Nik Kershaw: Recording Secrets
As well as writing, singing and playing on his new single 'When A Heart Beats', Nik Kershaw also took the credit for its production. In an interview with Nick Webb he displays a rarely seen side of his character and discusses his knowledge of recording studio technology and approach to songwriting.
With two first-class albums behind him and a string of chart hits, Nik Kershaw needs little or no introduction.
This year has seen him appearing live at the British Recording Awards (BPI) where he was nominated for 'Best Album Of 1984' for Human Racing, 'Best Newcomer' and 'Best British Male Artist'. A world tour followed with his band The Krew, culminating in a set at Live Aid this summer.
Now he's busy writing the third album and with the release of a one-off single, a taster perhaps for what's to come, Nik took time off to talk to Nick Webb about his approach to songwriting, playing and recording. Photographs: Paul Cox, Mike Prior. Courtesy of Idols.
Nik Kershaw's new single 'When A Heart Beats' sees him taking over the producer's chair vacated by the much-respected Peter Collins. I asked Nik if this meant he had complete artistic control over the mixing and producing of that track?
"Yes. It's the very first track I've had the production credit on actually. A lot of the hard work was removed though, in terms of production, because I'd done some work preparing the arrangements before we went into the studio. At home I've got some new 'toys' that are well useful for that, like the Yamaha QX1. It's a digital sequencer... This is a technical magazine isn't it? You know, I could never talk to Smash Hits like this!"
He laughs and continues. "It drives MIDI keyboards, which is great for me because really I haven't got any technique on keyboards. Now, though, I can just play anything I want using the QX1 and the only limit is my own musical imagination."
The professionalism and care that went into the new single undoubtedly shows a future top producer in the making. Was there just a hint of the Trevor Horn approach on this track? Perhaps an oblique reference to Horn's production on Yes' 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart'?
"I thought exactly the same thing... What happened was, I'd finished recording the track and almost finished producing it and there was a sort of accent in each verse, just before I start singing, where there's a word missing and then some big noise happens. As we were doing it I thought 'Hang on Nik, this is a bit Trevor Horn-like, isn't it? ' And it was because of listening to that track - 'Owner Of A Lonely Heart'.
That sort of thing happens quite often actually; everybody's influenced by what they listen to over the years, whether they like it or not. Sometimes influences come out without any premeditation at all and you don't realise until afterwards."
The last two albums, Human Racing and The Riddle, were both recorded at Trevor Horn's Sarm Studios, which was where Nik fell in love with much of the new studio technology - and, in particular, the Solid State Logic automated mixing desk. However, the new single was recorded at Swanyard Studios in Islington, London. How did that come about?
"We were looking for another studio, mainly for a change, and one of the old engineers from Sarm happened to be working at Swanyard and he recommended it. It's a new studio, only been opened about six months, and we thought we'd go down and check it out. And it was much to our liking, so we booked some time there."
Did you take an engineer with you?
"No. I knew the engineer there quite well anyway because I'd worked with him before, but I certainly wouldn't turn up at any studio and use the house engineer regardless. You can come unstuck like that.
I do choose my engineers carefully and I know who I'm going to be using for what particular job."
So who else helped you on the single?
"The band's keyboard player was around to put down some of the tracks that I didn't have stored as sequences on the QX1, and I actually sat him down in a room somewhere to figure out how to work the new Emulator which we'd hired for the session and weren't too familiar with. Charlie Morgan played the drums. He's now playing with Elton John I think. He's done all my other albums and as it was the first single I was producing myself, I felt I had a responsibility to get the job done, so I got Charlie in to do it."
"The bass line, believe it or not, has about 18 different basses on it... not that it sounds like that mind you. There wasn't a bass player, just different keyboards that were sequenced off the QX1. I played guitar on it too."
