Guy Chambers on his solo piano album, turning his career around and why Sussex has nurtured him
PUBLISHED: 16:27 19 September 2019
Guy Chambers, the man behind Robbie Williams' biggest hits, has gone solo with a piano album inspired by his late mother. He reveals how his extraordinary writing partnership with Robbie turned his career around - and why Sussex has nurtured him since his bereavement
On the face of it, Robbie Williams and his co-writer Guy Chambers have always seemed unlikely bedfellows. One trades on his edginess and unpredictability; the other wouldn't look out of place conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Occasionally, you'll glimpse Guy, 56, on Robbie's Youtube channel, Vloggie Williams, which often follows the singer around Europe on his whistlestop stadium tours. Robbie looms into view with a shaved head and tattoos rippling down his muscular torso. Guy, in contrast, hovers unobtrusively in the background, an anachronism in his designer specs and Italian bespoke suits.
On camera at least, they exchange few words, yet you sense Guy is the lynchpin in Robbie's travelling roadshow - and not simply as musical director. He's the safe pair of hands; the one whose approval means the most. And, of course, they have a long history.
Guy was just another jobbing songwriter until he crossed paths with Robbie in 1997, then in the doldrums after a failed bid for solo stardom. They both needed a miracle. Guy was in debt, living in a flat with a leaking roof, wondering where the next pay cheque was coming from.
Robbie was drinking too much, taking too many drugs and nobody was taking him seriously as a songwriter.
Then the magic happened; that indefinable chemistry. On their first day together they wrote South of the Border in an hour. On the second day they completed Angels, now one of the most-played songs in history.
"It changed everything," acknowledges Guy, "because before Angels came out, the album wasn't doing well and there were a lot of worried executives at EMI. It meant we could carry on writing and touring, and it set up our whole relationship."
He acknowledges their differences, but stresses they complement each other's weaknesses. "Rob's completely obsessed with words. Lyrics are his passion. He loves rap battles. I'm passionate about musical composition."
So there's mutual respect? "Of course, I couldn't have worked with someone this long - it's been 22 years - without having respect. I've worked with artists whom I don't respect. And I only worked with them once."
Guy recently said that even though he knew Robbie well, he remained an enigma because he is constantly changing. Would he care to elaborate? "Twenty years ago he was very insecure, still very much struggling with his addictions, and pretty lonely. There was a lot of self-hatred. It was quite hard to be around someone like that, although he was also tremendous fun - and still is. Nowadays, he's a family man and his insecurities are much less intense. He also knows he's a good performer now. Not in an arrogant way; he's just confident in his abilities."
Nonetheless, there have been bumps in the road. They famously parted company in 2002 - "we were both exhausted and maybe taking each other for granted" - before reuniting in 2013 for Robbie's tenth studio album, Swings Both Ways. Guy also co-wrote and produced Robbie's 2016 pop comeback, The Heavy Entertainment Show, and is currently working on his latest album, due out at Christmas.
It was Guy's mother, whom he describes as the life and soul of the party, who inspired his debut solo album, Go Gentle into the Light, which features piano versions of 11 songs co-written with Robbie. She had been urging him to record a solo album for years (she worked in A&R at Decca Records) and when she passed away he decided to do it for her.
Recorded in a single session at Abbey Road Studios, it checked in at No 49 on the UK albums chart in May and the most popular track, The Road to Mandalay, has been streamed more than 5m times on Spotify. This autumn, Guy is performing a few gigs around the country.
At their new, gentler pace, many of the songs have taken on an entirely different character, particularly evident on The Road to Mandalay. The original had a German oom-pah quality; the piano version is sombre and contemplative.
"There's a lot of melancholy which you don't get from the original recordings because Rob's very good at diffusing his sadness with humour," says Guy. "Once you take the humour out, the real feeling behind the songs comes through."
Writing music has helped Guy work through his grief. He wrote a choir piece for his mother's funeral, then a folk opera of Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, which premiered at the Vaudeville Theatre in London in 2018. He is now nervously gearing up for the launch of The Boy in the Dress, a musical adaptation of David Walliams' popular children's novel, which opens at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2019. He's also co-writing another musical with Lily Allen, but it's all very hush-hush. Having focused on pop music for decades, he's undergoing something of a reinvention and finding it a huge creative release.
But it's not as radical a departure as you might imagine. Opera and musical theatre are steeped in Guy's blood because as a boy he used to watch his father, a flute player, perform in the orchestra pit at Glyndebourne.
"My dad was in the London Philharmonic Orchestra and every summer we'd rent a house and go down for the season," he says. "I even went to a different school. It was idyllic. My main memories are of walking the Downs and swimming at Seaford.
"That love of Sussex has stayed with me, and although our main base is in London, I still come down regularly with my wife Emma, and our four children, because we rent a weekend cottage at Firle. We love the village. It's eccentric and bohemian, like The Archers on acid, and we've been made very welcome. It's particularly nice because one of our new friends is an ambulance driver. In London, I don't get to meet people like that. One of my neighbours in London is Daniel Craig. I saw him putting the bins out the other day."
Guy feels a great affinity with his adopted home. "I love the Downs. I find the intimate scale of them, and the Ravilious contours, very comforting. I love cycling on my electric bike over the Downs to Tide Mills, near Seaford, where I go wild swimming. I'm pleased to say the water is much cleaner than it was when I was a child!"
It seems that Guy has found a contentment, both personal and creative, that has eluded him in recent years. The healing powers of the Sussex countryside have undoubtedly played their part.
My favourite Sussex
- Pub - The Sussex Ox in Milton Street, just outside Alfriston. My parents took me there a lot as a child, and it's a great pub. All their food is local, ethical and sustainably sourced.
- Restaurant - The Beanstalk Tea Garden. It's a magical place, tucked away along an old coach road (now a footpath) in the South Downs, between Firle and Berwick. It serves delicious salads, cakes and scones, and their mint tea is the best ever. You can sit in an Indian tent or outside in a beautiful cottage garden. They even have peacocks!
- Shop - The farm shop at Middle Farm, West Firle. Or Middle-class Farm, as it's known locally. I'm a total foodie.
- View - From Firle Beacon. On a clear day, you can see Glyndebourne, Lewes, Seaford, Newhaven and even Eastbourne in the distance.
- What celebrities love about Sussex - Some of Sussex's best known personalities have revealed in the magazine what they most love about the county. Here, we compile their stories, favourite restaurants, pubs, shops, views and places to visit