Stepping Out of the Shadow: Dannii Minogue interview
Fifteen years ago, Dannii Minogue reinvented herself as a club scene icon with Neon Lights, a classic of the genre which bears favourable comparison to big sis Kylie’s Fever and Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor. As the album is re-released on vinyl, she reflects on a turning point in her career, and much more. Written by David Burke.
Rarely does an artist achieve that perfect symmetry of commercial success and critical acclaim. The public and the pundits aren’t often in agreement but they certainly were when Dannii Minogue, her pop career arguably floundering, emerged as queen of the dancefloor with 2003’s Neon Nights. The Australian renaissance woman – singer, songwriter, actress, model and fashion designer – acquired a whole new audience with her fourth album, which marked the beginning of an unprecedented run on the UK Dance Chart, including 13 No.1 singles at the last count.
Now, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of its original release, Minogue’s magnum opus is being reissued on limited edition blue and pink vinyl, along with standard black version, and as well as a deluxe CD package.
“I’m super proud of it,” she tells Classic Pop on the phone from her home Down Under. “I think it stands up and all of the memories come flooding back. When I listen to it, I remember the first time I heard that it had charted, or I was competing with Christina Aguilera’s song Beautiful for the No.1 spot, or I danced to it in a nightclub – some DJ saw me walk in and was like: ‘Oh, I’m going to drop that record now, she’s here’. All of those memories come flooding back.
“Dancing with my friends, listening to it in my lounger before it went out and going: ‘What do you think of this?’ It’s nice to look back and think: ‘I did it. I made an album that was so me, and I was able to get so involved in it, and people liked it.’ So, that’s cool. Job done.”
By the time Neon Nights recast her as a doyenne of the clubbing scene, Minogue had already been a household name on Aussie TV in soaps such as The Sullivans and Home And Away, and clocked up hits in both southern and northern hemispheres during the 90s.
But her star was, if not falling, certainly fading until American DJ Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley remixed Baby Love from her debut, Love And Kisses. He was one third of a triumvirate she credits with spurring her dance music interest.
“I was on MCA Records and Adrian Sykes was my A&R there. And he said: ‘We’ve got Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley and he really wants to do this Baby Love remix’. I was like: ‘You are kidding me! This isn’t right. It’s not really going to happen’. So, there were pivotal people that, I think, really saw something in me and stuck their necks out and made it happen… Adrian Sykes is one of those guys.
“And from that first remix hitting the clubs, I think with Steve’s name attached to it, there was probably some kind of an acceptance. It was an amazing mix as well, it still stands up now. There were three people who believed in me. Adrian was one of the first who saw that dance direction. Then there was Pete Tong. I think he took it to the next level, asking me to sing on the Stringer track.”
Stringer started out as an instrumental before Tong approached Minogue to provide vocals. The result – Who Do You Love Now? recorded with Dutch DJs Zki & Dobri under the collective moniker Riva – peaked at No.3 in the UK.
Minogue was seduced by the “sexiness” of Hurley’s Baby Love revamp. “You’re talking about a DJ who’s playing all the clubs in New York and bringing all of that vibe and knowing what gets people to move. I would think the New York club crowd are quite jaded, and have seen and heard everything. But he knew what was exciting and would get them going. When I heard that mix, I was sitting in London and I was excited. I was transported and could imagine that I was on a dancefloor in New York… It felt like a little slice of heaven.
“The same thing happens when you get those beautiful Balearic mixes. Whether you’ve been to Ibiza or not, you can imagine going there and being there – that’s the freedom that your mind takes you somewhere.
“I’ve always thought there’s an amazing connection between dance music and classical music. With classical music, you can just be sitting at your desk or in your lounger, listening to a beautiful piece and you will be transported somewhere else. The melodies move you. With dance music, it’s the beats and the basslines.”
Madonna in the Mix
The 2018 Neon Nights features Don’t Wanna Lose This Groove, which mixed Don’t Wanna Lose This Feeling with Madonna’s Into The Groove – the first remix Madonna ever approved for official release using one of her songs. In a similar vein, Begin To Spin Me Round mashes up Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) with I Begin To Wonder.
Minogue reckoned there was nothing to lose by approaching Madonna. She wasn’t expecting a response and, if she did get one, assumed it would be a negative one.
However… “it was like straightaway – ‘Yeah, we want to do this.’ I still today can’t believe it. Last year, I was touring around Australia with Take That, and I’m telling the audiences: ‘This is surreal, that what I’m about to perform is this version’. Plus, the Dead Or Alive one. They’re just epics – they’re the songs that are a part of my childhood and growing up, and now they’re together with tracks that I’ve done? How awesome.”
Minogue acknowledges that although she didn’t know that Neon Nights would turn out to be such a seminal release for her, she did know that it was, “in good hands.”
The 46-year-old recalls: “I was working with some great people in London, Paris and Stockholm. They were all quite keen to let me run a little bit wild to try to get my personality in there. And I think London Records were really great in letting that happen. I don’t think you can create something that’s completely you until everybody lets you go a bit wild, then you rein it in and make it what is hopefully a commercial success for everyone.
