The Making of Michael Buble
Thanks to a Mulroney family wedding, Celine Dion’s producer, Bryan Adams’s manager, and a voice that recalls Sinatra and Harry Connick Jr., a fisherman’s kid from Vancouver is the new king of croon.
By David Hayes, Saturday Night, April 2005
Malibu is the quintessential symbol of North American celebrity, a glamorous, wealthy enclave, 40 kilometres west of Los Angeles. It looks like nothing more than a scruffy beach colony, but turn off the Pacific Coast Highway and you find strip malls featuring exclusive clothing and home furnishings shops and high-end restaurants like Wolfgang Puck’s Granita and the Malibu branch of exclusive Nobu. And, five minutes down Cross Creek Road you find millionaire record-producer David Foster’s 23-acre, $77-million estate with its lush grounds, tennis courts, and monorail to ferry guests from the swimming pool up to the Xanadu-like mansion perched on a hillside. Here, at Villa Casablanca, with its state-of-the-art recording studios, Foster has played host to the likes of Céline Dion, Whitney Houston, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Lionel Richie, Natalie Cole or Madonna. Pop royalty.
Today, though, on a sunny December morning, he’s hosting Michael Bublé, the new prince of smooth jazz, the next Harry Connick Jr., the man the British press call “Sinatra in sneakers,” a 29-year-old crooner from Canada who has sold nearly three million copies of his debut album and will get a king’s ransom worth of marketing and promotion from Warner Bros. Records to support the follow-up, released in Februrary. His story is a publicist’s dream. In 2000, the salmon fisherman’s son was on the verge of giving up his singing career, doubting he would get beyond hotel lounges and corporate events, when, in short succession, he did a wedding gig for a former Prime Minister, met Foster, who signed him to his own 143 Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., acquired Bryan Adams’s manager and Madonna’s publicist and heard Tony Bennett dispense fatherly advice while calling him “kid.”
Small wonder he’s still getting his bearings up here where life is fast and the air is rich and thin. Part of him is adjusting just fine — even Bublé’s started tossing around the word “kid,” referring both to himself and others, and sometimes he sounds like he’s riffing at a Rat Pack roast in the early ‘60s — and part of him appears to be the hockey-loving, all-Canadian suburban boy from a close family who’s still a little bit green and awestruck. He’s here this week to put the finishing touches on his new CD.
As he parks his rented PT Cruiser in the driveway outside Foster’s Chartmaker Studio, he says: “The people at Warner said they were renting me some fancy-dancy sports car. Can you imagine what kind of schmuck I’d look like? My family would laugh at me. I said, what’s the cheapest car. They said, the PT Cruiser. I said, sounds good.”
It’s true, yes, but Bublé is self-aware enough to realize that it also sounds good to the media machine that’s churning around him, which has him cast as a handsome young Sinatra without the Chairman’s menace. In the next breath, the nice, diffident boy unfazed by showbiz culture becomes the cocky, wise-cracking “kid,” a joker who can deliver a line worthy of Sinatra himself. As we walk past Foster’s gleaming, high-end BMW, Bublé glances at it and remarks: “That’s a small penis car.”
Inside, he happily greets fellow Vancouver singer Nelly Furtado, who is alone in the sound booth recording vocals for a duet with Bublé on the bossa nova standard Quando Quando Quando.
When will you say yes to me
Tell me quando quando quando
You mean happiness to me
Oh, my love, please tell me when…
Bublé has a rich, luscious tenor, and Furtado’s voice, with its distinctive smoky-nasal quality, answers his and joins him in harmony on the last line. Sitting at the mixing board in the control room, Bublé turns to his mentor, Foster, and Foster’s long-time collaborator and co-producer, Humberto Gatica. He looks pleased that both men are nodding approvingly.
Later, during an herbal tea break, Bublé and Furtado join Bublé’s fiancé, Debbie Tumiss, and Furtado’s manager, Chris Smith, at a table in the reception area. Bublé, who is irrepressible when he gets excited, is explaining how Furtado came to be on his new album. “I wanted someone young, I wanted someone who sings beautifully and I wanted someone who sells records internationally and can speak Portuguese. So I’m thinking, yeah, there are people like that everywhere. And all of a sudden I thought, Nelly Furtado!”
Furtado, a petite 26-year-old who today is wearing a black sweater, black scarf and pink sheepskin boots, has a melodic laugh that bursts forth with little provocation. “Oh, Michael,” she says, giggling.
