Interview: Dave Stewart
This synth-pop legend tells us all about the journey which has led him to release an album of country duets
The music that Dave Stewart made alongside Annie Lennox with Eurythmics is often regarded as his lasting legacy. Even though it’s correct that songs such as Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) and Here Comes The Rain Again continue to be revered, Stewart’s creativity didn’t suddenly desert him when the band split in 1990. Since then he has continued making music in groups like The Spiritual Cowboys and as a solo artist. He has also produced records for artists such as Feargal Sharkey, Ringo Starr, Joss Stone and Jon Bon Jovi and branched out into filmmaking.
In 2010, Stewart’s songwriting found a new home in Nashville where he forged a partnership with Jon McBride’s iconic Blackbird Studio. This union resulted in two albums The Blackbird Diaries and The Ringmaster General, featuring some of Music City’s finest session players. Never one to stay in the same place for too long, the next step was to take his new bandmates out on the Pacific Ocean to record their third record together, Lucky Numbers. Each of these releases contained duets, with Alison Krauss, Stevie Nicks, Martina McBride and more providing the counterpoint to Stewart’s own vocals.
The best of these collaborations have been collected for a new compilation album, Nashville Sessions: The Duets, and provide us with the perfect opportunity to hear about this latest chapter in Stewart’s ever-evolving career…
Tell us about the serendipitous journey that took you to Nashville back in 2010?
“The whole thing started with the volcanic eruption in Iceland and being stuck in London with a friend of mine. He wanted to get a guitar and I said we should walk to Denmark Street as that’s where I always bought my acoustic guitars. We went along there and I picked up one-off the wall, this Gretsch acoustic guitar. Low and behold, it turned out that it once belonged to Red River Dave, this strange country singer who was a bit of a legend in his time in Texas, and that seemed to be a kind of portal – all of a sudden I was in the country world.
“I was flying back to America and at the same time I wanted to meet Martina McBride because I’d created this concept for a television series that involved music. I landed in Nashville and met Jon and Martine and realised that they had an amazing studio and amazing musicians and so I thought, ‘Okay this must mean I should make an album.’
“I’d not made one for many years, the last album before that was at the end of the 90s. I just got this overwhelming feeling that there was something right and so I just started writing and within four or five days I’d written and recorded about thirteen songs and recorded them with all these amazing musicians at Blackbird.”
It seems like the relationship between you, Jon and his musicians clicked immediately?
“I was describing the sound that I wanted to make and he had the exact people there. They hadn’t played together as a band before but when they came together it all clicked and since then I’ve recorded nine albums with them as a band and I’ve played live with them and I’ve now flown most of them over to England for some shows. It just tumbled out, three albums and on the sides we recorded other bits and pieces. I’d never had songs tumble out so freely.”
Can you put your finger on why that was?
“I’d not tried to write songs for about 15 years, I mean bits and pieces here and there but not for myself. That mixed with the inspiration of having so many great players around and a bit of that thing like the lightning rod that certain cities seem to have. Like Kingston in Jamaica, Havana in Cuba, Nashville, Liverpool, Berlin… there are certain cities, you arrive there and can sense something in the air or in the water. Some places are absent of any of that feeling and some places you feel it as soon as you land.”
Had you always loved roots and country music?
“I’m one of those people who tends to listen to lots of the origins of music. So I listen to very early Jamaican mento music and early ska and have always liked those. I’d always read about it and then I’d collect those records and then the same with early Cuban music and then early German electro. I don’t know why but whatever it was, I always wanted to know who started it, where did it come from and how. I even made a film about blues music which starts by showing where it came from.
“With country music it was the same; hours listening to the very early hillbilly bluegrass music and then country gospel. Walking In Jerusalem Just Like John was a song that I was always playing. Then Bill Monroe and leading all the way to Patsy Cline and then looking at who wrote the songs. At home, much to my children’s annoyance, I was playing this roots music from different worlds but then they started to like it too.”
Where did that interest come from?
“What I loved about a lot of older songs was the storytelling and the narrative. It could be the simplest thing in a blues song like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great man and you can’t have him,’ and then you go to country songs and you see heartache stories and they’re very honest and I liked all of that. Obviously then when I was younger I got obsessed with anybody who wrote songs, from Bob Dylan to The Beatles. Anybody who wrote songs was like some kind of magical wizard to me and then that’s what I started to do.
“When I was 14 I was just learning the guitar because I’d broken my knee and my cousin in Memphis sent a box with some Levi corduroy jeans in and four albums of blues classics. I’d never heard anything like it before in Sunderland and my brother also had fantastic taste in music and he had brought the first two Dylan albums and Ray Charles and all these greats. I was lucky because my dad had made a homemade stereogram, a wooden thing with a deck in it and great speakers, and I had about 15 great albums that my brother and my cousin had and also every Rogers & Hammerstein, so it was like ABC songwriting learning.”
