It’s not as if Michael Bolton needed a career boost, given that he has sold more than 65 million albums, but when the double Grammy winner collaborated with The Lonely Island for Saturday Night Live’s digital short “Jack Sparrow” in 2011, it showed a facet of the crooner his fans had rarely seen — his comedic side.
“When the ‘Jack Sparrow’ film was about to be aired, I was at Saturday Night Live and I was hiding in a corner,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared for rejection on it or if people didn’t think it was funny, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made career wise.”
He’s not kidding. Bolton’s association with The Lonely Island — Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone — led to a part in their 2016 film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and now to Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, which hit Netflix on Tuesday. The special, written and directed by Schaffer and Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Scott Aukerman, features Bolton hosting a telethon to help conceive 75,000 new babies by Valentine’s Day so Santa can distribute a surplus of toys for Christmas. Bolton sings a number of songs, including several from his new album, Songs of Cinema, out Friday, and plays comedic foil to such guests as Samberg, Sarah Silverman, Randall Park, Brooke Shields, Janeane Garofalo, Casey Wilson and more.
While he was trying to figure out how to get to Los Angeles from New York, despite the encroaching snowstorm that already had many flights for Thursday canceled, Bolton talked to Billboard about the special, letting loose his comedic side, and why he doesn’t necessarily need music to get in a sexy mood.
How did “Jack Sparrow” change your life?
I call “Jack Sparrow” the gift that keeps on giving. There are 12- to 40-year old guys who are huge fans because of “Jack Sparrow.” They may have never ever owned a record, and certainly the younger audience wouldn’t have a Bolton CD or anything. It’s just a massive hit that we all loved doing and celebrated.
How did that translate into the Netflix special?
It started with a meeting with Akiva, my manager Christina Kline and myself talking about what we can do next. Because of the “Jack Sparrow” video, producers and agents and reps have been calling about what I’d like to do. They had ideas that we started putting together as pitches — we had two close calls with ABC two out of the last three years. I decided that it’s also going to be more fun if we can not be restricted by language and were thinking more outside of the major networks.
Santa needs 75,000 babies conceived by Valentine’s Day in the Netflix special. That number seems pretty low given how many babies have likely been conceived to your music over 30 years, doesn’t it?
[Laughs] If you add in multiple trips to China, because [with] the average television show that I’ve appeared on in that part of the world, you’re looking at between 250 million to 400 million people parked around their sets. The first time a journalist asked me 30 years ago, “How does it make you feel to know that babies are conceived to your music?” I know I blushed. I wasn’t prepared to look at my career being involved in procreation, and I kind of laughed uncomfortably. Through the years, I’ve met people [who have said], “My son was conceived to the following song.” You never think [about that] when, as a child, [your] first primary passion is being a singer, writer or guitarist.
Your humor hasn’t always come through in public or in some of your dealings with the press. Was there a moment when you decided you should show more of that side?
It hasn’t been easy for me to recognize how serious a person I must have been perceived. I was signed [to Epic] when I was 16. Eighteen years later, I had my first hit as an artist. I think when I started finally having success, instead of the big smile and celebrating and champagne, it didn’t feel like that was wise to me. I just felt so focused and striving specifically for a certain level of performance and production quality. I was so serious about not going back to poverty and not going back to trying to explain to my kids why dinner was on the light side. It was that 18-year trek that was frightening and traumatizing and unforgettable. I don’t ever forget how brutal some of those years were.
Are your longtime fans ready to hear jokes in the special, even if they’re not made by you, about anal sex? Did you suggest to the writers that they dial it back a little?
Sure. On the show, my character says to them: “It’s a family show!” That’s what gives me the same perspective as anybody who’s watching who might say, “Where did they just go?” But the Lonely Island guys and Scott’s team at Comedy Bang! Bang! aren’t restricted by the same set of boundaries as I have as an artist, having my core audience be a certain demographic. It’s one reason it took so long to film “Jack Sparrow.” Andy and Akiva and Jorma kept tweaking it for me because I was saying, “It’s funny as hell, but I can’t do it because a lot of my fans are going to say, ‘What are you doing over there?’” But for the most part, everyone did get it. How do you otherwise explain 162 million views?
There are many funny guests in this, but Michael Sheen is hilarious as a very stern Bob Fosse character.
He was scary when he was walking anywhere in your proximity. He was capable of being right in your face, screaming at you. He stayed completely in character. I think the dancers were traumatized until the scene was over and then we all started laughing.
The new album features a duet with Dolly Parton on “I Will Always Love You.” How did that come together?
We have been talking about it since I performed at the Country Music Assn. Awards with Wynonna Judd and Dolly walked up to me. I was starstruck. She said, “When are we going to do a duet together?” And many, many years later, this opportunity came up. She was on tour and doing all these other projects, and my producer Johan Carlsson said, “Let’s just make sure we get her voice and if you sing it together, we’ll have a great track.” She sent me a beautiful performance.
Your most recent albums have featured cover songs. Are you still writing?
I don’t ever stop writing. But I’ve noticed that when I go see an artist I love, there’s going to be a time in the concert where they’re going to say, “So this is something from the new album and it’s called blah, blah, blah.” It’s hard for us to love a new song from a new album that we don’t really know yet. One thing that happens with a body of work that’s already beloved is you don’t have to say much about it. I can say “This is from the Songs of Cinema CD and it’s from one of my favorite movies,” and you hear the audience response immediately and they have a bright feeling. My responsibility is to watch them while I’m performing, and if I feel like I’m losing them or it’s not doing it for them, that song is going to come out of the set. I’m not interested in force-feeding my audience.
In the promo for the Netflix show, you say you believe two things: There’s someone for everyone and in ghosts. Does that mean we’re going to get a Halloween special?
Listen, you’re going to have to speak to the writers about that one. I’m waiting to hear myself. I hope we can [turn] a version of this [variety show] concept into a series. I’d love to have my own series to introduce really great people, great artists, great comics and then do a larger-than-life version of myself and have fun.
Are you looking for more television projects beyond this?
We’re going to be aggressively campaigning for a series. There’s two projects that I’ve worked on — one that I executive produced that’s really funny, and it’s going to allow me to connect the dots musically and comically and creatively. It’s something I really look forward to.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, what song or artist always gets you in the romantic mood?
I don’t feel like I need to set the tone or mood with music. I would say for obvious reasons, the mood creates the music. But I would, of course, say Marvin Gaye. But not something like “Let’s Get It On”; that’s too much. You can’t go wrong with Marvin, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.