'We used to talk about girls and chart positions. Now it’s fatherhood and babies!' Welcome to the Take That dad’s club.
Just a few months shy of their 30th anniversary, the remaining three members of Take That are gathered in a south London photo studio. Bar the row of drivers parked outside in Mercedes cars and the silent but notable presence of a single security guy, the vibe is casual, low-key, with that prickle of electricity that always hovers around a band that’s sold 45 million records.
I have known Gary Barlow, Mark Owen and Howard Donald since they were pop wannabes, travelling round the UK in the back of a van, existing on McDonald’s and takeaways. Back then – along with original members Robbie Williams and Jason Orange – they were five northern kids full of bravado, hair gel and ambition. Now they are men, all over 40, and all three fathers – two (Barlow and Donald) with teenagers of their own. All three are sporting facial hair, and flashes of grey are visible – as is that easy northern wit that kept them – even at the height of their pin-up fame in the mid-Nineties – so relatable. The fast food is a distant memory – a table in the corner is scattered with fresh fruit, herbal teas, vegetable juices, nuts, a half-eaten bar of chocolate and raw carrots. Times and diets have changed.
Take That are promoting a tour and an album but what we’re really here to talk about today is fatherhood and the fact that they are no longer a boy band but grown men with families
‘Jason was always into his health,’ says Owen. ‘We used to call it rabbit food. Now we’re all into it. But me and Howard still go for the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.’
Barlow, slim and ramrod straight in his cream polo-neck jumper, crosses the room immediately to make his greetings and to find out what I think of their new album. It’s a selection of their greatest hits that have been – in the case of songs like Pray and Never Forget – completely rearranged with new and old vocals mixed together and different productions all devised by the band. The record also includes voice recordings from all five of the band, snatches of interviews they gave at the start of their career.
‘All bands hate greatest hits albums, and we wanted to do something different,’ says Barlow. ‘We wanted to reflect who we were at the start of this journey and who we are now.’ Owen nods. ‘All our albums are like our babies, something we’ve created together,’ he says. ‘We want people to love it.’
They are crammed together on a squishy black leather sofa that’s seen better days. Oldham-born Owen has been showing me pictures on his phone of a very nasty recent surfing accident he had, where his bloodied leg was cut to pieces. Barlow takes a look and raises an eyebrow. ‘Remember we’ve got a tour to do,’ he says in his laconic flat Frodsham accent. ‘There’s only three of us left, we can’t afford to lose any more.’
They are promoting a tour and an album but what we’re really here to talk about today is fatherhood and the fact that they are no longer a boy band but grown men with families – though they each have a very different style of parenting.
There is the action dad, who takes his children on adrenaline-fuelled holidays, the indulgent dad, who spoils his children rotten, and the dead-on-his-feet dad, who is currently struggling with the demands of a new born child. We’re going to meet them all.
First up is Donald, who’s the oldest band member at 50, but the one with the youngest child. Donald has four children: Grace, 19, his eldest daughter by his ex, Victoria Piddington, at university in Bournemouth; Lola, 13, who grew up in Germany, is from a long-term relationship with businesswoman Marie-Christine Musswessels; and his two baby sons, two-year-old Bowie and one-year-old Dougie from his marriage to illustrator Katie Halil. The knackered dad apologises for being tired.
'That’s our lives. We’ve changed. We’re not boys, we’re men. We’re all dads. It completely alters everything'
‘I’ve had three-and-a-half hours’ sleep,’ he says. ‘The baby was up in the night. My wife said she’d get up with him because I had a photo-shoot but when he kicked off she was dead to the world, so I was running up and down taking him to the loo and looking after him.’ He pauses. ‘This is it for me. I’m too old to be a dad any more. I can’t have any more. It’s just too bloody hard.’
Barlow rolls his eyes and Owen laughs. Like the brown paper bags from Whole Foods that have replaced the Big Mac cartons, the conversation in the inner circle has changed over time. It used to be girls, chart positions and the latest tech. Now it’s marriage, fatherhood and babies.
