Kylie Minogue’s last studio album, Golden, reinvented her as a country star, while her Step Back In Time greatest hits collection confirmed her (adopted) national treasure status. Now with her new album, Disco, she’s returning to the dancefloor. We caught up with the pop icon and her team at BMG and A&P Artist Management to talk streaming, social media and why Disco is the record the world needs right now…
Kylie Minogue remembers with total clarity the moment she decided to step back onto the dancefloor.
She was on stage on the Golden Tour in 2018, promoting the album of the same name that had reinvented her as a purveyor of country-tinged pop anthems. Yet the highlight of the show – the moment where she and the audience could truly lose themselves in the music – was the set-closing Studio 54 section, where she re-connected with her pop-disco heartland via classics such as On A Night Like This and Spinning Around.
“That section was the home stretch, when you’re digging deep, the adrenalin’s taking over and the finish line’s in sight each night,” she chuckles down the line. “I absolutely loved it and, suddenly, I just knew I wanted to spend more time there. After Golden and the greatest hits, I just wanted to be on the dancefloor again.”
And so, after a smash-hit, career-spanning, Music Week Award-winning compilation and the most-watched Glastonbury performance of all time had served as a timely reminder of her pop icon status, Disco – perhaps the most hotly-anticipated album of a mouth-watering Q4 slate – was born. And, despite the retro disco vibes, Minogue and her label are adamant it’s a step forward, rather than another Step Back In Time.
“Golden was a statement as a record,” says Jamie Nelson, BMG UK’s VP, A&R and a man whose working relationship with the singer goes back as far as a previous pop-dance reinvention, 2000’s Light Years (Parlophone). “So it was really important that we came back with something that turned people’s heads. Kylie’s known to some extent for making disco records, but she’s not made any real dance music in some years now. And, bearing in mind what’s gone on in the world over the last six months, it feels absolutely on message in terms of what people need…”
Of course, there’s a certain irony in Minogue embarking on making a spectacular, non-stop dance party of an album just as almost every club on the planet was forced to close its doors. Then again, as the November 6 release date looms, the lockdown efforts of Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Sophie Ellis-Bextor et al mean that disco finds itself right on the 2020 zeitgeist.
“I did wonder at a certain point if this was still right,” she confesses. “Is it viable or is this just unpalatable? I know Jamie tested the waters in a few different places and it came back with a resounding, ‘Yeah, we really want the new music’. That gave me the positive note that I needed and, as it turned out, a lot of people are talking about disco or uplifting music in general, so it’s resonating especially right now…”
Indeed it is. BMG’s VP of UK marketing, Gemma Reilly-Hammond, reports that the album’s slinky lead single Say Something is Minogue’s biggest airplay hit since 2010’s Get Outta My Way. Physical D2C pre-orders are buoyant but the track also has over 7.1 million streams on Spotify, while the shimmering follow-up, Magic, is past one million and climbing fast as BMG also attempts to make the singer a streaming superstar.
“Some of the streaming results we’re seeing early doors are really encouraging, way beyond what we had on Golden,” says Reilly-Hammond. “We’re really clear on best practice around Spotify, we’re regularly releasing music every four weeks and we’ve got remixes with really notable remixers to help with pulling in new audiences.”
There’s plenty more where they came from as well: Disco heaves with floorfillers and party-starters such as Real Groove, Monday Blues, Last Chance and Minogue’s own favourite, Dancefloor Darling, that pay homage to every golden age of dance music, and deserve to be playlisted everywhere.
“That’s always going to be a challenge when you’ve got the physical-heavy artist – can you crack streaming?” asks Reilly-Hammond, who proudly declares that the 1988 Kylie album was the first cassette she ever bought. “And the answer is: yes, you can.”
As proof, BMG says Minogue’s cumulative streams are up by 183%, with a 101% uplift in Spotify followers to over 1.1m since the day Golden was released. Even if Minogue herself admits to being rather more old school.
“I don’t understand a word Sam [Hill, BMG senior director, digital marketing] is saying once he goes into digital land,” she laughs. “He’s got me for the first four seconds, then I’m gone. But they really want to make it work and I feel like they care. You either have that or you don’t – and I’m very lucky to have it.”
Reilly-Hammond and Nelson, now running the frontline recordings business under UK president of repertoire and marketing, Alistair Norbury, face a major test with the album, especially as it will be released on the same day as Little Mix’s Confetti (RCA). But with a strong TV plot (including a very well-received remote performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon that’s teed up a big reaction Stateside), Polly Bhowmik of A&P Artist Management, who manages Minogue alongside Alli Main, is positive about the outlook.
