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As Williams began his solo career, his record label, EMI, was clever enough to realize he needed more than a little songwriting help. They paired him with Guy Chambers, the former World Party keyboardist, who provided the music behind Williams' lyrics. Even then, his first solo album, Life Thru a Lens, was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. It had sold a paltry 40,000 copies, until the release of its fifth — fifth! — single, "Angels," took off at last, putting Williams on the comeback trail for real.
Williams and Chambers cast their net wide on Life Thru a Lens, which became a major British hit, as did its follow-up, I've Been Expecting You. The albums mixed dreamy ballads (such as "Angels") with dance pop and guitar rock — a little something for everyone, as you might expect from someone who defines himself less as a pop star and more as "an entertainer."
His influences are not exactly what you'd expect. He made a list of them for Interview: "Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Bette Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Tom Jones, the Beatles, Michael Caine, Chuck D. All the greats."
Williams continued to live the wild life, though perhaps with some degree of moderation. He became engaged to Nicole Appleton of the band All Saints, but the relationship couldn't hold up under constant media scrutiny. As for drugs, Williams told Rolling Stone, "Now where I am is the point where I do enough until I become slightly pudgy, then I stop. My vanity has saved my life."
Difficult as it was getting himself under control, cracking the American market has proved to be Williams' biggest challenge of all. "I haven't got a clue how I'm going to be successful here," he told the L.A. Times. "The whole place completely and utterly baffles me. But of course you have to stick this macho-arrogant bravado on to color the whole thing."