Writing A Song •
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Nik Kershaw was born in March 1958, in Bristol, into a musical family (his father was a flautist while his mother sang opera). He grew up in Ipswich, Suffolk where he attended Northgate Grammar School, and it was during those years that he taught himself guitar and started writing songs.
After leaving school, Nik worked as a guitarist in various bands, embarking on a solo career when the last of these bands - Fusion - broke up. Within a year, he had signed a record deal with London-based MCA Records.
His debut album, "Human Racing," was released in 1984 and featured the hit singles "Wouldn't It Be Good" and "I Won't Let the Sun Go Down On Me." These songs brought him immediate international recognition and commercial success while his follow-up album, "The Riddle" (1984), produced the title track, as well as other outstanding songs like "Wide Boy" and "Don Quixote."
In 1985, Nik was invited to perform at Live Aid, and that same year, released his third album, "Radio Musicola," which included the hits "When a Heart Beats" and "Nobody Knows" and he has continued to release albums, including "The Works" (1989), "15 Minutes" (1999), "You've Got To Laugh" (2006) and "Oxymoron (2020). To date, he has produced 20 albums (including three live), and 27 singles.
He has also collaborated with other stars, including Elton John (he is the pianist on "Nikita", the guitarist on "Act Of War", and plays all the instruments on "Old Friend"), and The Hollies, for whom he penned "The Woman I Love".
He has written and produced for a number of artists, most notably the Chesney Hawkes 1991 smash hit "The One And Only" which featured in both the British movie "Buddy's Song" and the American Michael J Fox film "Doc Hollywood".
Others he has collaborated with include Kim Wilde ("Come Out And Play"), Orinoko ("Island"), Michael W Smith ("This Is Your Time" and "Let Me Show You The Way"), Let Loose ("Seventeen") and Genesis founder Tony Banks ( "Red Day on Blue Street", "I Wanna Change the Score" and "The Final Curtain").
Nik has done everything that can be done in the music industry, but asked recently how he saw himself, he said "I guess the easiest label to stick on me would be 'singer-songwriter'."
Debbie Rial interviewed Nik Kershaw for the International Songwriters Association's publication "Songwriter Magazine".
Think of eighties music and the sound of the synthesiser was undoubtedly key. Synonymous with this was Nik Kershaw who shot to fame with his distinctive melodies, having huge hits with “I Won‘t Let The Sun Go Down“ and “Wouldn’t It Be Good” which brought him worldwide recognition.
Platinum album sales followed along with European tours, all within the space of a year, while an appearance at “Live Aid” assured his place in UK pop history.
Nik is an accomplished songwriter and has written for or with everyone from Cliff Richard, The Hollies and Lulu to Ronan Keating and Gary Barlow. His songwriting talent was rewarded with a No. 1 single for “The One And Only” sung by Chesney Hawkes.
At what age did you discover that music was important to you?
Music was always around when I was a kid. Mum trained to sing opera and dad played the flute. I remember playing their collection of 5 records over and over again when I was about 8 (the five records being “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik”- Mozart, “Orpheus In The Underworld”- Offenbach, “The Battle Of New Orleans” – Lonnie Donegan, “Pop Goes The Weasel”- Anthony Newley and “Come Outside”- Wendy Richards).
Who were your main influences and what inspired you to first write a song?
My parents eventually bought a “stereogram” and a copy of the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album. My pocket money went on T Rex, David Bowie and the occasional Slade record (I was a skinhead - strange but true). I believe my first song was brought on by a particularly intense bout of pubescent angst, the first line of which went “When is my life gonna start? I’m getting sick of the introduction”.
What instruments do you play and use to write on?
I’m a guitarist but that wasn’t a very cool thing to be in the eighties. Everyone else was having all the fun with synthesisers so I decided to join in. The early songs were written totally in my head and just demoed on whatever it sounded best on. Nowadays I write mainly on guitar.
Do you set time aside specifically for songwriting or do you wait for inspiration? Will you start a song and see it through to the end or do you have lots of snippets that get logged away for future use?
All of the above is true. The best songs just seem to turn up but, if I have a deadline I have to discipline myself to go and grind something out. I have bits and pieces of songs flying around in my head but I’m very good at cataloguing them. I just trust that, if an idea’s time has come, it will present itself for duty at that moment.
