We are a culture obsessed with the pursuit of fame - but what happens when fame fades away?
Nick Duerden, author of "Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars" explores this question through candid interviews with pop stars who were once on top of the world.
Nick joins us on this episode of Music Therapy to discuss the book, his insights and takeaways about the ups and downs of fame and life beyond.
Guardian article on "Exit Stage Left" by Nick Duerden
Jessica Risker: Hey everybody, welcome to Music Therapy!
Our culture is obsessed with the pursuit of fame, but what happens when the fame fades away? We're going to talk all about that on today's episode of Music Therapy.
Hey everybody, welcome to Music Therapy, I'm Jessica Risker, I'm a musician based here in Chicago, Illinois, and I am also a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor.
Music Therapy is a mental health podcast for musicians and music fans. We talk about mental health, creativity, music careers, and the basic existential meaning of being a musician. Visit musictherapypodcast.com to look at upcoming events and listen to previous episodes. Please subscribe and give us a review on Apple podcasts!
I hope you guys are doing well. This was a little bit of a choppy month in terms of releasing episodes... I went on vacation at the beginning of the month, and then I got covid in the middle of the month. You know... I don't know what to say about that. I'm fine now. Thanks for asking. I hope you guys are doing well and being safe.
Let me tell you about our next Group Session - that is going to be on Wednesday, August 10th at Cafe Mustache in Chicago, and that is gonna feature Chicago band Spread Joy.
0:01:27.4 Jessica Risker: Spread Joy was supposed to be on Group Session a couple of months ago, but their drummer sprained his ankle and so we had to reschedule. So I'm super excited to have Spread Joy on Group Session. They are an amazing band, I love their music. That's gonna be at Cafe Mustahce on Wednesday, August 10, 80 PM, come on out and see us.
So today is a first for the Music Therapy podcast because I'm talking to an author: Nick Duerden wrote the book "Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars", and we are gonna talk all about this book today.
Nick Duerden is an author and journalist whose work has appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, he has written widely on the arts, health and family. He is the author of several books, including "Exit Stage Left", "The Smallest Things: On the Enduring Power of Family" and "A Life Less Lonely: What We Can All Do to Lead More Connected, Kinder Lives".
And today, we're digging into his newest book, "Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars". The engineer of Music Therapy, Joshua Wentz, actually passed this book along to me after he read an excerpt in the Guardian, and once I read that, I was instantly into this book - this is right up my alley, and I'll put a link to the article in the show notes at musictherapypodcast.com, if you wanna check out the article.
0:02:48.3 Jessica Risker: The book is basically about what happens when fame fades. Nick Duerden talked to countless pop stars about their personal experiences. And this is what this book is all about.
Let's turn now to my conversation with Nick Duerden.
Okay, so I am here today with author Nick Duerden, who is the author of "Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars". This is a book about how singers and musicians navigate their life after the first flush of fame, how they endure, reinvent themselves, and keep life interesting for themselves. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Nick.
0:03:31.5 Nick Duerden: And you for having me.
0:03:34.0 Jessica Risker: Also, who is joining me today is Joshua Wentz... Joshua is my band-mate and Josh also engineers the podcast. Josh is the person who shared this book, there was an article in the Guardian about your book, and he came upon it and he thought it was interesting, and he shared it with me and... Yeah, I was immediately drawn to it. I love reading about musicians beyond just listening to their music and how they have their careers and their creative processes work, so... This was a great find.
0:04:07.0 Nick Duerden: Oh good, I'm glad, I'm glad you... You say that it's a subject that's interested me for a long time, and when I wrote that Guardian piece, it was viewed 1 million times in three days, so I guess it resonates with people, not just myself, so I was quite happy with that. Yeah, all over the place. I've been contacted ever since, I suppose music fans, but also musicians themselves who are going through similar experiences to the ones covered in the book.
0:04:37.2 Jessica Risker: So you've been interested in this for a while. Can you talk more about that? What made you wanna write this book...
0:04:41.9 Nick Duerden: Well, I'm old now, I've been writing about music and pop stars for about 30 years. So I started when I was 20, 21 years old, and I was all incredibly exciting, and then I was interviewing bands who also whose members... We also 20, 21 years old. And they thought they were gonna take over the world. They were gonna be the new Beatles, the new Stones, the new Madonna, whoever. They had that amazing, I suppose the naivety, but also the energy of youth, and then as I got older, the bands got older, and I interviewed them when they were 25 and 35 and then beyond, and I became increasingly interested in talking to them once the spotlighted kind of swung away from them a little bit, because this is an industry that fetishes the new and novelty, it thrives on novelty, and you know that whole 15 minutes of fame thing, so those both talented and lucky enough to break through and have a moment.
I think almost all of them do realize that it is just a moment because the zeitgeist does move on, we are constantly hungry for the next big thing, and then the next big thing after that, and I became increasingly interested in me, but what happened to last weeks next big thing in the week before that, What's it like to have the world's attention, and then all of a sudden find yourself no longer quite as exciting to the public as you were before? 'Cause you're not going to just disappear and curl up and die, you've still got things to say.
0:06:11.0 Nick Duerden: You're still young, you're still a creative spirit, and I wanted to... Yeah, I suppose to look up what it's like to make pop music, ephermeral pop music... Your lifetime endeavor. And so I asked a whole bunch of people, and very kindly, 50 of them from the late 60s up until, I guess 10, 15 years ago, what it's like for them, and a lot of them were really fulsome in their answers, they really indulged in the topic more openly than I think I would have expected.
0:06:47.8 Jessica Risker: I was struck by how vulnerable many of the interviews were...
