There's always been a sneaking suspicion that the career of Kim Wilde has been shaped for her. With a rockin' father, Marty Wilde, a singing mum, Joyce from the Vernons Girls, and a brother, Ricki, who was touted as the U.K.'s Donny Osmond for a few months in the early 70s, Kim has been surrounded by music ever since her first tiny yelp in 1960.
When the pouting, punk-ish teenager eventually followed her brother Rick onto family friend Mickie Most's Rak label, there was an air of inevitability about it. When she charted internationally with a succession of songs written for her by her brother and father, a hit factory that also kept a tight rein over the production of her records, Kim was generally depicted as the front-woman for a carefully-packaged family concern acting upon a master-plan that, for all we know , may have been conceived at the time of her birth. It's quite clear that Kim Wilde has matured. She's ditched that awful 'cardboard punk' hairstyle for tresses that ooze sensuality and sophistication. She writes songs, and does plenty of charity work without ramming it down your throat and all without gaining the airs and graces that usually go hand-in-hand with success. Kim may not always have enjoyed consistency throughout her decade-plus career, yet every time the magazines are preparing their 'Whatever Happened To..?' pieces, she'll bounce back with a certain hit like the recent "If I Can't Have You".
Stamina, resilience, good humour, maybe, but unlike so many of her contemporaries, Kim is still regarded as something of a light-weight. The everything-I-do-I-do-it-for-art of Madonna, the child-as-father-to-the-child craziness of Michael Jackson, or the 'knowing' cool of Vanessa Paradis may all tickle the creative sensibilities of the media columnists. But do Julie Burchill, Suzanne Moore or Victor Lewis-Smith really care about Kim Wilde? Probably not.
That, in itself, is refreshing. One day, when performers get back to working without slinging quotation marks around everything they do, Kim Wilde's line in H-pop (happy, healthy, hummable) might be more favourably regarded. But for the time being, we have to put to her the fact that, at least a decade on from "Kids ln America" , her name still doesn't have the ring of artistic confidence or of the auteur about it. "Well, if that is so, if people still think of me as a bit of a puppet, then I'm disappointed to hear it," comes the reply. Exchanges had been pleasantly polite up to that point, but now Kim's showing her first hint of exasperation. "I don't know," she continues, her fingers tugging edgily at her hair, "1 hope people don't think that. What more can 1 do? 1 write my own songs..."
Kim Wilde does write her own songs these days. Her first self-penned 45 was "Another Step (Closer To You)", a duet with Junior, which gave the pair a massive hit back in 1987. and she's won several credits on her records since then. But isn't she still regarded as a celebrity first and a singer/writer second? The woman who turns up at the 'Jurassic Park' premiere rather than the co-writer of "Never Trust A Stranger" and "You Came"?
"I don't know if I am," she smiles, ending with a shy giggle that's uncannily similar to the late Nico's. "Not if I look at the amount of records I've sold over the years. I really don't think that statement holds much water. I know you're not being insulting, and I certainly know that my image is very much a part of it, but it's a big part of any pop star's life, and I've always accepted that and enjoyed it."
Kim's on a roll: "I actually try and shy away from celebrity-type things. The reason I went to 'Jurassic Park' was firstly, because 1 really wanted to go - 1 was desperate to see this film. And secondly, because I've got a record out and I really fancy getting some profile. I get asked to every celebrity bash going and I don't go to any of them. I get asked to do things like 'Celebrity Squares' and TV things, and lots of advertising projects too, but 1 always stay away. I've tried not to perpetuate that side of it too much. I've used it as a tool, and I've enjoyed it, but I don't think that I've exploited it."
Good for Kim. Contrary to preconceptions, one's tempted to suggest that here's a girl who's almost playing her own game. She agrees, before realising that we've both got rather carried away in the heat of the moment and lurched into overstatement. "Well, to a degree," she suggests. "There's so much compromise in this business that I'd be a liar if I said that I didn't have to put myself in situations that I'd rather not be in sometimes. And that shows: people can tell when I don't look right in certain situations."
Bang goes another myth, the one that insists that all showbiz kids are mouthy, brash brats as well as being talentless. "Confidence? Sometimes 1 have loads," she says, "an obscene amount. It depends what day it is. Other days the demons come and play and I get terribly negative. But that's the human state - no-one's that tough." Occasionally vulnerable, then, but Kim Wilde, who likes to use the Royal 'we' when she's discussing career decisions, obviously has a family team working with her. Perhaps she should have gone for the Madonna image, that of the self-made, all-knowing superstar? "Oh, no. That doesn't appeal to me at all," she asserts. "1 think that's a bit of a misconception anyway. Most of Madonna's songs are written in collaboration, and a lot of them don't credit the people who she writes with.
