Limitless Joy: Kylie Minogue Interviewed

On the eve of her new album, The Abbey Road Sessions, pop goddess Kylie Minogue talks to Simon Price about Nick Cave, the Manics, Lady Gaga, age prejudice and lesbian love scenes

"Hi, is that Simon? This is Kylie…"

Ah, Miss Minogue. We’ve been expecting you.

Cards on the table, right up front: I believe Kylie Minogue is a pop genius. And before we go any further, it’s necessary to clarify exactly what is meant by that. The rockist, hippy notion of ‘genius’ involves the self-made auteur, toiling away at the coalface with their bare fingernails, carving out a monolithic monument to their own ego. In pop – which is where Kylie Minogue utterly excels – the skill set is different. Pop, by its very nature, is synthetic and collaborative, and therefore pop genius is about having a vision of exactly what you want, and knowing exactly who you need to work with (songwriters, producers, video directors, costume designers, choreographers) in order to create a heightened uber-self, a perfect pop THING to send out into the world.

So I tell her this, and I tell her why. Kylie, I think you are a pop genius.

Kylie Minogue: Um, thanks, firstly! That’s very kind. I guess if you look at it that way, with pop there’s more pieces of the pie, therefore there’s more risk, because there’s more elements that need to work together to make it… fantastic. Rock seems to be a different beast, although they still need someone to put their video together, someone to design their album cover… There’s not that many people who are completely self-manufactured.

Interesting that you should use the word ‘manufactured’, because by any workable definition, you were undeniably a ‘manufactured’ pop star when you started out under Stock Aitken Waterman. But, over time, you’ve become this whole other thing. With, I’d imagine, very strong views on what should be done, from top to bottom.

KM: Yeah, mainly because I’m curious. And I think in the early days at PWL, I fitted in perfectly because it was not that different to being in a soap, where you get your lines, say your lines, forget the lines, and learn the next lines. And you just punch it out, there’s no time to waste, do it, do it, do it, do it, on-on-on-on, that’s it. As time went by, I wanted to be more involved and have more say in the person I was presenting. And then, jump-cut to however many years later, which is nothing short of a miracle really. I don’t know that anyone else at Stock Aitken Waterman carried on with a consistent music career. And yeah, perhaps people for the most part don’t recognise that it’s not been the easiest thing to do. Part of my job is to make it look easy… but it definitely wasn’t at times, that’s for sure.

I first interviewed Kylie Minogue, I remind her, fifteen years ago. We’re roughly the same age. We’d have been in the same year at school.

KM: Hah! And here we both are, still doing the same old thing…

But we’re not meant to be. You’re certainly not. Pop stars (as opposed to rock stars) aren’t supposed to continue beyond the age of 40. But here you are, at 44, with a new album, The Abbey Road Sessions (featuring orchestra-assisted reworkings of 16 Kylie classics). Having already been through several media nicknames – CuteKylie, SexKylie, IndieKylie, DanceKylie – as brilliantly satirised in the ‘Did It Again’ video, it’s only a matter of time before some wag comes up with OldKylie.

KM: It’s only in the last year or two that that’s even been a question. It seems that my age has to be put after my name in just about everything, which… When I was younger, I didn’t understand why older women were complaining about being called ‘old’. And suddenly you’re in that bracket, and you’re like ‘What…? Why do you have to…? I don’t…?!’ I don’t feel that old, and it doesn’t seem like it should make much of a difference, but in the last year I’ve had to consider it. I mean, if you look at Radio 1, and what their audience target group is, it’s a different generation to me. Not that I don’t have fans in that age group, cos I do. Which is fantastic. But more of my fans are in a different age group. So I’ve suddenly found myself in a position where I’m being a little bit schizophrenic, because there’s something like The Abbey Road Sessions, and (its lead single, previously unreleased) ‘Flower’, which shows a more mature, classy side, and the opposite in something like (recent Dirty Vegas-produced electro-house single) ‘Timebomb’, and they’re both relevant parts of me. I would hate to feel that I’m pressured to step down from being a pop star! Maybe it’s over 50 now when you’re meant to stop, who knows. We all seem to have been afforded another decade in this new day and age. Maybe it’s true what everyone’s saying, that 50’s the new 40, and 40’s the new 30. Who knows. In the meantime I’m just doing what feels right for me.

You had an insanely large body of work – 51 singles, 11 albums and 25 years’ worth of material – to choose from when it came to recording The Abbey Road Sessions. What was the process of whittling it down to a final 16?

