Regarded as too posh to be played on Radio 2 but not upmarket enough for Classic FM, Il Divo’s music — often classified as ‘popera’ — was witheringly dismissed by one serious critic as being akin to ‘putting a mini-skirt on the Mona Lisa’.
But they must be doing something right. They’ve had No.1 albums around the world, with sales of more than 25 million. The night before we meet they picked up the first ever Artist of the Decade award at the Classic Brits at London’s Royal Albert Hall — which will be shown on ITV this Sunday.
Frenchman Sebastien Izambard, 38, says: ‘This is where Il Divo was born, so to get an award like this in England means a very great deal.’
I first met them six years ago and the atmosphere on that occasion could best be described as jumpy.
In tune: Il Divo say their fifth album, due out in November, will be ‘huge’
Two classically trained tenors, a baritone and a pop star, from four different countries, their second album was topping the charts and they’d just completed a sell-out tour of the world.
But what struck me then was that here were four big voices (with personalities to match) who had yet to find harmony away from the spotlight. Their smiles rarely seemed to reach their eyes.
Now there has been a subtle but significant change. There are still detectable tensions but the band that plays together clearly stays together and they are now able to talk through their disagreements like the grown-ups they have become.
The other three are united, for example, in their appraisal of Carlos Marin, the twinkly-eyed 42-year-old baritone.
‘I wrote in our book,’ says Urs Buhler, 39, the sober Swiss lyric tenor, ‘that Carlos is not always easy to be around.’ A slow smile. ‘And I still think it. Carlos is Spanish and, in general, Spaniards are louder than Swiss people. I’m a very private person. I like to be on my own. I like to have peace and quiet. And Carlos is a big, noisy fellow.’
Had he been paid the most glowing compliment, Carlos could not look more delighted. ‘That’s fair,’ he says, cheerfully. ‘I know it about myself. I’m passionate. I’m loud. We’re all together in a car and I’m on the phone and they’re all telling me to shut up. But I just can’t stop myself. It’s how I am.’
Four years ago Carlos was asked to nominate his favourite singer. ‘I said Tom Jones but that I wasn’t sure whether it was because he had such a great voice or because women chuck their knickers at him when he’s performing.’ (The eyes of American tenor David Miller, 38, are by now rolling in their sockets.) From that moment, apparently, Il Divo have been awash in a more or less perpetual tsunami of multi-coloured pants.
‘Our crew gathers them all up at the end of the show,’ continues Carlos, ‘and they keep them all — small, medium, large, and many of them covered in phone numbers — in a big cupboard.’ Urs, ever the pragmatist, says it depends very much on the occasion when the knickers are thrown as to whether he minds or not.
‘It would be quite inappropriate at a charity show like Children In Need,’ he announces. Much nodding of heads.
‘There was also the time when we were singing White Christmas on a TV special and a large pair of panties landed on my face.’
n spite of himself, Carlos’s shoulders begin to heave as he chuckles at the memory. Urs does not.
He is, quite clearly, at the other end of the personality spectrum to his exuberant bandmate. According to Sebastien, ‘Urs likes everything to run on time.’
‘Oh, I do, very much,’ he says. ‘I’m Swiss! It irritates the hell out of me when people are late. It’s disrespectful. It’s as though the person is saying: “I don’t care that you’re going to be kept waiting ten or 15 minutes for me to arrive”.’
Household names: The group, seen here performing at the Olympic Torch handover party in 2008 at Buckingham Palace, have sold 25 million albums
So who’s the worst offender of the four of them? ‘We’re all pretty good these days.’ Pause. ‘Although Spaniards have a slightly different concept of time.’
All are agreed, however, on their determination to ignore their critics. Sebastien gives a Gallic shrug. ‘It won’t ever go away,’ he says. ‘Simon Cowell chose us, he put us together and we’ll always be seen as his muppets by some people. But we have fans who’ve followed us from the start — and that speaks for itself.’
David admits: ‘If you’d asked me eight years ago whether I’d end up singing so-called popera, I was one of those snobs who would have sneered at the suggestion.’
Cowell is still a mighty influence on his ‘man-band’ but they see him infrequently. ‘He’s always very heavily involved in the material we’re going to record,’ says Urs, ‘although he listens to all our suggestions. It gets more and more difficult because we’re always trying to step up our game with each new album.’ A fifth is due out in November.
After six years alternating recording new albums with touring them around the world, Il Divo took 2010 at a more leisurely pace. ‘And that made me question the band’s future,’ reveals Sebastien.
Popular: The group were unleashed by Simon Cowell in 2004 and are now on their fifth album
‘When you’re recording and touring, you don’t have the luxury of stepping back and looking at the direction in which the group is heading. Personally, I found it very stimulating to consider how — even if — we could move forward.’
David adds: ‘Not since the first album in 2004 have we been biting our nails waiting to see if it was going to be a success. Until now.
‘But Simon is the judge. He’s always been that. It’s his role. And, nine times out of ten, he hits it on the head. He’s signed off the tracks on the new album. Now let’s see if it does well.’
Sebastien is in no doubt. ‘It’s going to be huge,’ he says.
Sebastien is regarded by the others as the sensitive one. ‘He takes things very personally,’ says David. Nor does Sebastien demur. ‘I’m sensitive. Absolutely. One hundred per cent.
‘I’ve worked with therapists for many years in an attempt to understand my emotions. Now I feel really balanced although I still go to therapy sessions once a week. I regard that as a very healthy thing to do.’
For now, Il Divo look set fair to stay together. That’s not something any of them could have predicted when they were first thrown together — total strangers without even a common language — by Simon Cowell.
● highlights of the Classic Brit Awards will be shown on ITV1 on Sunday at 10.15pm
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