Michael Bolton swears he’s a jocular person. Really. But in photos and public appearances, he rarely smiles or kids around . And in press conferences and interviews, he invariably winds up a tad on the defensive side, answering the slings and arrows of music critics who’ve taken his extremely dramatic ballad style to task.
The singer says we’ll see some different sides of him, though--including, presumably, the light-hearted one--in the TV special “This Is Michael Bolton,” airing Wednesday at 10 p.m. on NBC. This hourlong profile , which incorporates both extensive concert footage and behind-the-scenes glimpses, is from the same producers (Bud Schaetzle and Louis Levin) who put together “This Is Garth Brooks,” a surprise ratings smash that NBC is banking Bolton has the mass appeal to repeat. Given that his last album sold 5 million copies in the U.S., it may be a safe bet.
Besides the TV show, Bolton, 39, is promoting his new album, “Timeless--The Classics,” a collection of well-worn oldies that veers between the string-laden (“Yesterday”) and the horn-driven (“Hold On, I’m Comin’ ”). During a quick visit to L.A. between mixing sessions for the TV special at his Connecticut home studio, Bolton spoke about his success, his image and his critics.
Question: Music hasn’t done that well ratings-wise on TV in recent years. But the success of the Garth Brooks special really turned around everyone’s expectations.
Answer: I’m sure it turned a few heads, because the numbers, as they say, were big on the Garth show. But on the other hand Garth’s numbers are big anyway. He’s a phenomenon. He’s got this extremely active audience that just comes out. . . . According to Bud (Schaetzle), it was (Schaetzle’s) idea that I was one of the only people that--at this time, anyway--could pull that kind of audience as well. But I don’t know, I’m not taking it for granted, I’ll tell you that much.
You really cover a lot of ground with a special. The timing is great, of course, because the “Classics” album is out at the same time, and it’s a great way to announce the new project. But for me, it’s really about a career. It’s a way to introduce yourself to a lot of people who, oddly enough, really don’t have any idea of who you are.
No matter how many albums you sell, there are people everywhere who either never heard of you or just heard of you and they don’t know whether you’re a baseball player or a singer. And it’s a way to maybe answer some of the questions that a lot of my fan mail reflects interest in.
Q: First and foremost, fans probably think of you as a romantic. And to a lesser extent, you have a very serious, sober public persona--not exactly a happy-go-lucky character like Garth. Are those both accurate perceptions, that you’re a romantic and a very serious person?
A: Yeah, but I have another side that is a character, too. I think you’re probably right in that depiction, that that’s probably how people perceive me. And it’s probably because I took my career so seriously--because it took so long and so much work, and there was so much disappointment and concern about it ever happening, that I felt the only way to make it was to be so focused and serious in anything that concerned my career.
And ironically, ever since I was a kid, I really took almost nothing seriously. I made a joke out of everything. I got kicked out of Sunday school. I couldn’t sit in a class with other people without joking or making other kids laugh and get in trouble with me. Almost everything is funny to me. And yet when it comes to my career and my kids, that’s when I get serious. And that’s the way a lot of people have seen me.
A lot of my fans say, “Why doesn’t he smile more? Can you send me some pictures with him smiling?” (He chuckles, turning to photographer.) See, he could have had three of ‘em just now. But there aren’t too many. Ironically, people close to me know me as a joker. But they also know that, when it comes to my career, I’m dead serious.
Q: Did you happen to see the parody of you on “In Living Color,” where you sing “When a Man Loves a Woman” so hard your head finally explodes?
A: I thought it was hilarious. I forget the guy’s name, but I had seen him before (spoofing) me in one of his cable specials, and I was in stitches. He said, “No, I like this guy, but I’m just worried about him.” Then he imitated me singing and you see his veins sticking out, and he was hilarious.
When I saw the (“Living Color”) video, I thought it was my video. My kids taped it because they thought it was hilarious. I put it in and said, “God, that’s my suit, the girls are moving like my girls.” The only thing that bugged me about it was there was one line in the whole song--I won’t even tell you what it was--that bothered me. And if I speak to him someday, I’m gonna speak to him about it, and tell him he’s hilarious. . . .
Q: The line about ripping off old black artists?
A: No. “Swipe a hit from an old dead guy,” he said--that’s funny, I don’t think anyone was offended by that. . . . (He pauses, considering--and then deciding against revealing which line bothered him.) I don’t know--it was funny, I saw humor in it.
But on top of it, do you know what I saw? I saw that that whole show was about superstars, parodies on superstars. The next one was Prince, and then there was Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson. I sat there and thought, “Wow, I’ve gone from selling 11 records and not being able to pay my rent and having eviction notices and having to support a family and not being able to, to having a comedian on national TV doing a parody of me because he thinks people care enough and know who I am now enough that they’re gonna use me to do a caricature. Wow, check that out. OK. I can deal with it.”
Q: Are you able to take the same perspective on all criticism that comes at you?
A: Oh, no. A little bit, because I know that critics wouldn’t take shots at me if I was nobody, because no one would notice them and read their columns. But it’s not easy for me to write that off, because--besides it being insulting when a critic takes a shot at you--the most offensive thing, when you really read into it, is that you see the critic is not really knowledgeable enough about music to be making the kind of criticisms he is. . . . He doesn’t get it--and yet he is allowed and has the power to do a critique on your music. . . . And when someone doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand what you’re all about, and then does a critique on your work, it’s offensive. It’s beyond offensive--there’s a certain amount of injustice in it that is difficult to just write off and say, “OK, that’s another thing that goes with the territory.”
But inevitably it falls into that category of another thing that goes with your success. I wanted it, I worked my ass off for it, I still work my ass off to keep it and to have it grow, and I’m not gonna be deprived of my enjoyment and pleasure in what I do by some injustice that comes with the picture.
Q: Why do an entire album of other people’s material now? Some of your biggest hits have been remakes of old pop hits, but primarily your albums have consisted of your own songwriting with an oldie here or there. Why not just continue that pattern?
A: I will continue that; if I find a classic that’s great for the next record, I’ll put one on there, too. But it’s a simple thing that inspired this album. I did this project for Disney called “Mad About the Mouse,” a compilation of songs by artists picking their favorite Disney themes.
I decided I wanted to cut “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from “Cinderella,” and decided to cut it with an orchestra. I wanted it to feel like something Bing Crosby would’ve stepped into comfortably. And when I walked into the studio and started singing with this orchestra, I fell in love with that. . . . (So) on this album there are six songs with orchestra, and then four with horns.
Q: How else was your approach different on “Timeless” than on your previous albums?
A: When it started out, it was meant to be just an album between albums--a two-month project, fun, a piece of cake . . . easy, because the songs were already written. And it turned out to be much more demanding than I expected or hoped. I didn’t realize that I was gonna get into the same neurotic perfection attitude in the studio.
With this “Classics” album, just call it delirium or something--I had this idea in my head that I could go in and have fun and make a record. It started out that way, and then I realized, wait a second, this record’s gonna be received by millions and millions--and with a little luck, it’ll be received by the 9 or 10 million people that have “Time, Love and Tenderness"--and are they gonna say, “Well, I know it’s a special project, but does it sound as good to you as the last album?” And I started getting crazy, saying, “I know I can do this better, we have to go back in.”