Bublé, a natural mimic who cracks up audiences by breaking into goofy white-boy raps during live shows, begins singing her hit song, I’m Like A Bird, grossly exaggerating Furtado’s warbly style. “And though my luuuuv is ra-er-er-er-er-er, and though my love is true-ohh-ohh-ohh-ohh-yeah-ah-ah-ah, I’m hung like a bird…
The laughter dies down in a minute or so, but when Bublé gets on a roll there’s no stopping him.
“No, I thought you were really cute, Nelly,” he says. “Your eyes. I wanted to pop them out and keep them.”
Unsure what to think about this, Furtado laughs uncertainly.
Bublé fixes her with a soulful gaze, lowers his voice, and earnestly says: “Nelly, if you were a Popsicle, do you know what I’d do with you? I would take off your wrapper and I would hold you by your two little sticks and I would lick you up the centre and then I would break you in half on the counter and put half of you in the freezer for later.”
A few seconds of silence follows, as everyone at the table struggles to absorb this image. Furtado cries out in mock outrage, then laughs indulgently, the way teenaged girls laugh at the goofy antics of teenaged boys. Timuss, smiling, shakes her head and says to me: “Only Michael can get away with saying stuff like that.”
For Once In My Life (2:34)
Over the past year, Bublé (pronounced Boob-lay; it’s Italian, not French) has become an international phenomenon. When Warner Bros. executives released his first CD, Michael Bublé, in February 2003, they figured he’d need to establish himself over two or three albums, if it caught on at all. For the first CD, they expected numbers in the 50,000 to 100,000 range, and that would have been considered a success for a debut by a male pop-jazz singer working a genre similar to Diana Krall’s, but one that’s notoriously friendlier to female artists than males. The CD mixed standards like Fever and Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me with contemporary songs like Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love, George Michael’s Kissing a Fool and Van Morrison’s Moondance, all dressed up in classic big band arrangements and urethaned with Foster’s trademark pop gloss, that mysterious alchemy – a particular way of recording sounds or combining instruments – that makes a song resonate with listeners. Still, everyone was surprised when it sold nearly 3-million copies to date, putting him in a league with the largest global pop acts.
It’s all part of the David Foster magic. Along with the celebrity brand names on the dozens of gold and platinum records that line his walls, Foster, widely recognized as the world’s most successful record producer, is known for discovering new talent. In 1995, shortly after creating 143 Records, he signed a then-unknown Irish group called The Corrs that went on to sell 25-million units worldwide. In 2001, Foster released a debut record by Josh Groban who has since become an international star. And most recently, he’s been mentoring 15-year-old jazz singer Renee Olstead and a 25-year-old piano virtuoso named William Joseph.
But Buble was his discovery of two years ago. And like almost everyone asked about Bublé these days, Larry Leblanc, Canadian editor for U.S. music industry bible Billboard, described him as the successor to Harry Connick Jr. “He’s huge around the world, and his next record will cement his career in the States. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, he owns the franchise.”
Bublé has already appeared on the soundtracks of two romantic comedies — Renée Zelwegger and Ewan McGregor’s Down With Love and Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock’s Two Weeks Notice — and played the part of a karaoke singer in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Duet. Last fall he appeared on the NBC comedy-drama Las Vegas as himself — a singer hired for the main dinner theatre. (His performance was a surprise. He was natural and funny, showing enough talent to suggest the potential for an alternative career in a Friends-like sitcom.) He’s done Leno, the Super Bowl pre-game show, a Madonna party and he swept host Katie Couric off her feet on NBC’s Today Show. Kevin Spacey attended several of his performances as part of his research for the role of pop crooner Bobby Darin in his recent biopic, Beyond the Sea. And in December, Bublé was part of the Christmas at Rockefeller Center’s televised tree-lighting ceremony and performed for the second consecutive year on the Queen’s Royal Variety Performance in London.
It’s a long way from his childhood in Burnaby, B.C. Bublé’s father, Lewis, the salmon fisherman, and his mother, Amber, raised him and his two younger sisters. Bublé always loved singing — his father remembers that as a young child Michael learned his address by turning it into a song (Three-Oh-Four-Eight, Car-din-al Drive…) — but it was his maternal grandfather, Mitch Santaga, a plumber who lived nearby, who exposed him to the likes of Sinatra, Darin, Dean Martin, The Mills Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.
