Forty years ago, U.K. soulful post-punks Dexys Midnight Runners, now simply known as Dexys, were catapulted to unlikely MTV pop stardom when their skiffle-inflected banjo jam “Come on Eileen” became one of the biggest hits of 1983. “We were always trying to look and sound different. We didn’t look like Duran Duran,” the band’s Kevin Rowland chuckles, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the first Dexys studio album in 11 years, The Feminine Divine.
The new Dexy LP is a fascinatingly vulnerable and confessional chronicle of the now 69-year-old Rowland’s journey of self-discovery regarding gender roles, his previous deeply internalized misogyny, and sexual expression. But that all ties into “Come on Eileen” in a way, as that beloved track from 1982’s Too-Rye-Ay was inspired by the “Catholic guilt” Rowland grappled with during his religious upbringing in repressive ‘50s/’60s Britain.
“I never had any sexual education — as in none,” explains Rowland, who says that song’s titular pretty-red-dress-wearing character was a “composite” of the female classmates he lusted after as a conflicted, hormonal boy. “The school didn’t tell me about sex. My parents didn’t tell me about sex. It was a secret. Like, your body gets… you know, you’re 13 or 14, and your body is starting to explode with these feelings. And it’s a secret. So, if it’s a secret, it must be bad, because you’re not supposed to be doing it or thinking about it or feeling like this, you know? So, I’d grown up with these kind of Irish Catholic girls in my community, and yeah, you’re not supposed to touch ’em, but you want to! … It was like, ‘Well, you shouldn’t really be having these feelings.’ But you do, and you want to make it happen. But also you feel terribly guilty because they’re Irish Catholic and you shouldn’t be touching them. So yeah, all of that. But, something good came out of it.”
There’s not much Catholic guilt or shame to be heard on The Feminine Divine. To loosely quote “Come on Eileen,” many of the album’s thoughts more than just verge on dirty. There are BDSM overtones on several daring tracks, like “My Submission” (the music video for which features the submissive Rowland wearing a French-bob wig and women’s lingerie), “My Goddess Is” (in which Rowland begs to be his lady’s “bitch”), and the ethical non-monogamy bedroom ballad “Dance With Me.” Rowland clarifies, “I’m not saying that the album is 100% autobiographical, but it came from starting to see women as goddesses and realizing that, you know what, I don’t have to be Mr. F***ing Tough Guy. It’s all right to be feminine, and maybe I don’t have to be in control. Sex doesn’t have to be all about penetration and all that stuff. But I just started to sort of face my own desires of things that were more subtle.”
To reference the title of The Feminine Divine’s lead single, “I’m Going to Get Free,” the album — which was sparked by a soul-searching Thailand pilgrimage that Rowland took after the 2017 death of his Catholic mother, who he thought of “as a goddess, or more like a saint” — is the sound of him throwing off the shackles of his old, rigid ways of thinking. But he tells Yahoo Entertainment, “I didn’t even know that I had any shackles, because that’s how entrenched they were. … I didn’t realize that I had any shackles until I started to start to get out of them.
“I’m really nervous talking about this issue, because I do feel it’s a kind of a minefield,” Rowland continues warily. “But I’ve only got my personal experience… and all I can do is just share my experience.” Rowland says his earlier misogynist mindset came from “a thing with a girlfriend” — perhaps one of the women in that “Eileen” composite — at age 21, which made him believe, “‘You’ve gotta be tough. You’ve gotta be really tough. You’ve gotta be strong. You can’t show any weakness.’ I don’t know when exactly I’d picked that up, but it was around that time. I probably already had it before that, but now I had it as, ‘If you don’t act tough, you’re going to get screwed over.’ And that’s how I operated for a long time. Obviously it wasn’t very effective, positive, or healthy.
“What happened to me [in recent years] is I started to realize that I’d never really thought about women,” Rowland explains, a bit sheepishly. “But I started to look at women differently. I did these courses [in Thailand] and as we were doing some body work, they’re referring to women as ‘goddesses.’ They were like, ‘OK, bring the goddess in!’ And I was just thinking, at first, ‘She’s not a goddess!’ I had some resistance to it. But as I worked on my body more, got into my body more, it just dawned on me what [women] actually are — that they’re actually really powerful. I hadn’t really thought of it, because I suppose I’d been subconsciously part of this thing of repressing women.”
This is not the first time that Rowland has examined and challenged traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity in his art. For the controversial cover photo of his 1999 solo album, My Beauty, he wore a bespoke dress, makeup, and thigh-high stockings, and while nowadays even mainstream male pop stars like Bad Bunny and Harry Styles don frocks, at the time Rowland’s gender-fluid image — a stark contrast to his shabby denim dungarees from the Too-Rye-Ay era — caused a media uproar that traumatized Rowland so intensely, he still feels on edge when discussing such concepts a quarter-century later.
