Interview: Jay Kay - In at the deep end
There's more to life as a pop star than selling 10 million records. Jay Kay, branded `the prat in the hat' by the critics, has stalkers, Denise Van Outen, and a mighty big mortgage on his mind. At his country mansion he talks revealingly to Lisa Markwell. Photographs by Justin Westover
Lisa Markwell is the editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was previously executive editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday and has edited the features pages, and both the Saturday and Sunday supplements. She writes comment pieces for the papers and restaurant reviews for the New Review. Lisa has worked across a variety of newspapers and magazines and can now tick off every publication cycle from daily to quarterly. She is an enthusiastic foodie, mother of two teenagers and drives an electric car. She is writing a book about adoption.
Saturday 22 May 1999
Except, the starter home is an 11-bedroomed Georgian mansion in 72 acres, the job is playing live all around the world and trying to top a multi- million-selling last album, the car's a Ferrari 550 Maranello and the girlfriend is one of the sexiest women in the world, so the picture looks a little different. You're Jay Kay.
On the eve of the release of Jamiroquai's fourth album, Synkronized, the singer sits in his back garden and ponders what a long, strange journey it has been. He's the one-hit wonder that wasn't, the "cat in the hat" who very quickly became the prat in the hat, with the annoying voice and the daft dance, and a logic that decreed environmental concerns and owning seven sports cars weren't mutually exclusive. Since Jay Kay launched himself on the public consciousness in 1993, like a hipper, thinner, even more mouthy forerunner to Robbie Williams, the criticisms have been many and varied. One stands out and is often repeated when Jay Kay is mentioned: he sounds exactly like Stevie Wonder.
Success, as they say, is the best revenge. "I feel like after selling eight million copies of the last album, we've been around long enough to rise above the criticism, really," is Jay's considered response. And besides, "I may be the prat in the hat, that's cool, but I drive an Aston Martin DB5. Prat I may be, but a prat with an incredibly large amount of style." All this said, of course, with his trademark sly grin. "I'm in this absolutely gorgeous manor house with acres of quite beautiful countryside. I've got trout in the river, an organic vegetable garden, I've got my work 40 yards from my home. I don't mind being criticised, but where are they criticising from? Which hut are they criticising me from, exactly?"
Well, quite. It's hard to argue when you're a guest at the manor house, watching the two gardeners mow the lawn, the swimming pool being renovated and the cleaner work her way around the sprawling abode. I'd be prepared to put up with some flak for this. Despite the mixed reactions of the music critics, Jamiroquai's particular brand of loose grooves have always found favour with both the dinner party and the dancefloor sets. Synkronized takes the band in a disco direction. Radio and remix friendly, loud enough to fill a stadium, it should consolidate Jay's position in the pop firmament and rack up a few more royalty cheques. Jamiroquai, it can confidently be predicted, will have another hit with Synkronized and its distractingly catchy first single, "Canned Heat". (Typical lyric: "All the nasty things that people say, well I'm gonna make it anyway.")
It is, I point out, the first album to which normal people, people who don't bend and twitch alarmingly like Jay, can dance (although the first video has all the familiar tics in spades). Jay, whippet thin, wispy bearded and handsome in what his girlfriend accurately calls a dirty-looking way, sniggers. He knows that the demarcation line between black and white music has blurred since he was first criticised for ripping off R&B and soul. "It's ironic how it's gone full circle - I'm the white guy doing black music and all of a sudden we've got black guys sampling white guys. We've had five or six requests to use our tracks to rap over." That, and the small matter of Stevie Wonder himself congratulating Jay Kay on his music. "After years of people saying `Oh you're just copying this guy', the guy himself actually appreciates what you're doing - cool. I was nearly in tears."
And the last time he was nearly in tears was when he was "betrayed" by former bass player Stuart Zender, whose desire to "do his own thing" led to his departure from Jamiroquai at a inconvenient time. "We'd written an entire album," remembers Jay, "and then we had to say bye-bye to Stuart." Loud, cheeky and primarily interested in the faster and finer things in life he may be, but Jay knows his way round a contract. "I decided for the sake of any legal bullshit that we would rewrite the whole album again - from scratch."
This unexpected development has had two important effects. Zender counted himself out of a great deal of money (for although Kay is the only one signed with a lucrative eight-album deal to Sony, he shares royalties with his musicians). Second, the resulting rewrite has made for a tighter, more angry collection of songs (apart, that is, from two deeply romantic tracks written undoubtedly for Jay's beloved Denise Van Outen). At the risk of incurring Jay's wrath, it's fair to say that if you like Earth Wind and Fire, Donald Byrd, Sly Stone and, yes, Stevie Wonder, you'll love Synkronized. "Where? Where am I a plagiarist?" he hollers indignantly. "There's not one thing on that album we've taken, we don't do that. For the whole recording period, I don't listen to one outside influence ... "
The album was recorded at Jay's new studio, conveniently placed between the house and the pool, and the band - Toby Smith, Derrick Mackenzie, Simon Katz, Nick Fife and Wallace Buchanan - are in the converted outhouse rehearsing for a tour. Jay yells encouragement from his bench by the lake, where he's tucking into bacon sandwiches, prepared by the housekeeper. His good-natured tirade continues.
"When I listen to Radio 1 and hear five different tracks in a row using old disco samples, well that's plagiarism, that's taking other people's music." Jay intends to ask Liam Howlett of The Prodigy to remix one "disco, fucking, pounding dance" track.
You won't be hearing the naive, if affecting polemic against environmental destruction that made his first album Emergency on Planet Earth so newsworthy. He's more circumspect about singing his politics these days. "After a while you realise that people won't boogie and dance to those tunes." However, the millennium is preying on his mind and he's off again. "No one has bothered to read Nostradumus's prediction that the world will end in 1999, and that it will start in Yugoslavia. Everyone seems to have forgotten that and the fact that he got the other two Antichrists right. All he has to do is get the third ... " His voice trails off. As he surveys the rambling garden, concerns about the environment are not far from his mind. "The other night, I had a meal that all came from here; rainbow trout, new potatoes, green beans, runner beans. Lovely." He'll be all right if the shops run out of food.
Jay Kay is now a bona fide "celebrity". Not because he's sold 10 million albums and conquered America. Not because Synkronized will earn him more fans and more millions. No, Jay is a star because he's got the three touchstones of modern celebrity: a stalker, a kiss-and-tell and a famous girlfriend. Nearly 10 years into a career that's seen him win both Grammys and that unshakeable epithet "the prat in the hat", Jay Kay makes regular appearances in the "red top" newspapers. "I read the other day that I was supposed to have been in a lap-dancing club, I ask you ... I've never been near one, I can never understand the point of looking at something you can't touch. Anyway, with Denise Van Outen, you get a lap dance every day." (Curiously, he refers to his girlfriend by her full name throughout the interview.)
In typical cocky style, he plays up to his enviable position. "I'm sleeping with the pin-up and the tabloids hate it." But beneath the bravado, there lies a tender-hearted fellow who's just met his girlfriend's parents for the first time. "I cracked a couple of bad jokes and it all went very well ... " he quips.
Are they about to settle down and start filling up those 11 bedrooms? "Well, you never know, do you," he starts off, confidently. Is Denise pregnant? I ask, outright. "Well, all I can say is you never know," he continues maddeningly, with a chuckle. "You never, ever know."
Further examination would be pointless, but if the pair haven't huddled excitedly around a Predictor kit yet, it's only a matter of time. Just don't expect to hear about it in Hello! magazine. "We've turned them down about six times already."
So it's all Versace parties and Elle Style Awards is it, now they're a fabulous duo? "I don't think we are," he muses. "I'm Jamiroquai, and she's Denise Van Outen, separately. The Denise Van Outen I know goes out and works bloody hard, does her own thing, never bothers me when I'm doing mine. It's very different from being a very rich pop star with a wife that does bugger all, you know ... who just gets off on being with a celebrity."