Yolanda Santaga, Mitch’s wife, says: “Michael’s dad wasn’t around in the summertime so the kids would come over all the time. To please his grandfather Michael would learn these old songs. But he loved them, too, and it seemed like he would hear a song once and be able to sing it.”
Mitch, who’s now 80 and joined his grandson on a tour of Italy last year, says: “He used to sing with a broom handle as a mic. He was a born performer, a real hambone. Then, one Boxing Day, when he was about 14, he started singing New York, New York with a karaoke set he got for Christmas. He floored me. I thought, this guy’s really got talent.”
Mitch arranged for his grandson to take singing lessons and, years later, bartered some plumbing services to local bandleaders if they would let Bublé sit in. (“Isn’t that hilarious?” Bublé has said. “He’d put in, like, a hot water dispenser or something so they would let me get up and sing… Grampa always thought I had it even when I really didn’t.”) When Bublé was 16, he entered his first talent contest. Even though he lost, he liked the feeling of being onstage and began thinking seriously about making music a career. Besides, his mother and father remember their outgoing son being an indifferent student and Bublé himself admits he was lazy, except when it came to playing road hockey and singing.
There was another inspiration to pursue music. In the summer when he was a teenager, Bublé would join the crew of his father’s 82-foot seine boats. “Man, it was hard,” Bublé says. “We’d be outside, 4 a.m., pouring rain. I’d be sitting there freezing cold, tired, sick, just dying. I’d cry and say to my dad, ‘You asshole, how could you make your son come out here?’ I was terrified I’d have to work like he did.”
At 18, Bublé entered another talent contest in a local bar even though the rules stipulated contestants had to be 19. After he won, the organizer, a local publicist and entrepreneur named Beverly Delich, disqualified him but was so impressed by his talent that she later called him at his parents’ home and suggested he enter the British Columbia Youth Talent Search. He won, and Delich then helped him record an independent CD.
Although Delich knew he had potential, he was still just a teenager — usually polite, sometimes a pest, occasionally petulant — and she knew that many aspire to make it in the music business but few have the tenacity to follow through. That’s why she loves the irony of this story: “Michael asked me to be his manager and I said, why do you think you need a manager?” says Delich. “He said, oh, I’m going to be really good at this, and I’ll give you 15 per cent of everything I make. I said, Michael, what’s 15 per cent of nothing?”
By the mid-’90s, Bublé was doing what a young crooner does — singing in local clubs, at conventions and even on cruise ships — when, in 1996, he landed a role in the Vancouver run of a musical called Hard Rock Diner. That’s when he became friends with a lanky brunette named Debbie Timuss, a dancer, actress and singer who taught him the choreography. Two years later they became an item and moved to Toronto as part of the cast of another musical revue, Forever Swing.
In Toronto, there was plenty of work for a dancer-actress like Timuss but Bublé was struggling, playing with a jazz trio for chump change in a downtown club and picking up “corporates” whenever he could. So-called crooners, like Bublé, are often dismissed as “lounge singers.” Go to any city in North America and you’ll find guys — a little past their prime and lacking Bublé’s combination of talent and good fortune — doing passable Sinatra imitations in Holiday Inn cocktail lounges and at sales conventions.
It was at just such a corporate event that Bublé found himself in the summer of 2000, broke (Timuss was paying most of their bills) and ready to admit that after seven years of scuffling, music wasn’t going to pan out as a career. After the show, a man approached him and told him how much he’d enjoyed his singing. A dejected Bublé gave him one of his independently produced CDs and said, “If you and your wife like it, great. If you don’t, it’ll make a great coaster.”
Later, the man sent the CD to friends in Montreal who were preparing for their daughter’s wedding. The man was Michael McSweeney, a close associate of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The Mulroneys were finalizing plans for their daughter, Caroline’s, wedding to Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham’s son, featuring a guest list studded with society and business celebrities. Mulroney’s wife, Mila, suggested that they include Bublé in the entertainment.
Remembering that moment, Mulroney says: “My first reaction was to say to Mila, look, you’ve already put together a magnificent wedding, with bands galore. Our friend, David Foster, was going to perform and Kathie Lee Gifford was going to sing. And she said, but take a listen to this CD. When I did, I couldn’t believe it. I said right away, this guy’s a cross between Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra.”
