Keeping life and soul together – in conversation with Nik Kershaw

As our video interview got underway, Nik Kershaw – surrounded by recording hardware – told me in response to my opening enquiry that his studio was previously in the cellar of his rural East Anglia home, near the Suffolk/Essex border, but he ‘got too distracted by Amazon deliveries and so on’.

And with comic timing, that’s when my rescue Labrador-cross, asleep a couple of hours, chose to walk to the back door and sound a single bark, bidding to be let outside for a call of nature. I ‘pawsed’ proceedings, and on returning apologised, my interviewee responding, “I feel your pain. That’s the other reason I left – my two cocker spaniels. I’m now 10 minutes down the road.”

While spending his first 18 months in Bristol – ‘before I was a sentient being!’ – this accomplished singer-songwriter and ‘80s synth-pop pin-up, newly turned 65, is largely associated with Ipswich. Does he still have friends and family around that Suffolk town?

“No family, and I’m rubbish at keeping in touch with old friends. So I rarely get back, but I’m about an hour away, I guess.”

Music clearly runs in the family, with Nik’s dad an architect but also a flautist, while his mum had a passion for singing. Was that solely a part-time pastime for them both?

“Yeah, it was. I think my mum had dreams of being an opera singer, when she was very young. She never got to do that, but used to sing in local choirs, do little concerts locally. My dad was the flautist with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Ipswich, and the Ipswich Light Orchestra.”

Were they the first in the family entering that world? 

“I don’t remember my grandparents being particularly musical. I think they were the first generation to be involved in any kind of music.”

It was clearly around you though, growing up.

“Yeah, my mum was always singing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ when she was doing the washing up and stuff. And it was a tiny little house, so you couldn’t really get away from it! There was a piano in the corner, but I rarely remember anybody playing it. I think my dad knew about two pieces on piano, which he used to play every now and again, when we had guests … after some Harvey’s Bristol Cream!”

Were you sneaking into that room to play piano? Was that where you got your musical grounding?

“Not really, I wasn’t that interested. I was more interested in my Lego and my Meccano.”

Nik describes himself as a late developer, first picking up a guitar when he was 15, inspired by a small screen feature on David Bowie. Was that the Ziggy Stardust era?

“It was just after. I wasn’t aware of that when that happened. I was just getting into music when I saw a documentary on Nationwide, which was like The One Show in the ’70s. It was literally a 20-minute documentary piece about Bowie on tour. He must have already released the Aladdin Sane album because he was doing songs from that. That would have been my first {Bowie} album, then I went back to Ziggy and Hunky Dory and all that.”

Was there a kind of switch that went on, realising this was what you wanted to do with your life?

“Pretty much exactly that! I always wanted to be the centre of attention, and thought, ‘I want to be a famous racing driver’, ‘I want to be a famous footballer’, ‘I want to be a famous actor’ … Then Bowie came along and it was, ‘I want to be a famous performer, singer-songwriter, whatever.’ Then a mate got an electric guitar and I used to go around his and every Sunday afternoon and he’d pretend he was Marc Bolan and I’d pretend I was Bowie, and we just sort of made a lot of noise together.

“Then I got my first guitar and locked myself in my room, slowing down Ritchie Blackmore solos.”

Other early influences included such diverse artists as Slade, Deep Purple, Simon & Garfunkel, and Genesis. And several local bands later, after three years working as a civil servant, he grabbed the opportunity to turn professional, having served his apprenticeship playing guitar in jazz fusion and functions bands.

I returned to Giles Smith’s splendid 1995 pop memoir, Lost in Music ahead of our chat, recalling a chapter dedicated to him (‘I don’t want to sound like I’m crowing or anything, but we knew him before the ‘c’ fell off.’), the Colchester-born and bred journalist entertainingly writing about Nik’s pre-fame days in the band Fusion, around their mutual patch. He gives the impression that Nik was already a consummate player, in a band that could play the twiddly bits other covers outfits in the area couldn’t, writing, ‘Kershaw, in particular, was a frighteningly dextrous musician, a blindingly fast and bafflingly inventive guitar soloist – although it now seems irrelevant to say so, after what became of him. There have been many conversations in in which I have tried to make myself heard about the laughter and justify him – and, more particularly, my interest in him – by referring to his diligent interest in the jazz guitarist Allan Holdsworth. But, perhaps, inevitably, this line of argument meets with suspicion from those who know him only as a man who once appeared in Smash Hits on the back of a horse wearing a kind of woolly armour.’

I didn’t read that bit out, but held up my copy of Lost in Music to the webcam to gauge his response, and Nik smiled.

“I used to go and watch Fusion when I had my own band, on Sunday nights in Ipswich at The Kingfisher. The highlight pretty much every month was when Fusion used to come and play. All the musicians used to turn up, because they were playing Weather Report and Steely Dan, and really doing it well. You’d think, ‘Wow, these guys are amazing.’

