Jay Kay. The Esquire Interview, Esquire 2001

words: Dan Gennoe

 

There are dogs and there are dogs. The two German Shepherds growling and baring teeth on the drive of Jay Kay’s Buckinghamshire estate, are the kind phobias are made of. Stares fixed, bodies twitching, they make the sign that warns of their presence at the drive’s entrance seem woefully inadequate. Between barks comes the sound of Adidas advancing, at pace, across the gravel, and a cockney attempt to calm the baying security. “Luga. Titan. Behave.” 

Jay Kay’s parental instruction falls on deaf ears, and the impressive tooth display continues. Only a bout of affectionate head rubbing on his arrival diffuses the stand-off, convincing his canine companions that I’m a visitor of the invited kind. “Don’t worry,” he laughs only half joking, “they’re only trained to attack Sun journalists.” Kay is amused, but sensing that comments about barks being worse than bites aren’t helping, quickly changes the subject. “Cuppa tea?”

With the now angelic Luga and Titan following at his heals, the skinny singer, famed as much for his fast cars, eccentric headgear and celebrity ex as he is music, picks up speed again. We turn into a mini car park. He keeps going; past two black Mercedes 4x4s and a silver, 1960s Mercedes convertible. He calls over his shoulder. “I’ve just come back from Le Mans, fantastic. Drove there in that RS4.” Without stopping he points to a mud covered Audi estate. “Phenomenal car.” He’s heading for a door at the back of what looks like an old school bike shed, under which is parked a low, sleek object shrouded in a red silk car cover which bears an unmistakable black prancing horse. The procession grinds to a halt next to the cloaked vehicle. Not wishing to brag, but with pleasure evident in his grin, he teases by slightly lifting the cover revealing the rear of a silver Ferrari. “My F550,” he beams.

Technically, this isn’t the best of times for the 31 year old artistically known as Jamiroquai. It’s late June and his fifth album, the intergalactic A Funk Odyssey goes to press in a week. Should that deadline be missed, his record label inform, its release could be delayed by several months. Unfortunately, despite Kay’s assertion that this is by far Jamiroquai’s best album because of the extended recording period, vital parts of the odyssey are still missing, and he has just three days to find them. There’s panic in the personnel scurrying about the home that doubles as Jamiroquai mission control. Only Kay seems unbothered. To the dismay of those seeking approval on artwork and video edits for disco stomping first single, Little L, the sun has made its first appearance of the year and he’s more interested in giving the guided tour of his beautiful 72 acre garden than upping the 16 million album sales that the gold and platinum discs adorning his studio, kitchen and toilet walls denote.

“Have a look at this,” he motions, collecting teas from the kitchen of his recording studio: a former leisure room that’s the size of a small semi and situated 100 yards from his front door. Cup in hand he wanders, at speed, out of the kitchen door, into the basking sunlight. A modest 10 metre swimming pool, surrounded by terracotta urns and palm trees, lies blue and inviting. But he’s not stopping. Striding across the grass he points out a meadow, trout lake and market garden. Motioning to two moats, relics of the English Civil war, he recites the land’s history, including tales of Cavaliers and Round Heads, arch bishops and kings. We stop by a winding river. Kay points to a sprawling Copper Beech tree on the horizon. He ponders, transfixed for a minute. “That’s 300 years old. I’m very lucky.”

Pool-side, Kay launches into the first of many, uninteruptable monologues that are as turbo-charged as his silver Ferrari. “I thought it best to invest in something I’m gonna have, and want, for the rest of my life,” he says of the house that he moved into in 1998. “Some of the places I looked at, with their modern Corinthian pillars and new trees were just fucking awful. I’ve got everything here: organic food, fish in the lake, chickens… The other day I caught a trout, dug-up new potatoes, green beans and carrots, cooked them and put the lot on a plate. I couldn’t believe it. It all came out of my garden. It was like the first time I took magic mushrooms, it was like ‘shit, this is free’.”

Typically though, Kay’s country retreat is more than a rock star accessory. The whitewashed three storey manor house might have 11 bedrooms, but it’s no ostentatious mock Tudor status symbol. It’s large, but comfortable. And at a cost of £1.5 million, his 72 acres isn’t the most extravagant purchase in rock’n’roll history. “It’s a lot of money, but I couldn’t buy anything in London for that, certainly nothing like this.” And like most things he spends money on, with the exception of cars, this idyllic hideaway is part of the Jamiroquai game-plan. 

Before even picking out wallpaper, Kay had ploughed half of the £2 million advance for 1999’s Synkronized album into converting the pool side leisure room into Chillington Studios. “An advance is a big loan from the record company. It has to pay for making an album, and it has to be paid back. So instead of paying to use someone else’s studio, I built my own. It was a big risk though. Whatever you see here, kid ye not, if that album had failed all this would have had to go back.”

For all the hats, eccentric dancing and disco party tunes that have been Jamiroquai’s trade marks since he signed an eight album deal with Sony Music in 1992, the biggest at the time, Jay Kay’s no fool. For sure he’s the didjeridoo loving tree hugger who sang of saving the planet on debut single When You Gonna Learn?, and he has a cheeky grin that would make mothers love him, even when he talks of “pulling 185” in his Ferrari and pool parties with “naked birds”. But it’s evident that the only fool is the one who underestimates him.

“I’ve had some record executives say ‘Oh you’re doing alright Jay’. Well yeah I am. But so are they, because they’ve got a bigger cut of this record than I have. I’m going out, sweating my arse off and they’re sitting on theirs doing fuck all.” A look of thunder brews on his face, as he adopts the Michael Caine ‘blow the bloody doors off’ lilt that marks his most exasperated thoughts. “There’s one pot that benefits everyone. And I created it. I signed with Sony. They weren’t interested in a band. At the end of the day it all comes down to me. I’m the face, the front man and the one who pays back the advances.” He jumps to his feet and starts pacing the pool. “And record companies are serious creamers. I audited mine and I won’t begin to tell you the kind of money that’s…” He halts his pacing. “Let’s just say I never, ever, ever forget that we’re not friends.” His chest cleared, he grins. “I’m a bit of a fucking control freak, but you’ve got to be, otherwise people take the piss.” 

If there’s been one major influence on Kay, it’s his jazz singer mum Karen. After his twin brother died at just six months, and having never known his Portuguese father, the two were inseparable, which meant a childhood of relentless touring for the young Kay. While watching his mum play three shows a night in Las Vegas instilled a love of “music with horns”, the need to perform and a tireless work ethic, seeing her swindled by unscrupulous associates made him unforgiving in the boardroom and determined that history shouldn’t repeat itself. 

And if he’s protective over his success, it’s because there are plenty of seedy squats and mind numbing jobs that he’d rather not see again. At sixteen he left the Ealing, West London, home he and his mum had settled in three years earlier. It was 1986 and, with a new found passion for ‘70s funk and all things disco, he immersed himself in London’s burgeoning rare groove scene. Yet it wasn’t until 1992 that he got his break, convincing then trendy rare groove label Acid Jazz to release When You Gonna Learn?, the single which subsequently brought him to the attention of Sony. “I was homeless,” is his rebuke to the suggestion that he was an overnight success. “I slept under stairs, in parks, on benches…I delivered pizzas, and worked in a toy warehouse where the only thing I could do to entertain myself was to jump on the dollies that pissed themselves. People see the house, the cars and they forget all that shit.”

He returns to his sun-lounger, and attempts to temper his earlier honesty. “I get along wonderfully with everyone at the record company. But I felt for a while like the skinny kid who came in on the skate board. And it’s like ‘hold on, I’m not 21, I’m 31. I’m not a kid anymore’, even though I act like one.”

Hard-nosed as he is, A Funk Odyssey occasionally shows a side more in-keeping with the Jay Kay who distractedly gazes at the pool and notes: “Can you imagine this place with kids? They’d love it,” adding the thoughtful foot note: “I’m desperate to have kids.”

Nestled between the album’s disco grooves and the sci-fi funk, Corner Of The Earth, a gentle French swayer, conveys the romance of an age when gentleman cruised Monaco’s mountain roads in soft top Mercedes, not unlike the one Kay’s gingerly reversing out of its parking space for Esquire’s photographer. To a tender bosa nova he sings lovingly of the beauty in his walled garden. Then comes the chorus: On the face of it I’m blessed when the sunlight comes for free/I know this corner of the earth it smiles at me. Romantic yes, but there’s a sadness in his words, as if home is the only place Jay Kay, can be Jason.

“You’re spot on. I feel very oppressed by the world at times.” He collects important thoughts for a moment. “The world’s a cruel and horrible and cold and nasty place, and ninety five percent the people in it are nasty bastards.” He leans against the car stroking an appreciative Luga. “I’m a great lover of animals. I’ve got much more time for them than I have for any person, I gotta tell ya. So yeah, this place is my running away.”

Such feelings about the world at the bottom of his drive are not unprovoked. From the environmental protests of 1993’s debut album, Emergency On Planet Earth, to his obsession with all things intergalactic and funk, the music press inparticular, have always found something to laugh at. “I stand up for me rights and I open me gob,” he offers in his best Michael Caine. “People don’t like that. I tell people to fuck-off. That makes me difficult, a big head, cocky. The public are great though. Once in a blue moon someone shouts ‘wanker’ but that’s funny.”

With third world debt and the environment everyday issues nearly a decade after he first mentioned them, and with disco-funk alive and well and calling itself house, does he feel vindicated? “In a sense. But I’ll never get the credit for it. Just like I’ll never be credited for releasing a song called Virtual Insanity about genetic engineering the day before Dolly the sheep is on the front of every newspaper.”