At the wedding, Foster was sitting about 40 feet away from the stage, with Mulroney at his side acting as Bublé’s unofficial press agent. The next day, the Mulroney’s hosted a brunch at the Ritz-Carleton for their out-of-town guests. This time Bublé sang some solo numbers and shared the stage with Power Corp. CEO Paul Desmarais’s wife, Jackie, and Mulroney, who refers to himself as a “frustrated saloon singer.” Convinced, Foster invited Bublé to Malibu to try recording some material.
Dream A Little Dream (4:25)
Sitting in his studio, David Foster recalls that moment. “Yeah, I really heard it. I heard the vision. But we also have to look at music business slots. Is there a slot open? And that slot, the young crooner, was available. Harry Connick Jr. had opened the door wide, then walked away from it to do movies and other things.”
At 55, Foster is tall and rangy, like an aging athlete who’s kept fit, and he’s underdressed even by L.A.-casual standards (faded blue jeans, red fleece jersey, three-day shadow, bedhead). Another advantage, Foster points out, was his success with Josh Groban. Foster, who is an executive with Warner Bros., had signed the 20-year-old Groban in 2001 despite skepticism on the part of his Warner bosses. (With millions of dollars at stake and a music industry that’s always hit-and-miss, even Foster’s reputation doesn’t mean his projects are automatically accepted.)
Foster believed there was a market for Groban’s hybrid of pop ballads, classical music and opera which didn’t fit into existing radio or music video formats. And even though Bublé and Groban are stylistically different, Foster understood that there was an appetite in the marketplace for pop music aimed at adults, not teenagers. By the time he began working with Bublé, Groban had sold several million CDs and Foster knew that would be his leverage selling the company on Bublé. “Warner executives weren’t as afraid of this as they might have been had Josh failed,” he says.
Just then Bublé comes into the room and, raising his voice, Foster says: “Just put he’s a fuckin’ asshole. Just print that.” The two men begin mock-sparring. Later, Bublé says: “He’s like my dad, a step-dad or something.”
A producer is really more like an uncle, a significant family member who you may only see on certain occasions. The father figure is more properly played by an artist’s manager, who is involved in day-to-day career development and personal guidance, as well as planning a long-term strategy to sustain an artist’s career for as long as possible.
Around the time Foster was wrapping up Bublé’s debut CD, he talked to Bruce Allen, the powerful Vancouver-based manager of Bryan Adams, Martina McBride, Anne Murray and A-list record producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi). “I understand he’s a great performer,” Allen recalls saying to Foster, “but I’m not quite sure what I’d do with him.” Foster told him that he’d made a record intending to put the romance back into pop music.
“I’m nearly 60,” Allen says, “and I grew up when music was about girlfriends, boyfriends. So I said, well, I’ve got to hear the record. When I heard it, I realized it was really solid.”
So he signed him — Bublé’s previous manager, Delich, gallantly released her protégé to a professional who could take him big time — and Allen proved to be a vitally important player behind Bublé’s success. Today Allen points out that making a CD of old-fashioned pop has lately become the flavour of the month. Witness successful recent recordings by Rod Stewart (Stewart’s on the third volume of his Stardust: The Great American Songbook series), Michael Bolton, Bryan Ferry and British rocker Robbie Williams. “It’s horseshit,” Allen yells over the phone in his characteristically blustery manner, “because it’s not what they really are. Bublé hasn’t converted. He wasn’t a rock singer or a blues singer or a country singer. This is what he’s always done.”
Crooners, like Tony Bennett, usually base their repertoire around traditional standards — American popular songs, many of them originally written for Broadway musicals or Hollywood films, by composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Sammy Cahn and Hoagy Carmichael, which are musically sophisticated yet so deceptively simple and romantic that they became part of a jazz and pop canon.
But while Bublé does some of these tunes, he believes he’s moving the music forward by transforming more recent pop songs into newly-minted big band standards and, he hopes, by writing his own material. While he’s not alone in the field — several artists mining a similar vein of adult music have come along since Bublé’s career began taking off, among them 19-year-old New Yorker Peter Cincotti, Britain’s 24-year-old Jamie Cullum and 25-year-old Matt Dusk, a fellow Canadian.
Most people think success comes to artists when a record company releases and promotes a record and enough people buy it. The reality is more complex and multi-layered. Aside from selling Warner Bros. on Bublé (there was talk of changing his surname to his grandfather’s Santaga, because it sounded like Sinatra, but Bublé refused), Foster began generating a buzz about him within the entertainment industry by working his connections. He enlisted his friend Paul Anka, the Canadian teen idol of the ’50s who became a successful Vegas performer, businessman and songwriter (among many songs, he wrote Sinatra’s hit My Way), to advise them on Bublé’s career. And Foster arranged for Bublé to sing at industry events where influential people would see him. That’s how he came to perform with Jay Leno on a 9/11 benefit and at glitzy parties hosted by the late billionaire and entertainment industry figure Marvin Davis. (Bublé sang at Davis’ funeral last year).
