’s health. My baby’s health. My family. And THEN this record.’ If people love it, that’s awesome. If they don’t love it? You know what, I’ve done pretty well.
“Not that I didn’t care, because of course I care, but I wasn’t insecure.”
Buble, of course, has been provided plenty of reasons for such validation within the industry.
There’s the aforementioned commercial success, which is especially remarkable in this era of spindly sales. Even beyond “Christmas” — which topped the charts in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Austria, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands — he can lay claim to four consecutive bona fide smashes, with his entire catalogue having now amassed more than three dozen platinum plaques in his home country alone.
And his pop-culture profile has grown well beyond his core group of fans. He starred in cheerfully retro Christmas specials for NBC in back-to-back years, and his hosting gig at this weekend’s Juno Awards will provide a national platform for his winking wit — though he dismisses his role as mere “traffic cop.”
He made himself comfortable on “To Be Loved” by working with the same circle of collaborators who have been popping up on his albums for years: producer Bob Rock, songwriters Alan Chang and Amy Foster, and performers Naturally 7 and the Puppini Sisters. Buble calls it “creating a subculture.” Furthering the sense of familial warmth filling the studio, Buble even had his parents sit in on some of the sessions.
On “To Be Loved,” his newfound confidence leads the Burnaby, B.C., crooner to aim at a number of different genres, incorporating elements of country, straight-ahead jazz, Cuban music and rock into his typically swing era-influenced adult contemporary.
And Buble’s tickled at the opportunity to try on so many hats.
“It’s amazing I can get away with what I do as an entertainer, but especially that I can make a schizophrenic record, you know what I mean?” said Buble, who co-wrote all four original songs on the album. “I can do all these different genres and somehow there can be some kind of through-line that keeps them all together.
“And I think you gotta buy it too. I think if I didn’t completely own it, you could smell it a mile away. You might not even know how, you’d just go: ‘I don’t believe it.'”
Indeed, Buble’s keenly aware that — with due respect to his premium pipes — his ability to sell tickets and records largely depends on his ability to sell himself as a personality. It hasn’t always been easy.
For a long time, Buble felt misunderstood. He has a mischievous streak, and sometimes his attempts at wry self-deprecation would read as arrogance. And he’s such a compulsive entertainer, he occasionally provoked unwanted headlines with flippant comments meant simply to amuse an interviewer.
Now, he feels his listeners and the public more generally have a better handle on his sensibility. He’s adeptly made self-deflating appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and with Jimmy Fallon created a viral sensation in a video where he lampooned several pop stars, including Justin Bieber. His Christmas specials for NBC have similarly allowed fans and non-fans alike to understand that the 37-year-old really doesn’t take himself that seriously.
“I think people thought I was a real egotistical jerk because I seemed like I was confident. But it was just humour — self-deprecating humour,” he said.
It’s clear he’s not immune from the influence of naysayers, whether imagined or not — when discussing the Junos, he calls it a “thankless job” because “no matter how good I do, or how funny it is, there will be people that just can’t stand me” — but the slights seem to weigh less on Buble now than they did at a more diffident stage of his development.
For instance, when asked about the dearth of similar-minded crooners operating on such a large scale, he disagrees and points out that for a long time he felt he was in close competition with other artists intent on cruising down the same lane.
“When I started, I remember looking at (manager) Bruce Allen and saying: ‘Bruce, man, we’re in trouble here. We’ve got (Harry) Connick, we’ve got Jamie Cullum, we’ve got Matt Dusk, we’ve got Peter Cincotti — I’m going to get buried here. He used to say, ‘You’ll be the last man standing, kid.’
“But no, there will be (someone). Some kid’s going to come along who’s going to blow us all away, and who’s going to sound more like Sinatra than Sinatra did, and I’ll be the first person to raise him up.”
So why has Buble succeeded to an extent that others haven’t?
“Maybe I’m not following everybody else. I’m not doing the same thing everybody else does. I’m not just writing a song and having the rapper rap a thing over it. I’m doing something that maybe isn’t as commercially accessible but is really cool,” he said.
He relates a story about a Spanish reporter — a “very cynical man” — who’d recently insisted to Buble that his job was easy, that tossing off retro-minded records composed largely of covers was something anyone could do.
“I said, listen, if it was so easy there’d be a thousand guys selling 40 million records,” Buble relays, dotting his speech with F-bombs. “It’s not easy. I know I’m good at what I do. And I don’t mean to say that to sound like a jerk, but listen, I stand up in front of thousands of people every night and I turn myself inside-out. And I open myself up for critique and criticism and all that. And if I don’t sit and think privately that I am the best in the world at what I do, that I’m a killer entertainer, blah blah, then I’m hooped. I have to pump myself up like that.”
Though not to the same extent that he perhaps once did.
“Part of why I became an entertainer and why I became good at what I do is because of how insecure I was,” he agrees. “You know, caring so much whether people liked me. I overdid it almost, I think. And now, I like me. So it doesn’t bother me as much. My skin is a little thicker. I think I’m still compassionate and empathetic and I care, but I got bigger fish to fry.”
Primarily, he’s referring to his burgeoning family. So far, Buble and Lopilato have been surprisingly open with details of her pregnancy in an age where some celebrities carefully guard any details relating to their children — for instance, Adele, who only surrendered the name of her baby accidentally after months of eluding the prying press.
By contrast, Buble and Lopilato cheerfully announced the news in a self-made YouTube video that also included images of their child’s sonogram.
“Well, my wife has no filter like that and I love that about her,” he said when asked about their openness. “For her, and for me now too, I believe the fans are just extended family — she always has time for them, and she’s taught me that I really need to even spend more time appreciating that without them, I wouldn’t have anything that I have.
“It’s pretty wonderful to interact with people like that. It feels like being Norm at ‘Cheers.’ You walk into the airport and everybody knows you.”
And yet he’ll be travelling less soon. He plans on scaling back his obligations to the road once the baby’s born — from a week off after every month and a half of touring to two weeks off after every three weeks on the road — and in fact he says he’s already made changes to his schedule.
“It’s tough to route that schedule and I’m going to make a heck of a lot less. And I’m thrilled,” he said. “‘Cause I really want to have a balanced life.”
The challenge, then, is welcome. Others are too. Buble seems so used to deriving motivation from those who would dismiss or disparage his career, he almost seems to relish the few remaining slights he still absorbs.
He compares himself to a “fourth-line hockey player.” He’s a grinder, he says, “not the best, not the fastest, not the most talented,” but someone who works and works until he scores.
So after the gift of “Christmas,” the challenge for Buble isn’t pressure — it’s maintaining his scrappy sensibility.
“I’ve never been on the cover of People magazine, I’ve never been asked to perform at the Grammys. It’s OK. Sometimes it’s good to be the underdog. Sometimes, if you get too hot, you burn up,” he said.
“So I love the fact that I get to just take these baby steps — (and) it’s been baby steps for 10 years. It’s to the next level, to the next level, and slowly we ramp up…. It’s not hype. It isn’t marketing. One by one, people talk and spread the word and it gets a little bigger and a little bigger. And one day, I’ll be an overnight 15-20-year success.”