Gary Kemp is a formidable triple threat: musician, actor, dad.
As the guitarist and songwriter in Spandau Ballet, he was the creative force behind one of the most successful pop bands in history, writing global hits including ‘Gold’ and ‘True’.
As an actor, he has starred in movies including ‘The Bodyguard’ alongside Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, which was one of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time when it was released in 1992.
But for Gary, his proudest achievement, and most important role, is being a father. He had his first son Finlay with his ex-wife, actress Sadie Frost, in 1990, and is now dedicated to raising his three younger sons, Milo, 16, Kit, 12, and Rex, nine, with his costume designer wife Lauren Barber.
“This being a dad thing, I started 30 years ago when I had my first son, Finlay,” he says. “And I broke up with my wife when he was two-and-a-half. So I gave up work, in a way, because he lived mostly with me from then on, until he became a teenager. And I was quite happy to do that.
“I’ve often felt frustrated by the way guys get asked, ‘What do you do?’ And that phrase means, ‘What job do you do?’ Because the real answer for me would always be, ‘Well, what I do most is I’m a husband and I’m a dad.’
“Men are often pressured to feel like they have to talk about their careers, and that their careers are extremely important, above anything else. But if you’ve bothered to have children, then look after them. And it’s not just looking after them, it’s giving them the confidence and tools to feel comfortable in the world, to respect other people, and all that stuff we know to be true.
“I think the most creative thing you can do is try and make decent human beings.”
Gary splits his time between his immaculate central London six-bedroom home, complete with a library and decked with rare Victorian arts and crafts, and his countryside retreat in the idyllic Cotswolds. And on the surface, his life seems a long way from his upbringing, a few miles away in North London, where he and younger brother Martin, who would go on to become his Spandau Ballet bandmate, lived with their parents on the middle floor of a three-story terraced home. They shared one outdoor toilet with his aunt and uncle and cousin’s families, who lived on the floors above and below.
But at its heart, Gary has built his family on the foundations of the home in which he grew up. Because while his financial situation might be very different from his own dad, Frank, he has inherited his principles and approach to fatherhood.
“My dad was a printer in a factory, and he worked for one reason only – to bring some money in to feed us,” Gary says from his place of work, his home music studio, as we chat a few weeks ahead of Father’s Day.
“He took me to work one morning when I was very young, and I remember it clearly. We went down to the basement with a low ceiling and the noise of the machines, pumping out printed paper, was intense.
“And I watched my dad go to his locker and put on a brown overall, and for me it was like Superman coming out of the telephone box. What really impressed me about this moment was that he had this life that I didn’t know about, that was hard work, and it was for us.
“I remember my dad taking me to historical places whenever he could, showing me London, buying me my first guitar, building the confidence in me to be able to go out and challenge myself. And to always know that if I got in trouble, I could go back home, because that was the rock of love. So he was also teaching me how to be a dad. His example is big in my mind.
“And I do also think it’s good to show your kids that you need to work hard, as my dad did when he took me down to that factory. Because I don’t go into an office, for a while I think my youngest kid thought I looked in the fridge for a job!”
Like many of us, Gary has enjoyed the enforced family time brought by the coronavirus lockdown (although not without its homeschooling challenges!). And he has also, like many of us, used the time to focus on some creative pursuits his busy schedule may not have otherwise allowed. His new album ‘INSOLO’, his second solo album and his first for 25 years, is released next month. He’s also launched the music podcast ‘Rockonteurs’ alongside his friend and co-host Guy Pratt. Guy is the bassist in Gary’s other band project, Saucerful of Secrets, who play the psychedelic early music of Pink Floyd with the legendary band’s original member Nick Mason on drums, and Gary taking Syd Barrett’s lead guitar role. The pair have interviewed fellow musicians including Jon Bon Jovi, Nile Rodgers and Mick Fleetwood on the podcast which, like so much of Gary’s work, has hit No1, this time on the Apple Music podcast chart.
He says, “I hate to say this, because there’s a lot of suffering out there, but for me personally, it has been pretty good. Because I was meant to go on tour last year, and as much as I love playing on stage, I hate being on tour – I’ve got young kids, I like to be around them, and I miss my wife. So it’s just one of the downsides of a very nice job that I do.
“So instead I got to spend a lot more time with the kids, which was good. We look back with nostalgia upon that first lockdown and say how great it was: The sun was shining, the kids didn’t go to school and we all hung out in the countryside.
“And it was an opportunity to make this album. There were out of work musicians, like Roger Taylor from Queen, who I contacted and did some drums. And so the musicians were working remotely in their own studios, and the computer screen became like the window that separates the control room and the studio. And it didn’t feel that different, as musicians don’t play together when they’re making a record, everyone records their part separately, so it worked.
