The best pop music is a little bit emotionally manipulative, and Kylie Minogue knows it. Her parasitic signature single, 2001's "Can't Get You Out of My Head," is designed to stick permanently after just a single listen. A crush, its lyrics theorize, is much like an earworm — both can drive you absolutely crazy. Pleasure brings pain, or maybe the other way around.
Kylie's dark side has always been easy enough for casual listeners to ignore, but her angelic features (she's an ex-soap opera star, after all) and whisper sweet vocals belie what fans recognize as a trademark pathos. As her new compilation Step Back In Time reveals, the Australian musician has made a long and successful career of mixing light and shade. During her early years, when she sometimes struggled to define a coherent post-television career, the singer's most memorable songs argued for good girl gone bad status: "Better the Devil You Know," Nick Cave duet "Where the Wild Roses Grow," and the transcendental, eternally underrated trip hop track "Confide In Me."
Then came the noughties, where she found her niche. Between 2000 and 2003 Kylie released Light Years, Fever, and Body Language — three era-defining albums filled with disco songs about lust and longing in the club, distractingly catchy but often hinging on that sad 2 AM feeling that the dancing will end, the sun will come out, and we'll all have to go home alone. Her songs of this era are relentless, leaving no prisoners: there's the new millennium fantasy of "On a Night Like This," the pure meetcute ecstasy of "Love at First Sight," and the masterful looping composition of "Come Into My World," with its clever Michel Gondry music video. Plus the unapologetic lay-it-all-out-on-the-table sexuality of "Red Blooded Woman" and "Slow." Her 2004 greatest hits record Ultimate Kylie yielded two new classics: "I Believe in You" and "Giving You Up."
Kylie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, returning to music in 2007 with the Calvin Harris-produced electro-pop album X, then 2010's triumphant hallmark of fan service, Aphrodite. Since then she's released Kiss Me Once, a one-off experiment with Jay-Z's label Roc Nation that led her to work with the likes of MNEK, Sia, and Pharrell, and 2018's Nashville-tinged Golden, which anticipated the whole Yeehaw thing. Even the lead single from that album, "Dancing," offers something of a party girl's lament: "No one wants to stay at home/ Nobody wants to be alone."
Warm and generous on the phone from London, unusually unpretentious for a mononymous pop star, Kylie can easily summarize the overarching ethos of her career to date. "I would say the consistent theme is a kind of shiny melancholy," the singer says, completely off the cuff, when I ask how she'd survey the selection of tracks on Step Back In Time. "Some songs, like 'The Locomotion,' are about dance, celebration. But 'Lucky,' 'Better the Devil,' 'Hand on Your Heart?' Those songs are pleading."
This is a greatest hits album, so let's start from the beginning. You started recording with PWL when you were 20 years old. These are the songwriters behind Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." Take me back to that time.
Twenty years old doesn't seem that young nowadays, but I think back then it was more so. A few years into my time with PWL I was a bit frustrated. I wanted to be more involved. I was — yeah. I was tired of sitting in the waiting room until I was cold, and then just doing rhymes and leaving. But I think that worked really well for me initially, considering I didn't get into music the normal way. I fell into it from TV and I mean, it was a dream I had. But to go from working as an actor, especially in a soap where you get your lines, learn your lines, say your lines, move on, I felt the process at PWL was very much like that, so it kind of worked for me until I wanted to know more, and to do more.
And also, I was really fortunate that I mean, I had like number one, number two, top five, number one. I just thought, "Wow." I mean I knew it was great then, but the further I got into my career, I marveled even more.
Like, it's that easy. You release your first album, you go number one.
I mean, yes. I remember listening to the hit radio station in Melbourne and they would have the top eight at eight and it was listener voted, and it was the first time I was potentially hearing my songs on the radio. And I am with my family in the front room, I think I sat on the heater or something, and there was the countdown. The further and further it got to number one, the more dejected we got, thinking, "Aww, I guess it's not there." Then I was in at number one. So then, well, I had to maintain that. You know, speaking of "Never Gonna Give You Up," I turned 50 last year and Rick Astley surprised me by singing at my party with some other people there. You know, talk about going back in time. And it's someone that I didn't — wouldn't have much to do with back then, like the hit factory was called out for really good reasons. People just would churn through.
