Il Divo - Simon Cowell's Heroes

In just a few years years Il Divo, the quartet of classically trained singers launched by pop Svengali Simon Cowell, have toured the planet and scored record CD sales. Only one goal remains: to win over the world’s core classical music lovers, as Classic FM discovers…

In just two years, vocal group Il Divo have hit the number one slot in 33 countries. They have sold 15-and-a-half million albums, smashed Led Zeppelin’s 25-year record of being the only group to achieve a Number One album without releasing a commercial single first, and produced an album, Ancora, that went straight in at number one in the US, selling 150,000 copies there in just one week.

Despite the success of the group, a recent survey carried out by eMusic, a leading online music retailer, revealed that those questioned believe Il Divo’s founder and TV X-Factor judge Simon Cowell has had a negative effect on the music industry. 

They claim that his “conveyor-belt” production of manufactured groups and reality TV stars makes it harder for “truly talented acts” to break into the music industry.

What then, should we make of Il Divo, perhaps Cowell’s most successful musical creation yet? Are they the archetypal manufactured group, who rely on image more than talent and lack real creativity? Are they just another cog in the Simon Cowell music machine? 

The formation of Il Divo didn’t happen by chance. Cowell and his team spent two years travelling all over the world searching for the right men to form the perfect group. The successful singers are Carlos Marin, a baritone from Madrid who, at 38 years of age, is the eldest member of the group; Urs Bühler, 35, a Swiss-born tenor; Sebastien Izambard, also 35, a self-trained singer from Paris; and David Miller, a tenor from the US who is the “baby” at 33-years-old. 

Although Cowell initially brought the group together and continues to exert a strong influence over their style and music, when I meet the guys in London they are keen to emphasise their distinctive characteristics. 

“We were all individual musicians with promising solo careers,” says Urs. “We never planned for Il Divo, but when it came along we just decided to go for it.” 

The early weeks weren’t easy. The singers met for the first time in the studio; there was no time for socialising and being in a group took a bit of getting used to. 

“As a solo artist you’re in control and make all the decisions, but with four strong-minded characters, life is a little more complicated,” says Carlos. 

But it wasn’t just the mix of four different personalities the guys needed time to adjust to. Having a character as strong as Cowell’s dominating the group was also a new experience for them. 

“By becoming part of Il Divo we became part of the Simon Cowell-run auto-democracy,” says David.

Although this regime still exists, the guys have now found a way to take more control of their creative freedom. 

“Our creativity lies in the way that we sing. That is where we can make the decisions,” explains Carlos. “After that it’s down to others to decide what happens. Some of the pieces of music on our current album are songs that we wanted to put on the first album two years ago.” 

And ironically, Cowell’s controlling influence has helped bring the singers closer together. 

“We are very much like brothers now – like a family,” says Carlos. “We have our fights but we’re always there for each other.” 

They also recognise how important it is to be unified and support each other in the studio. 

“I was singing this piece the other day and it sounded awful to me,” David explains. “I was having so many problems and it was only when the other boys made me listen again and accept that what I had done was more magical than I realised that I began to relax.” 

All four agree their strong musical backgrounds contribute to a mutual respect for each other and an ability to give (and take) constructive criticism. At the same time, their musical expertise gives them creative autonomy when it actually comes to using their voices. 

Like most successful groups, Il Divo’s schedule is packed with TV appearances, non-stop tours and concerts. When I ask them how long they manage to spend with their families, Sebastien replies: “Please don’t ask us that. It is upsetting to think about it. It can’t be more than three weeks a year.” 

The best times are when they are in one place for a long period, such as on their recent tour in America when they managed to fly their partners over to stay with them. Carlos was particularly happy at that time. 

“My wife gets insecure if a fan tries to get too close. It’s hard for us and our families, but it comes with the territory.” 

The pressure of missing loved ones and being constantly on tour doesn’t detract from the pleasure that the group derive from performing. Their 2006 tour of the US included a series of 25 concerts with Barbra Streisand, which had a major effect on their success in a country known to be notoriously hard for overseas groups to break into. 

“When people in America heard that we were performing with Barbra, they figured that we would be a support act of sorts,” says Sebastien. “It turned out that we sang three pieces with her and then did the rest of the concert by ourselves. The great thing was that, rather than being disappointed, the audience loved us in our own right.” 

This reception remains the same wherever they go. At concerts adoring fans often mob the lads and when they do television appearances they get amazing reactions and their CD sales increase almost instantly. 

But they admit to worrying that their image sometimes precedes their music. 

“I reckon that we are 60 per cent about the music and 40 per cent about image,” admits Urs. “But the best moment is when we get appreciated for our music and not for the way we look.” 

David remembers an incident in a US restaurant where their version of the “popera” hit Nella Fantasia was being played. 

“Everyone was talking, but at the big crescendo at the end of the piece the whole restaurant went quiet. It was obvious they were moved by the music and that meant a lot to us.”

It also means the world to them when male fans come over and praise them for their music. David continues: “It’s not that we don’t appreciate our female fans who love us for our image, but we’re musicians and there’s nothing better than having our music truly appreciated for what it is.” 

Although millions of people do value their music, a major worry for the group is their current lack of airplay. 

“For some reason we get invited onto countless TV shows but no one – except Classic FM – likes to play us on the radio,” says Sebastien. 

David puts it down to the fact that it’s impossible to place their music in to a particular genre. 

“We fall between the cracks – we’re not classical but then again we’re not pop. Radio stations just don’t like that.” 

The boys are also aware that aficionados of classical music aren’t always eager to embrace them. 

“Three of us are classically trained opera singers, and in concert we sing with a full orchestra,” says David. “So it can be frustrating when we’re not taken seriously.” 

But maybe this is explained by the fact that the choice of songs on their albums covers such a wide range of music – from Nella Fantasia to Frank Sinatra’s My Way – and it’s impossible to be all things to all people. 

Their success perhaps comes not from what they do but the way that they do it. They create a unique operatic sound that results from the blend of three classically trained voices with Sebastien’s light, self-trained pop-style voice. The combination of three tenors with one baritone produces a high emotive sound, perfect for the Italian language in which Il Divo sing all their songs. In addition, every Il Divo performance is characterised by their trademark crescendo, a technique they use to great effect at the end of each song to create a thrilling climax. 

“We can take a jazz, classical, rock or Latino piece; it doesn’t matter,” says David. “It always has the Il Divo mark on it. People criticise our style for being manufactured. But it’s things like the big crescendos that give people goosebumps and keep them coming back for more.” 

And it’s here that the dichotomy of this unique group is revealed. On the one hand you have four men who have been brought together by Simon Cowell. They have been given stylists, make-up artists and told to follow the same musical recipe in all their songs. 

On the other hand, these men are all passionate about music and about bringing their individual creativity to each piece they sing. They didn’t seek out Il Divo, indeed they would probably have been successful soloists if they hadn’t joined the group. 

Listening to their new album Siempre I am more aware of their vocal ability and style than the fact that they are a “manufactured” group. No matter what they are singing it’s impossible not to be stirred by their music, even if they do conform to the Il Divo/Cowell “recipe for success”. However critical people are of manufactured groups and even of Cowell himself, true musical passion doesn’t lie. Give Il Divo a chance – you may be surprised by what you hear.