My way the high way

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2011, 12:00am

Idol wannabes can take comfort from the career of Michael Buble. The Grammy Award-winning crooner dubbed 'the Canadian Sinatra' spent his formative years as a struggling artist. He tried his luck in local talent shows long before the phenomenon of reality TV shows came along to offer a faster route to stardom for aspiring young singers.

As a celebrity mentor to contestants on The X Factor in 2009, he's seen the intense, high-profile competition of chasing the dream up close - and admits he may not have measured up.

'If I'd been on it I'd have lost,' a laughing Buble says by telephone from Australia, where his worldwide Crazy Love tour has taken him with his 13-piece band. The show comes to Hong Kong on March 11. 'It really depends on the person. I think some people can handle it and some people can't. A lot of people can be good singers. It's really about whether they're a real artist.'

Buble undoubtedly now conforms to that description. After years of slogging around the local gig circuit that included earning US$40 a time as a singing telegram, the son of a poor fisherman has become one of the world's highest-paid entertainers, grossing almost US$20 million last year, placing him seventh on Billboard music magazine's annual cash register of music stars behind leader Lady Gaga with more than US$30 million.

Just over 24 hours before we speak, Buble tucked his second Grammy Award under his belt, winning for best traditional pop vocal album for the October 2009 album Crazy Love, his fourth studio album. He beat fellow nominees Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis, Rod Stewart and Barbra Streisand.

That kind of company has brought derision from some quarters, but in the world of crooning, Buble, 35, is perhaps the most talented of the young generation, with only Harry Connick Jnr in the same league. He's sold more than 20 million albums in the past decade and makes the lion's share of his wealth from live events such as his three recent Madison Square gigs, which he cites as a career highlight.

'I'm a lot more confident nowadays. It's special,' he says, breaking into banter mode that often only comes across as half-joking. Next month, the man who once dated actress Emily Blunt, is scheduled to marry his fiance, Argentinian actress Luisana Lopilato, breaking the hearts of thousands of adoring women across the globe. 'I can go to parties every night with 15,000 people. It's about more than money. It's satisfying.'

Buble's first break came aged 18 when he won a singing contest in his native Burnaby, east of Vancouver, only to be disqualified for being below the entry age. He went on to win the nationwide Canadian Youth Talent Search, but that only led to years of hotel lounge gigs and cruise ship performances, before a lucky break and his own force of character took him into the big time.

TV talent contests aren't the route to the top for everyone, he says, even though he recognises the unearthing of talents such as Leona Lewis, who won Britain's X Factor in 2006, and Jennifer Hudson, who came seventh in American Idol in 2004 but three years later took home a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the movie Dreamgirls. Others have to work their way up the hard way, as he did.

Buble's real break came when he sang at a corporate gig in 2000. A guest recommended him to sing at then-Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney's daughter's wedding, at which music producer David Foster, who had worked with stars such as Madonna, Whitney Houston and Cher, was present. They eventually paired up and a combination of Foster's genius and Buble's commitment and energy set the singer on the path to success.

Initially he proved a hit with covers of classic songs, appearing on many TV shows. His eponymous debut album, released in 2003, featured standards such as Fever and The Way You Look Tonight. Despite some chart success it wasn't until 2005's It's Time album that Buble became a worldwide name, becoming so popular in Italy, to where he traces his ancestry, that he was given honorary dual citizenship.

Besides the covers - Can't Buy Me Love and the popular Quando, Quando, Quando, on which he duetted with Canadian pop singer Nelly Furtado - the album featured the first song part-written by Buble, who has no formal musical training. Emboldened, he made bigger contributions on the next two albums, 2007's Call Me Irrepressible, and Crazy Love. In so doing, Buble was consciously making the transition from cruise line crooner to complete performer.

The Canadian has grown with every outing. Six of his own songs have been hits, the singer is keen to stress. He says it's easier to record those than interpreting songs written or made famous by others.

'When you write, there's nothing to compare it too. You're free to do it as you want,' he says. 'When you cover a song, it takes a lot of time. I can't record such a song if I don't have a concept. There has to be a feeling and a reason for doing it. I think it's important to believe in it.'

A review of his current tour in the Sydney Morning Herald last month noted that the original songs he helped pen, Haven't Met You Yet and Home, brought the biggest reaction from the sell-out crowd. Not all of his covers are famous either. Sometimes they're lesser-known tracks by great songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, he says. 'Some of the songs are more obscure, not the great standards. I try to bring them back to life,' he says.

His live shows, peppered with often corny banter, are a magnet mostly for women and he's had to live with the nickname of the 'housewives' choice' just as he has the comparisons with Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. Whereas Welsh sex symbol Tom Jones has had decades of women throwing their flimsy underwear at him on stage, Buble has had to endure being thrown less flattering garments, something that seemed to get under his skin during the Australia tour.

'I hate underpants on stage,' he said after one gig. 'I kick them off as I see them coming. Usually they are massive. People always think they are hilarious.'

He wouldn't change his audience, he says, though he constantly strives to win over new fans. 'Of course I'm trying to stretch out. For me it's really important to show growth without alienating the many people that support me.'

He's performed with rap-rockers Linkin Park and, although his roots are in jazz, has developed his own style. 'I like good songs whoever they're by,' he says. 'I'm creating my own genre.'

If the sceptics aren't convinced, Buble's used to defying the doubters. 'People said to me early in my career that I would never get on radio,' he recalls. 'I got on adult contemporary radio. Then people said I'd never get on pop radio. Then I got on pop radio with a top-40 hit. It keeps on going and I keep stretching myself.'

So what's next for the boy who grew up listening to White Christmas by Bing Crosby? Well, it's an easy-listening Christmas album of course. But Buble the writer says he'll add some of his own songs to the classic festive tunes.

Michael Buble's Crazy Love Tour - Live In Hong Kong, March 11, 8pm, Convention and Exhibition Centre, HK$588-HK$1,588 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2629 6240