You had a lot of success in a short time with three top 20 hits from your debut album “Human Racing”. Firstly, what’s your secret? And was there a pressure to follow it up or did you have a back catalogue ready to go?
There was huge pressure. “Human Racing” was released in March 84 and “The Riddle” was released in November of the same year. I had two weeks to write the whole album. I only had one song that was left over from the first album and that was “Wide boy”. As for what my secret is/was, I have no idea. Right place, right time . . etc
1984 was an amazing year for you, releasing two platinum selling albums in the same year amidst touring and all that goes with it. What do you remember or is it just a blur?
Mostly a blur. It’s almost as if it happened to someone else. I hardly recognise the guy I see in old videos. I remember it was like being on a train with no driver hurtling along the track. I was hanging on for dear life.
The next year brought us “Live Aid” at which you appeared. It must have been pretty special, what are your memories of the day? How did it work with so many big personalities on one stage?
As far as I can remember, everybody behaved themselves. We all did our bit and then got the hell out of the way. I remember arriving at Battersea heliport in the morning and worrying that Noel Edmunds might actually be flying our helicopter. He wasn’t.
Other memories (in no particular order) are standing in line for Charles and Di; sitting in the royal box watching Status Quo kick it all off; chatting with Sting about “The Dream of Blue Turtles” backstage (all the acts got 20 minutes in a portacabin before and 20 minutes after playing). I always used to get pretty nervous back then but this was as bad as it got. Someone’s got film of
me just before going on. I’m transparent with fear. There was no soundcheck so you didn’t even know if your gear was going to be there when you walked on or whether any of it would work. I was one of the lucky ones, some of it did; for some bizarre reason,
I spent a fair amount of the day in the company of Adam Ant; watching Queen from the royal box; travelling back to the conference centre in a minibus with David Bowie; getting home, switching on the telly and seeing my mate Gary on stage in Philadelphia with Duran Duran.
Both “Human Racing” and “The Riddle” were very synth-based and of the time and your current sound is much more organic. How do you decide on the treatment of individual songs production-wise?
Sometimes the song tells you. Sometimes you end up experimenting a lot. I think fashion has a part to play. We’re all at the mercy of that whether we like it or not. In the early days I was intent on going to as much trouble as possible to make everything sound new and different. Since then I’ve learned not to be ashamed of what comes easily. If a one take guitar overdub does the trick, that’s fine with me.
You wrote and recorded a duet with Elton John, how did that come about?
He was getting towards the end of the recording of his Duets album. He called me at home and asked if I had any suitable songs (I didn’t). It didn’t dawn on me until halfway through the conversation that he wanted me to sing it with him. I spent a couple of days writing two songs and sent him the demo. Fortunately he liked one of them and a week later we were in Metropolis Studios recording it.
Perhaps more well known is the No. 1 hit you wrote for Chesney Hawkes “The One And Only”, featured recently in Celebrity Big Brother which seems to have taken on a life of its own. What do you think is the secret of its success?
If I knew the secret of success, I’d be able to repeat it at will. I can only guess. I think it falls into the same category as “I Will Survive”, “My Way” and “I Am What I Am”. Saying positive things about yourself is usually seen as arrogance and not considered at all cool. But give someone a cheesy self affirming song and they can engage with it without looking as thought they’re taking themselves to seriously.
Which of your songs are you most proud of and why?
Lyrically, there’s a song on the "15 Minutes" album called “Billy”. With some songs you can be sitting there for days trying to find something that rhymes with banana, with this one the words just came flooding out. The right word with the right meter and the right meaning just turned up when I needed it. I’ve been trying to get in the same head space ever since.
How do you think the music scene has changed over the last 25 years and do you approve of the changes?
I don’t think it’s for any of us to approve or disapprove. People decide how they’re going to buy and listen to music and we just have to go along with it. We adapt or we go and get a proper job. That’s the choice.
What are you up to now, are you still performing?
I started gigging again in 2008, some festivals with a band but mostly solo acoustic. I’m always working on a new album (it usually takes me 3 – 5 years) and I’ve been writing bits and pieces of media music. I play comedy golf.
Finally, what advice would you have for the new generation of songwriters?
Write your own songs; don’t try and guess what other people want; trust in your own instincts and always read the instructions when building a shed!
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