Kylie Minogue: ‘It’s time to dress in sequins and glitter through the darkness’
For 33 years the singer has been a byword for pop joy. She talks to Laura Snapes about disco, breakups and moving on from division
By the time you read this, two pivotal issues should soon be settled. There is the small matter of the US election. Then there is the fate of Kylie Minogue. If her newly released 15th album, Disco, beats Little Mix’s Confetti to No 1 next week, she will be the first female artist to top the UK album chart in five consecutive decades, a feat only previously achieved by Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Paul Weller. “I’m so glad I didn’t know that when I was making this album,” she says, her still thoroughly Australian accent expressing real relief. “I would have felt the pressure.”
It is a Friday afternoon in mid-October, and we are in a London photo studio, where Minogue has just finished an intensive two-hour, four-outfit shoot (this counts as elite-level efficiency, the Guardian’s photographer tells me). The only trace left is her pink glittery eyeshadow, a contrast to her Bruce Springsteen T-shirt and khaki trousers. The ankle-shattering silver stilettos have been replaced with cream plimsolls. Sitting at the other end of a velvet sofa, Minogue folds and unfolds a black face mask, aptly embroidered with “More Joy” (not bespoke, it turns out, but a designer Christopher Kane job).
This is what she calls the “pointy end” of an album release, the pressure of the final push made “a little bit extra” by the pandemic. Minogue was recording in Brighton when lockdown sent her home to London. She can hardly recall those early weeks, she says: “Trying to grasp the concept of what’s happening: no planes, no cars, so much cleaning.” She tended her plants and worried about her family in Covid-stricken Melbourne – she hadn’t seen them since December, when she went back to celebrate the 100th birthday of her Welsh grandmother, her only remaining grandparent. She watched Tiger King: “Everyone watched Tiger King.” Then, not wanting to lose the momentum she’d felt in the studio, she ordered more equipment and learned how to record herself in order to finish the album at home. She ended up relishing it, working into the night. “There’s no one looking at you, you haven’t travelled in, you’ve got your comforts around you,” she says. “I do a lot more takes. And the next thing you know it’s 1am, 1.30… this is ridiculous! Call it quits! Just do one more…”
It is pure coincidence that Disco arrives three days after the US election, though it feels more like cosmic synchronicity: when Kylie is on the dancefloor, you know all is well. She is a glittering constant of the past 33 years, a byword for pure pop joy – and Disco is uber-Kylie, a definitive return to the genre whose sparkly, against-the-odds spirit has always defined her. In one sense, it’s a determinedly nostalgic album, with echoes of Gloria Gaynor and Abba, the sounds of Minogue’s childhood. Hearing those artists now, she says, she is nine or 10 years old again: “I’m transported back to the family living room where the record player was, going through my parents’ records and putting Donna Summer on, and Abba and the Bee Gees.” But it is also a pointedly future-facing album: musically, it could go toe-to-toe with her fellow 2020 disco revivalists Dua Lipa or Jessie Ware; lyrically, it’s distinctly optimistic, all about taking us “where the music never ends”.
Disco, for Minogue, is synonymous with rebirth. In the late 90s, she made a foray into indie, but the moment every night on tour when she covered Dancing Queen reminded her of the joy of being a pop star and nudged her back to her roots. I remind her that, when she was signing a new record deal at the time, Parlophone told her they didn’t have anyone like her on their books; she replied that nobody did, because there was nobody like her. She’s embarrassed to hear this repeated: “Oh God, that sounds like a very confident statement!”
What did she mean by it? “If I had to sell myself with my ad in the paper to them, what would I have said?” she asks, aghast, trying to think herself back into that mindset. “I don’t know! Up for most things? Song and dance?” If that sounds like self-effacement, it also gets to the essence of Kylie: never encumbered by grandiose ideas, she exists in service to the perfect pop song. She got one, too, in 2000’s Spinning Around, a disco smash that announced itself like Bianca Jagger’s horse striding on to the Studio 54 dancefloor. A year later, she topped it with Can’t Get You Out Of My Head.
There is a freedom to Minogue’s new album that you don’t hear on its predecessor, 2018’s country-tinged Golden. Made soon after her very public breakup with the actor Joshua Sasse (they were engaged; Minogue had given him a slot on her Desert Island Discs, for which he read a cringeworthy erotic poem), it reflected on what she calls “a very relatable tail-between-the-legs moment”. She wanted, she says, to “ugh, get the emotions out”. The record’s lyrics dealt in finality and exhaustion. Career-wise, it felt like make or break: she had just turned 50, and was bored with being asked how that felt, “when I don’t know the answer”. She felt she had a mountain to climb. “When I was talking with the team, I’d say, ‘If it works,’ and I’d stop myself and say: ‘It has to work, it has to work, I can’t… ’”
What if it hadn’t? “I just would have found it really difficult.”
