Joining the Gentry

UPDATED 11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

HAVING MOONWALKED OFF WITH four statuettes at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York City on Sept. 4, Jason Kay, leader of Britain's latest pop invaders, Jamiroquai, has fallen hard for the U.S. of A. Besides, Kay is a tad fed up with life in London, where his unapologetic love for fast, expensive cars and his penchant for smoking spliffs onstage have been tabloid fodder since his group's debut album topped the British charts in 1993. In the U.S., he believes, "they're more interested in the music." At home, critics are "interested in my hat."

His signature Dr. Seuss chapeaux "are part of my stage character," concedes Kay, 27, who launched Jamiroquai (pronounced Jam-ear-o-kwai) in 1989. "When I got started, you really had to make your identity clear." The lids may have helped Kay get noticed, but it is the singer's jazz-tinged funk and R&B tunes that flip fans. Jamiroquai's first two albums, 1993's Emergency on Planet Earth and the 1994 follow-up Return of the Space Cowboy, hit No. 1 in the U.K. Now, Kay and his bandmates—guitarist Simon Katz, 26, keyboardist Toby Smith, 26, drummer Derrick McKenzie, 33, and bassist Stuart Zender, 23—have scored across the Atlantic with their third CD, Travelling Without Moving. Aside from winning a quartet of MTV awards, Travelling has sold 5 million copies worldwide and is a Top-40 Billboard hit in the U.S. But back home, success brings out the bile in critics who accuse the band of aping American funk. "It's really a load of rubbish," counters Kay. "That's like saying that someone who uses a string quartet is copying Mozart."

With no formal musical training, Kay says he "learned it all from my mother." Indeed, he was literally raised on the road by his single mum, Karen Kay, a British nightclub singer who hosted her own TV variety show in the '70s. Today, Kay carries a photo in his wallet of the father he has never known. "He was Portuguese, he drove cars very fast, and he played guitar," Kay says. "My mum obviously didn't want me to meet him. I'm sure she had a good reason." He learned when he was a schoolboy that he also had a twin brother, David, who died at 6 weeks. "I think he's out there looking after me," Kay says.

At 16, Kay left home, spending the next few years living in squalid squats and supporting himself with petty thievery and odd jobs packing bean sprouts, selling kilts and delivering pizza. By 1989, Kay, sleeping "in a disused taxi depot with holes in the roof, no electricity, one candle and a really dirty sleeping bag," decided he'd had enough of London street life. "I could sing, which is always handy," says Kay, who bought a drum machine and began turning out demo tapes. Three years later he was discovered by a Sony talent scout and signed to an eight-CD deal worth $1.9 million.

For Kay, who says he grew up "in the back of a car," there was no question how he would spend his new wealth. He is the proud owner of a Lamborghini, two Mercedes, two BMWs, three Ferraris, an Aston Martin and a Ducati mini-motorcycle. Better yet, Kay will park his collection in the spacious drive of the 11-bedroom Georgian mansion in Buckinghamshire he recently purchased. "It's not Jay Kay anymore," says bandmate Smith. "It's Lord Kay of Horsenden Manor."

As for the future Lady Kay, the position is open. "I'd really like to settle down," says Kay, who has had a volatile relationship with lingerie designer Tamsin Greenhill, the muse for the love songs on Travelling. "Not just yet," he adds with a wink, "but soon."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
KIMBERLY CHRISMAN in London

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