Music

Mark Owen: "I’m finding this interview quite difficult..."

Take That's Mark Owen had a spectacular fall from grace. Now he is seeking redemption and wants to help The Big Issue

Mark Owen

Mark Owen is struggling. Eight minutes into our conversation he mentions, unprompted, his booze-and-infidelity-related spell in rehab in 2010 and is now attempting to explain what led him there.

“I needed to break some habits,” he’s contemplating quietly, leaning backwards into a sofa, staring upwards, dressed all in black in an ITV dressing room, before his performance on Alan Carr: Chatty Man. It seems melodramatic to say there’s a haunted shadow, these days, round his 41-year old, still-boyishly handsome face, but there is.

“From being young… you get into patterns,” he carries on. “Everybody does. And you could carry on for another 20 years. But they’re destructive. And in all honesty not much fun, really. When I went there, the variety of people just made me think, ‘God, people, it’s not easy. It’s not easy being alive, in this world’.”

He confessed to a series of one-night stands, an on-off five-year affair and a cataclysmic booze problem

This wasn’t to be expected. Mark Owen has made the best album of his solo career, his fourth, The Art of Doing Nothing: he should be jollier than ever. Then again, we know Mark Owen: sweet-natured, vulnerable, acutely self-deprecating, an adorable showbiz entity, which made his rehab tumble a genuine nationwide shocka. He confessed to a series of one-night stands, an on-off five-year affair and a cataclysmic booze problem while in his long-term relationship with actress Emma Ferguson (together since 2004, married in 2009).

Today he’s erratic, a conversational will-o-the-wisp, prone to “journey”-based therapy-speak and thoughts evaporating in half-formed metaphors. He constantly mentions The Big Issue – for a couple of weeks he has been working through concepts for this week’s cover with illustrator Katie Halil (Howard Donald’s girlfriend). And he evidently identifies with Big Issue sellers, “who’ve been on their own journeys, and it’s hard to get off certain roads, if it’s the only road you know”.

Another metaphor approaches. “I always have this picture of badges,” he muses. “Some you put on yourself, some get put on you. This jacket of badges. When we go to sleep, we take that jacket off. If we find somewhere to sleep. And in the morning we put the jacket back on. D’you understand me?”

So, the jacket is like a disguise? Maybe a shield?

“No, no, I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about you,” he answers, confusingly. “D’you understand? A shield, maybe. And I wonder sometimes if it’s all right to just not put it on.”

And would that be… a relief?

“I have absolutely no idea. I’m only asking the question.”

Soon, he’ll mention Emma and their three kids (Elwood Jack, nearly seven, Willow Rose, five, and baby Fox India, born 2012). “I have the most incredible wife and three beautiful, beautiful children that I adore with all my heart,” he declares, emotionally, literally clutching his heart.

“I love being part of a family. I love being a dad. Being a dad is the best thing I do. Above everything. I’m a good d… [whispers] I don’t know how good a dad I am. But I’m grateful.”

There is only one place, now, for this conversation to go. It’s a testament, clearly, to the strength of his family unit that it withstood the infidelity scandal. He must have been very close to thinking, ‘I’ve thrown it all away’. He hears these words and is tangibly crushed, appears close to actual tears.

“Yes, you do hit those points,” he blinks. “I’m finding this interview quite difficult. I know it’s helpful for the Big Issue readers, who might be going through difficulties, but it’s not helpful for my family, to bring it back up.

“I understand. [Enormous pause] Emma is the most amazing, amazing woman. And I have absolutely no idea why she’s with me. I honestly don’t. She’s beautiful, sexy, strong, funny. If anybody goes, ‘Oh, you can get through stuff’, if somebody gets that from me and Emma then I’m really, really grateful and I’m glad. [Enormous sigh] But it’s better to not have to. The most important thing you can learn is being aware of yourself. Being sober helps.

“Some people can drink and still be aware but I couldn’t be and that was my problem. But I don’t wanna ever, ever, ever, even attempt to tell anybody how to live their life. Because I have no idea. How to live. Life.”

Mark Owen, in Take That terms, was always the truly sensitive one. It’s partly why he won Celebrity Big Brother in 2002, breaking our hearts when he wept in disbelief. His 20-odd year career has been less standard showbiz ‘rollercoaster’, more vertical rocket ship to Mars – malfunctioning, plunging back towards Earth, up again, down again: bona fide teen-pop idol, the ’96 Take That split, solo semi-success, solo outright flops, dropped by his label (twice), wilderness years, the colossal ongoing success of the Take That man-band since 2006, the booze, the groupies, the wife, the kids, the public shame. Take That’s story, today, is one of the most unfeasibly successful and unforeseeably extraordinary in the history of British pop.

Mark Owen playing guitar

“I’m 143 in dog years”, he decides. “How did all this happen?”

No wonder The Art of Doing Nothing is his existential “self-help” album, made while Take That are having a break (only until next year) – the creatively restless Owen pooling long-term collaborators Ben Mark and Jamie Norton, Alt-J producers Charlie Russell and Brad Spence, as well as the sonic inspirations of the music he loves today (Radiohead, Animal Collective, Beach House, Phoenix), graceful retro song-bird Ren Harvieu, unsigned rapper Jake Emlyn.