At the same time, his new fans Brian and Mila Mulroney were doing their part. Shortly after his daughter’s wedding, when Mulroney was having lunch in New York with Bob Pittmann, then CEO of AOL Time Warner (the parent company of Warner Bros. Records), he pitched Bublé to him. Meanwhile, while Bublé was recording his debut CD, the Mulroney’s neighbours at their Palm Beach home, Paul and Jackie Desmarais, had Bublé sing in front of a crowd of powerful guests at a gala party. And once, when the Mulroney’s were invited to the home of their friend, Merv Griffin, for lunch with Nancy Reagan, they talked up Bublé. (Griffin, who owns a string of luxury hotels, including The Beverly Hilton in L.A. and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, offered to help.)
“You know,” says Mulroney, “I thought Michael was a tremendously talented young man, an outstanding young Canadian. But, I thought, there are all kinds of talented people around. I’ve also believed we all need a break in life.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Allen was busy doing what only the best and most powerful managers can do. First he persuaded Warner’s international division to make Bublé a priority by sending him into strategically chosen centres in the U.K., Europe and Asia, anywhere that showed a glimmer of interest. Then Allen himself worked the Warner Bros. staff in every international territory, convincing them that Bublé should be a priority in their country. This strategy of repetitiously working international markets in addition to North America was one pioneered by Allen with Bryan Adams in the early ’80s, and more recently used to great success by Allen’s business partners, Steve Macklam and Sam Feldman, with Diana Krall. It’s especially effective for artists like Krall and Bublé, working in a genre where radio and music video opportunities are minimal. (It didn’t hurt that Allen’s old friend, Jay Durgan, who had worked with him on Adams’s career throughout the ‘80s when Durgan was with Polygram Records, was now a senior Warner executive.
So thanks to Allen’s efforts, Bublé travelled around the world playing small showcases, often only for record company staff and reporters, to win them over with his singing, performing skills and charm, then returned time and time again to do TV shows or concerts.
”We have a saying in our business,” says Larry Leblanc. “If you can find one believer, one person who believes in your record in each territory, you can do it.”
The first Bublé believer was Dion Singer in South Africa. Singer was, at the time, an energetic and creative marketing director who worked for the Warner affiliate there. From the first time he heard him, Singer loved Bublé and recognized the potential in the South African market for serious adult music. Singer started by talking up his most trusted sources in music stores and easy listening radio stations to get them on-board. Then he devised a TV ad campaign that provided on-screen phonetics to help viewers pronounce Boo-blay and the CD began selling. In South Africa and many European countries — including the U.K. — TV is a critically important marketing tool. After the South Africa success, Bublé’s appearances on key U.K. TV programs launched the record there and, as so often happens, the U.K. drove other European markets; soon Australia and New Zealand followed. All the while, Bruce Allen tirelessly worked at keeping his client’s profile high and Bublé, who wanted success very badly, proved to be an indefatigable performer.
“We saw enormous success early on with Michael,” says John Reid, then head of the Warner office in London and now executive vice-president, marketing, for Warner Music International. “His personality is infectious, and we saw that he was an artist willing to travel at the drop of a hat. He would get off a plane in one country, work hard there, then get on another plane and go to another country. It’s wonderful to have an artist who is ready, willing and able to do that, and a manager who supports that strategy.”
Another lucky break for Bublé and Allen was that Singer’s impressive efforts in South Africa convinced Warner to bring him to London as marketing director for Warner Music International where, among other artists, he is responsible for Bublé. “To understand Michael you have to see him live,” says Singer. “He has this absolutely round cylinder of a voice, mixed with his personality and his timing. He comes onstage and he’s Bobby Darin with a bit of Elvis and a bit of Don Rickles. The ladies love him.”
And that goes to the heart of the crooner’s charm. Whether Bublé’s singing a standard like That’s All or a contemporary ballad like Leon Russell’s A Song For You, he projects the fragile sound of the little boy inside the man that so many women dream of comforting. In music, as in life, the most powerful seduction tool at man’s disposal is a display of vulnerability.