‘It’s what we talk about in the dressing room,’ says Barlow. ‘That’s our lives. We’ve changed. We’re not boys, we’re men. We’re all dads. It completely alters everything, from the way you tour to the songs you write to the conversations you have – how long on the iPads, worrying about social media, the usual preoccupations. At the moment it’s a lot about Howard and his baby duties. He moans and Mark and I just laugh because we’re both past that stage. He does love to go on about it.’
Unlike their hard-working parents, each member of the band is a multimillionaire, something they all admit feels ‘strange’ when they compare their children’s lives to their own. The exhausted dad Donald is also the strictest. ‘I want my kids to do Saturday jobs, learn the value of money. My eldest daughter got into this habit of ordering Uber taxis non-stop from my account, which I had to pull her up on. I don’t care what kind of school they go to – state or private – as long as it’s a good school and they work. But I don’t like to spoil them. I went to school with plastic shoes my mum used to polish with Mr Sheen. That stays with you. My kids are lucky – I never want them to lose appreciation for what they have. And my kids are great. My daughter’s a teenager now, she sends me little clips of her and her mates in clubs dancing to Relight My Fire. They all look really happy even if they also look a little bit drunk, but it just makes me laugh.’
Donald’s parental conversation runs the gamut of worrying about Lola being too carried away with the YouTube generation and buying her trainers in return for good schoolwork, to his eldest Grace keeping up with her studies at university. He is very much a hands-on dad, changing nappies one day and dealing with university issues the next. ‘I’m the complicated one,’ he says. ‘I didn’t mean for it to be like this but that’s the way it turned out. That was down to me.’
In many ways he is a more typical rock-star dad. ‘I have a lot of guilt about the way things turned out for me. When we’d be on tour, we’d come back to the dressing room and I knew the other guys were going off back to their families. At the time I had just Grace and Lola and I would be desperate to see them. The fact that I had to fly to Germany to see Lola would cause a lot of band rows because I’d be away. But I didn’t care. I had to see her.
‘I grew up without a dad because he [Keith Donald] left home when I was a kid. He left four kids and my mum [Kathleen] in a two-up two-down. I don’t hold any anger towards him any more. In fact, I actually want to sit down and talk to him about it. But I didn’t want any of my kids not to have a dad present in their lives. If it’s a choice between band or family, family comes first.’
Take That in London, 1991. From left: Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, Howard Donald, Jason Orange, Robbie Williams
Take That in a shot from the video from their early release. Do What You Like
Take That performing in 2017 for the show, An Evening With Take That
Donald talks about looking after his baby sons when his wife suffered twice from post-pregnancy induced reactive hypoglycemia (a condition that causes sickness, weakness and insomnia) that kicked in after giving birth.
‘My wife wasn’t in a good way so it was down to me,’ he says. ‘There is nothing I don’t do: changing nappies, feeding, winding, walking... My wife is in a good place now and to be honest I don’t feel guilty about going on tour. My kids will come out now and then, but I’m actually thinking of it as a nice break.’
In contrast to Donald is Owen, the action dad – the hippy of the band with a less traditional lifestyle. The 46-year-old has always been the most alternative one, with his cool clothes and penchant for meditation and yoga, which has rubbed off on his bandmates.
He reads books on parenting, moved his three children Elwood, 12, Willow, ten, and six-year-old Fo out of London to live in the Hampshire/Sussex border countryside, and has spent two months of the summer travelling with his family. He has learnt to surf and Elwood has become an expert skateboarder.
‘It’s been good for us as a family,’ he says. ‘I feel we are in a position now where we’re getting it right as musicians and as parents. And that feels good.
‘When the children were little, it was easier to bring them on tour, but now they have school, friends, routines and they don’t want to be hanging out in dressing rooms all day. So it changes.’
You might imagine their own children look up to them, these guys who came from the working-class north and became one of Britain’s biggest boy bands, winning eight Brit awards and earning millions from hits such as Back For Good, Shine and A Million Love Songs. But their musical accomplishments don’t give them any credibility with their offspring, as Owen admits.
THE BAND MUSICAL
Written by Tim Firth and featuring the music of Take That, the critically acclaimed musical 'The Band' tells the story of what it’s like to grow up with a boyband. For five 16 year-old friends in 1992, ‘the band’ is everything. 25 years on, they reunite, now 40-something women, as they try once more to fulfil their dream of meeting their heroes.
