Nik Kershaw - Interview

Posted on Thursday 2nd October 2014 09:24 by FreckFest

Nik Kershaw has the honour of being the fastest-selling ticket in Freckfest history. On Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th October, Nik played two intimate Freckfest gigs at the Harbour Arts Centre. The first show sold-out quicker than a Short’s Pie on Marymass Saturday. The second one sold-out even faster. 

In a special interview for Freckfest, Nik took time out from his touring schedule to talk about his life in music and beyond.

He talks about the music that inspired him to become a songwriter and also a little about life as a pop idol in the 1980s. Later on he talks about life as a producer and writer for others and offers sage advice for new bands. 

Tell me Nik. How were you introduced to music? What was the first music you can remember hearing? 

Well. I grew up in a very musical house. My mum was an operatic singer and my dad was a flautist for an orchestra. At grammar school I’d played violin and around the house there was always lots of classical music playing. Amongst our tiny record collection was a copy of Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Battle of New Orleans’. This was the first record I memorised all the words to. 

The record that made the biggest impression was Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. It connected with me in a way classical music just didn’t. Then in 1973 I saw a David Bowie Ziggy Stardust documentary on the BBC and I thought, “That’s for me!”
Tell us about your first forays into playing music.

My friend and I would get together. He’d be Mick Ronson and I’d be David Bowie. We played Slade, T Rex, all the glam rock stuff. My musical tastes quickly became all over the place. I really liked early Genesis with Peter Gabriel. But I also liked Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. I was a skinhead for a while, so I listened to nothing but reggae. I suppose all of this filtered into my own playing.

When did you realise you could make a living from music?

At the age of 17 I’d chucked my A-Levels and was working in the Unemployment Benefit office in Ipswich. A local band who played all the big functions asked me to join on guitar. They played all the hard notes; Steely Dan, Weather Report, all the prog stuff and for 3 years I learned my trade. I gave up working in the office whilst earning a living playing music. The recession at the start of the 80s effectively put the band out of work so I bought a little portastudio and started writing my own songs. These were the songs that eventually got me my record deal.

MCA Records signed you in 1983, didn’t they?

They did. I had a grand plan. All my songs were fully formed. I knew where the drums would go, how the horns would sound, what the bassline was. Really, the records were bigger, better sounding versions of my demos. I had a great producer who allowed me to do what I wanted. On those first two LPs I played everything myself. 

And on the back of your record deal you suddenly found yourself in the public eye, with hit singles and instant recognition everywhere you went.

That 2/3 year period is all a bit of a blur. You don’t get a letter through the post saying ‘That’s you made it, Mr Kershaw!’ It suddenly occurs to you that things are not normal. When ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’ became a radio hit I thought to myself, ‘Something’s goin’ on ‘ere!’ 

I did lots of Top Of The Pops. I always seemed to be on with The Smiths. There was an unwritten rule that we sat in the ‘Smash Hits’ corner of the studio and they sat in the ‘NME’ corner. It was very tempting to follow Morrissey and take a pair of secateurs to those gladioli. 

I was invited to the Daily Mirror Awards, to collect on behalf of Duran Duran. This was my first time in a limousine. When we arrived at the award show people were literally throwing themselves at the car, at me. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time.

That non-stop 2/3 year period in the mid 80s when you were having hit after hit and everything was a bit of a blur - was there ever a time when you thought, ‘Enough’s enough. I just want a normal life’?

In the music business there’s probably no such thing as a normal life! MCA gave me a four album deal, but by the release of my 4th LP I’d had enough of the ‘pop star’ thing. I was beginning to look elsewhere, thinking about writing songs for others. I was playing Wembley Arena with Elton John. It was at the soundcheck when I was told that my contract wasn’t being renewed and MCA were dropping me. So I was half pushed and I half jumped. To be honest, my overall feeling was one of relief. It was time for a change. I had a young family and wanted to spend more time at home, to watch them grow up. Not making my own albums would allow me to do this.

You then wrote The One And Only, which Chesney Hawkes took to number 1. How did that feel?

It was a bizarre feeling. I was totally aware of the work, the stress, the aggravation that Chesney had gone through to get to number one. But I was able to sit back and watch it all with a large glass of merlot in hand, free from the stresses I had once myself been under. ‘The One And Only’ was the first song I consciously wrote for someone else to sing and there it was at the top of the charts. Writing for others is far more difficult than writing for yourself. You must follow more conventional rules and be more generic lyrically. A lot of the songs I subsequently wrote, I’d be told ‘It sounds too much like Nik Kershaw’. 

I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing or not, but a lot of your songs, certainly the more popular ones do what all good pop songs, from Motown and The Beatles to the Stock, Aitken and Waterman-produced hits of the 80s do, and that is, begin immediately with a quick melodic blast of the chorus before going to the verse. By the time you get to the first chorus proper, the listener knows how it goes, making it instantly catchy. 

It’s not a conscious thing, no, but you’re right. A good pop song hooks the listener from the very beginning. Not all my songs do that, but a lot of the hits do. (There’s a good chance you’re singing Wouldn’t It Be Good or The One And Only right now as you read this – that’s the mark of a catchy pop song, that is).
Nowadays you continue to write for others whilst recording your own material. And you’re back on tour.

Yes. The ‘Me, Myself and I’ tour is exactly that. Just me and my guitar hooked up to a loop pedal, with a video screen playing behind me. As I play I trigger the images on the screen. I suppose I’m a sort of 21st century one man band. It’s a very loose show. I sing a bit. I chat a bit. I encourage the audience to ask me questions. I have a ‘question box’ in the foyer and between songs I’ll pull out a question at random and try and answer it. It’s good fun. Everyone seems to enjoy it.

Ayrshire, and Irvine in particular, is a little hot bed of musical activity. There are lots of new bands playing local venues, from acoustic singer-songwriters and blues/rock acts to anthemic indie and thrash metal groups. What advice can you give to bands and artists starting out nowadays?

Well, the music business has changed beyond all recognition in the 30 years since I landed a record deal. Nowadays bands don’t need a record company in order to release material, but that comes with disadvantages as well as advantages. In the 1980s I could record with the best producers in the most expensive studios. The industry was awash money when I started out. 

My main advice to all bands is ‘love what you do’. Not everyone will like what you do, but that’s OK. Make sure you have something to say and say it with passion. Play to as many people as possible. Take all the gigs, no matter where they are or who you’re playing to. This is what shapes you as a musician. If you’re serious about your music, your audience will find you.

So there you have it. Sage advice from Nik Kershaw, a man who knows a thing or two about how to write a hit single.


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