Whether blaring through speakers or burring through a cellphone, Rick Astley's voice is unmistakable. That rich baritone not only mined platinum for the speedy blue-eyed soul of "Never Gonna Give You Up" and for his debut 1987 album, Whenever You Need Somebody, it's also in the silky sound of his newest recording, 50. Only now, Astley isn't reliant on the slick production of the UK dance hit-making machine team Stock Aitken Waterman (Dead or Alive, Samantha Fox) or twee, easy-on-the-ear lyrics.
"At 50, there's no thrill writing songs with 'I love you love me happily ever after," he says. "Nothing wrong with that, mind you. Pop is built upon such sentiment. I just wanted to … get intimate."
For his first album in 11 years, Astley did that, with lyrics discussing his troubled childhood due to parental strife and a sense of spiritual (not ritualized) faith he finds in communion -- all with a still-soulful, decidedly unslick sound. He played all of the instrument on 50, which he wrote and produced solo. "I wasn't doing it for a label, as I had none, nor A&R or PR to tell me about demographics blah blah blah. I just wrote and sang what came out."
Before the last decade, Astley was content to get off the dance-pop conveyor belt, marry British actress Lene Bausager, and work at his leisure. "I got offers across the globe to just do old hits," he says, "but never fancied or felt comfortable doing such. That was a time gone, not to be repeated -- not in a bad way, though."
His then-14-year-old daughter with a burgeoning interest in art overheard an offer from Japan for her father to play. "My family wanted to go, so before you knew, we did. To be honest, I focused more on the holiday than the songs," he laughs.
More gigs followed in places where he and his wife wanted to travel ("good food and wine are lovely incentives") and Astley realized he could cherry-pick shows while ramping up his tour schedule more each year. The more he played, the more social media began pushing for new music from him. "That was helpful, that pocket of people. Maybe you didn't have to be hot and hip to make a record -- there are people who might appreciate what you have to say."
Rather than go into typical midlife crisis mode ("buy a Harley-Davidson and motorcycle across America"), his crisis was musical: writing something personal to get things off his chest as he never had. So he dove into his home studio and came up with true-life vignettes about his parents, such as "Keep Singing," which finds his dad "crying at the steering wheel" with a scared son by his side "finding my religion, swimming in a choir of voices." Or guiding-light songs such as "God Says" and "Angels on My Side." The booming voice is still there, and the melodies are memorable; he scored a No. 1 album in the UK with 50.
A smash, yes, but far from the mad start of his career, when "Never Gonna Give You Up" and "Together Forever" became UK, then international smashes. Having thick, pompadoured reddish hair and a smart dress sense -- familiar to all of his videos -- helped.
"Looking back, I was green as grass, but fame was easy to accept as it was in my face. Still, nothing truly prepares you for a pop hit. It becomes something other than music. It becomes a phenomenon."
And Astley has become so used to phenomena he has a delicious sense of humor about it all. Take the genuinely odd internet meme of "Rickrolling" where the music video for "Never Gonna Give You Up" with Astley in his familiar raincoat pops up arbitrarily.
"My daughter got me through that, as she's an internet-age baby," he laughs. "She told me it wasn't personal and that I couldn't fight it. So I didn't."
Not only didn't Astley struggle, he performed at the 2008 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York because of Rickrolling and "the massive amount of money they gave me to do so." Then there was Melania Trump's recent quoting from that same song during her RNC speech, a bit that has Astley puzzled but pragmatic. "As an outsider to America, all I can say is, 'Stay positive and have faith,' " says Astley, without committing to liking or disliking the Trumps. "Look, we have a prime minister that none of us voted for, as well as the Brexit thing. Keep your chin up."
What Astley wants audiences to know -- from 50 and this first tour of America in decades -- is that he is pleased to have you get to know him all over again. "I'm never going to be that guy in the white raincoat again. Then again, there's part of me that will always be that guy."