He sings like Stevie Wonder, talks like Bob Dylan on speed, and his music has been a breath of fresh air on British dancefloors.
Stardom beckons for Jamiroquai, but can he take the pressure?
Whew, but JK can talk. Like a market trader anxious to show off his wares, he's no sooner convinced you of the "knock down bargain,
you won't find a better offer, gey it now, buy, buy, buy, never to be repeated" value of the goods in front of you,
than he's rustling around behind his stall and sticking something else under your nose. It's exhausting and sometimes baffling.
Especially as he's wont to leap from one topic to another, launching into a diatribe about the rainforests that, improbably, turns
into a rant about road taxes and car clamping. He's got the short of fog-horn personality you'd normally give a wide berth to in the pub.
Yet close your eyes, let his words wash over you, and they actually start to make sense. Matched with a disarming sincerity,
his flag-waving, trumpet-blasting, relentlessly opinionated character is surprisingly endearing.
It sets JK, and his group Jamiroquai, in stark relief to the sort of bland, anodyne pop groups who currently crowd the charts.
Even if, as we'll see later, it also leads to some interesting and embarrassing contradictions.
It's a late April night at the Strongroom, the east London studio where Jamiroquai are recording their debut album,
"Emergency On Planet Earth". JK's voice rises and falls over an elaborate Latin arrangement played by bassist Stuart Zender,
drummer Nick Van Gelder and keyboardist Toby Smith. Although this is only the third time they've played the song, "Music In My Mind",
the green light which signals a master recording is on. And as with most tracks on the album, JK is insistent that it be
recorded "live", in one take. But even as it builds to a resounding conclusion, he's shaking his head.
"It's not right, it's just not right. We want a tune that has that feel to it, and this ain't there."
"We can overdub the high hats, Stevie Wonder did that all the time," suggests Nick Van Gelder.
"No man, I'm not going back with a track that ain't right, it's got to be bollocks right!" he answers, striding out of the studio.
With only 28 days to go until the deadline imposed by the band's record label Sony, and only half an album recorded so far,
the Strongroom has been the scene of frayed nerves, arguments and exhaustion. Keyboardist Toby is nursing a bronchial infection
precipitated by stress. And JK is trying to acclimatise to new-found celebrity status, while delivering on the massive eight-album
contract he signed with Sony at the close of 1992. "It feels like being on a runaway horse in a cowboy movie,"
he grimaces, "when you're being dragged along at the back, with your head bumping along he ground."
"When You Gonna Learn", the debut single by Jamiroquai, then the solo name of JK (Born Jason Kaye), was released on Acid Jazz
late last year. By rights it should have disappeared without a trace. Not, that's to say, through any fault of the record itself.
Far from it, in fact. A vibrant, inspirational funk track which harked back explicitly, some would say shamelessly,
to the early Seventies sound of Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers and Gil Scott Heron, it was widely hailed as one of the most striking soul debuts in recent years. One that was all the more remarkable for coming from a white 22-year-old from Ealing,
whose voice sounded disconcertingly like a woman imitating Stevie Wonder.
But given the poor distribution and minimal promotion that bedevils many independent releases, it could very easily have slipped into glorious obscurity beside other outstanding British soul/funk tracks, such as McKoy's "Family". Instead, the record's brassy optimism struck a chord with club-goers getting steadily restless with the metronome beat of house. The song became an underground hit and made Jamiroquai into the subject of a bidding war among the major labels. With a flurry of "next big thing" media interest ringing in his ears, JK signed a deal with Sony worth £100,000. If fully honoured by both parties, he'll now be making records until the age of 50.
Transformed into a tight four-piece outfit, with a live brass section that pushed their number to ten, Jamiroquai played Brixton
Academy in front of 5,000 people and then watched as their major label debut, "Too Young To Die", quickly went top ten.
The group have now arrived centre stage. Their name, derived from the Native American Iroquai tribe, and once the source of
much perplexity, now rolls smoothly off most tongues. And the fur hat that JK has affected since his youth has lent him
the sort of idiosyncratic cachet expected of popstars. All of this has taken months rather than years.
And, perhaps inevitably, such a speedy ascent has made JK the focus of a range of conflicting emotions.
Mention Jamiroquai in the London Jazz and funk club scene he hails from, and few are merely neutral.
For most, there is respect at the singer's prodigious talent, and his success at taking funk to the heart of the mainstream.
If some will admit to this only grudgingly, their reluctance can mostly be attributed to a strain of green-eyed scepticism.
Still, others bear a more fundamental resentment. "He's very talented," comments one black onlooker.
"As white people are at copying black people." That Jamiroquai's songs are packed with references to a black musical legacy of soul,
funk, jazz and fusion is undeniable. And certainly, JK would hardly be the first white artist to be accused of "stealing" that tradition.
From Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis to Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark, countless white acts have been targeted as examples of cultural colonialism; the process whereby the mainstream looks to marginal black culture, and makes R&B , the blues or hip hop its own.
