Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and icon of the 1980s, Nik Kershaw has left an indelible mark on music culture. As the writer of some of the most recognisable songs in pop, his melodies can be heard on such classics as the irresistible 'Wouldn't it be Good', 'The Riddle', and with Chesney Hawkes, 'The One and Only'. Having just released perhaps his most personal album to date, Nik is back after an eight year absence. Talking the introspective 'Oxymoron', we sat down for a chat with Nik about the set, guitar technique, and the gems that lie beneath the dust in his garage. From Cloudy Bay to Malubu; Eamon O'Neill.
How are you today Nik?
Well, I'm fine, I'm very well. The album has just come out, so I've been doing a few radio phoners this morning.
Before we get to 'Oxymoron', I wanted to rewind just a little; how did you enjoy your intimate Irish solo shows of 2017?
They were great, yeah. It seems such a long time ago, I must admit. It's a great way of getting out there and facing your fans and your fears at the same time, because it's quite a scary experience walking on stage on your own.
Was that a difficult show to prepare for?
It took a while to get it together and syntonise it and all that, and trying to run that show from the stage from the laptop that did various things, was quite interesting; it just added a little extra work and stress to the whole occasion ,really for me! But yeah, it was very satisfying really, getting all that together.
Your new album 'Oxymoron' has just been released; is it nice to have it finally out?
Yes, it's been a long old haul! 2012 was the last album [EI8HT], and in earnest, I guess I've been digging in and out of this project for the last four or five years.
I love the word 'Oxymoron'; why did you go with that for the title?
Well there's nothing that scientific about it; I've always loved the word too, and it was difficult because there wasn't a single on the album that leapt out as a title track, so it was a combination of things. Yes, I love the word, but part of it is because sometimes the music and the lyric contradict themselves, and also, when we were looking at the artwork and stuff, we had the photograph that ended up on the front cover - that was taken by Mark Fox, who you might know as the bass player of Haircut 100 - and it just suggested it. I think it's a piece of metal, but it's sort of rough, and with the oxidisation, I sort of thought 'Oxidise', or 'Oxidant', and the word was sort of hanging around in my head anyhow, so it all sort of coalesced together.
The album is uplifting in a lot of places, but there's also a sense of melancholy, such as in the opening track 'The Chosen Ones'.
There's nothing contrived, but I guess that's what I do. 'Melancholy' is a word that's been used, both as a complement and an insult, over the years, so I'm kind of used to it being attached to my name. So I think that's just sort of me, really.
There's some beautiful guitar melodies on the album, which is one of your real writing strengths.
It's weird, but there's a quote by this famous harmonica player, and it's; "never be afraid of doing what comes easily to you", or never be suspicious of it. And it's very easy to be suspicious of what you do naturally; you know, "well, it can't be any good because it sort of just happened". But a lot of what I do is just there, and I'm not aware of any particular strengths or weaknesses or what I've got, but I am aware when something's good or something's not, and you just have to follow that, really.
The first single is 'From Cloudy Bay to Malubu'; where did that lyric come from?
Well, I struggled with this one a little bit. I had the chorus tune, and the "all around the world" bit came together, but I'd already had a song called 'All Around the World' at the beginning of the '90s, so I didn't want to go do that again, but those words wouldn't go away. So I just tried to picture what the song was about, and this little forlorn guy came into my head, and I thought; "what if it's about drinking your way around the world?", with various place names that happen to be drink names. And it just came together like that. It was just a lyrical device to use those words again, because I couldn't find anything else that fitted as well as those words.
I'm a big fan of your guitar playing, and the song 'Let's Get Lost' has some fantastic subtle guitar soloing in it.
Thank you. Yeah, I struggled to get much guitar on this record, actually. I don't know, sometimes it's just the way the songs come out, and I have been guilty in the past of just sort of forcing a guitar solo where it really doesn't belong. So it's kind of like; "let's let the record be itself", and there were moments where I thought; "oh, that would be nice to just do something gentle and unassuming", because too often you can just trash a song by just trying to show people how good you are at playing guitar, which really isn't the point.
That subtlety is a contrast to something like the intro to 'The Riddle', which is a multi-layred guitar symphony.
Well, I grew up with people like Brian May, and I was always a big fan of Brian. In fact, most of the big guitars in 'Wouldn't it be Good', were done like that. That chord at the start is a major seventh, so it's quite difficult to get that sounding right with distorted guitars, because you get weird harmonics that don't work very well. So the only way to get it sounding properly and hear the notes true, was to play each note individually, and then you end up with this kind of guitar orchestra, which Brian May is quite famous for. So that was on that, but then 'The 'Riddle', that was just two guitar parts, and I think I tracked them just once each, but there's loads of other stuff playing the same tune as well.
You haven't played that style in a while.
Yeah, it had its time. I do remember trying to do it again, and I remember rerecording 'Wouldn't it be Good' when I did had a US record label, and I struggled to get it sounding the same, because I didn't have the same conviction to do it, as it was kind of a few years later, and it felt like a weird thing to do at that time. But back in 1983, it was the perfect thing to do.
The closest comparison on the new album is probably 'The Wind Will Blow', which sees you singing the same melody that the instruments are playing.
Yeah, sometimes you just have to completely nail the tune with nothing else behind it. It's the same with 'Little Star' as well. That was just an instrumental piece, with just the piano playing the melody, so I was just singing the same tune. With an instrument just playing the same tune it just kind of reinforces it, and gives it that extra bit of strength.
