Nik Kershaw: ‘It’s always good to breathe new life into the old tunes’

Nik Kershaw is teaming up with Opera North for a concert in Leeds. DUNCAN SEAMAN reports.

Thursday, 11th July 2019, 8:00 am
Nik Kershaw. Picture: Kai R Joachim

Nik Kershaw’s performance with the Orchestra of Opera North will be something of a novelty for one of the biggest stars of 80s synth pop.

The concert in Leeds’s Millennium Square – which also features Jimmy Somerville, Howard Jones, Carol Decker and Johnny Hates Jazz – will mark the first time in the UK that he has sung live with a full-blown orchestra.

Nik Kershaw.

“I’ve done it in Europe a few times, but this will be the first in this country,” the 61-year-old says, agreeing that was part of the 80s Classical show’s attraction. “It’s always good to breathe new life into the old tunes and to listen to them in a different way.”

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Although he says he gets “very involved” in the string arrangements on his albums, on this occasion he’s been happy to leave that side to arrangers Steve Anderson and Cliff Masterson, who between them have worked with the likes of Kylie Minogue, Take That, Il Divo and Lionel Richie. “When something like this gets offered sometimes you just have to relinquish control and see what happens. I haven’t had anything to do with the arrangements so it’s going to be a bit of a surprise.”

The Ipswich-born singer songwriter is looking forward to catching up with his contemporaries. “Back in the day we didn’t hook up that much because we were always so ridiculously busy and jetting off around the world, so I didn’t build many friendships then,” he says. “I’ve actually got to know people better in the last 20 years when I started doing these revival gigs. You find yourself in a field with the same people all the time, so you strike up new friendships. I’ve known Howard since back in the day, Jimmy not so much although we’ve bumped into each other backstage in various venues.”

Between 1984 and 1985 Kershaw clocked up more weeks in the UK charts than any other solo artist, with hits including Wouldn’t It Be Good, I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me and The Riddle. He also wrote the chart-topper The One and Only for Chesney Hawkes.

Nik Kershaw. Picture: Kai R Joachim

Kershaw jokes that he’s “clueless but very grateful” about why the songs have lasted so long. “I don’t know what it is. I stopped recording for a while in the 90s but when I came back – I had a comeback album in 1999 – and one of the critiques of it was that I was accused of jumping on the 80s revival bandwagon in 1999 and it’s been going on ever since.

“You think a revival of a decade is probably going to last about a decade but no, it keeps going, so it can’t just be the people who were there originally, it has to be someone else as well. But there are so many festivals that take in that era. I don’t know, there’s obviously people pining for their youth, which is why I’m still singing them.”

He’s also gained a younger generation of fans who have been introduced to his music by their parents. “I’ve got an affinity for some of the songs my parents used to play from their old record collection,” he reflects. “Lonnie Donegan songs and some classical music they used to play around the house, you get attached to it, so I get that. The ones I don’t get. In the age of YouTube and everything else, there’s also a bunch of people who have discovered it on their own in their late 20s, early 30s. You think, ‘where did they get it from?’ That’s probably where.”

A keen musician since his teens, playing in bands such as Fusion, Kershaw had long hungered for success before it finally came in his mid-20s. But how did it feel to be in that pop whirlwind? “I asked for it,” he says, “but in reality it was lots of things. It’s a very complicated thing to explain. It was hugely exciting, it was what I wanted, it was very gratifying and joyous, and at the same time terrifying and stressful. The weirdest thing being that no one was holding the reins, really, it was like a runaway horse, you just had to cling on for dear life. It had a momentum of its own that nobody seemed to be in charge of and you just went with it.”

At the peak of his fame in 1985, Kershaw appeared at Live Aid. He later said he found the experience of performing there “terrifying”. “It never occurred to me to say no to Bob Geldof, you wouldn’t, really,” he reflects. “I remember being pressganged. I think it was the January of ’85 and there were a whole bunch of us, the usual suspects, just hanging about Heathrow Airport waiting to catch a flight because there was a big TV festival in Germany. I can’t remember all the other acts, I think Spandau [Ballet] were there and a couple of other guys, and Bob Geldof was just there, I don’t think he was flying anywhere, he knew we were flying and he was there lurking, pressganging everybody into this gig that was going to be happening.

“Obviously Band Aid had already happened so at the time it was just a gig. We thought it was probably going to make Wembley Arena or something, but it turned into the stadium then it turned into two billion people watching on the telly, and Philadelphia and Melbourne. It was extraordinary.”

Around that time, Kershaw also struck up a friendship with Elton John, who asked him to play guitar on his song Nikita. Kershaw admits the superstar had been a boyhood hero of his. “One of the first singles I ever bought, if not the first, was Your Song by Elton John. It was quite stunning the way it happened, very early on in ’84 when I started having my success, I was announced on Radio 1 as playing at a gig at Wembley Stadium with Elton headlining and I just happened to be in Paris promoting something or other and we got a call through to the person that was looking after me to say ‘Elton’s playing a place called Le-Bercey in Paris, would we like to go?’ So we went along that night and I met him for the first time then.

“He loves new talent and he’s always been interested in new things happening, I think he still is – he’s a big part of Ed Sheeran’s [success] and all that, a lot of it’s down to his energy and patronage. He was very interested in checking out whoever was going to be on this show with him. We got friendly and we hung out a bit with him for a couple of years. I did a duet with him in 1992. He was a great champion for me back in the early days.”

80s Classical takes place in Millennium Square, Leeds on July 26. www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/80s-classical/