“What I need to not do is read the social media comments,” he grumbles, regarding recent public reaction to The Feminine Divine and particularly the “My Submission” video. “I know it shouldn’t affect me, but it does. I don’t think it should affect me. I don’t want it to affect me. I sort of feel like I should rise above it. But I can sense myself just feeling a bit raw, because I’m putting myself out there on this album. I’ve served myself, soul-up.”
As for the furor surrounding My Beauty back in ’99, he recalls, “What happened is I got clean from cocaine and other drugs in ‘93. I had a couple of years when I did rehabs and all that stuff. I had a couple of years where I didn’t know where the hell I was, and then I started to come out of that about late ‘94, ‘95. I felt like I was kind of reborn. So, I wasn’t interested in being from Dexys. In fact, when I was in rehab, I hated the fact that I had that past, probably because I’d f***ed up so many things, so I just didn’t want to talk about it. I just wished I could be anonymous. When I came out of there, I wanted to do music in a different way. I was oblivious to my past. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh yeah, we made this record, so now we’ve gotta follow with [something similar].’ I didn’t think like that at all. It was just like a blank slate. I felt like a new person and like this was a first album.
“And then about ‘95, I thought, ‘Hmm, I’m going to get paint my toenails and fingernails. That’d be nice,’” Rowland continues. “I often get inspiration when I go off to sleep, so then one night I got inspiration for a dress. I drew it, went to a dress shop, and got it made. I think the problems I ran up against is probably because people were invested in whatever in Dexys was during the first three albums in the ‘80s. I felt that if I’d been a new artist, it might have been easier in a way. I saw myself as a new artist; I didn’t see any connection with what I’ve done before. But of course people were like, ‘Oh, this is Kevin Rowland from Dexys, and now he’s wearing this!’ I wasn’t prepared for [the backlash]. I thought it’d probably rustle a few feathers, but the response it got was a shock to me. And it did affect me. I allowed it to affect me. It’s a shame, because it overshadowed the music. And the music was good.”
Dexys Midnight Runners were always a shape-shifting act. In fact, after Too-Rye-Ay, they underwent another extreme makeover for 1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down, looking unrecognizable in Brooks Brothers suits, and that didn’t go over well with fans either. Rowland recalls that Dexys’ label at the time, Mercury Records, who dropped Dexys after Don’t Stand Me Down was a commercial disappointment, “saw us as a gimmicky thing; I don’t think they thought we were serious.” In fact, at one time Mercury hadn’t even wanted to release “Come on Eileen” as a single, thinking the band’s cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said” was a better bet after “the previous couple of singles had been flops.” And while Rowland is still reluctant to revisit his 1980s heyday — he says he’s turned down “loads of offers” to do ‘80s nostalgia package tours because “I’d hate myself” — last year he did release the remixed reissue package Too-Rye-Ay As It Should Have Sounded, because he was “never happy with the [album’s original] mixes. I wanted it to be an album that you listened to from start to finish, but the sounds were a bit too harsh to do that. So, we just made it more soulful.”
But with that now taken care of, Rowland is forging straight ahead with The Feminine Divine — and planning to delete his Facebook and Twitter soon, to avoid the trolls — with a fall 2023 U.S. tour that will theatrically present the new album in its entirety. (“Come on Eileen” and some other Dexys classics will be played during the concerts’ encores.) There have also tentative discussions with American History X film director and avowed Dexys fan Tony Kaye to bring The Feminine Divine in some way to the big screen. “My job as an artist, is to move forward,” Rowland stresses. “Look, I appreciate that fans like and buy the [old] records. I am grateful for that. But at the same time, some of those old guys, they just want to relive 1981, ‘82, ’85, and they kind of want to push that on us. But that’s no interest to me.”
On The Feminine Divine, Rowland — who experienced “horrible” rock-bottom moments of “misery, despair, paranoia, thinking the police are coming in the windows, not being able to speak” during a time when “cocaine was my obsession,” and even “ joined a religion which was basically a cult” before getting sober for good 29 years ago — sings, “I had so much hate in me.” As he tells Yahoo Entertainment with a shrug, “It’s still a work in progress. I’ve probably still got a bit of hate in me sometimes. Who hasn’t?” But as he looks ahead to his 70th birthday this year, he says, “Dexys is my obsession again.” So, would he say he’s gotten free, as the recent Dexys single proclaims, and finally settled into a good place in life?
“I don’t know about that,” he chuckles. “I’m still breathing.”
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