Hard though it is to believe, there are days when Olly Murs – the chipper, Jack-the-lad pop star who’s not fully dressed without a cheeky smile or a rakishly-angled hat – feels a bit down.
Don’t worry – Weekend hasn’t uncovered a dark and tortured side to pop’s most effervescent poster boy; merely a passing confession that ‘sometimes I need cheering up, too’ when we note his talent for bringing a positive vibe to the party. It’s a moment of introspection that vanishes as soon it’s arrived.
‘I enjoy my job and I’m a fun-loving guy – I enjoy having a good time and a good life,’ says the 30-year-old of his feelgood philosophy. ‘I was the same before I did this job – that hasn’t changed. My granddad said to me “Life isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon”. You’ve got to enjoy it every single day.”’
Olly Murs was certainly quick to seize his moment: he may have come runner-up on the 2009 series of The X Factor but, as winner Joe McElderry’s star quickly faded, the likeable Essex lad found himself clutched to the nation’s bosom, hitting the top spot with his first single, 2010’s summery Never Let Me Go, and shifting more than 800,000 copies of his debut album. With the likes of JLS, Cher Lloyd, Ella Henderson and a certain One Direction all eclipsing their respective series winners, would Murs agree that winning The X Factor might actually be more of a curse than a blessing?
‘I don’t know about that,’ he says, diplomatically. ‘It’s probably harder when you win the show because there’s more expectation. There were no expectations for me - people were either going to like it or they weren’t.
‘We all get given the same amazing platform, and the trick is to use it wisely. Simon’s always said that to me. Simon can’t babysit you – you’ve got to use the platform to your advantage.’
Simon, of course, being Simon Cowell – flat-topped, high-waisted media mogul, X Factor overlord and, if the stories are to be believed, a ruthless business operator who thinks nothing of chewing up and spitting out his production line pop wannabes as soon as they’ve outlived their usefulness. Murs is having none of it.
‘Simon’s always been great,’ he says. ‘He’s always said I’m a great ambassador for The X Factor, and he’s always thanked me for that. Because a lot of artists do leave the show and seem to be negative about it, and don’t paint it in the best light. He’s always been very helpful to me, and very complimentary about what I’ve achieved.’
What he’s achieved, as it happens, is quite a lot. Since that first hit, Murs has scored three more number ones (including the ska-flavoured Heart Skips A Beat and the ersatz doo-wop of Dance With Me Tonight) while current album Never Been Better – featuring collaborations with Travie McCoy, Demi Lovato and, to the surprise of many, Paul Weller - is his third chart-topper in a row. In the modern pop landscape, that makes him a positive veteran. What’s his secret?
‘You’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot in this game,’ he says – a creed matched by a work ethic that’s seen him release four albums in as many years, while also developing a sideline career in telly (he co-hosted two series of The Xtra Factor, and recently fronted his own ITV special). ‘I’ve done five years and I still can’t believe I’m doing this. I’ve just got to keep working hard and see what happens. You never know what’s round the corner, so I just enjoy every moment, and have some fun.’
Murs plays the role of the well-drilled modern pop star impeccably: he’s cautious on Twitter (‘You’ve got to be – if you seek negativity, you’re going to find it’) and takes his status as a role model seriously. ‘You’ve got to change your ways a little bit,’ he says. ‘I can’t be doing some of the things I used to be doing.’
Despite his burgeoning superstar status, Murs still lived with his parents in Witham until 2012. ‘It was great,’ he recalls. ‘I wasn’t going to rush straight off The X Factor and get a place in London and start living the high life. I wanted to make sure I had foundations and everything was in place. I didn’t want to be spending money I didn’t have.’
As a youngster, Murs was considered quite handy as a footballer (‘Actually,’ he corrects Weekend good-naturedly, ‘I’m still quite handy as a footballer’). He played semi-professionally for Witham Town, but was forced to retire following a leg injury. Taking a job as a recruitment consultant, he earned his beer money singing with a covers band called the Small Town Beggars. He auditioned twice for The X Factor, without success, but decided to give it a third shot after returning from a backpacking trip around Australia. Despite narrowly surviving a vote-off against Jedward, of all people, Murs made it all the way to the final, a triumph slightly soured by the fact rehearsals forced him to miss his twin brother Ben’s wedding. The pair haven’t spoken since.
That sad detail aside, Murs has never looked back: with a seemingly endless well of hits, celebrity chums like Robbie Williams and Michael Bublé on speed-dial, and a solid relationship with his girlfriend of two years, property developer Francesca Thomas, he is – in X Factor parlance – living the dream. But we have to ask: would the devoted Manchester United supporter trade in all his professional achievements for a place in the Red Devils’ first team?
‘Do you know what? The saddest thing is that I would,’ he says. ‘I love football so much. It’s always going to be in my DNA. I live and breathe football, really. So yes, 100 per cent.’
Then he sounds a note of caution: ‘If you could guarantee me I’d be in a top team and I’d be there for 10 or 15 years, then great. But I see football very much the same as I view music – you have players who do well for a couple of seasons and then they fall from grace, and you have players who stay at the top of their game for a long time, constantly performing at the highest level.
‘The music industry is very similar to football: you can’t just have one good season, or one good album; you’ve got to keep that consistency and keep that level up.’
Fortunately for lovers of fresh, feelgood pop everywhere, Olly Murs shows no sign of taking an early bath any time soon. The boy done good.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 8, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend