Dave Stewart has been a busy man since calling time on the Eurythmics and putting his solo career on hold in 1998. Exploring every conceivable avenue, the legendary collaborator has published comic books, written two musical scores, produced a truckload of albums, and even found time to create a super group with Mick Jagger, Damian Marley and Joss Stone.
Famed for waging war on multiple fronts, he caught the world off guard when he returned with two brand new solo albums written and produced in the heart of country music’s Nashville hit factory. Releasing his first new material for 13 years has clearly invigorated Stewart, who is excited to reclaim his reputation as a guitarist and singer songwriter.
He readily admits he’s “bonkers” about guitars, rather than synths, and he’s anxious to discuss swapping Duesenbergs with Glen Campbell, playing with Orianthi, and the Rockbridge Boutique in Virginia, but we start by discovering just where on earth these two records came from:
You’ve kept incredibly busy, but you go 13 years without putting out an album with the Dave Stewart name on the cover, and now you’re back with two records in 12 months. So what came over you?
It was weird. I didn’t make a record for 13 or 14 years, and then by some sort of default, because of that Icelandic volcanic eruption, we got grounded in London. So to get back to LA, I had to fly via Nashville, and while I was there someone had set up a meeting for me with Martina and John McBride.
They showed me Blackbird Studio, and we went for a meal and a drink, and around two in the morning, we had all drunk loads of different stuff, and John decided he wanted me to come to the studio. Now he’s this vintage guitar collector, and he had thousands of vinyl records, and microphones from the 1920s. And I was in the middle of all this stuff and just thought, “wow”, and I said: “I’m coming back here to make a record”.
So I was literally straight back. He thought I meant in a few months, but I was right back. And I made a record, The Blackbird Diaries, wrote it and recorded it in 5 days. John McBride just got me all these great players, and I thought: why change horses in midstream? So I decided to do The Ringmaster General, with the same players, in the same place, just with some slightly different guests.
Did you invest a lot of time in country sounds and roots music or did you just dive straight in?
No. I went straight in. As soon as these guys started playing the sound came naturally. Each of these guys was practically a historian on blues music or country. I’d already been obsessed with the blues till I was about 15, to the point where I made a film called Deep Blues in 1991. I’d spent years learning different styles of the blues, but these guys were teaching me about country-blues, just on that first day, just by messing around. It was a really good, a lot easier than reading books about the genre.
When you started toying with these local sounds, were you worried about the reaction of the country community, that they’d see you as a Brit coming over and appropriating their culture?
The place has a bit of a reputation for saying: “Who’s this stranger coming in thinking they can make country music” but, I didn’t get that at all, because I didn’t really try to make country music. I came in as someone who was just excited about the record, with no plan to make this or that type of record, I was just playing songs off the top off my head. It was probably similar to how it felt when Dylan or Van Morrison would arrive in studios and would just play songs, and nobody would know what was coming up. The songs would just get written in front of your eyes, if there was a mistake, you’d just carry on.
So they just got this idea, that I was just this guy who was really excited and inspired to just be playing in studio. And that became infectious. So loads of people kept coming in from different bands. I got this reputation, players would say: “He has a really good time, you should go in there”.
I just created a spark, in Nashville and it has become a second home, and in two years I think I’ve been there 20 times.
So many of our readers are aspiring or gigging guitarists, and they know how tricky it can be to find the right creative environment and to form a strong songwriting relationship.
For The Blackbird Diaries you leapt straight into the sessions with an entirely new set of collaborators – are you at the stage of your career where you can just slot into any environment, or did that experience bring something out of you creatively?
Oh it totally brought something out of me. You see what happened during the Eurythmics period was that people forgot, so I forgot, that I was a guitar player. Everybody believed that I was this person in the background in a suit, with spikey hair sticking up playing synths. Which I wasn’t. I was programming stuff in the studio, but I wasn’t really that guy.
After Punk happened, which I loved, especially the guitar sounds Chris Thomas got on the Sex Pistols album and that great wall of sound.…but for any guitar band following The Clash and The Pistols, it seemed a bit pointless. So I thought well “what could be really effective?” And I came up with this very cold, European, German synthesizer sound, against Annie’s rich emotional voice. That was the whole theory behind the “Sweet Dreams” period. Our goal was to break through, and still be edgy, but in a completely different way from Punk.
