Dexys Mastermind Kevin Rowland Discusses New Album ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’
Kevin Rowland already has a job -- two, depending on how you count -- so he'll kindly pass on doing yours, too. Thanks.
First and foremost, he's the singer and lyricist behind Dexys, formerly Dexy's Midnight Runners, a stateside '80s one-hit wonder with a healthier following back home in the U.K. and an acclaimed comeback album, 'One Day I'm Going to Soar,' earning them praise on both sides of the Atlantic.
As a pop star, Rowland is a sartorial chameleon and Celtic soul innovator -- a New Wave amalgam of Van Morrison and David Bowie. He has a history of changing looks and sounds from album to album, commercial prospects be damned, and when 'Soar' landed last year in the U.K., 27 years had passed since 'Don't Stand Me Down,' the ill-fated follow-up to 1982's 'Too-Rye-Ay.' That mega-seller, of course, gave the world 'Come On Eileen,' a tune they'll hum on spinning space stations a thousand years from now.
But leading Dexys may be the easy part. Rowland is also tasked with simply being Rowland, an eccentric visionary who's played the fame game, overcome drug addiction and lived the kind of life that inspires 'Nowhere Is Home' and 'Incapable of Love' -- songs you might say sum up the new record and its themes of accepting heartbreak and finding freedom in being alone.
You might also say 'Soar' is a somber record, the story of a middle-aged man bemoaning his romantic shortcomings. As far as Rowland is concerned, you can say whatever you want. He's keeping mum.
Asked to comment on the album's "overall mood," he's firm in his refusal. He won't say if tunes like the curiously jaunty, purposefully 'Eileen'-ish 'Incapable of Love' and meditative closer 'It's OK, John Joe' -- with those final words "I'm free" -- are meant as celebratory, resigned, neither or both.
"I wouldn't describe the 'overall mood,'" Rowland tells Diffuser.fm, speaking over Skype from his home in London. "Is that my job or your job?"
His response isn't as curt as it reads, and in fairness, it comes after he's spoken candidly, pleasantly and at great length about the album's creation. When he began writing 'Soar' in the early '00s, he says, the goal wasn't to create a narrative song cycle. But seven years ago, as he took a step back from the material, he saw a story taking shape. All it took were a few lyrical tweaks and changes to the song order, and soon, he had had the framework for the sprawling, emotionally hefty, largely autobiographical LP he'd eventually leave fans and critics to ponder. The next step was choosing a sound.
"When I first started talking about this, 2003 to 2004, direction-wise, I wanted something that was going to be contemporary," Rowland says. "I didn't know if we should make an electronic album or what it should be. We were looking at a lot of options."
Thankfully, the words Skrillex and Deadmau5 are nowhere to be found in the liner notes. Leading a band staffed by onetime Midnight Runner Mick Talbot on keyboards and founders Big Jim Paterson and Pete Williams on trombone and bass, respectively, Rowland opted for an organic, straight-to-tape variation on classic Dexy's, using as his guide the raw demos he'd made on a handheld digital recorder.
"Occasionally I said to the others in the band, 'Is it going to be different enough?'" Rowland says. "I think what it is, is the presentation of it is different enough. The instrumentation is traditional, but contemporary doesn't necessarily mean synthesizers."
The synth-free 'Soar' spans brassy soul rave-ups to down-tempo piano ballads and moody pop-orchestral pieces. Stage actress Madeleine Hyland joins for a pair of duets, playing Rowland's sassy, foul-mouthed romantic foil on 'I'm Always Going to Love You' and 'Incapable of Love,' and thanks in part to her hammy scene stealing, 'Soar' plays a bit like the cast recording of a musical. It's fitting, then, that when it came time to tour, Rowland and the gang took their manager's suggestion and opened each gig by performing the album in full, front to back.
"One of the best descriptions was in a review, when a guy said, 'It’s one part Greek tragedy, one part West End show, and one part soul revue,'" Rowland says. "That sounds about right."
Rowland admits he was skeptical about presenting 'Soar' in such a fashion, but audiences have hung with him. No one shouts for 'Eileen' during the early portion of the show, and there's even been talk of a Broadway adaptation.
Whether that happens, Rowland hopes to tour the States in 2014, and he has no plans to vary the setlist for American audiences. 'Eileen' will come out, but not until fans have sorted through 'Soar' and considered the joys and pains Rowland has experienced in the 30 years since he and his denim coveralls were all over MTV. When he comes offstage, he feels "raw and open," he says, but there's purity in the pain. It's better than being a sellout. No need to add "nostalgia artist" to his list of jobs anytime soon.
"We don't play massive venues here, purposefully," he says. "We didn't come back and say, 'We're Dexys and we're back.' We play theaters. The people that come, they don't go away disappointed. It's not a lie: At the end of playing the album, before we play an old song, we get a standing ovation. That's how it's been."