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Jay Kay interview
The Jamiroquai star on classic cars, cocaine and why he's waiting for Mrs Right.
By Craig McLean
Published: 4:53PM BST 19 Oct 2010
It’s funk o’clock in Geneva and Jason Kay must rouse himself to go to work. It’s getting on for most people’s bedtime, but the singer, songwriter, and qualified helicopter pilot is pinballing around his hotel room.
Timekeeping in Switzerland is, of course, punctual. But when you’re the headline act at one of the country’s rock festivals, it means hitting the night shift. Tonight, the man known to many as Jamiroquai is top of the bill at the Paléo Festival in Nyon. Stage time: midnight. The promoters know that, if anyone can have 35,000 Swiss dancing on a hillside in the wee hours in unseasonably drizzly weather, it’s the Cat in the Hat.
It’s June, and the release of the seventh album by the 41 year-old known to his friends as Jay is five months away. But already he’s hard at it.
'This tour here is to set up the brass,’ he says of the band of musicians he’s leading on a short run of European festival dates, 'keep us on our toes, and, yeah, of course, after you’ve just spent half a million f----n’ quid making an album, you know what I mean, it does require you to cook the books a bit again, so that’s kinda the reason we’re out here.’
This breathless sentence, it will transpire, is typical Kay: fast, candid, matey, punchy. And ever-so-slightly misspoken. He doesn’t mean 'cook the books’, as in fiddle his finances. He means refill the coffers. I think.
Album sales numbering 25 million and a healthy international touring profile have given him a fortune estimated last year at £35 million. But that Buckinghamshire manor house, London pied-à-terre, Scottish Highlands bolt-hole, classic car portfolio, Robinson R44 chopper and millinery collection require serious fiscal upkeep. The feather headdress that the always behatted Kay is wearing tonight has its own flight-case and cost around £6,000.
'This is the hard bit,’ he continues – and from here on in, please assume that every sentence has had some punctuation added and most swear words removed. 'Back-to-back [shows] on the bus, 650 miles to Austria, straight on stage pretty much after only a couple of hours sleep ’cause the adrenalin won’t let you. But you come off at 2am, after that last number, and you’re hyped. Bearing in mind I’ve got older and I’m not just sitting behind a piano or on a stool on stage, I’m not doing bad at all. We’ve had a really good run at it,’ grins the man who was a success from pretty much the minute he released his debut single in 1992, half his lifetime ago. And who kicked a substantial cocaine habit seven clean years ago. 'Just gotta stay off the vodka, drink plenty of water.’
Kay puts down his well-thumbed copy of Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain, greedily sucks down a final revivifying Marlboro Light, runs two jittery hands through his freshly shampooed thatch and gazes around his capacious suite with its views over Lake Geneva. He grew up the only child of a single parent in 'the business’ – his mother is Seventies cabaret singer Karen Kay. 'I’m very used to stages and dressing rooms. And dare I say it, much as I like being at home, I love the buzz of a new hotel room. It never quite loses its thing,’ Kay says. 'But then, of course, nowadays you get the biggest hotel room and you don’t wanna party in them!’
These days, Kay gets his highs flying his helicopter. Passing the highly challenging pilot’s exam hoovered up all the energy and enthusiasm he used to apply to drug-taking and partying. The straw that broke the coke-camel’s back was his mother turning up for Christmas 2003 and he had 'eyes like golf balls’ and hadn’t slept for days. 'My mum just shook like me a dog. “You carry on like this you’re gonna lose everything.”’ But that was a long time ago.
'I was in Naples the other day – stunning room! – and you think [sigh]: “Bit of a waste this. Ten years ago I’d have had this packed out.”’
The ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental in London’s Knightsbridge is packed out. It’s three months after our Swiss rendezvous and tonight Jamiroquai, man and band, are performing in front of a gathering of music industry and media figures. But Kay applies the same energetic gusto he deployed at Nyon.
He wheels, spins and pivots about the small stage. Behind him his crack squad of musicians make blood-rushing flesh of the songs this untrained, instinctive writer (Kay doesn’t play any instruments) dreams up with pen, paper and Dictaphone. Tonight’s hat: a sort of squished topper. His voice may be more 'lived in’, but he’s still possessed of our best male soul voice alongside George Michael. It’s a clubbily exciting mini-gig in an overlit, fussy five-star gaff.
The showcase is to unveil Rock Dust Light Star. His first studio album in five years is a heartfelt collection of late-night soul confessionals and dance floor belters that was mostly recorded in his home studio. Coming four years after his contract-fulfilling greatest hits High Times, it’s his first album for his new label, Mercury, following the end of his previous, 14-year relationship with Sony. No expense is being spared. Music industry in crisis? What crisis?
Has the recession hit him too, I ask later? 'Yeah, it has ’cause I’m gonna get 50 per cent [tax] in the pound next year. It was 40 – that was strong. Fifty’s a bit hard-core. Half of what I earn goes away. It goes away to cover two wars and to cover Labour’s excitedness about just giving sh-- away for f--- all. I’m happy to stay but I could up-tail and f--- off out.’
