Il Divo, in common with many of Simon Cowell’s creations, appear to be adored and disliked in equal measure. They are one of the biggest-selling acts (they can count over 26 million albums sold, over 50 number ones and four world tours, the latest of which includes a stop in Dubai on Friday). And yet, when the media deigns to review their albums (not many did) the common refrain is that they are pretty, polished and yet lacking in soul.
You might describe their blend of classical pieces you might play at a wedding and tried-and true pop classics as middle-of-the-road. If so, you’d be bang on, says the band’s tallest member, American tenor David Miller,
“We can’t really step too far outside the zone, for two reasons,” Miller said over the phone from London recently. “One, we don’t want to alienate the public. Two, it’s very difficult to find tracks that accommodate the four of our voices, because the four of our voices do very different things, they have different qualities and different ranges. We need, for lack of a better term, middle-of-the-road songs.”
Il Divo are four multinational male singers — Miller, Frenchman Sebastian Izambard, Swiss Urs Buhler and Spaniard Carlos Marin — brought together in 2003 by Cowell, the man responsible for X Factor, One Direction and Cheryl Cole and the talented quartet are as physically attractive as they are technically accomplished.
Describing how the band arrive at their choice of songs, which on their latest album include Chris Issak’s Wicked Game, Miller says the band themselves listen out for appropriate songs, and also take the input of their creator. “[It’s] Unchained Melody, My Way, and Simon’s 10 favourite songs. Forgive me for saying so, he’s got a middle-of-the-road mentality — which is what works. He’s even said it before: ‘I don’t really know that much about the voice, I just know what I like,’ and that pretty much describes 90 per cent of the population. So if I’m average Joe Shmo and I like it, the people are probably going to like it and buy it too.”
But Miller adds that the Il Divo treatment can do wonders for a song. “At the same time it works for us: that middle-of-the-road piece allows us, with our dynamic ranges, to take it to a place it’s never been to before.”
The Dubai leg of the Wicked Games tour, at the World Trade Centre on Friday, will see a move away from the pop-centric style that characterised the band’s earlier performances, with the addition of a full orchestra and video screens.
“This year we have veered away from our previous format where we tried to straddle pop and classical with a pop band on one side of the stage and a few strings on the other side,” explained Miller.
“There will be an orchestra on stage with us — 35 players, full brass, full woodwind, timpani, every section is there. This time with the full orchestra soundscape, it will be much better. I was skeptical at first. But we are not taking the pop bass or lead guitar out; those will be canned. We have screens that carry video content that we have set as a background to create the mood. Bryan Burke from Cirque De Soleil has created a very artistic, beautiful video to complement the songs we sing. It’s two hours well spent.”
You’ve been on a long tour. How are you and your voice coping?
It’s been fantastic, actually. It has been a gruelling schedule, but that’s par for the course, you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with it. The audiences have been amazing around the world. We usually do five or six concerts a week, and it’s hefty. It’s kind of like being an athlete. In terms of taking care of your voice, sleep is no 1, hydration is no 2. Trying to catch up with jet lag is a pain in the butt, but we’re not hopping between continents too much.
How has the reception to your latest album, Wicked Game, been on the tour?
It’s mixed, really. I think that these are some of our best tracks that we’ve ever recorded and vocally they suit us very well. it’s where the evolution of Il Divo has gone, but people are not that familiar with them. We do a couple of new tracks — Dove l’Amore, which is based on Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings, and Senza Parole, which has a light motif of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The people like them, but they are not familiar with them. So they are not quite as enthusiastic in terms of “Oh yeah, that song, I love when they do that song,” but there’s still a strong reaction. It’s just a question of time for people to have lived with Wicked Game long enough to where these tracks become part of their mental playlist.
You said Il Divo has evolved with this new album. How?
Our voices have been growing as normal, and especially through such a vigorous performance schedule over the last decade, this has been the final maturation cycle of all of our voices. We’ve been really going at it like athletes, so it’s created a great deal of strength and stamina, and the qualities of our voices have gotten richer and deeper over time. That, paired with all of our performance experience, before Il Divo and during il Divo, [means] we are just a whole lot more seasoned, as people, as performers, as musicians. When we went into the studio, we said we can’t just do what we did last time, we are different people, we’re way different people than we were on the first album, so we have to step it up. The idea was to bring it more towards a cinematic feel, a more epic soundscape to support what we do with our voices. As far as the future goes, I am not entirely sure. I mean where do you go from here? Of course, we’ve said that every single album, and somehow, it always works out.
Describe the album making process:
We’re always on the lookout for new material and we don’t want ot repeat ourselves, but we don’t want to step away from what we’ve done and alienate our public. We’re not going to pull a Sting, where he all of a sudden put out a lute album. But he’s Sting and he can get away from that. We can’t really step too far outside the zone.
Do you ever feel creatively constrained?
Not really. As far as my career prior to Il Divo is concerned [Miller was an accomplished opera singer], I’m just an interpreter — I have my classical voice and all my training go out and interpret Mozart and Verdi and all these very codified and standardised things that have been around for centuries. This is a very different system, getting to choose which songs I sing — in an opera, you sing what’s on the page. I like being included in the production of things. I talk to the producers, and I whisper in their ear and say, here’s some things we haven’t done. Sometimes it filters in and sometimes it doesn’t.
Would you ever like to return to opera?
It’s not really a question of returning to opera, I’ve kind of grown out of the confines of “this kind of performer or that kind of performer”. I have the abilities and the experience to really sing whatever I want. I do have a desire to continue singing opera, it’s my first love.
Il Divo perform at the Dubai World Trade Centre on Friday. Tickets are Dh550, Dh770 and Dh1,450 for VIP. (Dh330 tickets are sold out).