Talking of those who’ve criticised his conflicting passions for the planet and cars, he tries to be philosophical. “I’m not defending myself,” comes a Caine like assurance. “I’ve given up defending myself. If people think I’m a cunt, then I’m a cunt.” Perfect last words. But he can’t leave it. “I mean look, do you see this as a fucking great car park full of Ferraris?” he asks gesturing to the estate in general, pointing out that most of his pride and joys, which include an Aston Martin DB5 and four Ferraris, are kept in storage. “No. There’s a few cars here, sitting under covers. They’re not ecologically fucking the planet. And at least I don’t sit in car on the M25 to go to work; I’ve engineered it so I don’t have to leave here. People say, ‘Jay you’ve got fourteen cars, how unenviromentally friendly.’ But you can’t drive them all at once. Even if I’m driving one, there’s thirteen that somebody else can’t because they’re mine.”

“I was brought up in the back of a car,” he says explaining the root of his passion. “Actually, I think I was made in one. From an early age I knew what every car on the road was.” And although the British, French, German and Italian police who’ve caught him doing 150mph would probably say different, he argues speed isn’t everything. “It’s not about driving fast, but driving smoothly. But these cars are like athletes: highly strung; they like to go fast. I’m not the best driver in the world, so I don’t take stupid risks, not least because I’ve got £150,000 worth of car I don’t want to smash up, then you look like a real cunt.” His mobile rings. “Speak of the devil, it’s my Ferrari dealer. Hopefully my new Moderna Spider’s on its way.”

After a swift detour to show-off the motor home / tour bus that he’s just had sprayed Ferrari red, in tribute to the Ferrari Formula 1 team he so loves, Kay is back at the pool considering a dip, and reciting a list of interview horror stories. He places a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “People get the idea that I hate every section of the media. I don’t. Just the tabloids.” 

Indeed, Jay Kay’s relationship with the red top press, hasn’t been good of late. As soon as he started dating buxom TV babe Denise Van Outen he became their favourite pop stooge, second only to Robbie Williams. “I’ve never had any time for the tabloids. I was never really in them until I went out with Denise. She’s a master manipulator of the press.” A fag goes in his mouth and the swim is postponed. “I don’t court that kind of publicity. They make everything up anyway: me and Denise are engaged, we’re getting married and then they’re trying to split us up with some story about me seeing somebody else. All these people that mug themselves off thinking that if they’re nice to the Sun they’ll be nice back are kidding themselves.” 

At times though, Kay leaves himself open to attack. The press will probably have a field-day with Little L’s lyrical content, which is bound to be seen as an attack against Van Outen after the break up of their three year relationship back in March.

“It encompasses one day of my relationship with Denise. Not the whole thing. ‘You make me love you with a little L, I can’t understand what you want from me.’ Which is what it was like with Den.” He speaks with resigned affection. “With Den it seemed like I couldn’t do any right. She’s a great girl, but you’ve got to hunt for what you really want, and we had slightly conflicting ideas about what that was. I’m a real long term guy. I really wanna be with someone to love them and have kids with them. Marriage, just because everyone else is doing it does not come first. You don’t need to marry me, ‘cos you can have me, all of me. I’ve got so much love to give, to the right woman. And I don’t think I’m a bad lad really.” His sentimental look fades. “It’s not about buying rings, it’s about offering love and being treated like the guy I really am, and that didn’t really materialise.”

Even after the rash of ‘Why I Dumped Jay’ stories that followed their split, Kay remains gracious about ‘Den’. He doesn’t openly say who dumped who, and there’s care in his words. “I really didn’t think she’d talk so much about it in the press. I was a little disappointed at that. I thought we had an agreement that we wouldn’t.” Is the split amicable? “It’s amicable enough. It’s just amicable when she wants it to be.”

Stubbing out his fag, he searches for a happier note. “She’s getting on with her thing now and that’s good. And she always will; she’s a very driven and ambitious girl, and I think sometimes that got in the way. Sometimes it’s much braver to end something if it’s not right, than carry on just for the sake of the viewing public.”

With his life purposely conducted behind garden wall, away from the viewing public, isn’t he in danger of becoming a recluse? “Nah. I like going out and having a good time too much. I can party with the fucking best of them. I was an identical twin” he reminds, “and I really feel like I’m living life for two at times; that’s where the energy comes from. There’s definitely two sides to me. One’s fucking wild; life and soul of the party. The other’s quiet and thoughtful. People don’t often see that.”

Announcing that it’s time to swim, he takes a satisfying lung of sweet, summer air. “People questioned me moving to the country. ‘You’re going to move to the country side? How are you going to do funky music man?’ But I look around here and I watch the leaves on the trees sway and it’s full of funk. Nature is funk to me.”

The single Little L (S2/Sony) is out now, the album A Funk Odyssey (S2/Sony) is out September 3


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Dan Gennoe

Dan Gennoe is a London based freelance journalist & author. He's written features, interviews and reviews for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q Magazine, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail On Sunday. Dan also writes books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has ghost written the odd celebrity biography.

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