You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine (4:04)
Sometimes the inner little boy is more bratty than vulnerable. For a time, mainly in 2003, what with all the world travel and high-rolling, Bublé did what any red-blooded, single [he and Debbie Timuss had separated], handsome boy who sings romantic music might do. He was 27, bursting with confidence and sometimes behaving like a frat boy on spring break. This was documented, rather publicly, in the British entertainment magazine Q last March, IN an account by Michael Odell, a writer who joined Bublé on tour in the Philippines. According to the writer, Bublé ogled beautiful Filipino women, bragged that he’d had sex with five women in the space of a week and offered advice on the best way to have sex on airplanes. After being interviewed by a mini-skirted female reporter, Odell reports that Bublé asked, “Did you see the tits on that?” And after a sylph-like waitress served them, he said, “You know what, I’d really like to lick that woman’s vagina.”
Backstage at a concert venue, a promoter provided two Filipino masseuses. According to Odell, Bublé invited him to have a massage then pretended to be the masseuse and grabbed Odell’s testicles as a prank. Later Odell joined Bublé and his band at a strip bar.
Odell wrote: “Bublé hates the place and he talks with some feeling about how he is trying to sort out his personal life. He split from his girlfriend, had a lot of casual sex but they look like they’re patching things up…
“’You know what? This is not me,’ he says. ‘I’m a nerd. A game of Scrabble and a glass of red wine. That’s my thrill.’”
The reaction within the Bublé camp to the Q article was mixed. His publicist, Liz Rosenberg (her biggest client is Madonna), shrugged it off as youthful excess. Bruce Allen, a guy who clearly believes no press is bad press, said: “Well, it shows he’s certainly not packaged.”
Asked about it, Timuss says: “I was very upset, yes. We’d gotten back together when it came out. It was very bad timing.”
It made him sound like…
“An asshole?” she asks. “Yes. Instead of a goofball who’s always being silly. But he admits it and says he learned his lesson.”
Bublé takes issue with a few elements of the story. “There were a couple of quotes I didn’t say and a lot of it was out-of-context. It was just a bunch of boys hangin’, locker room talk, and it was supposed to be off-the-record.” And the massage? “I’ll tell you how it happened. I got the girl up then grabbed his butt. But in the article it says I grabbed his balls. I can promise you I didn’t grab his balls.”
Outside Foster’s studio, Bublé kicks at the stones on the driveway looking chastened. “The thing is, Debbie and I had broken up at the time and I was being a total and complete asshole, and I could have lost the best thing that ever happened to me. I was like a fool. I was trying to prove to myself that I was a man or something.”
Maybe it’s understandable, maybe few young men could resist the temptation…
“That’s what I tried to say, but David Foster said, ‘What guy wouldn’t? The guy who’s with Debbie!’”
Feeling Good (3:55)
The next day a small drama is playing out in the studio. Foster has a feeling that the album is missing something and Bublé believes it’s finished. But it’s really about Bublé’s determination to have more influence over his second CD. He’s uncomfortable that on the first one they used the famous orchestral arrangement for Come Fly With Me that Billy May wrote for Sinatra in 1957. Although fans loved it, Bublé got criticism from jazz critics for not being more original. Bublé, who like many singers doesn’t play an instrument and scat-sings arrangements he hears in his head to Foster, is sensitive about his lack of formal musical bona fides. Now, Foster wants to include a track recorded for the first album but not used. It’s Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin, using the original arrangement that Nelson Riddle wrote for Sinatra in 1955. But Bublé has to agree to it, and record a fresh vocal track.
“For the first record, he was looking at this young kid and thinking, what the fuck does he know?” Bublé explains in a quiet moment. “He’s thinking, it’s my balls that are on the line so I’m doing this the way I know I have to do it. Now David wants to use the original chart for I’ve Got You Under My Skin. It sounds great, but I don’t want to do it. I’m not going to do it, either. It’s my face on the record and I’ll just say no.”
Inside the studio, Foster, who looks like he’s just come off the tennis court in a blue fleece jacket, black shorts and white Nike runners, has just gotten off a call with Wayne Newton, who wants to see Céline Dion. He swivels his chair around to face Bublé, who’s standing beside him, with his mother and grandmother, who are visiting L.A., sitting quietly on a sofa and chairs with Timuss.
“Come Fly With Me got more attention than any other song on the first record,” says Foster, who has patiently gone over this argument several times since yesterday. “There were two or three critics who didn’t like it but all the people loved it.”
