He may have finally shaken off his wholesome image, but Ronan Keating has to be one of the nicest men in the music scene, Sarina Talip discovers.

For the record, Ronan Keating wasn't a virgin when he married model Yvonne Connolly at 21 years of age. When he was 16 years old a reporter asked if he was a virgin to which he replied, ''Yes''. But his newfound fame and fortune with Irish boy band Boyzone ensured he wasn't one for long, with girls throwing themselves at him every night. But to the newspapers he remained Ronan Keating, the nice, polite Catholic virgin from Dublin.

He has admitted to trying dope in Holland. After his mother's death from breast cancer in 1998, he fell to pieces, drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel's a night. Oh, and he also had a furious row with his father not long after. Keating, who had bought the family home when he was 18, sold it from beneath his father's feet.

According to the Irish crooner, he has smacked Mike Tyson in the face and he briefly split from his wife, after she discovered saucy text messages on a secret phone to dancer Francine Cornell, with whom he had a seven-month affair.

After that one experiment in Holland, Keating decided he didn't like dope, has reconciled with his father, even buying him a four-bedroom house, and by all accounts is happily back with his wife. And with a new album under his belt and an upcoming tour of Australia - he hits Canberra on February 9 - things are only looking up for the X-Factor Australia host. It can't have been easy being so good - or being perceived as so good - for all those years. Keating has always struggled with the tag ''nicest man in pop'', which might have something to do with his time in clean-cut Boyzone. It's true that Keating is very nice. When we talk on the phone, he is impeccably polite. No rock star tantrums from him.

But these days, a scruffier Keating seems to have finally shaken off his wholesome image. He wears stovepipe jeans, tight singlets that show off his tattoos and buff physique, and he has been known to even sport stubble (gasp). He loves French DJ David Guetta and pays attention to what's topping the charts. ''Some mornings I get up and think, 'I'll go with that.' Then I think, 'Am I stupid? Should I just stick to what I do?' So I'm figuring that out, what I want to do,'' he says, laughing.

But his legion of female fans don't have to worry that he'll suddenly start pumping out beat-driven house music and team up with American rappers Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj (as Guetta has). It seems some things never change for this nice guy, who calls his wife his rock and whose solo career was launched with the ridiculously romantic ballad When You Say Nothing At All.

His latest album When Ronan Met Burt is all old-school romance. You half expect flowers and a handwritten note of poetry to accompany it. American composer and producer Burt Bacharach was looking for a singer to make his older songs more contemporary and introduce them to younger audiences.

Not surprisingly, Keating jumped at the chance to work with the music legend, whose hits with the likes of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield dominated the charts for decades. Keating flew into Los Angeles, ''energised and excited'' to not only meet Bacharach but also to record at the famous Capitol Studios, where greats like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole have crooned into the mike. But he admits it was incredibly daunting and intimidating.

He had 90 minutes to record each song (''That's it, that's all we had'') and felt immense pressure to record the 10 songs in just three days. In a short documentary about the experience of recording the album, Bacharach gives some insights into the Irish singer.

''What Ronan's doing here is not playing it safe. Playing safe would be staying static, saying I'm going to stay here because it really works. You've gotta go, evolve,'' Bacharach says in his gravelly voice, snapping his fingers.

Keating agrees. He stretched himself with Bacharach's music, which sounds deceivingly simple.

''But you try to sing them. His melodies are incredibly complex, they're not easy at all to sing, believe me, so yeah, I found it difficult and I was intimidated,'' he says.

''To try to make them my own and put my own stamp on them was so difficult, and when you've got these amazing singers like Dionne Warwick who have gone before me on these songs, it was daunting. I mean, I got it wrong at times and he [Bacharach] had to put me in my place, almost. Looking back on it now it's funny but at the time it wasn't.'' S

till, he ''absolutely loved'' the experience. With a full 40-piece orchestra Keating says the energy and buzz in the studio was amazing.

''Michael Buble was next door recording his studio album. He was in studio B, I'm in studio A with Burt Bacharach. All these different stars were just rocking in and showing Burt all this respect, and here's little old me sitting in the back recording an album with him!''

Keating describes Bacharach as a real mentor and a fatherly figure. Before Keating left for Los Angeles, they spent a lot of time on the phone talking about the music and trying to pick songs.

''He has so many songs, to pick just 10 was difficult and it took us a while to come up with that list. But we had some good lunches together and we had some common interests, so it was great.''

Keating loves the romance of Bacharach's older songs that he recorded, like Arthur's Fame (The Best That You Can Do), I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself, and Make It Easy On Yourself.

''I'm a bit of a romantic and these songs are just stunning and heartbreaking at the same time. And songs like The Look of Love and Walk on By are classic, beautiful songs and I had to pinch myself in the studio when the string section would come in. I couldn't believe I was part of it. And these songs will still be around in 100 years, they're forever.''

