INTERVIEW: Bill Bailey

ABBA, birdsong and history lessons in Ragtime: Exposed’s Dale Maplethorpe delves into the wonderfully weird world of beloved comedian Bill Bailey. Pictures: Andy Hollingworth

“I’ve got this terrible cold actually,” Bill Bailey’s voice crackles down the other end of the phone as we say hello before chatting about his new tour. En Route to Normal comes to Sheffield Arena on January 9th and even before we dig deep into what ‘normal’ means anymore, Bill is discussing the hilarious nature that surrounds our newfound paranoia at the slightest sniffle. “It’s one of those,” he says, “I keep thinking, is it the lurgy? Is it the dreaded lurgy? But no. It’s just a flipping cold.”

Comedian, musician, dancer and (supposed) soothsayer Bill Bailey will be taking to the road as of 12th December, putting an end to his forced touring hiatus by kicking off a run of shows that start in Plymouth and carry on all the way through to early 2022. “It’s unprecedented,” he comments when asked about how he feels getting back to what he knows best after such an elongated time away. “I’ve never, certainly not in the years that I’ve been touring, been in a situation like this before where I’ve not done shows for so long… it’s quite daunting, really, as a prospect.”

Bill Bailey En Route

Such a long time away from touring is sure to make getting back out there again feel strange; however, not only that, but it has also given Bailey a newfound respect for just how important live entertainment is. “I’ve done one or two little warm up shows,” he reflects on gigging post-lockdown, “but even those have taken up a greater significance. In normal times, outside of a pandemic, it would have been just another warm-up show in a programme of events that would have happened at this art centre, but me going back there, the whole place was abuzz with excitement. This is the first show that they’ve seen in 18 months, so it takes on greater significance.”

As someone who has crammed as many live shows in as possible in recent months, revelling in the aforementioned post-pandemic buzz, this is something it’s easy to identify with. Gigs at the minute seem to come with another layer of excitement because of how long we had to go without them. As a crowd member it’s a feeling you can simply embrace; however, it begs the question, as an entertainer how do you cope? In other words, is it harder to remain grounded and perform a routine when you’re just awash with emotion and enjoying being back?

“I was a bit giddy,” Bailey answers. “I asked the crowd if this was their first show back and everyone said yes. I said perhaps it should be something a bit more memorable than this. Perhaps it should be ABBA reforming and doing a gig under the pyramids. Then the week after I said that ABBA said they were going to reform. I thought I might have been gifted the power of foresight.”

Bill Bailey En Route

Bailey’s new ability to see into the future doesn’t start and end with ABBA reunions either. His new tour entitled En Route To Normal may sound like a reasonably apt name given it is being performed in a post-pandemic Britain; however, curiously, the title and original idea for the show was thought up back when the coronavirus was simply an imaginative name for a hangover. “I do feel slightly guilty,” he muses. “Maybe it was me that caused it?”

Which begs the question: what was the original inspiration behind the show? “The title came up because of the strange situation we found ourselves in even before there was a pandemic. Now that there has been a pandemic, we are on this march back to whatever we thought normal was and it does seem to be going on and on and on. It is an indication as to how strange things were even before we had heard of Covid-19.”

The show sounds like it could be bittersweet. Bailey reflects on times throughout human history when we have gone through similar periods of turmoil and come out on the other side. Sure, that could be seen by some as empowering, but at the same time, covid itself was bad news enough, let alone looking back on other periods throughout history that mirror it.

Bill Bailey En Route

“It was initially hard because we were bombarded with information all the time and it became the case that every day we were gripped by the news: what was going to happen, statistics and numbers were being thrown at us all the time.”

But how similar could these previous instances really be?

“You are almost struck by the eerie similarity to our situation. It’s almost as if these photographs and headlines could have been written today. In the so-called Spanish flu in 1918 there were photographs of people all wearing masks, all in the gear of the day but wearing masks and then someone has a sign that says, ‘wear a mask, protect your neighbours.’”

So, one similarity then… “Then the black death came down via the silk route and entered Europe through Italy. Again, it’s this similarity that covid was particularly bad in Italy before it came here and a lot of Italians were saying, ‘you need to take precautions’ and we were just a bit blasé about it. But exactly the same thing happened in 1346.”

Bill Bailey En Route

Do we ever learn?

“You do think, oh, nothing changes, and that was slightly depressing in a way, but then a lot of good came out of it, like the renaissance, which led to a lot of empowerment and improvement in people’s life. That’s what I took from it. There are certain things that, despite the tragic nature of it and the terrible loss of life, if we look beyond, there are positives in the way that our lives can be changed for the better.”

Bill stays true to this ideology as his new show highlights some of the positives that have come from lockdown. One aspect is the return of nature as he composes new music through birdsong. “A lot of birdsong normally masked by a lot of noise was now audible; it occurred to me that this is the soundtrack of a pre-industrial age. So, if you look at composers, it occurred to me that this is what they would be listening to in their moment of revery. Rather than sitting there and trying to sort of zone out all the sounds of the modern world, you can have a bit of peace and quiet.”

This is true. In fact, one of the pioneers of experimental noise music, Luigi Russolo, initially pins the whole development of said genre down to the way our hearing changed as a result of the industrial revolution. He commented on this in his manifesto, The Art of Noises, when he wrote, ‘music originally sought purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound,’ before continuing, ‘musical evolution is paralleled by the multiplication of machines…. The machine today has created such a variety and rivalry of noises that pure sound, in its exiguity and monotony, no longer arouses any feeling.’

Bill Bailey En Route

“Exactly,” says Bailey before adding more to the history and development of music, which surprisingly is also loosely linked to another pandemic: “When I was learning piano, I learned a lot of Jazz and played a lot of Ragtime. Ragtime piano is the sort of forerunner to Jazz, and I was trying to nail down what the birth of it was. Turns out it happened around the time of the 1918 pandemic and grew out of the red-light district in New Orleans… it was seen as a terrible disease. If you read all the New York Times editorials, they all talk about it like ‘this is moral corruption of our age, and we need to hope it’s just a passing phase before it infects everyone like leprosy’. It’s really just vicious and violent language, like it’s this terrible disease and then the irony was that there was this terrible disease actually happening, but Jazz got linked into the same category.”

There was an interesting period in comedy throughout (and following) the pandemic, during which there was naturally the inkling to only talk about covid and lockdown with routines made up of casual observations concerning the absurdity of the two. What Bailey is doing with his new show is not only highlighting the same absurdity but comparing that to similar times in human history: on one hand he’s instilling a sense of futility as events continue to repeat themselves, whilst on the other sparking feelings of hope by discussing the good that can come from the bad. For a truly unique take on the pandemic and both the positives and negatives to come from it, En Route To Normal is the show for you. Catch Bill in Sheffield when he stops by next month.

Tickets for Bill Bailey’s En Route to Normal Tour at the Utilita Arena Sheffield on Sunday 9th January are on sale now, available online now.

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