0:06:51.6 Nick Duerden: Yeah. And it's not something I'm used to as a journalist, when I interviewed bands for newspapers or magazines, both here in the US, I used to write for a lot of music magazines in America, it's always more or less the same. There's a familiar narrative, you're interviewing a band because they've got a new album out, they're about to go on tour, oh look they just won a Grammy... Isn't that great? They're playing Madison Square Gardens, That must be exciting.
And that's fine, it's a nice glitzy showy story, but you don't really get very deep. And in this book, because they were so open to me, I managed to get much deeper, I suppose, into their psyches and just ask them, yeah, what's it like to sustain a career? These are people who have lived out their wildest dreams, I don't know anyone in my social circle who has dared to even try to live out their wildest dreams, much less succeed, so I guess that must give you quite an interesting perspective on life, but also on yourself, I mean, look at me, I've just stood in front of a stage, in front of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people...
...I must be amazing. So when life happens to you and things become more complicated, it's really interesting to see how they react, because they are tough entrepreneurial characters and they're not going to give up without a fight, and nobody in my book really, I think is a victim, and no one is a failure, they sustained their careers for a decade and sold, whether it's hundreds of thousands of records or millions, they are all still doing, to a greater or lesser degree, what they feel they were put on this earth to do, and I kind of came away reeling in admiration for their bloody-mindedness, their tunnel vision, I'm going to sing and I'm gonna write songs. And I'm gonna do it forever. And well, hats off to you.
0:08:41.0 Jessica Risker: And in some ways, to me, it felt like they almost couldn't... Not - like it was, I'm not happy unless I'm creating this.
0:08:50.4 Nick Duerden: This is who I am. Yeah, it's interesting that a lot of them I found, I think... Well, a lot of the people I interviewed in the book suggested that ego plays a big part in it, but I think it only really plays a small, but yes, you need an ego to stand in front of the stage and essentially say to an audience, love me love me, but it's just about having that talent, if you're lucky enough to have a particular gift where you can write a song that the whole... Well, things, it's gonna be very difficult to walk away, isn't it? And I found that lots of them that my interview is in the book, when the spotlight did swing elsewhere, they were a little bit relieved because they could kind of step off that giddy carousel of fame and they could still focus on writing songs. Many of them had a cult audience, many of them still had a huge audience, but they weren't photographed everywhere they went, they weren't hounded, and they weren't at fame's beck and call anymore, they could kind of live their lives a little more natural, I like you would mean...
0:09:50.8 Nick Duerden: And they just carried on singing songs... Well, obviously, you do it as a job as well, so they write songs, not because of market forces, but because they are expressing themselves throughout life, and by extension, I guess they are sound tracking our lines as well, and I really admire that in them that they wouldn't give in. And they keep on going.
0:10:11.6 Jessica Risker: Do you think that the music industry is special... You were talking about a kind of... You get a short amount of time for most people in the spotlight. Do you feel like that's particular to the music industry as far as the arts are concerned? Is it harder to have a sustained career as a musician?
0:10:36.6 Nick Duerden: It seems to be. I get the sense - I didn't I wonder whether it's changing slightly now, but I get the sense that, you know, music is something we listen to, but ever since MTV, it's also something that we look at, so music is very much tied into image, and a lot of the bands I spoke to were admitted that. They said, Look, the industry... And I suppose by extension, as the listeners and the viewers, we want to have pop stars to be young and sexy and with cheek bones and hips and looking good in leather trousers or whatever, and we don't really like them when they are in middle age because no one really likes mid-life, it's a difficult transitional, liminal period where things have kind of gone wrong in our lives, perhaps not universally, but we struggle in mid-life, and so we don't want to see a pop star articulate that struggle.
So many said to me that there is a belief that they write their best songs between the ages of 23 and 27. I think the Bob Dylan initially said something like that he couldn't write the song here in his 20s, in his 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, they wouldn't have the same impetus because initially those songs came out because they had to...
0:11:51.0 Nick Duerden: They were almost burning inside him after that, it just became his job, he gets up every morning and he resumes, that's what the pop star does, they find more words to rhyme with love over and over again, and they set it to a melody. So... That must be quite hard. And what was interesting that several among them...
One of my interviews is Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand, and I really got the idea that he had given this topic and awful lot of thought, and he was one of the people that said to me that, yes, we like our pop stars to be young and sexy and vulnerable, we don't like the mid-life thing, but if they manage to live and survive into old age, we love them again then, because then suddenly they become national treasures and we re-evaluate their contribution to their arts, the record company will suddenly put out the back catalog again in vital and which ever music magazines continue to exist or the newspapers art section will re-evaluate the Career and write loving reviews about them, and I think that bears out doesn't it..
Bob Dylan recently had his first number one Billboard album at the age of 78, but David Bowie struggled in the 90s with Tin Machine, nobody seemed to much like it.
0:13:06.9 Nick Duerden: By the time he was in his 60s, he could do no wrong.
I think the same is true of some like Dolly Parton, who seems to be enjoying herself much more now than she did a few years ago, and Glastonbury was just last weekend here in the UK, and Diana Ross played to one of the biggest audiences I think I've ever seen her play. I wasn't there, I watched it on TV, but the drones pan back and pan back and pan back, and there was just this sea of people for Diana Ross, she must be 75 if she's a day.
So it's a thriving scene at the beginning and a thriving scene towards the end, it's that bit in the middle that's difficult, and I speak to those who are mostly in the middle and navigating it, so it's a book about pop stars, but it's not really about music it's about life and... Yeah, how we navigate life.
0:14:00.6 Jessica Risker: Josh, you were talking about how you feel musicians as artists in particular, seem to be more fused, or identified, with their music.
