In 2006, one of the craziest couple of weeks in my life began with a blunt request: My wife and daughter insisted we go to Japan. I’d quit the music business in the mid-’90s, but every so often someone would call with an offer to fly me somewhere to sing my old songs, like “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Together Forever.” I’d always said no; I’d gone from being sort of famous for four or five years, jumping on a plane almost every day, to being a suburban dad, taking the kid to school, not having any public life at all. When an offer to go to Japan came through, though, my wife and my then-14-year-old daughter, Emilie, cornered me in the kitchen. “We’re going to Japan,” they told me. So I said yes.
Part two of this equation is that my wife, Lene, who works in film and TV production, had produced a short movie, which, after our trip was planned, was nominated for an Oscar. So, suddenly, we were all going to the Oscars, three days before the first concert in Japan. Lene and Emilie flew out to LA, while I stayed behind to rehearse with the band in London, and when the band flew to Tokyo, I went to LA. I met Lene and Emilie at the Sunset Marquis, had a few drinks to mix with the jet lag, and the next thing I knew I was in a brand-new tux at the Oscars, then at the grand ball afterward, then at all these after-parties until 5 a.m., then on a flight to Japan, then on a bullet train to Osaka for my first gig—at which point, I was like, “What the hell is going on?”
I hadn’t sung these songs for anyone—other than guests at my brother-in-law’s wedding—in over a decade, and now I was in Japan, which is otherworldly on its own. When I first performed there, in 1989, the crowds were extremely polite, to the point that I was almost concerned, and afterward they left the hall row by row, almost one by one. So I was prepared for some culture shock—just not the kind that I got.
It’s hard to convey to people what a zero-to-100 feeling it is to go from not having been on a proper stage in over a decade to then singing in front of thousands of people. I was both deeply jet-lagged and fresh off the surreal experience of the Oscars, so the whole thing was utterly dreamlike and bizarre. For the first song or two I was like a deer in the headlights, and by the third or fourth song, I had time to think, Where are we? What are we doing? This is not my beautiful house.
After that, though, it became amazing. I realized the country had changed. People were freer, but I was freer too. I told the crowd, “Look, you’re at the biggest karaoke night in Japan—let’s get involved, have fun with it.” It made me realize that there’s a real beauty to just turning up and singing some songs.
Afterward, my family and I took a week’s holiday. We stayed at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo and this gorgeous ancient hotel in Kyoto. At some point, a little light bulb went off in my head that said, “You’re just along for the ride.” When you first make a record and it does well, you think you’re in the driver’s seat, when the truth is everything is totally out of your control. It’s not about you—it’s about just showing up and doing it. So I started doing more trips: South America, where I’d never played, and all over Asia, playing live much more than I ever did.
In 2016, I made an album in my garage, and it was a number-one hit in the U.K. Now, I get to play concerts and festivals with artists as diverse as Foo Fighters and Justin Bieber. This June, we played Glastonbury. At 11:30 a.m., there were maybe 400 people there, but by five to 12, right before we went on, there were 80,000 people. I still count myself as a retro artist, because I had a hit in 1987, but now I’m doing it because I want to do it. I realized this isn’t a job anymore—it’s more like having fun. And none of this would have happened if, back in 2006, my wife and daughter hadn’t pushed me up against the kitchen cabinets and said, “We’re going to Japan.”
Rick Astley’s ninth studio album, Are We There Yet?, is out October 6. He’ll take the stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall November 1–2.