So the image of Keating as the romantic nice guy still stands. And he wouldn't distance himself from Boyzone's squeaky clean image, even if he could.

''No, no, I love it. I'm honoured that I was part of Boyzone and I'm still part of it today. We're brothers and the time we had together was magic and the time we had apart was great but it was tough in a way,'' he says.

''We've had some heartache and tragedy losing Stephen [Gately, who died from an undiagnosed heart condition] two years ago, but we dip in every now and then. It's not something we do constantly, but when we do it's magic.''

Keating grew up in Dublin, the youngest child of truck driver Gerry and hairdresser Marie. He was consumed by a passion for music from an early age. His siblings, Ciaran, Linda, Gerard and Gary had emigrated to the US by the time he was 13 and music helped to fill the empty house.

His siblings had left behind a vast record collection. ''I was listening to everything from Frank Sinatra, to Elvis Presley, to Culture Club, to Bronski Beat, to The Police, to Squeeze, to A-ha, to Cat Stevens - just this crazy mix,'' he says.

''I'd come home from school and I'd sit in my room doing my homework listening to these records and kids of my age were listening to Duran Duran, and I guess that's where my musical taste came from. And I just sang every day. I sang in my bedroom, I sang in the shower, I sang in the kitchen, I just sang all the time.''

He joined his first band when he was 13. Three years later, he was working at a shoe store when he noticed an ad in the newspaper, calling for auditions in Dublin to form a new boy band and Ireland's answer to England's Take That. Keating sang Father and Son as his audition song, which Boyzone would later record a hit cover of.

''There were 300 guys and they whittled us down to five,'' Keating says, still sounding amazed at his luck at being chosen, along with Keith Duffy, Mikey Graham, Shane Lynch and Stephen Gately.

Their first appearance was not long after the final audition. Booked on to Ireland's biggest television chat show, The Late Late Show, they had no time to prepare let alone get to know each other. The bemused host Gay Byrne told the puzzled audience that no, the newly formed band wearing jauntily unbuttoned shirts or overalls - no singlets or T-shirts underneath - had no ''talent whatsoever. Nothing. They don't sing, they don't write music and they don't play instruments.''

Determined to prove him wrong, the boys launched into a hugely awkward, if energetic, dance number and were practically laughed off stage (YouTube it, it is pure gold). But with 16 top-five singles and six No 1 hits and 20 million album sales, it seems they had the last laugh.

''It was brilliant,'' Keating says of being plucked from obscurity. ''I was 16 years of age. I was only a child and I was catapulted into fame and travelling around the world, but more than anything else it was getting to live the dream, to sing. All I ever wanted was to be a singer.''

But it was When You Say Nothing At All, from the Notting Hill soundtrack, that catapulted Keating's career as a solo artist. More hits were to follow, such as Life Is A Rollercoaster, Lovin' Each Day and If Tomorrow Never Comes, but it was that first one that changed everything. Writer and director Richard Curtis approached Keating and asked if he'd be interested in putting a vocal on the track.

''He'd already picked the song, knew where it was going to be in the movie, and I sang it, and it just went crazy. I mean, it went crazy. It went No 1 in 15 or 16 countries,'' he says. ''And what a beautiful song, when you think about it. It's just that perfect love song to say that you don't need to say anything, your actions speak louder than words.''

Music remains his constant and something that he depends on in difficult times. After he lost his beloved ''mam'' he wrote This Is Your Song. ''That was a song that I wrote as a way of dealing with losing my mam and I put it away in a box and never brought it out,'' he says.

One day when he was jamming with his band, he started playing it and his band encouraged him to play it.

''So I did it one night live and you could hear a pin drop in the room, it was beautiful.'' He has also helped to raise 11 million pounds for the Marie Keating Foundation in Ireland and 3 million pounds for Cancer Research UK.

He says writing helps him communicate and gets things off his chest that he finds difficult to say. ''Sometimes you can't get across how you feel but I can manage to do that in a song.''

Keating lives in the suburbs of Dublin and a normal day for him is doing the school run (he has three children), writing and recording in the studio at the bottom of his garden and managing his bands. He likes to walk the dog on the beach and go to the movies - normal things.

He still has those dazzling poster boy looks but it seems he has finally escaped the ''nicest man in pop'' tag. Nor is he trying to be too hard these days, even if he still sports those tight singlets.

''Great night out with the lads last night,'' he tweeted just before Christmas. ''Hit the city an [sic] ended up in O Donohues pub and even had a sing song just too many pints ow ow.'' Ronan Keating, the nice, regular guy from Dublin.

Ronan Keating will perform at the Royal Theatre at the National Convention Centre on February 9. Tickets through Ticketek.

Source: Canberra Times

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