"When I'm in the studio, the band are generally always aware of my situation and they know that I'm going to do what I have to do in order to get the very best out of whatever song I'm recording. If it means using a machine, I'll use a machine; or if it entails employing another musician, I'll do that."
"The single took longer to record than it should have done really. It took seven days but I rarely work after 8 pm at night. I usually arrive at the studio at 11 am and leave at 8 pm unless there's something on the boil, in which case I finish it and then go. We keep pretty strict hours you know. I find that when you've been in the studio all day, most things done at that time might sound great but when you come back in the morning and listen to the tapes in the control room, you'll probably want to re-do them anyway. It just avoids wasted effort."
Nik obviously feels he's well-known enough to attempt a 'one-off' single as a taster for the next album. He's yet to finish writing the songs for that and estimates he'll be recording by January and finishing around March. Was there any risk in releasing the single first without an album to back it up ?
"If you're an unknown artist, I'd probably say yes, because everyone would say 'Who's this geezer, where can we hear some more?'. It has been done in a lot of cases recently: Tears For Fears are a prime example. They had 'Mother's Talk' out and 'Shout', both months before the album - four months in fact."
"We had to do it this way because we were in the situation where we had two albums actually released in nine months, one in March '84 and one in November '84, so everyone was expecting another record in nine months and they obviously weren't going to get it because of our touring commitments all over the world. So there had to be something to bridge that gap between the two, and that's why we did the single. We could've maybe released another track off the last album but I couldn't really see the point."
Nik reckons he can record the next album, as yet untitled, in only about eight to ten weeks - far less than it took to record the last two. Because of the new technology available to him, he can prepare much of the time-consuming work at home. He's very pleased with the way 'When A Heart Beats' turned out but feels concerned that it may not be as 'big' a chart hit as some of his previous singles.
"It came in at 33 which isn't all that wonderful, so the record company's sweating a little bit. I don't expect it to be a really big record quite honestly because I suppose you could say it's slightly less commercial than some of my other stuff. Personally, I think it's one of the best tracks I've done, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's gonna sell - which, after all, is what the record company's interested in. The only reason I've got to worry is that I might not be given a chance to produce the next album myself."
Like many of today's best songwriters, Nik Kershaw doesn't limit himself to writing on just one instrument. In fact, he finds himself thinking up tunes in his head and arranging the instruments around that initial melodic idea.
"I hear chord changes as well. I mean, I couldn't tell you what they are, or anything, I'd have to sit down with a guitar to find out. Most of the time though, that's what happens. If a melody or a tune comes to me then I usually hear the backing track arrangement as well. It's just a general picture. It might be just eight bars or something, and you say to yourself, 'Is this a chorus, a verse, a middle eight or what? ' That's the stage at which I sit down with all the gear I've got at home and try and work the idea around. It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle really."
Writing, arranging and producing can be a lonely business. Every composer has to feed off somebody - however precious they are towards their music - and Nik Kershaw's no exception.
"I've always worked in the studio with an engineer that knows me quite well and knows how to react to certain things I do.
He's not going to record anything that's crap - that's for sure. He'll turn round to me and say 'That's rubbish Nik!', which helps. Also, any musician that I bring in knows that I expect their feedback as well."
"It's not totally a one-man job. I feed off everybody, you have to. You can't do it totally on your own because it gets very lonely. You start having self-doubts. You can really get yourself in a state, if you're not careful - especially when you're working with machines."
"Studios are the worst places in the world for doing your brain in. It's so easy to get yourself caught up in the technical side. You know, when we recorded 'Wouldn't It Be Good' we had about twenty guitars on that one track, all playing single lines and because of that the harmonies all sounded great with each other. But when we tried to overdub other things on it, like bass and keyboards, we all looked at each other and said, 'That's out of tune'. So we tried tuning all the other instruments to these guitars and it just wouldn't work. We were going crazy. We put some music down on tape anyway and left it. Then when we came back to it, we found we'd been working on this song for a good hour before we remembered it was supposed to be out of tune! And nobody had noticed. It was just a case of us getting in a state about absolutely nothing, which happens all the time in studios."