But the problem was, by the time we got out of that mode, and I brought in that guitar riff on “Would I Lie To You” and “Missionary Man”, it had been forgotten I was a guitar player first and foremost - until the beginning of these sessions in Nashville.
The other guys I was playing with in the band Tom Bukovac and Michael Rhodes; I started playing the guitar, and they just started jamming away with me, because they didn’t really know much about England and early-Eurythmics. They’d heard of it, but they accepted me as guitarist singer songwriter like they would any guy from America or Eric Clapton. And that gave me a whole load of confidence to play whatever I wanted again.
So was it a conscious decision to record the albums so fast and did the speed of the recording foster a creative atmosphere?
I didn’t think I’d get it all made in five days, I just thought, I’ll get five days done first. I hadn’t really written anything, so I started to write in the morning in the hotel room, I’d figure things out as we went along, and when we’d go for a tea break I’d write some more. And suddenly I realized I was recording three songs a day. The players were so great, I only had to play it to them once, and maybe just record it twice and that was it.
By the time, we were on the third day; we’d already made most of an album. It was probably similar to how it was in the 60s, so by the time we got to days 4 and 5 it was easy peasy.
Has that always been your style or does your music come from a different place today than it did in your youth?
It’s been quite a complex process. I’ve been disentangling myself from co-writing. Before with Annie, we’d write together, and I’d know that she was going to sing it. And that’s a whole ‘nother mind set. It has to be them singing about things they feel, you can join in writing the lyrics, as well as the melody, but the end of the day it’s coming out of their mouth.
So what was liberating for me, was singing things and having words coming out of my mouth that I was thinking and feeling. Without having to ask somebody: “What do you think?”
So that’s why it went so quick, as there was a whole process. But in truth, me and Annie worked incredibly quickly; we just made every album in two or three weeks including writing the songs. But it was great just being able to say, “right that’s it…it’s done”.
So I take it you feel comfortable writing for the female voice, it’s something that a lot of aspiring writers and guitarists find incredibly difficult.
Well I think I got used to it. Doing 10 albums with Annie, and writing with someone that you live with for four or five years. I kind of got over that hump by diving right in the deep end. Often when I’m writing with a girl, my wife, for example will start off laughing, but within an hour they’ll be crying. You get to talking and discussing ideas, and you’ll tease out concepts, maybe an epic event that they don’t like talking about or something that happened in a relationship. For some reason it always comes out in the first hour, and suddenly there’s loads of stuff to write about, and you just decide which topic to pick first.
It’s more like being a therapist. Not saying much, but allowing them to say a lot, and picking out the interesting ideas and attaching melodies and chords. Lots of artists write in prose and poetry, and I’ve always had the knack of injecting something that’s more song like, and suddenly we’ll know what we’re doing.
Having said that, you’ve worked with so many great female vocalists on these records: Alison Krauss, The Secret Sisters, Jessie Baylin, Stevie Nicks, and a host of others. How much of a give and take are the songs that appear on the two alums - did you have a clear idea of what you wanted or did you bounce off each artist?
There was only one song on the new album that I co-wrote, and that was with Jesse Baylin. On the film you can see us writing it together in my hotel room, and she’s got a great album called Little Spark. She’s married to Nathan Followhill of Kings Of Leon.
But every other song I’d written myself. So when Alison came to sing “Drowning In The Blues”, she’d already heard a version, and it was more about allowing her to do her thing with my words in the studio. She didn’t want to change my guide vocal, instead she’d sing around it, adding her viola parts. It was amazing watching her work. She never writes anything down. She just plays this ethereal melody on the viola, and then she layers in another one, and another one on top of that, creating her own little string section, and it’s amazing.
You mentioned The Blackbird Diaries and Ringmaster General documentary. Did you start the sessions with the express intention of making a movie or did that evolve over time?
When I was in Nashville, I thought "oh God I should document this", but how am I going to film it. On the movie you can even see my face as I’m gaffer taping my cellphone to the wall. Luckily it was one of those really good HD cellphones, and you’d see Martina McBride walk into frame.
