Barry Almond
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When Keith Duffy and Brian McFadden first went on the road as Boyzlife – the supergroup made up of the former Boyzone and Westlife members – they never imagined that six years later they would be preparing to release an album of original material.

“The whole concept of the band at the start was that we wanted to do an autobiographical show,” says Keith. “Instead of doing what everybody else does and write their life experiences through the music business in a book for people to read, we decided to actually tell people the stories out loud.”

As members of two of the most successful boy bands in the world, Boyzone and Westlife, and having collectively sold over 55 million records around the world and racking up a whopping 17 Number One singles in the UK, Keith and Brian had stories to tell. “We were just giving our fans an idea from our perspective of how our life changed from being an ordinary teenager growing up in Dublin, to jetting around the world and performing in some of the most amazing venues around the world,” Keith continues. “The stories were about the people we got to meet, the artists we got to perform with and the artists we became friends with.”

Scattered among the stories, the duo performed several Westlife and Boyzone’s biggest hits. It was a recipe for success: after the first tour finished, the group quickly took their show out on the road again. Demand was so high that they developed a bigger show, one more focused on the songs from Westlife and Boyzone’s iconic catalogue. “To put together a set list and not do any stories was easy because we had so many hit songs; every song we do is a hit song,” Keith says. “We started off playing small venues and now we’re doing these beautiful theatres around the country. We have a full live band behind us. We’ve got all the bells and whistles: pyro, special effects… We do the whole thing now.”

Indeed, since their conception in 2016, Boyzlife have toured extensively around the UK, Europe, southeast Asia, the Middle East, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, playing to over 200,000 fans in the process. Naturally, with such success, conversations started about the possibility of Boyzlife recording new music. “From my point of view, when we started this, it was never meant to be what we are doing now,” Brian says. “It was meant to be a one-off, autobiographical show. I was still doing my solo material. I was pretty much bringing out an album every couple of years, but I had stopped that briefly to do Boyzlife.”

Ultimately, Keith and Brian did something that would close the chapter of the last 25 years of their lives. Teaming up with the world-renowned 84-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, they released their debut album, Strings Attached, in 2020. Immediately after its release, the record topped both the UK & Ireland’s iTunes and Amazon music charts, and charted at Number 12 on the UK Official Album Chart. “But the whole time we were doing that, it was in our heads that our next move would be to write and release a record of original material,” Brian says.

That album, Old School, is now here. Made up of 10 tracks, it’s an exhilarating homage to the music of the ‘80s and ‘90s, expertly re-crafted through the lens of today’s pop sensibilities. Inspired by the music that Keith and Brian grew up on, it’s a nostalgic but modern collection of songs about love, family, mental health and the power of our memories. It feels like the record that Boyzlife were always meant to make.

The sound of the record came together easily. Brian had a song he had written with Ivor Novello-award winning songwriter Guy Chambers (Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue) 15 years ago called “The One”, a pop rock stomper that harkens back to the power ballads of Bryan Adams and Aerosmith. “That’s a sound that Brian and I really love. We just thought that it would be amazing if we could use that song as a guideline for what we wanted to do with Boyzlife,” Keith says. “There’s a lot of new sounds in music today, but there aren’t very many old-style power ballads. There just aren’t that many songs that have stories you can imagine are a part of your life. The ‘80s was great for that and we grew up with those types of songs.”

Work on the album truly began when the group were introduced to rising producer Jackson (Shawn Mendes, The Libertines), who understood Keith and Brian’s vision for the record, while also bringing modern pop sensibilities to the table. “That’s why it works,” Brian says. “We all knew that we wanted to make an album that sounded like something from that period, but the way our three ears hear that differently and then put them together is why this album is what it is.”

Making the record was a collaborative effort, and for Keith it provided a confidence boost with songwriting. “In Boyzone they encouraged us to write, but often it was only Ronan and Stephen who might have be invited over for the writing session, so the rest of us would only come in at the end,” he recalls. “For that reason alone, you lose your confidence. You’re afraid to even voice your opinion. But Brian really encouraged me to get involved. That made me feel like a huge part of it.”

Both Keith and Brian weren’t afraid to lean into their softer side, and songs like the propulsive synth pop of “Her”, the stadium-sized “Coming Back To You” and “If I Asked You To Love”, which features percussion that Phil Collins would be jealous of, are all unashamedly romantic.

“We don’t avoid being cheesy because that’s what I think the world is lacking right now,” Brian explains. “You look at most songs that are on the radio at the moment and people are shying away from love songs. But when Keith and I were growing up, you had people like Bryan Adams and Michael Bolton, who sang big power ballads. They didn’t care. They just sang them straight out. If you’re in love with someone, you just tell them.”

Similarly, on the powerful and uplifting “A Little Saving”, Keith and Brian broach mental health struggles. “In times gone past, people were embarrassed or afraid to speak out about whatever mental health problems they might experience, whether that’s having a panic attack or a moment of anxiety. But it has a huge effect on the rest of your life,” Keith says. “This is something that is becoming very apparent in the world that we’re living in today, especially among young men where suicide rates are through the roof. It’s important nowadays to take away any stigma in speaking out about any type of mental health problems that one might have.”

It’s something that wasn’t encouraged during their time in Westlife and Boyzone. “I’m sure Keith can say the same thing, but there were probably times where we were lonely and depressed on the road, going through the same crap every single day,” Brian says. “We probably suffered from depression ourselves, but we never actually realised what it was because people didn’t talk about it back then.”

Still, Keith and Brian are now both in happy places in their lives and describe Old School as “a feel-good album”, one that they have just finished a 27 date UK tour of. They are immensely grateful to have showcased their album with their fans after such an uncertain time with the pandemic.

“We’ve all just gone through a pandemic where everybody has had a hard time,” Brian says. “We’re just hoping that the melodies will give you a bit of enjoyment and that people will sing along. Hopefully, it’ll put a smile on people’s faces. We’re just trying to make people happy again.”

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