Jay Kay. Mail On Sunday Live Magazine 2006

words: Dan Gennoe

At the end of Jay Kay’s winding gravel drive is a quiet country lane, a picture postcard tree tunnel of a road. It’s long, straight and rapidly disappearing in a blur of green. ‘Corrrr, listen to that,’ he shouts, his expression of fixed concentration replaced by the grin of a small child at Christmas as he squeezes the accelerator and the engine of his showroom fresh black Maserati leaps from a purr to a roar. Looking like the weight of the world has just been lifted from his narrow shoulders, Kay, hyperactive singer of disco funksters Jamiroquai and the very model of the modern playboy, settles back into the driving seat’s pristine leather, shaking his head like he can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. 

‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about new Italian sports cars that just really gets me going,’ he says, his grin widening as he drops a gear and the engine note peaks again. ‘Sitting in one of these, you look around you and say, Well, life ain’t so bad really. And driving one does cheer you up. They’re not everything, but they do make the bad days better.’

This is an unscheduled outing. At this precise moment, 36 year-old Kay, who passed his driving test at 22 and bought his first Ferrari at 25, is meant to be doing his duty, promoting High Times, the greatest hits album which marks a decade and a half since the world was first introduced to Jamiroquai’s retro grooves and their singer’s array of strange hats and contortionist dance moves. Instead, at the mention of Runaway, the first of two new singles from the album, he suddenly opted to take Maserati’s new four door saloon, the Quattroporte Sport GT, which he’s got on approval for a month, for an impromptu test drive.

‘I was brought up in the back of a car,’ he says as the Maserati settles at a steady cruise. ‘Spent my childhood in one touring with my mum [’70s jazz singer Karen Kay – he didn’t meet his Portuguese guitarist father until recently and their relationship is still in its infancy]. From an early age I knew what every car on the road was. They were so different in those days, which is probably why I love vintage cars so much. But that’s definitely where my addiction to cars started and it is an addiction, a serious habit, although not as much as it used to be.’ 

What’s he making of the Maserati? ‘Exquisite,’ he beams. ‘It’s a wonderful sporting saloon and there’s a real thoroughbred under the bonnet waiting to get out.’ Will he be adding it to his enviable collection? ‘I don’t know. It is very nice, but I’m starting to think that, in my garage, I’ve got just about everything I’d ever like. Well, there are always more things that you like, but how much do you really need? Still, cars are an escape for me. It’s amazing how much peace you can find in a car.’

 

Back at the beautiful Buckinghamshire Manor Jay Kay calls home, it’s not immediately obvious why he’d be in search of any extra peace or what he could possibly be looking to escape from. Along with the two sleek black Ferraris, the ’70s Porsche, the classic Mercedes and the new Rolls Royce Phantom filling the garages, the 73 acre estate and tastefully understated Manor house would be most people’s idea of heaven. If High Times’ impressive tally of hits isn’t evidence enough of Kay’s success, then his country retreat, bought with the spoils of more than 20 million album sales and five mammoth world tours, certainly is. From the swimming pool to the recording studio, to the trout lake and the meadow – where he lands the helicopter he’s currently learning to fly – it’s the ultimate rock star getaway; an idyllic spot where the only noises are the birds in the trees and the occasional light aircraft overhead. 

Yet the minute he turned the Maserati back on to the crunching drive, Kay’s expression reset, from wide smile to mild grimace. Walking along the narrow path leading from the house to a bench by the lake, he’s dragging his feet, his shoulders hunched with whatever weight’s suddenly back on them. Dropping down on to the bench he lights the first of many cigarettes – he smokes almost as much, and as fast, as he talks – and sets off on an, at first self-conscious and then unflinching, monologue.

‘You know, Runaway, it’s pretty spot on,’ he announces with a firm drag on his cigarette and a shake of his head. ‘That lyric says it all “I just want to Runaway, get them off my back today”. Sometimes I really do just feel like running away, like I’ve got to get away from here, from this house. What with the office [Kay’s company Jamiroquai Ltd is run from the old stable block] and the recording studio, this place has started to become 70% office and only 30% home. There doesn’t seem to be one minute I can sit in the kitchen without somebody coming through, Can we talk about this, can we talk about that or the phone’s ringing or I’ve got to sign off on this or that. Sometimes I feel so f***ing trapped. Sometimes I really want to just go. Literally, get in the car, go, see ya. Disappear.

‘I mean, I know I’m supposed to get up every day and go, God, look at this great garden, I’m so lucky, but I can’t. Everybody wants a piece of you and sometimes you just don’t want to give a piece away.’ He jumps to his feet, surveys the lush green expanse in front of him and then offers, somewhat apologetically, ‘I’m either super happy or super unhappy. One or the other. I’m having a s*** day or a fantastic one.’ Taking another tug on his cigarette he starts pacing between the bench and the edge of the lake. ‘I managed to snatch ten days in Scotland recently, I’ve got an old stone built crofter’s lodge on the coast, right next to the sea. Middle of nowhere. Great views of the Isle of Skye. And I didn’t want to come back, I really didn’t. I just thought I’m happy here. Do I need to be famous? Do I? I’ve done that, and I’m happy to let it go.’