So after that I just asked if there was anyone around town, and I met this kid, and he had a Cannon 5D. So slowly it built up, and we’d have a couple of camera men at all times, and we’d film some bonkers stuff as well as the sessions. I came up with this narrative, counting down the days, and about how I wrote songs, because people always ask me about that.
Because, really I don’t sit at a piano in an empty room and try to write songs, it’s all sorts of things that inspire me. So I used the film metaphorically to show how song titles came to me. So for example Reese Witherspoon dropped into the sessions and said “what’s cheaper than free” and I thought oh that’s good, and turned it into a personal song or story from something that’s happened in my life. But the trigger points are all things, places, times, sayings.
Could you imagine recreating the Blackbird Diaries experience in a different city, which has its own distinct cultural and musical background?
I’ve got a great sense of affinity with these guys, and while there were some new players on The Ringmaster General, like Bobby Keys from The Stones, they really are the band I want to make my records with. I don’t mind making other people’s records with different players and in different places, but they’re my guys from now on.
I have been playing live with a different band though, with Orianthi on guitar and Nick West on bass. But I even ended up making two other artists’ albums in Nashville. I made Orianthi’s album there, and then I made Joss Stones’ album there.
Is that the EP from last year, or is there a new Orianthi album on the way?
Some of that EP is on there, but we went back and recorded more and more songs with the Nashville players, and we made an album out of the best bits of what we came up with.
We’re used to seeing her shredding with Steve Vai or soloing for Michael Jackson, but I think she’s a more dexterous player than she’s often given credit for. If you made this record in Blackbird can we expert to hear more rootsy sounds on her LP?
I got her playing a lot more blues influenced sounds and doing acoustic work, as well as the full on rock – but rock in a bluesy Led Zeppelin way. She’s very excited about the whole thing, because she always wanted to be playing rock music, but she got put into a box by the record company.
They’d say: “Okay, she’s a pop singer and we’ll give her 10 seconds of shredding here or there”. But if you look at her early stuff she was playing with Santana, she wasn’t just born obsessed with shredding in the dark.
Back to your LPs, you’ve been producing records since your days in the Eurythmics but Mike Bradford produces both your new records, how did it feel to hand over some control and why didn’t you self produce the record?
Mike Bradford is a great mate of mine. He’s an amazing bass player, and when I play live, he knows the stuff I like, and he’s a real guy from the streets of Chicago. He’s a solid presence, and he’ll just say if something’s shit. He doesn’t mess with words, and he’s good at keeping me on track. I’ll be jamming away, playing all this psychedelic stuff with the band and I will start saying let’s have some martinis, and he’s fine with that, but after a while he’ll go: “you know we were busy making an album, remember?”
In the last twenty years you’ve been a collaborator, a producer, a songwriter, a publisher, the brains behind a musical, and you’ve worked in film – when it gets down to it, do you still consider yourself a musician first and foremost?
I’m really sort of happy right now. In a year-and-a-half I’ve defined myself, and put what people thought of me into context with this new singer-songwriter career. It really is something that I love doing, and I’ve decided that these are the type of records I love making, and when I play live these are the sounds you can expect to hear. I’ll dip into my back catalogue, but it’ll be in this new style.
At this point I’m not looking to launch a huge recording career, it’s difficult enough for anybody these days, and I just want to play stuff I like live with great players, and if I can keep doing that for the next five years, then bring it on.
Finally, we’re always trying to introduce our readers to new artists and new styles, and we were wondering…while you’ve been out in Nashville have you come across or been introduced to any great artists new or old that you weren’t previously familiar with?
Well there’s Tom Bukovac he played on both albums, he’s just mind-boggling. He’s just obsessed with guitars. He’ll freak out if he sees a guitar on the web, and he has these amps from the 50s, and his whole life is guitar playing. He’s probably impressed me most out of any guitar player I’ve been with.
But also Orianthi, being around her, and realizing her true love of music and watching her play in a completely different way from what people have come to expect. I really think this album will launch a completely different career for her. She finally gets to rock out. If you see at a festival she’ll sneak in a bit of Hendrix or Cream, but they’ll tell her “you’ve got to play the single” and she’ll groan.
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