Interview: Donny Osmond
I watched the extraordinarily revealing BBC1 interview that you recently did with Piers Morgan [You Can’t Fire Me, I’m Famous]. Towards the end of the programme, you broke down in tears. We weren’t expecting that to happen.
Neither was I! [Laughter]
How do you feel about that, in retrospect?
Well, I didn’t actually see the interview, so I don’t really know how they edited it.
They kind of showed everything… [Nervous laughter]
Yeah, we did like a two or three hour interview, so I’m not sure exactly what was aired.
The key question was Piers asking whether you would have swapped the life that you’ve had as a successful singer with a more normal life. You said that you’d have chosen the more normal life.
I remember that moment. The way he asked it, and the situation, kinda caught me by surprise. But it’s a difficult life, being in show business, particularly if you want to be in it a long time. You’ve got to pay a high price to stay in it, let alone get in it. It’s very exciting, but let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s a life of extremes. The highs are really, really high – and the lows just don’t feel very good. Weighing all that stuff out, it would have been nice to have a normal life.
I guess you’ve had so many extreme experiences, but the one that you’ve haven’t had is the “normality”.
Well, that’s why, in a way, I live vicariously through my kids. They have such a normal life, and so it’s a nice balance when I can come home and just play the role of dad.
You were talking about the time where your period of initial success came to an end; it became difficult to get work, there was a flop show on Broadway, and so on. Then it occurred to me that you and your family have always appealed to all age groups – except one, and maybe this was the problem. It’s that 18 to 23 year old age group, who like something that’s a bit more edgy, rebellious, provocative. So when your teenage fans reached that age, it’s like they had to go through a stage of rejecting you – and then they could return to you in later life. I wondered, when that was happening to you in the early 1980s, were you aware of that cycle? Did you realise that your fans would eventually come back?
No I didn’t, Mike. [Sighs] There was a time where I thought: is it ever really going to come back? I think at the back of my mind, I realised, you know, somebody out there kinda likes me [laughs], because there were too many people that knew of me; all I had to do was give them an excuse to like me. To re-invent myself, to coin a phrase, not to use too many clichés here – but yeah, re-invent myself, give them an excuse to say, you know, it was OK to like Donny Osmond.
It’s just a natural phenomenon, that takes place with everybody. It took place with me too: in my later teens and early twenties, I went through a period where I absolutely hated “Puppy Love”. Anything that I liked as a young little teenager, I thought: it’s just not cool.
That’s it! It’s the age where “cool” suddenly becomes important, and actually, cool’s not a very important value in life at all.
You’re trying to find an identity, so you’re trying to be cool.
You grow up, and you realise that it’s OK to embrace everything in every stage of your life.
You also talked about losing your fortune – it was badly handled, people were embezzling, and so on – and that must have been humiliating. Can you imagine the sort of life and career that you would have had if you had held on to your fortune, and remained a wealthy man? And would it have been better?
Well, [laughs] that’s a very interesting question, Mike – because I’ve thought about that many, many times over the years, and I don’t know that I would have had the motivation to re-invent myself. I would have been too comfortable.
It really is a mind game; you don’t really know what life would have been like, because you’ve never really lived it. My assumption is that I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard as I have done, in order to remain in the business for 45 years. I would have just rested upon my laurels.
So maybe, after all that extraordinary success, you needed to have that kind of humbling experience, for a while… to experience rejection.
Maybe! [Hearty laughter] Yes, maybe.
I want to ask you about the teen idol days. I’m personally interested, because as a boy myself, I kind of grew up in an Osmonds world, if you like. My sister was in your fan club for three years running, and she still has the certificates to prove it.
Oh, that’s funny…
She says Hi. I was told to say that.
[Slightly awkward lack of response, as Donny presumably waits for me to Get On With The Question Already. Ah well, I did my best.]
Um, so… for hundreds of thousands of girls, who may not even have started to date at that stage, you were in a way their first boyfriend – even if it was just a fantasy boyfriend. Were you aware of that responsibility, and how did you deal with it?