As such, many black people have exhaled a weary sigh of déjà vu at the group. To add further grist to the mill, their success also
coincided with the decision by several majors to drop many talented black artists, including Courtney Pine and Omar.
Arguably much the same number of white acts have been dropped as well, at a time when record companies are feeling the sting of
the recession. But this is immaterial. The popular feeling remains that JK has taken something which doesn't belong to him,
and denied many black performers the opportunity of mainstream success. Such arguments may be valid in principle,
yet they also suggest that it's somehow illegitimate for Jamiroquai to even think of making soul, or worse, to be any good at it.
Given this, JK's response, when I put these claims to him, is surprising to say the least. Not only does he nod his head in sympathy,
but he also launches into his own diatribe about the appropriation of black music. "Has it been easier for me as a white artist?"
he asks, taking a pensive drag on a cigarette. "From looking at what goes on, I'd say yeah. I know how black artists are treated in the business and it's diabolical. But I'd also say, look at teckno and house, all that come from hip hop and house in Chicago and Detroit,
it's a black thing. Look at Snow, 'Informer', what's that? It's all white people delving into heavy black roots, making dough out of it, keeping it going long enough to make a nice little scene. All of a sudden, you're blind to where it came from and it's a white scene !"
So where does that leave a group like Jamiroquai?
"The bottom line is, I like the music and I'm doing it out of respect. If someone's trying to do something crap and make money out of it,
like Snow, that's one thing. I'm not doing it to say, 'Hey I'm white and I can do this'. I'm actually trying to make music for everybody,
and if you look at the crowd at my gigs, you'll see black, white, asian, every type of person, which is sweet."
All of this is said at a scatter-gun pace which leaves no time for premedication and underscores his sincerity and admiration for black culture. End of story. Or at least, it would have been if JK hadn't insisted on adding his own postscript, as though his mouth
were running away with him. "I've got soul, a feeling for what I'm doing. That's what black people are good at.
Look at Jimi Hendrix, look at James Brown get down. He's doing what he's doing, without worrying about anything else.
But a lot of white artists, especially today, haven't got it, it just ain't happening for them."
Does that mean that compared to them, you've got soul? "Yeah, of course. Because soul is the energy and emotion you put into something. That's why black music from the Thirties onwards is so fucking good. 'Cause it's come out of shit,
out of cotton fields and singins in church. When the only thing you've got left is your fucking voice." Why does he do it?
Opening is mouth when it would be better off shut, JK leaves himself open to ridicule. It's plainly absurd, after all, to compare the sour
of his talent with that of blacks in the Thirties, for some of whom slavery was still a living memory. Yet it almost as if he can't help it.
In an interview with London club culture magazine Touch, he told black MP Bernie Grant, who'd compared racial conditions in Nineties Britain to those in Sixties America, to "sort himself out". "There's no point looking to the past," he explains to me.
"It's been done and it never works, because whenever there's a militant black front, you'll get a militant white front."
But, ironically, Bernie Grant is the Labour MP whose majority increased by the largest amount during the last election.
Which suggests that he speahs with a good deal more authority and popular support than JK. As one esablished figure whitin the club
scene scoffed, "He carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. Four hundred years of white middle-class oppression from Ealing."
Who is JK addressing, I wonder? "When You Gonna Learn" and "Too Young To Die" are filled with exhortations for the politicians to stand back, for ordinary people to take control and make the world a better place. When I press him further, he heads off into a
tremendous spiel about the rainforests, foreign debt and the burgeoning global population. But isn't he preaching to the converted?
After all, who doesn't agree that all of these are great evils, that "something must be done"? The question, though, is what?
And how much can a singer, whose records get radio airplay sandwiched between Take That and 2 Unlimited, really make
any difference? "I look at myself as a little person and the people who run the Governement as big people,"
he says, leaning forward. "They hold all the cards and are saying, 'You can do anything about it.'
But I'm saying there's people who can't eat, we're having wars all the time, that the Government's taking the piss. And I'm trying to generate money which I can donate to Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth and Oxfam, people who can help sort things out."
Born in Ealing, Jason Kay is the only child of a single-parent family. He says he has never met his Portuguese father and was raised by his mother, Karen Kay, a nightclubb jazz singer. Although he speaks of her working with, among others, Dizzy Gillespie and Ronnie Scott, she is not widely known, even among jazz aficionados. Mark Sinker, the knowledgable editor of jazz magazine the Wire,
professed ignorance when I asked about her, and the name Karen Kay is not listed in even the most exhaustive jazz encyclopedia.
While she didn't push her son into singing, she was, I other respects, a hard taskmaster.
"She wanted me to find my own way and experience things for myself. At times I thought she was being so hard,
like 'no you can't have any money, go and find your own, it's your problem'. All the time, push, push, push, go out there
and realise you've got to deal with life." Even now that is successful, JK hesitates before playing her his songs.
"She has high expectations, and she can pick out if a note's flat or a song isn't right. So of course I'm jettery playing her stuff,
because you don't wanna get your mum's 'you can do better son' slap round the ear, do you?"