“It’s all great pop music and it’s great to see pop music in the headlines,” says Bhowmik. “If Kylie manages to get the No.1, she’ll be the only female artist to have had No.1s in five different decades. Having had last year’s focus on the legacy and the legends slot for Glastonbury, to come back now with a contemporary pop record and be going for that record, that just shows where Kylie’s head is. Like, ‘I’ve done all this – but what’s next?’”
“I’m sure the media will make it into an old-fashioned chart battle,” smiles Reilly-Hammond. “We’ve got our heads down, concentrating on doing our best job and continuing to think creatively and ambitiously about what we can achieve. We don’t have any control over the other camp, but it’s really healthy to have that there. If you come at it with the right headspace and attitude and enjoy it, it will ultimately bring a better result, because you’ve got that healthy competition.”
Minogue herself, meanwhile, hasn’t survived across five decades in pop – not to mention numerous record labels and countless musical incarnations – without learning a thing or two about industry diplomacy.
“Look, you’ve always got to be up against someone,” she smiles. “As I’ve said to the team, that’s what we know at this stage but anyone could drop anything at any time and then you’ve got competition you were completely oblivious to. So let’s try and get things as right as possible and carry on doing what we’re doing…”
That, of course, has been Minogue’s watchword since her 1987 UK No.1 PWL debut with I Should Be So Lucky, released while she was still starring in Aussie soap Neighbours. She’s upset about the continued absence of gigs (“Touring is a world unto itself and I’m missing it,” she says, while Bhowmik hints at imminent livestream plans) but, 15 albums and 33 years later, there’s precious little else she hasn’t encountered. Just one thing remains to be conquered: the Music Week cover story (“Am I on the cover? Oh boy!”).
Time then, to fire up Zoom and put that right with a ‘chat’ (“I hate calling them interviews!”) about streaming, social media and her upcoming thrash metal project…
How has lockdown been for you?
“That’s a big question for everyone because it’s been such a rollercoaster! It ended up being very productive I have to say, aside from all the other emotions of confusion, longing, missing Australia… The first few weeks were just eerie. Like everyone, I’ve been trying to figure out the new way and have managed to get things done, so I’m very grateful for that.”
Alistair Norbury told us you’ve become quite the studio expert during lockdown…
“[Laughs] Well, I just put some vocals down for something and it’s mad to me that I know how to do that now! I could say, ‘Yeah, it was great’ but, actually, thinking back to the way things materialised, I had producers on my back saying, ‘Have you got the gear yet? Have you got the stuff?’ If anyone didn’t know what we were talking about, it would be a worry! Kylie the bedroom producer? That story’s got legs but, honestly, I can just get recorded what needs recording. But that was very satisfying and a means to an end, there was no other way we could do it.”
Was it very difficult making an album under those circumstances?
“It was a very different experience compared to going into studios where the doors shut, you have no idea what time it is and suddenly it’s 7pm and you’ve not looked at your phone. It was lockdown so the door would go, there’d be a delivery – and I was here on my own, so it got quite intense. There was a point near the end where I actually felt just so drained, I’d been going at such a pace every day and juggling different writers, producers and schedules and trying to be prepared… It really wore me out towards the end and I had a slight… Well, meltdown probably sounds a bit dramatic, but I realised I’d been going at such a pace because I was so driven to get this done. And we did get it done in the end. We really wanted to make it count and direct our energy. We all threw our best into it.”
When you decided to make a disco album, did you have any idea that the sound was going to come back into vogue?
“No! Of course I’m asked about it now, but Dua Lipa’s album was made last year, mine was conceived last year and probably most things people are hearing now were not made as a reaction to the pandemic, so I think the zeitgeist is a bit ahead of us! I think this wave of disco and dance music was going to happen in pop, it probably was time, it just happened to be now.”
"I'm curious and I love to try everything"
Golden was so successful, and moved you into a new world musically, many people would have stuck with that sound…
“Well, the lessons that I learned in Nashville [where Golden was largely recorded] have stayed with me and I don’t think they will ever leave. Writing for this album, it might not sound like it, but it’s in me now and I really love that. And I will always love singing Dancing. I would love to go to Nashville again and just write or see what Nashville could bring to another style. It was so different to recording in LA or wherever. They would say, ‘Oh, let me give you numbers, let me give you the best cafes and restaurants’. You really felt welcomed long before you got there. And there are all sorts of writers there and music is everywhere. I absolutely loved it.”
How does it feel to have made 15 albums?