Set to be one of the hottest West End shows which became the fastest selling UK theatre tour ever when it began last year, the show will have a limited Christmas run at Theatre Royal Haymarket from 1 December - 12 January.
Featuring all the big Take That hits from It Only Takes A Minute to Rule The World, the show is, says Donald, a “thank you to the fans for all their loyalty.”
The Band opens at Theatre Royal Haymarket on 1 December and tours nationwide. thebandmusical.com
‘Honestly, it doesn’t really impress them. All of our kids love coming to the shows but they are not in awe of us. My dad [Keith] was a grafter. He worked early shifts as a decorator and would be home at 3.30 and he cooked our tea, and my mum [Mary] went out to work [in a bakery] till 11.30.
‘My dad was also in a local band, so every week he’d put on his good trousers, pick up his guitar case and walk out of the door, and I don’t think either me or my brother or sister would even turn round from the telly. Sometimes when I’m getting ready for a show, I get dressed, pick up my guitar and shout “Bye”, and my kids are all watching telly and I have flashbacks to my dad. I’m turning into him in those moments.’
They are, in fact, a long way from any of their parents. Barlow’s late father, Colin, who worked in a fertiliser factory, remains Barlow’s hero, but the band’s principal songwriter reveals that he is the indulgent dad: ‘I’m happy to give my kids everything. They go to private schools, I love to spoil them. I want them to be polite. There’s no comparison to the way I grew up, but that just couldn’t happen. The only comparison I want is to give them the security and sense of family my parents gave me.’
Take That in concert. Take That are celebrating 30 years by releasing ‘Odyssey’ – their greatest hits re-imagined
Barlow, 47, has three children: Dan, 18, Emily, 16, and Daisy, nine, with his wife, Dawn. There was also his daughter, Poppy, who was stillborn in 2012 – a subject he broached for the first time in his recent autobiography, A Better Me. In the book, he spoke about stepping up to look after his wife and taking over the cooking for the family – something he still does, as does Owen.
‘I love to cook for my kids,’ Owen says. ‘I will spend hours making something really healthy and amazing like a beautiful curry and they’ll come home, take a mouthful and say: “Do we have anything else?”’
On stage they have the adulation of millions, at home it can be a different story, as Barlow reveals: ‘The most difficult thing about this business is that you are away a lot. Life at home goes on. You come back and sometimes you are like the lodger in the house. You go from singing a song to thousands to standing in a kitchen saying: “Come on, close your mouth when you’re eating.” And your wife is standing there waiting for you to ask for a cup of tea so she can say, “You’re not on tour now”. So there’s that adjustment, which can be very hard if you come home mid-tour.
‘Growing up changes you, fatherhood changes you,’ Barlow continues. ‘When Rob [Williams] introduced me to Ayda, who was then his fiancée, the first thing I did was call the other guys and say: “We’re OK. Rob’s going to be OK. I’ve met the girl he’s going to marry and she’s a keeper. Three kids later, Rob’s a different man. He’s a great dad. He loves his family – he loves nothing more than just sitting around his house with his kids. And that’s important. Our music has always been emotional, and the older you get, the deeper the emotion, and the more everything means.’
A few days later I receive a phone call from Owen, who’s clearly been thinking deeply on the subject of families. ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ he begins in his classic self-deprecating manner. ‘But I was really thinking about those moments where what you do and how you are as a parent meet in the middle.
Take That (including original member Robbie Williams) at the launch of the musical The Band
‘When I put my daughter Fox to bed at night she has always asked me to sing a lullaby. Apart from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I don’t know many kids’ songs, so I’ve always sung her Take That songs like Pray, Shine and Giants – because obviously I know all the words. At the moment she asks for the song about the lights going out, which is Everlasting, so that’s what I sing. It’s something the two of us have together and I realise that not only is it special to her, but it has actually changed how I feel about those songs when I go out and sing them on stage. It makes it even better. She has made it even better.
‘So if you want to know what it’s like being a musician when you become a dad, the answer is it can be hard, you can miss your kids. But then there are these moments when you get to share what you do with your children and that makes it all mean a whole lot more. That’s when it all becomes pretty magical.’
Take That celebrate 30 years by releasing ‘Odyssey’ – their greatest hits re-imagined – on November 23, takethat.com