Interview: Billy Ocean - ‘It’s my job to make you happy’

‘What’s it like?” asks Billy Ocean, referring to The Jam House – the Queen Street venue he’ll be performing at next Friday.

“The last time I came to Edinburgh, I performed at the Playhouse. That was real nice. So is The Jam House good? I’m sure it is. Sometimes you have to play smaller shows and it’s more fun than big shows, but that doesn’t bother me much. Even if only one person shows up, you should be giving them the best show.”

Having sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, and with three US number ones under his greying dreadlocks, the chances of Mr Soul-lite performing to one man and his dog are about as remote as finding a pearl in a pistachio. Such is Ocean’s modesty, though, you feel he genuinely means it. For him, it’s all about giving his audience what they want:

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“My job is a simple one – make people happy. I accept myself as a public servant. I always look forward to seeing my fans, meeting the audience, engaging with them. That’s what I intend to do when I get to Edinburgh.”

Born in Trinidad, Ocean moved to London with his parents when he was eight. He worked as a tailor on Savile Row and took his name from the Stepney Ocean estate where he was living before releasing his first single – Love Really Hurts Without You – which reached number two in the UK.

Today, however, Ocean looks like a flamboyant Caribbean pirate. His pearly white teeth are the envy of toothpaste advertisers, the lilt of his accent sounding more West Indian than West Londoner. Until two years ago, though, the 62-year-old had spent 15 years out of the limelight, choosing to spend time with his family instead. After so long away, does it feel different this time round?

“I enjoy it a lot more, sure,” he says. “When I was younger, I’d get very nervous. That was on account of having to sell myself, but that’s over and done with. These days, there’s three simple aspects to it all: writing, recording and performing. I go into my own little world, then come out on tour and meet the people.”

A devout Christian, Ocean doesn’t agree with the ways in which today’s young talent are being treated – especially those on TV music-talent programmes. “I, personally, stay away from it,” he sighs. “I wonder how these kids feel. One or two get through and go on to be a success, but whether they win or lose, they should be paid. Some of these kids are thrust into the spotlight and get many nasty things said about them, reducing them to tears – I can’t stand that.”

Released in 2009, Ocean’s last album, Because I Love You, was favourably received by fans and critics. Now, he’s working on a new album – recorded at his studio in Grenada – which will feature songs that inspired the young Ocean (real name, Leslie Sebastian Charles).

“For instance, my father owned an old radio – the first person to have a radio in the village. When he switched it on for the first time, I heard Time And The River. It instantly captivated me.”

As anyone who has ever been to one of Ocean’s Edinburgh concerts will attest, he attracts a considerable female following. Never shy of a proposal or three, how does the happily married singer feel about the advances of the fairer sex north of the Border?

“These things happen,” he laughs. “You just have to be careful about what you say back. There’s nothing wrong with a little kiss on the cheek, though.”

The biggest-selling British black artist is grateful for everything he’s been given in life, but he does have one or two regrets. “If I had to give my younger self some advice I’d just say ‘be humble’. Looking back, I just wish I’d learnt to play the piano and read music properly. One day, when I’m retired, I’m going to study music.”

Humble indeed.

• A Night With Billy Ocean, The Jam House, Queen Street, Friday, April 20, 7pm, £19, 0131-226 4380