NEW KID ON THE BLOC

BASK­ING IN THE GLOW OF BE­COM­ING A GAY DAD, BLOC PARTY SINGER KELE OKEREKE’S NEW SOLO AL­BUM IS CALLED FA­THER­LAND. IN­TER­VIEW BY MARC AN­DREWS. PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY RACHAEL WRIGHT.

DNA Magazine - - DNA PROFILE -

As a gay man I’d never sung a ro­man­tic song with an­other man. As a com­mu­nity, we still have a long way to go with how we authen­ti­cally talk about de­sire.

Kele Okereke, lead singer with Bloc Party and solo artist, stands in front of me wear­ing a baggy shirt, track pants and slip­pers and asks if I’d like some lemon and gin­ger tea.

The Bri­tish rock star lives in a cozy house in South Lon­don with his part­ner of seven years, Gary, and their eight-month-old daugh­ter Su­san­nah. She’s the one crying in­ter­mit­tently up­stairs where Gary is on duty so that Kele and DNA can share tea and sym­pa­thy.

The 35-year-old Lon­doner hates in­ter­views and has ad­mit­ted as much dur­ing ev­ery in­ter­view he’s ever, re­luc­tantly, agreed to over the past 15 years. Yet, with the birth of his daugh­ter, some­thing has shifted. That Kele has in­vited us into his home, his sanc­tu­ary, his baby nurs­ery, seems to in­di­cate he may be stepping up to the plate, not just as a gay role model but a gay dad role model, too.

His third al­bum, Fa­ther­land, is the mu­si­cian ex­plor­ing fa­ther­hood (one ten­der track, Sa­van­nah, is a lul­laby), his Nige­rian her­itage and com­ing to peace with his past. Mu­si­cally, it’s a marked de­par­ture from Bloc Party’s rau­cous rock an­thems, and his last solo al­bum, the un­der­rated Trick, which dab­bled in avant-garde house and elec­tro disco. Fa­ther­land is singer/song­writer con­fes­sional folk/pop; as if Ed Sheeran were a hunky gay black man who tum­bled through years of the sex-n-drugs par­ties be­fore set­tling com­fort­ably into round-the-clock par­ent­ing.

And now, it’s tea time… Kele: I don’t usu­ally do in­ter­views.

DNA: Yes, we know, and so we’re very grate­ful that you said yes to DNA.

[Po­litely] No wor­ries.

You must be very ex­cited to have an­other solo record com­ing out?

[Sheep­ishly] Yes, I am. I recorded it over a year ago so I’m al­ready think­ing a lot about the next thing, but that’s kind of a prob­lem I have.

For an artist, that’s a nice prob­lem to have.

It is, be­cause it means you can still feel cre­ative. Now I’m in the pro­mo­tional phase of this al­bum so I’m just talk­ing about it and I can feel slightly re­moved from be­ing a mu­si­cian. The part I enjoy the most is the writ­ing. I’m ex­cited for peo­ple to hear it be­cause it’s go­ing to be an im­por­tant record if peo­ple have been fol­low­ing me. I poured a lot of my­self into it. I can’t wait to take it out on the road and share it live. You seem to like to sur­prise your au­di­ence with the choices you make in your music.

Yeah, with Bloc Party, when­ever we put out an al­bum peo­ple would go, “What is this?” Any­one who has been fol­low­ing us from the be­gin­ning would ex­pect those sharp left turns. It’s not a con­trived thing. I’m for­ever be­ing ex­cited by new music and new ways of singing and new ways of ex­press­ing my­self. I don’t see that chang­ing. There are plenty of other artists who have a for­mula or a way of work­ing they keep us­ing un­til they die. That’s fine, and some of my favourite artists are like that, but then there are oth­ers who are the op­po­site. Once they have iden­ti­fied that some­thing works they rip it up and start again and I ap­pre­ci­ate that.

Your last al­bum was a very sexy dance record. Trick came out of my ex­pe­ri­ences in club world DJ-ing. I was used to per­form­ing on stage for au­di­ences; go­ing into clubs it was a real shift to DJ and I felt a sense of unity with the club­bers. This al­bum is the com­pletely op­po­site.