Did that foundation and background make it easier for you to adopt a country persona for these albums?
“When I was in Nashville I didn’t know much about writing country music. I knew storytelling and all about blues and country blues playing on my guitar and I also knew about rock music with blues connotations and so I made these records with all of those things jumbled up. The players didn’t seem to mind or get confused, they understood the kernel of the kind of the music that I was playing on the guitar.
“Once I’d played them the chords, a verse and a chorus they’d go ‘okay, got it.’ A lot of the time I would sing in the room with the drummer and everybody and it was great because it was everybody in a circle and sometimes I was playing the acoustic guitar and singing at the same time, or I was in a booth and I could see them all through the glass.”
What is the key to getting such a great performance out of the musicians you’re working with?
“I think a lot of time they get told exactly what to play but they were so great that I decided that I would just play the song that I’d just written, let them write it down in their peculiar manner and in their country music talk, and then we’d go and play it. I wouldn’t say what they needed to play, they would just play how they felt that thing should be.
“It would be crazy going to a car mechanic who is the best in town and is fixing your carburettor and you say, ‘No, no, no. Not like that.’ I might decide to extend something or finish in a different way but the rest of it was me singing along live and them playing. We’d go back in the control room and listen back to it and usually we’d like the first take best.”
The album that’s out now is a compilation of some of the duets. How did those collaborations come about?
“What happened was, every now and then I’d write a song and think, ‘This would be really good as a duet,’ but it was kind of random, it wasn’t like I was making a duets album. It was also because when I was recording, and this happens to me every time, people would arrive to say hello and check out what was going on. With this record in Nashville what happened was people would be sitting in my session, great songwriters like Hillary Lindsey and Martina McBride.
“Martine came in and was listening to everything and I shared this one song that I was singing called All Fucked Up On Love and she took me aside to say that I couldn’t really sing ‘all fucked up on love’ as nobody would play it. She said, ‘If you have another word then that’s an amazing song and I’d love to sing that with you.’ So I thought about it overnight and came up with ‘messed up’ and she said ‘Okay I’m in,’ and I think that was the first duet.
“With Jessie Baylin, she came into my hotel room and we were messing about on a guitar and we wrote this song called God Only Knows You Now because we were talking about somebody that something had happened to and I said, ‘I’ve got a studio so why don’t we record it,’ and she said, ‘Now!’ So we went to the studio and put it straight down with the players who again learnt it very quickly.
“I wrote about 80 percent of them on my own and 20 percent I co-wrote with the artist. With Alison Krauss, I’d already written the song and she was in the studio listening to it and she loved that song and was playing the viola on it and then she started singing on it.”
So people have been dropping in on your sessions for a while then?
“When I was making Greetings From The Gutter in New York all different kinds of people like Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite and Bootsy Collins would drop in and they’d end up on that record. Lou Reed plays the guitar and Lauri Anderson is doing a strange story speaking with me and it helped shape the record.”
How did the Stevie Nicks collaboration on this album come about?
“I was producing her album and for some reason Reece Witherspoon was sitting listening to it and it was late at night and everyone was either drunk or stoned. I said that I was going to Nashville soon and Reece said I could stay in her condo there and Stevie turned round and said a bit sarcastically, ‘That will be cheap’ and Reece said, ‘What’s cheaper than free?’ Me and Stevie looked at each other and said, ‘What’s cheaper than free, that’s pretty good,’ and that started a whole song and so we wrote that together.”
It seems that embracing spontaneity was key to this whole project?
“You can say that again, I’d never seen anything like it. Spontaneously writing something like fifteen songs on the first four days for The Blackbird Diaries and recording them and then on the fifth day I organised a little playback party. We’d only started on Monday and by Friday we were listening back to the album and they loved it and so everybody kept texting me, ‘What are we doing next?’ and so I came and did another one straight away, The Ringmaster General, and then I brought other people there to make albums like Stevie Nicks and Joss Stone. I produced them all using the same players.
“Then I made another album with the same players but I took the fish out of water and put them on the water. We were in the South Pacific with the same players when I was recording Lucky Numbers and again I was just writing the songs on the spot, on a boat. It was kind of weird because Dan Dugmore got so seasick on the first two days because he was playing pedal steel and lap steel and he was looking sideways, so he was rocking one way and looking the other way while playing and he got up and went, ‘Oh man, I gotta lie down.’”
One final question, what have these Nashville sessions taught you about your own songwriting?
“I drew a lot of confidence from it. I wrote Greetings From The Gutter all by myself but then I stopped, when I did these three Nashville albums I wrote about 40 songs and I really got the power of songwriting back big time because I’m sitting there with all of these guys who play all these songs and legends like Alison Kraus coming in to listen and play and it was like, ‘Okay, I must be able to write a song.’ Songwriters are never that confident about anything until the next one. As soon as you finish writing songs you always wonder if you could do it again.”
Nashville Sessions: The Duets is out now. Find out more here davestewartent.com