Il Divo talk new sound, new hope, new beginning after ‘horrifying’ tragedy: ‘It was the fans who really got us back on track’

Published On July 4, 2024 » By »
Il Divo look to the future. (photo: Mario Schmolka)

Classical crossover pioneers Il Divo look to the future. (photo: Mario Schmolka)

“It was a bizarre time, December 2021,” says Urs Bühler, tenor singer for classical crossover quartet Il Divo. He is speaking via Zoom from Europe ahead of Il Divo’s U.S. tour, promoting the recently released XX: 20th Anniversary Album, and reflecting on Il Divo’s previous, ill-fated tour. That’s when — after not being able to perform live for almost two years due to the pandemic, and just as everything finally seemed to be getting back to normal — tragedy struck. The group’s longtime member, baritone Carlos Marin, contracted COVID-19 while Il Divo were touring the U.K., and he suddenly died at age 53.

“Gosh, I’m getting a bit emotional,” Bühler says, pausing. “The world had started opening up again. We went on tour again and literally just did a handful of shows, and then Carlos got sick and went into hospital. The last show we performed with him was in Bath, and we were driving afterwards to Manchester, and early in the morning is when he got taken to hospital. And we all got sick, we all got COVID, probably through him. We all got confined in our Manchester hotel rooms. Most people have no idea how that really went down. The doctors advised us that Carlos was really sick, but nobody thought of death at that point. Everybody thought he was going to be in hospital for a couple of weeks and then recover. But then the doctors said it was going to be probably six months until he could stand on his own feet again, and probably a year or year-and-a-half before he could sing again. … And then, 10 days later, Carlos passed.”

Before Marin’s shocking death, when Il Divo still optimistically assumed that his absence would be temporary, they enlisted Mexican-American baritone Steven LaBrie, a colleague of group member David Miller, as Marin’s replacement for the remaining tour dates. Bühler (who is joined via Zoom by French-born, American-based Il Divo member Sébastien Izambard) recalls that after Marin died, he was stunned that everyone expected the 2021/2022 tour — and Il Divo in general — to continue, business as usual. However, he now realizes that this was the best way to honor their late comrade.

“To me, that was the end. I was convinced. This might sound overdramatic, but I not only really felt that was the end of Il Divo, but the end of my life as I’d known it for the last 18 years,” confesses Bühler. “Sébastien probably thought the same. David probably thought the same. But nobody else seemed to think the same! Everybody else around us was just like, ‘OK, now, about those January rehearsals with the new guy [LaBrie]. We’ve got the tour planned. The promoters are waiting. We need to give them an answer. We’ve got contracts to fulfill…’ To promoters, agents, management, and everybody else, it was crystal-clear that Il Divo would just go on. And so… we kind of did. We did a memorial tour. We celebrated Carlos’s life. And I guess we were happy that we weren’t just falling into a complete void, that we had something to occupy our brains. But it was horrible, those first shows. The first weeks or months of touring, it was impossible to sing without being in tears, every night. It was emotionally really freakin’ hard.”

“It was horrifying. It was unbelievable. And we were like, ‘We’re done,’ basically,” Izambard recalls. “Definitely when we went back into rehearsal mode with Steven, I was like, ‘I can’t do this. I have to back out.’ I had thoughts of dropping out a million times at the beginning. But they were just thoughts. And it’s OK to have thoughts, but I was not acting on those thoughts. It was the fans who really got us back on track and said, ‘Please continue!’ And knowing Carlos, if this would’ve happened to one of us and he was still here with us — which he is, in spirit and mind — of course he would have continued. He had that phrase, always: ‘The show must go on.’ So, we felt almost like we should be carrying the legacy for our fans and for Carlos’s memory. And every time we go back onstage, he’s definitely with us.”

“I was surprised how all the fans reacted, so wonderfully,” Bühler adds. “Yes, there were people who said, ‘I love Carlos, and Carlos is gone, so I’m not going to see Il Divo anymore.’ And there were people who came to that [memorial] tour and said, ‘This is the last time I’m seeing Il Divo. We’ll honor Carlos’s life and work, and then I’m not going to see them again.’ And I totally understand that, totally respect that. But most of the fans were like, ‘Gentlemen, thank you so much for continuing the music that has pulled us through our difficult times — and for now sharing your difficult time with us.’”