“But I feel like my personality is on there. Even recently, I’ve had people come up to me and say how my record influenced the music they listened to or the music they wanted to make. That’s a cool thing but you never think of that when you’re making it. I was just trying to put my stamp on it.
“I think you can have an amazing mix of a crap song and it’s never going to do anything. But when you’re involved in writing, you get excited about everything that you write! But then, if you go away from it for too long, you think everything you’ve written is crap.
“It’s so hard to judge what you’ve done that it’s up to the other people listening to it to judge it. You just have to be happy with it 100 percent. When you walk away, if people love it, too, cool. If people don’t like it, you know you did your best and that you liked it.
“I was just vibing with the people I was working with. We were having a great time and we put that energy into the record – I think you can hear it.”
Lette it be Known
Neon Nights was, in a sense, validation for Minogue, who, in contrast to her older sibling, Kylie, has had a bit of a raw deal from the media over the years. Her close friend, author Kathy Lette, has referred to the perception that Dannii was: “The B-side to Kylie’s A.” Not only is this an unfair perception, it’s also inaccurate. Dannii, after all, made it big before Kylie, rising to prominence in the early 80s in the Australian television talent show Young Talent Time.
“I was the one who invited Kylie on the show to come and sing with me. I was proud of my sister and we did a duet of Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. I wanted to show everyone, this is my sister and she sings, too. Then she came on tour with us and I was just so happy to be up there with her. Years later, she invited me to do a duet of Kids with her in concert. Then we did the 100 Degrees Christmas song. When we bring each other into our world, it is like: ‘This is my sister and I’m proud.’ We had fun doing stuff together. Don’t forget, we were dancing around and annoying our family for many years before we were allowed to do it on stage. I think our parents were relieved that they didn’t have to sit through it anymore!”
She insists Lette’s description didn’t bother her. “I think what was harder was people saying: ‘Oh, you decided to go into singing because your sister does’. But I had sung for years and years, and there’s so much out in the public domain, that it was just unbelievable to me that people would say that. I’ve done it my whole life, and invited my sister to come and do it with me. But I’m just continuing to do what I do, to the best of my ability. I do stuff that I enjoy and I don’t want anyone to try to take that away from me.”
The tabloid press, of course, delights in creating division, and so it was with the Minogue sisters. Over the years, Dannii has found it alternately amusing and annoying, but mostly difficult.
“Exhausting is probably the best word because it went on for so long, no matter what either of us said or did, or who we were or what happened. I couldn’t face being asked about it anymore. Answering the same thing when nobody hears the answers – so, stop asking me the questions! But I guess social media changed everything, when artists could be in control of their story and translating that through to, not just their fans and friends, but to everyone. Communicating who they are and what they’re doing without things being twisted. When that happened, it got rid of that so quickly, and it never came back. Then it was like: ‘Okay, I literally exhausted myself answering that question so many times… and for what?’”
‘An Inner Strength’
It’s clear the two enjoy a close relationship and that Dannii is full of admiration for Kylie.
“As she’s grown, I’ve seen an inner strength that I never knew… She’s always been a fighter and really fiery, working hard to get what she wants, but she does everything with a lot of kindness. Her whole thing is to make people happy. That’s all she wants to do. I’ve had some incredible moments, as her sister, to see how she is with people. I think her fans know that and can share that together. I’ll go and see her in concert and I can stand by the side of the stage and look down on the audience and see everyone’s faces – she’s doing exactly what she went on stage to do. Everyone has smiles on their faces and the love is reciprocal. She’s managed to sustain that for a long, long, long time, regardless of the challenges that she’s had to go through.”
What’s perhaps surprising is that the pair haven’t collaborated as much as either they – or we – would like them to have done. There was a live duet of Kids during Kylie’s 2006 Showgirl: The Homecoming Tour in Melbourne, and 100 Degrees on 2015’s Kylie Christmas. Surely, there are more expansive plans to work together? Well… disappointingly not.
“There’s nothing in the pipeline at the moment, but there will always be stuff. We’re just connected and we love getting together and sharing ideas, thinking about what we can do. And there’s a lot of stuff that makes us giggle, that we talk about doing but we know we’ll never do! It’s good to just explore it in our minds. It’s there and it will definitely keep popping up.”
She’s the Boss
Meanwhile, Dannii – who became a mum to Ethan in 2010 – is involved as executive producer and host on a new Australian TV reality show, Dance Boss, and suggests she may return to the studio at some stage.
“I’ve got a couple of tracks that I’ve worked on. I’ve got plans for them and if it happens, it happens. If there’s no stress involved, then I’m all for it. But I guess my life has taken a shift in balance, being a mum. It was a much easier project to be obsessed about for much longer when I wasn’t a mum. But since it’s so much easier now to release music, why not?”
For now, she can’t wait for her own copy of the Neon Nights vinyl. “We’ve worked really hard on putting everything together, going through all the photos again. I listened to every song over and over and over and over. I’ve checked every lyric and corrected stuff that wasn’t right! I wanted this to be something I am so proud of, and I’ve got the time. I didn’t get that finicky about that sort of stuff back when I was releasing it the first time. I was on the road, doing shows and promoting. Yeah, I’m really excited about the vinyl. I’m going to frame it!”