“Shall we meet for coffee?” asks Albert. “I know a little place that does lovely cakes”. I would quite frankly have met him in a dingy diner if he’d asked me to, if I’m honest. It’s not every day you get to interview such a prolific musician.
Albert has had a long, successful career in the music industry, the roots of which can be traced right back to Gibraltar, where he played in the band The Diamond Boys alongside Gib Mag’s writer, Richard Cartwright. Over the years, alongside his own music Albert has collaborated with the likes of Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Celine Dione, Diana Ross, and Julio Iglesias, to name but a few!
As I pulled up to the café and spotted Albert sitting by the window with his coffee (and cake), we exchanged a smile and a wave. I had an inkling that this would be a brilliant interview, but what I didn’t expect is that he would be such a brilliant individual; remarkable musical career aside. Nor that we would veer so greatly off topic, discussing the purpose of life, the meaning of happiness, and our shared views on spirituality. But I’m so glad we did.
He wouldn’t like to be called extraordinary, but the fact of the matter is – he is.
* * *
Albert grew up in Shakery’s Passage, where he lived until he was seven year’s old. Having spent more time in LA than anywhere else (Albert left Gibraltar when he was 16) he is arguably a ‘man of the world’, but he recalls his childhood on the Rock with great fondness.
It’s pretty unique to be from Gibraltar.
“Having grown up in Gibraltar is very important to me; it’s pretty unique to be from Gibraltar,” Albert shares. “My childhood was the best I could have ever had, or any human being could have ever had for that matter.” I pressed Albert on what he was like as a young boy, and his memories of living in Gibraltar. “I was mischievous!” he smiles. “We just had one bedroom, and the only running water in the place was salt water – I’m talking about the 1950s here! The toilet was outside; if you had to go at night, you had to take a candle, and hope it didn’t go out.”
Albert’s description of his familial home conjures up a vivid image of a simple, honest, and warm childhood. “Life was different. Life was primitive. Growing up that way taught me one way to live, and being given the gift to do what I’ve done has taught me another. But I could live happily either way.”
She looks at me and she says ‘Son, life is too short’.
Albert is a song writing behemoth, reaching #5 in 1972 with “It Never Rains in Southern California” in the Billboard charts, and #1 in 1975 with “99 Miles From LA”. He also has nominations for an Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy and Emmy Award under his belt, and in 2008 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
So, what comes next? “I’m working on a new record. I wrote a song yesterday called ‘Goodbye LA’. I’m also working on a Christmas project,” Albert explains. It’s something he spoke about with his mother before her passing, and heart-warmingly hopes to produce this album as a tribute to her. “My mum died two years ago, four months shy of a hundred. When she was lying in bed, on her way to the universe somewhere, I asked her – ‘What do you think about when you’re lying here?’ She looks at me and she says ‘Son, life is too short’. It taught me something about how important life is, and how to live in the moment.”
As for the direction he would like his performances to eventually go in, Albert reveals he’d like to offer something a little more intimate than the fully-flanked shows we’re used to. “I’ve done my symphonies and operas and all these other things; I want to do something more vulnerable. A little vulnerability is wonderful at times. The same with my shows – eventually I just want to be there myself, maybe pull out some old songs and tell their stories.”
Suddenly… the fog lifts and you start to see the song. It’s like magic.
I asked Albert where he draws his inspiration from. “Well, I don’t. It comes to me. I never look for anything, I just wait. Have you noticed when you look for your glasses, it’s only when you stop looking for them that you find them?
“I never know when it’s going to hit. I’m in a good place now, writing-wise. I’m in another world when I write. But songs find me, you know? I don’t know how to write songs clinically. I just wait for something to come to me, and when it does, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.
“Sometimes, you don’t recognise it at the beginning, you just know it’s there. And so you start to sing something, and you’re playing the guitar, and you think ‘What is this?’, but you keep doing it and then suddenly… the fog lifts and you start to see the song. It’s like magic. After that, you work.”
This honest, raw way of working shines through in Albert’s music. He has written in all styles, from operatic, to rhythm and blues, country, and pop; his ability to traverse them all with such ease is a testament to the unmanufactured way in which he operates.