Retirement is something Kay’s threatened more than once, and is in part down to his discomfort with his celebrity status. In his mind he’s a musician, and while he enjoys the trappings of success – it beats the series of squats he lived in after his mum kicked him out, aged 16, for mixing with the wrong crowd – none of it’s quite what he intended. Back in 1992 when Jamiroquai released their first single, eco-political funk anthem When You Gonna Learn, few could have predicted quite the scale of their success. Indeed, it wasn’t until their third album, 1997’s Travelling Without Moving, and singles Virtual Insanity and Cosmic Girl, that Jamiroquai became a household name. But it was Kay’s subsequent, three year relationship with TV presenter Denise van Outen, which really changed the emphasis, shifting attention from music to his private life, confirming him as a bona fide celebrity.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I still love music,’ he assures, pausing in his pacing. ‘It’s all the crap that goes with it that I don’t particularly like. TV shows make me nervous. Interviews make me nervous. Photo shoots make me nervous. You know, I’m smiling and I’m thinking I really wanna look good in this picture, but I don’t feel good. I can’t help it. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m not a shiny American like Beyoncé, Ohhh, big smile, everything’s great.’ 

His stern expression gives way to a God-help-me laugh of exasperation. ‘I’ve got to do a TV show in France next week, it’s their version of Pop Idol apparently. Everybody does it I’m told, like that makes it credible. At the end of the show, the Pop Idol comes on and sings a song with you.’ Kay pauses for a second to let the full horror of the proposal sink in. ‘I mean, I’m thinking, get out of here. I can’t imagine what kind of a lemon I’m going to look.’ He starts singing Virtual Insanity with a cheesy smile and wink and then offers his invisible microphone to the make-believe pop idol to sing the next line. The smile drops as he lights another cigarette and looks for acknowledgement that this is surely every credible musician’s idea of hell on earth. 

‘But if I don’t do it, I’m a naughty boy and I’ll get my wrist slapped. I’m nearly 37 years old, but I’m still a naughty boy, a terrible handful.’ While the frustration is real, he delivers the mock tantrum with timing a stand-up comic would be proud of. ‘Well I’m sorry, I’m not some pliable popstar.’ He snorts out a chuckle. ‘I’m going to market that, it’ll be the next big Christmas toy, the Pliable Popstar, put him in any position you want. Gets up in the morning, smiles, does all his promo with a cheery jog. That’s how I feel, Do your promo. Have you done your promo? You’re not watching television until you’ve done your promo.

‘I just can’t wait to get away and plan what I’m going to do next. I’m tired of writing singles and always thinking about what will get played on the radio. That doesn’t allow me to stretch myself creatively. On the first album we had flugelhorn solos. I know there was lots of over doing it too, but it was fun, it was good, it was creative. I want get back to making music like that. I like the sense of closure that the greatest hits has to it. I’ve closed this chapter of my career at the right time and it’s great. I’m ready to move on and see what comes next.’

But before launching that next phase of his career, Kay’s planning the mother of all sabbaticals. ‘A year off, that’s the plan,’ he says, barely able to contain himself. So what exactly does a multimillionaire rockstar and eligible bachelor, with a fleet of luxury cars and a helicopter do on a year off? ‘Camping,’ he says with the grin firmly back on his face. ‘I love camping. Camping rocks.

‘I go up to Scotland, use the house as a base camp and drive out from there. Just load up the G Wagon [Mercedes 4×4] and head towards the Summer Isles and explore. Find a nice spot on some hillside, pitch the tent next to the G Wagon.’ He looks wistful at the though. ‘Of course, the other side of the coin is that it’s not easy to find people to go camping with. My friends are like, Camping? Scotland? October? Forget it.

‘But I love it because your day is really all about the simple things, keeping the fire going, thinking, Right, I want to make a spit, how can I do this? Ok I’m going to go off and spend 20 minutes finding the right branch to stuff through these six delicious looking poussins. Then when you’ve found the right stick, you drench the poussins in olive oil and sit there, rotating them over the fire. And you’re watching the weather coming in, thinking, Right, better pack this away because that’s rain’s coming in. When you’re camping, life’s about preparing food, going for walks, washing your face in streams, poring over Ordinance Survey maps, going to bed when the sun goes down and getting up at dawn. It’s brilliant. Life’s so simple. It’s the only time I feel like I’ve got any real control.’

The thought of Jay Kay tending a fire on a blustery Scottish hillside, couldn’t be further from the tabloid vision of him as a mainstay of the London party scene. ‘I’m so tired of all that though. I think there are more wholesome and substantial things to do with your life than being stuck in the corner of a room with people crowding round taking pictures of you with their mobile phones. I really would rather be on a cold mountain side in Scotland.’