0:14:11.4 Joshua Wentz: Yeah, I think the idea of the pop star and the identity tied to it along the lines of what the lead from Franz Ferdinand was saying with image - I really feel like we expect that the person up there singing the song, it truly means something to them in a way that you don't believe that Steve Bushimi believes what he's saying when he's acting, or that an author might necessarily believe character in the book that they ride.
And so it seems like a lot of times the struggle... You see the struggle with image or with change with musicians. I know that the leading singer of The Darkness in your book, specifically mentioned trying to remain a rock band while the industry wants you to continue to polish yourself to become something that then doesn't really represent Rock anymore, and to him, that was something that he struggled with.
Nick Duerden: Yeah, that's an interesting point, isn't it? I don't know whether it's true in any art, in any of the other, as you mentioned, Steve Bushimi is an interesting point, and I think Alex Prentice in the book says that a writer like Charles Bukowski, we were interested in him until his death...
0:15:25.3 Nick Duerden: And I suppose you can say exactly the same about Margaret Atwood or Clint Eastwood or Meryl Streep, she just goes from strength to strength, whereas the pop star seems to think that they have to remain young and vibrant and also, I guess as per Justin Hawkins from The Darkness, a little outside the industry, they don't want to sell their soul in the way that he believes and act like Maroon 5 or Coldplay, his band didn't necessarily want to remain commercially successful, they wanted to remain counterculture heroes in some ways.
We tend to look up to and live vicariously through rock stars in the way that we don't with other artists. I guess we put posters of them up on our wall and we look up at them, and even the position of the stage at the stage is higher than we are, so we are gazing up adoringly at them and so we can bow down... I love Margaret Atwoodbut I've got no posters of her on my wall.
So the pop star wants to remain this kind of Jim Morrison-esque complicated person who lives a lot of their life behind dark glasses and remains quite enigmatic. Justin Hawkins is an interesting example because the moment life became comfortable for him, he threw a spanner in the work, so happy marriage didn't seem to work for him.
0:16:45.5 Nick Duerden: His later confessed and he confesses in the book, he thinks he may suffer from ADHD and he told me that any time a relationship came along, whether it was a sibling relationship or a band relationship, or a spousal relationship, he did his best to ruin it because he thrives on danger, on disharmony, and that's how he makes art.
So obviously people like him don't really function in normal society in the way that I do. I can take the train in to work every morning, I'm polite to people around me. I don't wear a cat suit without underwear. He does all of these things so we can look at these people, I think they genuinely are, as corny and cliched as it sounds, square pegs in round holes.
And I think that that's why we live vicariously through them, because perhaps a lot of us secretly want to be a square peg, perhaps.
Joshua Wentz: Right, even if it is an affectation or a character, there is some semblance of believing in the authenticity of a musician and what they are singing that some other disciplines don't have to contend with.
Nick Duerden: Yes, absolutely. What I found fascinating in interviewing so many of the people in the book and how honest they were with me was that I did get to see them without the sunglasses on, without a manager or a PR sitting on in the room and saying you can't ask that, is that they are just as human and as vulnerable as the rest of us, and as screwed up as the rest of us are, but they have this inner determination, they want to lead the life they want to lead, even if they have to sacrifice things to get it, and that's what I found even more admirable than the leather trousers and the sharp cheek bones of 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago, that even with all of their neuroses that are just like mine, they are still going to follow that path. And yeah, as I said, I kind of came... Gosh, I could learn so much from them. And we all could...
And as we were alluding to before, as much as I wrote the book for music fans, I had hope that maybe today's music stars would read it, not because of anything I have to say in the book, but because of what the pop stars themselves have to say in the book, this is a famously an industry that eats people up and spits them out once they're done with them, and there have been many casualties over the years, but slowly pop stars today are wiser, and cannier because so many people crashed and burned, so I don't think we will see the likes of to name, I don't know, one or two Taylor Swift, Billy Eilish, burn in the way that people did in the 70s and the 80s, because they have learned from them and I hope there are lots of cautionary tales in the book of people who did maybe have a hard time and who were pressed a little too hard, so many acts in the book found that when they did get success, they were on that merry-go-round and their management and the record labels didn't want them to take any time off because they had to milk it for as long as they can - so quickly write another song quickly, right, go back out for another tour.
And recently for a newspaper interview, I was talking to Sharon Van Etten , she was saying that model has to change, she no longer wants to be album tour, album tour, happen to... She wants to live a life, she wants to have a partner, she wants to be there, as her son is growing up, she wants to do different things, maybe she wants write every now and then, maybe she wants to write for other people, she doesn't want to follow this, she's seen what's happened to artists who get burned out.
0:20:15.2 Nick Duerden: And as I said earlier, so many in my book were burned out, they were never encouraged to take time out, so the band split up and they never quite got back to where they were, so I do get the sense that things are changing now because we always talk about mental health. So maybe finally, the music industry is gonna take a little more care of its artists and they will endure longer and we will allow them to endure longer.
0:20:40.5 Jessica Risker: That's - okay, my mind is going in two different directions - one is returning to this idea of the musician being particularly fused to their art, which we sort of keep them there because we idolize this image, but then the other experience of that - obviously the artist themselves, when they're fused with their art, what that must feel like personally, when your art goes out of style or when you're sort of on your way down, maybe it's more painful if there's not as much of a gap between you and your art.
0:21:17.1 Nick Duerden: And it's also very difficult to then reinvent yourself or to find anything that fills that vacuum.
So time and again, as I said, I speak to Natalie Merchant and Suzanne Vega and Bob Geldof and Robbie Williams, Happy Mondays, and Shirley Collins, who's an old folk artist in the 1970s here in the UK, Eurythmics and The Police and all of them said that. When the band splits up, or when music leaves them, or they crash and burn, and they end up at the ancient age of 30, and then think, What will I do for the rest of my life?