“And by complete fluke I got offered the job. Their bass player stumbled across a gig that we were doing, and those gigs were pretty rare – about three a year – happening to walk into the King William pub one night. There I was, and their guitarist was leaving {the band}, so I got offered the job.”

I’m guessing they were older.

“Yeah, probably 10 years older.”

Was that effectively your apprenticeship?

“To a very large extent, it was. I remember really working hard for that first audition gig, just getting my head down and learning these Steely Dan and Weather Report songs they did, not really realising they actually earned a living by donning purple velvet suits and playing ‘The Birdie Song’!

“But equally, that proved a great apprenticeship. My first gig was at the Kingfisher in Ipswich, and my second, a week later, was at Walthamstow Town Hall, where we donned these suits and I was just put onto the stage, not having a clue what I was about to play! I had to learn the noble art of busking, learning as you were going. I never had a rehearsal for those songs.

“For literally the first few gigs I played live, trying to figure out what key we were in! We were playing proper foxtrots and Irving Berlin songs, and Cole Porter songs, and the pop songs of the time. We were playing everything. It was extraordinary.”

After Fusion split, Nik doubled his efforts to make the big time, and signed to MCA Records in 1983. That September, debut single ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ reached a respectable No.47 in the UK charts. As it turned out, it would go much higher when re-released the following summer, his true breakthrough arriving in early 1984 as ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’ reached No.4 in the UK charts, spending three straight weeks there in March, held off the top by Nena’s ‘99 Red Balloons’, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’, and Kool & the Gang’s ‘Joanna’. That month also saw debut LP Human Racing released, going on to achieve platinum sales in many territories.

The re-released ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me’ then reached No.2, kept off the summit by Frankie’s Two Tribes’. And that December, ‘The Riddle’, the title track of his second LP – another platinum platter – reached No.3, kept back by – you guessed it – Frankie’s ‘The Power of Love’ and Jim Diamond’s ‘I Should Have Known Better’, in a year when he also squeezed in two European tours.

In Lost in Music, Giles Smith says he lost track of Nik after Fusion disbanded. But then, ‘after nearly a year I sighted him. It was in Colchester’s shopping precinct, outside Lasky’s electrical store and at the back of Marks & Spencer’s. And this was not the Nick Kershaw I had known (or rather, not known).’

He wrote, ‘First there was the hair – all spiky and bright blond, as if a small bomb containing bleach had gone off on his head, the di rigueur 1980s pop-star plumage. And then there were the clothes. No more wearisome waistcoats, no more duff ties. He was wearing a tiny black jacket with some complicated fastenings, and black drainpipe jeans which bottomed out in a pair of pointy boots. There are only two possible explanations: either a major record company had signed him up and had got its people to make him over, ready for stardom; or Kershaw had retrained as a hairdresser and was now working in a shiny-floored unisex salon in Chelmsford – Sophisticut, maybe, or Hair Today. Naturally, I assumed the latter and shook my head ruefully all the way home on the bus.’

Regarding Nik’s first appearance on Top of the Pops with ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’, Giles added, ‘I watched with a friend who had come round specially. The room positively thrummed with our nervousness, our proximity to this momentous event and our feeling of tragic non-involvement in it all. We leant close to the screen as the camera swung from whichever Radio 1 DJ was presenting that week, across the backs of the squawking audience and picked out Kershaw, alone amid the fake chrome piping and the flashy lights.

‘It shook us that he had no guitar round his neck … Instead, he was wearing a white boiler suit and a pair of fingerless gloves and clutching his bunched fists up to his chest like someone working out with a set of hand-held dumb-bells. At the same time, he would bring up a knee in the manner recommended by aerobics videos. Who had taught him to do this? It was certainly never a feature of his performances at the Goose and Firkin in Tollesbury.

‘Staggered, we realised he was also wearing a snood – a tube of netting, of the kind you sometimes see protecting strawberries, bunched around his neck. He looked terrified, at least to us seasoned Kershaw-watchers, but he popped and clenched and wilfully concentrated his gaze on the floor, and as the song faded in the camera drew back, there was the usual hilarious applause. We went to the pub afterwards and drank in silence, alone with our thoughts.’

Album-wise, Human Racing reached No.5 in July ‘84, while The Riddle peaked as a new entry at No.8 that December. There were also tours of Europe, Australasia, North America, and Japan, and (gulp) an appearance at Live Aid followed in 1985, a four-song early afternoon set between Elvis Costello and Sade, Nik riding the crest of a commercial wave. And in total, on UK shores alone, he managed five top-10 singles and spent 62 weeks in the top 40, while spending 47 weeks in the UK top 40 albums chart. But let’s back-peddle a bit. How did he get to be in that position where MCA Records came calling? Was he firing out demo tapes?

