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Behind the mask

Aston Merrygold, who found fame on The X Factor with boyband JLS, told David Hennessy about his recent appearance on The Masked Singer, his Irish family background, the day Roy Keane ‘chopped’ him up and why he had to confront the racism aimed at his family through social media.

Aston Merrygold came to prominence as a member of JLS, the boyband who found fame as the runners-up of the 2008 series of The X Factor.

Their breakthrough on Simon Cowell’s reality talent show proved to be a springboard for one of UK pop’s biggest success stories as they achieved five UK #1s, a further five Top 10 singles and five hit albums.

Aston has remained in the spotlight since the group went on hiatus in 2013 appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, starring in the West End production of Rip It Up, judging the talent show Got To Dance but most recently he would have been seen performing as Robin in ITV’s The Masked Singer. He finished third in the competition, which achieved a massive peak audience of 10.6 million viewers during last week’s final.

Aston has also had success as solo artist with his debut solo effort Get Stupid amassing 15 million streams on Spotify.
And Aston has returned with his latest single Share A Coke. Following his previous single Overboard, Share a Coke taps into what everyone is feeling right now: yearning to once again be able to spend time with loved ones, family and friends.

On releasing music in a lockdown that makes live performances impossible, Aston told The Irish World “a vital element” of the whole experience is missing.

“But I’ve kind of tried to satisfy the soul in a way doing instagram lives and TikTok lives and stuff and you can see the comments flooding through. It’s been interesting. It’s just new, isn’t it? And we have to adapt in this whole time.

“I can’t complain. It could be a hell of a lot worse. I’m still getting to sing down this thing,” he says indicating to the mic in front of him. “And see people on there,” he says into the computer screen he is talking to us through.

When asked if lockdown has been for him and his family, Aston says, “Massively up and down. I think the very beginning it was so uncertain, the whole scare factor was in there and it was like, ‘Okay, what do we do now? Where do we go? What do we do? How do we do it?’ From a professional point of view I would say at first.

“Obviously a few personal things happened. It is a pandemic and it is an awful virus and disease itself but I think definitely through the early part of the year we took it upon ourselves in our household to be like, ‘Do you know what? We just have to keep focusing on positives. Everything has to be a postive that we’re putting out there’.

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“We welcomed the new baby into the house so we can’t have that stress factor around that especially so we would just constantly count the blessings, just keep going and keep providing and just keep the fun going and the love going in the house more so than ever. It was just a conscious decision for us to keep our household and within our walls that way.

“It has been a tough year. We’re in such a social media driven life now and you can literally now do anything you want from your phone, you know? Concerts included so I do my Friday nights on my instagram or my TikTok and I sing a few songs to some people if they want to have that chill on a Friday night, have a little relax, have a little drink and whatever else and have a little vibe and a good time.

Aston on The Masked Singer.

“I’ve kind of managed to feed my soul that way and be able to dust off the performer cap and keep it ticking over. It works for me and I’m happy to keep it going for myself as well as other people who enjoy it.

“That’s probably been the way that I’ve kept sane, being able to perform and not keep cracking up. Live from my Living Room, that’s what it’s called and that’s what literally it is.”

A blessing of his recent appearance on The Masked Singer was that it was filmed in September which allowed for a socially distanced crowd so there were people there for his performances of Dance Monkey and Can’t Stop the Feeling.

“Honestly I think all the stars aligned for that one. It was so much pent up performer frustration and then being able to hit the stage with people there in front of you and just being able to react, it was honestly one of the most incredible experiences. It was definitely a very kind of surreal environment and show to be a part of with the weirdly wonderful side of it but that probably made it even more special that there was a game element to it and there was just excitement around the studio. As much excitement as there was from when it came out and people watching it, honestly the buzz around the studio was just next level. It was brilliant.

“The hardest thing of the show was the very, very first one and trying to get used to the outfit and singing and moving in the outfit. That was the hardest thing but that obviously got easier with time because you got used to it. There’s no bad element to this show whatsoever.”

However, Aston’s JLS bandmates and others were guessing who was in the suit from early on.

“Yeah, from week one people were guessing and I saw it online obviously and people were messaging me and stuff but I just took it upon myself not to reply and just be Mr. Secretive as much as possible. I was just like, ‘Listen: Ask no questions, hear no lies’.

“I was a bit like, ‘You know what? No, cut off the communication from there’. As soon as my Robin head came off, I was a bit like, ‘Right, cool..’ And messaging everyone I needed to message and said, ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to ignore you but you get it now. Couldn’t talk about this’. They were like, ‘We knew it’.

“Everyone was just excited. It was something that was needed in these times and funnily enough it was a lot of my friends and family were flying the flag for that because they were just totally into the game itself.”

JLS were set to delight their fans with an eagerly awaited reunion tour last year only for those plans to be scuppered by the pandemic. However, Aston now looks forward to the rescheduled dates later this year in the hopes they can go ahead.

“We had worked hard for the campaign itself and just trying to make it as perfect for the fans as possible and the only thing for us now is, looking at it as a positive, that people were waiting for it for so long and when it was announced the energy was there and the excitement was there and it was crazy, for that to be taken away and just being dangled in front of everybody- As soon as it happens, that’s just going to be a whole different level of euphoria. I can honestly say I’ve probably never been a part of what’s about to happen within these shows and the energy within these shows when they happen.”