All of them do kind of panic and think, so much of my life was wrapped up in that, so much of my identity, and because this isn't a nine to five job. So many of them said, No, I don't have any hobbies. I don't have any friends outside of music... My friends are the music industry, because that's where I've been for the last five, 10, 15 years. When you do suddenly fall out of favor, for whatever reason, you find that people leave you, it's always like a mass exodus, now they're no longer return your calls because you are no longer the pop star.
So yeah, a lot of them think, Oh, I've lost my... Oh, who am I again? And finding your identity again isn't impossible, but it does take work and... Yes, a lot of them struggled. And there were some dark years, and some of them talked about suicidal lows or depression, or alcohol and drug addiction, a bankruptcy, they spend all of their money or they didn't ever really get as much money as they thought because they had imaginative, shall we say management and accountancy teams who ran away with their money to a beach in Rio... So it's just awful what happened to them and they suffered.
But the ones who spoke to me, didn't let it beat them. They kind of came back, and that's another fascinating aspect about music that I don't think we've seen any of the other arts. Is if you have had a hit, or a few hits, those songs will continue to work for you in your absence, and they may well be the thing that brings you back into vogue and into fashion later down the line.
0:23:25.2 Jessica Risker: Some people struggle with that, they didn't want to be known for this one song, some people are like, that's my bread and butter. And I'm grateful for it.
0:23:34.3 Nick Duerden: It would be interesting to learn what you think about that as both of you are songwriters, I think... And I've never been able to write a song, I wouldn't even know where to begin, but... So I found that the artist had to make a peace with that. So I think everyone in the book has a song that a good chunk of people in the western world will know, maybe even beyond that, and so many of them were so grateful to have a tiny slice of musical history that if they were no longer able to write new songs, they could just rely on that.
But others were entirely creative of beings who just said, Well, look, I'm very proud of my back catalog, but if I'm not going to go barking mad I need to write and record more songs again. Referring to Glastonbury because it's only just happened, Paul McCartney headlined on Saturday night, and you know, he made this really poignant remark, I think after the first few songs, he said, god, when I sing Beatle songs, all of you hold up your phones and I can just see a sea of white, 'cause you'll filming me...
0:24:39.0 Nick Duerden: When I do more recent songs, it's like darkness, you've all disappeared. But I don't care, I'm gonna sing my new songs anyway, and that's what the Rolling Stones have struggled with for for decades now, I've seen them twice in concert and it's the same both times, 15 years separately, 2005, and they play songs from 1968-1970, and that must be hard for them because they keep on writing songs.
One of the artists I speak to in the book is Stewart Copeland of The Police, and they did an unusual thing, really unusual, that they split up at the height of their career, I think it was 1985. By that stage, they've achieved everything they could achieve, they hated one another and made no secret about it, and Stewart Copeland immediately went off and started writing music for film, and he said he no longer had to be a pop star... So he was the one that said to me, I no longer I had to wear leather pants, I could just wear clothes from The Gap, and I was a suburban dad, and pleased with it, The Police were never going to get back together, and of course, The Police got back together, 'cause I think every band does, and I think it was 2007-2008, and they played this enormous world tour, which I think raked in something like 800 million dollars.
So obviously many, many people all around the world went to see them and were hugely happy to witness their favorite band from the 1980s back again in the new century. And I asked him whether it ever occurred to them to write a new song because they were together again for another 12 months, and he said...
0:26:12.4 Nick Duerden: They'd often thought about it, but they realized there was no point, he believed that without question, they could write songs better than Message in a Bottle, but Message in a Bottle had lived inside the fans' heads for 30 years, he said, It doesn't matter if we can write a better song, nobody needs a new song from The Police.
You know, you could level the same argument with Abba. Abba have recently come back, albeit as avatars, they came back with two songs that I thought were amazing, but the album didn't connect quite as well. But that doesn't matter, they were happy, they had some... Benny and Ben had never start writing, so they released them, but Stewart Copeland said, There's just no point. Nobody wants it. He said, We're just gonna play.
But crucially, the moment that the band stopped, he went back to writing and recording songs for film, because that's what gives him creative fulfilment. Other bands aren't so lucky, they try and write new songs and they want them to be more popular. I always got the sense that Thom Yorke from Radiohead doesn't like playing Creep. Ideally, he would want everyone to forget Creep ever existed because he's now in the smile and he wants to be in the smile, and that's fair enough.
0:27:24.4 Nick Duerden: As I said, it depends on the artist and the artist temperament, and I guess we all know artists can be quite temperamental people.
Joshua Wentz: I feel like one thing that I thought of, and Jess you and I talked about when we were discussing the book was: Beyond the subject of the book themselves, Nick, how did your feelings about fame change or become enhanced by going through the process of writing?
Nick Duerden: Yeah, well, it certainly confirmed to me what I think had always had a sneaking suspicion of is that there's nothing worse in life than becoming famous. And obviously, I was writing from the 1990s onward, so before social media. Now I have no concept how someone like Billy Eilish can exist and survive with her sanity intact.
My 16-year-old daughter is a huge fan, and she always comes to me saying, Oh, Billie Eilish has been cancelled today. Again, because anything she says or does or the color of her hair, and you think it's so difficult for her to exist in a world. Not only where we, the collective, we all have an opinion about it, but we know about it because we all post about it.
And I think every act in the book would say that they had been burned by success. If somebody like Robbie Williams, who I know isn't huge in America, but is huge everywhere else, fame for him was an addiction, and he needed it because he had such low self-esteem, despite all of his achievements. And every time he had, he got it again or he revived it, he felt further disassociated from himself because he thought fame is horrible, it's just another addiction, and he's had many additions over the years.