The other bonus of camping is that it limits the chances of another episode in his fractious relationship with the paparazzi, which took a turn for the worse when he was arrested and cautioned for lashing out at a photographer outside a Soho club in September. ‘It’s not something I’m proud of,’ he says, looking momentarily downcast. ‘I came out of the club and they were jibbing and jibing, shouting “Oi, wanker”, as they do. I had every intention of just getting in the car, but with all the flashes going off, everyone crowding round you and people holding you back, you do start to feel like the bull in the middle of the ring. And I’d had a few. So when they all moved in, I took a swing at one of them. It’s no major thing. It’s not like it happens every time I go out. It’s just every now and again you’ve had enough of it.’

‘That’s what I like about being up in Scotland,’ he says leading the way back across his back lawn to the garages. ‘No one knows who I am. Most of the pubs I go into are full of older people who are just doing their thing. I’ve got my hat on and my grubby old fleece and I order a pint and a nice crab or something and just settle down with my paper and chill. That’s where I’m happiest, there’s no two ways about it.’

As we round the corner of the garage, a broad smile reappears at the sight of the Maserati, flanked by two of his Ferrari’s, the demonic, £500,000 Enzo and the 575 Super America roadster. ‘Ahhh, look at that delightful trio of Italian gorgeousness. I suppose that does cheer you up.’ So how do they feature in Kay’s year off? ‘Well, that’s another of my favourite things, taking a grand tour, driving to Ibiza or somewhere. I’ll defiantly be doing that in the 575, a nice intercontinental road trip. There’s nothing better than seeing signs for the Italian Alps and looking in your little Relais & Châteaux guide book for somewhere nice to stay; Hello, do you have a room? Yes sir, we have a room. And what time’s dinner served? Eight o’clock sir. Can I book for dinner? Yes you can sir. Shall I show you to your room? Yes, thank you very much. And where you would sir like to park his Ferrari?’

Kay’s excitement at the thought is so palpable, had he the keys to the Ferrari in his hand, he might just make a bolt for it now. ‘I really just want a chance to enjoy what I’ve earned. To finish learning to fly, to go shopping, to travel; I love travel, I’ve been all across the planet touring, but I’ve never actually seen anywhere, just the inside of arenas.’ He stops next to the Maserati, admiring its coachwork, while carefully choosing his next words. ‘I’m happy to let go now. To take a back seat.’ He let’s the statement linger, then cracks another sly grin. ‘Until, of course, I’m ready to get back out there and do it all again.’

Jamiroquai’s single ‘Runaway’ is out now. The album ‘High Times: Singles 1992-2006’ is out on November 6 on Sony BMG

 

INSIDE JAY KAY’S GARAGE

Audi RS 4 Avant £57,950

It’s the second generation of Audi RS4 estate and it’s my everyday car. I’ve had two of them before and they’ve never missed a beat. The build quality is exceptional, the performance is exceptional and there’s space in the back for the dogs. It’s understated, yet has enough of an air of aggression to make it the sort of thing I like. And it handles on rails. From a safety point of view, in terms of power to get out of situations, breaking capability, it’s unsurpassed really. If somebody said you can have only have one car, I wouldn’t think about having anything else.

 

Ferrari Enzo £500,000

It’s a lot of money and it’s a bit of a handful. But it’s a car that Ferrari have really got right and that was built at the zenith, if we’ve reached that, of Ferrari’s powers on the track. Built after three or four F1 World Championships in a row, with the input of Michael Schumacher. It’s the pinnacle of very early 21st century car building technology, and it’s a Ferrari. It’s special. It’s one of the few modern Ferraris that can hold its value, it’s automotive art, it’s exquisite to look at and always will be. 

 

Ferrari 575 Super America £165,000 

An entirely different car to the Enzo. The Enzo just isn’t practical for going across Europe, I mean, taking an Enzo round the Arc de Triomphe ain’t funny. For fast intercontinental, trouble free miles, the 575 Super America is the one. It’s a front engine car, so it’s got a boot, it’s also got this beautiful glass roof that folds back and voom, it’s a convertible. Great. Chuck a couple of bags in the boot, grab my Relais & Châteaux and I’m off. It’s always special to drive and you really do feel good in it.

 

Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT £80,595 

A fantastic car. It’s a 400 brake horse power, Maserati gentleman’s express and it’s extremely tasteful. It’s a real sporting thoroughbred. It’s good that Maserati managed to survive their dark days of the bi-turbo in the ’80s, which was awful, and now they’ve been taken over by Ferrari effectively, they’ve started to make decent cars again. The Quattroporte is a super stylish executive car, nicer and more exclusive than the Bentley Continental GT or an Aston Martin. So if you’re a business man and you want something with style and pedigree, you could do a lot worse.

 

Fiat Abarth £10,000

Abarth ran a very successful tuning company which took little Fiat 500s and 600s and made them into little racing cars. It was something I’d always had an eye on, always thought they were very pretty. A car doesn’t have to be big and brash and bold for me to like it. I am an appreciator of all cars. It’s a great piece of design and it’s also got performance. It’s fun and makes people smile, that’s what I like about it. People look over on the motorway when you’re doing 65 or 70 and they go Ahhh, isn’t it cute and then you drop a gear, and you’re off.

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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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