Kylie Minogue has toured the world many times, but before starting work on her upcoming album Golden last summer, the veteran Australian pop superstar had never been to Nashville. "I put on a few pounds, that's for sure," she says of her time there, adding that she felt "so inspired" by the city's musical legacy and vibrant community of working artists. "Just going down Music Mile and the billboards celebrating songwriters and artists with hits. We went to the Bluebird Cafe and the Listening Room."
That sojourn fueled the countrified sound of lead single "Dancing," a twangy banger that's about achieving euphoria – even, and especially, in the face of mortality. The mix of light and dark is nothing new for Minogue, who began work on her 14th studio LP early last year, as she moved on from a painful 2016, and a very public broken engagement from actor Joshua Sasse.
A charismatic entertainer in the global public eye for three decades, Minogue has always been more adventurous than casual music fans acknowledge. Consider her own, pre-Ray of Light foray into electronica, 1997's Impossible Princess; her macabre collaborations with pal Nick Cave; and her sexy performance of "I Need You Tonight" – a surprisingly intimate tribute to late boyfriend Michael Hutchence of INXS – during her 2014 Kiss Me Once tour. "Dancing" enters a robust catalog of pop classics that exalt basic pleasures – sex, joy, romantic obsession – without a trace of pretension. Minogue spoke to Rolling Stone last week about experimenting with country on Golden (out April 6th), her American fans, line dancing and a talked-about trademark dispute with Kylie Jenner.
"Dancing" feels like an instant Kylie classic.
Oh, thank you. I'm at that stage where it's just getting out into the world, it's a weird transition period for me. It's a strange letting go of everything, although that was the point – that's what you aim for. It's an anxious time.
Do you still have that nervous feeling, releasing new music, even after all these years?
I absolutely do. There's a little area where nerves and excitement cross over and you're not sure what it is. It's quite surreal to me – thank you so much for the compliment – that people are reacting in such a way. We love the song, we love what it stands for, but you just never really know how it's gonna translate. It takes on a different life when it hits other people's ears.
It's joyous, but there's a bittersweetness, too. "When I go out, I wanna go dancing" can be read as a reference to mortality, right?
Yes. I have to hand it to Steve McEwan, one of my co-writers on the track – it really was his concept. The closest thing I've ever done is "Where the Wild Roses Grow," that I sang with Nick Cave. There's no ambiguity in that song, that's what it's about. But it remains beautiful; how he manages to pull that off I don't know. It's a crazy subject matter. But I think what's beautiful about "Dancing" is it can totally depend on your mood. On one day I might feel, particularly in its last verse, "When the final curtain falls" – well, for me, it could be about a show, that could be the end of performance in that literal sense. But yes, what we did have in mind was, at the end, you want to go out dancing. It's also not a traditional shape of a song, as well, it's verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus, as opposed to verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-eight-chorus-chorus. I took the liberty of changing the melody slightly on each verse to avoid it becoming overly monotonous.
"Dancing" has a strong country element, and you recorded in Nashville last summer – your first time there. What was it like?
At the beginning of last year, when I gently meandered back into the studio, one of my longtime producers said, "if you can think of some sort of country angle or influence or feel ..." For better or worse, I'm always happy to try anything. So I immediately said, "Sure," followed by "but what do you mean?" Country has never played a part in my work.
And then there was the suggestion to go to Nashville. You know when you're excited and your voice goes up an octave and double decibels? A few label reps were just testing the waters. "Would you like to go to Nashville?" And I replied "Nashville?! Yes! When can we go? Yes, yes, yes! Please!"
I'd never been, and it just made total sense. If you're trying to find this element, and we were just going around in circles and not landing on it. So I was beyond excited to go. When I did get there, I basically just sort of clasped my hands and prayed: "Please, please, please, I just need one song!" And it turned out I did get "Dancing" and I got "Golden" and "Sincerely Yours" – I got three songs from Nashville.
And the influence, I just wax lyrical about it: The city's so cool, it's so historic. And music, that's what you're there for. If you're not there for bachelorette night, which I now know: Nashville is the number one bachelorette destination in the U.S.
My eyes were opened! We call them hen parties – total aside, but that was funny. People are there to have a good time. As soon as I met one, two people, I suddenly knew four, five people, and then I knew 10 people, and before I knew it, I'm connecting people in Nashville myself. It's such a community. To put it succinctly, I felt like I was at the altar of the song, and you get to watch all of these people perform.
Are there particular Nashville legends you've loved over the years?
Dolly, Dolly Dolly! And as part of my research, I watched A Coal Miner's Daughter – that was a really good representation, but what do I know? A beautiful thing to watch. Crazy Heart. There's parts of it were totally new to me, I don't come from a family of musicians. I didn't go on the road – I kind of became famous in music before I knew what I was doing.
I released a single ("Locomotion') and it was the biggest single of the decade in Australia. Compared to a lot of Australian artists in the Eighties – certainly not someone who'd come from a TV show (Neighbours) like me. I wasn't in a band, I hadn't been playing grungy pubs, packing into a van and traveling around the country. I hadn't done any of that. It's a bit like the circus: You pack everything in the van, roll up somewhere and entertain people and provide a bit of magic or emotion and then roll on.