KM: We had a rehearsal period in a studio that was not Abbey Road – somewhere cheaper! – and we already had a few sketches of how to do songs, but that week was just lovely, a chance to be with the band and the producers Steve Anderson and Colin Elliot, and we literally just tried things out, and that’s how we discovered which songs would work. Some songs there were two versions of, which we ended up recording because, until they were done, we wouldn’t know for sure. Some we tried and they weren’t different enough, or kinda didn’t evolve into anything that warranted them being on this album. And I wanted it to represent the entirety of my career, so we had to take that into account as well and choose something from each period.

Were there any that it killed you to have to leave out?

KM: I would have loved to include something like ‘Breathe’, which was one of the first reasons this album came about, because we were on tour and we did a little acoustic version of ‘Breathe’ in a dressing room and uploaded it for fans, and they went nuts about it. And for me that was such a simple thing to do, but because of its accessibility they really loved it. You know, stripping away the costumes on-stage and the programming and all of that stuff, and just having a real vocal connection.

Your live shows, of late, have featured a lot of alternate versions of your hits, so it’s a natural progression…

KM: Yeah. The last few years we’ve done more of a sleazy, club version of ‘The Locomotion’, but the version on this album, I think, might be my favourite one. It’s almost taken it back further than when I first did it. It’s more like a Sixties track, which of course it originally was. And I haven’t done ‘The Locomotion’ like that in such a long time. So a lot of the songs have come full circle. Something like ‘(I Should Be So) Lucky’, I originally did that as a torch song in ’98, I think. And that was because it kind of needed to be included in the show, but I wasn’t at a point where I could face the original version. And then time passes, and I’m more than happy to throw in an "original-sounding" version of that in a concert. It’s just been dependent upon where my head’s at, and where current taste is at.

I gather that ‘Flower’ was intended to be on the X album, in 2008?

KM: It was written for X, but I don’t think it even got close to being on X. It was something that I’d submitted for it, but it was just passed by, basically.

I consider X to be a pop masterpiece. It’s one of those albums you can listen to from start to finish without a single weak track.

KM: I’m really pleased with that album. I think, at the time, well… certainly on Aphrodite, I had an executive producer, Stuart Price, and I really wanted it to be a bit more cohesive than X, which was a bit all-over-the-place. But actually, it’s an album which friends who are fans, friends who know a lot of my music, they will say they keep going back to X. So I guess the decisions were the right decisions… including the one to keep ‘Flower’ out of that.

X is a perfect example of the collaborative nature of pop genius. You brought out the best in Calvin Harris (who co-wrote and produced two tracks), and he brought out the best in you. You caught him at the peak of his game.

KM: Well, at the beginning, I don’t know about the peak! – he was [just] getting into production. And I’d imagine he’d be pretty much the same in the studio today, because even then he was very very definite and considered about the melody that he liked, and his chord structures were fantastic. It was clear he would go places. I don’t know that anyone predicted such a stratospheric rise, but I’m thrilled for him."

You managed to lure Nick Cave to Abbey Road to re-record ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’…

KM: Yes! Yes! Yes! My god, I was on tenter hooks waiting to see if he’d say ‘Yes’ to being on this album, and I was absolutely over the moon.

When you worked with him first time around, what were your impressions of him, beforehand and afterwards?

KM: My experience with Nick Cave was probably a bit back-to-front, because I didn’t know that much about him. But about six years before, my boyfriend at that time had said ‘My friend Nick wants to make a record with you’, but I didn’t really know who he meant, and kind of said ‘Oh OK, that’s great’, and thought nothing more about it. And then, when it finally did come around, I was interested, because what made me feel really secure about it was knowing that six years ago it had been mentioned to me. Because at that point, whenever it was, in 96 or something like that, there was a lot of post-modern stuff happening, and if this had come out of the blue, I might have thought ‘Oh great, here’s someone coming to take the piss.’ You know? But I knew this was for real, and I knew it came from an honest place.

So the first time I met Nick was actually at the studio in Melbourne. We’d spoken on the phone before that, but I hadn’t met him, prior. And after working with him and recording this, ultimately a tragic song but this very tender, beautiful, sexual song, then I speed-read a biography on him. And then I realised, ‘Wow, is this the same guy?!’ I read about The Bad Seeds, and even before that The Birthday Party, and oh my god, the things they got up to, the life that he led! And it just seemed in complete contrast to who I met, and who I recorded with, and what we did together. And even my performances with him, whenever we duetted, it was very tender. Super-tender. And the first time I saw him perform live, it was at the Big Day Out festival in Australia, and we had done our part, and I stayed to watch the rest of the show and I was completely blown away. It was like my head came off. I gather you’ve seen them live?

