Interview: Kim Wilde
No-one epitomises the 80s revival better than Kim Wilde. With her blow-dried blonde mullet and stripey black and white T-shirt, she topped the charts in 1981 with the poppy synth hit Kids in America written by her brother Ricky and 50s chart-topping singer father, Marty. Overnight she became the poster on everyone’s bedroom wall, the pop icon everyone wanted to be, or be with. She went on to become the most charted British solo female act of the 1980s with 17 UK top 40 hit singles, won a Best British Female Solo Artist Brit in 1983, toured with Michael Jackson in 1988 and to date has sold 30 million records. So with everyone from Bananarama to Blondie, Madness and The Damned back on the road celebrating the decade when everything was bigger and bolshier, from fashion to the Falklands, consumerism to unemployment, it’s time to join Kim looking out a dirty old window once again. At 57, she releases her 14th album next week and is on tour once more, coming to Glasgow next month.
“I’m so proud of this new album, and I’m not just saying that ‘cos it’s convenient,” she says. “I’m proud of the fact my brother and I ever made a record in the first place with Kids in America, a record that changed the course of my life, and that I became a songwriter myself… But I really am proud of this album.”
Produced by her brother Ricky, with retro alien landing artwork by niece and backing singer Scarlett, Here Come The Aliens rocks and pops away – the single Pop Don’t Stop was chosen as Radio 2’s record of the week – and sees Ricky coming out of the shadows too. Influenced by Blondie, Billy Idol, Gary Numan, Elton John, Kate Bush, Thin Lizzy and Marc Bolan to name a few, the album is testament to Wilde’s love of the pop genre.
“Our generation pretty much grew up through the history of pop music,” she says. “For me, listening to pop music as a child in the 60s, being a teenager in the 70s, being a pop star in the 80s and still loving pop music in the Noughties to now, the album is a celebration of pop music and its impact on our lives and how we still feel so incredibly inspired by it.”
And Wilde for one is not surprised that all things 80s refuse to fade to grey as we seek to celebrate good times, come on, while we still can.
“There’s been a lot of dismal stuff going down for some time now,” she says. “I know the world’s a difficult place anyway, but the last several years have been quite hard for people one way or another and there’s a lot of stuff to make you not want to leave your house. So maybe people have a rose tinted spectacle idea of what the 80s were about and hark back to a time when life was less complicated. Certainly for people of a certain age, it’s before mortgages or children or health issues and all of a sudden the 80s seem like a very nice time to think about.
“But also, there were some incredible pop stars and records made. It was a really inspiring time, combining punk and synths with pop and rock and roll. A little bit Gary Numan, a bit Elvis, with a little bit of Blondie thrown in.”
As we talk, the view from Wilde’s 16th century Hertfordshire barn is a lot more bucolic than the edgy street scene she described in the 1980s hit with snowdrops and bulbs peeping through the snow in the huge gardens surrounding the house she bought at the height of her fame. After 15 years of hits, touring and working in the music business, when she met actor and writer Hal Fowler, her co-star in the musical Tommy in 1996, she decided to take a different direction.
“Meeting him, my life went off at a totally different angle, completely veered off into the unknown. I just had this intense feeling that I had to spend the rest of my life with him. I mean, we were married within six months!”
Wilde took a step back to raise their kids Harry and Rose and at the same time launched a second career as a gardener, laying out the garden she now surveys. As her plants and children grew, there were two gardening books, TV shows Better Gardens for ITV and BBC’s Garden Invaders, and a gold medal from the Chelsea Flower Show joined the Brit on the barn mantlepiece. Retreating from the music business is something Wilde has never regretted.
“Oh no, it was the best thing I did. I felt relieved to walk away from that world, having been in it since I was 20. It was a big release. But to my great surprise I discovered that this big void had opened up and needed to be filled and what really surprised me was that having children didn’t fill it all. In fact it gave me this whole new lease of massive extra energy, far more than I knew what to do with. So we needed a garden and I’d always loved the natural world and being outdoors so I did a gardening course and just got the bug. Gardening filled the void of creativity that was left when I got out of the music industry. And my family liberated me to do all of this. I’m really proud that 22 years on Hal and I have made it through the slings and arrows and all that. Without them all, I’d be scrabbling around in the dirt.”
Since we’re talking plants, if Wilde were a plant, which one would she be?
“Buxus, or box. Buxus is the Latin name. It’s a slow grower and costs a bit, but it looks great all year round and will be there for years… unless you get blight of course, and I’ve been very lucky with that.” She laughs. Wilde laughs a lot. She’s warm and funny and laid back, still looks great all year round and is indeed showing very little sign of blight. Not for her the 27-club of stars who never made it to their thirties, or mega stars like Jackson, whose fame brought them little happiness and whose death hit her hard.
“The sadness and futility of it all, and his immense talent and how it all seemed to go so wrong for him from a personal point of view, and to die so young. The whole thing was just a tragic story.”
Now that her kids are 20 and 18, Harry with a band of his own – Keid “a rock, grunge, progressive band,” says Wilde, and Rose is at music college (“she’s done plenty of gigs already as a soloist”), their mother has time to get back on track with her music.