“Because the band split up, the work dried up and everyone went off to do different things. I was on the dole for a bit, and made a demo of six songs, hawked them round the record companies, got a nice collection of rejection slips. I then advertised for management in the back of Melody Maker and got this chap calling himself Mickey Modern, who at the time managed Nine Below Zero. I sent him the tape and he hawked it around various places … and one person I’d already got a rejection slip from got me a deal!”

Giles Smith suggests you were playing a few of those songs we got to know in your Fusion days.

“I think we might have played ‘Wide Boy’ on a rare occasion. And ‘Human Racing’ was on a record I made with Fusion.”

The latter suggests Stevie Wonder for these ears, some distance from his more commercial pop. Did he keep in touch with his Fusion bandmates?

“I did. Sadly, two of them are no longer with us. Reg, the keyboard player, who I owe a huge amount to – he put a lot of trust and faith in me, very early on. He died of cancer a couple of years ago. And Ken, the bass player, heroin got him eventually, a few years ago.”

This year marks 40 years since his initial MCA deal. Did it all happen at breakneck speed once success followed? Or did he get a chance to savour it?

“It did happen really quick. It was insane. The first single was a little taster, and it kind of got my name around, the first time ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down’ was released. Then, when ‘Wouldn’t it be Good’ hit in January, it was insanely fast. One minute I couldn’t get arrested, and the next I couldn’t go out in public without a bodyguard. Literally within weeks.

“Either before the release of the album or when it was, in February or March, we were putting a band together to do some club shows, and in that space of time between beginning the rehearsals and finishing them, Harvey Goldsmith turns up and says, ‘You should be doing four nights at Hammersmith Odeon.’ Which is what we did.”

Had you been to many of those bigger venues as a punter?

“Yeah, principally at Ipswich Regent, which was later the Gaumont {and now the Regent Theatre again}. I saw a lot of my favourite early bands there. I remember the first being Hawkwind, the Alex Harvey Band, Rory Gallagher …

“There was another little venue, the Manor Ballroom, with people like Stray, and the Groundhogs. I remember going to see Genesis at Stafford Bingley Hill, which is massive – 10,000 people, I think – and the next week Brand X {Phil Collins’ side-project} played the Manor Ballroom. The only way on stage was through the bar. So I’m sitting on the floor in the bar, Phil comes through, steps on my coat … I’d never wash that coat!”

Nik later recorded with another of his Genesis heroes, Tony Banks. I’m guessing that was also something of a dream.

“Yeah, I was a real big Genesis fan, the Peter Gabriel days especially. So to get a phone call out of the blue from him, especially when I wasn’t making records anymore. That was during the ‘90s. To get a phone call, ‘It’s Tony Banks here …’ He got my phone number from somewhere, phoned me up and said, ‘I’ve got the songs. I need some lyrics, would you sing on them?’”

When was the last time you watched footage from Live Aid?

“I went a long time not daring to look at it. For a couple of reasons. One being that we really struggled – the sound on stage was awful. We couldn’t hear each other. Only half the gear was working. I could hear some drums and a bit of my guitar, so it was all a bit of a nightmare to do. And I forgot the words to ‘Wouldn’t it be Good’. I covered it, but just assumed it looked as terrifying as it felt.

“But when the 10th anniversary came up in ‘95, when they released the DVD, I was forced to watch it! And I thought, ‘Actually, that’s not bad. And I couldn’t see the fear in my eyes when I forgot the words! Then, quite recently, I remixed the rest of the tracks from that gig, and they’re all on YouTube now.”

He recorded two more albums with MCA, Radio Musicola and The Works, before a switch in direction in 1989 to focus on songwriting and production, the ‘90s seeing him work with the likes of Cliff Richard, Bonnie Tyler, Lulu, Ronan Keating, Jason Donovan, Colin Blunstone, Petula Clark, Gary Barlow, The Hollies, Let Loose, and Imogen Heap.

And arguably most notably (although I couldn’t bring myself to mention it), he penned and co-produced Chesney Hawkes’ early 1991 UK No.1 smash ‘The One and Only’ (it spent five weeks at the top). Not as if I knew anything about that. It became a hit while I was backpacking around the world, Chesney’s chart days over by the time I returned, leaving me puzzled in years to come as people talked animatedly about his success on retrospective pop programmes.

But back to Nik – what brought on that sea change in 1989, when he decided to move away from performing and recording his own songs? Was he just ready for a fresh challenge?

“Yeah, my deal with MCA was over. They’ve had their four albums. I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ It was kind of a watershed moment. And I’d just come off tour with Elton {John}, doing a European tour with him …”

Good name-drop, that.