Elsewhere, you've employed a Branford Marsalis-style sax to great effect on a couple of the songs.
Yeah, it's a soprano sax. I knew what I wanted, and Branford Marsalis is certainly what I wanted! So basically, we were doing the horns all in one go, and I just asked the horn player Martin Williams, when everybody left, to get his soprano out and just try and do a Branford Marsalis blow in over those bits. And he did it beautifully. A great player, obviously.
The absolute opposite of that measured guitar playing is the almost off the wall solo on Chesney Hawkes' 'The One and Only'; that is you on the studio version, isn't it?
Yeah, it is me, yeah. Well I co-produced the record, so that would explain the guitar solos! I remember doing it, because obviously I made a demo to that song, but what Chesney was hearing first of all when he heard it, they just asked me to play the same solo. They didn't have a problem with that. I'm not a great improvisor, as such. I would love to have been able to play like some of the amazing jazz players - the Alan Holdsworths of this world - to be able to have a direct line from your brain to your fingers and just play what you feel like, but I can't do that. If I just sit down and blow over something, I just end up sounding like everybody else; my usual pentatonic scales and a few blues licks, and that's about it.
You have a your own technique for recording solos, haven't you?
What I usually do is, if I've got a solo that I have to play, I'll sing it, and then I'll do four or five takes with me singing, and then I'll stick those together and then I'll learn how to play it.
I can't imagine how you'd sing that solo in 'The One and Only', as it's quite complex.
Maybe not some of the more twiddly bits, but I might have kind of started it off that way. It's just about getting a start into a solo, really, and just finding your way with it, pacing it, I guess, because you don't want to go hell for leather straight away. So there has to be some sort of melodic content to it. My absolute hero is Jeff Beck, and you can pretty much sing most of his solos; it's beautiful, so I've always come from that sort of direction.
With the sad passing of Eddie Van Halen recently, I wondered if he had any impact on you, as a player?
He was one of the first really, him and maybe Stevie Vai, and I first got into Stevie Vai when he did some things with Zappa. I heard some things he did, and I just thought it was absolutely extraordinary, but when Eddie started playing, it was the first time I'd heard anyone where I just couldn't conceive how on earth he was doing it, until I actually saw him playing; the whole hammering-on and all that kind of stuff. That was the first time I'd ever heard it. And also, he's had lots of imitators, and it can just sound so technical, and just someone playing a lot of notes, but with him it never was; there was always some kind of point to what he was doing, and it always fitted where it was going.
Relative to his passing, there's a beautiful track on the album about people moving on called 'They Were There'.
Well, that one's about my parents. My parents have been gone quite a while now; my dad died in 2005, and my mum went in 2010, and I've tried writing songs about my dad before, and I've tried writing songs about my mum before, but it was always a bit too close, and a bit too raw. But again, it was a few words coming you head and then you're trying to figure out what the song's about. "They were there, and now they're not"; it's like you just take your parents for granted; they're always there, they were there from your earliest memories, and then all of a sudden they're not there any more. It's a huge thing to happen in your life. So it's just little odd memories of them, and it was quite an easy song to write, because when you're writing from absolutely personal experience like that, it almost doesn't have to mean anything to anyone else. It's a very personal song, obviously, but people have seemed to engage with it and react to it.
On a completely different subject, do you still have your gold album awards from 'The Riddle' and 'Human Racing' etc?
Yeah, I'd never get rid of them, but it's just difficult to know where to put them sometimes, because putting them up in your house, it's a bit; "look who I am", a bit show-offy. So I've got a little writing and production room downstairs in my cellar, and the stairs down to the cellar are lined at the moment, and the rest are in a cardboard box in the garage, I think.
What do your kids make of it?
I don't know, I mean, my older ones are in their thirties now, so they've got over it. My youngest, he's 10, and I think he's just sort of coming to terms with the fact that his dad hasn't got a proper job [laughing]! He actually is very musical, and he's been picking up my guitars and hammering away on his drums.
The last time we spoke, I asked about your 'Live Aid' guitar, and you said it was lost; has there been a happy ending to that story?
No, I don't have it, but talking about my son again, but he did find, in the garage, he was just sort of rummaging around undoing boxes that he shouldn't be undoing, and he found another one of those guitars that the same guy made for me that I'd completely forgotten about. And it was in a real state, so me and him spent a day just trying to resurrect this guitar and restore it a bit and put new strings on it, and we plugged it in and it worked beautifully, so now he's taken that as his guitar now.
Finally, everything is on pause due to COVID-19, but do you have any mid-term plans beyond the album release?
Well, it's difficult for everyone, and it's really difficult to make plans to do anything, especially for anyone in this business, and promoters and crew and everybody involved in live events. So I think we're all doing the same thing; we're just sort of hanging around and seeing what happens. Hopefully, by this time next year we'll be back on stage again, and if we are, maybe I'll do a few shows with this album.
Have you considered streaming events?
Well, I haven't played a gig since last year, and it hasn't been confirmed yet, but in a few weeks' time I'm supposed to be doing some kind of online gig thing with my band who I haven't seen for a year. And at least a week before, I'm going to have to stand solo in front of a microphone and just see if I can still do it, and still remember it! It's like anything; you kind of get match-fit when you're playing gigs, and the more you do it, just becomes easier and easier, and if you haven't had a gig for a year, everything's focused on just this one gig, and it's like you're not match fit anymore. But I'm pretty confident it's still there.
Nik Kershaw's 'Oxymoron' is out now. For more on Nik, visit his official website.
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