Would she have stopped making music? A long pause. “I may have felt like, well, that’s my time,” she says quietly. “I don’t know. Perhaps that’s my use-by date, or maybe I have just lost my way. And if you really are lost, it can be hard to find your way back.”
In the end, the album was a success: not only commercially (it hit No 1 in the UK) but, she says, “I totally found my way on a personal level, making Golden – it was a reclamation of self. Once I achieved that, I was able to move on and felt utterly liberated.”
For years, Minogue’s appeal has been understood as escapist. She also conveys a relatable sense of hope in adversity. Whether facing obstacles in pop or love – or health after surviving breast cancer in the mid-2000s – she has always “tried to meet most of those hurdles face on”, she says. “To feel the fear and do it anyway.”
The end of her relationship with Sasse left her feeling “once bitten, twice shy”, she says: “I didn’t can the idea of meeting a new companion or love, but I certainly wasn’t in a hurry.” But she wasn’t single for long; she has been with her boyfriend, GQ creative director Paul Solomons, for two years. To see her pick herself up, dust herself off and keep going feels hopeful.
Nick Cave was there at one of those earlier pivotal moments, as Minogue questioned her pop identity in the mid-90s: after he briefly lured her to the darkness for their gothic 1995 duet Where The Wild Roses Grow, he encouraged her to embrace the light. “There is no pretence in Kylie,” he tells me. “On some level we understand her ordeals, yet she radiates pure joy. This is an extraordinarily powerful message. Kylie is the real thing.”
Jake Shears, a friend since his Scissor Sisters heyday, thinks Minogue was born to make people feel good. “It’s the love that she’s received since she was a child,” he tells me. “Her parents are wonderful. I also have incredible parents: when you get so much love when you’re little, if you are going to lean towards this direction as a performer – if you are this exhibitionist, if you are a showgirl – I think that can really help.”
I wonder whether this expectation – that she will always be sunny and uplifting – has ever felt limiting to Minogue. “I probably wouldn’t have done a murder ballad with Nick Cave if that was the case!” she counters, reasonably enough. And, as she points out, hers is a career peppered with weird hairpin turns: collaborating with the Manic Street Preachers and Sam Taylor-Johnson (a 1996 short in which a topless Minogue mimes to an aria); acting in French director Leos Carax’s strange 2012 film Holy Motors (she played Eva, a mysterious, tragic torch singer). She loves scaring the horses. “I do spend a lot of time doing this,” she says, meaning the pop star stuff, gesturing towards the studio where the glittery curtains are being packed away. “There’s definitely enough to stimulate and challenge me and drive me crazy, to get to whatever that thing is we’re trying to get to. But I really enjoy the challenge of those other things, of stepping into someone else’s road.”
There are some roads Minogue does not want to go down. In her 40-year career, the only political stance she has taken is to support legalising gay marriage in Australia. Is now any different? Her new single, Say Something, could be heard as a rallying cry to stand up for your beliefs; to overcome the divisiveness of recent years (the track ends on a question: “Can we all be as one again?”). Plus, disco is survival music, rooted in black, queer communities that have been particularly under threat in the Trump era.
“Have we ever all been as one?” Minogue says, thinking. “I don’t know. We have our communities where we feel as one, our dreams where we’re as one. It would be lovely, of course. But at the same time we’re celebrating that, everyone’s unique and different. It’s this constant push and pull.” She won’t make a prediction on the US election, but hopes we can move on from division. “Otherwise, we might as well just tuck ourselves into bed and sleep for the rest of our lives. But there are all sorts of discussions happening, about all sorts of things, which is fantastic, and everyone wants to be heard.”
Which discussions does she mean? “I have noticed a difference just in what we’re presented with on TV in the last few months, and I’ve felt better about that, personally.” What has she noticed? “More diversity on TV, beauty ads. Maybe there’s a point where you’re like, we can see what you’re doing – but at least it’s happening.” (I think she means that, while it can seem opportunistic, it’s a start.) “I’m like everyone else – no one expects life to be an easy ride,” she says, her accent starting to take on a Dolly Parton-ish southern US twang. “But it’s a bit of a bumpy ride right now.”
Nobody ever seems to ask her about politics. Does she not want to talk about it, or do people underestimate her? “Probably a bit of both,” she says. “That is not my area of expertise, for sure.” I try a specific issue: as an LGBTQ icon, what’s her take on the UK’s toxic debate over trans rights and transgender women’s access to single-sex spaces? “If you’re a transgender woman, you should use the women’s facilities, surely,” she says, before elegantly changing the subject. “There are plenty of people in the world who wanna make some noise and be disruptive. All the brave people who do make the noise, I really admire them,” she says, mentioning Black Lives Matter and trans activists. “But you have to figure out who’s making noise for the right reasons.”