“On the one hand I go, ‘Wow, 15 albums’. And on the other I go, ‘That’s not so many!’ It’s weird. I got off to a good start – PWL was one every year, so I managed to get some pace in early…”
Very few people actually get to make that many records though…
“I definitely have to remind myself of that and be grateful for the opportunity. I’d be so sad if I didn’t have the opportunity to make records now, when I’ve collected all these nuggets of experience and I want to use them.”
How is it being on BMG?
“I first worked with Jamie [Nelson] in 1999. I met him and Miles Leonard at Parlophone and they were great, heady days – that was my full-on launch back into pop with Spinning Around. Jamie would not let go of Spinning Around until it was right – and he was right. He’s a fantastic A&R. He went elsewhere, I went elsewhere but we’ve come back together on this – he was really pivotal. And Alistair, Gemma and the team, they have a really nice way about them.”
You started off in the CD/cassette era. How do you feel about streaming?
“It seemed much simpler back then. I have a friend who used to work in a record store in Australia and she said she fudged the chart each week to [help] the band she absolutely loved. So it wasn’t foolproof! But at least there was a transaction at the till, there was a physical product… I listen to streaming, so I love it as a consumer. But where it puts me chart-wise and to understand who you’re reaching, that’s tricky. I know BMG are really making an effort to get more streaming for me but my audience is probably a bit like me, with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world. So I’m doing as best as I can to move with the times. But if someone asks me to explain how it all works, I’d have to just get the cheque and leave the room! Once you get into algorithms… I’ll just sing the song, how about that?”
Is it strange to not have hit singles in the same way any more?
“Yeah, I’ve had to recalibrate my understanding of success in that way. You’re just able to let go and let the song do what it’s going to do – you’re never quite sure what it’s going to do, although you have your hopes for it. Success to me right now is being on playlists, being played on radio and just reaching people. I’ve got to just remember that and focus around the album.”
You’re releasing your album in the middle of a very busy Q4. Why should people buy your record rather than someone else’s?
“[Laughs] Oh, I don’t have a sales pitch! But if you want to feel a little nostalgic but find some new dance moves as well, then my album’s for you.”
How do you think today’s female artists’ experience compares to yours? Is it easier or harder?
“I would imagine it’s a bit of both. I do think they have more of a voice today. But I had my role models – Whitney, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, so it didn’t seem like it was a wilderness. I’d have to sit down with someone of the new generation and actually chat about it, that would be interesting.”
Maybe you could mentor them…
“I never had a mentor and I would have loved one, actually... I didn’t have anyone to advise me on a bunch of things. People did as best they could, but there wasn’t an artist who had done it to talk with me. At that time, in the ’80s, in Australia, it was all rock bands – you learned your craft playing in pubs, making all your mistakes and learning what to do before you became well-known. And I did it all the other way round! I had to learn everything on the job and in the public eye. I would have loved to have someone to talk to about the psychological parts of the job and dealing with people, I think I would have found it very helpful.”
Are you glad there was no social media back then?
“I honestly don’t know how I would have dealt with that. But I do know it was difficult when there were nasty things written [in the media]. I’d check myself, were they being nasty or was I just taking it personally? But no, a lot of it was just nasty. Even back then, I remember saying to my family or my manager, ‘Who are these people? Where’s the person that we never get to see and would say never this to my face?’ Sometimes, the media were absolute bullies. You didn’t have social media where you could react, although I largely don’t react. It’s just the easiest thing to do. Maybe I was educated in that because I couldn’t in the beginning. So there’s tons of stuff that is different, but there are similar threads as well. You’d still have to deal with criticism.”
How are you feeling about the general state of the world with Trump, Brexit et al?
“I know it’s total wishful thinking, but there’s part of my brain that’s going, ‘Wait, has someone just put the wrong tape in?’ Like, sorry – here’s the right 2020, sorry we messed that up! It feels like the world is scrambling to get some equilibrium back. Hopefully we can get it sooner rather than later.”
"My audience is like me: one foot in the old world, one in the new"
You’ve covered a lot of ground since the days when most people expected you to just have a couple of hits…
“Or just one! [Laughs] I’m aware of that!”
But do you feel like you could do almost anything now and people would accept it?
“I wouldn’t ever take it for granted that I could do anything, but I do agree that I’ve prepared the landscape. People are quite used to me doing different things now, that wouldn’t be a surprise. If I’d done one thing until now and then did something different, I might have some explaining to do! From pop then going to Deconstruction then back to pop, via Abbey Road sessions and different collaborations with various people. I’m curious and I love to try everything. I mean, maybe not thrash metal. But I’d do a duet with a thrash band! Now you’ve got me thinking… Watch this space!”