Interview: Kim Wilde

Known by the French as the Brigitte Bardot of Rock and Roll and to everyone else as the recording artist who found phenomenal success with hits such as ‘Kids in America’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, Kim Wilde holds the record for being Britain’s most successful solo female performer of the 80s. GaydarRadio’s Dicky and Dolly caught up with the queen of 80s pop to find out more about her early days in the music industry, her famous father, touring with Michael Jackson, falling in love with David Bowie, big hair, the art of gardening and being an international icon.

Your father is Marty Wilde, who was quite a music icon himself! Did you start getting into music via your family?
It all started when I was about 19 years old and, prior to that, I would often go on the road with my dad and do backing vocals. When I was about 20 years old I got involved in recording with my brother and pretty soon I had a song called ‘Kids in America’, which he’d written with my father. One way or another, my dad was incredibly important right at the beginning of my career. He and my brother went on to write me several big hit records which were big hits all over the world and had me running around in various airports for several decades after.

Did your dad realise from an early age that you could sing or did you know yourself that you could sing? Did you ever pester him for opportunities to sing with him?
I did pester him a bit. I think he was very nervous about his little girl – his first born – going into the wicked world of music. In many ways, he was one of the very first pop stars to ever walk the planet – he was right there at the birth of rock and roll and the birth of popular music in this country. He’d seen it give pretty hard rides to most of the people in it, and – in his opinion – especially to the women who’d gotten into it, so I think he was pretty nervous.

What did it feel like for you to grow up knowing that your dad was a pop icon and a huge phenomenon?
When I was young, I found some pictures of him looking like Brad Pitt or whoever else is gorgeous now – I mean, they were just gorgeous pictures of him. Like a lot of little girls, I guess I was rather infatuated with my dad. I loved the fact that he’d been a performer in this glamorous world of music and he had the movie star looks. I thought he was really cool and I was really proud of him. However, I became embarrassed about him when I got older. He was someone that the parents of all the kids at school would have remembered and liked, but I was at that age when you get a bit conscious of who you are – you really just want to blend in and you don’t want to stand out in the crowd. I found my teenage years a bit difficult, I think.

You really blossomed into your own when ‘Kids in America’ was released. The track climbed the charts quite rapidly and it went to number 2 in the UK. That must have been very overwhelming for you, is that right?
It was overwhelming because it was the first record I’d ever released. It was with the Mickie Most record label Rak and it was a song that was written by my father and my brother while we were all still living at home together. It was an unexpected surprise; it was phenomenal and it just suddenly took over my whole life. It wasn’t just successful in this country; it was successful all over the world. It was followed up with tracks such as ‘Chequered Love’ and ‘View from a Bridge’, and so while I was running around promoting, my father and my brother were in a little house in Hertfordshire writing hit records.

Did you enjoy promoting the singles and doing the rounds on Top of the Pops and all that?
I loved it because I was hanging out with my contemporaries and people whose records I’d just bought the week before. I’d go out and buy Penthouse and Pavement by Heaven Seventeen, and then I’d be doing Top of the Pops with them a week later. It was a magical time. I had records by Duran Duran and Altered Images, and they were the people I kept bumping into at various different places. It was very exciting to be a young pop star hanging out with people who I really admired.

You collaborated with your dad in 2007 with ‘Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’. What was that like?
I think it was really long overdue. It was to honour the fact that he had been in rock and roll for 50 years, which is quite phenomenal. He has a DVD out of his performance at the Palladium – which I’m also on – and his album has done really well. In fact, I think it went silver, which is pretty fantastic for someone who’s pushing 70 and has been around for as long as he has.

‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ was another hugely successful track for you. It went to number 1 in the US, is that right?
Yes, it was a phenomenal success and rivalled that of ‘Kids in America’. In fact, it superseded it in many ways by going to number 1 in America like it did. It was just a fantastic version. I think that my brother’s production of it and his approach to it was so original.

It was a remake of the Supremes track – was it a cover that you really wanted to do? Did you have others in mind?
No; doing cover versions of songs that you love don’t work out very often because you’re so in awe of the original. I loved motown because my father had an incredible collection of motown records at home on vinyl. I was very into doing a motown song but not necessarily that one – it wasn’t a particular favourite of mine. The good thing about that was the fact that I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas about how the song should be when I went into the studio to record it. In fact, I don’t think I had even listened to it for years prior to recording it. I told my brother that we would just go in completely fresh and I think that’s why it worked so well. We weren’t paying homage to anything that had happened before; we wanted to create something completely new.

You went on tour with both Michael Jackson and David Bowie. What was that like?
I think the Michael Jackson thing was a real turning point for me as an artist and a performer. I really had to get my act together to open for such a big star – that was back in 1988 and he was really at the top of his tree. I remember saying to my mum, “I really don’t think I can do this. I know you have tremendous faith in all my various abilities, but I think that even you have overstretched it this time, bless you”. But she wouldn’t have it and, of course, it was one of the most fantastic career moves I ever made.

I was on tour all over Europe. We did 7 nights at Wembley Stadium – obviously the old Wembley Stadium – which was pretty phenomenal. It was fantastic; he had this mad circus around him and I was just kind of in its wake. I was lapping up all the attention and the reflected glory as well as making a mark as a performer myself.

What was Michael Jackson like? You did get to meet him, didn’t you?
I only really got to meet him for a publicity photograph and he was very reluctant, it seemed to me, to engage in any proper conversation. As far as I could tell, he was a very private and complicated man, or perhaps he was a very private and simple man, I don’t know. He was certainly not one for having a drink at the bar with us.