"The perception may be that she's completely in control, but it's absolutely not true. I doubt that she writes much more than 1 do, but she's got a knack for working with very talented people. I wouldn't take away her own talent, but I think it has to be seen in that context."
Neither an obvious ego-freak nor a stooge, Kim Wilde maintains that her transition from art-student to international star was more a comedy of coincidence than a conspiracy hatched by music-biz insiders: "What people didn't really see was the relationship that I had with my brother and father. We're really like three kids."
Apparently, the whole process was kicked off by her brother Rick (his mock-Donny career behind him), who bought some studio time at RAK to record some of his newly-penned songs. At this stage, all eyes were on Rick: Kim merely helped out on some backing vocals. RAK boss, Mickie Most, 60s record producer turned 'New Faces' judge, was impressed by Rick's work: "Mickie has brilliant ears", says Kim, "and as soon Ricki played him the songs, he realised that he was a very talented guy, even though he was only 19." But she maintains there was no preceived Wilde/Most master-plan. "Mickie had a failed rock'n'roll past and so he was on the same circuits as my dad, but they were never friends", she says.
If anyone should be credited with spotting Kim, it should in fact be Mickie's wife Chris. Kim: "She saw me walking out of the RAK offices and thought I looked like a pop star, which I suppose I did, because I had red-and-black stripy pants, spiky blonde hair, quite punky looking. One of the producers there also remarked to my brother what a little pop star I looked and how he was gonna go off and write me a song and produce me. That's when it all started."
After that, the shadows beckoned for Rick Wilde a second time, although his involvement in his sister's career has been central. One minute, Kim was imploring him to "help your own", so that she'd get a crack at session singing; the next, all eyes were on her. Rick decided that if anyone was going to write a songs for his sister, it was going to be him, and almost overnight, he came up with "Kids in America". And then, along came dad. He'd been a writer for years, and when he heard the backing track, he volunteered to write the lyrics." The die was cast.
The Wilde family roles fell into place according to ability, and at this early stage, Kim had little involvement in writing or production. "I didn't have the confidence to even think about writing songs", she recalls. "My career started making a lot more sense to me when I started writing, which was four years later. That's when it felt more like a proper career. I didn't feel so much like an imposter."
Things are a lot different now: "I've written a lot of songs that have been on the albums over the past four or five years, and it' s only those who know me or know the records who realise that I've been taking the writing into all different areas. I feel that I've developed a tremendous amount.
"A lot of my albums are strange combinations of extremely serious and personal moments and complete outright, in-your-face pop music, and 1 really like that combination because it's very real. That's what people are like. Sometimes they're very private and sincere, but for a lot of the time they're not. They're putting on a show , a masquerade. That combination works on my albums, though that synthesis isn't always understood by people. They either want you to be an out-and-out pop star or be a serious singer-songwriter, but they don't really much care if you start weaving between the two."
When 'we' decided that 1993 was going to be the 'Greatest Hits' year, it was deemed necessary to support the collection with a hit single. "We wanted to set it up properly," says Kim. "I didn't want to throw away 13 years of success with a No. 75 record. So we worked really hard writing material, but quite frankly, we weren't coming up with the kind of material that we felt would get us back into the charts. And so we decided to do a cover... take a slightly less dangerous route."
Back in 1986, Kim Wilde had a huge success with a version of the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hanging On", although she's quick to point out that her version of Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You" is only the fourth cover she's released. "If we'd felt that we had the song that could have been a hit, we'd have been overjoyed. But we didn't think we had, especially after the last two singles not doing very well at all. So we thought, sod it! We're gonna do a bloody good cover!"
How does one do that? "We went through the 'Guinness Book of Hit Singles' and our record collection. Ricki had the relics of our 70s assortment, which was quite sweet - lots of things by Cat Stevens but we were getting absolutely nowhere. Then his wife walked in and suggested 'If I Can't Have You'. I'd always thought it was one of the classier songs on the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack - it transcended it in many ways. So we tried it and it worked."
It doesn't always happen that way: "We also tried several other songs, ones which if I told you what they were, you'd say, 'What a great idea'. But they just sounded terrible. Some songs certainly do not suit my voice, or suit being covered."
It makes good sense to opt for the safety of a cover version when you're trying to create interest in a retrospective hits set. But surely, even Kim Wilde, the woman who once described PiL~'s "Metal Box" as "total dirge", must have a yearning to break out of the pop song cycle sometimes? "I liked 'Metal Box' actually," she quickly points out. "It was dirgey, but that's what I liked about it. I like lots of different music and sounds. I like Faith No More and people who have different approaches to making music - a lot of rap and house music. But it doesn't mean that I want to do it myself. The music that we make together just feels right for us."
In other words, you don't wish to take risks?
