“I’m Not Ready To Hang Up My Pop Hat” – Kim Wilde Interviewed

Jude Rogers spends the afternoon with a Metallica, James Blake and Christmas song loving Kim Wilde.

Brace yourself, Scrooges: some people know how to do Christmas properly. Exhibit A: Kim Wilde. She’s done the cheesy Christmas cover version at the height of her fame (1987’s ‘Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’ with Mel Smith, aka Mel & Kim – a reference which carbon-dates you instantly if you get it). Then there was that famous video two years ago. Pissed as a fart, glittery Rudolph antlers on her head, standing up on a late-night commuter train, singing Kids In America: if you never cared for Kim before, you loved her now.

This week, she releases Wilde Winter Songbook, her first UK album in ten years. She’s released records in Europe in that time (she even had a top 10 single and album in Germany) but back home, she’s kept herself to 80s revival tours, gardening, bringing up her kids [Harry, 15 and Rose, 13, with husband Hal Fowler] and not giving a shit about people think. And so she should: her pop back catalogue is nothing to be ashamed of.

As well as that iconic debut single she wailed on the train, there’s the Cold War synth-pop of 1982’s ‘View From A Bridge’ (a song about suicide, no less) weird electronic symphonies like 1984’s ‘Dream Sequence’, her smash hit 1986 cover of ‘You Keep Me On’ (with an intro that sounds like Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’) and a swathe of golden pop classics, like the iridescent ‘You Came’.

She never made the title of that last track sound, ahem, seminal either. Kim was our suburban Monroe, a lily-white Diana Dors next door, a girl who had the sexy wholesomeness of Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, a decade too soon.

Today, we find her eating a takeaway Thai in the front window of the Groucho Club. β€œBloody hell, it’s delicious,” she mumbles, wiping a noodle from her mouth. She has a few surprises in store for us today, but her new favourite group comes as the biggest. β€œI’ve got really into Metallica.” That Metallica? β€œYeah, that Metallica! A friend of mine is a huge fan and I ended up going to a lot of their gigs. I’ve got a lot of their records now, and I love the noise they make – the aggression of it, the relentlessness, the passion of it.”

Favourite album? β€œDeath Magnetic. If I’m kind of a little bit flat, I just put it on.” When? β€œBefore I’m going to do my own gigs. When I’m putting on my makeup, morphing out of Mrs Fowler into KW. I mean, that’s what Alice Cooper does, doesn’t it – he morphs from being, you know, on hole 17 of the golf course to being this fantastic rock god.” She laughs; the room sparkles. β€œWe have a lot in common, really.”

She’ll find out just how much in March – she’s the guest on his Rock Meets Classic tour across Europe. Well, I never. But that is then, and this is now, and there are Christmas songs playing in the bar, and Kim’s wearing a big fluffy black stole, and her eyes are twinkling like baubles.

So, Wilde Winter Songbook… it’s an unusual Christmas record. One part of it acknowledges the cheesier end of your pop past – duets of Winter Wonderland with Rick Astley, and Rocking Around The Christmas Tree with Nik Kershaw – but you also cover Fleet Foxes’ ‘White Winter Hymnal’ and indie singer Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘Winter Song’, and have written a few very touching, grown-up originals. It is hard to escape your pop side?
I wouldn’t want to! My whole career was launched in such sort of poptastic style with ‘Kids In America’, and I liked – and like – being poptastic. Songs big on melody, high on energy, lots of attitude… what’s wrong with that? Plus, I’m just not ready to hang up my pop and rock hat. [raises fork in air] I’m just not ready to do it! But I didn’t want the album to be a comfortable pair of shoes either. I wanted to have some more unusual things for me, so that Fleet Foxes track… I’d seen that at Glastonbury on TV, and just loved it, so that went in. ‘Winter Song’ I just found typing into β€œwinter song” into YouTube [laughs] but that song really stood out. And then there’s a song I co-wrote, ‘New Life’, about my sister, Roxanne, and my nephew having babies at exactly the same time, and being around them at Christmas – there’s something very moving about that. And there’s a song about an old lady who I knew, who I used to garden for in some sheltered accommodation near where we live… a game gal, who liked a glass of wine, who became housebound as she got older, and and we were with her until the end of her life. And I’ve not called it ‘Now You’re Gone’ or something schmaltzy – I’ve called it ‘Song For Beryl’ [laughs]. I realised people would think, β€œWhat the hell?”, but I liked that – that’s the honesty to this record.

You’ve also put out a video to your new version of ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ that takes the mickey out of your famous drunk performance…
Oh yes! We also got the girl who filmed it to be in the video, so she’s actually in it. We got in contact with her on Twitter and she came along. That was a good laugh. Looking back, that whole thing’s a laugh now.

