FORMER Westlife singer Shane Filan was declared bankrupt in 2012, just as the chart-topping band were preparing for two farewell shows at Croke Park. He wouldn’t change a thing. A victim of the property bubble, he’s come through his financial difficulties and says he’s stronger for them, now that his solo career is blossoming.
“It was horrible — a very testing time,” he says of the implosion, which left him on the hook for an estimated €20m. “Without a doubt, it makes you mentally tougher. You think about your kids — your marriage. From out of all that came the song ‘Everything To Me’. It’s about the important things in life. You realise money doesn’t make you happy. I’ve learned the hard way. I’m the better for it. I appreciate what I have now.”
When Westlife announced they were disbanding, Filan (34) was at a loss.
His bandmates lined up media gigs (Kian Egan in reality TV and as a judge on RTÉ’s The Voice; Nicky Byrne hosts his own 2FM show). Filan knew he wanted to stay in music. But how many boy-band singers have tried to reinvent themselves as stand-alone artists only to fail embarrassingly?
“I had doubts,” he says. “Before my solo album came out, I had doubts. Before my new tour, I had doubts. You’re attempting things for the first time. That well-oiled Westlife machine is no longer behind you. To an extent, you are starting all over again — hoping people will take to your new songs.”
Still, he never second-guessed his decision. Even if it meant crooning to the proverbial two men and a dog, singing was going to be his future.
“It’s my first love — I want to do concerts, want to release albums. I’m still only seven or eight months into it, so it’s early days. I feel I’m learning something new every day. The gigs keep getting better and better,” he says.
Westlife didn’t pen their own material. But as he contemplated his solo album, Filan was encouraged by friends to write. The songs came naturally. Within a few months, he composed the bulk of his debut LP, You And Me. Taking the material on the road, he’s been surprised at how well the material has been received. He expected polite tolerance from Westlife fans waiting for him to get to the hits. Instead, he has been greeted with unfettered enthusiasm.
“We did three nights at the Olympia and people knew the words to the songs,” he says, a little incredulous. “To see fans singing along to something you have written is fantastic. It’s the first time I’ve experienced that feeling.”
He is still close to Westlife manager, Louis Walsh, who advocated strongly on behalf of the singer as a solo artist, and to Simon Cowell, the svengali who helped put the band together in 1997.
In fact, Cowell was initially opposed to having Filan in the line-up. The singer was forced to dye his hair and audition a second time, a source of considerable amusement between him and Cowell in later years.
Alongside his music, Filan has dipped a toe in broadcasting. On the last season of X Factor, Louis Walsh brought him in as guest judge and mentor. He enjoyed his time, even if he did seem a little too decent for the ding-dong world of reality television (when a young hopeful was required to leave the show, Filan burst into tears).
Filan hasn’t looked back since Westlife split. After 15 years, the band had run its course. Calling it a day was the smartest thing to do.
“We all knew it was on the way,” he says. “I guess maybe none of us wanted to address the fact. Perhaps we were afraid to make the decision. Deep down, we sensed it had to come to an end at some stage.”
He’s happy the band parted on good terms. Of course, there were disagreements across their decade plus together. Anything else would not have been natural. They were like brothers — and brothers will inevitably have their run-ins.
“There were arguments in the ranks from day one,” he says. “That’s what happens when you are in a successful business. It wasn’t like [Simpsons do-gooder] Ned Flanders. However, we all respected one another and made it work on stage.”
The biggest difference, as a solo artist, is the freedom he enjoys while performing. Without the requirement for boyband choreography, he can be spontaneous to a degree that was impossible with Westlife.
“You don’t have to worry about standing in the right place so a trapdoor can open under you,” he says.
“You can joke with people between songs. It isn’t pre-rehearsed, where you have your ‘bit’ to say. And the band is far more involved. With Westlife, they were in the background. Now, I can joke, involve them.
Thus far, his solo career has gone better than expected. He’s just finished a sell-out theatre tour and is counting down towards a summer gig at Cork’s Marquee, a venue he previously graced with Westlife.
“I couldn’t believe I was offered the Marquee, to be honest,” he says. “Peter Aiken came and saw me do two sell-out shows at Belfast. I was booked for the Marquee on the strength of that, I suspect. It’s a big room. I’m really looking forward to it.”