When it comes to guitar solos, Nik Kershaw is nothing if not thorough. His explanation of the novel way in which he constructed the solo on 'When A Heart Beats' is evidence enough of that fact.
"Basically with the guitar solo on the new single, they're strange chords to busk over - it's just a tone difference in pitch between the backing chords and it's difficult because there aren't that many notes common to both scales. So, having written the song with those chords, and decided to have a guitar solo over that section, I'd landed myself with a problem."
"You see, I'm not a natural enough guitar player to just think of a note and play it instantly, to totally busk it as I'm going along like Allan Holdsworth or someone may do. So I'm forced to sit down and work something out."
"On this occasion we didn't have time, so what we did was basically to keep running the backing track and I just kept playing something different each time on the guitar, trying to open the song up a bit. We'd maybe get four bars in, and keep it, then go on a bit and get four bars more. Then when we'd got the whole thing, we'd try and get some sort of feeling of continuity in it."
"Once I'd written it and got all the sections down on tape then I listened to the whole lot again, remembered what notes I'd used and just played it in one complete take! Some purists would no doubt say what I did was cheating, but I'd say we got the job done in the end - the solo worked well, and that's all that matters."
The idea of recording a whole series of overdubs, piecing them together and then learning what you have on tape is certainly different.
"The better way of creating a good solo, actually, is to keep playing back the rhythm track to help generate ideas and just begin singing anything over the top. There isn't so much limitation in voice technique, it's just your own imagination. I mean, I can usually come out with something suitable. I get that down on tape then I usually try and copy what I've sung on guitar. "
Like most genuinely creative artists, there are aspects of Nik Kershaw's musical personality that cannot be contained in his present, pop orientated career. He says he is often tempted to break out and do something outrageous.
"I think if I do, I'll probably do it under some ridiculous pseudonym. I'd love to do something a bit off the wall. I'm always getting ideas... ideas that I think are too ridiculous to use and have to throwaway, but I never do! There's this pile of stuff I've recorded in the corner of my house that I want to release one day on record. It's odd little bits of old song demos and I've got a sort of mental pile in the corner of my mind as well. Things that I can't use: different sorts of drum programs in unusual time signatures like 13/8 that I don't think would be really appreciated! "
"I'll do it one day though. I mean the record company wouldn't have it, they probably wouldn't release it. I sort of have little goes, now and again, to test the water but I think that's as far as it should go. I don't think I'm really in a position to sit down and say: 'Right, sod all this, I'm gonna do something completely different'. I don't think it's fair to anybody. It's not fair to the record company, it's not fair to the people who are expected to buy my records. Plus the fact, I wouldn't even get it to the people who'd want to buy that type of record anyway. Anyone who's into the sort of stuff I'm talking about, probably wouldn't dream of buying a Nik Kershaw album in a million years!."
Kershaw likes to write his own lyrics after the bulk of the music has been composed, singing whatever phrases come to mind over the top. Paul McCartney once said that the original lyric to 'Yesterday' was 'Scrambled eggs'. For Nik Kershaw 'Don Quixote' was a piece of cheese!
"I don't think of a subject and then write a lyric about it, I can't actually do that. It never works for some reason. Usually when I start a song, I've got notes in my head for some sort of tune, and maybe vague sounds of words. Very occasionally I've got two or three words that fit together in a hookline, but usually I've got nothing. So when I've put the music down, I just keep playing it back to myself, sort of warbling over the top using words that have got the same kind of lilt to them or sound to them."
"The lyric that ended up as 'Don Quixote', was actually 'Gorgonzola'! So I was walking about the house singing 'gor-gon-zola' all day long, trying to think of a lyric. Basically the music was a sort of Samba thing, which reminded me of Spain, and Don Quixote happened to come to mind so I thought, 'Why not write a song about Don Quixote ?'. So I went and bought the book."
