Dexys interview: “Once you start thinking about other people’s reactions, you’re in trouble”
By Classic Pop | September 18, 2023
As Dexys return with their much-anticipated sixth studio album, mainstay Kevin Rowland tells Classic Pop why he felt the time was right to submit to The Feminine Divine… By Dan Biggane
Eleven years since their last album of original music, the celebrated One Day I’m Going To Soar, Dexys are back with The Feminine Divine, a creative celebration of womanhood and a complex exploration of masculinity.
A deeply personal, almost autobiographical, portrayal of a man whose views have matured over time, the nine new songs will leave the listener both spellbound and surprised in equal measure.
“The record tells a story,” band leader Kevin Rowland tells Classic Pop. “It’s a journey which starts with The One That Loves You, a song where the narrator pretends to be macho because that’s what he’s been brought up to believe.
“He’s a guy that would threaten to beat you up if you touched his girlfriend. Jim Paterson [trombone] and I first wrote that track around 1991.
“I always thought it was really good, but we’d never used it, so it’s serendipitous that it’s found a place in these surroundings because it helps open the narrative of the record perfectly.
“The character’s perspective was very much my stance at that point in my life, but that bravado was all pretend. The following song, It’s Alright Kevin (Manhood 2023), was written around a year ago and represents the reflective realisation that his machoism was all an act. It’s an admission of how I actually feel.
“I’m not saying that the album is completely autobiographical, but there’s definitely quite a lot of me in there. On the lead single, I’m Going To Get Free, the character is acknowledging his internalised problems and optimistically opening up and looking to move forward. Similarly, on Coming Home, the guy feels like he is actually returning to his true self.
“It wasn’t my intention that these first few songs would be more traditional sounding Dexys numbers, it just worked out that way. However, at some point during the writing of the album, I noticed if we arranged them in a certain order it would work as a narrative.
“The title track is him examining his relationship with women and recognising that he’s been severely wanting. The words for The Feminine Divine just came pouring out in one hit and I wasn’t even in control of it.
“I had to chop around a few lines to make them work better, but all of the sentiment was there. My Goddess Is sees the character settle into a new relationship and the rest of the album follows that plot and how it develops.
“It’s here that the record adopts a more electronic sound. As the narrative shifts, the music follows suit. I think it works really well.
“Michael Timothy [keyboards and programming] and our producer Toby Chapman came up with a lot of the electronic ideas. Toby did quite a lot of work on the album, playing guitar and bass, as well as programming. I’d been wanting to explore that kind of music for a while and, prior to making One Day I’m Going To Soar, I was thinking we might’ve headed in that direction.
“However, while recording the drums on a hand-held Dictaphone, I realised how much I really liked the live sound on those tracks. So, now just seems like the right time to play around with electronic music.
“As we were finishing work on this album, I’d already started writing more songs. When I considered just how much work I’ve got to do on promotion, I decided to shelve any further new ideas until next year.
“But I’d really like to make another album, that’s how I feel at the moment. I have great co-writers in Jim, Mike and Sean Read [saxophone, organ, and vocals]. I think the lyrics are really good and I found the creative process very cathartic.”
While this celebration of womanhood and its challenge to preconceptions of masculinity proved a freeing experience for Rowland, making this album also helped the vocalist overcome a darkness which had developed following the release of 2016’s Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish And Country Soul, an album of Irish folk standards and cover versions of songs from his youth.
“When we finished promoting the Dexys Do Irish And Country Soul, I just wanted to get away from the whole music business,” Rowland reveals. “I’d just had enough and needed a break. I had no desire to do anything.
“I was approached to work on a fashion collaboration based on the clothes I wear, but that fell through, so I’d decided to work on myself for a bit instead.
“I travelled to Thailand and did some Tao courses. Whilst there they started talking about women as goddesses and my first reaction was ‘she’s not a goddess’… but then it dawned on me that actually they are.
“Women are incredibly powerful. That’s when I started to evaluate my relationships with women and my attitudes towards them. I started to look at them differently.”
The depiction of the feminine divine as a goddess not only features in the title of two tracks, the decadent My Goddess Is and saucy Goddess Rules, it is also represented in the striking painting chosen for the cover sleeve.
Rowland says: “I knew that we wanted a goddess on the front, and we commissioned an artist friend to come up with something. She created a piece and, while it was good, I didn’t feel that it really nailed what we were after. We all agreed that we needed to get something more goddessy and powerful.
“Mike sent me a picture he had found of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, and I immediately knew that was the image we needed.
“The label was worried it might prove too costly to secure but I was insistent and willing to pay for it myself. Some people suggested that we had a picture of the band on the cover, and I was like ‘No thank you!’
“I try not to read too many comments online, but when the album picture was revealed, I saw somebody say, ‘That’s not a Dexys cover’… I don’t know what a Dexys cover actually is or should be! I don’t want to be identifiable by a cover and think they have all been reasonably different from each other. We’ve always tried to make them different.”
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The Feminine Divine’s first half is full of brassy music-hall vigour, while the second is a daring departure from anything that Dexys have done before. A sumptuous, synth-driven, stripped-back delight, the album may come as a surprise for many lifelong fans.
“Again, I try to ignore stuff online,” admits Rowland when asked what he hopes fans will take away from the album. “Once you start thinking about other people’s reactions, you’re in trouble. I appreciate the people who are into Dexys and that buy the records and go to our shows.
“However, some of them are only interested in Dexys from 1981 or 1982. Maybe that was a golden period for them in their lives, and I understand that, but that’s not something I can be too worried about. That’s not my job.
“My job is to keep moving forward and once you start playing the game of trying to be who, or how, you were in the 80s, I think you’re in danger. I don’t want to do that.
“On The Feminine Divine I just tried to serve the art. I know that might sound a bit pretentious, and perhaps ‘serve the inspiration’ is a better phrase, but I just tried to make the record as good as I possibly could. I think it’s got something going on and that’s important… as for fan reaction? I can’t predict that.”
So, while Dexys’ frontman is hopeful fans will embrace The Feminine Divine and keep up with the band as they move forward, Classic Pop wonders what he thinks the younger Kevin Rowland of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels and Too-Rye-Ay would make of it all.
“Oh, he would be completely baffled by it,” laughs Kevin. “He’d be totally flummoxed and think, ‘What the fuck?’ I don’t think he’d like it… but I don’t think that guy really knew who he was anyway.”
This September, the revived Dexys began a 26-date tour of the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe to promote The Feminine Divine.
“I have mixed feelings about touring,” the singer told us ahead of the tour. “I’m looking forward to it because, for the first half of the show, we will be performing the new album in its entirety. We will be acting the songs out with a female character who’s going to be played by Claudia Chopek.
“The second half is going to be old songs and we’ll be playing a lot of stuff from Too-Rye-Ay to compensate for those cancelled live dates. I think it’s a really strong idea for a concert and I’m excited about that.
“Simultaneously, I’m also very nervous because I’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then to make it happen. I’ve got to get my voice in shape and build up my stamina.”
“I’m getting there,” Kevin continues, “I’ll easily be well enough to do the shows and my leg will be OK, but it’s just gonna take time. It is a lot better than it was.”
With Rowland having turned 70, it’s heartening to hear just how much he’s enjoying making music again, especially when the material brims with such verve and vitality.
The Feminine Divine is a euphoric return which highlights just how hungry Dexys are to mature and move forward – to inspire and be inspired.
Photos by Sandra Vijandi and Bruno Murari
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