While Bühler, Izambard, and Miller initially thought that this tragedy marked the end of Il Divo, interestingly, it some ways it led to a new beginning — as evidenced on XX, the first release on their own independent label, Il Divo Music, with the members serving as executive producers and Izambard as co-arranger. The groundbreaking group once inspired the term “popera” (“I don’t think that existed before us, which is kind of cool,” says Bühler); made mainstream music fans “opera-curious”; and, as Bühler also chucklingly recalls, had copycat “classical crossover quartets springing up like mushrooms” after they were assembled via audition by Simon Cowell in 2004 and their self-titled debut went five times platinum worldwide. But after 20 years, Il Divo were ready to try new things, with a new lineup that that now included the young LaBrie as a permanent, full-time member.

“David thinks himself very spiritual; he’s very concerned with ‘Mercury in retrograde’ and stuff like that, which concerns me a little bit less,”  Bühler laughs. “But still, when David says that he feels Il Divo is just meant to be, I have to believe him. Because, why are we still here, after 20 years?”

“I feel there was a real turn that happened for us after Carlos passed away. I felt it was like an opportunity for us to really change the gear, try things, be uncomfortable — this is where the growth is to me,” Izambard, 51, explains matter-of-factly. “This transition with Steven — who’s an incredible little angel that came into our life; Carlos must have sent him to us somehow – made me go, ‘Well, what do we do now? We can’t continue being sad. We need to uncover some new sound, some freshness, since we have a 34-year-old man [LaBrie] in our band.’ So, this tour and album with Steven are really about the present and the future, not so much looking at our ego and back at what we’ve done. And that has actually been really exciting, because the past is heavy.”

XX is the first album that Il Divo have recorded with LaBrie (and, obviously, without Marin), and Izambard proudly describes it as a “risky” venture. Izambard — due to his pop/rock origins playing Bowie and Beatles guitar covers in the Paris subway; his self-described “midlife crisis” when he went to Burning Man and developed a fascination with EDM; and the inspiration he has derived from the production work of Billie Eilish and Finneas — was especially excited about XX and very hands-on in the studio, working with Grammy-winning producer Carlos Fernando Lopez.

“I think it was really important to us to try to change things up — how we mix our voices, how we compress our voices, how we choose sound,” Izambard explains. “We didn’t go too far out, and at some points we did strip things back in, but for instance, if you listen to the production on [Il Divo’s cover of Bruno Mars’s] ‘Talking to the Moon,’ it’s really interesting. It’s not something I’d believed we would ever dare to do before. And I’m hoping that we can continue in that direction. I was listening to a Fred Again song the other day, and I could totally see us doing it one day, something edgy like that, but with strings and horns.”

“Sébastien is very interested in the production side of things. I can do that, but I don’t because it’s not where my interests lie. I had a heavy hand in arranging all the vocals on this album, and I love doing that, but I’ve never seen myself as an ‘arranger.’ So, we come from completely different angles,” says Bühler of how his creative chemistry with Izambard keeps evolving. “I find it very exciting that Sébastien has ideas already that go even further outside of the box, and I’m curious about it. Sébastien can come in with any proposal, and I will listen to him.”

Izambard admits that when Il Divo were first “thrown into the studio in London” as strangers two decades ago, he was intimidated by his more classically trained bandmates; thought it was “super-freaking weird to sing covers”; and “had multiple arguments with all the guys. … It was a real learning curve that caused a lot of friction.” But now that the surviving members have matured into “real brothers and teammates and grownup adults,” Izambard is quick to credit the “too modest” Bühler as well, stressing: “Urs is not just a singer. He is a kickass guy in terms of harmonies. He’s a machine. When we were recording the XX album, I’d never heard him singing better. It was the best I’ve ever heard. And maybe it was because he was never given the chance before to shine on things. I think both we put each other too much in a box. And that was also the purpose of me pushing production, because we had this ‘automatic mode’ before. We completely shook things up on this record, and to me, that was magic.”

XX was a very intense process, but a very exciting one, and we are making a statement of what Il Divo is now — not what it was over the last 20 years. And we’re trying to open a window into what Il Divo could become in two more years, five more years, 10 more years. It’s nothing but exciting,” Bühler sums up — still emotional, but now grinning broadly. “It’s incredible to me that when I really thought everything was black, and everything was over, the world has pulled us to the point where we are now. It’s pretty amazing.”

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