One of my interviews is Natalie Merchant, and she found that the moment 10,000 Maniacs became successful, she hated what she had become, because she felt that she had just become a marketing tool for the record label to sell more 10,000 Maniacs tickets and albums. And she said, Well, hang on. We've done it on our own terms. Why, why change it? And they said, No, no, no, we can sell more, so that's no longer call you 10000 Maniacs, let's call you, Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs. And when we do photoshoots, why didn't you step forward a little bit and the guys in the background can kind of blur slightly out of focus, and then she would turn up to other photo shoots and be asked to wear bikinis, and she was thinking, hang on, this isn't what I want at all.
So she deliberately stepped away from 10,000 Maniacs again at their height to the counter, smaller solo career, but her first solo album around 1995 Tiger Lily was bigger than anything 10,000 Maniacs achieved.
0:30:12.5 Nick Duerden: So she said, I found myself in the carousel again. But by that stage, she was slightly older, more confident and took more control, so she, like many of the people in the book, started to dictate to the record labels rather than have them dictate to her.
I don't think anybody likes feeling like product, you could be you either singer-song writer where a can of Coke is more or less the same thing, and nobody really likes. So fame just seems to warp people's view and also hamper their ability to write songs because they are having to write songs almost by committee, so the record label would like it, so the radio stations would like it, so we can sound track the Super Bowl at half time.
And many of them want that, which is fine, nothing along with that, but just as many if not more, don't want that, they want to follow their own muse, even if it takes them down weird and wonderful corners.
0:31:09.9 Jessica Risker: Yeah, some of the themes of the book are loss of agency as you move through the machine, and I think something that can be such a struggle is an artist, I think many artists start out with sort of purity to their art, where they wanna create what they're inspired to create, but they want... I think most people wanna be recognized or want to be seen, and once you hit a certain amount of fame, you're getting results and getting that recognition, perhaps you begin considering more Well, what will people respond to? Or what does the industry want me to do? And I imagine that that's a tension for a lot of the artists at that point.
0:31:53.7 Nick Duerden: But also another thing that they think about is... Oh gosh, do I have anything else to say? I said it so well on that first album... Can I say it a second time? Can I say it a 15th time? Because our emotions are infinite, but the ways in which we express them I guess are finite. I'm angry again. I'm in love again. I'm divorced again.
So yeah, as I said earlier about trying to find other words that rhyme with love, ot must be quite difficult. I interview Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol, in the book, and he was fascinating because his band tried to make it for a long time. They were a very slow overnight success, and they really hit their commercial peak in the wake of Cold Play success because like Coldplay, they wrote incredibly emotive songs that sounded really good when you were waving your phone up in the air the same time. And he quite liked doing that, and he was also very good at doing it, but then once he'd done it for two albums, he thought, Okay, well, I'm going to try something different. Now, I'm going to look into my Irish roots. And of course, the record label said No, no, no, come back. We don't want Irish roots.
0:33:05.2 Nick Duerden: No, no, no. I think they had an album called 100 Million Suns, and there's a 16-minute song on that, that's never going to sound track the Superbowl at half time, that's never going to sound like chasing cars will run. Nobody wants a 16-minute song in which Gary Lightbody strokes his chin and plays a very long guitar solo, but that's what he wanted to do there, and what I found fascinating...
Somebody else was Kevin Rowland from Dexys Midnight Runners. And everybody knows, Come on, Eileen. For me, that song is a life force, it's like plugging that plug into a socket and thinking, Oh my God, look, electricity... It's just, it's that vibra, and that remarkable and not unreasonably, everybody wanted more of the same, but he said, I have no idea how I wrote that song in the first place. I'm glad I did, but I didn't particularly want to write it again and again and again. So by the band's fourth or fifth album, he was writing what was coming to him.
Another interview was Joan Armatrading and she says - you know Joan Armatrading is very religious - and she says, I know the songs are songs literally fall from the sky, from wherever, the heavens or whatever, into me and out through my fingertips onto the piano, and I play them.
0:34:21.2 Nick Duerden: So in the late 70s and early 80s, they were hit singles. By the late 80s, into the early 90s and into the 2000s and 2010s, they were still coming to her, but they were no longer hit singles, and she said, I don't care, I'm not... I'm not a product, I'm not doing something to get into the top 40 all the time, I'm just writing what comes to me. If you like it, great if you don't... I don't really care...
Many of them have that struggle... They write what they write because they write it, not because it's going to... Yeah, sound good on a TV advert or on the radio or on a James Bond film or whatever.
0:34:56.4 Jessica Risker: That's story to me, speaks to the personalization. It sounds like she was able to create a gap: "this isn't me. I'm the channel, but whatever happens happens, and I'm okay with that." And that space gave her a little more peace.
0:35:08.9 Nick Duerden: It's almost like schizophrenia and Robbie Williams calls himself Rob. And all of his friends call him Rob, so I'd interviewed him previously for magazine and newspaper articles, and I called him Robbie and... Because I don't know him, and he said, No, call me Rob. I'm not... We're talking now, Robbie is that bloke on stage.
And so they have to separate, and I can almost understand, I guess, because we were saying before by the adulation, because they have no idea why people are adoring them. Because he just sees a fuck-up... He sees someone who's pretty screwed up and messed up, and there's a lot of self-loathing in his life, or at least there was. I think he's in a very happy place right now, is happily married with umpteen kids or the four...
Anyway, he's now a painter, there's a bio-pic being made of his life in which he acts himself at some stage... 'cause of course he does. So he's happy now, but yeah, in the early days, and especially in the post to Take That days, he wasn't really happy with who he was, so Robbie Williams was the person who could go out in front of 120,000 people at night and perform, but Rob...
0:36:22.2 Nick Duerden: Who he is away from this age and who he is to his family and friends, wwas someone entirely different.