Not that it ever went away – she’s kept releasing albums and touring throughout the 90s and Noughties with her own band and has been a presence on the radio with Secret Songs on Magic 105.4. She even launched a syndicated radio show, The Kim Wilde 80s Show, broadcast on several European channels.
“Music was always there, even when I retired there was tonnes of music in the house and we were always playing it or around the piano singing Tom Waits or theatre songs. But when you’ve got two little toddlers they have a habit of completely taking over the show.”
Looking out at the well-established fruit trees and back over her career, Wilde has perspective and the long term view of a gardener.
“It’s a little different now being in music and I don’t feel the focus is on me to be anything other than who I am. There’s no getting around the fact I’m a woman in her late 50s, married with two children. I love that! People know what they’re gonna get. There’s none of this trying to pretend I’m 21 any more and having to play that game. I didn’t mind playing it when I was 21, but it would be very boring to try and play the 21-year-old game when you’re 57.
“And the best thing about it is people don’t seem to mind, which says a lot about perceptions of beauty. It doesn’t matter that I’m not 21. It’s ‘yeah, Kim’s here, great!’ That really staggered me when I got back on stage again to sing Kids in America when I was in my forties. I was amazed. I thought, ‘Wow, they actually don’t mind that I’m a Hertfordshire housewife with two kids.’ Fantastic!”
Talking about the pressure to look a certain way in the music industry, Wilde thinks we’ve come a long way since the 80s.
“There’s more of a celebration of diversity now, acceptance of differences. Look at Ed Sheeran, he’s not a classic Hollywood looking guy, but no-one cares. He’s not quite as easy on the eye perhaps as George Michael was, but who cares? And someone like Sigrid can just jump on stage in her jeans and no make-up and just blow everyone away.”
Born Kim Smith (Wilde was chosen for her dad Marty – real name Reginald Leonard Smith, who topped the charts with A Teenager in Love and Donna in the 1950s), Wilde knows what it’s like growing up with a parent in the spotlight and sympathises with her kids.
“I found it quite tough at times, especially in my teenage years. People constantly observing you just because you’re someone famous’s daughter, it was exhausting and terrible for my self-confidence, so it took me a while to regain that. But as soon as my career began and my dad being such a great songwriter, and my brother, I got my head round it pretty quickly. But between 14 and 17 I’d have done anything other than have a famous father. And I think my kids felt the same. They’re coming out of it now I think...”
But surely they’ll come and see her play live?
“Ah well… I wouldn’t be putting money on that. I won’t be holding my breath.” She lets out a big whooping laugh.
Wilde has a confidence she never had as young chart-topper, relishing the freedom that comes with age to speak out and be herself. That’s why her new album, Here Come The Aliens was inspired by sighting what she is certain was a UFO back in 2009. Wilde is a mildly matter-of-fact kind of woman who, if she’s seen a UFO, will say so, and if you don’t believe her, well, she doesn’t mind. Plenty of other people saw it too, she tells me.
“The first track, 1969, was influenced by two amazing events in my life. The first was to see what can only be described as a UFO over our back garden and the other was watching the first men walk on the moon when I was eight. Nowadays people are a bit immune, but to see on a black and white TV a human walking on the surface of the moon… I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered from the experience! And it all got poured into the song.
“The effect of seeing something unexplained in the sky is very powerful, whether it was of this earth or not, and I had the strange feeling it wasn’t, the sense I was witness to something quite extraordinary. And a lot of people locally saw it too, so I knew I wasn’t going mad. Now I keep my eyes open, I’m very aware of the sky. Everyone’s looking on their phones, but I’m always looking up.
“I’ve met lots of people who’ve seen really strange things, and the older you get you meet more and more who’ve had those experiences. They don’t talk about them because they’re scared everyone’s going to think they’re going soft, but I don’t care. I know what I saw and it was quite extraordinary and had a huge impact on me in a really positive way. It’s an uplifting, inspiring experience that has left me feeling in awe, even more than I was before, about being on this planet.”
Should aliens land near Wilde in Hertfordshire she’s not about to rush out with a rake and shovel to beat them off.
“Well, you know, I’m always a glass half full kind of person, so I’m going to be one of those idiots standing underneath the spacecraft saying ‘Hi!’, and then they come down and spray us all with some kind of alien gas!” She laughs. “But I’m more predisposed to thinking that they are trying to look after us and help us look after ourselves and the planet. And I think they really are running out of patience and that’s why they’re turning up a bit more often. They might have to turn up the heat and actually scare the s**t out of us before we do something!”
In the meantime there’s the new album to promote and she’s promising Scottish fans “a lot of noise. It’s going to be fun. I’ve got a great band and we’re going to have a real celebration of pop music.”
Wilde is wise enough to know that it’s precisely because she’s 57 and still out there making albums, holding a family together as well as a career, that people want to see her, because audiences are increasingly as full of people her age as they are of youngsters.
“Yeah, I’m not 21! I’m 57, dammit! And I WILL sing Kids in America whether you like it or not. And the chances are you are gonna love it!”
Kim Wilde’s new album Here Come The Aliens is released on Friday.
Kim Wilde plays The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow on Monday 2 April at 8pm. For tickets from £29.50, see www.ticketmaster.com