gary Kemp has never escaped the ’80s. “It’s a bit unhealthy,” says the former songwriter and guitarist of Spandau Ballet, one of the greatest groups of this decade. “My young self is trapped in a bell. I see myself a lot as a young man. It is always presented to me. And I know this version of myself more than any other.
The 1980s version was gaudy and androgynous – all the hair, the deer stalkers, the tartan belts and zoot costumes, his music cutting edge of the new wave. The 2021 version, 61 years old and speaking to me on Zoom from his studio at the top of his house in Fitzrovia, London, is quite ordinary and comfortable by comparison. Kemp – who lives with his wife, costume designer Lauren Barber, and their three sons, Milo Wolf, Kit and Rex – is more school-focused these days than the 1980s Blitz scene. bigger ; the zoot suit has been replaced by a black t-shirt and headphones. There is a real seriousness to 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 aims to confront the past. While his first solo album of 1995 Small blues was about breaking up his first marriage to Sadie Frost – with whom he shares a son, Finlay, now 31 – INSOLO is to look at his life through the rearview mirror.
From “I Remember You”, with its floating guitars, to “I Am the Past” with American accents of the 50s, the songs deal with “feelings of loss and lost time” and memories of his youth. “I found myself trying to write about what it’s like to have more behind you than in front of you,” Kemp says.
The music is cinematic, with allusions to Supertramp’s 1970s soft rock – a far cry from the big catchy pop choruses of Spandau Ballet. The group, formed when Kemp was 20 with his bassist brother Martin, singer Tony Hadley, saxophonist Steve Norman and drummer John Keeble in 1979, had 23 hit singles. Kemp wrote them all. There was the booming 1980 synth-pop song “To Cut a Long Story Short”; 1983 power ballad “True”; and the “Gold” of the same year, which millennials might recognize in Bold laundry powder ads.
They have always been on the UK charts and sold over 25 million albums worldwide – until the group took a two-decade hiatus when the Kemp brothers were cast for the biopic The Krays in 1990. The group reformed in 2009 for a tinkering tour. But there have been a lot of ups and downs in between: in 1999, Hadley, Norman and Keeble started a brutal battle for royalties, which Kemp won. Hadley left the group in 2017 and they all threw in the towel two years later.
Kemp is pretty neutral about the group’s tumultuous years now. “You know, you come out of the euphoria and the greatest thing that has ever happened to you, and ride the wave of creativity until you’re extremely depressed and unable to hear yourself,” he says.
“You go from a high to a low and that’s okay I think for a lot of bands… any band that claims no, they just have a good PR machine.”
Kemp suffered from intense anxiety during the Spandau Ballet years and calls the songwriting process “scary”. “I wasn’t writing just for myself,” he says. “I wrote for the group and I wrote for their financial security. I was the one who had to make sure the songs were as good. It’s a fear… that you won’t write as well as you should. And when you have had big success, then you are your own worst enemy. “
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The process of writing INSOLO was less painful. But it was not really easy. Kemp wrote the album during the lockdown last year, when he couldn’t get into the studio with musicians. He decided to call a few buddies, including Queen’s Roger Taylor, who had their own studios and could contribute remotely. Taylor ended up playing drums on “Too Much” – a melancholy song about “a feeling of being overwhelmed by bad global news that constantly brings us down” and that “feeling of helplessness”.
He also brought in Guy Pratt of Pink Floyd, Richard Jones of The Feeling and his brother Martin to play bass guitar, while Matt Clifford of the Rolling Stones plays the French horn on a few tracks, such as “In Solo”. , which was inspired to him by the “loneliness of the townspeople” he saw in Edward Hopper’s paintings.
Kemp – who bought a William Morris chair at the age of 23 with his first Spandau Ballet paycheck – has a strong aesthetic sense. “When I write, I think very cinematically and visually,” he says. Kemp is an Edward William Godwin furniture collector and says “if it weren’t for being part of a group, I would probably like to be an antique dealer”.
When he’s not writing music and collecting interiors, Kemp does his podcast, The Rockonteur, or featured in the wonderfully weird mock documentary The Kemps: all true. “I liked the idea of putting a pin in the rock music emphasis bubble,” he says, “and exposing it for his huge ego.”
He also has a successful stage career. He appeared in Jamie Lloyd’s dark and funny revival of Back to home at Trafalgar Studios in 2015, and in Lloyd’s Pinter double bill Party / 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 The Krays, he visited the Broadmoor gangster. “It was intense… he pierced my eyes,” he said. The film was a critical success, but the Krays “hated” it, especially the fact that their mother Violet – played by Billie Whitelaw – swore.
Kemp couldn’t watch Tom Hardy play the two Kray brothers in 2015 Legend. “I would be too bitter and twisted,” he says, adding that his greatest relief in old age is “not to have to invent anything anymore.” Kemp will also never forget meeting Whitney Houston and Keven Costner during filming. The bodyguard in 1992.
“Whitney was a beautiful person and I spent four months with her. And that was all before she broke, really. She was a very down to earth human… she sang around the makeup trailer all the time… it was mind blowing. And her humility… because she’s never acted before, and she plays the main role. And she took a lot of advice and she worked really, really hard.
Just like Kemp. He’s done enough now, he says, that he could hide and “try to become a new Peter Gabriel or Brian Eno… be a mysterious personality who makes arty music,” but he has “too much that I like to do “.
From an early age, Kemp was encouraged to be curious about the world. He grew up in Islington, north London. Her parents – Frank, who worked in a factory as a printer and Eileen, seamstress and waitress – were “extremely poor”. “I remember seeing my mom cry a lot because she didn’t have the money to buy us things,” Kemp says. “But they gave us an extraordinary amount of attention and love.” They bought him a guitar when he was 11 and he’s always been a keen reader: “My dad took me to the library… we never had any books at home. At 17, Kemp was reading Sartre. It “helped with songwriting”; the hit “True” is littered with lyrics adapted from Nabokov Lolita.
Kemp’s mother put “some pressure” on him to include his younger brother Martin in the Spandau Ballet. But unlike many musical siblings, he says, “there was no competition between us or jealousy or envy of each other.”
“There was a feeling of, we’re doing this for the sake of what’s been given to us,” he says.
Kemp’s dedication to the Spandau Ballet and the band’s long farewell may have meant that it took him 25 years to release more new work on his own. But maybe INSOLO will help him end the 80s once and for all.
‘INSOLO’ releases July 16