This is your “new dad” record!

[Laughs] Nice. The ini­tial idea for the record was to make a col­lec­tion of lul­la­bies, but then the al­bum got big­ger, as it of­ten does.

You could ar­gue that Madonna’s best al­bum is Ray Of Light, made af­ter she had her daugh­ter, too. That’s prob­a­bly my favourite Madonna al­bum and there was a sense she was striv­ing for some­thing that wasn’t so throw­away.

She dealt with her mother is­sues on that al­bum; you’ve dealt with your fa­ther is­sues on yours.

I was go­ing to be­come a fa­ther… rec­on­cil­ing my re­la­tion­ship with my dad was im­por­tant. If ever there was a time to come to­gether, for my fa­ther and me, it was now. Last year I vis­ited my ill grand­mother in Nige­ria with my dad. It’s the first time I had trav­elled any­where with my dad, just the two of us.

And you sur­vived?

[Laughs] I did! There were quite a few mo­ments when I thought I might not. It was the start of us mend­ing bridges be­tween us.

When was your daugh­ter born?

De­cem­ber, last year. We had been plan­ning this for about two years. It’s some­thing that took a lot of mas­ter­mind­ing and trips to Amer­ica.

Are you think­ing of hav­ing more chil­dren?

She is a com­plete bless­ing in our lives and I’m cer­tainly open to the idea of more chil­dren but that’s some­thing we need to dis­cuss. We’re not out of the wood with this one yet!

Is fa­ther­hood any­thing like you imag­ined it would be? Um, I was quite scared in the nine months be­fore she ar­rived. All my life I’ve been self-re­liant; it comes with the na­ture of my job. In this life­style you have to be quite ego­tis­ti­cal or, at least, ego­cen­tric. I was won­der­ing how be­ing re­spon­si­ble for an­other life would fit into ev­ery­thing I have grown ac­cus­tomed to. I imag­ined there’d be changes I couldn’t fore­see un­til she got here. She has very quickly be­come the most im­por­tant thing our lives.

Are you get­ting much sleep?

We’ve been lucky.

Lis­ten­ing to your new record there also seems to be lots of ref­er­ences to let­ting go and over­com­ing ad­dic­tion.

Part of this record was say­ing good­bye to the life­style that I had be­fore Sa­van­nah.

You men­tion a “DTPM tat­too” in one song. [Chuck­les] Yeah. I’ve lived. I’m a gay man liv­ing in Lon­don. I have en­coun­tered lots of things in my time. I have been luck­ier than some.

Like a lucky escape from your pre­vi­ous life?

Not an escape… As much as I’ve par­taken in the life­style, I’ve never done it to the detri­ment of my body. I love my body too much. I’m not the kind of guy that can go out all night and do all kinds of things. I have to look af­ter my body and my voice. I’ve al­ways been that way and been the first guy to go to bed.

Now you have a real rea­son to go to bed early!

That’s part of it, if I’m hon­est. I don’t want to sound judg­men­tal – I know for a lot of gay peo­ple the life­style of par­ties and drugs is all part of their iden­tity, and

I get that. I enjoy danc­ing but have never been self­de­struc­tive.

Olly Alexan­der from Years & Years makes an ap­pear­ance on the al­bum. Tell us more.

I met him at a music fes­ti­val in Amer­ica last year. He’d writ­ten about be­ing a gay mu­si­cian and I was im­pressed with how elo­quent he was. He’s com­pletely free and at ease when he per­forms and that was in­cred­i­bly se­duc­tive. I had this song, Grounds For Re­sent­ment, I had orig­i­nally writ­ten to be a duet and had spo­ken to a fe­male singer, but af­ter I hung out with Olly in East Lon­don I asked him if he would sing on it. I’m glad I did be­cause it feels quite hon­est. I’ve never sung a ro­man­tic duet with a man be­fore. It feels ridicu­lous even say­ing that – as a gay man I’ve never sung a ro­man­tic song with an­other man. As a com­mu­nity, we still have a long way to go with how we authen­ti­cally talk about de­sire. I don’t want to have to rely on codes and ab­strac­tions. I’m glad I got to sing some­thing that felt hon­est.