It’s hard to go back and remember exactly what I was going through, because it has been so many years. I do remember the awesome responsibility placed upon my shoulders. I wore two different hats, Mike: one was for when I was in show business, and one for when I went home and played with my electronics, and whatever. When I was out there, I had to be very careful as to what I said and did, because everything ended up in print – and I think that was the pressure that finally got to me.
But, yeah, I recognised the responsibility. When I stepped on stage, with the amount of screaming which took place, it was fun on one side of the coin – but on the other, a huge responsibility.
There was all that adulation in the room – but I guess that there was also a lot of pain in the room. There were all these girls getting so close and yet still so far, and getting really upset about that.
Pain on whose side – theirs or mine?
Pain on their side, I think.
On theirs, yes. But human nature is like that. We want what we can’t have. It’s the supply and demand theory, you know? You keep a little bit of a distance, and you want it more.
Speaking as a boy of eleven, twelve years old: boys weren’t really supposed to like the Osmonds. We were supposed to be getting into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, and we were supposed to sneer. Nevertheless, there was a time in your brothers’ career where you showed signs of becoming something of a credible rock band. I’m thinking of The Plan, which was a kind of “concept album” that some of us boys used to listen to on the quiet, without telling anybody; it was a sort of guilty pleasure. It strikes me that you must have been proud of that album; your brothers still perform large chunks of it on stage.
But then you went from that back into showbiz, with the Love Me For A Reason album. You could have gone into being a more credible rock act at that moment, but you stepped away. Why did you change direction?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. I have no idea, but it’s quite interesting to note that here again, I was playing two sides of the coin: I was a teenybopper artist, and I was part of a rock and roll band. You used the phrase “guilty pleasure”. It’s so true, and over the years, I’ve had a lot of conversations about this – with “Crazy Horses” when that came out, and with “Down By The Lazy River” particularly. Our favourite album is The Plan. It was really a progressive rock and roll album, and that was the direction that we were headed in as a band. But my career kind of superseded everything, you know?
Let’s move forward a bit, to the time of your 1988 comeback single “Soldier Of Love”, which reached Number Two in the States. It was a collaboration with Peter Gabriel, who had been of the cooler figures from that earlier period. How on earth did that come about?
Oh, it was kind of a fluke. We were doing this charity show together in New York, and we met backstage. Being the kind of guy that he is, Peter started enquiring as to what was going on with my career, because he admired the way I sang. I told him of the frustrations and the challenges of the image – that “cool factor” that we were talking about earlier. He said: well, forget about the cool factor, let’s make the music good, and the cool factor takes care of itself. That’s when he invited me to come over to Bath, and to start cutting music.
“Soldier Of Love” was written and produced by a team called Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers in New York, and became a part of that Gabriel album – and that’s what really turned the whole thing round. But it was more of a perception from the public, and even the industry, that Peter was involved in my career that started the impetus to change.
Coming up to the present day, you’ve had a big success this year with your album Love Songs of the 70s. I was streaming it from your website earlier this morning, and I was pleased to find a couple of my favourites in there: Ace’s “How Long”, and a song that was never a hit in this country, “Will It Go Round In Circles” by Billy Preston. I was wondering: if you were to do an album of love songs from the 2000s, what songs might you pick?
Ah. [Pause; laughter] Interesting question! Er… [Pause]
I have a suggestion.
Yes! Give me, please.
Have you heard a song by Will Young called “Leave Right Now”?
I’ve heard of the title, but I’m not that familiar with the song.
I could completely imagine you doing that one – or maybe one of the songs from Take That’s comeback album, that Gary Barlow wrote.
Of course. Well, Gary Barlow’s a good buddy. He’s been involved with several albums of mine.
You must be seen as something of an “elder statesman” figure by now. Do you get asked for advice by younger generations of teen idols – or wannabe teen idols – and if so, what would you say?
