Interview with another Eighties icon: Nik Kershaw
He made a record. It made him famous; yes it made him a star. The life and soul of a party; he rocked and he shocked… I’d say these were my own words about musician and singer-songwriter Nik Kershaw but indeed they’re just lyrics to one his own songs of the 1980s, Wide Boy. Still, some of those lyrics sit comfortably – or rather uncomfortably, he might say – in his own CV.
From being a huge pop star in his own right mid-Eighties, to being the behind-the-scenes writer for songs by the likes of Sophie Ellis Bextor, Ke$ha, even our Kylie, Nik’s been continually busy on the music-making front.
Soon to tour Australia, where he’ll share the stage with fellow Eighties icon Kim Wilde, Kershaw chats to Cream about the music industry back then compared to digital now, those horrible looks of the Eighties, and preferring to be “in the background” more now rather than “being the pop star”.
Interview by Antonino Tati.
Hi Antonino. That doesn’t sound like an Australian name.
It’s not; rather Italian by heritage, with parents who moved to Oz in the 1950s. But more about your heritage; you were born in Ipswich, England?
I was brought up in Ipswich and spent my formative years there, yeah. Now I live in Essex, northwest of London.
I wanted to take you back to your early years in the music industry. What was it like to have such success at a young age with your song Wouldn’t It Be Good?
When Wouldn’t It Be Good came out I was 25 so really I wasn’t that young; I was quite a late developer. I was 26 when it all really kicked off, but I still wasn’t ready for it, that’s for sure. I don’t think anything could prepare you for that [pop life]. I was a bit like a rabbit in headlights, to be honest. Making the records and playing the gigs were easy. It was being the whole ‘pop star’ thing that I wasn’t very good at.
Indeed, it’s not like you can go and get a degree for it; get taught how to cope with being a pop star.
Well you probably can these days! I think there are schools for that sort of thing now.
Still, without the schooling, you made quite an impression on the charts; 62 consecutive weeks you spent in the UK charts alone in the first two years of your career. That must have been pretty full-on.
It was, but you just get swept along with it. It was a very fast-moving train and there wasn’t any option to get off it.
Back then, the mid-Eighties lent impressions of shiny suits and cocaine-fuelled parties.
Were you thrown into the deep end of all that?
I was thrown into the pace of it. MCA, in their infinite wisdom, decided it was a good idea to release two albums in nine months, so I was promoting one album and making the other at the same time. I don’t ever remember sleeping for a year, and I really don’t know how I got through it. But I had a choice. I never at any point felt I was being manipulated or pushed into things. There was no kind of Svengali figure behind me going, ‘Right we gotta do this, we gotta do that’. We were all just swept away with it but I don’t think anybody was driving the train.
What about a song like Wide Boy [about an overnight music sensation leading a life of excess] which kind of comes across as semi-autobiographical. Did you feel there were elements of you in that song?
Well funnily enough that was the only old song on the album, written in 1981 when I was in a ‘functions band’. So that was –
An imagining of what the pop life might be like?
Yeah, that was me – well, I don’t really know who that person was – but it does seem weird that I wrote it before it all happened.
I suppose the song provided you with some kind of foresight into what to watch out for when entering the music industry?
Few people are aware of this but you actually provided electric guitar on Elton John’s Nikita.
That’s right. I played on three tracks on his album [Ice On Fire].
What was it like back then working with someone who had been around for decades before you? Was there a good vibe?
In the studio, yeah. Once you got over the fact that you’re sitting there with Elton John – someone you’ve been listening to for the past ten years, even previous to that – it just became a day in the studio. Everybody was professional and just did their job. And later on I had the pleasure of a producing a track with Elton.
Old Friend for his duets album, yes?
That’s right, and that was kind of weird, but once you get it into your head that you’re just people in a studio making a record, that’s all it was. It was a lot of fun and very relaxed.
Did you meet one another at some major music event?
It was very early days when I met Elton. My first album was just out and I as promoting it in France. Later on that year I had been booked for a gig at Wembley Stadium, organised by Radio 1. He obviously checked out what acts were going to be on, and as chance would have it, he was playing in Paris and I got a message through the people I was with that Elton was playing, and asking would go and say hi. So I just went along and said hi.
You seemed to progress with your own image album-to-album but I’m wondering if stylists, graphic designers and PR agents were as strong a component in music packaging back then as they are now? Did you select your own gel for your hairstyling?
I was clueless so far as all that went. I was just a guitarist in a jazz fusion band before it all kicked off. And I did suddenly have a stylist – unfortunately. But I had a choice – I didn’t have to wear those ridiculous outfits, but I was certainly guided because I didn’t have a clue.
Perhaps it was you who kicked off the over-styling and the L’Oreal hair gel thing?
I think it happened in the early Eighties with the New Romantic thing. The girl I had; she worked with Duran quite a lot and there was a core of about four or five stylists that pretty much did everybody.
So that monopoly on styling ended up becoming a massive ‘look’ and trend for an entire decade?
Yeah. And it still happens now. I mean everybody gets styled now – even newsreaders. Styling’s become an honourable profession!
Since staring out in pop music, you’ve moved into a variety of genres. One interesting phase of your career was working with ‘Jacques Lu Cont’ and his Les Rythmes Digitales project. How did that collaboration come about?
That was just another case of me bumping into something in my life. I’ll stumble about blindly and just bump into things – it’s the story of my life, actually. I just got a phone call from somebody called Jacques Lu Cont, who ultimately wasn’t ‘Jacques’, ‘Lu’, or ‘Cont’, and he didn’t come from Paris [indeed the man was Stuart Price who later went on to produce and mix the likes of Madonna and Coldplay]. But that’s Stuart for you. He used to do interviews with an interpreter even though he didn’t speak a word of French! It was hilarious.
That was a brilliant record he worked on with Madonna [Confessions On A Dance Floor].
It was. But the records we made were way before then. I didn’t know who he was and he was obviously part of a movement I didn’t have anything to do with. To be honest [his sound] was a bit too close to the Eighties for me. I was trying to get away from those synth sounds and here’s this geezer on the phone wanting me to sing on a record that pays an homage to it. At first I thought he was taking the piss but he came over and played me a track and said he wanted some lyrics and vocals on it, so that became Sometimes. Now, everywhere I go, people bring that track up to say how much they love it, which is extraordinary to me.
You’ve written songs and contributed to the work of other artists, from Kylie Minogue to Ke$ha. Are you happy to be in the background more these days?
Totally. Absolutely. That’s the part I want. I was always uncomfortable with the public part, you know, being the pop star. It takes a certain kind of person to be that, and I was really not that kind of person. So I’m happy to be writing, in the background, for other artists.
Wouldn’t you say some of today’s pop music is lacking in that great content that made Eighties music so interesting? Sure, music then might have been influenced by a line of coke or two, but there were really inventive lyrics… These days, most songs are so narrative-like and boring. Can’t more of you guys write more decent material for us to enjoy?
I kind of did that; it was my job in the Nineties: writing with and for people. I haven’t done much of it since. It’s quite a clique-y little circuit that you get in and I’m not part of it much now. It just doesn’t interest me much anymore.
What were one or two of the downsides of the music industry?
The usual stuff. The fact that you were public property and you got prodded and poked and pointed at everywhere you went. I wanted success and I wanted my music to be heard, and that was all part and parcel of it, so you accepted it. Anyway, I became very self-conscious, thinking that people were looking at me all the time. You get paranoid.
You start believing the picture in the paper, without realising the person in that photo is growing and moving on?
Absolutely. People’s perception of you is very one-dimensional. As is mine of other people whom I read about in the papers.
And what’s the most positive thing about being a music artist?
Just being able to make music. I’m so lucky that people pay me to walk out and in front of thousands of people and play music to them. It’s what I dreamt about doing in the first place.
You’re touring Australia again, this time with Kim Wilde. Who brought that tour together?
I’ve known Kim for years, and we’ve sung together on a couple of records. We’re actually good mates. But the idea of this tour together came from an Australian promoter; simple as that. We’ve played the same gigs before. And when you hear the live thing, it all makes a bit more sense that we’re on stage together.
You’ll be appearing on stage for her set; will she be sneaking into your set?
I don’t know yet; we haven’t worked out the details, but I am the guitarist in the band for her.
Finally, Nik, what do you think of the internet as the new medium for music delivery?
I think it gives a huge amount of freedom to an awful lot of people. It also kind of dilutes everything, I guess, but it’s fantastic that you don’t have to go through the usual channels – the record companies and the bullshit just to get heard – and that is a brilliant thing. There are things about it you hate, too, like you might do a gig and screw up and the next day and suddenly it’s on YouTube. Still, the internet is just one part of the whole thing. There’s still a massive amount of planning that goes into a campaign.
Nik Kershaw tours with Kim Wilde in October.
Dates and venues as follows:
Wednesday 16 October
Ticketing info: www.ticketek.com
Thursday 17 October
Chelsea Heights, Mornington, Victoria
Ticketing info: www.ticketmaster.com.au
Friday 18 October
The Palais, Melbourne
Ticketing info: www.ticketmaster.com.au
Saturday 19 October
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Ticketing info: www.ticketek.com
Sunday 20 October
Astor Theatre, Perth
Ticketing info: www.showticketing.com.au
Pictured: Nik Kershaw now (top of story) and then (insert).
“But I had a choice – I didn’t have to wear those ridiculous outfits.”