If you live in the U.S., you may be surprised to learn that Kylie Minogue released an album last week. In most parts of the Western world, this would not require a reminder, as even though the record — titled “The Abbey Road Sessions” — featured only a single new song, it immediately went to the top 10 in several countries, hitting No. 2 in the U.K. The U.S., as usual, was the odd man out.
A recurring issue throughout her career, Minogue’s difficulty in breaking through to the Stateside market remains one of pop music’s longest-lasting enigmas. She’s moved well over 60 million albums in her career, yet a relatively negligible amount of those sales have come from the States, where her all-conquering “Fever” album a decade ago represented her only dent on the market. Known elsewhere as a major live draw, she hadn’t even toured Stateside until 2009, when she arrived for a nine-date jaunt whose financial logic she compared to “setting my wallet on fire.”
“It’s the $600,000 dollar question, and I just don’t know,” Minogue offered. “Hypothetically, I imagine if I actually lived here and had a presence all those years, maybe it would be different.”
Perhaps her distinctive combination of high and low culture — she’s one of the few pop figures who can sell her own line of luxury bedding in between recording blood-curdling murder ballads with Nick Cave and rainbow-bright dance pop with Jake Shears — simply seemed too confusing for more binary tastes. Or perhaps she was ahead of the curve, providing the model of a post-millennial EDM diva before Americans were fully ready to admit that they enjoyed such music. (“I love that Americans are embracing (dance) music now, but for some of us elsewhere, it’s like, ‘uh huh…'” she said, while miming checking her watch.)
Whatever happened, it’s hard not to see Kylie’s candy-colored stamp on so much of contempo U.S. pop music, with an R&B diva like Rihanna notching one of the highest-charting hits of her career with a Kyliean slab of dance pop from longtime Minogue collaborator Calvin Harris, or Canadian chanteuse Carly Rae Jepsen openly emulating her style with her inescapable summer single.
With “Abbey Road Sessions” released to acknowledge her quarter-century mark in music, the 44 year-old was clearly in a mood to take stock of this influence, and rented out the storied London studio to radically rework selections from her back catalog with a full orchestra. Though the symphony-sweetened career retrospective has a less than illustrious history, Minogue’s is a different animal. Stripped of the dense layers of processing, effects and beats that characterize most of her recorded output, the new versions reveal some at times startlingly classic song structures, as well as the undervalued strength of her voice.
But for Minogue, whose typical live show often breaches Kiss-esque levels of artifice and kitsch, this authenticity fetishism has its limits.
“Why is there this notion that there’s less hard work, or that it’s less worthy because it’s in a pop arena?” she asked. “It’s actually a lot easier than singing pop songs onstage, trying to make it sound exactly like the record while wearing clothes I can’t breathe in, balancing in heels and clambering over all these half-naked men who are lying around the stage… It amazes me that people are more impressed by me just standing there and doing the song.”
According to Minogue, the project actually had its origins in the late ’90s, when her terror of having to continually revisit “I Should Be So Lucky” every night on tour led her to reconfigure it as a torch song, with other hits undergoing similar transformations. This need to play with expectations may help make sense of her head-turning part in Leos Carax’s unclassifiable French film “Holy Motors” — her first major film role in over a decade — which preemed to a raucous reception at Cannes last spring.
“Years ago, as far as movies go, I said I needed the Nick Cave of the film world, someone who gets me, who would just take my hand and lead me somewhere outside of the mainstream,” she recalled. Providence intervened, as it often does, at Minogue’s favorite Parisian hair salon, where fellow client and Gallic helmer Claire Denis foisted her on Carax, insisting he cast her in a project.
“The only thing he really knew about me, aside from my name, was the song I had done with Nick Cave. So maybe I had manifested it years ago.”