Interview: Joe McElderry, singer

He’s done pop and now he’s singing opera too. It seems “little Joe McElderry” from the X Factor has a pretty big voice with ambition to match

My first glimpse of Joe McElderry is through the window of a security door. Through the safety glass that separates backstage at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall from the rain-spattered city centre streets, McElderry’s wearing trackies and a T-shirt. He runs along the corridor, stops right opposite the door and throws a few shapes. He has no idea that I’m there. He’s laughing and larking about with someone I can’t see. I’ve not even said hello yet, but already McElderry’s not quite what I thought he would be.

The 20-year-old is nearing the end of his first solo national tour. Plastered to the building outside are posters, a close-up headshot of him looking serious and moody. This is McElderry 2.0, quite different from the baby-faced boy from South Shields who, mentored by Cheryl Cole, won The X Factor in 2009 by belting out tearjerker ballads.

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“It is quite a big pressure,” he says of having his own tour. Sitting in a dressing room, his tour manager perched on a sofa in one corner, this is media-friendly McElderry, earnest but talkative too. “It’s a big thing to think that everything is on me being on that stage every night. But at the same time it’s what I’ve always wanted: to have my own show.”

McElderry describes himself as “a bit of a perfectionist” and others describe him as being an incredibly hard worker, think the extreme opposite of Frankie Cocozza from this year’s X Factor. Maybe it’s because he knows both sides of how this particular route to pop stardom can play out.

McElderry’s “winner’s single”, which was aimed at the Christmas No 1 spot, was beaten by an anti-Simon Cowell campaign to get Rage Against the Machine to the top of the charts instead. Then, just over a year later, he was dumped by Syco, Simon Cowell’s record company, to which he’d been signed after his win. From the outside, at least, things looked like they’d gone a bit awry. And then another reality show changed things.

Popstar to Operastar, a show which teaches pop singers one end of Nessun Dorma from the other, called. Claire from Steps had signed up. So had Cheryl Baker. The one from Shakespeare’s Sister who isn’t the one who used to be in Bananarama had done it in the first series, which Darius Campbell went on to win. McElderry decided to give it a go. Rolando Villazon, the Mexican tenor and McElderry’s mentor, said that his 20-year-old protegee’s voice had more potential than his own at that age. McElderry took the praise in his stride and went on to win. Reality show triumph number two. But this time, things were different. He was signed to a new record label, Decca, and recorded and released a well-received album of “classic tracks” (his phrase), which debuted at number two and has since gone platinum. Since then he’s also recorded a CD of classic Christmas songs which has also sold by the truckload, as well as going on tour. It looks suspiciously like a happy ending might have been grabbed from the ashes of his X Factor experience.

“Some people would probably look at Popstar to Operastar and think it was a career move,” he says, “but, hand on heart, when I did that it was totally as a fun project. I was going to have that time off. I was going to chill out and go and travel and take stock of what had happened over the past two years, because I hadn’t stopped. When the offer came in from ITV asking me to take part I thought it’d be something fun to do through the summer for six weeks. But it totally lifted me up and turned me all around.” He laughs.

McElderry’s laugh is funny. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the Count from Sesame Street. I’m sure I gawp at him the first time he does it because I don’t think I ever heard it on TV, certainly not on The X Factor. Maybe it didn’t fit with the “little Joe” image that was so carefully constructed. Maybe I was just distracted by those dimples and long eyelashes. He really is as cute as a button. But don’t let that fool you – he’s also hard-headed and very ambitious.

I’ve interviewed X Factor survivors before and some of them, even winners, have a haunted look. They know that the pressure is on and there’s not much time to make themselves into what they’ve always dreamed of being: a pop star. It’s a heavy weight to bear. McElderry doesn’t show any signs of it. He’s full of energy, he speaks fast, no question throws him. Ask him where he sees himself in five years’ time and there’s no hesitation based on past experience, no false modesty. He wants to have done another “one or two” tours, maybe internationally. And he quite likes the idea of a stadium tour. But, he checks himself, knowing only too well how unpredictable these things are, or maybe how that might come across in print.

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“I’d just like to still be performing. I don’t need to stand in front of 25,000 people to feel happy at being on stage. If it’s 200 people and they’re enjoying my music and singing along, then great.”

McElderry knows how to give an interview. Of course he does. Remember, this is the boy whose coming out was splashed on the front page of a tabloid when he was still a teenager. McElderry had only told his mum and dad that he was gay a week before the story broke.

“I did get a bit of a shock when I saw that,” he laughs. “I didn’t expect it to be on the front page of the paper, if I’m honest. I thought there would have been bigger news than that.”

But he says the support he received was “absolutely amazing” and it continues.

“I was humbled then and I’m humbled now by all the support I’ve been given, but especially about that because it was so personal. It’s not really an ideal situation to have to do that in public because it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to just talk about with friends and family. So the support was really nice.”

And, despite what the doom-mongers say, McElderry’s career shows no signs of being adversely affected. If the audiences at McElderry’s live shows are anything to go by he’s got a fanbase that takes in five-year-old girls with their parents, teenagers with X Factor ambitions, women in their 20s and 30s and a new, more mature, crowd who discovered him on Popstar to Operastar. No one has been alienated by the fact that he’s gay.

