The Dexys frontman on waiting for the world to catch up with him and how personal growth inspired their new record
Dexys’ Kevin Rowland is in no mood to entertain untruths. He doesn’t so much gently pour cold water but upend a bucket of it when I raise an anecdote that Blur’s Alex James has been circulating about him (“Utter rubbish. I don’t know what he’s on about,” he scoffs). You get the sense that his fire remains beautifully intact.
Melding commercial appeal to critical acclaim is a tightrope few artists can walk. For over 40 years, Dexys have managed it. No.1 singles ‘Geno’ and ‘Come On Eileen’ are perennials on wedding party dancefloors, while their albums – particularly Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, Too-Rye-Ay and Don’t Stand Me Down – are rightly celebrated as the work of genius. Since their return in 2012, they have lost none of their sparkle.
Rowland is the fulcrum for this unlikely balancing act: a volatile and ambitious visionary, he has long preserved the notion that quality trumps quantity. With a stunning new album, The Feminine Divine, to promote, Discover observes a frontman bouncing between thoughtful contemplation and clipped frustration.
Rowland doesn’t linger on history, but he will open up about his personal growth, his troubled My Beauty era, and how he made his singing coach cry.
Can you pinpoint the roots of The Feminine Divine?
Around 2017 or 18, I was in a low spot. I’d started doing some courses to work on myself. The courses [centred on] Tantra and Tao, and they changed my viewpoint – especially around women.
How did the courses impact on your music?
I’d not really wanted to do any music for quite a few years, and I wasn’t doing these courses to get inspiration for writing or anything like that. I was doing them purely to improve myself.
But then, about 2020 or 2021, things shifted, and I felt I could make music again. I sat down one day and the song ‘The Feminine Divine’ just came out – Dexys had a direction, somewhere to go. The album came together with the help of Mike (Timothy – keyboards), Jim (Paterson – trombone) and Sean (Read – guitar), and at some point I had a list of the songs, and thought, “If I put this song first, and that one second, this album tells a story.”
Dexys aren’t the most prolific band in the world, but your bar has always remained high. How good are you at assessing the quality of your ideas when writing?
I was thinking about this the other day; that I can only do things by my own standards. Dexys don’t write 30 songs and then pick 10 or 11 for an album. We don’t do that. If I’m not inspired by something, I won’t pick it up again. I can’t be bothered. I’ll just start afresh. I’m either lucky or unlucky that way, depending on how you wish to look at it.
Is it difficult when band members like an idea and wish to pursue it and you don’t?
No. They all contribute, but I’m the leader, and if I’m not happy with something we ain’t doing it.
That’s the end of that then!
Well, they’ve got high standards too. And on the occasions when I’m not sure, I might go, “What do you think about this idea?” If they really insist that something is great, I might go with it. I don’t always have the answers.
Alex James from Blur recently claimed in two interviews – one with The Times, and one with Chris Moyles on Radio X – that you’d told him you won’t play (1980 No.1 single) ‘Geno’ anymore. Is that true?
I don’t know where he got that from. We played it on the tour. We’re not ashamed of our hits. We play ‘Come On Eileen’ and ‘Geno’. I don’t know what he’s on about. Utter rubbish.
Back in 1999, you faced a huge backlash for dressing up in drag and makeup for your solo album of covers, My Beauty. It is well documented that you struggled in the aftermath of that reaction.
It wasn’t pleasant. It hurt. I took it personally and I probably shouldn’t have done. At the end of the day, it was just clothes, but people got so worked up about it. But that’s history. It’s different now.
As you present The Feminine Divine, the climate is more welcoming to the concept of male vulnerability, gender fluidity and of a person’s right to challenge societal norms.
It’s true. Back then [in 1999], I wanted to embrace some feminine aspects of myself and that was my first real foray into it. Subconsciously, I abandoned it after the reaction to My Beauty and those photographs. Looking back now, I can see that I just battened down the hatches.
But the last few years awoke [something in] me, really. I got out of my head and in touch with my body, and I started to become more honest about who I am and what I want to do. That includes being more honest about the fact that I’ve got some feminine energy. It’s not all masculine by any means.
It’s also fair to say that the reaction you got to My Beauty would not have happened now.
No, definitely not.
Perhaps it shows that sometimes the fullness of time brings vindication.
Yes. Stick to what you believe in and be who you are. The world will catch up with you.
Recently, I saw you perform tracks from the new album and was struck by how exceptional your vocals remain. Do you have a regime to keep your voice in such excellent condition?
Thank you. I’ve got a great singing coach called Kim Chandler and she helps me a lot. I do breathing regimes pretty much every morning. I work really hard at it. And, on tour, I have to live like a monk.
When did you start implementing this regime?
When I came back with [2012 comeback album] One Day I’m Going to Soar. I hadn’t sung for quite a long time, so I needed to start again.
It’s paid dividends. Your vocal on The Feminine Divine’s ‘My Submission’ is arguably one of your best ever.
I’m really happy [with that song]. In fact, when I played my singing coach the demo of ‘My Submission’ she burst into tears.
That must have been quite a moment.
It was. Normally, I’ll do a demo and put a guide vocal down, and then take it to her for advice. Often, she’ll often go, ‘I think this could be different’ or she might suggest some exercise that will enable me to hit a note better. This time she went, “Kevin, I’m crying over how good this is. Don’t change anything.” She told me that everything she’d taught me was there in that vocal, so we left it as it was.
Do you think The Feminine Divine is likely to signal a sustained period of activity for Dexys?
We’ve got some ideas I’d like to bring to fruition, but it’s a question of how long this campaign takes and how we feel after it. We’ll probably need a bit of a break. And everybody’s got other projects on. I’ve got a few things I want to do too. Then it’s a question of when, but I’d certainly like to make another album.
What can fans expect from the tour?
The first half is The Feminine Divine acted out onstage. The album is a drama, so we’re gonna perform the music and the narrative too. It’s going to be very theatrical. Claudia Chopek is the female protagonist, playing all the female parts, and I’m going to play the male part. Then, there’ll be an interval and we’ll come back and play the old stuff.
Looking back for a moment, when you think about the band’s earliest days, do you recognise the young Kevin Roland?
I’m a completely different person now.
Are you happier? More content?
Yeah, definitely. But I’ve worked hard at it and I’m still a work in progress – I’m not enlightened or anything, but I’m doing all right. No complaints.
If you could give your younger self some advice then, what would it be?
I’d probably just say, “relax…and enjoy it.”
(Main photo by Bruno Murari)