Boyzone frontman Ronan Keating's new album, Songs For My Mother, is out now. He explains why he made it as a tribute to his late mum Marie, and talks about his recent trek up Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief.
By Andy Welch
Ronan Keating's just got back from trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro, but he's already onto a new project and planning the next.
"I'm never normally as busy as this," he says, half smiling, half pained.
As well as helping raise more than £1.5 million for Comic Relief by walking up Africa's highest mountain, Ronan is also releasing a solo album, co-writing Boyzone's next album and gearing up for their forthcoming UK arena tour.
Easter weekend will see him flying Down Under to promote Songs For My Mother, released in memory of his later mum Marie, in New Zealand and Australia.
As we chat though, the aches and pains he picked up in Tanzania are the first things on his mind.
"I'm happy it's over," he says.
"I'm wrecked, absolutely exhausted. I've never been as tired in my life. I feel like a zombie.
"I keep myself very fit, but nothing could prepare you for that, and the mental challenge too. The altitude, man... The pressure on your head and the nosebleeds. It's heavy duty."
If nothing else, Ronan made some good friends while on the Kilimanjaro trip, although it'll be interesting to see if other members of the group keep in touch with Ronan now they're back in the UK and near a mobile phone signal.
"I took a sat phone with me. There was always a queue of people behind me waiting to use it. Mr Barlow and Mrs Cole being the worst offenders," he adds, referring to the Take That and Girls Aloud figureheads.
"Gary's a good mate of mine. He rang in the summer and said he was putting this climb together, and did I want to be involved. And no, we didn't spend our time going up there arguing about boy bands!"
As well as having been a supporter of Comic Relief for some time - Boyzone had a No 1 with the official Red Nose Day single in 1999, for example - Ronan and his family set up a charity of their own after Ronan's mum Marie died from breast cancer in 1998.
Since then, the Keatings have helped raised more than £6 million for the fund, which aims to give women the best possible chance of beating breast cancer.
Ronan's latest solo effort, Songs For My Mother, is a tribute to Marie and was recorded in two days last December.
The album, which consists of covers of her favourite songs and one or two that remind the family of her, is understandably very close to Ronan's heart.
"It is a personal album, of course, but at the same time I feel proud that I can talk about her like this and be strong about it," he says.
"Talking about me mam again, 11 years after she passed away... You don't get a lot of opportunity to do that.
"There are songs on the album for everyone's mother, that's the idea. Songs are so varied that people will be able to find different things in the album that they can relate to."
As any musician will tell you, recording an album of 10 songs in two days is no mean feat, especially considering as the Dublin native was backed by a live orchestra.
"We did a lot of stuff in just a couple of takes, yeah, but some were really tough," he explains.
"Carrickfergus, for example. I had a large emotional attachment to that - it's an old traditional song that's been around forever and it's the song we sang at me mam's funeral.
"That was really tough to sing, I had to do the takes a few times there," he says, adding he broke down in the vocal booth while recording another track, Mama's Arms, which tells the story of a young son and his mother's death.
Harrowing as it may have been, Ronan insists he had a lot of fun recording the album, especially his version of Suspicious Minds.
"It's hard not to fall into an Elvis impression doing that," he says," the arm starts going and you're off."
Ronan's involvement with the charity is very hands on. He and his family have input into the day-to-day running of the Foundation, and he can reel off facts and figures, cancer statistics and survival rates with ease.
"We teamed up with Cancer Research UK four years ago, and we've had three Emeralds And Ivy Balls, which have been amazing success every year, full of celebrities. We raised £600,000 at last year's," he says with glee.
"We have these units that go out on the road, four in the UK and three in Ireland. People come on board, speak to an oncology nurse, find out more about cancer, how to check themselves, and what to do if they do find anything.
"It's all about early detection with cancer. We're about to launch in Germany, and in Australia. It's a basic programme, but it's obviously effective and people get it.
"I feel very proud that we've achieved it as a family, and as a charity. We've a long way to go, but there has been a 6% increase in the survival rate of breast cancer in Ireland, which is a huge movement, a very positive one, and it's amazing that we're attached to that."
We move on to talk about the new Boyzone album, which is currently being written and is due out before Christmas.
After our chat, he's off with the rest of his trekking friends for a special gathering.
"We're off to Gordon's," he says cheekily.
"10 Downing Street. We're going to Gordon's gaff to say hello. He's getting the pizzas in and we're going to watch the documentary. Then I'm flying home back to Dublin.
"The hardest thing about all this work is being away from my wife and kids. It's my son's birthday this weekend, but thankfully we'll all be together for that.
"It was my birthday while we were up the mountain, I felt so far away from home then.
"Like I said, things are really, really busy at the moment and it seems I'm away all the time.
"I need to pull back a bit and get the balance back. It's good though, don't get me wrong.
"I'm not complaining, I've got to keep it going."
Ronan Keating - Extra Time
:: Ronan Keating was born on March 3, 1977.
:: He lives in Dublin with his wife Yvonne and three children - Jack, 10, Marie, eight, and Alice, three.
:: Ronan joined Boyzone when he was 17 after being spotted by manager Louis Walsh.
:: Ronan ran the London Marathon last year in aid of Cancer Research, clocking in a time of 3hr59mins. He's currently training for the 2009 race, and plans to complete it in less than 3hr30.
:: Boyzone have sold more than 20 million records to date.