“My problem is Under My Skin is so closely associated with Sinatra,” says Bublé imploringly. “This is such a great record right now.”
Foster snorts. “Yeah, and how many records have you made exactly?”
“It’s a bonus track, right?” Bublé asks, trying to negotiate a face-saving compromise.
Foster takes a call from Céline Dion’s manager and husband, Rene Angelil, then continues the discussion. “Sure, bonus track,” says Foster. “We can’t put this on the record without you wanting it on the record, you know. If it was up to me entirely, though, if it was completely up to me, I’d still be looking for one more song.”
Bublé looks stricken. “Why do you think we need another song?”
“When I was listening last night I was thinking, I wish there was just one more ‘wow.’ I was trying to think of what. Knock On Wood? That old Tom Jones song, Delilah? Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. Brown-Eyed Girl? Something so recognizable that everybody would go, yeah!”
“We don’t need another song.”
“Michael, did I ever tell you how many hit songs came at the last second?” says Foster. “Hard To Say I’m Sorry for Chicago came two days before the album was supposed to be out. Or Céline’s Because You Loved Me. The album was being mastered and we held things up because that song came along. Both those songs went to number one.”
It’s a delicate dance that’s been played out many times over. Two years ago, Bublé was an unknown artist, grateful just to be given a shot and happy to allow a pro, like Foster, to create his debut recording. But now the record’s a surprising success and for two years fans, reporters and record company staff around the world have been congratulating Bublé. Every talented artist in this situation thinks, all this success can’t just be the result of my producer; it’s me. So the dynamic changes when artist and producer go into the studio to make a follow-up record. Artists want their next record to bear more of their stamp. Yet Bublé, no matter how newly confident of his instincts, can’t be entirely sure that Foster, given his track record, isn’t right. Who wants to risk having their all-important follow-up record fail?
So eventually Bublé goes into the studio and sings a rip-roaring version of I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Although the orchestra exists only his headphones, as the dramatic instrumental break begins Bublé hops up and down and lets his voice soar as though he’s kick-starting the musicians into fifth gear. When he steps out of the booth, Foster says: “Fun to sing, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s fun to sing,” admits Bublé.
That evening, Bublé, his mother, grandmother and Timuss arrive at the ballroom of the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel in downtown L.A., where Warner Bros. Is having an international conference of marketing and sales executives. Bruce Allen is there, along with most of the people responsible for Bublé’s career at this time. At the end of the evening, he steps onstage wearing jeans, a brown jersey and a beautifully tailored Hugo Boss sports jacket. There are huge projections of him on either side of the stage looking, as Ellen Degeneres once put it, like Sinatra crossed with James Dean. With Foster accompanying him on piano, he sings Home, a song on the new CD that he co-wrote with one of Foster’s daughters, Amy Foster-Gillies, a Nashville songwriter. Foster told me that although Bublé’s style of music isn’t likely to produce hit records, this one might have a shot. It’s an achingly sentimental ballad, written for Timuss, that best captures the mixed-up period captured by Odell in the Philippines.
May be surrounded by
a million people I
still feel so alone
I’ve gotta get home,
oh I miss you, you know
Let me go home
This song is the best example of Bublé putting his stamp on his new record, of moving the music forward. Here, he’s performing for a music industry crowd, many of them young marketing and promo people who look like they spend more time listening to Warner acts like Linkin Park, The Flaming Lips or Futurehead than Bublé. But he’s already won them over with a recorded medley of the songs from the new CD — young hipster girls snapping their fingers in delight while the guys nod approvingly — and now the room is hushed, with the women, in particular, locking in to the song’s message. After enthusiastic applause and cheering, Bublé addresses the crowd with a mix of schmaltz and sincerity that could only come from a nice boy with a showbiz heart.
“I want to find the right words to tell you how I feel about each and every one of you,” he says. “It’s an amazing night because my mom, my grandma and my girlfriend are here…”
At that even the jaded record company crowd audibly sighs.
“…And I just know that I’d be nothing without you, and I can’t wait to bust my ass for you with my next record.”
After he’s presented with more than a dozen framed platinum, double-platinum and triple-platinum records from around the world, there are photos taken backstage. There, surrounded by industry types and flashbulbs, Bublé smiles broadly, catches the eye of a journalist in the crowd, and winks, as if to say, I’m only taking this half-seriously, but I’m having the time of my life.