The music on Fa­ther­land is very stripped back. Is that be­cause you want peo­ple to lis­ten closely to what you’re say­ing?

Yeah. My records are doc­u­ments of who I was talk­ing to, the peo­ple I was meet­ing, and where I was in my life at that time. If I was go­ing to make an al­bum on the spot now it wouldn’t sound like that.

You’ve been openly gay for many years, and now you’re a gay dad; do you sense your­self be­com­ing, in­creas­ingly, a role model?

Once you start think­ing you’re a role model, or peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to what you are say­ing, that is a recipe for dis­as­ter. I’m just a hu­man be­ing and I’m liv­ing my life and mak­ing my choices on a day-to-day ba­sis. I know peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to what I’m say­ing but, to be hon­est, I’ve al­ways blocked out that side of what I do. My best legacy is go­ing to be the music I leave for peo­ple – if that moves peo­ple, that’s what I want to do. I don’t think I’m such an in­ter­est­ing per­son. What I do is in­ter­est­ing, but Kele isn’t that in­ter­est­ing.

Well, the fact you wanted to speak to DNA is much ap­pre­ci­ated.

In the past, with Bloc Party, I was al­ways re­minded by man­age­ment and other mem­bers of the band not to talk about my pri­vate life. It wasn’t ex­plicit but it wasn’t en­cour­aged. Bloc Party is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween four peo­ple and to have my life dom­i­nat­ing how we were per­ceived would be frus­trat­ing for the other mem­bers of the band. Part of the rea­son why I have been purs­ing a solo ca­reer is so I can ex­press my­self com­pletely and wholly to the peo­ple I want to com­mu­ni­cate to, peo­ple who un­der­stand where I come from and what’s im­por­tant to me. At this stage in my life and ca­reer I want to com­mu­ni­cate to gay peo­ple and peo­ple like me. I want those peo­ple to ap­pre­ci­ate the music I am mak­ing be­cause it is shap­ing what I’m about.

There aren’t many high-pro­file openly gay black men in music, ei­ther.

Not many. I know that it is a unique per­spec­tive. Be­ing black, be­ing Bri­tish, be­ing gay and be­ing male in­flu­ences how I see the world and what I choose to write about. It in­flu­ences my gaze, but I’m just dis­sect­ing my life and my ex­pe­ri­ences.

What are your thoughts on gay mar­riage?

I un­der­stand the im­por­tance of hav­ing the choice to marry – it’s a ques­tion of equal­ity. It might not be the av­enue I would go down but I un­der­stand it’s some­thing a lot of other peo­ple want and it’s their right to have it. The com­mit­ment I’ve made to my part­ner is a life­long one. We have been a cou­ple – (pauses) it’s com­pli­cated! – for seven years.

What ad­vice would you give to any new gay dads or wannabe gay dads?

Pa­tience is im­por­tant. Find­ing your own par­ent­ing path is im­por­tant be­cause ev­ery­one you en­counter will tell you their way of do­ing things – chang­ing nap­pies, burp­ing ba­bies. Take ev­ery day as it comes. Has hav­ing a baby been en­joy­able?

Yeah. Ev­ery morn­ing just see­ing her face gives me a sense of joy I could never have an­tic­i­pated be­fore she was here. It’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult but also com­pletely re­ward­ing and trans­for­ma­tive. I feel blessed we have her in our lives. I al­ways knew I wanted to be a fa­ther but didn’t think it was go­ing to be pos­si­ble. I feel very lucky.

MORE: Fa­ther­land is re­leased through BMG Music. For more on Kele, find him on Face­book or visit www. mu­sicglue.com/kele-okereke

(ABOVE) NEW DAD, KELE.

KELE IN THE EARLY DAYS OF BLOC PARTY.

SOLO AL­BUMS THE BOXER, TRICK AND FA­THER­LAND.

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