What was the famous Mr. Bowie like?
I did actually fall madly in love with David Bowie on that tour; I just thought he was the most gorgeous man in the world. Of course, he’s just a London bloke who used to pop his head in, ask how I was and wish me luck. He was a very down-to-earth, lovely, amazing creature. It was his greatest hits tour and it was a real honour to be on that.

Speaking of greatest hits tours – you’re still doing quite a lot of the 80s tours. Is your hair still big and teased?
Sometimes it is, yes! Sometimes my sister does it for me with this crimping thing and it does look pretty outrageous, so I can get it as big as you like! Sometimes I go for that and sometimes I go for the opposite, so I get the old hair straighteners out and go for that sleeker look.

Do you enjoy the 80s tours? You’re doing a lot of them with some other great acts like Human League and Kajagoogoo.
Yes, it’s just fantastic to get to know them after all these years. Back in the 80s, we were kind of competing against each other for positions in the charts, slots on Top of the Pops and front covers of Smash Hits. Of course, these days it’s a whole other story. We pass around pictures of our kids and have a bit of a laugh about our expanding waist lines. It’s kind of a different vibe and everyone’s very supportive. There’s no competition anymore – it’s just about having a really good time. They are a great bunch of people and it’s wonderful to be back on tour with them.

You’ve also gotten into the fabulous world of horticulture, haven’t you? How did you get interested in the gardening aspects and the design aspects of horticulture?
It happened in a really magical way. I met my husband while I was doing London’s West End production of the musical Tommy by The Who. We got married very quickly – within 6 months we were married. We wanted to have a family straight away and within a year I was pregnant. I’d decided to get out of the music industry at that point for several reasons. My career wasn’t flying that high and it had been a bit of an uphill struggle for some time. Also, I was rather bored of it. I’d been on the same treadmill since I was 20 and at that point I was 36 and I just really wanted a change.

I got out of the music industry, I got married, I got pregnant and I thought about making a garden. At the same time there was this new renaissance of garden makeover TV, such as Ground Force, and people became interested in their gardens again. I was very captivated by that; I loved the idea of transforming neglected spaces and really enhancing the quality of the environment.

I was interested in creating a garden for my children, so I went to a local college to study a little bit about design and plants because I had the time, you know. I was an unemployed pop star and I didn’t have anything else to do except sit around and get fat with my baby. I sat in the back of a class and fell in love. It was an amazing experience. The only thing I can perhaps compare it to is how people feel when they maybe have a religious conversion and become born-again Christians. For me, the conversion was very much about horticulture and about plants, and the passion still remains.

Where did you study?
I went to Capel Manor and I remember the tutor – she had a handful of small plants that she’d picked from the grounds, and she was talking about colour and form and texture and all these things I’d never thought about before with plants. She helped me to see how I could put them together and how I could create pictures in the landscape. I had been an artist; I was at Art College before ‘Kids in America’, so it was a bit like going back into the world of art, except in a three-dimensional way.

You’ve got books on this as well, don’t you?
I have, yes. There’s one that’s specifically for children called Gardening with Children, which is obviously inspired by our children, Harry and Rose. It’s a great reference book; it’s got lots of good ideas for plants and ideas to engage a kid’s imagination. My other book, The First-time Gardener, is for people who are a bit overwhelmed by all the information like I was when I started. It’s such a huge subject and it is often still very overwhelming to me, but if you jump in the deep end and you really love it, you can’t go wrong.

Do the kiddies help you a lot in the garden?
They do; they really love it. They’re not fulltime gardeners because I don’t engage them for any great length of time, but I’m often out there for hours and hours, so I think they sometimes want to be part of that.

You sound quite at peace; gardening is quite calming, isn’t it?
It is; it’s very therapeutic to be close to the elements, to notice things like butterflies and bees, and to be around those living things and to look after them while they’re looking after your garden. It’s a lovely shared experience to watch birds that come to visit the garden and to see not only how the plants thrive, but also to see how you can improve things each year. It’s also satisfying to get year-round interest – one of the great challenges of any gardener is to make their garden a compelling environment whatever the weather.

You’re a brilliant ambassador for the gardening world.
I hope so! Lots of people say that they’ve taken another look at this subject since they’ve seen this pouting, blonde-haired, large-shouldered 80s pop singer turn into a gardener. They think that if I can do it, they can do it.

You’re obviously really content with the gardening; is there more to come in your music? You’re quite big in Germany and you’re still releasing songs in Europe, is that right?
Yes, I’ve gone back into music. The children are now 10 and 8 and, while I think the decision to get out of the music industry was the right one for them at the time, I got involved in these 80s concerts in the last 5 years and I enjoyed them so much. The response from the audience was really overwhelming. Then I got involved in a massive hit record completely by accident with an artist called Nena – she had a hit with ’99 Luftballoons’ back in the 80s – and from that I got a record deal with EMI in Germany. From that, I’ve been doing some major festivals all over Europe during the summer, some of them for 80,000 to 100,000 people. I’m on stage with acts like Blondie, Status Quo or Joe Cocker. It’s a fabulous experience for me to have 2 careers running consecutively. It’s often exhausting, but it’s really good fun.

Are you doing any touring around the UK? Is there anywhere we can catch you?
I’m doing a big 80s concert in Blickling Hall in Norfolk on 19 July. I think there’s about 10 different 80s artists and we’re all going to get up and have a ball. I’m also doing quite a lot of stuff abroad if anyone’s travelling to Holland or Germany. My website, www.kimwilde.com, has got all the news on what I’m doing and it’s beautifully run by Kim Wilde enthusiasts. They’re great; they really chronicle what I do immaculately and they have fun with it.

Find out more at www.kimwilde.com and www.myspace.com/officialkimwilde.