One thing can be said about Nik Kershaw: The man is realistic.
It's been nearly a year (May 14, 2001) since Kershaw's latest album, To Be Frank, was released in his native England. Being a big fan of Kershaw's music, this PopMatters reporter picked up the album as an import upon its initial release, and, in a recent conversation with the man himself, confessed to Mr. Nik that he had no hope that it would be released in the States.
"Me neither," Kershaw admits.
Enter Koch International, who snatched up To Be Frank and released it stateside in April 2002.
To Be Frank is a more upbeat cousin of 15 Minutes, Kershaw's stunning 1999 album of mature, melodic guitar pop. Both albums are light years away from the slick synth pop that defined Kershaw during his 1980s heyday; indeed, the new material would appeal more to fans of popsters like Neil Finn and Glenn Tilbrook than, say, Howard Jones, the man to whom Kershaw was often (and unfairly) compared.
What separates To Be Frank from 15 Minutes is that it's the first album where Kershaw sounds as if he's actually having fun. Witness the leadoff track, "Wounded", which is four minutes of "La Bamba"-inspired Latin pop bliss coupled with a typically cynical lyric. Is this really the same man who wrote the terribly melodramatic "Save The Whales"?
"I tried several times to get ("Wounded") right," Kershaw says. "I think I was trying to fight the Latin thing first of all, because I thought, 'No, I don't do that, that's not me.' But the tune and the chords that I started with, there really wasn't anywhere else it could go, so eventually I stopped fighting it and let it take me away."
"There's stuff that everybody does that they don't know they do, and I think a lot of artists spend their entire careers trying to fight that as well. I think you tend to fight what you do naturally."
(When Kershaw is presented with the news that "Wounded" is a big hit at a Chicago bowling alley frequented by this reporter, he laughs, "That's so bizarre!")
If age has brought anything to Kershaw's music, it's economics. The newer material is much, much simpler, though by no means simplistic. Earlier songs like "The Riddle" are "Strawberry Fields Forever" compared to the "I Want To Hold Your Hand" basics of "Wounded".
Kershaw is well aware of the change in songwriting style.
In the era when he was writing "The Riddle", "I think I was still trying to impress people," observes Kershaw. "I (have since) stopped trying to impress other musicians. I was very aware of the fact that I did that, and people knew I did that. There were occasions where I did it in certain songs where I shouldn't have done it, as if to say 'Look how clever I am.' It wasn't the musical thing to do, and I've learned from that."
The album title To Be Frank serves as a double entendre. In one way, he's "being frank" as in "brutally honest", as when he sings lines like, "I don't think we've made it / Don't think we ever will", in "Wounded". It also refers to Kershaw's grumpy, party-pooper alter ego ("One of them," Kershaw smirks), whom he's dubbed Frank.
Frank is the man Kershaw is singing about in "Die Laughing". "He's the wasp in the jam, he's the dad at the party / And he don't like your face and he won't die laughing."
The lyrics read rather depressing, but "Die Laughing" is one of the catchiest songs Kershaw has ever written.
"(Frank)'s always been around," Kershaw says. "I think it's recent that I've managed to isolate him, identify him and give him a name. It helps a lot because you can actually imagine this guy with no teeth. When he turns up, I can have a good shout at him. I haven't gotten rid of him, but he's basically under control."
"Yeah, we've got him highly medicated," he laughs.
To Be Frank is actually just one of many things Kershaw has been working on lately. He also wrote a book on the music industry as part of the popular UK series, Spilling The Beans. He takes an imaginary pop star wannabe and prepares him for what he's about to encounter, from label reps to recording engineers, snotty writers and ridiculous video shoots. It all sounds awfully similar to the very things Kershaw went through himself. Was writing this book a form of therapy?
"It was, in a kind of way," he admits, with a laugh. "Everything in that book has either happened to me or someone else. It's the most ridiculous business to be in. It's full of people who have never grown up."
So, how much of this happened to you directly?
"It was probably three quarters first hand, and a quarter other people. The best reaction I've gotten is not from kids that it was aimed at, because they don't read books anyway. It's from people in the business who said, 'Yeah, I know that guy.'"
Kershaw's expectations are likewise realistically tempered when it comes to stateside success.
"It's a terrible thing to say, but I do find it difficult to get excited about it. If (Koch) are, then great, I'm more than happy to help them out. But (getting the album released in the U.S.) is a bonus as far as I'm concerned. I was amused to read that they've actually put together a marketing plan, which said I would be touring extensively in the spring. So how was I?" he asks, sarcastically.
All kidding aside, Kershaw would welcome a chance to tour the US.
"I'd like to get over there. I'd love to do an acoustic club tour, but I don't know how feasible that would be."
The suggestion that he would serve as a great opening act for Neil Finn flatters him to the point of embarrassment.
"I'll take that as a huge compliment. I love Neil Finn. I've loved everything he's done since Split Enz. That's probably not totally accidental that there's something in there."
Which brings us perilously close to the subject of the '80s revival and the series of package tours that have gone through both the UK and the US. Kershaw received invitations to join all of them, and steadfastly turned them all down, convinced it would do his current career more harm than good. And based on the offers he's gotten, he has a point.
"(Promoters) did stop asking after a while," Kershaw says. "There were four or five big tours that went out last year. I got asked to do all of them. There was a Heaven 17 one and a Culture Club one. And there's always some promoter having an '80s night, saying, 'We'll supply the band. All you can drink.'"
"I hope it doesn't sound like I'm looking down on those guys," he clarifies. "I can understand why those (bands) do it. It can be a hell of a lot of bloody fun, and what's wrong with that? People are allowed to have a bit of fun after the age of 40, and there's something very appealing about that. And honestly, a lot of them do need the money."
Kershaw, luckily, has not needed the money. Artists as diverse as Mr. Mister's Richard Page and remixer Gigi D'Agostino have taken stabs at Kershaw's solo material. He's also carved out a nifty side job writing for and producing other artists. He wrote "The One and Only", the 1992 hit by UK teeny bopper Chensey Hawkes. (Hawkes returned the favor by co-writing "Jane Doe" on Frank), and he recorded some material with Backstreet Boy Nick Carter earlier this year. "If he stays sober long enough to finish it," Kershaw deadpans.
One last question: who the hell are the Danny Hutton Hitters, the band that covered Kershaw's sole US top 40 entry "Wouldn't It Be Good" for the soundtrack to Pretty In Pink in 1986?
Kershaw freely admits, "I didn't really understand what happened there. I guess they were supposed to be the next big thing when they recorded it. That must be shown on British television at least once a week. That should be a song on my next album: 'Whatever happened to the Danny Hutton Hitters?' That's quite a poetic kind of line."
28 June 2002