And Joan Armatrading was much the same. She just, I think she told me that she was essentially a vessel, so she's not responsible for her songs. She grew up not a fan of music, she liked comedy, so why music came to her, she has no idea. And I get the sense that lots of the people I spoke to, even those who had ostensibly retired from music, hadn't retired.
Natalie Merchant told me that she had retired... She didn't really want to do it very much anymore. She was now teaching under-privileged kids arts and crafts, and that was more fulfilling to her then singing ever was But she's just announced in new album for 2023. Tonya Donelly from Belly who I loved in the early 1990s, wanted to do some good honest work after she had a bit of a wobble after being nominated for Grammy and when had band suddenly blew up on both sides of the Atlantic, stopped music and became a doula, and then she got the band back together again. And so I guess they see very different sides of themselves, they literally ourselves...
0:37:34.8 Nick Duerden: So this self is a pop star, this self is a mom or a dad, this self is an artist, and the particular self who is the popstar is the one, in a way, an idealized version of themselves, they are the one with all the confidence, not all the answers, but all the confidence and it's the confidence that carries him through.
Joshua Wentz: Definitely, and I was telling Jess when we were talking about this yesterday, seeing Tanya Donnelly on there was especially exciting to me because I found Belly to be a real outlier when they broke in terms of pop and being on the radio, because her music is not very poppy. And then having two albums that were very unique and interesting and then going away, and then it was a 2019 or 2020 when they... Must been 2019 when they got back together to play some shows, and they came to Chicago and I was able to go and see them and something I was never ever expecting to have that opportunity.
And then I think they came out with a new album, they did some b-sides as well, so I... I hope that people see, and I think the book does a very good job of showing this, that the artists that do go away, then come back and produce new music.
That their value of the experience is in that new music, we love the youth, we love songs about love and heartbreak and fast times, but then having these people come back and write new music based on everything they've gone through and having a mature look at stuff while it doesn't really scream Top number one radio, it's really great music. I think Snow Patrol, he also said his album after that long break was the best music he's every written.
Nick Duerden: Yeah, it's amazing, is it... Because as we said earlier that the music industry is all about novelty in the new... So while as music fans, we are incredibly fickle, we're like errant lovers at... We've got someone in every port, but we don't forget our first love, so yes, I don't necessarily need to listen to Belly like I did in the early 90s, but I love that comeback album, I suppose, in a way I see... I don't know, am I making any sense? But I always see myself reflected, they are aging, my gosh, look at them now, but look at me now, and I've been there with him, and the fact that they are still there... I don't know. It kind of gives me hope.
I'm 53 now and I'm such a terrible cliche. I've got to the stage now where I just listen to 80s music stations. And I love them, and I think, What am I kind of tapping into this? So I listen to them in the 80s, but then I go on to Spotify and I listen to their new music, and I think, Wow, they are still there. They are still true to themselves, and I kind of... I feel more personally connected to them, so they're no longer that poster on the wall, I'm no longer genuflecting, but I feel more of a kinship with them because I'm aging right alongside them, and I kind of admire that tenacity and that kind of hard graft.
So for me as a fan of Tanya Donnely, to speak to her now was really moving and touching, and I love that she'd gone away and had a real life, and that she'd also come back, so she still got that real life, which is very active, but she's still there, and I imagine that it's interesting to watch...
Well, it's always been interesting to watch Madonna since 1982-83, I think, but she's had a tricky midlife period because I guess someone of her fame word, because she was always dividing people, and what she has to do now is a single photograph on Instagram and the world melts. But if she lives through and we know she will to her 60s and beyond, her third act is just gonna be fascinating because if she embraces mortality and the woman who sang Borderline and Like A Virgin and moving into her Leonard Cohen phase, it's just going to be amazing, and I think the whole world will stop and stand still again and just watch over her with just ferocious admiration. Thinking, God, she's still there. Wow. And there won't be detractors anymore, we'll just be saying, she was the woman that essentially, for many of us, invented or reinvented pop and look, she's still going.
0:42:11.8 Jessica Risker: Yes. When you mentioned Spotify, it reminded me of a question we had for you, which: It was fun to read the book, some of the songs I may not have remembered or didn't know, and so Josh and I would go on Spotify and look up the songs and sort of had this soundtrack as we read the book and we were wondering if you have a Spotify playlist to accompany the book of the songs that are mentioned.
0:42:36.5 Nick Duerden: I kept meaning to do that 'cause I thought it was a really good idea, and because I'm so thick, I didn't know how to do it, and I thought I'll ask somebody clever and I've forgotten, but it was one of those things is it... 'cause it does send you...
So my editor, who's this brilliant guy at my publishing house in the UK, I think he's 34-35 and so, because the nature of the book means I'm interviewing everybody from the ages of, I guess 35 and up, he wasn't that familiar, but he said it sent him down a rabbit hole. But also people, my agent sent them, either reminding those of songs that they loved and forgotten, or just introducing them to people, and I think that speaks to the overriding arc of the book, is that it reminds us that the music is always there, and we was just waiting for us to either discover or rediscover.
So I say yes in short, and I would love to do that, and maybe one day I'll get around to doing it because it's the idea that people are discovering music for the first time or re-discovering it because they've read something in my book is just thrilling, so I've done quite a few radio shows, both here and in America since the book came out, and they've been playing songs from the book, and it almost makes me feel a little bit like a DJ or DJ-adjacent.
And it's just such a thrill because I wrote the book because I'm such a music lover and I love pop stars I guess so... Yeah, that's very close to me, that subject... And yes, I'd like to do at some point, and I hope I will.
