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With a Little Help From His Friend Paul McCartney, Michael Bublé Found Himself in the Album He Always Wanted to Make

Michael Buble
Norman Jean Roy/Courtesy Warner Records

Michael Bublé is the rare artist who actually enjoys doing press. “How many people go to a mall and sit in the food court all day just hoping somebody will just come up to them and talk?” the Canadian superstar muses charmingly. Already naturally chatty, Bublé is especially animated when it comes to discussion his just-released 11th studio album, “Higher” — a project he’s been working towards his whole life.

“I have been in love with these songs forever,” the 46-year-old says of the covers that comprise the bulk of “Higher.” “I just never found a concept that I felt was worthy of them.” Bublé points to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” as an example. “I tried to do it three or four times, and it was never good enough,” he says. “Finally, I sat down at the piano and played the wrong chord. It changed the whole song, I unlocked it for myself.”

That unintended sonic experiment is reflective of his freewheeling approach to the entire album. “Higher” is the result of Bublé letting loose and trying new things — a freedom that just wasn’t possible on 2018’s Love, which was recorded shortly after his son won a protracted battle with cancer. “I was healing,” he says. “I’d gone through a lot with our family, and I think that I wasn’t ready to come back.”

Bublé was stunned that he was even in the position to pursue his career again. “I was very gingerly and tenderly stepping back into a place that I really truly never thought I’d go,” he says softly. “I never thought I’d come back, I really thought it was over.” In retrospect, the hitmaker thinks he rushed the process: “When I did come back, I wasn’t ready. My mental health wasn’t great.”

To soften the blow, Bublé turned to familiar faces. “I tried to protect myself by working with all the same people I’ve worked with and making a safe record,” he confesses. “I loved it, but it was honestly just me in survival mode.”

By the time Bublé came to record “Higher,” however, the healing process had begun. “I started to live again,” he beams. “I was so ready to take the feeling of being grateful and happy, and just put something beautiful out there.”

One of his main inspirations for the album was the late Captain Sir Tom Moore, who raised more than 30 million pounds for charity at the age of 99. “Like so many people all over the world, I was really moved by him,” Bublé says. So he uncovered the veteran’s favorite song — Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” — and recorded it for him. When Moore passed, his daughter asked if the vocalist would record Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” for his funeral.

“I sang it and that was the first spark for the album,” Bublé says. “Here was this beautiful man who was, at 99 years old, still living his life in service to other people, and if that doesn’t inspire you to make a beautiful, joyful, record of love, then nothing will.” In fact, the album was initially called Smile. That changed when Bublé started to spread his wings creatively. “Each song was a truly ambitious reach for me,” he says.

“I wanted everything to just be the best that it could be and I started opening up to working with other writers and producers,” the four-time Grammy winner continues. The list of collaborators that ultimately contributed to Higher is dazzling. From living legends like Sir Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson to contemporary hitmakers like Greg Wells, Michael Pollack and Ryan Tedder, Bublé followed his muse wherever it took him.

“I was surrounded by all these beautiful people, so why not throw the ball around?” Bublé says with trademark humility. One of those beautiful people just happened to be Paul McCartney. The Beatles icon pitched “My Valentine,” a ballad from 2012’s “Kisses on the Bottom,” when he heard Bublé was back in the studio. The Canadian promptly recorded a demo of the song in the style of Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year” and sent it back.

“Two days later, Sir Paul called as I was driving down Sunset,” he remembers. McCartney not only loved Bublé’s version, he wanted to produce it. “The fact that he trusted me with his art means a lot,” Bublé says. “I didn’t want Paul McCartney to produce this record because of all the things that Paul McCartney has done, I wanted Paul McCartney to do it for all the things that Paul McCartney can do. And he did those things.”

He is similarly proud of collaborating with his hero Willie Nelson on a cover of “Crazy.” “My arms were literally open and I was just going, ‘Come in, man, share your ideas,’” Bublé says excitedly. The “Haven’t Met You Yet” singer also connected with contemporaries including Ryan Tedder, who helped him craft the album’s soaring title track. “It was a really unique opportunity to write a pop song with a symphonic and very orchestral arrangement,” he says.

The enduring artist then makes a detour down memory lane. “I used to see Tedder around, we would be on weird German TV shows, cross paths when we were touring,” Bublé recalls. “At that time, you’re young and hungry and ambitious.” The passage of time transformed those feelings. “Now there’s this connection, you’re proud of each other and the competition has turned into friendship,” he says. “The insecurity has gone. You did it. You made it.”

Bublé is now sharing that wisdom with the next generation. “Sebastián Yatra called me last night at 3 a.m.,” he proffers. “Sebastián is a beautiful soul who has worked his ass off. He’s a good boy and it’s happening for him in a big way. I get emotional about it.” Bublé advised him to be in the moment. “I wish somebody would’ve called me and said, ‘Enjoy every second of this,’” he says. “Because, of course, I was way too busy and way too ambitious to ever enjoy it.”

When steered back to his album, Bublé’s magnanimity shines through again when discussing the decision to give John Mayer a writing credit for “Baby I’ll Wait.” “There were parts of it that sounded way too much like a Mayer song,” he admits. So Bublé called the singer/songwriter and offered him a writing credit. “I would never want him to hear it and think it sounds familiar,” he says. The relaxed approach also applied to his internal A&R process.

Bublé road-tested the album at a house party thrown by his sister and was overwhelmed by the response to the tear-jerking ballad, “Mother.” “It comes on and I got a little embarrassed,” he laughs. I said, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it,’ and one of my sister’s friends said, ‘Well, it’s a good fucking thing that you’re not your audience, we are. So get over yourself because it’s getting on the record.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’”

“It was an epiphany,” Bublé continues. “Not everything has to be for me. Sometimes you make music because it moves people.” That also explains how a funky rendition of Barry White’s disco classic “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” ended up on the album. “My kids would play my record all the time at home,” he remembers. “And I would notice that every time that song would come on, it was like a dance party.”

“My wife kept saying to me, ‘Mike, please keep that song. Mike, It’s so fun. It’s so romantic,” Bublé says. “I realized early on in the process of making this record, success doesn’t come with an awesome review from Rolling Stone. And it doesn’t come with how many records you sell. It comes when your music connects.” Interestingly the music that moves Bublé is staggeringly diverse.

As part of his album rollout, Bublé has curated a 3-episode radio series for Apple Music called “Higher Radio,” which involved picking out his favorite vocal performances. “Some of the vocal performances that I chose might surprise people,” he says. “But they were just really honest choices. I picked Yma Sumac’s ‘Babalu,’ an incredible vocal performance. I picked some of my favorite ’80s stuff like Phil Collins’ ‘Against All Odds.’ I picked Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself.’”

Voices are sacred to Bublé. After all, it’s the through line that holds “Higher” together in all its eclectic glory. “The glue is my voice,” he offers. “I’ve said a million times, I’m a soul singer. People try to categorize me, call me a crooner or a pop singer.” It’s not that Bublé has an issue with those descriptions. “I know that I stand on the shoulders of my heroes and that I play a small part in keeping the Great American Songbook alive,” he says.

“I take it so seriously that I get to be a custodian of such an incredible gift to the arts,” Bublé continues. “My biggest hits have been pop songs. That’s partly why the arena’s full. But at the same time, I’m a soul singer who loves Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway.”

On “Higher,” Bublé gets to show the full breadth of his talent, while staying true to idols, influences, and, most importantly, himself.