Many times, yes. I’m a big fan.

KM: So that energy, and his body language, the delivery, and the fury of some of those songs, just made him more amazing and more of a mystery to me.

And yet, in real life, he’s the perfect gentleman.

KM: Exactly! So, everything I knew about his history and his reputation and his greatness and his genius, and his cerebral nature, you know, he’s like a poet… It wasn’t that it was a surprise to find he’s a true true gent. It was the other way around, my discovery.

In Cave’s novel The Death Of Bunny Munro, the titular protagonist – a vile and depraved travelling salesman – has a distasteful onanistic fixation upon the famed Minogue posterior, as shown by the following extract:

Bunny turns on the radio and Kylie Minogue’s hit ‘Spinning Around’ comes on, and Bunny can’t believe his luck and feels a surge of almost limitless joy as the squelching, teasing synth starts and Kylie belts out her orgiastic paean to buggery, and he thinks of Kylie’s hot pants, those magnificent gilded orbs which makes him think of riding the waitress’s large, blanched backside, his belly full of sausages and eggs, back up in the hotel room. He says "Yes!" and takes a vicious, horn-blaring swerve, re-routing down fourth avenue, already screwing off the top of the hand cream. He parks and beats off, a big, happy smile on his face, and dispenses a gout of goo into a cum-encrusted sock which he keeps under the car seat.

Admittedly, Avril Lavigne gets it even worse.

Kylie, what did you make of that?

KM: Hah! You know, he sent me the book, and he put in a little note apologising in advance. So, hey, I don’t care. Nick Cave can say anything. He’s allowed!

I’ve seen you say that he helped your reconciliation with your own past.

KM: Yeah, it’s very true! When we worked together, I was going through my whole Impossible Princess… stage. And Nick said to me – I’m really paraphrasing, I can’t remember exactly, but – he said he preferred – he wanted to hear me sing – pop music. Which again, is kind of odd compared to what you’d think he would say. And the big turnaround was at the Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall, reciting ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ which he willed me into doing. I tried to find numerous excuses not to do it, but I did it, and it really set me on a different course. It was like the equivalent of going to some sort of therapy group, or sitting in a hot teepee sweat-tent, or whatever those things are. I just went, ‘OK, that’s it! I’m facing That Girl.’ I don’t know if I was scared of her, or felt eclipsed by her, or too defined by her, I dunno… but it was like meeting her face-to-face and going, ‘OK, I’m not going to get rid of you, so let’s join forces.’ From that moment on, I learnt to embrace my past and embrace pop.

The most stunning Kylie show I’ve ever seen was the X2008 tour at the O2, a stunning high-concept spectacular combining freako fetish fashion, Pop Art visuals, bleeding-edge technology and brilliantly bizarre choreography. The same year, Lady Gaga came along doing what appeared to be something very similar.

KM: [Deep breath] Well, I think most acts reference what’s gone before, and… I don’t know how much she knows about my shows, or anything about me for that matter. But a lot of it depends on technically what’s available, you know, I like to know what’s the latest geeky stuff out there that you can use in a show. But I think each show I’ve done has taken the experience to another level. It gets increasingly hard to come up with something new. But… it’s not the first time someone’s said that to me. And, if there was any influence, I think that’s great! As much as other people influence me, I’d be thrilled to know that I’d done that for someone else.

As the Manic Street Preachers’ biographer, I have to ask the ‘Little Baby Nothing’ question. Originally, the band wanted you to duet on that song (but former porn actress Traci Lords ended up doing the guest vocal).

KM: I knew nothing about it! It never reached me. Do you know what year that was?

Well, the album came out in 1992.

KM: Ah. Yeah, in my PWL days, no way would that call have come anywhere near me. And hey, I’m trying to cast my mind back to how I was at that time. I think I was dating Michael [Hutchence] around then. If the album came out in ’92, they probably started work on it in 1991. Perhaps I would have been open to it, because I was trying to branch out a bit. But I was in the PWL fold, so it wouldn’t have reached me.