Joshua Wentz: I think that's a great idea, especially because a lot of the songs, even people that are familiar with them, say a Chumbawamba song Del Amitri, we know one song out of a large, large catalog of music, and to fine those other songs and to hear them and just... It's super rewarding as a reader.
Nick Duerden: And I also love the fact that even bands that I may not have known anything about, and obviously this is true of every pop star that I haven't interviewed has a story to tell...
You know, I knew very little about Chumbawamba, and if I'm honest, I wasn't overly interested. You know, Tubthumping was a great song, a great one hit wonder. There is such a story there that kind of to me, Boff Whalley, was the mind that they've been going for 15 years beforehand as a profoundly political band, never wanted to have a chart success, we're never going to have chart success, and then somehow they wrote a song in 1997, I think that the whole world song, and of course, they were going to throw away all of their principles and just jump on the bandwagon.
They did anything but. They upset the industry at every possible turn, they upset Simon Cowell who has wanted to use that some on America's Got Talent and Britain's Got Talent, and the X-Factor and Pop Idol, whatever else, and they're just agitators and they use their moment in the sun to highlight striking workers in the UK, striking workers in the US. I think what an interesting story and Del Amitri had in America, I think then that one big hit Roll With Me, was it called?
Joshua Wentz: Roll To Me.
Nick Duerden: That's right. And the way Justin Currie told it to me was that song has essentially paid his mortgage for the last 25 odd years, because that keeps on getting heavy rotation all over America on radio stations every day. It's a short, sweet, perfect pop song, and that has allowed him to sustain his career for the last 30 years and to indulge himself and to write the kind of songs that he wants to write. He's someone who didn't have 15 minutes of fame, had five and a half minutes of fame, and he has incredible...
There's a rich story there, and to my surprise, the book is full of that, and then I go to the other extreme with someone like turns trendy a very short time, the biggest sexiest pop star on the planet, and then not... And he had to deal with the "and then not" bit for quite some time. And yeah, there were just so many stories that they burst out of nowhere into the public, so I take notice and then they just appear and we of course forget all about them. But they are hiding, they're lurking there somewhere, mostly online these days and on social media, and they are waiting to be rediscovered, and as I found, they've all got amazing stories to tell.
0:46:48.1 Jessica Risker: The fun of the book is very much in the details of the stories. The Chumbawamba one was one of my favorite stories. I really admire their spirit, it was great. Yeah, it just feels like rock and roll to me, the years.
0:47:03.9 Nick Duerden: Very much rock and roll - punk, the spirit of punk.
0:47:08.3 Jessica Risker: I so very much appreciate your time. If you don't mind, I have just a couple more things that I definitely wanted to touch on before we end... Is that all right?
Nick Duerden: Absolutely, yeah.
Jessica Risker: So as a musician and also as a professional therapist, of course, there was a line from this that stood out to me, I wanted to ask your thoughts on... So this is from Simon Rowbottom of The Boo Radleys. The quote was, "A lot of someone's self-worth is very tied up and being a successful musician" and Simon Rowbottom also went on to become a psychologist for some context, so he says, "The more I've thought about it, the more I've realized it's not about being a musician. It's about being famous." And I wonder what your thoughts, after all these interviews on that quote is?
0:47:53.7 Nick Duerden: Because I've interviewed bands for many years, and I've done lots of different kind of writing and a lot of different kinds of journalism, I find I would always go back to pops stars because they were so interesting. So lots of them, and they do talk about this in the book, come from difficult beginnings or frustrating beginnings, and maybe they have low self-worth and low self-esteem or... Yeah, as we said, or addictions issues already... Becoming a success on a world stage, validates them and gives them an identity.
So as we've talked about this earlier, When that goes away, they can kind of struggle to think, Well, who am I? Am I nobody now? Because nobody loves me anymore, nobody is looking at me on the street and running up to me and wanting an autograph. I found that a lot of them really did struggle with that, and some go on to find a second life. But many don't, which is why they refused to let music go.
In the book, I talk about Adam Ant. I didn't interview him for the book, but about 10 or 12 years ago, I interviewed him for a newspaper over here, and I found him interesting. He was one of the first pop as I ever remember being different, the pop stars I like like Squeeze or...
I was gonna say Blondie, but that's not true because Debbie Harry was just luminescent and amazing, and it still is, but they could pass for ordinary people, madness and Squeeze.
Adam Ant was something different. And so when popstardom ended for him, or at least was diminished, he really struggled, and he told me that he was bipolar and that he had a surfeit of creativity that he said a bit like Joan Armatrading, and came crashing down on him all the time, and it needed an outlet.
When he had an outlet as a pop star, he could manage his condition, but either way, he sees the world and the way he operates within the world, because he had so much to do and people looking up at him and adoring him and he was releasing albums. When that went away and there was not that demand, he didn't really know what to do with himself, and I met him at his house. And it was essentially a shrine to Adam Ant through the ages.
So there were posters, he was playing Adam Ant music downstairs in his bedroom, when I went down to use the toilet, I pass this bedroom and I heard the music of Adam Ant and I thought is that a coincidence? Is that on purpose? His autobiography was, there was a leaning tower of his autobiography, there were ticket stubs, they were gold, platinum, silver discs. And I guess that was his way of reminding himself who he was, and I thought there was a real poignancy.
We all need to be reminded that we are worth something. And if we are as I said earlier lucky or gifted enough to have this incredible talent to go out and touch the world, why wouldn't you remind yourself of that? It's like looking through old photo albums or scrolling through your phone a holiday four years ago.
I'm thinking, Oh, I remember that. I was happy then. That's what Adam Ant was doing, an analog rather than on digital.
