INTERVIEW: MARK OWEN: Who's a pretty boy, then?

Out of all the members of Take That, he was perhaps the most likely to slip into obscurity. But determined to shake off his cute little lad image, he has struck out on his own and is trying to prove that there is more to him than meets the eye
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Two and a half years ago, as the world came to terms with the devastating reality that Take That had finally split, it seemed only a few aspects on boy-pop's diminished horizon could be truly relied upon. Robbie would always be the bad boy, Gary the gifted songwriter and Mark Owen... well, he's always been the one who sang and just looked pretty. After Take That's demise none of the other members had quite so much to prove as Owen, the doe-eyed heartthrob who received two-thirds of the band's fan mail. He was, if you like, the Baby Spice of the group. "I was always seen as the cute little lad who smiles and takes his shirt off," says the 25-year-old, voted Most Fanciable Male In The World by Smash Hits readers three times. "I wanted to show that there was a lot more to me. I was always being told I couldn't do it from so many channels, probably even from the band. So, I wanted to hold my head up high and be proud of what I achieved."

While Robbie and Gary followed their respective paths of louche behaviour (a la Liam Gallagher) and crafted pop (a la George Michael), Mark had no obvious role model. Yet, it was Mr Cute who had the loftier aspirations. He struck out on his own to make a rather more radical departure than either of his two mates. His debut album, Green Man, was recorded with the help of highly respected producer John Leckie (Radiohead, Kula Shaker) and is a rather convincing mix of polished guitar pop and new-age melodic wispiness. NME described it, rather sniffily, as, "the sort of indie rock album that will delight occasional devotees of Crowded House and those who think Radiohead sound heavy metal". The inky cognoscenti may mock, but it's still an impressive leap for someone who never wrote a song until he left the band and then penned 31 of them in five months - 12 made it onto the album. His first single, the Lennon-like "Child", shot into the charts at number two.

Scrunched up in a London hotel armchair, Owen is here to promote his third single, "I Am What I Am", along with a UK tour starting in October. Still pubescently cute and coquettish, the clean-cut image sticks despite the obvious shift in style. "I'm trying to be more honest, more myself in terms of image. It's kind of difficult," he laughs. "In Take That you used to be given a selection of clothes to choose from. Now you've got to think, 'What do I want to wear?'" Owen's opted for the lo-fi look, woolly top and trainers. Gone are the highlighted locks. His hair is longer and browner - almost, but not quite, dishevelled.

"I don't really see myself as having a clean cut image", says Owen, smiling coyly. The dimples broaden and the blue-green, limpid eyes widen slightly. You could have fooled me. But no. Pop's Mr Whiter-than-White is just like the rest of us. "I see myself as quite a normal lad. I smoke. I drink but I don't do drugs. Drugs scare me. I see them as hiding from real life." Yet, they often seem to go hand in hand with the sort of pop music that is the antithesis of Take That; the sort of pop music that Owen would probably like to make. Doesn't that tempt him to experiment a bit? "Maybe some people are musically inspired by them [drugs], but it's a shame. I feel you can do without."

Maybe Owen doesn't need to anyway - he seems quite spacey enough as it is. After talking about song-writing, he says, apropos of nothing, "Sometimes, I feel I could send myself mad. Other times, I wish I was mad. My head won't stop," he lets out a Mancunian chuckle. To counter his hyperactive imagination he relaxes through meditation - something he learned from Lulu. "I'm not meditating as much as I did when I made Green Man," he says, "which is probably why I'm a little more nervous and paranoid." Not that you'd notice; when he's not being too kooky, he radiates inner harmony and togetherness.

While most self-respecting pop stars are busy searching out hedonism at every opportunity, Owen is sensible and self-contained to the last. He lives in relative seclusion in a rambling house in the Lake District with his girlfriend Jo, a 21-year-old art student. "It's very comfortable and relaxed," he says. "I love going home. I find it difficult being away - I miss Jo. But I do enjoy my own company. I'm a loner and always have been." Solitude seems to be a theme with him, though later he says, "When I was in the band, I had other people to sit and talk to. Now I'm on my own, I have to entertain myself."

He doesn't appear to miss the other lads. The disbanding was more like an amicable divorce. "We're close in that we spent six years of our life together. But none of them are really my best friends. We could lie forever but they're not like," he pauses reflectively, "your best mates, you know? Robbie will never phone me. I always phone him. I read interviews and I hear the lads say, 'Yeah, we speak to each other now and again.' I think they say it because they're scared to let go; they think they can't have success without being seen as part of that band."

The bush-baby eyes begin to glaze over somewhat when the dreaded TT words are raised once more. "It bores me now," he says, although he still has a lot to say on the subject. "I suppose I was trapped in the little bubble that was Take That. I remember the day they announced we'd split up. I was probably the happiest about it. It was a relief." Although he always claims to have been extremely happy in the band, you can see why he was keen to get out and prove there was a bit of personality behind the looks. "I lost my identity a little bit - out there with four other lads who all have very strong personalities... I probably became a little bit of everybody I came into contact with. I wasn't a very confident person then."

But now, Owen is determined to carve out his own niche, perhaps because it's the first time he has had the power to do so. He says he would have been quite happy if Take That had never come along, but he's loathe to leave the music business for the foreseeable future. "I feel I've got to do it more and more and really push myself." The laid-back demeanour belies a desperate need to be taken seriously. "I'm ambitious, very ambitious," he says. "I'm always having this little battle of trying to be accepted. I think all my life I've always wanted to be accepted."

One of his real achievements to date was during his European tour - for him success can be measured by the pitch of audience response. "When I first went on stage I got bombarded with teddies and got screamed at. Then I asked them to stop throwing teddies and screaming. And by the end," he gazes up and continues ever so solemnly, "there were no more teddies. There were no more screams... It was more of a roar." So girls, if you really want to do Owen a favour, leave the teddies at home next time and bring your lighters instead.

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