But eventually you did sing it with them, live, at Shepherds Bush Empire. By which time you were working with them on a couple of songs for the Impossible Princess album (renamed Kylie Minogue). I’m guessing James Dean Bradfield just asked you in person that time around?

KM: I think it was as simple as that, yeah. They were good to me. I had to learn the song, and it’s cool, and I’d love to sing it with them again…

Of course, you have Welsh heritage yourself, and Australia currently has a Welsh Prime Minister (Julia Gillard), who was born in my home town of Barry.

KM: Uh-huh, yes I do. Ah, you’ve made a triangle there!

One of the most extraordinarily emotional atmospheres I’ve ever experienced at a concert was that of Kylie’s resumed Showgirl tour at Wembley Arena in January 2007, following your recovery from an 18-month battle with cancer. What did that feel like, from the stage?

KM: It was an emotional tour, all over. How do I begin to tell that story? I was really just, head down, trying to get through it. Obviously I sensed something different in the audience, and Wembley being the first time I’d come back to England, that would have been the first time they really knew I was back. Particularly with the first couple of shows in Australia – that’s where I reopened and restarted that tour – I felt like people couldn’t fully let go, in the crowd, cos it seemed like they were worried. Like, ‘Is she gonna fall over, is she gonna make it through, what’s gonna happen?’ So there was a whole other thing happening throughout the show. So it was… I don’t wanna say ‘fun’, I’m trying to find what I’m trying to say… It was important for me to do, because that’s what I’d been aiming to do, as I went through everything. And to, I dunno, to share what was looking like a good result, from the ordeal. And yeah, I wouldn’t have minded being in that crowd, to experience it, because I bet it was different!

We’ve mentioned Nick Cave’s novel, but you also feature in Paul Morley’s Words And Music as his companion on an imaginary car journey through pop.

KM: I haven’t read it, but I have it. And I’ve met with him. Should it be next, on my bedside?

Honestly, yes it should. Morley’s starting point is ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’. I’ll never forget staring at the radio in disbelief when I first heard that song, thinking, ‘This song is immortal. This song will take over the world.’ (It went to No.1 in over 40 countries.) Did you feel the same way, when the Cathy Dennis/Rob Davis demo was presented to you?

KM: Absolutely. My A&R at the time, Miles Leonard and Jamie Nelson, said, ‘We’ve got something. Come into the office. We’ve got to play you something.’ So I went to the EMI office, and I had the same reaction you did, about 20 seconds in. I couldn’t even fathom what I was hearing. It just… did something. I was beside myself. Then at the end of the song, panic set in. I was saying ‘Are you sure we’ve got this song? Don’t tell me that we don’t! Is it secured? Can we have it?’ And we did! And that kick-started a whole different phase in my career.

You’ve been in the papers a lot recently because you’ve filmed a lesbian love scene (in Jack And Diane with Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter). Again, like the Nick Cave duet, quite a daring move which might challenge some people’s perceptions of you.

KM: Yeah, but in my head it doesn’t seem daring. It’s like a breath of fresh air to be able to do something different, to go off the tracks a little bit. I don’t really stop to think too much about what the result is gonna be, I just go, ‘That’s great, something different to do!’ When I saw the script, I was totally fine with it. And she’s a lovely girl…

You’ve also been in Holy Motors this year (a surrealist fantasy by Leos Carax). Is acting becoming a priority for you again?

KM: I would definitely love to give it more space in my brain, which should lead to more space in my life, which should lead to more opportunities. Obviously if you’re promoting an album full-on, and doing a six-month tour around the world, there is no space to do anything else. But the very small part I have in Jack And Diane, and then the role in Holy Motors, has just reignited that desire that’s always been hanging around. It’s always been present. It was so rewarding to do Holy Motors, and the response seems to be something that’s gaining momentum around the world. And to work with someone so inspiring like Leos Carax, and to try and get inside his brain a little bit, is really compelling. And that’s exciting.

A nerdy trivia question to finish. Is it true that you recently wore a Sigue Sigue Sputnik T-shirt onstage?

KM: I might have, yeah! Did I? Probably on the Anti tour.

Another former PWL act, briefly, of course.

KM: Ah! That’s a happy coincidence. My god, you are a music buff! I’ll have to call you with any of my questions…

Kind of tragic, isn’t it? At my age – at our age – still obsessing, still caring about this stuff.

KM: It’s not tragic! It’s amazing.

The Abbey Road Sessions is released on Parlophone on October 29Full details here

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