Urs Buhler, one quarter of the classical group Il Divo, chats with Kevin Cooper about riding his Harley Davidson, being a perfectionist, his leap from Heavy Metal to Classical music and the current tour featuring The Musical Affair album.
Urs Toni Buhler (pictured left of the group), born in Lucerne Switzerland, is a classically trained tenor and member of the operatic pop musical quartet, Il Divo.
Able to play the violin, clarinet, piano, guitar and drums, it was his initial love of music that led him to join a heavy metal band called Conspiracy.
But his calling was towards classical music and in 2003 he became a member of the international quartet Il Divo, whose self-titled album released in 2004 became a worldwide multi-platinum selling record, knocking Robbie Williams from the number one spot in the charts.
Now on tour to promote their latest album: Il Divo: A Musical Affair, Kevin Cooper caught up with him in Amsterdam and this is what he had to say:
Urs good morning, how are you?
I’m good thank you Kevin, how are you?
I’m very well and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
That’s fine Kevin, it’s absolutely perfect.
I was fortunate to photograph you here in Nottingham the last time that you toured with Katherine Jenkins. That was a wonderful evening.
Oh nice, that was fun.
So I have to ask, how is life treating you?
Yes it is quite good Kevin. It’s funny too because we have been on a European Tour now for coming up to two months and we have got fifteen shows left to do so I am kind of spending my days just having breakfast, going to the gym, lying down again, doing the shows and then travelling onto the next show (hysterical laughter). It’s quite funny but it’s good, and what is also funny is that we’ve actually been really lucky with the weather. I am in Amsterdam right now and it’s towards the end of October and there is a blue sky. The whole of Scandinavia and Russia was actually warmer than we expected and it really does make a difference (laughter).
Well just to bring you down to earth with a bang, you are performing here in Nottingham next week and we are having nothing but rain at the moment.
Argh, we are looking forward to performing in Nottingham. It’s actually a shame because we are not going to stay in Nottingham, because I know that the UK’s oldest pub is in Nottingham and I still have never been there. I like Nottingham and we are all really looking forward to the show there. We were there a year and a half ago with Katherine Jenkins and as you know Kevin we will have a different lady with us for the show next week; Lea Salonga, so it will be a lot of fun.
You spend so much time on the road touring, how do you manage to keep it fresh?
Well Kevin this is a completely different show from what we have done last year and in the years before, so all of this year stands completely on its own if you will. We are touring the ‘Musical Affair’ album, and so we are playing the whole of that album from front to back including everything else from our repertoire that originates from musicals, so it will be a complete musical evening. That is what we have been doing all of this year so we will have performed around a hundred and twenty shows when we finish of the 5th November. It’s always fun; every night is a different city; a different audience and no show is the same. And singing is just what we love doing; it’s what we have done all of our lives and it’s where our passion lies. It is always fun.
What can you tell me about ‘The Musical Affair’ album?
For us, it is not exactly a new album anymore because it has been out for almost a year now and we have been touring with it, but obviously we are only coming to the UK now to present that material live, so a lot of people might not know the material yet. We have done a big cross section through all of the times of musicals which is almost a century that the musical exists now. It has some Andrew Lloyd Webber on there obviously, but we have also got The Lion King on there, and we have also got some older stuff from Camelot and Carousel. There is just a bit of everything. We have also recorded a lot of duets on that album as well with all different people such as; Heather Headley who played the lead role in The Bodyguard in the West End, we’ve got Kristin Chenoweth who is an old friend of ours who we have worked with in the past. We have got Nicole Scherzinger who sings a wonderful rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Memory’ with us, and we have got Michael Ball who sings ‘Love Changes Everything’ from ‘Aspects Of Love’ with us which just came about as we met him at a television show (laughter). We were fooling around backstage in the dressing rooms and that is just how things sometimes come together.
It has all been a very, very exciting project for us. We love that repertoire and we have the enormous luck to have Lea Salonga on tour with us who actually manages to sing all of these different duets with us, because obviously the people who we have recorded them with have got very different voices from each other and Lea really manages with her incredible range and technical ability. She manages to interpret all of these different duets magnificently with the four of us. It is a very, very exciting show; a very beautiful show.
How do the four of you get along off stage when you are not performing?
Absolutely fine Kevin. We travel together and stay in the same hotels and everything but people sometimes ask us silly questions like “do you all go on vacation together” which I find such a naïve thing to ask. We spend more time together workwise than we do with our partners, wives and family you know. So yes, we get along great but when we have our own time we take our own private space, which I think is the key to it all. It is the key to staying friends when you are in such an intense relationship together over such a long time. It has been almost eleven years now.
When the four of you first started out, did you ever have envisage it lasting this long?
Oh no Kevin, absolutely not. When I first auditioned for Simon Cowell I had an apartment in Amsterdam where I was singing in the opera, and I remember him telling me to cancel the apartment as he wanted me in London, because he said that he wasn’t prepared to start anything like Il Divo unless he thought that it was going to last at least for five years. But I think that even he did not envisage that it was going to be ten years and still going strong. Who knows, we all hope that there is another ten in store for us.