A grandmaster at the art of deflection, Minogue is sweetly impervious to grilling and stealthy about getting back to her preferred talking points. (Ironically, she would make a great politician.) This isn’t for fear of alienating elements of her fanbase, she says, but a condition of being a Gemini, able to see both sides of every argument – a line she has been using in interviews since before I was born (to hear it in person feels like getting the full Kylie experience). “I think if you’ve got political leanings, you’re there, there or there,” she says, poking the sofa, as if this settles the matter. “I just want goodness.”
And to be fair, she holds up her end of the bargain – ladling out the goodness. In summer 2019, Minogue released a greatest hits collection (her fourth) and performed in Glastonbury’s legend slot, 14 years after breast cancer forced her to cancel a headline performance in 2005. The response was rapturous, 100,000 fans genuflecting before the Pyramid stage (not to mention a record audience of 3.2m watching at home).
But when Minogue watched the show back, she tells me, she cried in frustration. Why? She explains by bringing up Talking Pictures, “the BBC throwback [series] talking with directors and actors, a nice little half-hour and easy with a cup of tea”. She just saw one with Billy Wilder talking about Some Like It Hot. “The interviewer says, ‘Do you watch your things back?’” She does a spot-on Wilder accent: “‘No, no, I can’t watch them – I see that should have been a faster edit, or that should have been…’” She finds revisiting her performances similarly difficult: “The mirrors were moved at the wrong time. That was a duff note, oh no, you didn’t hear the guitar there,” she recalls. “Even if they had all happened [correctly], I would have found other things.”
She just about managed to sit through it when the BBC replayed it in lieu of Glastonbury taking place this year. “It will very often seem dull to me because I don’t feel the stage shaking, the noise in my ear, the struggle of the quick change. But it just takes a little time to remove yourself from that, and see yourself how – or closer to how – someone else might see it.”
She insists she isn’t a perfectionist: “I’m just trying to get it as good as possible. Perfect is pretty much unattainable, I think, and in hindsight can be the best and worst thing simultaneously.” She thinks perhaps the closest she came was Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. “The song, the visuals – but I wouldn’t describe it as perfect. I’d just say the planets are in a line, because it’s a bit beyond you. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.” She mentions her collaborators (Cathy Dennis wrote the song), but says there’s also some cosmic magic: “You’ve all done your best and happened to lock in really well, but I think it’s Other.”
She hopes Disco is Other, too. After the triumph of Glastonbury, she says, “I felt like it was time to play – to aim for stratospheric heights, even if only in my imagination.” Every artist claims that their latest album is their best in years, but in this case, I agree with Minogue. As well as the sparkling tunes, there is an existential streak that is in keeping with disco’s survivalist side. “Dressed in sequins and glittering through the darkness, creating that space of inclusion and expression” is how she describes it.
If its natural home is on dancefloors that are currently dimmed, that doesn’t matter. Disco was written to evoke “those little cosmic things that happen – all those lonely moments, knowing there’s someone else out there who understands your loneliness or stops your loneliness. The need for love, the longing for love.” Writing more of her own music has given Minogue a greater understanding of the balance she’s after. “It’s becoming more apparent that one of my happy places is melancholy always just slightly outweighed by hope,” she says.
The other melancholy, she says, is that of time passing. While she was making Disco, “there was also the matter of before 50 and after 50 [she is 52], so I wanted to get on with things”. Hence why the lyrics and artwork are filled with “stars shining bright, living a seemingly eternal existence”. She then ventures a fantastic, Stephen Hawking-level theory on pop’s immortality, how music reflects this tension between melancholy and hope. “A song begins and ends. There is harmony and unity and sometimes a clash in those few minutes. And they can live on long after we do.” Or on a lighter note, she says, “a listener can ignore the meaning of a song and just enjoy the beats or melody. Let that be the experience. Whistle it!”
It explains how Kylie has endured through those five decades, defying time by living for the moment. The real Minogue, however, is exhausted and ready to go home for a quiet Friday night with “Paulie”. First she signs a book for my cousin, a lifelong fan, and insists on taking my phone to record her a voice note. When the pandemic is over, she can’t wait to see her own family, “to hug them and feel normal”. Closer to home, she fancies a night on the tiles. “And to get absolutely merry, because I don’t normally,” she says. “Usually, I’m a couple of glasses of wine. But actually to go straight for a cocktail and stagger home – that sounds really good.” It’s a relatable, down-to-earth answer, and I don’t believe it for a second: as soon as she’s able, she’ll be back on stage, chasing a sixth decade of glittering up the dark.
Disco is out now