How Nik Kershaw didn't let the sun go down on his career
Despite a wealth of great new material, Nik Kershaw tells Andrew Johnston why he's finally accepted fans will want to hear his Eighties hits when he plays Belfast
Published 23/05/2014 | 08:52
Nik Kershaw has been there, done that and got the T-shirt. He was a teen idol in the 1980s, racked up a string of iconic hits – including I Won't Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Wouldn't It Be Good and The Riddle, played Live Aid and was described by close friend Elton John as "one of the best songwriters of a generation".
But that was then, and this is now, and three decades on from the ubiquitous Top of the Pops appearances and Smash Hits covers, 56-year-old Kershaw is still gigging, writing and recording away, albeit on a smaller scale.
The Bristol-born star's upcoming Me, Myself and I tour – which visits Belfast's Waterfront Studio on September 3 – sees him revisit his back catalogue in a solo, unplugged setting. However, he promises it won't just be "a bloke sitting on a stool for two hours".
"In the past, I've just kind of wandered on stage with an acoustic and bashed a load of songs out," Nik says. "But this time, I'm talking to production people and lighting guys and trying to figure out a way to make it a bit more visually interesting."
To that end, the singer-songwriter also intends to take questions from the audience, a plan that has him slightly on edge. "Who knows how that's going to work?" he laughs. "But it'll be nice to have a part of the show where anything could happen."
The intimate performance will be a far cry from his Belfast visits during the Eighties, when the then pop giant bestrode the stage of Maysfield Leisure Centre on several occasions. Indeed, Nik – who owns a home in west Cork – insists he has always loved playing Northern Ireland, even during the days when many artists chose to stay away.
"There were some scary little moments, driving past burning police cars and stuff, which is a bit intimidating to say the least, but I don't remember being that nervous," he shrugs. "Although I do remember my tour manager taking great delight in telling us that the Europa Hotel, where we were staying, was the most bombed hotel in the world, or something, every time we got there. The joke got a bit tired after a while."
Nik returned to Northern Ireland in 2011, to participate in the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, and he was pleased to see many of his Ulster fans had waited for him. "Wherever I play, there are people from the old days," he smiles. "There's a new audience there, as well – from when I started making records again in the late Nineties – but there's always a few of the hardcore." Nik's latest album, Ei8ht, came out in 2012, but he says he has reconciled the fact that a large portion of his audience are there to hear the classics. "I did go through a period of resenting that," he admits. "When you're releasing new stuff and you're very proud of it, [it's disappointing that] all they want to hear about is Live Aid and the old days.
"But then it occurred to me that back in the day, my media exposure was so massive that it's not really surprising that most people who know me know me from that. So, if I'm not prepared to pay that price, I can't expect people to be interested in the new stuff. Once you've come to terms with that and accepted your place in the world order, it's fine."
And though the headlining club and theatre tours might be his bread and butter these days, Nik isn't above taking part in the nostalgic likes of the long-running Rewind Festival, alongside fellow Eighties stalwarts such as Paul Young, Kim Wilde and Go West.
"I remember saying no to them in the early 2000s, because I was bizarrely worried I had some sort of credibility to protect," he chuckles. "But it becomes a no-brainer.
"They're asking you to go on stage in front of 30,000 people, to play those songs again and have a great time, and then they give you money at the end of it. I don't really understand what the problem is!
"They're almost separate careers that I've got. I do that because I enjoy doing it, and it's a good laugh, and to be able to get in front of that many people is a real buzz. But at the same time, I can still write and make my own music and explore that."
And despite enjoying his share of wild success in the Eighties, he insists the decade wasn't quite the blur of hedonism people sometimes think it was – not for him, at least.
"I was lucky," Nik confesses. "I had good people around me. My management were down-to-earth south London geezers, and they didn't let me get involved in that kind of thing.
"I tried a few things – I experimented – but fortunately for me, I didn't like it very much. I'm a bit of a control freak, and the one thing you're not when you're taking drugs, is in control."
That said, Nik – who was just 25 when he had his first chart hit – admits that fame itself did go to his head on occasion. "I was probably a nasty, little s**t at some points," he laughs. "Because you do get used to getting your own way, and people deferring to you and letting you get away with it.
"It's like being a child, a toddler. If you let a toddler do his own thing, then it gets worse and worse until it's just impossible."
But today, Nik – who is a father to three sons (the second of whom has Down's Syndrome) from his first marriage to Canadian musician Sheri, and who became a dad again in 2010 with his second wife, Sarah – is adult enough to open up about how it affected him when his profile started to die down in the late Eighties. He wouldn't release another studio album until 1999, but it wasn't as dramatic a fall from grace as it might appear.
"It was quite a slow process actually," Nik reflects. "You go through a period where it's not so massive, but that's alright, because you're still loving what you're doing, and then it slowly diminishes.
"All of a sudden, you haven't got a record deal, but again, that's okay, and then you go through a period where people are still asking you for autographs in restaurants, but you're not really a 'celebrity' anymore, and then you become a civilian. You're not getting people coming up to you at parties and saying, 'Hello' – you have to go up to them and say, 'Hello'. It's about rediscovering yourself."
Still, Nik is anything but bitter, and even as his own recording career slowed down, a new one as a songwriter opened up, including penning the 1991 UK chart-topper The One and Only for Chesney Hawkes. Nik also wrote material for veteran Sixties outfit The Hollies and boyband Let Loose, among others.
"I spent nine years just doing that, being part of that songwriting community," he smiles. "But now, if I write a song, I end up recording it myself. I guess the easiest label to stick on me would be 'singer-songwriter'."
Nik Kershaw plays the Waterfront Studio in Belfast on Wednesday, September 3. For details, visit www.waterfront.co.uk. And if you recognise yourself in the fan picture above, we'd love to hear from you. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org