If there's one thing Rick Astley hasn't given up, it's music. The British singer, who is perhaps best known for his 1987 single, "Never Gonna Give You Up" — and the common Internet gag, "rickrolling," inspired by it — is back with a new album. 50 is already topping the charts in the United Kingdom, and it just went on sale in North America this week.
"It's been a crazy few months, to be honest," Astley says. "I don't think anybody around me or anybody who knows me was expecting that, to have a No. 1 album in the U. K. again. That was pretty freaky."
Astley joined NPR's Michel Martin to talk about surprise success, what he really thinks about his '80s stardom, and why he retired from music in 1993, only to return years later. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.
Michel Martin: Were you nervous coming back after having been out of the spotlight for a bit?
Rick Astley: In a lot of ways, no, really. I didn't have anything to be nervous about — because, like I said, we didn't really have any expectations. I made this record myself in my own studio at home. I wrote it all, produced it, played all the instruments. It's been a labor of love. It's been something I kind of wanted to do to mark my 50th birthday, which was this year, but obviously I was making the record last year. I didn't anticipate anything fantastic happening. I just kind of thought, "Well, we'll see how we can put the record out and we'll see how it goes."
The album is very rich. I think that the word "spiritual" has been applied. It is not uncommon for people to re-acquaint themselves with a spiritual side, especially after events that cause people to think differently about their lives. Can you identify something that kind of inspired — in every sense of the word — this particular sound?
I think, for me, even as a small kid, I sang in choirs — at the church choir, school choir. They weren't gospel choirs, that's for sure, but the idea of singing with other people. When I was having "Never Gonna Give You Up" and a couple of the other hits, I wouldn't have thought that deeply about certain lyrics, I don't think, because they were pop songs — It was like, "girl meets boy, boom," you know. Having lived a bit longer now, I think certain things that have happened in my life have definitely changed the way I feel about things.
The song "Angels On My Side" is about the fact that I have two elder brothers and an older sister and they looked out for me a lot. My mom and dad got divorced — and obviously, my mom and dad looked after me — but I'm saying having older brothers and an older sister, that could have gone one of two ways. They could have neglected the youngest kid, and I don't think they did. I think they looked after me. That's happened right through my career, as well: I've had good people around me. I've still got most of my sanity. And I've still got some money, which is a freaky thing in this industry sometimes. When people have a pop career, they kind of get churned up and thrown out the other end, and they have a disastrous life sometimes after it. And I've had a charmed, amazing life.
A lot of these lyrics, as you said, go a little deeper than the pop song often does. And you have been as open as people in your position can really be about the fact that when you were growing up, there were a lot of things going on with your family.
All families go through stuff. My mom and dad had a son who died before I was even born, and I think that affects a family in ways you can't even describe, come to terms with, anything. I think that's one of the most tragic things possibly to happen to two people. And I was the youngest — I was four or five when they got divorced, so I didn't really know that story. That wasn't part of my world, really.
When you're around two people who are very, very, very unhappy, i.e. your parents, it's really tough — and that's why I got into music, I think. I wanted to be at the school choir. I wanted to be at church, even though I wasn't necessarily very religious. I just wanted to be somewhere else with people my own agem and singing really helped me. One of the songs on the album is called "Keep Singing," and that's kind of, again, what that is about — that singing's been good for me.
Your story is so remarkable because, as you mentioned earlier, so often we hear about people like you who had these incredible successes, particularly early in life, and then become a disaster. But you didn't — I mean, you had these huge hits. When you were in it at the time, did you realize how big you were?
Uh, well that sounds a bit heavy. Not heavy — it sounds pompous, I think, a little bit. Kind of like "Do you know how big you were?"
I said it, you didn't!
To be honest, having success in America, a couple No. 1s and a few Top 10s, you kind of think, "It doesn't get any bigger than that." But then again, I would look at other artists around my time — if you look at George Michael's career through the '80s and into the '90s and stuff, I mean, it's on a different league, a different level. Another British guy, obviously. So I think, to be fair, it was four or five years of being really famous. And I wouldn't swap it for anything: It was an amazing experience, you know, because I made quite a lot of money. And I'm one of those people who actually wants to say that, because the way I look at the money side of it is that it bought me freedom. I've been free to do a lot of other things that I wanted to do. Nothing maybe too extravagant, but just freedom.
When you left the music industry in the early '90s, what was it that made you decide to go? How is it that you were able to go calmly when so many of your peers just seemed to go off the tracks?
I think it's a number of things. The manager who looked after me, traveling-wise and being there and all the rest of it through all my famous time, has never had a drink in his life. And when I said, "Come on, let's go and have a few drinks," he'd say, "Great, I'll come with you." And he'd have a Coke and I'd have a couple of drinks, and at that point, you go, "Well, I don't really want a couple more, you're just drinking Coke." But I also think having a few drinks in the bar, meeting up with a few people and having a few more, that's the slippery slope, isn't it? That's the point where you do that every night, and then you have to get hammered every night, and then obviously there's drugs, there's everything else. And I never really got into that. And I think sometimes the intensity of being famous in the way that I was can drive people to pretty crazy things.
And of course you weren't really gone all this time. Where do you come out on "rickrolling," this phenomenon where someone provides a fake hyperlink that leads to a video of you in the famous trench coat, singing "Never Gonna Give You Up"? I could see where it could be either a huge compliment or it could be kind of annoying.
I think it's been funny, to be honest. For the most part, most of the things have been pretty clever. There's your basic rickrollers, but there's been so many things that people have used that song and that video for. They've even cut up old President Obama speeches and got him to kind of speak "Never Gonna Give You Up," which I thought was pretty amazing. Our daughter was about 15 when that first started, quite a few years ago now. We had a sit-down and she chatted to me about it, and she just said her view on it was that it was nothing to do with me: It could have been any cheesy video from the '80s that somebody picked, and I should just let it go. And that's what I've done.
Why do you say it was cheesy? I kind of liked the video!
Well, it's different. If you look back at photographs of yourself from many years back, you probably look at them and cringe a little bit. And I'm in that same boat — I'm just doing it with videos that most of the world has seen. I think most videos from the '80s are pretty cheesy, to be honest.
Is it true you named the album 50 as a little bit of an homage to Adele and her naming albums after her age?
Homage is definitely a nicer way of putting it. I didn't think I'd see my name anywhere on the same page as Adele in the chart in the UK, and boom, there it was. I don't think she's worried about what I'm doing — I don't think she's probably even aware of it — but I thought it was just kind of funny. I really like the fact that she called her albums the ages that she was. I mean, that's what she was doing when she was that age. That's what she had to give at that age. And for me, this is where I am at 50. This is what I can give and this is what I've given, so there it is.