I saw you perform at Hammerstein Ballroom in 2009 – a tiny venue compared to the arenas you play elsewhere. Your connection with American fans is special, because it's not as huge as your international audience.
On paper, it's not the wisest thing to do. It costs a lot. On a purely financial boring logistical note, It's not something that bean counters would say, "Yeah, that's a great idea!" But at this point in my life and my career, I think, "Man, I really wanna go and see these people! Find a way and make it happen!" I did try and pack a lot into those shows. They felt magical. I think with this next album, we can scale it back even more and connect in a different way. I'm just so inspired by Nashville, but in no way will I do a show where I just sat on a stool. But part of the show – it's just about connection.
Do a lot of the songs on Golden have a country element like "Dancing"?
We really wanted each song to stand up as a song, not be dependent on bleeps and sounds – I'm not dissing those things. Now that people have heard more, I know a lot of people were nervous – "What? What do you mean country?!" – it's a flavor that I love. I can't unlearn or take out of my system what I now have from the experience of making this album.
You've been frank about how difficult 2016 was, and how emotionally raw you felt in the studio. Have you ever been this vulnerable during a recording process?
How do I say this? Yes, it is different for me. I know I did some songs after I'd been through my cancer treatment [in 2006]. But I didn't want an album full of songs about that, I'd just lived through it. A lot of the songs were actual escapism. When I first went into the studio [this time], I was a bit broken. I wasn't so heartbroken – I was just a bit broken. And there's a difference there.
I just needed to get a few songs out, get the words out of my system. I suppose it's like, in any situation, if you hold onto something, as soon as you say it out loud to a friend or a therapist or a stranger, it just takes the weight off once you verbalize it it.
This was last January and February – I went to Nashville in July, and it was by July that we started to really find the foundation of the album. I definitely wanted to be truthful to myself and therefore to my fans. They're with you for the journey – the amazing highs, beautiful stratospheric times – they're also there when you hit rock bottom. I really wanted to be truthful with it. It was pretty refreshing. I don't think I have ever gone into an album -- I haven't written a whole album about heartbreak. Just making sure that whatever I am singing is authentic. So something like "Shelby 68" – that's an invented story, but it stems from wanting to write something that somehow links to my family. My dad's been a bit of a Mustang maniac his entire life, basically. I played it for my dad, and of course he loved it. He was thrilled.
So, the video for "Dancing"...
Directed by Sophie Muller – her pitch was "Dolly Parton meets Day of the Dead." It's not specifically Parton, but I thought it was a very bold and good interpretation of what the lyrics are. She specializes in dark but sparkly.
So I've never done line dancing before in my life. I worked with a longtime choreographer of mine, Ashely Wallen, who did the choreography on The Greatest Showman. We both started wildly going down YouTube tunnels of line dancing.
Consequently, I'm almost embarrassed to say, I found it really difficult to get it at first. And I get so bored in the rehearsal phase, like "Ugh, ugh, are we done yet, are we done yet? Can I go?" But I stayed for hours. I had to really figure it out mentally. "Why is this ...? It should be easy! Everyone does it! Seven-year-olds and 70-year-olds do it! Am I just really unfit? Why is it so difficult?"
What we concluded was that it's almost the opposite to a lot of the dancing that we normally do. We normally do stuff that's really fluid in the torso, a lot of circular or figure-8 movements. You're moving your whole body. With line dancing, God knows none of us are experts – it's like a duck. The top half doesn't seem to do much, and everything is happening below. The dancers were struggling as well. We've got our version of line dancing, and at the end of the video I'm dancing with death. It sounds grim, but it does look beautiful. But if we avoided that, it wouldn't be true to the song.
The world basically cheered when you won a tussle against Kylie Jenner over the trademarking of "Kylie." What can you tell us about that?
I've never met Kylie Jenner. I've never met any member of the family – actually, I've met Kendall just in passing at a fashion event – but I honestly don't know them. It's awkward, because fans get so loyal and vocal, and we love that! But it was nothing personal at all, I'm at pains to say.
Trademark is long, it's boring, it's expensive, and it's really important. I've been doing that for years and years. It was just causing confusion with customers. As long as it's clear, then we can all win. What was upsetting to me was that there was – they attributed a quote to me –
Yeah, "A secondary reality television personality who appeared on the television series Keeping Up With the Kardashians as a supporting character" whose "photographic exhibitionism and controversial posts" on social media "have drawn criticism from, e.g., the Disability Rights and African-American communities."
Can you imagine me saying that?! That was just unfortunate that that is how those lawyers speak. So I genuinely hope that it's understood: That certainly did not come from me. Good news is, that's all wrapped up, we didn't have to go to court. That's all done. And I'm sure I'll meet them one day. The weird thing is, in America, when I am there, they would never introduce me just as "Kylie"; it's still "Kylie Minogue." It took so long for people to get my name in the first place. "Kyle?" "No, Kyle-E!"