Nik Kershaw - 10 songs that changed my life: “It suddenly occurred to me that I was listening to the perfect pop record”

Nik Kershaw
(Image credit: Lorne Thomson/Redferns)

Nik Kershaw can remember the exact moment he decided that he wanted to be a pop star. It was 1973 and he was sitting in the living room of his parents’ house on the outskirts of Ipswich. On TV was a nightly news/magazine show – a bit like The One Show – called Nationwide.

“There was a 10-minute documentary on some bloke called David Bowie,” explains Kershaw. “He was touring an album with a weird name… Ziggy Stardust. When I saw Bowie on stage, giving it the full Ziggy, I had no idea what he was doing, but I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Kershaw grew up in a musical household. His father was a flautist and ‘ropey’ piano player, while his mother sang opera. “She would belt out the Hallelujah Chorus while she was washing the dishes,” says Kershaw with a grin.

Sometimes, you can over-analyse the process of writing a song. Or get caught up in the technology - trying out countless snare sounds and basslines. For this album, I went back to basics.

The teenage Nicholas was supposed to follow that classical route, but Bowie and Mick Ronson put a stop to that. “Getting my first guitar seemed to give all this music stuff a lot more meaning. Mick Ronson’s feedback… Richie Blackmore’s solos. I remember taping my copy of Deep Purple’s Made in Japan and slowing it down to work out what he was actually playing.”

An imaginative kid, he’d been writing short stories for many years, but was now setting them to music. “I can still remember the first lines of the very first song I wrote. ‘When is my life going to start? I’m getting sick of the introduction.’ My mum found it lying about in my bedroom and shit herself. She wondered what had happened to me! And before you ask, no, it never got recorded.

“I played with a few local bands and did regular jobs to bring in some money, but I’d really settled on this idea of being a ‘singer-songwriter’. It suddenly dawned on me that all these songs I heard on the radio didn’t just appear out of thin air. Somebody actually sat down and wrote them… crafted them. Created something that spoke to other people. Moved them. Made them happy or sad. That sounded like a great job.”

And - like some sort of magical fairy tale - that’s what happened. At a loose end in his early-20s, he acquired a manager who managed to land him a deal with MCA Records. Armed with a Portastudio, a Juno-60 and an 808 drum machine, he started writing songs for a living.

“Even though the guitar was my instrument, I didn’t like to write on guitar,” he explains. “If I wrote on guitar, I’d end up going back to the same old chord patterns. Most of those songs on the first album were written in my head. I could hear the melodies and the chords, and I’d work out some sort of basic vocal with a few vowel sounds. Then I’d work out the chords on the Roland and build the song from there.”

After the success of singles like I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me and The Riddle (both charting well in 1984), Kershaw was keen to invest in the emerging synth and sampler technology.

Armed with a Portastudio, a Juno-60 and an 808 drum machine, Kershaw started writing songs for a living.

“I was always an early adopter of the new gear that was coming out. The ability to be able to properly sequence - not just a few notes - certainly made a difference to how I wrote songs. I could get a nice bassline/rhythm combination going, then see where the song took me. If it needed real drums and bass, we’d add them, but there were many times when the machine-driven rhythms worked much better.”

Although ‘90s audiences weren’t quite so keen on Kershaw’s solo material, his pop-songwriting nous was put to good use by the likes of Elton John and Les Rythmes Digitales’ Stuart Price - he co-wrote and sang lead vocal on Sometimes from Price’s Darkdancer album.

And then there was Chesney. Remember Chesney Hawkes and his enormous, multi-million selling worldwide hit, The One and Only? That’s a Nik Kershaw song.

With projects like that, is it about ‘writing to order’?

“I’ve written with artists for specific projects, but whenever I’ve been asked to ‘write to order’, I’ve ended up with something I hate. Not surprisingly, the client wasn’t mad about it either. It’s difficult to second guess exactly what a third party might want. Songwriting involves a series of decisions and I think it’s important those decisions are being made on the basis of what YOU think is great, not what you think somebody else might like. For me, that's the same whether you're writing for yourself or someone else's project.

“The One and Only wasn't written for anything specific. I put together a bunch of demos when I went shopping for a new publishing deal at the end of 1989 and The One and Only was one of them. Ches happened to wander by a few months later and snapped it up.”

Songwriting is one of those curious talents that often gets harder the longer you do it. Kershaw is the first to admit that the creative juices don’t flow as freely as they did in his 20s - “In place of youth’s blind confidence, you’ve got the self-doubt of age” - and early work on his latest album, Oxymoron, didn’t seem promising.