During his adolescence their relationship all but disintegrated. "It was diabolical, down the dumps," he shudders.
And from 16 to 20, he claims he was periodically thrown out of the house, to wind up living rough on nearby Haverstock Hill, or
sleeping in squats without heat or light. Through all the time, he was trying to make music, singing into a four-track tape machine and
supporting himself "by doing bits of crime and thieving and marijuana hustles". Only in 1991 did his fortunes improve.
A chance meeting with Tunji Williams - younger brother of Femi from the Young Disciples, former manager of the Brand New Heavies, and current manager of Jamiroquai - led to a demo for Acid Jazz, which became the "When You Gonna Learn" single.
Overnight success, then, has apparently taken years of graft in difficult circumstances.
And along the way, JK's learned to say and do what he wants, heedless of others.
"I suppose I've got a bit of an ego on me," he admits with a grin. "But I've lived on my own a lot, so you learn to look after yourself and you just can't change. Anyway, I'd rather be like this, 'cause you gotta have a bit about you to get on, to have the confidence to get through."
At present in the London club scene , stories are legion about Jamiroquai. They say JK is exploiting the rest of the group, who are unsigned to Sony. That he has arbitrarily sacked previous band members and sudio staff. And they point to his two classic cars, a 1968 Mercedes and a 1972 BMW, as proof that behind his eco-consciousness is hypocrisy. The band, he streses, earn session fees and potentially lucrative percentage points of record sales; two cars hardly amounts to gross opulence; and; if musicians are hired and fired, such is the nature of business. But while he shrugs away the tales, they're still indicative of the gulf celebrity has opened between him and the clubbers he used to rub shoulders with. "Friends treat you differently, they try to make out that because you've now got something, you're a bloody capitalist," he says, voice rising. "I'm just a guy who walks the streets, I don't want to be lauded or glorified. People think you want to be a star and have all the trimmings, like big limos or screaming girls. But that's bogus, it's false.
Never mind what I've got, concentrate on what I'm trying to do."
How long can JK remain the angry young man of the pop charts? If the message in the music is all, then this surely presages some uncomfortable trade-offs with Sony. After all, the label's aim is to nurture a commercial pop product that will bring the smartest return on its investment. It's perhaps ominous that, with the ink still fresh on JK's contract, George Michael, frustrated by a similar lifetime deal,
was suing Sony in search of an escape clause. So far Jamiroquai are ahead in the game. Sony initially attempted to foist on the group a
middle-aged producer, more used to working with Erasure and the Pasadenas, to oversee the recording of "Too Young To Die".
After dismissing him and scoring a top ten hit, they've now been given full artistic control over "Emergency On Planet Earth".
But until recently, their follow-up single was understood to be "Revolution", a live favourite whose title trumpets its militant message.
Yet now, reportedly after pressure from Sony (the group deny this), the new single is "Blow Your Mind". A breezy, mellifluous love song, the record should secure sizeable success as the summer approaches. Yet irrespective of whose decision it actually was,
the track is a nakedly commercial choice. Containing lyrics like "Pleasure, passion, tonight's the night I'm looking for your action,"
it sits uneasily with JK's stated intention "to keep a message in the music so I don't start going on about sweet nothings".
"NO," JK SAYS A DAY LATER. "I'm not perfect." We're in the dishevelled kitchen of his new Notting Hill flat. Although he's been here for a month, constant demands on his time mean he's barely had time to unpack, and cardboard boxes filled with food still litter the room.
Away from the pressures of the studio, he's relaxed, sincere and likeable. So much so that he even smiles at the pitfalls of his loquacity.
"It's difficult to explain myself at times, because I'm not as eloquent as I'd like to be. So yeah, I amke naive statements in the middle
of a rant, but then I'm not a person to try and hide things, I just say what I'm thinking at the time."
At 22, he's still young enough to believe he can change the world. But mature enough to realise the strength of integrity needed to do so.
"I think it's good to keep the youth in you, the kid who doesn't assume things or dismiss ideas," he grins.
Still, he acknowledges, fulfilling the mountainous expectations now heaped upon Jamiroquai involves considerable pressure.
Two years ago, his chidhood friend - a talented, experimental techno musician called Ace - committed suicide.
His death is now a salutary reminder of the price sometimes exacted by success.
"If he'd continued, he'd have been at the forefront of techno and house, and it was too much for him," reflects JK.
"But people fuck up when they ain't happy with themselves and what they're doing. If you keep to the music,
make sure you sing from the heart and believe in what you do, then you'll get through."
What choice does he have, after all? He can stick to his guns, open his mouth, allow the faux pas to tumble out, but also shout "wake up" at the top of his voice. Or else he simply shrugs his shoulders and churns out more of the candyfloss pop that already clogs the charts.
You suspect he'd rather give up altogether instead. And as he'll tell you himself, in a voice too loud to ignore, he's still too young to die.