As Westlife ended, Mark Feehily also split up with his long-term boyfriend. He admits it took time to readjust, but is very much back on track, with a new album, solo gigs and a support slot for Mariah Carey, writes Esther McCarthy.
FIVE years ago, Mark Feehily stood alone in his Sligo home, looked around him, and reflected on what he would do with the rest of his life.
Westlife, the band he had grown up in, who had sold a massive 50m records worldwide and had 14 UK number one singles, were calling it quits. At the same time, his long-term relationship was coming to an end, and Feehily was understandably feeling vulnerable.
“I was in a relationship for seven years and that ended at the same time, pretty much, that the band ended,” he recalls. “You have two big pillars that are all of a sudden gone, and you’re kind of left… this sounds kind of bleak, but after Westlife finished and my relationship finished, I came back to my house in Sligo. I was literally in this lovely big house that I was lucky enough to be able to buy, and I was like: ‘OK what am I going to do now?’ It was a very real moment. No Westlife or success or money could remedy what I needed to fix.”
It’s an honest observation from the man who was once co-lead singer in the world’s biggest band. But Feehily now finds himself in a much better place. He’s found love again, and is forging a solo career on his own terms. Following his well-received debut album, Fire, he’s returning with a festive album simply called Christmas, and in doing so is realising a long-held ambition.
“I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas album, it’s something I was never quite able to convince the label at Westlife to do. A couple of years ago before I actually released my first album I did a version of ‘Oh Holy Night’ with a producer in London, and we were just going to put it out, but something in my gut said ‘it’s not the right time to do it’.”
The song choices reflect Feehily’s own love of music and some of his favourite artists. “There’s a song called ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ which I’ve taken from the Otis Redding version. I’ve got ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ on it. But I’ve done it in a style which I’ve always felt is the true style to me, which has a very soul/jazz tinge to it. It’s a big sound, it’s got a big brass section.
“Then there’s a Donny Hathaway song called ‘This Christmas’ — they’re not the most obvious choices, but I think people will also know them. The song that’s closest to me is a song called ‘River’, which is a Joni Mitchell song, a beautiful piano ballad. Some songs I hear and I think: ‘I have to sing that song’. Joni Mitchell’s one of the best ever singer/songwriters as far as I’m concerned.”
As well as playing his own shows, on December 10 and 11 Mark will take on some of the biggest gigs of his career, supporting Mariah Carey at her Christmas UK concerts.
“It’s a highly anticipated gig. She puts on a pretty extravagant show production wise. She really is the queen of Christmas in the pop world. I am very lucky to be involved in that show. When I was growing up in Sligo I was a fan of hers when she brought the Christmas album out. I went into overdrive, because mum and dad were playing Christmas songs, but I then had great Christmas songs but sung by an artist I was very into at the time, and still am.”
After several years working with a band as successful as Westlife, Mark is happy to be taking life at a less frenetic pace. “You’d miss a friend’s wedding or a 21st birthday. It’s nice now to have a balance of work life and personal life. When you’re in the middle of a big machine like Westlife it’s not really balanced; it’s just 100% all the time. It was all really good, but I must say I’m appreciating massively the change in balance.
“I’ve enjoyed being in Sligo a lot, and I have a god-daughter now who’s five, in big school as she says, Millie. She’s my brother’s kid. And now I have a second god-daughter as well. I’ve always loved kids. Just being around my family, being able to bring them to school, you don’t think about it, but you actually miss all that.”
Feehily and his band-mates got used to the level of fame and attention that comes with such success, but he can still recall the sense of fear he felt at the prospect of coming out as gay during the height of Westlife’s success.
“Let’s say for someone who isn’t in that position, it’s as hard as it gets really, to come to terms with your sexuality. For a person struggling with that, it’s very difficult. It’s not like it can get any harder, but it’s another dimension added. All that people worry about, and I was one of them, worry about your family and friends, that somehow they’d disapprove, or be disappointed. But if you add millions of fans around the world to that equation…
“Obviously I had my own journey through it and came out the other end. It’s very easy in hindsight to look back and say you should have done it earlier. That doesn’t exist in that person’s mind at the time. That’s something that’s very dear to my heart, because occasionally someone will come up to me, it could be in a club, and say: ‘I’m gay but I can’t tell my parents’, or: ‘Me and my friends are all sporty, I could never tell anyone’.
“It’s something that really connects with me. I’ll always have that part of me inside that’s very aware, that remembers exactly what it feels like to be in that situation. It’s a very complex thing, and it’s funny, because a lot of people then, including myself, that have come out, think: ‘What the hell was I worried about?’ But that’s not how you feel at the time. That journey was very difficult for me but I wouldn’t claim my journey was any more difficult than anyone else’s. Everyone has their own hurdles in that situation.”
You get the sense that Feehily is very content with life post-Westlife, both in his music career and his personal life, where he is again in a steady relationship. “I’m four years into a relationship, very happy and settled, things have turned out really well. I feel happy that I’m in a good place, and I have a load of plans.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved