I’m a Nik Kershaw fan from way back. The OG. Nik was there during my teens, and then some, I grew up trying to decipher the existential nuances of ‘The Riddle’, and was empowered by ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’, and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’. I finally had the opportunity to see him perform 3 years ago – to the day – at an 80s Reunion gig in Coventry, and my job being what it is, I also had the chance to photograph him backstage, and later stand in the pit and take some incredible photos of him performing.
None of this however prepared me for actually speaking to him on the phone. The morning of our interview last month I was physically ill, and didn’t think I’d be able to do it. But I persevered – and – please forgive me Nik – I fangirled hard and was a stammering mess. But I really did enjoy our chat, and hopefully, once all this isolation and quarantine is over, I’ll get to talk to you again in person…and I won’t be quite so bad!
Nik’s new album, ‘Oxymoron’, is set for release this Friday, 16 October. I asked him how he came up with the name…
It’s a very good question! As with a lot of my albums, I came up with the title at the last minute. I’ve got a collection of songs, none of the song titles leapt out as a title track, so I threw a lot of words around. I do like an oxymoron! The word looked like the artwork we were working on at the time, it was just as random as that.
It’s not that the songs don’t fit together, or anything like that – it’s just a word that you thought of.
The last album was called ‘Eight’…
…because it was your eighth album…I suppose too, by calling it ‘Oxymoron’, you’ll have people like me saying, “why is it called Oxymoron?” You’ll have to come up with something deep.
I was going to ask before this – do the songs contradict each other?
Well to be fair, they don’t contradict each other, they don’t complement each other either, they’re a collection of random songs. People always ask what the theme was, what the idea was behind the album. But it is pretty random, some songs are not going to sound as connected as others, about the only thing that connects them is my voice, and the odd lyric or two.
Could you tell me something about your songwriting process? I’ve been listening to Oxymoron for the last couple of days, and it strikes me that you’re a bit of a storyteller, do you come out with the story first, or do you come up with the music first? How does it work?
Not usually, I don’t usually come out with the story first. Usually it’s melody, sometimes that comes with a few random vowel sounds, or a suggestion of some words, and I’ll go with that. Quite often I’ll write the initial few words that work, and then go find some other words, I’ll find the hook first, something that sits nicely and sings well, and then I’ll try and work out what I’m singing about, like, what do those few words mean. I rarely start with a story.
The weird thing is, also, if I’ve got a vague idea of what the song is about, I’ll write a very quick lyric to serve the purpose, to make sure the meter is right, and the rhyming scheme is right, and it sings nicely and sits nicely – and I’ll put that as a guide vocal, and I’ll go over it again with fine tooth comb just to iron out the bits that don’t work or fit. I think it’s really important to just get a map, otherwise you’re stuck with a blank sheet of paper that you can’t get over.
I’ll just really quickly, stream of consciousness stuff, write something down so it’s there, it’s got form to it, and fill in the bits that don’t work, and it’s really surprising sometimes how few changes you have to make to make it work.
I am always in awe of songwriters – I can write poetry, I can write stories, I can write articles – but I’ve never been able to write songs, and you’ve been doing it forever; so it seems effortless, but I guess it’s not so effortless as I see it being.
It’s not at all effortless, no! In fact it’s become more difficult now, it’s more of a struggle now, because you don’t want to repeat yourself, you haven’t got the same sort of youthful exuberance that you had years ago, and it’s hard work, and a lot gets thrown out, a lot gets started again, and salvaged, that’s why it took the best part of eight years to get another album out.
You say parts are thrown out, parts are salvaged – what do you do with a song if you decide it’s not going to go on the album – do you put that aside and reuse it at a later date, or do you chop it up, or is it just gone?
No it’s not just gone. Sometimes, especially when it’s an album that’s taken a long time, and I just get bored with something, and I think, that’s not going to fit in anywhere, and I’ll put it aside, and maybe come back to it even a year later, and think, oh this is pretty good – or actually, I was right, this was pretty bad. But even if it doesn’t get reused as it is, it’s always there. Sometimes I’ll go back to really old stuff that never made it, for various reasons, and I can find something of merit, like a bridge that worked really well to get from that chord to another chord, maybe I’ll use that. So there’s always something I can use later on, but it might be 5, 10 years later on.
It’s been eight years since your last album, but how long did it take to write the songs for ‘Oxymoron’?
It went in fits and starts really, because there was a long period of time when I’d go out to the studio and mess about with computers and keyboards and guitars and drum machines, and just end up with nothing, it was a frustrating experience. So I took a bit of a break and I came back and I decided I’d sit with an acoustic guitar and write a song a day, regardless of how good it was.
I did that for about two weeks, and I left it for a couple of months and came back to it to see what I actually had, and I’d say a good four or five of those songs made it onto the album. The rest are just songs that were sort of swimming about in my head; either they’re ready to come out or they’re not. I can’t say the album took X amount of time to write – it’s a constant process, it’s just going on all the time in the background; while I’m doing the dishes, or walking the dog.
That’s a very normal sounding thing isn’t it! You think of musicians as…I don’t know – living like Enya in a castle [Nik laughs] but really it’s a very normal thing, it’s a normal job; you’re doing normal stuff while you’re getting this together aren’t you!
Yeah! And you have to have some sort of normal life to write about as well! Things to write about that connect with, resonate with other people, and if you can’t do that, then…
Talking of inspiration…you say you get it from normal life – your song [on Oxymoron], ‘From Cloudy Bay To Malibu’ – is that about a specific incident? Is it anyone?
It’s not about a specific incident – a few of my songs are as if I’m just writing a story, and this story is about a guy whose long-term partner walks out, and he drowns his sorrows then travels around the world, via the medium of alcoholic beverages. I have never personally done that, although I’ve gone a fair way around the world some nights!
You’re not actually going anywhere at the moment anyway, I mean, none of us are! We’re all stuck at home!
Yeah exactly! I thought I’d write a travel response!
I was thinking too – ‘The Chosen Ones’ – did you write that this year?
No! That was written the early part of last year…
Oh! There was a reference to disinfectant, to disinfected hands, and it sounded like, looking from today back on days when we had a lot more freedom.
Yeah! It’s funny how that happens sometimes! Someone suggested to me as well that ‘The Wind Will Blow’ also sounded like one of those songs, but it really isn’t.
That’s really cool! It just goes to show that you write songs that are…
…I’m a prophet!
You are definitely a prophet! I mean, look at your songs from the old days even. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’ is still as relevant now as it was all those years ago.
Yeah but some of those themes are aren’t they! Jealousy, and envy…
True, but it’s the actual putting down in words. I mean, it worked. I grew up with your music, so it’s lovely for me that you’re still there, pumping out these songs that are going to be classics. ‘Oxymoron’ is just a really really good album. I was thinking too – your song ‘These Little Things’, there’s a certain accent you’re adopting, it sounds like?
It’s an eternal struggle for me! I think I did that vocal about three times! Some lyrics will have you singing in an American, or Atlantic accent, because it doesn’t rhyme unless you do, but other times it just sounds STUPID. I’ve drifted in and out of it over the years, just dropping the ends off words and stuff. The aim is to sing how I talk…
You’re not deliberately taking on a character, it’s just how the words come out. I really like it, it’s a really upbeat, a very domestic kind of song.
It literally is about “these little things”.
How have you been going this year? How have you been finding lockdown, and the whole Covid thing? You’re obviously not touring…
No, not touring, which is frustrating, for everybody – but much more frustrating if your life depends on it. A lot of my musician friends are really struggling, which is not good to see, but personally it’s been…I think somebody said, very wisely – we’re not all in the same boat, we’re in the same storm but different boats. I’m in a very nice comfortable boat, that’s not taking on water, and I’ve got a lovely garden and I’ve got loads of lovely walks around here. I’ve also been spending time teaching my ten year old kid, so there’s been quite a few positives for me.
So you’ve been doing the whole homeschooling thing…
Yeah! I mean he’s 10. He’s done a whole lot of schooling, and I’ve gained a whole new respect for teachers.
Oh yeah! My youngest is 14, and it amazes me how much work he had to do, and I was like, wow these teachers have to do this every day, I’m trying to look after everything else and him at the same time. They deserve more money.
I’ve been asked to ask you a few questions. The first is, tell us about Miles Davis being a fan of your work. I know you’ve probably been asked this like thousand times already, but how did that feel?
No! I don’t get that often! [Really!] Yeah the words “Nik Kershaw” and “Miles Davis” don’t normally end up in the same sentence…
It’s true! I tried looking it up to see if anyone had asked, and there’s not a lot there…
Yeah it is true! There is documentary evidence. There’s a film interview as well, where he’s being very nice about me. The story is, we were filming the video for a song called ‘Don Quixote’, in Spain, and we got to the hotel, and there was a message for me at the reception, which said, “Nik Kershaw could you call Miles Davis”, and they put a New York telephone number with it.
At first we thought it was a joke, and then we thought it might be Miles Copeland, because we had connections with Stewart Copeland. So my manager called Miles Copeland, and it wasn’t him, and I just thought someone was messing about. I did call the number at one point, but they must have written it down wrong or something – it was Helga from Munich or someone…so I forgot all about it.
Then later I was touring with Paul Young in the States, and had to appear in New York, and I came off halfway through my set, and he was standing there, in the wings, with his chauffer, or minder, I didn’t know who the lady was. So I came off stage and had this ten minute chat with him, and understood about every third word, and he was interested in me writing for him, and just before he died he was routining a couple of my songs with his band.
Apparently he did a cover of ‘Wild Horses’? Allegedly?
I don’t know about that! In the Miles Davis biography it says his band were routining ‘Don Quixote’.
Wow. That’s just mind-blowing!
It is mind-blowing! A little feather in my cap!
Another massive thing, and I know you’ve been asked this one as well – Live Aid. How was that? Because we’ve just had 35 years since it happened…I’ve talked to Paul Young before about it, and he’s still like, wow, that was an amazing experience, but how was it for you?
Oh it was insane. The further away you get from it the more you get asked about it, it seems. It’s insane that it came together at all actually. Because of all the problems involved, I mean, technically, that it went off with very few hitches on the day. Things like – there was a revolving stage, with three different stages on it, and it didn’t revolve…so there were people underneath the stage who had to physically push it around.
From my point of view it was terrifying. There was all that going on, and in the back of your head, the massive tv audience, the huge crowd in front of you – I just wasn’t used to playing a crowd that size. And you’re surrounded by some of your heroes. You don’t want to mess up in front of them!
I was thinking of that! Who would have been the most spin-out person that you met on that day?
I nearly met David Bowie! One of the two occasions I’ve nearly met David Bowie. He was an absolute hero of mine. After the gig finished we were thrown on mini buses and driven back to the conference centre, and I became aware of the fact that the bloke sitting behind me was David Bowie. [Oh. My. Gosh.] It was a two minute drive, and I could not bring myself to turn around and say to him, “mate, you’re the reason why I haven’t got a proper job”.
Oh no! Missed opportunity and you’ve been kicking yourself ever since!
A similar thing happened to me in Germany a few years later as well. I didn’t have the courage to say anything then either.
Oh Nik that’s terrible! And now it’s too late!
It’s only happened to me one other time, with Joni Mitchell. I couldn’t speak to her either.
But you realise – to them, they’d probably be okay with you speaking, because you are…
It’s my problem not theirs!
You’ve still got a chance with Joni, you just need to run into her somehow. Okay…moving right along. What’s your take on the music business, as it is right now?
It’s difficult. Because on the one hand, I think it’s unsustainable as it is, not just because of Covid, because the music creators aren’t getting rewarded for their work, and there will be less music created, and there will be less of a career opportunity for people…they’re going to be doing it as a hobby, or not doing it at all. And the bad thing about that, the corporations are still doing very well out of it. The major streamers and record companies are doing alright. But the recording artists and writers aren’t. That’s got to change, because I don’t think it’s sustainable.
On the other hand, relatively, it’s not the oldest profession in the world, and people have only been writing songs and recording, that model has only been in place since post-war, early 1950s or whatever. We’ve just come to expect that it’s how it is, that songwriters and artists are rewarded. But it’s got to the point where some are probably rewarded too much, it’s just obscene, what some people can earn for only ten minutes work. But then it’s others aren’t being able to make a living at all.
Yeah. What’s the sweet spot? The happy medium between all that?
I’m sure it exists!
I’m sure it does! But someone has to give in order for that to happen…I’m not sure if the labels will want to…
Yeah! The major corporations are the ones who have to. They’ll only start giving when it occurs to them that they can’t sustain THEIR model without creative input.
Yeah it’s got to the point now where A&R don’t go and sign anyone unless they’ve got everything in place already. There’s no actual development. Even if you’ve got everything in place, there’s no guarantee they’re going to sign you, or support you! Argh! Stupid industry!
Yeah that’s absolutely true! It’s come to the stage now with say, radio playlists, they play it once and see how many hits you get on it, what the reaction is. Nobody wants to make a decision, or jump out on a limb and take a risk on it…
Having said that, is there anyone that stands out to you as an emerging artist, that you’ve noticed in recent years?
Ah I’ve become horribly un-curious as I’ve got older, which is a shame, because that’s where you learn, from hearing new things. Some things leap out and are there in your face, you can’t ignore them. I’m a fan of The 1975, they’re not exactly new though. I drive the kids to school and they want KISS on but I couldn’t tell you the names of those artists!
Back to another fan question, will we ever hear the songs you’ve written between ‘The Works’, and ‘Fifteen Minutes’?
As I alluded to earlier, bits have been used in other songs, but a lot of those songs were recorded onto digital audio tape, and I didn’t have that kind of machine anymore. Then a friend lent me his machine so I could record all my demos, all the 90s onto computer, and in the process of doing that I did turn up a few little gems, so there is a chance they’ll get recorded! I have recorded a couple of them, whether they get finished or not is another matter. But they will be a part of a different project; ‘The 90s Years’, or ‘Demos’, or whatever. And songs I’ve written with other people as well, for their projects.
You’ve written with loads of people! I was going through who you’ve written with and I was like WOW Michael W Smith! I had not realised that one at all!
I’m surprised you know him! Not that many people would know him outside of Christian rock…
I listen to everything! And Elton John…and Chesney Hawkes, everyone knows that one! Is it more rewarding, or as rewarding, as writing for yourself?
I kind of learned over the years doing that, that I’m a control freak. And you don’t always get your own way, so that’s why I stopped doing it. It was rewarding in that I learned how people approached songs, and often in a very different way to how I did, which was helpful, and I got to meet a lot of great people, and have a lot of fun, which is not something that happens when I’m writing on my own, so that was good. But ultimately, I’m not very good at sharing, and when you’re writing with other people, or for other people, you have to let your songs go, and someone else is recording it, or making a mess of it, or doing a better job with it than you, and you kind of relinquish control.
That’s got to be really hard hasn’t it! Because it’s your baby, even though you’ve put it out for adoption, or you’re the surrogate! Haha!
I’ve got one more question to ask you – and that is – what question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?
[Nik laughs] That’s a really difficult question. I don’t know! I’ve been asked pretty much everything over the years, but it’s just nice to be asked about your work, as opposed to “what’s your favourite…”
Yeah like the old Smash Hits kind of interviews…
I mean, it’s changed over the years, but you get the odd daily newspaper, tabloid, who wants to know something stupid about you, and it’s nice to be asked about your work – they’re the questions I can answer usually!
I actually have thought of another question, if I may! When we see an end of all this – will you be touring ‘Oxymoron’?
Well the problem is, we couldn’t hold the album any longer than we did, we’ve already held it for 3 or 4 months, there’s not a promoter in their right mind who would promote a tour. I’m seeing shows going on sale now and I’m thinking…they’re not going to happen. I had a small German tour that was going to go on in March, but that’s been cancelled. It’s not just the promoters, it’s the artists, it’s the punters buying the tickets, and they don’t know if or when the show is going to happen or not. By the time we can perform again I’ll probably be onto the next album by then! It’d be lovely to get out! I miss my bandmates, the camaraderie, being on tour, having a laugh, and obviously being on stage and sharing those songs with people.
When it does happen, please be sure to sing these songs! They’re worthy of being heard live I think.
Well thank you very much, it’s lovely to hear.
Thank you for speaking to me Nik!
It’s been a pleasure Lisa!
‘Oxymoron’, by Nik Kershaw, is out this Friday, October 16. Look out for our review.