“That’s what I wanted to happen. I didn’t want it to be this big thing. The reason I ended up talking about it was, one, because I’d had a bit of time off, time to think about who I was and to be comfortable with it; and two, because I was getting into interview rooms and the whole interview was orchestrated into trying to find out if I had a girlfriend or a boyfriend? Had I kissed this person or that person? Or slept with this person or that person? It was like, hang on a minute, actually I have an album out. I thought if I talked about it once then that’d be it and I could concentrate on the music. And that’s what’s happened.”

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Some of McElderry’s chat smacks of media training but he isn’t cagey or vague. And he isn’t a pushover, either. So, why did I think he was going to be a reality TV survivor, full of Cowell-lite catchphrases and desperate, positive-thinking platitudes?

“I’ve been painted as this person ...” he screws up his face, “as ‘little Joe’ who can’t really handle anything. It’s bollocks really.” He laughs. “I was young on The X Factor. Stand anyone that age in front of a camera and that number of people and they’re not going to be jumping all over the place, extremely confident.

“I was learning so much and I have learned so much about the industry. Everything that I’ve experienced, especially in the last six months from splitting with Syco to signing with Decca to dealing with quite negative press, it just makes me realise that you’ve just got to get on with the music and not get lost with all the rest of the rubbish. It’s pointless. I just enjoy what I do as a job and that’s why I do it.”

Surely it’s not that easy? McElderry had dreamed of being a performer. He’d studied performing arts at college in Newcastle. Surely, after all of that effort – he’d auditioned for The X Factor previously, before he was finally successful – was he really so laid back about being dropped by the man who’d given him his chance?

“I was,” he says instantly. “When it all happened with Syco, I just thought: whatever. I’m 19, I’ve experienced this now let’s move on to the next big thing.”

Get that? Not just the next thing, the next big thing.

“The way it was portrayed in the press was that it had happened out of the blue, but there had obviously been loads of stuff going on behind the scenes. You can’t phone up a paper and say, ‘by the way, I’m doing this but you just can’t see it yet’. So I just thought, write what you want and just wait and see what happens.” Only once does McElderry let slip the kind of impact that The X Factor had on him, when I ask him if he watched it this year. He starts by saying he was on stage most nights when it was on and I get myself set for a pat answer about how they’re all amazingly talented and he just can’t pick a winner, when he offers something much more interesting.

“For the first time this year I’ve been able to watch it with absolutely no emotional attachment,” he says. “Last year I watched it and it literally made my stomach churn. But this year I just felt like a member of the public. It was quite a nice feeling in a way but it also made me realise that that shows how long ago it was that I was on it.” (He picked Little Mix to win.)

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McElderry says that he’s proud of having been on the show and he’s clear that without it, he wouldn’t be where he is now and as you’d expect he’s not much interested in the criticism it attracts.

“People can slate it and say it’s this or that, or it doesn’t represent this kind of music or that, but for any aspiring performer it’s the biggest platform you’re ever going to get. But it’s not a career guarantee, which is the misconception people have about it.”

People in it or outside it?

“Both. A lot of people outside of it think that your career has to be up here [he puts his hand above his head] for the next 50 years. It’s not feasible. It never happens to any artist. If you look at some of the biggest artists in the world, their careers have had dips, they might’ve had singles that didn’t chart well or an album that didn’t do as well as the last. It’s all part of the journey of a musician. That’s what I took from X Factor. And when I won and people were saying, ‘he’s going here, he’s going there’ I just thought, ignore it all, it’s a platform and I need to use it to get what I want from it. I think that’s what I’ve done.”

You can’t really argue with that. But as for whether being a pop star matched his expectations of what it would be like, he’s more circumspect.

“It is a tough business. Really tough. I think if you ask anyone their honest opinion of it, it’s a very, very competitive industry but it’s also very rewarding if you enjoy performing and I absolutely do. Every night when I’m out on stage, that’s what I’m thinking – this is why I do it. And if you’re doing it because you love singing then everything else becomes irrelevant.

“And it’s not the hardest job in the world.” He flashes the dimples at me. “People are doing 12 hour hard manual shifts and I get up there and do something I really enjoy and I see people enjoying themselves as well.”

When McElderry won The X Factor, he dedicated his victory to his mum. She now comes on tour with him. I see her floating around backstage and in the auditorium for the soundcheck, although she steers well clear. According to McElderry, she thinks the hoopla that goes on in the music business is “a bit crazy” but she’s always there for him.

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“My mum isn’t interested in fame and fortune or any of that,” he says. “She’s here because she supports me; everything else is irrelevant as long as I’m happy.” He beams a smile.

It’s time for him to get changed to have his photograph taken. He disappears next door to where his mum has been while we’ve been talking. When she can’t be with him on tour, another family member comes instead. It’s how McElderry keeps things “normal”, he says. It’s also why he still lives in South Shields where he grew up, although he’s got his own place now. He commutes back and forth to London, staying in hotels when he’s there, but it’s worth it, he says, because being able to be at home is what’s most important.

“I love South Shields, I really do. My family is there, friends I’ve grown up with are there. It’s where I feel normal. If I didn’t like living there I would move away, but I do.

“I try to keep everything normal because that’s the bit that keeps you sane.”

We walk through into the empty auditorium for McElderry to do his soundcheck. He plays with his BlackBerry as the band sets up and techies scurry about with leads in their hands. On the screens at the back of the stage, a montage of McElderry footage plays. As he waits to sing, he lifts his BlackBerry and takes pictures of his image on the screen.

• Joe McElderry’s Christmas single, Last Christmas, is out now. Both of his albums, Classic and Classic Christmas, are also available, all on Decca.