"No, I don't think it would be too risky at all. I think it's highly likely but I wouldn't like to say when. There's a part of me that would really like to do something that would shock people, but it's a kind of a childish notion if you think about it. I'm involved in writing and that gives me an awful lot of satisfaction, and I'11 probably end up concentrating on doing that for other bands than create a whole new concept for me. I don't know if 1 really want to do that. I don't know if I could handle the attention!
"But I'm doing OK 1 still sell loads of records, so 1 must be reaching some people who understand that and like that. I think there's a lot more honesty in pop music now than when 1 first started in the early 80s. There was a lot of posing and posturing, a lot of what is hip and what is not, a lot of writers like Paul Morley, and it was all getting terribly anally-retentive and very selfconscious. Pop music was analysed beyond recognition and there was some hilarious stuff written about me and my album that just wasn't talking about me at all. Now bands don't mind saying that they want hit records and to enjoy things. It's more hip to be a successful pop star."
Kim Wilde's not about to subscribe to the Greil Marcus school of pop literacy just yet, but she knows a few things about enjoying herself. "I didn't really know how to handle all the early success," she admits. "I had no idea about restraint. I used to stay up all night, drink too much, go out raving, just like any other 20-year-old kid would. Pop stars today are so organised working out at the gym and drinking Evian water - which is great. I wish I had. I used to turn up bleary-eyed to photo sessions and ramble my way through."
I know exactly what she means. So let's get out the track-listing for the new 'hits' album and talk about some ofthose old songs.
"Kids In America" for example. "It's strange to have any feelings about that one any more, because I've been asked about it relentlessly for 13 years. I still really enjoy performing it. It' s easy to like 'Kids In America' because everybody else loves it. I can see that it's a classic song, which explains why there's the interest in remixing it again. I can't say that about every record I've released, but I think I can say that about 'Kids In America'."
Wasn't there just a hint of the Pretenders in the early marketing of Kim Wilde? That first album sleeve, for example? "It was supposed to look like that, like the British Blondie," she says. "I didn't want to be perceived as a solo singer, because that was passé at the time. And in my mind, it wasn't just me: it was me and Ricki. (We couldn't exactly have dad on the cover!) We never did any live dates, though. It was all to look good for videos and TV."
After conceding that "Chequered Love" was almost a dead steal from a Skids song, and that the Enid were the backing band for the first album - which explains its prog-rock tendencies - she steps up a gear as we come to "Cambodia". I think 1 know the answer already, but... any politics there, Kim? "Not at all! lt just sounds better than 'Birmingham'. People hate that answer.lt really pisses them off!" lt turns out that father Wilde is fascinated by the South-East Asian conflict, having lived through it, which inspired the fantasy love story of the song.
"Child Come Away" was apparently huge in France, but looking down the page, I'm already on the scent of"Love Blonde". "I had kind of a problem with that at the time," Kim says. "Should 1 really be singing this song about me? And 1 asked dad, '1s it about me?' And he said, 'No, it's about the mythology of the blonde sex symbol.' I said, 'Yes, but that's how everyone's perceiving me,' so he told me to just take the piss out of it and enjoy it. And he was right, you know. It is all superficial, that side of it. So kind of acknowledging it in a song like that, because it was an unpredictable thing to do, knocks people back a bit. Most people have fun playing about with my image, talking about me, so 1 thought, 'Why not do it myself?' "
By her own account, Kim, now domiciled in London away from the family home near Stevenage, was taking the fun a bit too seriously by the mid-80s. Despite that, the era did give her a personal favourite: "I think 'Rage To Love' was a brilliant record. We got Dave Edmunds to remix that and it sounded very Stray Cats-ish. But Ijust thought it had the best energy of any record from that time, unlike myself. I didn't have an awful lot at that time. I kinda let things go, lost control a bit, became a bit jaded."
During the mid-80s, it seemed like every second act was charting with a cover version. Was "You Keep Me Hanging On" another case of 'Why not do it myself?' Kim: "Rick was playing with some chord changes, and realised that they weren't his. They were from 'You Keep Me Hanging On'. He wasn't sure whether to continue writing an original song with the chords or to do the cover, but he ended up doing the cover.
"We'd forgotten that Rick put the backing track down in the studio until someone at our office reminded us about it. So I went in and did this throwaway vocal. I liked the way we'd done it, and the fact that it was a totally original approach to the song. Eventually, Lamont Dozier sent us this telegram saying how much he liked it. I'm really proud of that cover."
Kim is excited about the prospect of the Utah Saints remixing "Kids ln America" for her next single, and is enthusiastic about the new hits album. Which is more than she can say about EMI's (administers of Rak) opportunist "Greatest Hits", issued after she'd left the label for MCA. "I really hated the picture on the cover, the lack of thought behind it, that it actually contained several LP tracks, and I've never really forgiven EMl for it. Now, it's just brilliant to have this one. There's so much care going into it."