CHRIS Rea is travelling from Berlin to Leipzig on the German leg of his European tour when I call him.

While I am certain from his description that it is far from the 'Road to Hell', the forests and mountains that act as a backdrop to our time together certainly do not make for an easy conversation.

On two occasions the line drops off, once as we are midway through a weighty discussion on religion, but ever the gentleman, he apologises in that trademark gravelly tone as if somehow personally culpable.

The reason for the call is Rea's imminent visit to his native North-East, but before we talk about that, I wanted to congratulate him on his 61st birthday, the day before.

Asked what he did to mark the occasion, he was rather matter of fact.

"Well we had a gig last night in Rostock, but at my age you don't celebrate them," he says. "They are more of a warning than a celebration."

With that topic firmly sidelined, we move onto something that he is more than happy to celebrate, his latest body of work, Santo Spirito Blues.

A musical and cinematic collaboration, it comprises three CDs and two films. Included is a good old-fashioned, if that does not seem derogatory, blues album, the soundtracks to the two movies and the works themselves. The latter tackle two very different subjects. The first bullfighting, which, while Rea respects the protagonists for their bravery, wants to see banned, and the second, a man searching for the truth in the beautiful Italian city of Florence.

Rea certainly believes in giving his fans their money's worth.

"I have got a firm belief that we need to make things more special for the punters, other than just giving them downloads," he says of the concept. "It's also a lot more interesting for us. It keeps us busy. You are always looking at new ideas and developing things.

"I made the films because I wanted to do something interesting. We also had a lot of film music type tracks that I had gathered over the last two years and we needed to do something with them. Doing something different is better than just turning out a single CD."

Rea doesn't believe one medium is better than the other, rather that they complement each other.

"It isn't that I have moved into films. What we have tried to do is make new ways of listening to music," he says. "You can do that through visuals as well. Everyone has got a big television nowadays. You sit down and you watch somebody's next record. For me, that is a really exciting idea. It also goes back to the old culture of sitting down and listening to music, which has been lost a lot in the last ten years."

He thinks for a couple of seconds and then comes up with this metaphor.

"It's bit like being in a sweetshop," he says. "You can get a really nice box of chocolates or you can do pick and mix.

"We wanted a nice box of chocolates."

The box-set also touches on Rea's religious beliefs. Brought up a Roman Catholic in Middlesbrough, it was inevitable that its teachings would remain with him in one form or another to this day. As he says, he can't walk by a church without wondering if God's inside.

"I am Irish-Italian so I didn't have much choice really," he says of his upbringing. "It stays with me. I have got a music journalist friend and he can tell by a guy's lyrics whether the person was brought up a Catholic or not. There's stuff in there from when you were under ten-years-old, it kind of stays in your brain somehow."

With that and with the question of whether religion was any more important to him now than in his younger days hanging in the air, we had our first parting of the ways.

To his credit, he allows me to ask the question again when we reconnect.

"It's more technical now," he says. "There are no men with beards or people with wings. But there is a fascination as to what is beyond all that."

I picture him extending his hands to the heavens.

"Even if you go past the 'Big Bang', you have to ask what created the 'Big Bang'," he says. "And once you start going into the depths of that enormity I find it very exciting."

You don't need to spend long in Rea's company, to realise that this is a man whose brain seldom sleeps.

Every morning he picks up a pen and writes down a few lyrics. But this creativity is both a blessing and a curse. He calls it his 'complex' and refers to his battle with pancreatic cancer in 1994 in order to further explain it.

"When I was seriously ill for such a long time it all went negative instead of positive. It's a hard place to be, sitting in hospital for many, many months. You can't switch it off.

"I definitely think it is connected to autism. I have talked to other guys who have also been classed as compulsive creators. It is just a way the brain works. It is not right to say that talent is wonderful if you have got this," he concludes, before adding with a smile that I can feel coming down the phone line. "It is handy, though. it definitely pays the mortgage."

Rea was last back on Teesside six months ago for the funeral of his father, Camillo.

However, he says the homecoming, service apart, "was more strange than emotional."

"When we drove into Middlesbrough, there were few buildings left that were there from when you remember them," he said. "And those buildings look like they have fallen from the sky, as if you were having some kind of strange dream. It was all there, but everything was missing.

"Without terrace streets, a lot of Middlesbrough went."

He comes back to the subject a little later on, as if to press home the point.

"They have even knocked down a new shopping centre that I never even saw got built," he says.

I tell him it all sounds like the makings of a song, to which Rea replies: "I have done that - Windy Town. Rod Stewart had a hit with that - in America."

Instead of playing his hometown, logistical reasons mean Rea will perform instead in Newcastle and while no one would blame him for introducing his new material to the audience, he says he would rather treat them to the hits than leave the stage feeling he had shortchanged them.

"You go through a period of evolution," he says. "These songs are so past their sell by date, they have become little icons. I have a different view on them now, than I did five years ago.

"They have gone into Stage Three if you want. Stage One is when you first have the hit, Stage Two is when you laboriously did them and thought it was boring and then so much time passes that they turn into little stars in the sky. They are good fun to revisit."

It is likely that you could not stick a pin in a map without hitting somewhere that Rea has played over the years, but he still says taking to the stage in the North-East holds special significance. And with that comes nerves.

"When you arrive in Newcastle, something happens. You find yourself more nervous, you find yourself a little edgy on the first number. You can actually feel people watching you who you know," he says. "When that cold breeze comes in off the sea, something definitely happens emotionally, without a doubt."

We talk for another half-hour or so, touching on his passion for painting "I love Radio 4, a set of brushes and four hours disappears", his hobby of building fountains "the only rule we have, which probably saved the marriage, is that my wife hasn't got to be able to see any of them from the bedroom window" and his health "I have got used to the six injections and 36 different types of tablets every day", but the question I finish with is the one that so many people asked me to ask when told I was speaking with Chris Rea.

"Ask him about Rea's ice creams," they said. So I did.

"Every time I eat an ice cream I compare it," he says, reminiscing about his father's Teesside empire. "We had this thing years ago about whose ice cream was best, ours, the Pacitto's or Jaconelli's.

"It was dairy ice cream in them days, it was very, very white and it couldn't be more than a day old, which was f****** hard work and one of the reasons why I tried to get another job."

"You just don't get that kind of ice cream any more."

And with that it was 'hello Leipzig" and one more step closer to home.

BLOB Chris Rea plays the Newcastle MetroRadio Arena on March 31.