It’s epic, euphoric guitar-pop, pondering life, its purpose and mortality, Owen dressed as an astronaut for the single Stars, while The End of Everything (as gloriously atmospheric as Doves), declares, startlingly, “somewhere in this sweet, sweet century, we will die together”. He’s been thinking, a lot.

“Feeling, more than thinking,” he corrects. He’s always been, mind you, a space cadet, merely contemplating harder the cosmological truth that we’re literally made of stardust.

“It’s all true!” he suddenly erupts. “It’s a massive realisation. It’s wooooooow! Even being sat in this room, that’s amazing. Forget all the crap around it. We’re two human beings in a room that some other human beings built. Who put lights up there [begins patting everything around him]. Water that other human beings have bottled. Chocolate. A hat. A phone from China. We’re…choom, choom, choom, zooming away, passing each other, it’s all coming from… nothing.”

His earthly home, though, is where his heart is – “I find being a dad… blissfully exhausting!” – his Take That buddies now all fathers (except Jason Orange), marvelling today how they made it into middle-age.

It’s a massive realisation. It’s wooooooow! Even being sat in this room, that’s amazing

“It is a relief we’re all still here,” he nods. “I see grey hairs and lines… they’ll all kill me for saying that. They’re all in denial! But I’m really proud, not just of the band. Mates from school I see. We’ve shared this place, together.”

Has he ever felt fame-damaged? An enormous pause ensues.

“I don’t like the word ‘damage’,” he decides, eventually. “I don’t know any other way [fondles his necklace]. My wife bought me this, it’s a little mantra.”

He shows me, close-up, a bronze pendant of a stag’s head with the inscription, Je Suis Pret. The stag’s head is a Pyrrha talisman, symbolic of someone who is always ready to protect themselves.

“It says I am ready in French, and I am ready,” he announces, portentously. “For phase two. I’m ready for life. I’m ready to embrace. I’m ready to be aware. I’m ready to be amazed. I’m ready to be a dad.”

He doesn’t mention his music. Does it matter to him if this album does well, if it’s seen as a good piece of work? He doesn’t need, surely, any approbation, anymore, from anyone.

Watch the Pride special collection.

Our LGBTQ+ film playlist offers a new and interesting angle on LGBTQ+ love and struggle – giving an international overview by taking us inside some of the most and least sexually liberated countries in the world.  

Sign Up Now

“Oh, it’s always nice,” he twinkles. “I am joking! D’you know what matters? What matters is… is… I have no idea what matters. I know my family is where I go, ‘Whoooo’. Somebody said in a film the other day, ‘What’s the greatest day in the history of the world?’ And somebody was going, ‘This day, that day’.

“And the person goes, ‘No, it’s yesterday’. And I thought, of course it is. Yesterday is the greatest day in the history of the world. Cos we had yesterday. D’you understand me?”

Definitely not that one, no.

“Maybe they said today. Ah, that’s it! Edit, edit, rewind! Today is the greatest day in the history of
the world!”

Were you ever a major stoner, Mark Owen?

“Oh aye,” he mock-puffs, imaginary spliff to mouth. “I’m just talking shit now. I’m just trying to leave the Big Issue readers with a final impression. C…u…n…t. [Cackles] D’you know what? I have absolutely no idea. I’m just carrying on. I like chocolate, I know that. D’you want some chocolate?”

I’m ready for life. I’m ready to embrace. I’m ready to be aware. I’m ready to be amazed. I’m ready to be a dad

He springs from the sofa, proffers a family-sized bar of Green and Blacks and bowls around the room as his PR approaches.

“I’ve just depressed all the Big Issue readers!” he wails, comedy-perturbed. “But I wish everybody – everybody! – well. I mean it. I don’t wanna see anybody hurt. Really.”

Within minutes, the increasingly curious, still adorably eccentric Mark Owen will be on stage once more, where he’s been for much of his life, having a carefree giggle with Alan Carr, rolling up the stage-set rug and carting it off, for a laugh. Evidently, he’s put his jacket back on, the one with all those shiny, bullet-proof badges.

Mark Owen’s album The Art of Doing Nothing (Polydor) is out now

Words: Sylvia Patterson

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?
A 1990s BBC Proms in the Park concert
Music

Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?

Zayn Malik: 'I wanted to forge my own path, write my own story and see the world'
Exclusive

Zayn Malik: 'I wanted to forge my own path, write my own story and see the world'

Zayn Malik speaks on new music, home city Bradford and identity: 'I'm a very Northern man'
Music

Zayn Malik speaks on new music, home city Bradford and identity: 'I'm a very Northern man'

'It's always a good time for music somewhere': Kae Tempest talks 80s unrest and new drama This Town
Kae Tempest
Music

'It's always a good time for music somewhere': Kae Tempest talks 80s unrest and new drama This Town

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know