Kylie Minogue on her new album and the art of writing happy songs about death
It can’t be easy to write a song that’s equally suited for pre-games and funerals, but Kylie Minogue has pulled it off with “Dancing,” the first single from her upcoming album, Golden. Sure, the track’s sparkling chorus — “When I go out, I wanna go out dancing!” — is a welcome addition to getting-ready playlists. But take the song another way — “When I go out,” as in, out of this living world — and you get an unexpectedly touching banger about living your best life while you’re still walking on earth. It’s a message that’s already inspired some fans to semi-jokingly ask for the song to be played at their own funerals. And for an artist who says her songs are “more about escapism than anything else,” as Minogue tells EW, the song’s acknowledgment of mortality marks a subtle but notable shift in her lyrics toward deeper storytelling.
Also different this time around? The song’s prominent country inspirations, which emerged during a two-week songwriting trip to Nashville last summer and ultimately shaped the direction of her 14th LP, due April 6.
Below, Minogue, 49, tells EW about why she’s channeling Dolly Parton on her new record and what she learned from her Music City sabbatical.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What led you to channel country music at this point in your career?
KYLIE MINOGUE: I always like to do something a little different, but the country suggestion came from my A&R guy. I’ve just been reunited with him because of my new label [BMG]. I worked with him for 10 years when I was at Parlophone. We did “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and “Spinning Around” — all the good years were us working together. I’ll try just about anything, so when he said, “Think of a country inspiration element,” I said,”Sure!” Followed by: “What do you mean? A sample? A cover?” I didn’t get it. He couldn’t really express so it, so I just went in and carried on recording and synth-pop dance songs that were more like what people would expect from me, I suppose. Then I went to Nashville in July, and it all started to make sense. We managed to find this country inspiration but bring it back into my world. It was super fun. It felt like it took an eternity to get there. You go through so much experimentation to get to a point where you go, “Okay, this is the foundation, we’re going to build on this.” Once we had those foundations after my two weeks in Nashville, everything I did when I got back to London was colored by that.
Did you have any idea that your time in Nashville was going to be so fruitful?
I was hoping! I may have even said a silent prayer. I remember clasping my hands and going, “I just want one song! Please! Three would be great, but I really need one!” The search for not only an album’s worth of songs but a song that’s the first [single] really feels like looking for a needle in a haystack. I was so excited about my trip to Nashville. I had to postpone a couple times because of other commitments, and I started to get a bit worried. I was thinking, “God, am I going to make it? I really need to get out there!” So I must have had this feeling or strong hope that it would do something. Once I knew I was going, I started asking people I was in sessions with, “Hey, I’m going to Nashville, have you been there?” Anybody who had spoke so glowingly about it. They were tripping over themselves to go, “Let me send you a list of where to eat, where to get coffee, who you need to see.” It was such a sense of community, I felt welcomed before I even arrived. You have that spirit there. It was amazing. It’s something that’s going to stay with me forever.
You’ve described the sound of this record as “Dolly Parton standing on a dance floor,” but this is not your first time finding inspiration in Dolly. You’ve cited the “Dolly Parton” test as a songwriting tool during the making of previous records.
It’s funny how things come full circle like that! Yeah, that was with [producer] Stuart Price [who worked on 2010’s Aphrodite]. Don’t ask me how it came to be — you can go a bit loopy in the studio! We must have just started singing “All the Lovers” with a country wilt and coined the phrase “the Dolly Parton Litmus Test”: If you can sing a song in that style just with a guitar, [then it works]. We used to sign off emails and texts to each other as Dolly and Kenny — they were our alter egos. But I had no idea I would be having this much of a country influence or having anything to do with country music.
Two of your collaborators, producer Nathan Chapman and songwriter Liz Rose, are known for their collaborations with Taylor Swift. Did working with them feel different from your usual process?
I will say, Liz is pen and paper, which is refreshing. Most people are tip-tapping away at their computers these days. I have gone to do the dark side — I do a bit of both now, but I was holding onto pen and paper for ages. The day I worked with Liz, I said, “I have a bee in my bonnet and really want to write a song called ‘Golden,’ and these are the points I want to get across.” She said, “Do you mind if I have a look at what you’ve written down?” She assessed it almost like a doctor — fresh eyes taking a look at what I’ve written and picking out the choice bits. I learned a lot. Each week I had one British writer with me as my co-writer, and both of those people, Steve McEwan and Amy Wedge, had apartments in Nashville. They’re in and out of there all the time. I think that really helped me bridge the gap.