Amongst the lyricists he most admires are Joni Mitchell:
"I find her lyrics quite amazing even if I don't understand all of them. I also like Donald Fagen's work, the ex-Steely Dan bloke. His lyrics are usually very interesting and very clever."
Now that Nik has adopted the mantle of record producer, he is most sensitive to potential criticisms of over production in his work and the possibilities of losing the 'soul' of an idea with over reliance on modern technology.
"I think it can be a danger, but you just have to judge for yourself, really. If there's no soul in the first place, there's no technology on earth that's gonna get it for you! The only disadvantage about all these wonderful machines is that they do allow people with no imagination and soul to create acceptable radio music, or whatever you may like to call it."
"But I think that anyone who has been doing it with real people beforehand, or vaguely knows what they're doing, will still end up with the same kind of soul in their music. I like to believe that. I don't necessarily think it's an on-going thing anyway. I think there's gonna be a sort of backlash against this technology at some stage in the future. There are already people like The Waterboys, or The Smiths, who refuse to use any synthesizers, which is a bit of a stupid thing to do just on principle, but I understand what they mean."
"Technology just sort of intrigues me. I like to master it if I can. It's a very satisfying thing when Ido. For an actual songwriter and arranger like me, it's a real godsend. I can do things with all this equipment that I could never hope to explain to other musicians. I get keyboard parts played exactly the way I want them played if I use a sequencer, even though I've got no technique of my own. So from my point of view, it's great!"
On the guitar side of his equipment, Nik Kershaw hasn't shyed away from current technology either, having employed a Roland guitar synthesizer for the guitar solos on two of the singles from his last album - 'Wide Boy' and 'Wild Horses'. Apart from the Roland, Nik has always favoured guitars hand-built for him by Colchester guitar-maker Dave Gladden.
"I've just got a new one actually, which is a rather beautiful guitar. It's basically a Strat cos I haven't got one - I've got a Strat-shaped guitar but it's got humbuckers on it. This new one's a Strat with real Strat pickups plus an active EQ - so it's very bright; it's like a caricature of a Stratocaster, really. Some of the sounds are so extreme, they're unusable, but there is a lot of variety and it's a lovely guitar to play. I got it just a week before I went into Swanyard Studios to record 'When A Heart Beats' so I used it for the solo going through a Dean Markley amp."
Success has given Nik the opportunity of setting up his own studio at home which he uses to record song demos and for preparing programs for the various synthesizers he owns. It also keeps him in touch with the mechanics of the recording process, which he sees as a great help in his new-found production role.
"As far as desks go, at home I've got an RSD 16 into 16 which is basically ample for what I require. That's patched into a Fostex B16 tape recorder. I've got a rack full of effects which I use on stage for guitar anyway but they're useful for this set-up too. It's got the Roland SDE3000 digital delay unit, an Ibanez harmoniser, a Yamaha compressor, and a Roland Dimension D."
"Keyboard-wise, I've just got a Prophet 2000 sampler which is great fun. I've got a Roland Jupiter 6 and two Yamaha DX7s; an Oberheim OBXa synth which I'm just about to have adapted for MIDI so that I can sequence it from the QX1; and there's a beaten-up old Emulator 1 sampler, which I probably won't use any more now I've got the Prophet 2000."
"The worst thing with all this gear is the boxful of manuals I've got to wade through every evening before I can get something done! The manual to the Prophet 2000 is a nightmare. It's like 'War And Peace' - very comprehensive. I'm just too impatient.
What I usually do is to get the machine and start pressing buttons... but I can only get so much done before I get stuck and refer to the manuals!"
With the equipment he has bought recently and his increasing knowledge and use of modern technology, Nik Kershaw's next album promises to be a very exciting one on several levels. And if the current single is anything to go by, it'll be far and away his best yet.
Interview by Nick Webb
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