Whilst Simon Cowell no longer manages you, you are still handled by his record label, Syco, does that work well for you?
Yes that does work well because record labels are just generally very much in a crisis. Everybody knows that the record business is just lying on its back what with all of the down-loads and all of the possibilities for streaming that are available nowadays. We have been with the same record label and the same people, with the same head of marketing and so on for our whole career. We all know each other very well which is great to have a relationship like that. I know that there are lots of interns coming and going but the people who generally work on Il Divo have always been there and that’s great. I don’t think that if at any point we were to switch record companies that there is anything more interesting or more profitable out there. Il Divo are very well looked after by Syco and we all feel very happy there, absolutely.
Where is home for Urs Buhler?
My primary residence is in Andorra Kevin, although I am currently renovating a property in France. A long time ago I bought a small country house in France which was in a terrible state, and with the very little time that I have to actually take care of it, I have been restoring it now for over seven years (laughter). Despite that it is still years away from actually being liveable, but it is my side project and I hope that one day I will have a bit of time just to enjoy the peace and quiet there in the beautiful French countryside (laughter).
Are the record company and your insurance company not worried about you hurtling around the Andorra country side on a motor cycle?
(Hysterical laughter) no they are not actually Kevin, because I have been riding since I was eighteen, well actually before that but don’t tell anyone (laughter). With the insurance company we do have certain stipulations and I am strictly not allowed to take part in any racing activity or that kind of stuff which does make sense. I know a lot of people in the music business, who are probably less into motor cycles but who are really into cars and into car racing, who are good friends of mine and that is usually what you are not allowed to do. For recreation I am allowed to ride a motor cycle although I do not get the chance very often to do that; but I am a cruiser you know, I’m not reckless and I’m not going fast. I just take it easy on my Harley Davidson and I do have a lot of experience. I don’t think that anybody is really frightened about me doing that (laughter).
So you are not going to try to emulate Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? (Laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) absolutely not Kevin even though he is a very, very thrilling character with everything that he has done; certainly on an automotive level but no, I think that is for the movies and not for me.
Tell me about your leap from Heavy Metal to Classical. How did that come about?
I think that came purely because classical is what my voice is really is best suited for. I have always had a glass clear tenor voice which was never really suited for the hard rock that we were doing in the band at that time. I loved that music and I still do and if I would have had a different voice type I would have probably pursued that type of career. But my voice is just much more suitable to classical, and even in classical fields it is quite an exceptional tenor voice that I have got. It just led me on that path, so it just kind of happened.
You are quoted as saying that ‘when you have done something good, you want to do it better’. Would you say that you are a perfectionist?
Certainly Kevin, oh certainly (laughter). You always want to keep moving, especially as an artist. You want to keep developing; you want to keep moving and you can never just rest. It is very unsatisfactory when you have achieved something to just sit on that for a certain amount of time. You should always want to grow and you should always want to challenge yourself again. On a smaller scale it’s like when you tour like we do, and are performing the same show for the whole year. At the beginning that is very challenging, and you are probably coming back after a holiday, so you are not used to singing for two hours every night and all of the travelling between shows. So in the beginning it is very challenging. But at some point, it becomes less challenging from a vocal point of view because your body is used to it; your body knows the songs very well, and your voice has tuned itself into it. Then the interesting thing is that you can then really put all of your efforts into your interpretations and into the audience. But going back to your earlier question Kevin, you need to keep this interesting for yourself, so you need to give yourself new challenges and try to expand all of your boundaries all of the time.
I once read an interview with Pete Townsend of The Who and he said that once you can get over the boredom, then you can begin to enjoy touring.
Get over the boredom, what’s the boredom (hysterical laughter). That’s a very interesting comment Kevin (laughter). That is very similar to Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones when he was asked what it had been like to be a rock star for twenty-five years. He replied ‘I’ve been a rock star for about five years, and I’ve spent the other twenty waiting’ (laughter) which is very true actually. It is what I say and I’m sure that it is the same for every musician; you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to keep making it interesting for yourself because you could obviously just fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’ve sang this song now for the hundred and tenth time this year so how boring is that’ but no, you can’t do that. You have got a different audience every night who are usually very, very excited to see and hear you. You owe it to them that you are interested and engaged and passionate about what and how you do it every night. You owe that to them.
Who has inspired you?
When I was young, as a classical singer, mostly a German tenor called Fritz Wunderlich. My parents used to have an old record; a Deutsche Gramophone recording of The Magic Flute, and that was the first opera that I ever heard. His voice was so exceptionally beautiful, and he had such a wonderful feeling for style and taste. The poor man died at the young age of 36 in 1966. But I think that has been my primary inspiration. And then in later years I think, even though a lot of music snobs I would dare say don’t like him, it has to be Mr Pavarotti. I just think that he had one of the most exceptional voices ever. And even though people say that his interpretations were not refined enough, I just find his pure vocal quality exceptional and certainly something to strive for and look up to.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
It’s coming up Kevin; we are performing at The O2 Arena in London on the 1st November which is exactly ten years to the day since our very first album was released here in the UK which achieved five times platinum. I think that is going to be the highlight of my career.
Urs thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me.
It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you Kevin, thank you.