When speaking about “Goodbye LA”, Albert explains how a catchy rhythm came to him, demonstrating by singing and tapping on the table of the little café we were seated in. “I don’t know where it came from!” he laughs.
After recovering from the fact that I had just been serenaded by a musical legend, we moved on to the topic of his many accolades over the years. What struck me the most about Albert was just how down to earth he was about such things. From a person who still flaunts her middle school medal for running 200 metres (I must show you some time), I was surprised by how little awards meant to him.
“I am always very grateful, of course. But what does a trophy do, other than collect dust? I’m not really a very good musician; I don’t play guitar well, I don’t play piano well… but what I do, hundreds of millions of people seem to like. I can change their lives, I can make them cry, make them smile. That’s my trophy. My Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, my Grammy.”
If Albert isn’t a good musician, then that leaves very little hope for the rest of us, but I appreciated the genuine sentiment behind what he was saying.
“I’m just like you,” Albert professes.
“But with more talent…” I added. But Albert insisted: “No; I’ve just found something that maybe you haven’t found yet.
“I’ll tell you a story. I used to stay at the Park Hotel in Bremen. One day, the janitor of the hotel was telling me how he decided to return to studying. Years later, he came to me and said ‘Let me give you a hug – I just became a doctor!’. He was in his sixties! It’s never too late to find your thing,” Albert concludes. “…But don’t look for it, it will come to you.” He says with a smile.
Albert’s views on life are refreshing, and infectious. It’s rare to find someone who has been thrust so high up into stardom, and yet has two feet planted firmly on the ground. “We’re all the same. Some of us are born richer, some of us are born poorer, but we’re all the same. Having more than someone else doesn’t make you better – that’s just crap! We’re all just energy.”
Talk of energy made me wonder whether spirituality plays a big part in Albert’s life. “Oh, huge. It always has. They used to call me ‘The Mystic’ because I was always questioning the deeper meaning behind things. Being in the clouds can be nice.”
I probed Albert on the music industry (“It’s always changed, from whenever music was invented. There’s always good music and bad music, and there still is…”) and whether there were any modern musicians he had been listening to as of late: “I got into Justin Bieber at one point. I really think he’s a talented guy. I was really fascinated by his Christmas album. I also love Drake.” The surprise on my face was clearly evident as Albert laughed: “I’m not who people think I am!”
I was beginning to believe this, but it’s incredibly hard to ignore a career that most of us can only dream of. But what if he hadn’t gone down the path of being a musician? What would he be then? “Something where I could help humanity, nature or animals. It’s not about how much money I would make or not make. I don’t even know how much I have now.” (I made a mental note to let him pick up the bill.) “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Life is not about money. It’s nice to have, but I’ve been on the other side. I’m just grateful to be alive and healthy.” He says that he would still donate to music foundations since music is still a part of his life.
At 76 years young, Albert seems a man twenty years his junior. What’s his secret to a healthy life? “I have an Actimel and some vitamins first thing in the morning, then I go running. After that I might have a bowl with raspberries, blueberries, and half a pear, and some gluten-free cornflakes and rice milk. I also drink three or four litres of water a day. For dinner, sometimes I make chicken fricassee, or rosto,” Albert recalls how his mother would teach him how to make Gibraltarian dishes. “I try to eat healthy,” he adds.
I wanted to round up our chat with one surprising fact about Albert. Something about the ‘man from the media’ that we perhaps don’t know: “I don’t have a maid. I cook, wash my dishes, iron, sew… I did everything to help my mum around the home, and so I learnt. I have someone come once a week to clean, but it’s a big house. I really want a smaller place.” At this point I very generously offered to swap my flat for his villa.
“It’s crazy; when you’re what people call ‘somebody’ in life, people think so differently of you. When people invite me somewhere, they’re not really inviting me, they’re inviting the star.” When asked who he really is, he smiled and said: “I’m just a normal human being; that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” We fell about laughing as I pretended to make a note to take him off this month’s cover.
As we finished up our coffee and cake, I couldn’t help but think that although I met up with Albert Hammond OBE, world-loved singer and songwriter to the stars, I left having met Albert. Just an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary talent.