How Freddie Mercury Helped Brian May Start His Solo Career
The liner notes for Brian May's 1993 debut solo album, Back to the Light, note that the guitarist was in a fragile state. "You won't find much in here about how fab it is to be a rock star in Queen," he wrote. "But you may find, in contrast, glimpses of someone quite small and insecure. I know him well."
Still, "Music is joy to me," he added, pointing out that while he held no "real hope" of finding the light, it was now glimmering "dimly."
May admits to UCR that although he's "older and wiser" now, the man who wrote those words almost 30 years ago is still very much present and, in some ways, in the same place.
"I make no apologies for it," he says. "I actually feel for every word in that album, still. It's still a statement from me that I would stand by."
Back to the Light was recently reissued with a second disc of bonus material, and May is planning similarly expanded versions of the rest of his solo catalog as part of the Gold Series reissue series.
He looks back at the making of the album and the conversations he had with Freddie Mercury as the Queen singer was facing his own mortality, and how those moments helped him find his way as a solo artist.
You had made a lot of Queen albums leading up to Back to the Light, which was really your first time making a record his way. How did you approach that and start to map it out?
Chaotically is probably the right answer. Some days I could do it, and some days I couldn’t. I think in the beginning, it was kind of therapy. Because I was in a bad state. All sorts of stuff is happening in my life. I know that I’m losing Freddie, and I know I’m losing my dad. My marriage is breaking up. It wasn’t the greatest time for me. I also felt I was losing my children. I think I defined myself as a father more than as a rock star or anything. That was my religion. So I felt like I was losing everything. I guess when I was able to make some music, it was a way to getting through the days. It was just that in the beginning. And it is a kind of therapy. You make something and you create something, and you feel a little bit better about yourself.
But when I started off, it was in a very small way. I’m sitting down here where my studio is now in Surrey, and this is where I was at the time, making Back to the Light. It started off as a weekend getaway house to do stuff with the kids. But going through the divorce, I was here on my own, kind of rattling around. It’s a big house in the country, and it’s nice when the sun shines, but it can feel pretty desolate when there’s nobody around in the winter. I would go off into my little billiards room here, and I had a very small multitrack recorder. A tiny little 16 track multitrack and a tiny little desk. My guitar tech Jobby [Brian Zellis] used to come in, and we’d just put stuff down. That’s the way I started. It wasn’t even a solo album, it was just like, let’s do something, let’s make something.
Moving on a little bit, we’re doing Queen stuff intermittently and we’re in Montreux, so there’s a sort of continuity with Queen, but there’s also this sense that it’s going to end, because Freddie’s not well. And we kind of know [at that time] that there’s no cure for this thing. So it’s all very strange. It’s like a multilevel thing. On one level, we’re fully functional. We’re working and everything’s great. Freddie’s jolly, too. On the other hand, there’s a sense of impending disaster, because we know it has to end. It’s like the train is heading towards this brick wall.
At the same time my marriage was breaking up, I had met a lady that I fell in love with, and we were doing stuff in Los Angeles, where I met this guy who was an advertising executive, Peter Harrison, from Ogilvy and Mather. We’re just sitting around in an odd moment, and he says, “You’re Brian May, right? And you write songs? Do you want to do an ad for a motorcar?” I honestly don’t remember what I said. I probably went, “Mmmm, I don’t know!” [Laughs] He said, “Well, I’ll give you the idea, and you tell me if you can write the song. The idea is, everything we do, we do for you. Then, a short while later, he came back and said, “No, no, it’s actually, everything we do is driven by you.”
Wheels started to turn in my head, so I took on the job. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it. Because I could immediately hear the song in my head: “Driven by You.” I went off with my little tape recorder into a bathroom someplace and sketched out the idea. I only had to get back to Montreux where the Queen stuff was going on and put the idea down quickly, and it was done. So I’ve got this song, and suddenly I had a job. Rather than let’s do this for therapy, I had been given a brief and I had come up with the goods, and I delivered on my deadline and that was it. “Driven by You” was delivered to Ford and it became a hit, which is great. I’d never had a hit of my own.
Watch the Ford Version of Brian May's 'Driven by You'
So it gave me a big shot in the arm - suddenly, I wasn’t just making music because I had to. I was making music because I felt I had something to offer and I could deliver. That’s how the Back to the Light album was begun, really. From that point on, the days where I was functional, which wasn’t always, I would be in there doing my solo stuff.