Aston says the band’s breakthrough on The X Factor brought an intense amount of immediate fame but he counts his blessings that the band emerged before the days of ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter etc.

“Obviously, we hit it before the social media period so we had it good with The X Factor. We were the last ones to be cooped up in the house hidden away from the press. It was very much that kind of vibe. For us, it was just that excitement and the mystique about it. They really kept that whole mystique of the artists and we were only really seen on Saturday nights. It was just madness to be a part of a show that was at one time getting tens of millions of people watching. It seems like a lifetime ago to be honest because of everything that has happened in life but it is one of the many highlights but it’s definitely up there as a favourite.”

Aston in his JLS days.

Raised in Peterborough by his Irish mother, Aston speaks with pride about his Irish heritage and suggests it could very well be where his desire to perform comes from.

“My mum’s Irish, born and bred Dunmurry. My grandad’s a Belfast man.

“We were back and forth, when we could get over. A lot of the family actually moved from Ireland to Peterborough. There’s only a few that are still living over there at the minute but the best part about it is when I do get to come over for work and funnily enough I’m here now, that whole energy is a whole different level. There’s nothing quite like an Irish crowd.”

Asked if he feels at home in Ireland, Aston says without hesitation: “Definitely, you can’t really get away from it. You come over and are very much looked after: Always fed which is always a great thing, always fed and watered. I’m an avid Guinness man now. It’s always better over here. You can’t have a proper one at home so when I’m here, I’m just like, ‘Okay, here we go. It’s done properly’.

“The parties are always something to talk about. To be honest, I’m probably the first one off the dance floor. They keep going and going and going so I’m one of the first to be like, ‘Guys, I’m tapping out. I’m tired, you’re all a bit too wild for me right now. I need to catch some sleep’. But they’ll keep going and going and going.

“I dare say that’s where the performer energy probably comes from.”

As he says, Aston is even talking to us from Northern Ireland where he is filming a new series of the CBBC drama Almost Never in which he stars as the manager of the boyband The Wonderland.

Aston was a keen sportsman and as a teenager he got to represent England in a European Youth Championships. Football was also a big passion.

When asked what he would be if he was not a sportsman, he says: “I started out playing football when I was young and I got injured so I fell into this life which is not a bad place to fall into so definitely something sporty.

“I did athletics to a high level, I did semi-professional football as well so I was just into my sport. I loved it and as I said, you turn 16 and you get injured. What else is there to do? I started singing and acting.

“Sport was the catalyst for the energy so that only built into the performance side. I think something within sport whether it be football, athletics, gymnastics, something within that realm.”

He may have never played in the Premiership but Aston is proud to say he’s tussled with Roy Keane on the turf and even that it was the former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland captain that came off worse.

Aston was taking part in the charity football match Soccer Aid in 2012 when he was on the end of a crunching tackle from Keane but Aston had the last laugh as Keane had to leave the action after only 23 minutes.

“Have you seen the video? He chopped me right up. He did, he chopped me right up but at the same time he had to go off so I was like…” Aston says putting his hands up with a sympathetic look on face that says, ‘What can you do?’

“That was why he had to go off. He was like, ‘Nah, I’m not having it. This kid’s too quick for me’. He tried to take me out and I think he hurt himself so ya know, I’ll take it. That is proper gloating points. With my boys I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’ll have a little kickaround and whatever but guys, really and truly, I don’t know if you’re on my level because Roy Keane had to go off after tackling me’. I’m an Arsenal fan which makes it massively easy to gloat in that way.”

Like countless footballers in recent times, Aston had to tackle some racist comments in August last year. While the comments came through social media, they were not aimed at Aston but at his two-year-old son.

Does an episode like that make him more reluctant to post pictures of his kids on social media? “No, not at all. If anything, it drives me more to keep sharing the good times and the positive times and the love that we have just because social media, it’s an awful place but at the same time it’s only if you let that into your world. I don’t let it float around. I’m at it straight away and just confront it, shut it down early because it’s not welcome.

“By the time my son gets to an age where he’s able to use social media and we let him use social media of his own accord I want him to feel confident and strong enough that it’s like walking down the street and feeling comfortable, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, I’m all good’.

“‘I don’t want you to shy away from anything and just be sheepish in any way. No way, be you. Do what it is you do. Obviously you’re going to get comments from every single angle and it’s totally up to you how you want to react and respond’.

“But I can only teach him from my habits and the way that I do things so whether people think that’s right or wrong, I just want my children to be comfortable, safe and flourish in their own skin and just be proud so that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

Aston spoke out about the abuse at the time. He also reported it to the police who investigated.

“They get to a certain level, then they have to stop. The account gets deactivated and stuff like that but that doesn’t stop people from making new acccounts. I think the thing that people need to start doing is reporting it more because the more reports it gets, the more power it’s giving to the authorities to be able to actually shut people’s IP addresses down. If you shut people’s IP addressed down and they know that, then they’ll be so much more reluctant to be making these troll profiles and trolling in general.

“You just got to fight the good fight. You’ve got to keep ticking over and keep reporting stuff that isn’t right and stand up for yourself. Why not? Or if you see someone that is vulnerable, stand up for them. It is easier to jump on the bandwagon of people that carry on chatting rubbish than it is to stand up to people.

“You can’t accept it. Hell no. No, no, no, it’s not happening. It’s nice that change is happening.”

Share a Coke is out now.

For more information, go to Aston’s social media profiles.

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