I do. What would I say? Be prepared for a rollercoaster ride – because it’s inevitable, no matter who you are, and particularly if you start out on a teen base. Be prepared for rejection, and be prepared for a lot of work to re-invent yourself. Regardless of what kind of career you’ve got, whether it’s a rock based career or a pop based career or an R&B based career – particularly nowadays, and even more so than in the Seventies – you’re going to experience a surge, and you’re going to experience a real fast drop, and you’re going to be confused. “Why do people love me one second and hate me the next?” It’s just the nature of the business.
And it’s speeded up as well, I think.
Of course – because of the amount of media channels and outlets for promotion that we’ve got right now. The record companies, and all kinds of companies, they’ve blitzed the market as fast as possible, to make as much as they possibly can, because they know that the shelf life is very, very short. So when you get right down to it, Mike, I’m in a very, very enviable position, because my brand has already been established. Whether it’s good or bad in people’s minds, it doesn’t really matter, because you can always re-invent it with something else.
That’s interesting. I guess that as someone who has strong moral and ethical principles, you’re actually operating in a pretty dirty, cut-throat industry. Do you have a ruthless side? Do you have to, in order to survive?
A ruthless side? Most definitely. I think the word I’ll probably use is “calloused”. It’s a business – that’s why they call it show business. They put that word in there for a reason. You’ve got to be careful not to let the business callous you. There are sharks out there, and there are some real challenging decisions that you have to make, that could be compromising to your principles. You have to stick to your principles, and you can’t allow people to walk over the top of you.
I guess you have to be aware of potential traps that might be being set for you, as well.
Yeah, and I’m pretty fortunate in having the career that I’ve had, as the liability has turned into an asset over time, to be honest with you. People know my standards. They know what I will and will not do. So it really is an asset to me.
Talking about the forthcoming tour, is it a question of striking a balance between old and new material? Does the past drag you down, with everyone wanting to hear the same old songs over and over again – or is there a kind of pay-off, with the old songs giving you a platform on which to produce new work as well?
Well, you went from one extreme to another there in the question, because it really has become, here again, an asset. It’s not a liability at all to me any more. It used to be! I didn’t want to do “Puppy Love” in my set. I’d rather have… I don’t know… died rather than do “Puppy Love” again.
I remember a TV show that you were on in the late 1980s, with Jonathan Ross, where he kind of ambushed you. He insisted that you sang “Puppy Love”, and you absolutely, clearly, did not want to. Then he got the whole audience to hold up signs with “Puppy Love” on them, and the band struck up, and you were kind of forced to do it. It was painful to watch, really.
[Solemnly] I remember the show. It was painful to sing! [Laughs] But on this tour, I do several different versions of “Puppy Love”. I even say: hey, I’m pushing fifty, you guys, and I’m still singing “Puppy Love”; what’s wrong with this picture? I say: look, I’ve tried to infuse maturity into it, change it up over the years – and so I do a short little country version of it, a sexy Barry White version of it, a Blackpool-ian lounge lizard version of it – and then I finally say: you know, there’s only one way to sing “Puppy Love”. [Breaks into song] “And they called it…”
[Hold up, Donny Osmond is singing “Puppy Love” to me. I have never had to struggle so hard to maintain professional composure.]
And then we just go right into the real version. It really goes down well…
Fantastic! The concerts that you’re doing now, are they more enjoyable now that the hysteria has died down, and people are actually listening properly?
Yes, it’s fantastic – although a lot of the fans, they love to reminisce, and go back and scream like a thirteen-year old.
I’ve seen your brothers perform a couple of times, and the atmosphere is still quite intense.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how it still happens?
Well, thanks for that, Donny. My final question was going to be: is your favourite colour still purple? But I’ve been to your official website and it’s purple all over…
[Laughter] I don’t wear purple socks any more! Heaven knows why I did that, but hey, it was fun at the time!
Well, I’m looking forward to coming to the show. Your former mentor Andy Williams was on the same stage a couple of months ago, performing his farewell show outside the US. His last show, on his last tour. And my sister will be waiting for you outside the stage door, with her copy of Alone Together, hoping for a signature.
Oh, right. [Hastily closing the conversation] Thanks, Mike.