Do you feel you need to defend your links to pop?
I don’t know what people’s opinions are of a 53-year-old Hertfordshire housewife making pop music, but I do feel like I’ve reached an age where I can do what the hell I like, to be honest with you. Looking back, I was always signed to a record company, and they always had a big say in stuff – far too much, as it turned out – but they got their comeuppance in the end, because the industry is not what it was. That’s not a bad thing for creative music and the artists who are out there now. The big labels have less of a stranglehold on artists and how they record and where they go.

Did you feel that in your career?
I did a bit, if I’m honest. Certain people were very powerful, so they had a bigger say over what I wanted to do than they should have at times…

Like what?
[Shrinks into herself, shakes head] Personally, I can’t really complain. Overwhelmingly, it was pretty positive for me because I had my family around me [father Marty and brother Ricky have worked with her throughout her career]. But I can see why it all collapsed around its ears. And then the Internet came along – hurrah – and now no one can stop a bright light, I really believe that. I mean, when I see someone like James Blake doing really well now, I know that I’m living in a music world that I’m happy about.

James Blake? That’s not someone I’d have associated with you.
I just love that he’s so unique and utterly talented – he seems to exist apart from stuff, somehow. I mean, I don’t follow the politics of the music business, but I remember Prefab Sprout were the only ones to have that kind of unique position in the 80s: they seemed to exist without too much help from their record company. They didn’t conform, they carved out this fantastic niche of songs, and I admired them a lot.

Trawling through the internet preparing for this interview, I saw you being interviewed on a 1988 Cilla Black Christmas special. Everyone else on the couch – Kenny Everett, Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman, Jools Holland – was going on about their favourite music of the year, and Sabrina’s ‘Boys Boys Boys’ got the most screentime. You made a joke about her boobs that nobody got, then you picked Scritti Politti’s album, Provision.
I loved that record! I met Green Gartside, you know, very recently – I did a project with British Electric Foundation, with Martyn Ware from Heaven 17, The Dark Project. Andy from Erasure was there too, but meeting Green was a highlight, having been such a huge fan. And I thought I’m going to seize the moment, I’m not going to let this go, because he’s quite an elusive man and he darts in and out… so I grabbed hold of him, and said [goes completely gushy]: “I just want to let you know how much your music meant to me – I know you probably get this all the time, and I know people say it to me and I try and be gracious, and I don’t mean to embarrass you – but I just want to thank you so much for making such perfect music and inspiring me so much.” Thankfully, he looked quite pleased!

When you recorded with British Electric Foundation, you also made quite an extraordinary, out-of-character video…
Yes. I was dressed in black PVC, killing ghouls and stuff. They really twisted my arm to do it. There’s nothing easy about spending a whole day in 11 inch heels and black PVC when you’re 53 – I can tell you that. But being able to work with people who wrote ‘We Don’t Need That Fascist Groove Thing’, which got banned from Radio 1… I loved that at the time, it was so ridiculous. The irony that Radio 1 took it upon themselves to dictate what we could listen to in the name of their opposition to dictators! Hilarious!

What are your major memories of the 80s?
Spending a lot of time in the car [laughs]. I probably spent five years of the eighties in a bloody car getting from A to B, another three years in dressing rooms, hanging around waiting for live TV programmes, and another 2 years applying very, very immaculate red lipstick and sorting out my hair.

After your first single was massive, your following albums – Select and Catch Me If You Can – include moments of pretty weird electronic pop. Was that you pursuing these things?
It was my brother, Ricky, really. He was incredibly ahead of his time when it came to the technology that was available then. In the same way as Martyn Ware, if you were fortunate – or maybe unfortunate, haha! – enough to talk to him about technology. My focus was more as a singer, as a performer, then. I wasn’t writing quite yet.

You also had an American no. 1 of course, with ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’…
That was a funny one, because it was around the time I properly started writing. But we put together that cover ourselves in a very independently-minded way… we weren’t trying to do a tribute to Motown or Vanilla Fudge. And we had a lovely telegram from Lamont Dozier after it became a hit. It went [looks up dreamily]: “I loved this, fantastic, fresh new version, thanks for making me look good.” I’ve still got it framed. It’s one of my most treasure possessions. Also around then, I’d moved away from home for the first time, too…

You were still living at home?
Yep! So for the first years of my pop career, when I came home, I’d normally end up babysitting for my little sister, Roxanne, even if I’d been on Top Of The Pops. Changing nappies and all that – that’s exactly what I was doing! Being with family was good in many ways – it supported me, really. But by the mid-80s, I thought, “I’ll move to London, buy myself a porta-studio, start writing”, and that’s exactly what I did.

Did you have a tough time in any way in the full glare of fame?
In a way. You’re full of insecurities in your 20s anyway – most of the time your heart’s being broken, you’re having a difficult time finding out who the hell you are, and I was trying to do that in the full glare of the public. Also I kept being disappointed when one of my songs didn’t sound as good as Stevie Wonder or Paul Simon [laughs]. But by the time I was working on Close [her platinum-selling sixth album in 1988] I felt much more comfortable. At last, I was contributing, and then that continued thereafter.