To Monaco? 'Well, the point is this: this stuff I hear on the television – people like Bob Crow, the RMT guy – “If it wasn’t for George Osborne and his millionaire friends.” Are you suggesting that everybody who’s a millionaire is a banker? ’Cause that's what it sounds like. Well, some of us are providing jobs – I employ about 35, 40 people when we go on tour and I’ve employed about 20 people non-stop for the past 12, 14 years. And some of us used to sleep on the street!’
One hour west of London, Red Kites wheel overhead. Sheep – graffiti sprayed with their owner’s initials, 'JK’ – graze in the far pasture. Autumn leaves drift into the moats (plural). So expansive are the grounds that an ocular aperture, originally sited on top of a bank in Threadneedle Street, has been plonked in a field to bring some visual focus to the vista.
The purpose of the red telephone box sited in the middle of another field is less clear – Pink Floyd homage? Doctor Who tribute? A landmark to help the lord of the manor land his chopper? The Victorian kitchen garden, meanwhile, is overflowing with harvest bounty: pears, grapes, strawberries, Cylindra beetroot, Eskimo carrot, rhubarb (three varieties), and so many tomatoes they’re plopping, overripe, into the compost.
'I don’t know who’s in charge of their art department but they want shooting!’ Kay shouts. Cigarette blazing away furiously, he's ricocheting around a courtyard at Horsenden Manor, the 300-year-old country estate that he bought for a bargain-basement £1.5 million 13 years ago.
'Useless!’ he barks, and his two cherished German shepherds flinch. His staff – management, estate managers, PA, PR – wince and tuck their tails between their legs.
It’s a couple of weeks after the London showcase. Album release date is looming fast. Kay, a self-confessed detail obsessive, is buckling under the multiple demands on his time. He rants about the label, about his own team, about the Rock Dust Light Star cover art ('I’ve had to spend 20-grand of my own money on a new photo shoot!’) and why exactly does he have to give Japan an extra two tracks?
He jets smoke into the air. This period is the phoney war; he just wants to get out there, stop talking and start touring – trips to South America, Japan and Australia are in the diary for the next few weeks. He admits himself he’s a 'highly spun guy’. This ranting argy-bargy, I’m assured, will blow over.
Kay ducks into his personal pub, The Chequered Flag, located in one of the many outbuildings. He needs a Beck’s. It’s not quite lunchtime. 'And I wanna eat properly today,’ he declares to no one in particular. 'I’ve got kidney disease here.’ Puff, puff, glug, glug. 'Well, that’s what it feels like.’
We jump in the car, a (for him) bog-standard Mercedes estate that smells of dog. We’ll go to the village pub for lunch and do the interview. No, he says, we’ll have a pint, calm down, go to Marks & Spencer, buy some ready-meals. No, we’ll do that then we’ll go get a carry-out from the garage (the only off-licence in the village). He comes back to the car, opens my door and drops four bags of alcohol – gin, whisky, wine, lager – in my lap.
Ready-meals stuck in the sci-fi oven in the hearty kitchen, we climb aboard a little John Deere motorised buggy and zoom off into the depths of his estate. Up by his trout pond – well, it’s more like a lake and there are two of them – Kay has had a little cabin built, complete with jetty. There’s a fold-out camp bed, sleeping bag, little stove, television, empty beer bottles and Rizla cigarette papers. It feels very On Golden Pond. We make ourselves comfy on little bench seats.
With a blissful smile Kay says that he loves it out here, and rhapsodises about the solitude, wildlife and locally sourced seafood he enjoys at his Highland retreat. He was a London teenager – a bit of a ducker and diver who, pre-fame, dealt cannabis and slept rough – and was born in Thetford, Manchester. But such was his mother’s profession that he had an itinerant childhood, half of it living in 'rural Suffolk and rural Devon’.
So, he knows the great outdoors, and feels he has a duty to manage his slice of olde England. He points to the reeds that have been planted to encourage wildlife, sings the praises of his water vole and trout, and practically falls out of his seat when we spot a kingfisher. As enlightened landowning gentry(ish), he takes seriously his stewardship of the countryside.
As coot and moorhen glide by, I ask him if he sleeps up here in this cupboard-sized hide? 'Well, during the day, but I haven’t spent a night here yet. I just haven’t got round to it yet. But I can come in here without having to go back to the main house. I could stay for a week. Which I sometimes do – I used to do it in a tent.’ In his garden? He nods.
'I’ve spent two, three weeks there. The fire never goes out. It’s just a bit of solitude.’ Even in a country mansion with 11 bedrooms?
'I can still hear people rumbling about. By the time I get up in the morning there are six, seven people here.
'I mean, I didn’t buy this place ’cause I wanted a really big house in the country. I bought somewhere that had outbuildings so I could build a studio. Gardens and the ability to build a studio came before anything else. I wanted somewhere I could expand – ’cause I get bored quickly. If you have somewhere with an acre or two acres, for the job I do – it couldn’t be done...’
