Just over a week ago, Kevin Richardson and the Backstreet Boys were playing to a sold-out crowd in Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre.
In the audience was Richardson’s 6-year-old son, Mason, who typically shies away from joining his dad onstage. But this day was different. Richardson’s wife, Kristin, is from Kansas City, and his in-laws used the opportunity to stage a family reunion. Emboldened by having his cousins around, Mason broke through his shyness and walked up to the front. Richardson’s bandmate A.J. McLean leaned over and lifted Mason to the stage while the group sang their 1999 hit ballad, “I Want It That Way.”
Richardson lifted his son and, in that moment, achieved a double harmony that for so long was so elusive for the Backstreet Boys: He was balancing music and fatherhood, fame and family.
“That was an amazing moment. It choked me up,” said Richardson, 42, who also has an 11-month-old son, Maxwell. “It hit me hard, holding my 6-year-old onstage in my arms, in front of a packed house, in my wife’s hometown.”
Twenty-one years into their existence, the Backstreet Boys have reached that comfortable zone. They’re still popular and fill sizable venues, including Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, where they’ll play Wednesday with Avril Lavigne. They’re also big enough to resist the lure of major record companies’ marketing muscle and instead have taken full control of their music: Backstreet’s most recent album, “In a World Like This,” was released under their own label.
At the same time, now in their 30s and early 40s, they’re wise enough to “appreciate the moments,” as Richardson, who took a six-year hiatus from the group before rejoining in 2012, told me in a recent interview. Those crazed days of the late ’90s, when Backstreet and ’N Sync ruled the boy band universe, are gone. That’s now for One Direction – and Richardson has some advice for the British quintet, too.
Q: How has your perspective on fame evolved?
Kevin Richardson: I feel like I’m in a good place as far as enjoying the moment. When it was crazy in the late ’90s, early 2000s, it was a little bit harder to have perspective and appreciate it. Everything was moving so fast. It was so big, so intense, so crazy. Looking back on it now, I have fond memories. I love where I’m at now as a person and as an artist. I feel like I have balance now. It’s not as crazy and hectic as it used to be, and I like it like that. We’re in a great place. We’re making music that we’re proud of on our own label that we have 100 percent creative control over. We’re touring all over the world and playing amazing audiences and huge crowds and having a blast. That’s a blessing to be able to still do it at a high level.
Q: What are some of the moments you appreciate most?
Richardson: There’s a point in our show where A.J. asks everybody to light their cellphones, and turn them up toward the sky. We do a song (“Breathe,” from their new album) and it lights up the whole arena. Something as simple as that. Gorgeous. Beautiful. Absorbing that moment every night, and not taking it for granted.
And there are encounters with fans who say, “Your music really got me through a dark time in my life. You guys saved my life at one point.” Those are things that, when you’re having a bad day, when you’ve lost perspective and are maybe getting a little jaded, really recharge your fire.
Q: Your memories of the crazy days are fond, but what was it like in that moment?
Richardson: I’m a perfectionist. When we were at the biggest point in our career as far as popularity – ruling the radio charts, Billboard charts, and all that – I think I was so focused on trying to be perfect that I couldn’t really enjoy what we had. I wanted every performance, every song, to be perfect. Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I realize that you should control what you can control, and don’t worry about little things.
Q: Why did you decide to go independent with your new album?
Richardson: We fulfilled our contractual obligations with Jive Records. When we began this album cycle we had some options to go to some major labels and do another deal, or take the independent route and be on our own label. We decided to do that as a group. That was exciting for me, and all of us, to have that control. The goal all along was to make an album we’re personally connected to and that we can be proud of. That’s another thing as far as enjoying the moment. We really enjoyed this creative process.
Q: From a business and creative perspective, would you say to the guys from a band like One Direction that’s young, big, and could have many years ahead?
Richardson: For a One Direction or a young artist coming up, I would say, if you fulfill your contract, look into going an independent route. But what I would say most of all is write, write, write. Write as much as you can. Create. Be an artist. Evolve. Get better. Grow. Pick up an instrument. Collaborate with other artists. Take risks.
Q: Any special plans for Buffalo?
Richardson: We love it up there. We’re actually going to have a day off there, so we’re hoping to take in some of the sights and flavors of Buffalo. We’ve had some amazing wings, but I have never been to Niagara Falls. I have a buddy who lives in Alabama but grew up in the Buffalo area. I think he’s going to come up to the show, and then on the day off, take me around.