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Gary Kemp: ‘My younger self is trapped in a bell jar’

The former songwriter and guitarist of Spandau Ballet talks to Charlotte Cripps about his first solo album in 25 years, the therapy of songwriting, and the ups and downs of the 1980s

Wednesday 14 July 2021 06:32 BST
Kemp is trying to move on from his Spandau Ballet past with new solo album ‘INSOLO’
Kemp is trying to move on from his Spandau Ballet past with new solo album ‘INSOLO’ (Malcom Venville)

Gary Kemp never escaped the Eighties. “It’s kind of unhealthy,” says the former songwriter and guitarist of Spandau Ballet, one of the biggest bands of that decade. “My younger self is trapped in a bell jar. I see a lot of me as a young man. It keeps getting presented to me. And I know that version of myself more than any other.”

The 1980s version was showy and androgynous – all big hair, deerstalkers, tartan sashes and zoot suits, his music at the forefront of new wave. The 2021 version, 61 years old and speaking to me over Zoom from his studio at the top of his house in London’s Fitzrovia, is quite ordinary and cosy in comparison. Kemp – who lives with his wife, the costume designer Lauren Barber, and their three sons, Milo Wolf, Kit, and Rex – is more about the school run these days than the 1980s Blitz scene. His greyish hair is no longer big; the zoot suit has been replaced by a black T-shirt and headphones. There is a real earnestness about him – just like the songs on his new album, INSOLO, which we are here to discuss. 

The record – which Kemp says is a “deeply personal form of self-therapy” – is his first solo album in 25 years and is all about confronting the past. While his 1995 debut solo album Little Bruises was about the break-up of his first marriage to Sadie Frost – with whom he shares a son, Finlay, now 31 – INSOLO is about looking at his life through the rear-view mirror.

From “I Remember You”, with its floaty guitars, to the Fifties Americana-inflected “I Am the Past”, the songs deal with “feelings of loss and time lost” and memories of his younger self. “I found myself trying to write about what it’s like to have more behind you than in front of you,” says Kemp.

The music is cinematic, with hints of the 1970s soft rock of Supertramp – a far cry from the catchy big pop choruses of Spandau Ballet. The band, formed when Kemp was 20 with his bass player brother Martin, lead singer Tony Hadley, saxophonist Steve Norman and drummer John Keeble in 1979, had 23 hit singles. Kemp wrote them all. There was the twitchy 1980 synth-pop song “To Cut a Long Story Short”; 1983 power ballad “True”; and that same year’s “Gold”, which millennials might recognise from the Bold washing powder adverts.

They were forever in the UK charts, and sold over 25 million albums worldwide – until the band went on a two-decade hiatus when the Kemp brothers were cast in The Krays biopic in 1990. The band reformed in 2009 for a patch-up tour but there were plenty of ups and downs in between: in 1999 Hadley, Norman and Keeble launched a brutal battle for royalties, which Kemp won. Hadley left the band in 2017 and they all threw in the towel two years later.

Kemp is quite matter-of-fact about the band’s tumultuous years now. “You know, you’re going from euphoria, and the greatest thing that’s ever happened to you, and surfing the wave of creativity to being hugely depressed and not being able to get on with each other,” he says.

“You go from a high to a low and that’s normal I think for a lot of bands… any band that pretends it doesn’t, its just got a good PR machine.”

Kemp suffered intense anxiety in the Spandau Ballet years, and calls the songwriting process “nerve-wracking”. “I wasn’t just writing for myself,” he says. “I was writing for the band, and I was writing for their financial security. I was the one who had to make sure the songs were as good. It’s a fear… that you’re not going to write as well as you should. And when you’ve had a big hit record, then you’re your own worst enemy.”

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Spandau Ballet: saxophonist Steve Norman, guitarist/songwriter Gary Kemp, drummer John Keeble, basist Martin Kemp and lead singer Tony Hadley (Martyn Goddard/Shutterstock)

The writing process for INSOLO was less painful. But it was not exactly straightforward. Kemp wrote the album during lockdown last year, when he couldn’t get into the studio with musicians. He decided to call up some mates, including Queen’s Roger Taylor, who had their own studios and could contribute remotely. Taylor ended up playing drums on “Too Much” – a melancholic song about “a feeling of being overpowered by the global bad news that constantly beats us down” and that “feeling of helplessness”.

He also called on Pink Floyd’s Guy Pratt, The Feeling’s Richard Jones, and his brother Martin to play bass guitar, while the Rolling Stones’ Matt Clifford performs French horn on a few of the tracks, such as “In Solo”, which was inspired by the “loneliness of people in the city” that he saw in Edward Hopper’s paintings.

Kemp – who famously bought a William Morris chair aged 23 with his first Spandau Ballet paycheck – has a keen eye for aesthetics. “When I’m writing I do think very cinematically and visually,” he says. Kemp is a collector of Edward William Godwin’s furniture and says “if it wasn’t for being in a band, I’d probably want to be an antiques dealer”.

The Kemp brothers as Ronnie and Reggie Kray in the 1990 biopic (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

When he’s not writing music and collecting interiors, Kemp is making his podcast, The Rockonteurs, or starring in the wonderfully weird spoof mockumentary The Kemps: All True. “I liked the idea of putting a pin in the bubble of the pomposity of rock music,” he says, “and exposing it for its huge ego.”

He also has a successful stage career. He’s appeared in Jamie Lloyd’s darkly funny revival of The Homecoming at Trafalgar Studios in 2015, and in Lloyd’s Pinter double bill Party Time/ Celebration in 2019, alongside John Simm and Celia Imrie.

As actors, however, he and Martin will always be synonymous with the Kray twins. When Kemp landed the role of Ronnie in Peter Medak’s The Krays, he visited the gangster in Broadmoor. “It was intense … he was drilling into my eyes,” he says. The film was a critical success, but the Krays “hated” it, particularly the fact their mother Violet – played by Billie Whitelaw – swore.

Kemp couldn’t watch Tom Hardy playing both the Kray brothers in 2015’s Legend. “I’d be too bitter and twisted,” he says, adding that his greatest relief in older age is “not having to make anything up anymore”. Kemp will also never forget meeting Whitney Houston and Keven Costner while filming The Bodyguard in 1992.

Starstruck: alongside Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston and Michele Lamar Richards in ‘The Bodyguard’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

“Whitney was a beautiful person and I spent four months with her. And this was all before she was broken, really. She was a very down to earth human …she used to sing around the makeup trailer all the time…that was mind-blowing. And her humility… because she never did acting before, and she’s playing the lead. And she took a lot of advice and she worked really, really hard.”

As does Kemp. He’s done enough now, he says, that he could hide away and “try and become a new Peter Gabriel or Brian Eno… be a mysterious personality who makes arty music”, but he has “too much stuff I like to do”.

From a young age, Kemp was encouraged to be curious about the world. He grew up in Islington, north London. His parents – Frank, who worked in a factory as a printer and Eileen, a seamstress and dinner lady – were “extremely poor”. “I remember seeing my mother crying quite a bit because she couldn’t have the money to buy us things,” says Kemp. “But they gave us an extraordinary amount of attention and love.” They bought him a guitar at 11 and he was always a big reader: “My dad took me to the library... we never had books in the house.” By the time Kemp was 17, he was reading Sartre. It “helped with the songwriting”; the hit “True” is littered with lyrics adapted from Nabokov’s Lolita.  

Kemp (second from left) suffered intense anxiety in the Spandau Ballet years and calls the songwriting process ‘nerve-wracking’ (Graham Smith/Pymca/Shutterstock)

Kemp’s mother put a “certain amount of pressure” on him to include his younger brother Martin in Spandau Ballet. But unlike many musical siblings, he says, “there was no competition between us or any jealousy or being envious of each other”.

“There was a sense of, we’re doing this for the love of what we’ve been given,” he says.

Kemp’s attachment to Spandau Ballet and the band’s long goodbye may have meant it’s taken 25 years for him to release more new work on his own. But perhaps INSOLO will help him put the 1980s to rest, once and for all.

‘INSOLO’ is released on 16 July

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