I’ve loved reading about a few of the people you knew in the 80s – like Kirsty MacColl. Is it true that you both went out with members of English punks Tenpole Tudor for a bit, and became friends?
Haha, yeah! Kirsty was really sweet. I’ve got photographs of her actually, in the rehearsal rooms in King’s Cross before my first tour. Her just hanging out with us, with her little beret on and that cheeky little grin she always had.

And obviously your dad, Marty Wilde, wrote songs for you… her dad was folk legend Ewan MacColl…
Of course – that connection was important. She appreciated that we were perceived through our fathers, and we had to make our own way. I also loved the way she just didn’t give a shit about what people thought. I’m not like that – I’m not anything as brave – but we respected the differences in each other. She got that I liked hanging out with my glamorous alter-ego and that I loved lipstick and blonde hair, but she was totally the antithesis of that, and it didn’t bother her at all. She didn’t judge me on anything and that’s what I loved about her. I also remember her telling me how much she loved the harmonies to ‘You Came’, that I didn’t go for the obvious things. That really meant a lot coming from her, because first hearing ‘They Don’t Know’ on the radio, in my bedroom, ten years earlier… this kid the same age as me, it had a big effect. She made me think, “Hang on, I’d better get a move on, here.” Yeah, good old Kirsty. [sighs] Really happy memories.

You had your own tiny controversial moment in 1987, when your video for ‘Say You Really Want Me’ – featuring you romping about with boys wearing a pearl necklace – got banned from children’s TV…
I got kind of coerced into that! My director at the time, Greg Laswell – a good friend of mine still, who’s gay – just got a load of gorgeous blokes in, indulging himself. I just went along with it for a laugh. But there were things that were much more controversial then… a few [women] running around getting a lot more out! Like Sam Fox, of course. She wasn’t holding much back in those days, was she?

What do you think of the current furore about women in pop videos, like Miley Cyrus?
I think it’s a great way to sell records and create income and it’s been very cleverly masterminded and yes, she’s young, but hey, I was 20 when I started, and I knew what I was doing. I’m sure she does too. She might be over-egging the pud, and maybe she’ll regret it, but I think she probably won’t. She’ll be allowed to get on and do exactly what she wants. And if you look around there’s other people not doing it, like Adele, who do well. [shakes shoulders] I can’t get my feathers ruffled by it at all. I don’t think there’s much of an argument that really stands up.

At the height of your fame, you famously toured with Michael Jackson…
And famously only met him for a publicity picture!

…and David Bowie two years later.
Yes, on the Greatest Hits tour in 1990. He was this very approachable, nice guy who’d just pop his head round in the dressing room and say, ‘Have a good one’ [swoons]. He was a private guy otherwise, but that shows the kind of person he is. I was in heaven, hearing those songs every night. I was a huge fan of Hunky Dory when I was growing up, and Pin Ups, Young Americans, Scary Monsters… the more commercial stuff. And it’s not surprising he came back, really, is it? It would have been surprising if he hadn’t. But I’m not a fan in the way that Boy George is, who’s been trying to be David Bowie forever…[laughs] I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that!

The thing Quietus readers would probably remember about you most in the 1990s would be a certain moment on The Day Today, when you were asked about the homeless being clamped…
Oh God, yes [shakes head]. Obviously the question came out of the left-field, and I wasn’t canny enough to really fully compute what he’d said. But there was such a thing about homelessness at the time, and these terrible measures, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some of the tactics they employed were heavy-handed. But had I really thought it through for a moment – it was being recorded live, you don’t always think things through as you should – I would have realised I was being had. But I don’t mind being laughed at: that’s something I really don’t mind, and I think that’s kept me sane. My ability to laugh at myself and allow others to laugh at me has been my saving grace.

Then you sort of retired from pop around 1996…
Yeah, but it felt like time. I had a sense that I’d kind of outlived my usefulness as a pop star, and other people could carry on the tradition. [smiles] Let ’em take it! And it’s not like when I got out of the industry that everyone was writing me letters to come back [laughs]… I don’t get many of those letters. But it had been a long time, you know – 1980 to 1996 – sixteen years. I’d got married and wanted to have kids, so had kids, brought them up, did other things, and slowly got back into music. And it feels great these days, having one foot in the present, writing and covering interesting songs, and having one foot in the past.

And you’re happy looking back the 80s now?
I’m really happy embracing the past. I enjoy singing ‘Kids In America’ now more at 53 than I did when I was 23. I’ve got all the right attitude for it now and the humour that’s required to enjoy it these days – which a lot in pop music, and much more than is often displayed by a lot of pop stars. I also love that we’ve all grown up together, me and the audience, and that they accept me for being who I am… married, 53, not size 8 any more. Saying that, I still pout more than probably is sensible for a woman of my age – but I do it with a wry smile.