For the past 30 years, British journalist Nick Duerden has interviewed musicians for both U.K. and U.S. publications, sometimes catching up with the same artists multiple times over the course of their careers.
And as time passed between chats, Duerden noticed that the artists became more interesting as their lives continued to change.
“We have highs and we have lows,” says Duerden on a recent video call from London. “I found it really interesting to see how a pop star, someone whose wildest dreams came true, navigates all of that.”
“Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars,” out now, is Duerden’s exploration of what happens to pop stars after fame fades. The book includes interviews with a genre-crossing range of artists whose stories, while wildly different from one another, all echo the fickle nature of the music industry. It’s a look at what happens when the singles and albums stop charting, when bands are dropped by their labels, when musicians realize that the money has run out. These often aren’t the easiest stories for people to share.
“Many people ignored my requests,” Duerden acknowledges.
But those who did agree to the interviews — a lengthy list that includes Don McLean, Bob Geldof, Robbie Williams, Stewart Copeland, Billy Bragg, Joan Armatrading, Leo Sayer and more — reveal much more than one might ordinarily read in a newspaper or magazine article.
“When I’ve interviewed acts over the years for newspapers and magazines, it’s fine. It’s often good. They will talk about their new album, or their upcoming tour, the Grammys, the Brit Awards – so it’s fairly ephemeral,” says Duerden. “In these interviews, they went really deep and they were quite existential and philosophical and I had gotten the sense that it was a subject that they had given an awful lot of private thought to. I’m actually quite grateful for the opportunity to tell it.”
Duerden recalls watching Cameron Crowe’s film “Almost Famous” and realizing that he was born too late for all-access music journalism.
“In the ‘70s, music journalists got to go on tour with bands for six weeks, so of course, they came back with a fascinating story to tell in Rolling Stone magazine,” he explains. “I didn’t get that. I did a lot of my work for Q Magazine over here and in America, for Spin and Billboard, so I would get some access, but it would still be stage-managed by the PR teams, by management.”
For a journalist, this book provided the rare opportunity to dig into the lives of musicians beyond the album release or tour that they’re promoting at the moment.
“You would have to stay on topic,” says Duerden of the more conventional music interviews. “You have to talk about the new album and also you have to talk about success: Isn’t everything great, isn’t being a rock star great?”
More personal subject matter — how is the artist really doing — usually wasn’t the topic of conversation.
“It’s only in the last few years that there’s been a focus on an individual’s mental health.”
In telling these stories, Duerden shines a light not just on the struggles of musicians, but on the public’s perception of success. Just because you’re still hearing a decades-old hit at weddings or on Spotify doesn’t mean that the person behind it is spending their days doing yoga by the pool of their mansion. Some might be doing that, while others have since changed careers and lifestyles.
Conversely, an artist whose name has long since disappeared from headlines might still be making music, perhaps even the best of their career, and amassing new fans away from the spotlight. Duerden takes in all of this through these interviews.
In truth, the music press can be just as fickle as the industry itself. What was hip becomes passé until enough time has elapsed for it to become cool again. More often than not, that’s the career arc that musicians will also follow.
“The sun will shift and shine on someone else,” says Duerden. “That’s when they have to regroup and decide how to keep on going forward.”
Hearing their stories gave Duerden some insight into the character of musicians.
“I found this to be an incredibly tenacious group of individuals whose dreams had come true. I don’t think that they became successful by accident. They had this talent, yes, but also incredible determination,” he says. “So, when their time in the spotlight passes, they use that determination to keep on going.”
At the time of this interview, music fans watched Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill” go viral following its inclusion in the latest season of Netflix’s hit series, “Stranger Things.” The song topped the U.K. pop charts and peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. That kind of resurgence speaks to the legacy that musicians leave, even when they are no longer in the spotlight.
“Those songs never die,” says Duerden. “They have this eternal afterlife.”