At the same time, we’re doing stuff with Queen, and I did play it to Freddie, because there’s always this little blurry line between what’s mine and what’s Queen. Things like “Headlong,” I think I originally thought were going to be solo material and they ended up being Queen material. I played it for him and said, “What do you think?” He said, “Oh, it’s great.” I said, “Do you want to sing it?” He said, “No, I think you sing it beautifully, darling!” He told me, “You should get on with it.” Then I had this very strange conversation with him. Because he said, “Look, I know we’re in this difficult situation. We don’t know how long I’m going to be here.” He said, “You’re probably feeling embarrassed. You don’t want to put this track out, because it feels distasteful, because you feel like maybe you’re abandoning me or something.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. What will happen, will happen. We’re carrying on as normal, creating, and you should be starting on your solo career. Because you’re going to probably need to do that.”
So he had this incredible vision, incredibly unselfish and unselfconscious attitude. There’s the guy looking at the end of his life, and he’s saying, “Look, you’ve got to take care of yourself. Get out there and don’t feel embarrassed about me. Just get on with it.” He kind of gave me his blessing, my ticket to get out there and be a solo artist.
Watch Brian May Perform 'Back to the Light'
You mentioned “Headlong” being one song that went back to Queen. “Back to the Light" goes back to 1988. Did you show him that song?
No, I didn’t. That was in my mind, always solo. Because some things are so incredibly personal, you just can’t deal with anybody singing them. That even happened during the glory days. There would be some songs which normally I would give them to Freddie. He’s a wonderful vehicle, and he would always make them something different. But there were certain songs I felt only I could deliver them, because they were too personal. It’s a gray area. Do you want to give that stuff to the band? I was never really sure. There’s things like “All Dead, All Dead” and “‘39” where I did actually sing them. Roger [Taylor] also sang some stuff. So Freddie didn’t sing everything in the Queen catalog, but it was always a gray area. It’s, like, maybe this should be a solo track in some way.
“Back to the Light” is completely 100 percent solo. It’s my feelings at the time. There’s always this feeling that you’re painting a picture for people, for everyone who feels these kinds of emotions. You can’t just write about yourself. It has to come from inside. That’s where your honesty comes from. But I think you have to have in your mind, what are other people going to make of this. Are they going to feel that it’s their song? Are they going to feel like it chronicles their life as well? Because that’s the ideal [thing]. You’ll have this conversation: “I feel this, do you feel this?” To me, I guess that’s what songwriting is about. Its connection, there’s some kind of conversation. “Back to the Light” is very personal, as is “Resurrection,” as is “Too Much Love Will Kill You.” It’s very much material which had to be on a solo album.
Watch the Video for Brian May's 'Too Much Love Will Kill You'
There’s a lot of stuff on this record that is so deeply personal. I can imagine other artists recording songs like those and putting them on this shelf. Are there certain songs that you wrestled with including, and were there songs that were too personal that you decided to hold back entirely?
It’s a difficult area, and I think it is more difficult as a solo artist than as a person in a band. In a band, it all gets kind of washed. It gets laundered, because everybody contributes, and what comes out is not the way it started. With a solo record, you’re completely responsible for every word and every line. Every lick. It can get very difficult. If you get too graphic in the way you describe yourself and your life, it really messes up your life even further, because it upsets people around you. It can hurt people. So it’s difficult. With “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” that was a very hard thing to do. I took a great risk doing that, just being as honest as that. The people in my life who it affected were very understanding. They realized that I had to do that. But it was tricky. I felt like I was being selfish at some points. At the same time I felt I have to do this, I have to be honest about this. Because this is going to be other people hearing it and feeling it, and there has to be a complete honesty there. It’s a difficult area. That’s all I can tell you. I think every artist feels it at some point: How graphic do I get? How deeply personal do I go?
“Too Much Love Will Kill You” has the lyric: “I used to bring you sunshine/Now all I ever do is bring you down.” We hear a lot about destigmatizing mental health and lyrics like that, and in the liner notes you lay yourself bare. I thought it was really a pretty important beacon for anyone who maybe was feeling similar things.
The funny thing is, 30 years later, how do I feel? I thought I was going to go back into this album in a kind of paternal way and think, “Oh, I was having a bit of a problem, and I was working my way through it. Now, I’m a grownup, now I’m older and wiser. I should view things differently.” Well, you know what? It didn’t happen. I went back in there, and I felt exactly the same, listening all of the way through to this album, many times, I feel that I’m still that boy. I feel like I’m in the same place, I didn’t grow up, I didn’t manage to solve the problems. I didn’t get over the passion and the pain. I’m still there. So putting this album out now, I make no apologies for it. I actually feel for every word in that album, still. It’s still a statement from me that I would stand by.