So an estate of 72 acres it is… '79.9,’ he fires back. 'And I’m sure when I first turned up here, the locals saw this 27-year-old kid in a powerful Lamborghini and nearly had a heart attack. Then they forget – if they’d been next to the toss-faced lottery winner who buys loads of motor cars and leaves them burning wrecks around the land, they’d be worried.’ Kay buys lots of cars, too, but he keeps them in garages.
Outside The Chequered Flag, near a sign that says 'Ferrari Parking Only’, there’s the vintage orange Porsche 914/6-GT that triumphed at Le Mans 1971, plus various other Mercs and fancy saloons. There’s a 1959 Bentley S1 Continental under wraps somewhere. Two days after my visit he’s taking receipt of a Mercedes Benz SLS AMG, one of those new limited gull-wing numbers.
How many cars does he have in total? A dozen? 'You can double that.’ 'Twenty-four?’ 'You can double that as well.’ Forty-eight? 'Nah, not 48, but there’s serious collector stuff there. But I’m not gonna bother with it any more,’ he sighs, clearly forgetting about that Mercedes currently being shipped from Germany. 'I’m not gonna give the British Government the joy of keeping taxing me. They don’t tax art. And all my cars are just a collection of art.’
Don’t get him started on politicians. Actually, do, because he can be brilliantly impassioned and ornery and hugely entertaining. Not to mention incredibly profane.
On New Labour and Tony Blair: 'Just bear one thing in mind all you cool Britannia f---ers: this f---er trying to be nice took us through two f---ing wars. He’s got blood on his hands. Then there’s just totally immoral stuff, quite frankly. Like the Gurkhas.’
As for his 'peers’, he’s so out of touch with contemporary music, he doesn’t know what he likes or who he might be interested in. Robbie Williams rejoining Take That? No, he doesn’t care. 'That’s all a political move and he knows it. And his management know it. What, he’s gone to America and didn’t break the States ’cause they don’t know what he’s talking about?’ says the artist who’s sold 2.5 million albums in the US. 'All we know is that because Take That have become this thing again without you, all the management sit together and go: “This is gonna be great for all of us.” They’re the ones holding the pound note.
'But in terms of contemporary people I’m so out of touch, I never know. What do you want me to say? N-Dubz? Tinchy Stryder? Dizzee Rascal,’ he says, reciting the names as if they were nasty ailments. 'I don’t give a…’
Kay thinks he has no business in showbusiness. When I ask him if his cocaine habit might have had an impact on the demise of his three-year relationship with Denise Van Outen (which ended in 2001), he replies: 'Well, weeeelll, you know,’ he begins. 'It may well have had an impact. She’s a lovely girl. What might have had an impact was I just didn’t like the whole pushing thing: “Are we gonna get married? Let’s do this or that magazine cover.”’
So appearing on the front of Hello! held no appeal for him? 'Can’t deal with it. Your private life is your private life and you keep it to yourself. You get more respect that way.’ He’s talked in the past of his desire to have children. Currently, relationship-wise, 'I’ve got somebody who’s here and there, left, right and centre,’ he offers, non-committally.
He doesn’t seem lonely – he admits he’s a happy loner – but does he want to grow up, settle down, hang up his chopper goggles? 'Well, as much as you think you’re gonna have a pipe and slippers life, and she’s gonna cook you a cottage pie and “isn’t it wonderful, dear,” the job I do isn’t like that. It’s anti-relationship. When you’ve gone out and done’ – he means played to – '65,000 people in Colombia and you bugger off to the party in Bogota, there’s a damn good reason for not having one of those relationships where you go: “Tell you what, I’ll stop this.”
'The other thing as well – name me one relationship between two celebrities that’s run along like a house on fire? There’s hardly any. Jude Law and wasserface? What’s the point? It’s never gonna work. These things. Do. Not. Work. Then you have to be with somebody who understands your job. Understands there are gonna be dollybirds going: “Hi, I’m Candy”, and be prepared to ignore that. And also be prepared to be there when you get home. That’s a difficult job.
'And no doubt about it, at 40 years old you sit and think…’ Kay strikes a mock-ruminative pose, tapping his chin. '“Hmm, now, I have a manor house, a fine collection of cars, nice dogs, a house in London, a house in Scotland, mmm, ah, what’s missing? What’s wrong with this picture?” But you know what,’ he adds brightly, 'patience is a virtue. Now, I’m the most impatient person that ever walked the planet. However: for the best, you always wait.’
So, as he pours himself a Glenfiddich in his remote cabin on his remote estate, wait Jay Kay does. For Mrs Right. For the world tour that will have him back out there doing what he does best. And for the return of that kingfisher. 'Look, there’s a dead trout!’ he says, jumping up. 'Look at the size of that f---er. three and a half pounds! That’s what you call a trout.’
'Rock Dust Light Star’ is released through Mercury Records on November