Rick Astley says he's never been cool, and that's OK: 'Nostalgia is not an ugly thing to me'

Rick Astley gets it.

He knows his music – one song in particular – is the backdrop for many a viral video, and even if an undercurrent of mockery exists, at least people are still listening.

Because Astley, 56, is so synonymous with his 1987 smash “Never Gonna Give You Up," and the now famous "Rickrolling" of the song, his raw talent is often overlooked.

His muscular baritone voice has coated a slew of other hits – from the electronic-drum shuffle of “Together Forever” to the plaintive ballad “Cry for Help” – and recent albums “50” and “Beautiful Life” underscore an undiminished voice and robust, melodic songs. 

But Astley understands that people who will fill arenas on The Mixtape tour, headlined by New Kids on the Block and featuring En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa as well as himself, want to revel in the familiar. And he will graciously oblige.

The tour kicked off Tuesday and runs through late July, and Astley, a native of Lancashire, England, is eager to station himself on a tour bus “to watch America go by.” He can’t wait to eat in “one-off town diners” and visit cities he’s never encountered, such as Boise, Idaho.

Astley, eternally good-natured, chatted with USA TODAY about the surprising ways his music is integrated into current pop culture, his love of American R&B and why he accepts having "never been cool."

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Question: There certainly has been no shortage of uses of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” but its appearance in a funeral scene in “Ted Lasso” was a poignant surprise.

Rick Astley: It’s an amazing episode and I love the show. My wife is my manager, and she had to see the scenes (in advance), but she said, "I can’t let you see it, just watch it." I was really moved by what they did with the song.

Q: Hannah Waddingham (whose character Rebecca sings the song in the episode) is quite a beautiful singer.

Astley: I knew she’d done theater, but it’s one thing to sing on a stage but within TV and the way it’s filmed, it takes some guts to belt it out like that – and a voice. But the scene with "Never Gonna Give You Up" is about the raw emotion. I’ve seen people do God knows what with that song. I was skiing on a boys' trip a few weeks ago, and some of them haven’t seen "Ted Lasso." So we watched (the episode) – which I know is ridiculous to be watching a show with my song in it – and all of us, a bunch of guys on a ski trip having a few drinks, were like (imitates crying).

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Q: Your debut album, “Whenever You Need Somebody,” is being re-released (May 20). When you think back to some of those other hits such as “Together Forever” and “It Would Take a Strong, Strong Man,” what memories do they prompt?

Astley: If I’m singing in front of an audience, I’m seeing what they remember. If I can see someone turn to their husband or wife and give a hug, that’s really special and amazing. But the real emotion comes when I’m performing. You’re just part of the wallpaper of music the last decades.

Q: What are you looking forward to on the tour with NKOTB, En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa? 

Astley: I treat this as being an invited guest on an arena tour. I kind of feel all I have to do is show up and do what I’m supposed to. I understand the idea of “Please don’t play Track 3 from Album 2.” Nostalgia is not an ugly thing to me. It’s having beautiful emotions about music you grew up listening to.

Rick Astley says America "has been a big deal in my life" and cites some of his  favorite singers, Luther Vandross and James Ingram, as influences.

Q: When was the last time you played arenas in the U.S.?

Astley: When I came there (in the ‘80s), we did the shed circuit. America has been a big deal in my life. A lot of my favorite singers came from America, and I use the term "taught me to sing." But I think I’m not alone in saying a lot of R&B and soul records, like Luther Vandross, James Ingram, those records were what I was trying to emulate in my way. I was doing it in a northern English, red-haired, freckly sort of way.

Q: What is your reaction when you discover you're a hit on, say, TikTok?

Astley: It’s mad! But that is what the internet has changed for everybody. You used to avoid your parents’ record collection like the plague, and I think that’s sort of dumb. I think the younger generation hears something and if they like it, they don’t care if you’re dead – if they like it, they like it. To have a younger audience get into my songs, you have to see that as kind of a bonus, even if it’s Rickrolling. I've bumped into artists at festivals who weren’t alive when (“Never Gonna Give You Up”) came out, and they don’t disrespect me; I’m allowed to be involved in the world of music today. I would have loved to be cool, but I’ve never been cool, and that’s OK.