“I think creative people roll with the punches. When forces of opposition come along, you think, ‘How can I get around you and make something in the gaps.’”
‘INSOLO’ is a reflective selection of songs best enjoyed the good old-fashioned way, as an album in its entirety, so the light and shade of Gary’s storytelling can be fully absorbed. It’s a thoughtful record that feels reminiscent of the classic art which he collects so avidly, using music and lyrics to paint pictures of scenes, or moments in time, either in his own or someone else’s life.
“When you get to my age, you don’t have to lie anymore,” Gary, now 61, says. “You’ve experienced so much grief, tragedy and euphoria. I’ve been in all these places. When I was a kid I was making it up and using clichés.
“Part of my thought process on this album was about trying to connect my past selves, the incarnations of me, whether it’s a small boy as a fan, or a guy in a band in his 20s, with the sharpest eye and fleet of foot, with this guy now, who’s turned 60.
“There’s a train of thought that those individuals have gone, they don’t exist, those other versions of yourself are, for want of a better word, dead. They’re just not you anymore.”
This brings Gary to reflect on Spandau Ballet, whose story, complete with breakups and reunions, has run for 40 years. The band split in 1990, after a decade as kings of the New Romantic era, selling 25 million albums worldwide. They then reunited in 2009 for a greatest hits world tour, before the band’s singer Tony Hadley left again in 2017. Some of the conflict surrounded the distribution of royalties, which have been primarily earned by Gary as the band’s songwriter.
“It’s interesting about change and about becoming different people,” Gary considers. “Sometimes it’s easiest to see when you grow out of friends, or a particular friend.
“Sometimes people are in your life because they’ve been in your life from 20 years ago. But actually, every time you see them you think, ’You know what, I’m not that person anymore, I don’t want to go partying, I can’t have that stupid conversation anymore.’
“But for some reason, we’re not very good at saying, ‘You know what, it’s not a big thing. We just shouldn’t see each other anymore. Because we’re not the same people that first met.’
“It’s part of what happens in bands. You meet as young men, you all have exactly the same myopic dream and you’re trying to achieve that. And that’s all you’re thinking about. You’ve got the same mindset. And then as you get older, decades go by, you’re utterly different people, and it’s difficult for you to be together as a band.
“And then you get people on the internet saying, ‘Why aren’t you guys still together? What’s wrong with you? We need to bang your heads together.’ And you’re like, ‘Hang on, it’s my life!’”
Gary has been writing songs since aged 11, and using it as a way to make sense of the world around him. Reflecting on those early years of learning his craft, when he says the only thing his family owned was their cat, he says, “It was about ownership. I’d go into my bedroom and I’d come out with something that existed and was tangible. I’d be able to play it and show it, and it became an extension of me and empowered me.”
And throughout the years, he has continued to use songwriting as a source of self-therapy. He explains, “You know how people want to package up their troubles and put them in a box? It feels like that process. I’m not gonna say that it’s resolved, but you do feel you do feel better, you feel lighter.”
Perhaps his most famous song, which built on Spandau Ballet’s UK success and launched them as stars in the US, was the 1983 hit True. And recalling the story behind that hit, Gary says, “There was a certain amount of truth that it was inspired by the lovely Clare Grogan, the singer for Altered Images. We were having a completely platonic relationship, but I was completely enamored by her, and I think maybe she was me, to a certain extent.”
He continues, “It was a diary, really, a kid’s diary. She gave me a gift of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ to read. And there were a couple of lines in that, like ‘take your seaside arms.’ I really love that expression. We were listening to Marvin Gaye, so that went in there. And I was watching The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ film, and John Lennon sings “Dig a Pony’ and makes the ‘I’ snake up in the air, so that was the inspiration for the hook.
“The song was actually about writing a love song, and being scared to admit too much. ‘Why do I find it hard to write the next line when I want the truth to be said,’ I want to say who you are, but I can’t. There’s nothing harder than telling the truth in a song. And that line sums up writing of all kinds. It’s a struggle to tell the truth. Because all art is dealing with the commerciality of what you’re trying to deliver, and with the truth it’s trying to tell. They’re not always sympathetic to each other.”
Gary’s new music, and the beat to which he lives his life, is the result of a man now comfortable with being honest with himself and expressing that through his art. And despite his huge professional success, he is keen for the final word in our chat to return to the one truth he is most keen to tell, and to encourage fellow dads to do the same.
He signs off, “The overriding thing I’d like to say is, next time someone asks you, ‘What do you do?’ Don’t feel bad about saying, ‘I’m a dad. And I’m trying to be a really good one.’”
‘INSOLO’ is released on July 16 on Columbia Records. Pre-order here.