Did you have clear-cut ambitions at the time, or were you just riding the wave?
Probably more of just riding the wave and taking it bit by bit. I would probably call it more daydreams than ambitions. I wasn't hell-bent on doing it. But then, people around me might disagree and say, "No, you do tend to set your mind on something." But I definitely had my dose of luck and opportunity. Maybe luck is making the most of the opportunities, I'm not sure. But I certainly didn't have foresight, thinking, "I'm still going to be here in 30 years time with a canon of work." That wasn't my ambition. I was trying to get to the next step, do something good, and constantly learning. And even though it was successful, there was plenty of fight along the way, plenty of battles that had to be won.
In 1990 you released Rhythm of Love, and the song "Better the Devil You Know." It was a turning point, thematically.
I remember that period so well, because I must have had a few little grumbles about wanting to be my own musician. And I remember Pete Waterman saying, "All right kiddo. What kind of song do you want? What are you listening to?" And I said, "I really like 'C'mon and Get My Love' by Cathy Dennis and D Mob." If you listen to that and listen to "Better the Devil," it's very similar. So it definitely marks a change, although I hadn't left PWL, and Nick Cave wrote an amazing piece on his thoughts on "Better the Devil," which you could look up. It was the first one that had a darkness, which I probably didn't realize at the time. I also think about that with "I Should Be So Lucky." We all sing like it's really happy, but it's not. She wishes she was lucky in love.
There was an awkward phase in your career between 1991 and 1994, when you released Kylie Minogue and Impossible Princess. What were you seeking during that period?
Perhaps if I'd been at that stage of my life and career at a different point in time, it definitely would have been different. That was the mid '90s, and you can hear that I am being influenced by Björk and Garbage, and indie pop, and people like Tricky. That was where I was trying to fit in. It turns out that wasn't exactly my lane. I think for fans, they love seeing and hearing something different, and it definitely was a learning curve for me, which I am thankful for. It wasn't successful, but strangely moved in its own way. But I think the start of that we got right, which was "Confide in Me"
That's a great song.
And signing with Deconstruction Records, which no one would have seen coming. Neither did I, so that was a really interesting period. I mean I would have loved to sing something like Impossible Princess again on tour, but there is increasingly less room to do songs that weren't hits. Basically, we need to do the Anti Tour two.
Yes. Oh my god, please. Obviously the year 2000, when you released Light Years, changed everything.
It really did. We've gone through my adolescence and I was ready for pop, the world was the world for pop. Basically the first meeting with Parlophone Records, I signed with them, and we were all just ready. "Spinning Around" wasn't easy to get right. My part recording it was really difficult, but I know my A&R at the time was like a dog and a bone with that song. He just wouldn't let go until it was right. Turns out, it was right. It was just — you know, when all the stars are aligned, and the video works perfectly. And we were off again.
Were you getting worried about the state of your career?
I thought my career was, if not over, very much clinging on. I actually bought a place in LA and I thought, "I might just might hang out in America for a while." Then, "Spinning Around." I'd been doing this for forever already. I didn't know that was going to happen, and thankfully it did.
Light Years also contains the track "Your Disco Needs You," which is a really fun, consciously queer song.
It was written with Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers, and well, I wasn't there when they were doing all of the recording, but apparently they had this male choir, doing possibly the gayest thing they ever had to do. Robbie and Guy are just an absolute powerhouse force of writing and they don't hold back. They did that whole thing. They were the ones who really captured that song — I wish I came up with the title. "Your Disco Needs You." It's brilliant.
A fan favorite.
Some songs, just through force of fan power, you know, they become guardians of that song. The amount of times when I am doing a show and it's not on the set list because again, we just don't have time. They won't let me go without doing it, so we keep punching it out again. I think it lives in its own world. We gave it a bit of a video, but it didn't have the backing of the label. But it lives on, in its own way.
I always wondered about how insanely quickly you followed up Light Years with Fever then Body Language. What was the timeline like for you? You must have felt unstoppable.
It was all very noughties. I don't know about unstoppable, but it was all happening. Like I said before, before "Spinning Around," I just didn't know what the future held for me. So, yeah, it was busy. Through that period, I got back into live touring. That's the one thing I will be thankful for Impossible Princess. It made me go on the road in Australia. I had to fight for a measly projector and two dancers! Basically, the set was cardboard and lycra. We had literally nothing, but it just kind of got me on stage and connecting with the audience and doing small gigs. That led to 2001, the tour which was for my Light Years album. Then we went stratospheric with Fever and did the Fever tour, and really nailed that. Then Body Language, so right, it was busy.
