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Interview with Nik and Dan calabrese

Feb 2007

'80s Pop Star Nik Kershaw Laughs at Himself in Return
February 3, 2007

It's funny how you learn with maturity how to laugh at yourself. And if you're Nik Kershaw, it's amazing what an interesting album such lessons can produce.

Twenty years ago, with the U.S. hit single "Wouldn't It Be Good" under his belt and a few more in Europe - not to mention an appearance at the legendary Live Aid - Kershaw's frustration with the music industry reached its height. In the title track to his 1986 album Radio Musicola, Kershaw went off on an entire industry for putting money ahead of honesty, marketing ahead of art and mass appeal ahead of quality. The industry had so homogenized music, Kershaw sang, "It'll soon be coming in disposable tin cans." His disgust soon led to his virtual retirement from show business - with 10 years separating his tepidly received 1989 album The Works and his return effort 15 Minutes.

Today, the Internet has given the 48-year-old Kershaw a way to write and record without having to deal with the corporate monolith he deemed Musicola. And even though he has no record deal, no hit single, no touring plans and no promotional apparatus, he seems quite happy with the tradeoff that has landed him artistic satisfaction and a comfort with laughing at himself.

You've Got To Laugh, released late in 2006, is distributed only through Kershaw's web site, His support staff is so small that he has personally packed some of the CDs for shipment to his fans.

Kershaw reports all this with no complaints. It is all part of a 20-year transition that has left him more comfortable with himself, and far more honest.

"I've become a lot more honest," he explains for the benefit of American audiences who may not remember anything he has done since "Wouldn't It Be Good" charted in 1984. "I'm not trying as hard as I was in the 'Wouldn't It Be Good' days. I think any artist that's tied up in the whole major label, publicity machine, or tied up in something that is big and totally overpowering - because I felt totally overpowered at that time - can never be totally honest."

But he can now. And he exercises that freedom extensively on You've Got To Laugh. Kershaw holds forth with personal reflections, biting commentary, self-deprecating satire and flat-out expressions of passion.

Some of the album is personal for Kershaw, including "Oh You Beautiful Thing," in which he seeks to console a female friend who had experienced a breakup (but not to make a play for her himself, although he acknowledges that one could read it that way). In "She Could Be The One," Kershaw pokes fun at his own return to the dating scene after the end of his marriage with a one-man dialogue in which he critiques his own chances: There's another, she's alright/Maybe she would spend the night/Maybe she could be your saviour/Five feet eleven in her socks/She'd have to stand you on a box/Is that appropriate behaviour?

"It's the people on the two shoulders," Kershaw said. "It's a fight between those two people. You just can't worry about what people are thinking."

Two songs on the album are about specific people. "Loud, Confident and Wrong" is obviously about George W. Bush. "All About You" is about a specific person Kershaw declines to name.

And while Kershaw describes himself as sardonic, and his sense of humor as dark, there is no shortage of tenderness ("You Don't Have to Be the Sun") or encouragement ("Yeah, Yeah," a song urging an unattached woman to get back out there and keep looking).

Kershaw plays lead guitar and keyboards on the album, a development welcomed by many of his fans and made possible, he says, by the freedom from industry pressures.

"That's one of the joys of not having to get a record on the radio, really," he said. "For years and years it became hugely unfashionable to have a guitar solo, and I would get to the point where I would just create some wacky noises or something. Doing it this way, I felt that could just completely be myself."

He lets loose with a particularly stirring guitar solo on "Promises, Promises," while other songs - particularly "Oh, You Beautiful Thing," "Born Yesterday" and "You Don't Have to Be the Sun" - are painted with multiple layers that have a tendency to grab the listener, only to let go and then come back for another grab. For the latter song, Kershaw made use of electronic percussion effects laid across a gentle opening melody to set up the listener for an emotional and tender mood.

"It had to be quite gentle, and I can't get that kind of gentle feel with machines," he said. "Yet there's no percussion, per se. It's all machines. This track is a problem for me because it's one of the first ones I did, and I didn't know what to do with it for a long time. I didn't seem like it was developing into anything. It just started with that loop at the start - the drum feel - and there are probably three or four different versions of that song that are totally different. But because I liked the sentiment of it, in the end I just let it take its course, because it is what it is, and I just left it alone."

Kershaw's non-affiliation with a major record label didn't prevent him from landing some solid talent to play on the album, including the prolific rock and jazz drummer Simon Phillips, who is currently a member of Toto, but whose resume reads like a Who's Who of rock and roll. In fact, Kershaw said, Phillips recorded his parts in California and transmitted them "via the post" in an MP3 file.

"I have some very talented friends," Kershaw said. "I don't see Simon very often. He lives in L.A., playing with Toto, and I just heard from him out of the blue. He saw me in the airport because his plane was delayed. I told him I was doing an album and he asked me if he could play on it. He is one of the best drummers on this planet, and I wouldn't have presumed to ask him. And without the backing of a major label, I couldn't afford to pay him what he's worth."

Phillips didn't seem to mind, perhaps because he sensed that Kershaw had found a good artistic place, lacking the big budget of previous offerings, but also unencumbered by the trappings, expectations and pressures of the projects he used to do under the watchful eye of, shall we say, Musicola.

On that reference, Kershaw backs away - a bit - from his venting of two decades ago, including an acknowledgment that revenues from his earlier work help spare him from worrying about where his next meal is coming from.

"I was angrier in 'Radio Musicola,'" Kershaw said. "I was very frustrated about the way the business was, and the way it sold music. Looking back on that record, it sounds like a spoiled pop star having a bit of a winge (British slang for complaining). I was fed up with not being taken seriously, where now it doesn't matter."

Now he just laughs at himself, and if the industry wants to laugh at him as well - for making a go of it without them - one senses that doesn't matter to him either.

2007 North Star Writers Group. Kindly published with permission.

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