Gary Barlow Reflects on His New Album and 3 Decades in the Spotlight: 'It's Nice to Be Here'
The British singer opens up to PEOPLE about his album Music Played By Humans and how his late daughter's memory continues to live on in his music
When Gary Barlow set out to record his latest album Music Played by Humans, he knew he'd need, well, exactly that. So from November 2019 through March of this year, he filled a recording studio with a full 80-piece orchestra and a whole host of collaborators including Michael Bublé, James Corden and Barry Manilow to bring his idea to life.
In mid-March, the British singer, 49, recorded his last track on the album with about 60 musicians, just days before the coronavirus pandemic sent the U.S. and the U.K. into lockdown.
"I couldn't believe how lucky we were with that," Barlow tells PEOPLE. "We can't make a record like that at the moment, so I feel very blessed."
The big band sound characteristic of Music Played by Humans was inspired by Barlow's childhood, during which his dad would play him the records of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
"I don't know if I loved [that music], but it just stuck with me," Barlow says. "It's funny — a month ago, I was listening back to the record just before it was released, and I thought, 'Wow, music is a funny thing. It goes in your system and who knows when it's going to come out?' This record, it definitely came out for me. It's very strange."
Of the 14 tracks on the album, Barlow says he's particularly proud of "This Is My Time," an ode to what's most important in life.
"When I got home from my last tour, it hit me when I walked through the door and saw my three children and my wife who I've been with for 25 years that success isn't record sales or even the house we're all in," he says. "It's simply the love and the family bond and memories that we have. That's what the song's about, really. It's like, if this thing called love's going to hurt me and burn me and all that, I'll take it because it's worth it."
He's also proud of all of the collaborations.
"Collaborations are hard," he says. "Record labels try to team you up with someone who's big in a country where you want to be big, and they want to be big in your country. So, it ends up this false thing, and then they want to sing the bit you want to sing. Oh, it's just a nightmare."
"So, I basically did like a call to mates on this, just friends," he continues. "People I respected and loved and people I knew wouldn't be a pain to work with, and we just had the best time. It was very easy to record, and luckily they were all done before lockdown. It was all authentic and real."
Barlow plans to take Music Played by Humans on the road in November 2021, pending the state of the world.
"My goal is to fill the stage with musicians," he says. "I want to get my team back on the road. They've not worked for nine months, so I just want to get people back out. I want to see those places full of people going crazy, having a great time. We've got to get back there."
The lockdown has definitely been a change of pace for Barlow, who has been used to a nonstop schedule of touring and recording since 1989, when he rose to fame as the lead singer of British pop group Take That.
"In the past, I would do 150 flights a year," he says. "I'd sometimes not bother unpacking my suitcase because I'd be gone again in a few days. After this year, I don't want to go back to doing what I used to do. I mean, I have really loved being at home. I've really loved having enough time to be around everyone and enjoy them."
Being at this stage of his career, Barlow adds, feels "lovely."
"It feels like a lifetime ago, but it sometimes feels like yesterday as well," he says. "I've got so many good times to look back on, but the other great thing is, I'm nearly 50 now and to be a songwriter and have lived a life, it's nice. Because you can't write songs just about nothing. You have to write about something, and having a life. Living a life is as important as being able to write songs. Because without the life, you don't have any songs. So, it's nice to be here right now."
Among the life moments that continue to inspire Barlow is the death of his fourth child Poppy, who was stillborn in 2012.
"It's in all of my music," he says. "Music is a very funny thing. You can tell yourself, you're keeping it in there, but it finds its way out. It always does, and that's how you keep the memory alive. One of my most famous songs about that time was a song called, 'Let Me Go.' It's so strange because most people don't really realize what it's about. It's one of those songs that's so happy and I will play it at a concert and the whole of the audience are [singing], and that to me is the best. It's just such a beautiful thing to see and that's what keeps the flame burning."
When Chrissy Teigen and John Legend spoke out about their own pregnancy loss in October, it struck a chord with Barlow. In a message to the couple on Twitter, he wrote, "Sending all my love, strength and best wishes @johnlegend @chrissyteigen no words can make the pain any easier."
"With any of those things, I think you suddenly realize that it happens to so many people," Barlow says. "It really does. And, of course, everyone deals with it in their own way. So, it felt like something I just had to do. It's a very misunderstood thing, and I just had to reach out. I've actually spoken to him since then as well, and they're fine. They're fine. But it's massive, that is."
Barlow knows firsthand, though, the healing power that music can provide.
"One thing that's never faded for me is I'm still excited to come in the studio," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what I'm going to write, and I'm still thrilled to walk on a stage. That's never softened, that hasn't. So, the effect music has had has never faded for me. It's always felt special, and I hope it always will. And I think as long as it will, I'll be here doing it."
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