Freewheeling around Los Angeles, Markus Feehily felt – in all the best ways – alone at last.
He was driving from studio to studio, using his guts and his gumption to get meetings with producers. He was going in with his voice, and his ideas, and a passion for songwriting that had been stoppered up for 15 years. The vibe was bootstraps and DIY; the urge was the need to express the soul music he’d been writing, on the quiet, in hotel rooms and on tour buses, for over a decade. Feehily’s plan was to go his own way – no record company machine or weight-of-expectation required.
“It was summertime,” he recalls of what would end up a four-month working trip to LA, “and a writer mate of mine, Mark Mehigan, was with me. We had a tiny apartment near West Hollywood, with our little studio set up inside. I wanted to start from scratch, so I was meeting as many producers from my contacts as I could meet. Our plan was to get some backing tracks, take them back to the apartment and start writing.”
Feehily’s mates and colleagues in his adopted home of London felt a long way away. His hometown of Sligo felt even further. And beyond even that, lying hazily in his memory, was Dublin’s Croke Park. It was there, over two ecstatic nights in July in 2012, that Westlife – the band Feehily co-founded as a 15-year-old schoolboy – said goodbye to 160,000 fans, record sales of 50 million and one of the most successful pop careers of the 21st century.
“We felt like we wanted to put a very big full stop at the end of it,” the singer-songwriter says now. “It was a very brilliant and absolute ending to the band.”
As to his own feelings on the Irish four-piece finally disbanding, “it was never ‘thank God for that, I couldn’t wait to finish it!’” he recounts with a laugh. “But it was a massive relief. It had been a long time. We released our first record in 1999, but we met Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh a year before that. But we put the band together at school; I was in the same class as Kian [Egan] when I was 15. So it’s a long time completely dedicating all your life to something.”
Feehily had managed to express his creativity to some extent within the confines of the band. He wrote half-a-dozen songs for Westlife albums, helped with vocal arrangements on tour, and was the lads’ go-to-guy when it came to discussing ideas for photoshoots and videos. But still, he was part of a group, and was loyal to that. As he says now, “if you’re gonna be in a band like that, you do have to dedicate yourself 100 per cent.
“But naturally, I’ve always had this other side to myself. And that side of myself was relieved and happy when the band ended because I wanted to start a new chapter.”
The wide-open music community of LA was the perfect blank page. While there Feehily met Bert Elliott, a member of Ryan Tedder's production camp. He gave the Irishman a USB stick containing a fresh backing track. That night, back at their apartment, the two Marks wrote Butterfly.
“We began with one of those big, bombastic pop backing tracks. I love soul and R&B, and Mark loves hip hop, and he’s a great lyricist. And together we came up with that song, which is one of my favourites.”
A soaring showcase for Feehily’s heartfelt soulful vocals, with a huge chorus, the completed Butterfly felt like a creative corner had been turned. He knew that here, at last, was the kind of music he had long wanted to make.
“As much as I had been involved in this massive commercial machine, and as demanding as that was, I always had my own organic thing going on in the background. I had my own little studio set-up that I’d bring on the road and I’d spend hours and days recording vocals and making up beats and writing melodies. The complete polar opposite of what I was doing in Westlife.”
Sirens was one of those tunes that began life, on the quiet, in the Westlife days. It was co-written with producer/DJ/remixer Jakwob (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Lily Allen, Sigma). Feehily, candid to a fault, admits that firstly he came by Jakwob's backing track without his knowledge – and that secondly, he therefore had to convince Jakwob that Feehily's chutzpah was worthy of respect rather than outrage. "To be honest he was a bit narked at first," he laughs. "But I persuaded him to let me come over to his studio and sing it for him. I had to show him this other side of me; I didn't want him to think it was just the guy from Westlife singing into a Dictaphone."
Back in London, Feehily took his time. There were songs to work out, empathetic collaborators to source, and personal experiences to metabolise into lyrics that genuinely reflected emotional uplift and pain. The first music he was going to release under his own name had to be authentic, honest, true.
Take Love Is A Drug, the first single to be released from his upcoming debut album. It was written with Tinashe and Steve Anderson, who Feehily knew from his work with Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears.
“Steve is Mr Strings. And he’s just a big pop genius – he produced Never Forget for Take That. He likes it dark and he likes it big, just like me!”
It’s an intense, torrid song, the blooming sound of strings and a gospel choir adding heft to Feehily’s roof-lifting vocals. The icing was additional production from Mojam (Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé).
“There’s lots going on,” he acknowledges with a smile. “And there is pain. One of the things I never got to do before as a singer was really express how I was feeling. When I was young, like every teenager or adolescent I was going through that whole ‘nobody understands me’ thing. But I was also gay and having to come to terms with my sexuality. So there’s loads of times I’d lock my bedroom door, turn the lights off and just fucking sing my arse off! The singing was an outlet for stress – and for pain, I suppose. So I really gravitated towards soul and blues.”
Shortly before the end of Westlife, Feehily also split with his boyfriend of seven years. He admits that that newfound freedom, while liberating, was also daunting. As with anyone single after a long-term relationship, there were other relationships, and other pressures. He cites another new song, Back To Yours, written with The Nexus (Lana Del Rey), which starts with a beautiful echo of the opening chords of James Blake’s cover of Feist’s Limit To Your Love.
“Back To Yours is about going back to somebody you said you’d never go back to. Choosing a situation you know will hurt you over being alone – which is even worse. You know, two massive things in my life ended all of sudden, pretty much around the same time as well. Within six months everything that made my life up just was gone. So there were lots of lonely dark moments. And Back To Yours is me at my most exposed.”
There’s more raw honesty on Wash The Pain Away, a throbbing synth-pop lament that offers elegant space for Feehily’s staggering vocals.
“It’s all coming from a pained place,” he recounts cheerfully. “If I’m having a good time, I’m happy as Larry. I go out with my mates and have a few drinks. When I’m alone or in a dark place, that’s when I want to sing. So Wash The Pain Away I like to think of as my version of Mary J. Blige’s No More Drama. It’s one of those, ‘I’ve had enough of this shit!’ songs, and it has quite a gospel feel to it. And it’s almost like a live moment we captured that day in the studio – it was the first song Steve, Tinashe and I wrote. I just wanted the weight to be lifted.”
Markus Feehily, freshly minted solo artist, is still hard at work on his new music. His new life. He’s collaborating closely with stylist/photographer William Baker (Kylie Minogue, Tricky, OutKast) on all the visuals accompanying his music. He’s being left alone by his new management, and by his new label – he picked Kobalt as an artist-driven label who would give him the space and resources to do exactly what he wanted. And he’s still crafting his new songs. He’s in no rush. He wants to get this right. He has too much to say to do it any other way.
“You might think someone who’s had a 15-year career in music would think they’ve done it all,” he reflects. “But I feel there’s so much I want to do that I haven’t done yet. That idea makes me feel as young as I did when I was starting out in Westlife. I’m really driven. I’m excited. I feel alive. And I’m ready to stand up and take charge.”