Brian May has been through the wars. The 73-year-old guitar hero absolutely hated lockdown. "It was horrible, crappy and quite wounding," he says, peering glumly from a computer screen. His band, Queen, had to cancel a world tour and fly home. "I didn’t lose my livelihood, but I lost my freedom, which I found painful. One moment you’re striding around the world on the crest of a wave, the next you’re locked up like a prisoner. And then I got sick."

May escaped Covid, but suffered a series of health problems, including a heart attack in May last year. "I still don’t understand it. I don’t tick any of the boxes. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I keep fit, biking and swimming." He underwent cardiac surgery and had three stents fitted. "It’s been a long recovery time, and I’m still in it. There’s lots of complications with the medications, which really screw up your body. It’s been terrible."

And then, during flash floods in London earlier this year, the lower ground floor of his Kensington home was inundated by overflowing sewage water, ruining old photo albums and family memorabilia. "The whole place was awash and covered with black slime. It’s disgusting.

"I know it’s not the end of the world. Nobody died. But I haven’t slept much since it happened. I’m not a person who can let stuff go easily, so it’s maybe had a disproportionate emotional effect. It feels like I’m trying to grab hold of bits of my life that are being taken away."

There can be something a little Eeyoreish about May, with his trademark long hair hanging in silver ringlets around his face. He is softly-spoken and thoughtful, with a gentle laugh that lightens his complaints, but (by his own admission) he does have a tendency to dwell on the dark side of things. "This is my makeup. I live in my head too much."

It may not be obvious from his flamboyant image as the musical lynchpin of one of the world’s best-loved rock bands, but May admits he has always been prone to depression.

"I’ve been to therapy," he says. "I’ve done a lot of work on it. But there are still mornings when I wake up and think, ‘I don’t really want to get up. I don’t think I can solve the problems of today’.’’ But he does get up, and that is a key to his own music.

During lockdown, May found himself contemplating Back to the Light, his debut solo album. It was released in 1992, less than a year after the death from HIV/Aids of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. "One night, I listened to the whole thing, in a dark place, and it really got to me, because I thought: ‘I still am the same person. I still have the same struggles, the same pain, the same passion.’ It was at the end of Queen, and I wanted to find a new light, a new path, and this was it. And it still is it, in a way."

Although it was a top 10 album that spawned two hit singles, Back to the Light has been unavailable for over 15 years, and has never been put onto streaming platforms. Now it’s finally being re-released, handsomely repackaged with copious extra tracks. It sounds very like a long-lost Queen classic. Yet it exudes a vulnerability that has something to do with the timbre of May’s voice and the honesty at the heart of the songwriting, implicit in titles such as I’m Scared, ‘Nothin’ But Blue and Just One Life.

"I knew at the time that I wasn’t going to have Freddie anymore, but I was also losing my dad [Harold May died from cancer, aged 66, in 1991] and losing my marriage and family [May separated from Christine Mullen, the mother of his three children, in 1988]. I was in a dark place, looking for the light."

May recalls that an ailing Mercury encouraged him to make a solo album. "He said, ‘We’re not talking about this, but we know I’m not going to be around for a lot of this future, and this is the time when you should be stepping up.’ It was a very, very brave thing for Freddie to say in a very matter-of-fact way."

In fact, the key song, Too Much Love Will Kill You, was also recorded by Queen, and released on a posthumous album, Made in Heaven, in 1995.

But it was originally written and recorded by May in 1988, while torn between his failing marriage and a love affair with future wife Anita Dobson (whom he married in 2000). When Mercury heard May’s version, he declared "I’m singing that!" – so it was duly re-recorded.

"At that moment, it wasn’t about my pain any more, it was about Freddie’s battle. It was the same thing with The Show Must Go On [the final track on Innuendo, released 10 months before Mercury’s death]. I wrote it, with a little bit of help from Freddie, and it was about a clown who is trying to keep his smiling face on. It was left unspoken that this could be Freddie’s life.

"When I gave him the final version to sing, it was like taking the lid off a bottle that was about to explode. He put so much energy into it." May smiles. "Freddie was just full of passion. He was always inspiring. Always."

May toured for several years with the Brian May Band, but put out only one more solo album, Another World, in 1998. Instead, he focused on collaborations with the singer Kerry Ellis.

The axis of May and drummer Roger Taylor frequently reunite to perform live as Queen, with vocal duties by Paul Rodgers of Free from 2004 to 2009, and American Idol star Adam Lambert since 2011. A rescheduled Queen tour will commence in May next year, and May is contemplating making a long-cherished solo instrumental album – "if I’m spared, as my mum used to say".

Aside from music, May pursues interests in astrophysics and Victorian stereoscopy, and is an outspoken activist for animal rights. "I’m not good at relaxing. I think, existentially, I’m a machine that has to keep moving. For years I’ve been looking for the antidote, looking for a 
song that would solve all my problems, but I’ve never found it. And sometimes I complain about it. And sometimes I think maybe this is just me – this is what drives and empowers me to do everything I do. So I’d better get on and try to make a good job of it. I don’t know if I always succeed, but at least I’m trying."

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