The artist formerly known as the pretty one

Once just a gorgeous torso, now a hit songwriter. Ben Thompson meets Mark Owen
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The Independent Culture
If A book had been started at the time of Take That's split as to which would be the first member of the group to release a solo album, Mark Owen would have been the glossy-maned long shot. Never mind that he was the subject of 60 per cent of the band's fan-mail, and won the coveted Smash Hits "Most Fanciable Male" award three years in a row, Owen's achievements as a songwriter - co-authorship of two Take That middle eights - did not bode well for a solo career.

But the Take That diaspora has gone against expectations over the past seven months or so. Gary Barlow's bid for instant George Michael-hood began with terrifying efficiency. Gary took a succession of grown-up music journalists for rides in his sports car and introduced them to his girlfriend, then had a No 1 single. But his album, set for release in October, was withdrawn from the schedules at the last minute on the grounds that it was not quite clinical enough for the American market.

The Robbie Williams approach seemed more fun. Robbie trumped Gary's earnest niche-marketing endeavour with a stroke of brazen genius by simply covering George Michael's "Freedom", then put the icing on the cake of the resultant No 1 single by being sighted at a Brian Eno book-launch. Unfortunately, he then ate the cake.

On top of all this came the sudden emergence of the Spice Girls. Their day-glo feistiness now threatens to eclipse insipid sub-Take That ensembles like Boyzone and Upside Down, just as the Chiffons and the Shirelles superceded Dion and the Belmonts four decades ago. Could girl power mean the end of the boy-band virus, let loose upon the earth when Take That manager Nigel Martin-Smith realised that what Britain really really wanted was a Mancunian New Kids on the Block?

There had been a strange prophesy to this effect in the video for Take That's last single, wherein the group was kidnapped by that post-Madonna Eighties icon (well, ex-star of yuppie VW advert), Paula Hamilton, then trussed up like chickens and subjected to sado-masochistic torture with a kitchen fork. At the end of this bizarre and hilarious promotional swansong, Take That were unceremoniously dumped into a reservoir.

It's appropriate then that the video for Owen's first solo single, "Child" - a sweetly affecting slice of late-Lennonish Buddhist cod-soul, which leapt into the charts at No 2 last Sunday - should find him emerging from the water like a sleek and cheeky porpoise. What no one could have predicted is that Owen's debut album, Green Man, would be a characterful and extremely likeable selection of his own songs, recasting him as a Smash Hits Syd Barrett.

Recorded at Abbey Road with the able assistance of Q-award-winning producer John Leckie (usually associated with heavyweight indie-rockers like The Fall and Radiohead) and erstwhile Blondie knob-twiddler Craig Leon, Green Man features a band that includes a former XTC guitarist and Blondie's Clem Burke. But perhaps the greatest of the album's achievements is in sidestepping the joylessness that normally results when teen idols go in search of credibility. Its 12 songs, selected from a battery of 31 Owen wrote in the early months of this year, maintain a commendably idiosyncratic equilibrium between sturdy guitar pop and heartfelt new-age whimsy.

"I'm still not sure if I've done the right thing," Owen admits, sipping peppermint tea on a London hotel couch, "but I know I did this record for my own enjoyment, so even if it only sells a handful of copies, at least I'll have done something I believe in." Happily settled in a ramshackle new home in the Lake District with his art-student girlfriend and a doberman, this man positively radiates inner peace.

Is it true that he was introduced to the joys of meditation by Lulu? Owen laughs. "There's a saying that meditation comes to all those who sit and wait, and I just happened to sit and wait with Lulu."

For all Robbie's bravado, it was always Mark who looked like he'd be the least bothered by the end of the Take That odyssey. "The idea of going back to being like everybody else never scared me at all," he confirms. "I always used to say I'd love to get up early and work on a market stall. I know this must sound really stupid, but I think I would probably have been just as happy doing that if Take That hadn't come along." A reflective pause. "Obviously it's easy for me to say that now I'm lucky enough to have the security being in Take That brought me - I suppose that makes me a bit of a hypocrite."

Was he upset by "Child" being held off its expected No 1 spot by the rough-and-tumble might of The Prodigy? "I thought it was good ... no, honestly. I wanted to get out of the old routine - Take That songs used to go straight in at No 1 all the time, and although that was a nice position to be in, if this had done the same thing, people would've wanted the next one to do it as well, and I don't want that pressure. The most important thing to me is that my songs stand on their own. Obviously I'm biased because I've written them, but I do honestly feel that they're good."

They are good too. On the B-side of "Child", there's a funny, honest song called "Confused", in which Mark Owen faces up to his future as a lamb in lone wolf's clothing. The lyrics are right up there with The Who's "Substitute" for implicit insight into the pop-music process. "Today I know where I'm going," Mark observes resignedly. "Tomorrow I'll be somewhere else." Does he ever see Boyzone on TV and feel guilty for inflicting them on us? A moment's silence ensues, then the air resounds with a diplomatic Mancunian guffaw.

n `Green Man' (RCA) is out on Monday. Mark Owen will tour in the New Year.