Are you a big partier? Because these are party songs.
I mean, I used to be. I definitely think that your early twenties is where you're supposed to be doing all of that. I happened to be in London, which was incredible. You didn't club once a month, you went once or twice a week. You were mingling. You had to be there, it's not like you could live through social media and pretend you were there. You had to be there and experience it and go where the lights were. To paraphrase Prince, you were either going home or going to someone's house. They were heady and wonderful days. Now, it's more like I'll have a sensible wine or something. But, yeah, I can have the occasional big night. Just definitely not like the old days. But I do understand how music can make you stay up.
How did cancer disturb the timeline — what would have been different?
For a start, I would have headlined Glastonbury.
Which you're finally going to do this year.
Yeah, I'm doing the legends slot at Glastonbury this year, so it's the daytime one that should be a massive sing-along. It's such an honor to have that and it's going to be emotional, to say the least. So, I don't know how to answer that question because I just don't know how to answer that question. Everything was on hold, but I stayed determined to get back on stage and finish the sold-out tour. It's really good to have that goal. You do hear those classic stories about people becoming ill or on the verge of illness and having to reassess their life and what's really important. I wasn't that classic story, where a stressed out business person goes, "I don't want this life." I was like, "No, I want it. This is what I do and this is what I'm driven to do." Here I am still doing it, so I'm most grateful.
I told a few Kylie fans that I was doing this interview, and they wanted me to ask about your birth chart.
I love astrology. I love it. So, I'm a Gemini — Geminis love to be busy, love conversation and people. Probably the hardest thing of my entire career is doing interviews because you're meant to give an answer, and Geminis love to be on the fence. We are fairly noncommittal. Oh gosh, I think I'm going to get this confused now. I think my moon might be in Gemini and my rising could be Cancer. I might have those second two confused. I'm sure they could look it up. 28th of May. There is a great site, called "Mystic Medusa." She's Australian. She's amazing.
There aren't any tracks from Kiss Me Once on this compilation.
No there are not.
Well, there was only one hit from that, which was "Into the Blue," and I feel in general with that album, it was a lot of experimentation. It was a bit of a tricky time. I was between America and here, having different A&R. I don't want to bag it. Lovely, beautiful Sia, who was executive producing for me. I just think that at some point the stars are aligned and everything is on your side, and they had their own pattern on that album, let's say. But everything comes from something and leads to somewhere else. When we get to reboot this potentially for tour, I think we will have justice for "Into the Blue." I love how there have been so many hashtags from fans. So we do have to give justice to them all. Justice for "Chocolate" is on the radar.
"Chocolate" is very underrated.
I know! We needed three CDs for the greatest hits.
In 2018 you released Golden. Country music is having a huge moment right now — you were one of the first pop artists to get on that resurgence.
That was thanks to my A&R, who incidentally was the same A&R who did "Spinning Around." In the initial part of recording for Golden, we didn't really have a direction. It was going in with some of my old favorites and new people and just seeing what would happen and what the collision brings out creatively. We kept trying to get a country element but we couldn't quite get it until I went to Nashville, and then it all made sense. That place must have particular lay lines or something. There's a spirit there, and it would have been totally disingenuous to suddenly be country, but definitely taking the inspiration from the songwriting point of view and putting stories into the songs. It was good at that point in my life to explore that. I don't think that will leave me, moving forward. Although God, if another "Can't Get You Out of My Head" came my way, I would take it, thank you very much. I would write it, or I would take it.
You recently won a trademarking case against Kylie Jenner. How does it feel to be the dominant Kylie?
Aww. Well. It's hilarious that it caused such a kerfuffle. I think she has done amazingly well, but I think it's just important that people know that there is room for more than one Kylie. I mean, I've been doing it for a long time. Now, people know the distinction, and it's all settled down. It's great. Actually, when I was young there was no one called Kylie, so to explain I would have to spell it out, especially in America. Thanks to Kylie Jenner, they do know the name Kylie. So, winning.
Photography: Christian Vermaak