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.
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.