IT’S early December so the chances are that most of us will have heard Chris Rea’s hit song, Driving Home for Christmas, at least once on the radio by now.

Although he wrote the song back in 1986, the 66-year-old blues-rocker who visits Bournemouth next week, says he doesn’t get bored of playing his old hits.

“I always feel there’s room for improvement. I’m not saying that I’m a perfectionist, but I always strive for perfection - I can’t seem to switch it off.”

When you talk to him, you begin to understand why there are days when he might want to hang up his guitar once and for all though.

In 1989, he wrote The Road To Hell – and then proceeded to travel down it.

The past 20 years can only be described as a living nightmare. He has been dogged by serious health issues including peritonitis, pancreatic cancer and diabetes. He has to inject insulin several times a day and has had nine major operations in the space of ten years.

Then last autumn he suffered a stroke.

“You get good days and bad days,” he says.

“Sometimes you actually think, I’ve had enough. You feel like knocking it on the head, you really do. Since I had a stroke, my balance hasn’t been too good either. Most people say they don’t notice, but I do.”

But even if he wanted to give it all up, it seems he can’t. “Writing music just comes automatically. It’s not a talent it’s a condition,” he says.

Perhaps it is also because Rea has never forgotten his roots. He was born in Middlesbrough in 1951 and once upon a time he worked in an ice cream van.

“Not many people know that,” he says. “It was a cold, horrible job. I don’t go back to visit because everything I used to know isn’t there any more. It’s been gone a long, long time.”

Chris who has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide, says he never planned to work in the music industry.

“I’m not from a musical family. Where I was from it was all about coal and steel.

“I didn’t start playing the guitar until I was 22. I’d heard the blues - an old Charley Patton record - and I liked the idea of it so I went to a second hand shop and brought a guitar and that was me sorted.

“No one was very pleased about it at the time though. It was proof to them that I was a waster, but I didn’t take any notice of them.”

Chris Rea is not alone in the company of musicians who found fame later in life – think Jarvis Cocker, Leonard Cohen – and it is interesting to note that he didn’t achieve UK Top Ten single status until the release of The Road To Hell (pt2), a record that was actually his 18th chart entry.

Perhaps this explains why Rea has never been totally comfortable in the spotlight. He says if he could do things differently, he would probably have preferred to be in a band so all eyes wouldn’t have been on him.

He also laments what he refers to as the loss of the culture of the music industry.

“Digital has killed the business and changed so many things within it. It’s the same with motor racing - it’s not even comparable to what it was 20 years ago.

“I feel sorry for young songwriters now but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

But underneath the bluff northern exterior is a devoted family man. He’s been with his wife, Joan, since their teens and they have two grown-up daughters.

“I was never a rock star or pop star and all the illness has been my chance to do what I’d always wanted to do with music,” he continues.

“The best change for my music has been concentrating on stuff which really interests me.”

For Chris Rea has many passions. He’s an artist and painter, blues aficionado and self-confessed motoring nut, filmmaker and Italian-influenced classical music composer.

Recent years have seen Rea publicly celebrating many of these passions, but 2017 has seen a return to what he’s best known for: an album of brilliant rock ballads called Road Songs For Lovers.

It’s been quite some time since Rea released anything “mainstream” or non blues-oriented.

Recorded with Rea’s own band at Metropolis Studios in London – in contrast to recent albums which have been self-produced in his home studio – the record continues Rea’s obsession with travel and motion; songs like The Road Ahead (the first single off the album), Happy On The Road, Last Train and title track, Road Songs For Lovers ostensibly suggest that we are constantly going somewhere in our lives and no doubt require a musical soundtrack to document this movement.

Road Songs For Lovers proves that Rea, despite everything he has gone through in his life, or maybe as a result of all he’s endured, can still add beautiful, poignant rock ‘n’ roll love songs to his pantheon of passions.

n See Chris Rea perform live at the BIC on Tuesday, December 12.