Don’t believe everything you see on TV: Olly Murs has been away.
For sure, the singer, songwriter and solid-gold pop star has been all over our screens in recent weeks and months. He’s been front and centre as host of ITV’s Starstruck, helping the public make real their musical dreams, with wing-persons assistance from the likes of Shania Twain, Ronan Keating and Beverley Knight.
Then, he returned to the big swivelly chair on The Voice. Appearing alongside fellow coaches Anne-Marie, Sir Tom Jones and will.i.am in the current run, this is his fifth consecutive season on the hit talent show.
But in the artist world – the world that forged him, where he burnished the creative credentials that makes him an invaluable part of those musical shows – Murs has been off the radar for over four years. For a musician who had four Number One singles and four Number One albums in a near-back-to-back run after bursting onto the scene with his double-platinum self-titled debut in 2010, that’s a big gap.
But as he matter-of-factly admits, after the release of 2018’s sixth album You Know I Know (a double that was half greatest hits, half new tracks) he needed a rest. And a reset. The result is Olly Murs’ most consistent, most ambitious, punchiest, poppiest – and, in places, proudly soppiest – album yet.
It’s the Essex-machine at his happiest, too. How do we know? The clue’s in the title: Marry Me. The answer? Hint: she said yes. But before we get to that…
“I won’t lie,” Murs begins. “I was against doing the hits album. That's why I made it a double album – the songs you know, the songs that I know. Because I just wasn't ready for a hits album at that point in my career.”
As it happened, he then needed time to rebuild himself, personally and professionally. Firstly, after the 2019 You Know I Know tour, this keen footballer needed knee surgery. Secondly, he decided it was time to work with a fresh team, leaving Sony to sign a new record deal with EMI/Universal.
“It was just a weird time for me,” he reflects. “I was still single, personal life was a little bit all over the place… Work life was good, overall, but with that album campaign, my heart wasn't really in it. But my heart's in it now.”
That cardiac boost came from multiple directions. Firstly, Murs’ ears lit up when he was sent a work-in-progress track by songwriter David Stewart. 'Die Of A Broken Heart' needed a second verse, and a proper vocal, but he could hear that this was a smash-in-waiting.
“I went to David’s studio in West London and we got into the writing together. That was really the start and the spearhead of everything. It gave me a direction of where the album could go.”
'Die Of A Broken Heart' would become the first track on the album, and the first single. From the opening notes, you can hear why – this is an instant ear-worm, a one-listen-and-you’re-hooked pop-reggae outlier. As Murs describes it: “It has that steel drum at the intro, which just gets in your head straight away. It has a very Gotye, ‘Somebody I Used to Know’ feel to it, with a touch of The Police – and just a coolness to it. That really excited me.”
So much so that Murs decided to dive deep and commit. Forging an instant connection with Stewart, and with the producer and multi-instrumentalist’s songwriting partner Jessica Agombar, Murs ripped up entirely the creative process that had previously worked brilliantly for him.
“I've done all my albums with lots of producers over the years, predominantly Steve Robson, Claude Kelly, Steve Mac, Wayne Hector, guys I've had great relationships and success with. But David just had a BTS hit with their song ‘Dynamite’, stuff with Jonas Brothers, DNCE, more stuff with BTS, and he'd just done the new Shania Twain record…”
So he jumped in, committing to writing and recording the album solely with David Stewart and Jessica Agombar. “I've never done this before. It felt weird writing with the same people constantly. But I loved the routine, and the consistency. We just kept writing good songs.
“They are in the mix right now,” he continues. “They just had a great vibe and an enthusiasm, and a hunger. They’ve just had a Billboard number one, a number one in over 100 countries. That enthusiasm and energy that I got from them, that was it. That was the start.”
The start, but no starting pistol: Murs was determined not to race to the finish. Even though, again, that was something that had paid dividends in the past.
“Previous albums, I've done them in 12 weeks, 10 weeks, sometimes eight weeks, nonstop, jumping from studio to studio, benefiting from that injection of enthusiasm from someone new, that new producer, that new room – new lunch menu!"
But to craft the tight set of 11 songs that would become Marry Me, he took the best part of two years, working a week here, and a week there.
“And we had space,” he adds. “That’s the best thing about this album: we were patient. We didn't waste time. We took our time. And when it felt good, we finished the song. When it didn't feel good, we moved on. There was no pressure.”
Murs met his partner in 2019, another big change. This life-changing jolt is reflected in another new song. ‘I Found Her’ is a big tune with big energy and a big, soaring synth line.
“I was hearing Eighties-sounding songs in the charts like what The Weeknd was doing,” remembers this keen student of pop music. “That's where that big energy you’re describing came from, all dramatic and Eighties-like. We wrote the song based on my partner – or any woman. She's at the centre of the earth, and all these superheroes are trying to get to her. But if the world ends, at least – at last – I've found her.
“We wanted that bounce in the chorus, and that Jagger or Bowie strut, me with my chest out – I can imagine me in a sequinned onesie,” he hoots, as if storyboarding a video for what is surely a nailed-on single. “Yeah, we had fun writing that one.”
Also bringing the good-time party vibes is ‘Dancing on Cars’, a tune with an exuberant ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ feel. And if you’re gonna tap into anyone’s funky vibe, Grace Jones is the one, right?
“This is the only one I didn't write. David said, ‘look, I wrote this fucking banger and I think it would work perfectly on the album.’ It's got that, again, modern funk feel – but my granddad would love to dance to it because it's got that old ’70s funk in it, with brass. It just ticks all the boxes. And I like the idea of me dancing on a car!” he hoots, scripting yet another surely inevitable iconic video moment.
Then, after the dancing and the partying, the romance. Rounding out Marry Me is ‘Let Me Just Say’. The album’s closing track is the only ballad, and offers not just a showcase for Murs’ effortlessly classy voice but also for his deepest emotions.
“It was probably the last song we wrote on the album, and you can probably tell at that point I was engaged,” he acknowledges. “So it's almost a story, really – the whole album is the two years leading up to me proposing. This is the final song on the album, and it's written as if the lights are down low, we’re on the dancefloor for our wedding, looking at each other…”
...and, fade to marital bliss. “That's the most open I’ve ever written,” Murs admits, clearly high on being able to honour and immortalise his bride-to-be in this way. “That's genuine love. But as for ‘Marry Me’ itself,” he adds of the finger-snapping, hip-shaking, dance floor-ready title track, “that's more my cheeky side. I’m saying: I think it's time you married me, really!’”
It’s sure to have them dancing – if not proposing – in the aisles next year, when Olly Murs gets back on tour. Last time round he sold 180,000 tickets for UK arenas in 2019. He’s determined to go bigger, better, louder next time in a show that will, he thinks, open with another new track. The Greatest Showman-esque ‘The Best Night of Your Life’ features strings by the legendary Mike Batt (who also appears on two other tracks), and the larky lyrics reference songs by other great showmen he rates, notably Elton John and Robbie Williams. "I can already see me on stage doing that one," nods this natural-born stage performer.