“Thank you very much! Ha! I’d just kind of … I’d had enough, really. The flame wasn’t burning as bright as it was in the mid-‘80s, so the writing was on the wall. I thought, ‘Do I keep flogging this particular horse, or do I get on a different one?’

“And I love being in the studio. That’s my comfort zone. And I love creating, writing and producing, so I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll do … with no stress involved in writing songs for other people.”

As you mentioned Elton John (who described him as ‘the best songwriter of his generation’), was that a nervous moment, working with him? Or did he put you at ease?

“Recording with him? Really easy! When we recorded all the tracks for the Ice and Fire album, playing guitar on ‘Nikita’ and all those tracks, that was fabulous. Literally just four of us – me, him, a bass player and a keyboard player – putting those rhythm tracks down. It was great, like being in a band.

“Then when we got to do the Duets album, and I was actually producing the thing – I’m in charge. How do I do that? I’m supposed to tell Elton when he’s singing out of tune!”

He’s got a bit of a fiery temper … at least we’re led to believe so.

“And I’d seen it! I’ve just finished reading his book, and a lot of that time is covered there. And yeah, tantrums and stuff. And there were plenty of tantrums. But he’s always been really sweet with me, and in the studio, he was just a consummate professional.”

Nik’s sabbatical briefly interrupted by those projects with Tony Banks and Elton John, he returned to making his own records in 1998 with fifth studio album, 15 Minutes, on Eagle Records. Was that his nod to Andy Warhol’s take on fame, fickle fame?

“Yes, I think the song speaks for itself, and the album cover as well is a little Warhol-esque. The video had that going on as well. I think the same people that did the album cover did that. But it wasn’t a bitter look back at that time, just the fact that it is kind of true, you do get 15 minutes and you have to kind of nail it then, otherwise you don’t get another chance.”

I get the feeling you’ve always been rather grounded, though.

“I’ve also been lucky enough to be surrounded by pretty grounded people as well. And they always kept my feet on the ground. There were probably a few moments where I got a bit too kind of … big for my boots, but they brought me back down to earth again.”

I can’t vouch for how he was back then, but like Giles Smith suggests, I always got the impression – even when I was 16 first catching him on the telly – that he wasn’t completely at ease with all that media attention, wanting his records to do the talking instead. And judging by Nik today, and now knowing more about his honest roots, I’d say he’s probably always been a likeable fella, and certainly down to earth.

Anyway, that comeback album was followed by the equally well-received To Be Frank (2001), also for Eagle Records, then You’ve Got to Laugh (2006), the solo acoustic No Frills (2009), and Ei8ht (2012) for Shorthouse Records. And the most recent addition, Oxymoron (2020) was for Audio Network.

Along the way, he’s also attracted praise from Eric Clapton and Miles Davis and been nominated for four Brit Awards. And he continues to write and record for his own projects and for film and TV, while performing his songs, old and new, to a faithful following all over the world.

You’ve remained fairly prolific, so what’s next, other than preparing for these live shows?

“I don’t know about prolific. I’ve taken a lot of time doing this. The last album was eight years in the making. So I’m not exactly prolific anymore, because I don’t want to repeat myself. But I am releasing another Songs from the Shelf, of which part one is out now. It’s an EP of songs that got written and demoed but never used. Some from those ‘90s days when I was working with other people and projects got shelved. And I’m helping Universal compile an MCA years boxset. Not choosing the songs, just kind of overseeing it.”

Have your children followed you down the music path?

“Izzy, my oldest daughter, writes and produces her own music, sticks it out on Spotify.”

Do you try and keep out of that, or is there a little wise fatherly advice here and there?

“I try not to meddle, but she did ask if we could do something together last year, which we did, and that was nice. A song called ‘Paranoid’, which is out there somewhere.

“And my youngest, Theo, he’s 12 and so into his music, a really good little drummer, and he’s got his own little set-up to record stuff and play the guitar. He’s totally into it.”

And who’s in the band these days? Who will you be going out with on these forthcoming dates (including one on my patch at The Grand, Clitheroe, on Thursday, May 11th, with tickets £32.50)?

“My current band have been with me for quite a long time. The bass player since 1999, that’s Paul Geary. We’ve got Bob Knight on drums, he’s been with me over 10 years, I think. As has Adam Evans, the guitar player. And the newbie is Phil Peskett, the keyboard player, he’s been with me about five years.”

You clearly have a good chemistry together, and enjoy being on the road.

“It’s just too much fun! It really is. And it’s not like the old days, when it always seemed so terribly important. It really isn’t. It’s music, and it makes people feel good. It connects people. And it’s just a real privilege to be able to do it, and to be on the road with some really good mates, having a good old laugh and being on stage in front of your own crowd. There’s nothing better.”

For full tour details and more information about Nik Kershaw, head to his website. You can also follow him via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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