“I hit one of those complete mental blocks. Going into the studio, day after day, and nothing was happening. So, I decided to switch off all the hi-tech gear, dug out an acoustic and recorded everything on my phone. I set myself a task… two weeks, one song a day. In the end, I had about 10 or 12, and most of them ended up on the album.

“Sometimes, you can over-analyse the process of writing a song. Or get caught up in the technology - trying out countless snare sounds and basslines. For this album, I went back to basics. The immediacy of getting a song down. Just finish it. Give yourself a few days off, then go back and listen to the results. Within the first 20 seconds, you’ll know whether you’ve written a good song.”

Nik Kershaw’s ninth album, Oxymoron, is released today October 16. The single, From Cloudy Bay to Malibu, is also out now.

Nik Kershaw: The 10 songs that changed my life

1. Lonnie Donegan - The Battle of New Orleans (1959)

“My parents had a very limited record collection, but this one really seemed to engage my young mind. There are a lot of words and Lonnie gives them a real rhythm. I played the record over and over on the radiogram, learning the lyrics and trying to work out how they fitted with the music. My poor parents had to put up with me singing it constantly for the next few months.”

2. David Bowie - The Jean Genie (1973)

“This very much ties in with the documentary I was telling you about. I’d never heard music like it. A couple of years later, I was in a covers band and this was one of the songs we used to do. One night, a guy came up to me and said, ‘I was over by the bar and I thought somebody had put the record on’. He must have been disappointed when he saw a bunch of idiots like us on stage.”

3. Scritti Politti - The Word Girl (1985)

“I was touring Australia when this came out and it ended up on my Walkman as I was sitting in Sydney Harbour. It suddenly occurred to me that I was listening to the perfect pop record. Well-crafted, amazing voice. Even today, I don’t think it’s been bettered.”

4. Simon & Garfunkel – America (1967)

“I did listen to Simon & Garfunkel when I was younger, but this song didn’t hit me until the ‘90s. I was struggling with some lyrics and it happened to come on the radio while I was making a cuppa. Throughout the whole song, there is not one rhyme. Not one! It’s prose. Beautifully written prose. Just shows you what a genius he is.”

5. Weather Report - Teen Town (1977)

“One of the covers bands I played with in Ipswich used to do a Sunday night at this particular pub where all the musos hung out. And the great thing was… they let us play whatever the hell we wanted. So, we’d do stuff by Steely Dan and Weather Report. It was the only place in Ipswich where you could hear that kind of music. And it was a great apprenticeship!”

6. The Edgar Winter Group - Frankenstein (1973)

“The version I remember is the live footage from The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Whistle Test was one of the few programmes I was allowed to stay up late for. And, if you were lucky, you would get something like this. Head and shoulders above anything else I’d ever seen. It was as if it was being beamed in from outer space. Absolutely bonkers.

7. T. Rex - Get It On (1971)

“This was the first song I ever heard in stereo. Just before it came out, I got my first record player from Boots. It was their own Boots-branded bit of kit. A stereo mix! One guitar from here and another guitar from over here. Bolan’s songs are brilliant, but deceptively simple. 12-bar blues, with some psychedelic add-ons. I wonder what kind of music he’d be writing today.”

8. Massive Attack - Teardrop (1998)

“Sometimes, you have no idea why a song makes an impact on you. It just happens. This was one of those. Such an evocative piece of music… such a gorgeous voice. And whenever I hear it, I automatically think of the video, too. CGI’s come a long way in 20 years, but the video is still so powerful. The complete package.”

9. Elton John - Your Song (1970)

“The first record I bought with my own pocket money. This wasn’t my parents’ record - it was mine! Down to the record shop in Ipswich to order it. Back the following week to pick it up. Buying a record took effort and determination.

“I was lucky enough to work with Elton a couple of times… during his ‘excessive’ years. He was always very sweet and lovely with me, but you had to be a bit careful when you were walking past his dressing room. If he was having a tantrum, a plate of food might come flying out the door.”

10. Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over (1986)

“I had to have a Neil Finn song in there. This is an amazing song and he continues to be an amazing songwriter. Bloody hard to sing, too! I did a few acoustic shows and thought I’d stick it in the set. No chance. The rhythm of the words always catches me out. And yet, when I listen to it, it flows so effortlessly.”

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