If this is a subtle dig at a previous girlfriend, who he has charmlessly referred to elsewhere as an "old cow", he says no more. But there's no doubt that he's in love with Denise and the pair's equally tenacious, work- and fun-loving temperaments probably mean they're a match made in heaven. Jay thinks being an only child has helped him decide who to trust. "I'm pretty sharp on who's who, the radar's out all the time."
Of his appearance in a kiss-and-tell incident, Jay laughs long and hard. "Oh yes, I enjoyed that. It made good reading." But then he would say that after being called a "four times a night superstud". Seventeen-year- old student Hal Jenkins described their encounter thus: "When we took off our clothes he was very skinny ... but he was tender and loving." Jay is pragmatic: "It's all a giggle, she got paid. I've done her a favour."
Get him on the subject of stalkers, however, and the good humour disappears. Famously Jay was clocked doing 111mph in his Ferrari racing home after a stalker broke in. "It comes with the territory, I suppose," he starts reluctantly. "But they just have to learn the lesson that I'm not the type of guy to get too interested in. Because I take matters into my own hands and if people want to come along and invade my privacy they will suffer the consequences, which will be very grim indeed."
He professes not to know where his female stalker ended up, but was horrified to hear that a recent feature in The Times started with almost exact directions to his home. "That's why I want people to stay outside the gate, because I'm a person as well as Jamiroquai, I'm Jay, Jason Kay and I've got my own privacy. I understand that some of that is to do with the public supporting you, but that's still no excuse." He looks perturbed. "And with what's happened with Jill Dando, it's so irresponsible."
He takes a tough line with anyone, fan or fanatic, who comes on to his territory. "I caught some lads come screeching up the drive here in a Mini the other day. I said `What the fuck do you think you're doing?' and they said `Oh sorry, we just thought ... ' `What, you thought it was a public fucking road? Even though there's a great big sign that says private?'" Any potential trespassers should be feeling nervous about now. "I thought, if you hit my dog, or one of my cats, or one of the cars, I will kill you, with my bare hands ... They're not real fans, they're not real anything. It's like saying a hooligan is a proper football fan. They're not." The sly grin is gone, replaced by grim determination.
A quick tour of the house restores Jay's good humour. "The woman who owned it before me had the most appalling taste I've ever seen," he banters, dashing Challenge Anneka style from room to room, floor to floor. He's in the process of redecorating. There are "shag pads" for the band, should they want to sleep over, with richly coloured carpets and walls; a snooker room; a wood-panelled library and, as they say in the trade, beautifully appointed reception rooms. Jay has, I can report, more than 50 pairs of trainers, and a TV the size of a small car. All, he freely admits, gifts.
He'd like to do more charity work this year, especially for the homeless organisation Shelter, but as head of a "corporation" that employs over 30 people, "all needing to get paid, to convince them all to do something for nothing ain't that easy".
Meanwhile Jay is developing a range of clothing with Boss and a deal with Levi's, which all add to the coffers. The pleas to save the planet haven't gone away: it's just that worries about the bills have got more pressing - and the responsibilities that this slight 29-year-old has on his shoulders become apparent. "If this album flopped, I'd be in a worse situation than before I started. It's all got to be paid for," he says, surveying the acres, "and Monsieur Kay does actually have a mortgage."
"I want a number one album and single here and a top 10 album in America. That would be bloody lovely, anything above that is a bonus." There are, he wearily points out, another four albums after this one to go before his contract with Sony is fulfilled. "God, I wish I'd signed for five."
Jay springs up, Tiggerish, to play with his dog. He can pretend to be put-upon, but knows that, really, life is sweet and the critics can go hang. "All I want to know is that I can keep this house for the rest of my days and I want to make good music ... and have the odd sports car in the garage, obviously!"
If it all goes to plan, Jay, Denise, Luga the Alsatian, Fritz and Tigger the cats (or Tits and Frigger, as Denise calls them), the 72 acres, sports cars, trout in the lake, the nesting swan and the thousands of trees can all live happily ever after. I think it will.
Jamiroquai tour the UK from 7 June. The album, `Synkronized' is released on 14 June
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