I found that lots of people kind of struggled, and also nothing really compares for them to a life in music, so... Yeah, some of those who go on to do other jobs - Simon Rowbottom is a good example, and again, I didn't know that much about Boo Radleys, but they had big success, brief success, but big success in the mid-1990s just before britpop, and then britpop, came and steam rolled through everything. And they were a spent four, so at least that's how they were perceived.
So he is now a psychotherapist, and you would think that's enough, but he is my age, I think he's 50 or... And wife, two children, probably has a dog, a plays golf for the weekend, but even he... He's back out on that nostalgia circuit, he doesn't want anything else but that... He says, it's so much fun to go back up on stage and it reminds me who I used to be. I'm perfectly happy with who I am today, but to be able to taste that again, to go up on stage and play two or three songs to an audience that only want those two or three songs from the album scream and sometimes crying is an addiction, but it's a fairly safe one, and there's one that I can manage.
And I thought that was a really interesting insight into what music can give you and what you can give back and yeah, I'm not sure if that answers your question entirely, but it's a way to remain plugged into all facets of your personality.
0:52:25.1 Jessica Risker: I think the book itself really gives rise to a lot of... Just a lot of contemplation on, again, speaking to musicians, who may be listening to this podcast, and thinking about where you are in your career, where you'd like to be, it maybe contextualizes the journey a little bit, and I personally found the book very cathartic. Even just thinking about the arc of a career, where we've gone with our music...
I'm curious, I wanted to ask you, Nick, as an author and an artist yourself, how has the book impacted your own artistic or professional journey and goals?
0:53:15.7 Nick Duerden: Oh, that's a good question... I'm not sure if I'm gonna be able to answer. It was a book that I wanted to write for a long time, and I think it is very much a mid-life one, the more I continue to interview pop stars, the more I wanted to focus on their real life and not their new album, and the aging process. And so the fact that I was able to do it brought me an awful lot of satisfaction.
The fact that it seems to have resonated with people is really nice. I've received so many emails and DMs and of people thanking me for writing it, and I said I've always been a music fan, but I'm so fascinated, I read lots of memoirs from people from all sorts of backgrounds, and I feel that... I'm really interested in learning how people go through life, almost as if I want to pick up tips from them, even if I don't have much in common with them, I find it fascinating to learn how people live their lives.
I wrote a health memoir a few years ago when I wasn't very well, and I found even before then I was reading health memoirs because I thought it's fascinating to see how life has this habit of tripping you up, it's never linear is it, it's always a bit of a rollercoaster.
0:54:27.8 Nick Duerden: So to see how people cope gave me inspiration, so to be able to write a book about a bunch of people and have their peers then read it and say, God, it's given me inspiration is incredibly fulfilling for me. And it's made me realize as well that pop stars never really die. We keep on learning there there's no such thing as a job for life anymore, but I think as I was writing this book, I thought, Well, in one sense or are many senses, music is a job for life for musicians because they never really go away.
Don McLean is one of my interviews, and he's an interesting character for all sorts of reasons. But he's 75 years old and still at it, the UK folk scene I mentioned earlier, Shirley Collins is 86, and she says, I just want to keep releasing albums while I have time... And there was an appetite, she keeps her getting five stars every time she releases an album, I think, because the critics are just looking at someone of that vintage and with such an admiration that she's still cranking it out and...
Yeah, they keep coming back and there's one story in the book again, and I didn't know much of that because I'm just a little bit too young, an English punk band called The Only Ones whose career was completely derailed by drugs and then ultimately rescued by music.
0:55:53.9 Nick Duerden: He'd finally kicked the habit because their one and only hit Another Girl, Another Planet refused to die. It was used in a mobile phone ad, Blink 182 covered it, REM and The Cure covered it, and so tour managers to ring them up saying, You can tour you know, you can get the band back together, stop arguing, kick the drugs, and you can get back together. And so now Peter Perrett in his 70s is fairly convinced that he wasted much of his adult life to addiction. But he's kicked it now and he wants to live in order to make more music.
And I felt so privileged to be able to tell those inspiring stories. A lot of the times when we read about music, those are early MTV interviews about bands who have crashed and burned, there was a kind of glee to tell the stories of how they had screwed up royally. We love to hear about how bands imploded... I didn't really want to tell that kind of story, I didn't want to link into that kind of narrative, I didn't want it to be all schmaltzy and sweet and optimistic with your thumbs up, but I did want to tell honest stories.
0:57:00.3 Nick Duerden: So a lot of the people in the book have suffered and have had their own versions of crashing and burning, but they kind of got back up again and kept going, and I felt really privileged to be able to tell those stories because that's... The human journey isn't it? We do make mistakes, we do make terrible mistakes sometimes, but we do make good on those mistakes and make good on those early promises, and we find a way through and... Yeah, simply, I think to be able to tell those stories felt like a privilege to me.
0:57:31.4 Jessica Risker: Would you say that we get up again...?
0:57:32.7 Nick Duerden: At the risk of sounding like a member of Chumbawamba, we got down... We get back up again, we really do, yes.
0:57:38.8 Jessica Risker: Nick, thank you so much for your time. It was such a joy to talk to you, I love the book.
I feel like this is a must read for musicians or anybody who's interested in music or just the pop industry.
Nick Duerden: So thank you so much for your time and for taking the time to read it. I hope I made some kind of sense and I loved talking to both of you, so thank you.
0:58:07.0 Jessica Risker: I wanna thank Nick Duerden for his time today. That was an amazing conversation. I love the book, I think it's a must read for any musician. So go check it out. It's available in both hardcover and digital formats.
I hope you guys are doing well. Visit musictherapypodcast.com for previous episodes and upcoming events.
Music Therapy is hosted by Jessica Risker, produced by Sullivan Davis of Local Universe, and engineered by Joshua Wentz in Chicago.
Peace and love til I see you again.