This album marks the first time since 1997’s Impossible Princess that you’ve co-written every song. Did you set out to do that, or did it just flow out of you when you got to Nashville?
I didn’t intend to, I just kept writing. I recorded outside songs that came in, including one that I thought was really good, but it didn’t fit in with this theme for the record. I had to say goodbye to a couple songs I was really fond of. So as far as me writing, I found it really cathartic, and then kind of celebratory as a means of being honest with myself about where I am in my life. I think most of my songs are normally about escapism more than anything, not to say that they don’t have stories and emotions. But on this occasion, I was conscious about wanting everything to be authentic. With songs like “Shelby ’68,” they are vignettes of a story, but it’s believable — I could be the girl in that story. That was a really conscious decision.
When people talk about what makes the music of Nashville special, I think the idea of storytelling comes up more than any one sound or instrument. Did that tradition speak to you in particular?
It really did. I went to the Bluebird Cafe and Listening Room, and I think almost by osmosis, just being there, [you’re inspired by it]. I’ve said it’s like being at the altar of the song. The song is king and queen. It was a writing mission, not a producing mission. Whatever songs were written there, they could have been produced in any way. I could do all the tracks on the album in a basic way, and it could still be pleasing. But I didn’t want to make an album that sounds like that. That’s demonstrated in “Dancing,” where you have electronic sounds and cut-up vocals. It isn’t a campfire song in the way it’s produced, but it could be, if that’s the way you want to perform it.
You could just do another Anti Tour and perform everything campfire-style.
I would be in heaven! That was so much fun. I’ll take my time in Nashville and my experience making this album with me into the future. I can’t unlearn that stuff, and to tell a story is a beautiful thing. That’s not to say I won’t do [less conceptual] songs in the future. “La la la, can’t get you out of my head” — by repetition, it does something to you, even though it’s not really telling a story like the lyrics of “Dancing.” I don’t want to sound like I’m discrediting songs that are otherwise. And actually, some of the simple things are the hardest to do. If I could have 10 more “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”s, I’ll take them. They just don’t come around that often.
I also found the vocal delivery on this album really different. The verses are a bit more talk-singing and kind of relaxed. I did it on a number of tracks, and you can hear it on “Dancing” as well. They still have big choruses, but I enjoyed doing those differently. I didn’t do that many takes. We liked the imperfection, the human quality to it. I can make myself sound like a robot, but it was a nice change to present myself as I am at this point in my life.
I can’t wait to work on these songs live. I haven’t performed any of them yet. That’ll be the next truly exciting step, to do rehearsals with my band and give a different life to these songs. I’m curious myself to see how many of the songs have a big production, how many are going to be stripped back. I don’t know yet.
The other day I saw a tabloid headline that described “Dancing” as being “all about DEATH.” At the time I thought that was a little dramatic, but in the video for “Dancing,” your dancers have Day of the Dead-inspired makeup. Is the song about death?
When I’m singing along to it, well, yes, it is, but it depends on which way you look at it — I think that’s clever writing. The concept of the song was Steve McEwan’s idea, and I went, “Wow, okay, let’s go for it!” Then the director, Sophie Muller, got very excited about that part of the song. Her synopsis came back as “Dolly Parton meets Day of the Dead,” so there is a lot about death. We wanted to reference it, but we in no way wanted it to be somber or scary or depressing. It’s just a fact of life, isn’t it? It’s about how we deal with the life we have. But “When the final curtain calls” could be about the end of the show! The finale of every [concert] is an end: all the trucks get packed up and you move onto the next place. So it is and it isn’t about death.
The balance of seriousness and levity reminds me of how pop stars like Lorde and Sam Smith say the ideal pop song is one you can dance to and cry to at the same time.
I love that! Yeah, I love that [“Dancing”] doesn’t hit you over the head. For a lot of people, it dawns on them slowly. I think using the Day of the Dead [imagery] as a means of expressing that makes it accessible. It’s almost like Halloween. I know it has its own importance, but it’s translated as beautiful, dark, sparkling dress-up. You could go to all different levels about it: You only see sparkling things in the darkness. We wanted to keep it shiny and gorgeous and dreamy, and that’s a Sophie Muller special.
Some of your fans have already tweeted about how they want “Dancing” played at their funeral. That must be an unusual honor.
Oh my gosh, that’s the first time I’ve heard that. That’s amazing.