Crazy For Bublé

Michael Bublé’s big boyish eyes are a little droopy, and he is sniffly with a summer cold but the Canadian singing sensation is always up for a friendly chat with reporters. He wears his signature off-stage look: jeans, T-shirt and a ball cap worn backwards. He is holed up in a trendy hotel in his hometown of Vancouver doing interviews for his fourth release, Crazy Love, which came out in early October.

In the next room is his girlfriend Luisana Lopilato, a 22-year-old Argentine actress, model and musician. Lopilato speaks little English, but Bublé, who also knows Italian, has learned enough Spanish to make the relationship work.

It’s no wonder he’s sick. Since the release of his debut album almost seven years ago, he’s worked a breakneck cycle of recording and touring. With record sales only making up what he figures is 10 per cent of his earnings, the touring is all-important to his pocketbook. These days, record sales can’t compare to what an artist can make on the road, even if that artist has, like Bublé, sold in the order of 22 million records.

Around the release of his second album, It’s Time, he had flown from Los Angeles to London, England, to Chicago for The Oprah Winfrey Show. When he returned to Vancouver that night, his manager told him he had to get back on the plane for a one-day trip to London. Bublé says, “I cried.”

In truth, he doesn’t have to do any of it. He could refuse.

“I could be a diva,” he says. “But the only person I am hurting is me.”

Full disclosure: I’ve spent the last couple of years working on Bublé’s biography, with his co-operation. As the first writer to ever write about Bublé back during my days as a Vancouver Sun columnist, we began a 14-year association that has seen each of us develop our own respective careers.

Of course, when I began as a cub entertainment reporter, I’d never have imagined that this talented, cocky, incredibly eager young singer would become one of the most successful male vocalists of his generation — Tony Bennett himself has publicly praised Bublé’s talent. Back in the day, Bublé was making his own CDs and practically pleading for media to come and check out his local shows. Oh, but the tables have turned. Oprah herself gave him a marketing windfall when she featured his new album on its Oct. 9 release date.

Relentless drive has its rewards. The 34-year-old son of a fisherman from the suburb of Burnaby, B.C., is in a position in his young life where he now calls the shots. And he knows it. When touring, he now pulls in about $8 million gross a month. Last year he figures he grossed about $70 million — and, yes, he is the rare breed of entertainer who will disclose such lucrative earnings.

“I think it’s neat that people know because I think I’m the most famous guy you’ve never heard of,” he says. “In my country, people know who I am but, in America, the profile isn’t as high.”

That might be about to change since the album debuted at number 1 on Billboard Charts in the U.S., as well as reaching number 1 in Canada.

He is being modest. It’s true that Bublé can go to dinner and not be mobbed by fans. But his profile is high enough that it’s made him a wealthy man, with homes in West Vancouver and Hollywood, he also owns seven acres of waterfront on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. As to whether he will continue to snap up real estate, he is ambivalent: “Every couple of months, I keep writing cheques for $1 million, $2 million in taxes.”

Not bad for a kid who got his big break singing at a wedding for the daughter of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. It was at that wedding he would make a vital connection and forge an ultimately long-standing, sometimes difficult relationship with Canadian producer David Foster. Foster produced about half of the new record and, last February, in L.A.’s landmark Capitol Records building, in the studio where Frank Sinatra recorded, I watched them work.

Bublé strolled through the hallowed corridors, pointing to pictures of Frank Sinatra, Keely Smith, Nat King Cole and other famous recording stars. When he finally got his turn to sing, an excited Bublé would pop a cough drop, snort on a nasal inhaler, go into the booth and most often nail it. Meanwhile, a low-key Foster propped his feet up on the soundboard and bopped his head to Bublé’s rendition of “Pennies From Heaven” (a track that does not make the final cut). He’d then praise Bublé, telling him, “You swing harder than anybody I’ve met.”
Early in their careers, many artists relinquish creative control in order to get a record deal. Bublé was no exception. But as record sales have mounted, he has asserted himself further into the director’s chair.
Before starting the record, Bublé says he had dinner with Foster at a Vancouver steak house. He recalls how the conversation went.

“He asked, ‘So are we going to work together?’ I said, “Yeah, but I want it to be different.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I want us to engineer differently. I want us to set up the microphones. I don’t want this to be mechanical. I want this to be old school and have edge and some kind of vibe that I need for myself so I can listen to these records.’
“He said, ‘That is not what I do.’

“I went, Bullshit, you’re the greatest producer in the world. Don’t tell me you can’t do this. You won’t leave your comfort zone?’ I pumped him up and I think it worked.”

The most obvious result of that organic sound is the track “Stardust.” The song was recorded live with an American R&B a cappella group called Naturally 7, and it sounds so natural, you’d think you were listening to it on an antique radio. Other songs on the album were produced by Bob Rock, better known for his work with Metallica, MÖtley Crüe and Aerosmith. The release is a combination of the Bublé repertoire we’ve come to know him for. There are classics such as “All of Me” and “Georgia on My Mind” mingling with the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” and Ron Sexsmith’s poignant “Whatever It Takes” (on which Sexsmith and Bublé duet. But Bublé knows singing lounge covers isn’t going to sustain him. He’s also been somewhat cheated by his own image as a singer of covers, when his biggest selling releases have been songs that he’s played a major role in writing. (His song “Everything” from 2007’s Call Me Irresponsible was recently certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.)

So, with a songwriting career in mind, he is gradually making the crossover into pop territory, securing a broader and younger demographic. He co-wrote the pop single for the new album, “Haven’t Met You Yet” and a brooding ballad called “Hold On.”

His decisions aren’t met entirely without opposition from his producers and management, who are, after all, hired to guide him. For example, Foster was opposed to the inclusion of “Stardust” and the heartbreak hit “At This Moment.”

The latter song, in particular, resonated with Bublé because of his breakup last year with his girlfriend of three-and-a-half years, British actress Emily Blunt. Blunt recently confirmed rumours of her engagement to The Office actor John Krasinski. Bublé was so torn up by the split that a member of his team from the record label slept on his couch for a couple of days and talked him through it.

He has called the breakup “the best thing and the toughest thing that’s ever happened to me” because of the pain he endured and the revelations that made him face up to his own insecurity and fragile ego.

“I think [Foster] preferred to have those songs off the record,” says Bublé. “And I tried to explain what I’d gone through. From the anger of Cry Me a River to the hope of Haven’t Met You Yet to Hold On, which is still hopeful but definitely melancholy, sad. I don’t know if it’s all about the breakup, but definitely I’m inspired by how I’m feeling in that moment.”

The result is an album that is both raw technically in its old-school, live-off-the-floor sound and in feeling, with Bublé’s from-the-heart delivery. His gut tells him it’s his best yet.