Interview: Dave Stewart the Producer, Eurythmic and Solo Artist
By Brian Ives
“I just got back from Germany,” is how Dave Stewart starts his phone conversation with Radio.com. What was he doing there? Working with legendary composer Hans Zimmer on the score to the upcoming Spider-Man 2 film along with producer Pharrell Williams, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and guitarist Michael Einziger of Incubus.
It’s just the latest interesting collaboration he’s worked on over the years, including his work with Mick Jagger—both on Jagger’s records and in their supergroup SuperHeavy— Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and of course Annie Lennox in their multi-platinum duo the Eurythmics. Not that he needs a bold-faced supporting cast to make music: In 2013 he released Lucky Numbers, his third solo album in three years.
It seems like the last three years have been the most prolific of your career. You’ve put out three solo albums, produced albums for Joss Stone, Stevie Nicks, Orianthi, Ringo Starr and did the SuperHeavy album. This coincides with the time that you moved to Nashville.
I went to Nashville by default. I made a documentary about it called The Ringmaster General. There was the Icelandic volcano eruption and it grounded us all in Europe. And then my only way out was via Miami via Nashville. I hadn’t been to Nashville since 1983 or something, and it was about four years ago, and I suddenly had this funny feeling when I got to the airport, and then I met Martina and John McBride, and they took me to their studio and we drank wine and listened to music. I was feeling like, this was how it felt in the northeast of England when people would pass the guitar around and sing a song and then someone else would sing it. It felt like I’d gone full circle and come home. [Soon after], I’d found my original voice that I’d sung my songs with when I was 15 or 16.
And that led you to return to making solo records?
I recorded three albums in three years [2011's The Blackbird Diaries, 2012's The Ringmaster General and Lucky Numbers]. The first two I recorded in Nashville in the same room with the same people. And I recorded three other people’s albums in that room with the same players. On this new album, Lucky Numbers, I used the same players, but I gave them a “magical mystery tour” and put them on the water. We recorded it on a boat! And we did it exactly the same way we did it in Nashville, sitting in a circle looking at each other, but the scenery was changing through the windows. It was odd and quirky but great fun.
But it had been over a decade since you’d done a solo album (1998′s Sly-Fi). What led to this burst in songwriting?
I think I either got hit on the head or I learned something years ago. I learned it just before the Eurythmics. About not trying. Let the writing come through you, and not to sit with a blank piece of paper going, “Oh my God, what am I gonna write about?” Just carry on with your life, doing stuff. And then make each song about: this is what is happening now. Like John Lennon said, “Like a postcard from today.” And that sort of fits really well in the Nashville musician scene, because I could have a song half worked out in my head, I’ll play it a couple of times for them, and then we’ll cut it. The great thing is when you cut the track, it takes the length of the track to cut it: five minutes. Because we’re all playing together. It’s not one month of concentrating on the drum sound, you know what I mean? Now I’m saying that, but I didn’t make a solo album for 13 years. I had so much stored up inside me, so that these three albums in a row came from 13 years of not writing anything for myself.
How much of that was inspired by your 2008 “Songbook” tour?
I wrote this book, The Dave Stewart Songbook: The Stories Behind The Songs – Volume One. Twenty-one songs and the stories behind them, and everything about that was looking backwards and laying the past to rest. Songs I’d done with Tom Petty, Mick, Annie. And I played live in a few places, and once I’d done that, it was a an amazing feeling, like clearing the deck. In my set (today), I play probably 60% of new material, and the rest of old stuff, Eurythmics or songs I did with Sinead O’ Connor.
All of your albums have a strong visual identity, as do some of your recent collaborators, notably Stevie Nicks. Has the visual aspect always been important to you?
Yeah, at the birth of MTV, in the Eurythmics , I started making storyboards, and we were starting to make vignette films of our songs. The record company didn’t really know what to do with that. And we made them for very little money. But then MTV came and, boom. “Sweet Dreams” was one of those little vignettes. Other bands started making videos, and they would just mime live in the studio. Our videos were nothing like that. It was, cows inside a boardroom. All that stuff was influenced by French surrealist or impressionistic filmmakers. We were coming from a very different place.
Earlier this year the Stevie Nicks documentary, In Your Dreams, came out: you guys co-directed it, and it was about her album of the same name that you produced. How do you objectively do a documentary on something you’re producing?
You know, it was interesting because, there were different cuts of the documentary, and Stevie wanted to get really heavily involved in editing it. Now, she put a lot of me in it, whereas, in my cut there wasn’t so much of me. So I said the credits should be, “Directed by Dave Stewart and Stevie Nicks.” Because if it was me (directing), I wouldn’t have put so much of me in it. She saw it like a joint project.
SuperHeavy was a cool band: you, Mick Jagger, Indian film composer A.R. Rahman, Joss Stone and reggae star Damian Marley. I remember when the album came out in 2011, Mick was saying that you wanted to start working on the follow-up.
I’ve just been saying that again. The album started out very quickly, but to finish it, it ended up with me flying to Miami to work with Damian, I had to go somewhere else to record with Mick, and then Joss in England, so the actual finishing of it took a while. And then the Rolling Stones‘ 50th anniversary was looming on Mick. He didn’t know what they were going to do, but he knew they were going to do something. And they wanted to keep that from the press until the last minute, but stuff was being planned. So it was looking more and more unlikely for us to go out and play live. They had the tour and the documentary and the new tracks. A lot of stuff came out in that year of the 50th anniversary.
Mick also was interested in playing live [with SuperHeavy], and so was Joss and so was A.R. Damian was…he loved [working with us] whenever we did it. He was also doing an album and tour with Nas at the time, and he had a massive tour schedule on his own. Like, we might have a week set aside, and Damian would be headlining a festival somewhere. The scheduling of the group was nuts. It became more and more complicated, and then with the Stones’ 50th anniversary looming… I have got a 90% finished documentary on the whole process but I have yet to have the other guys to see it. I could email them. But it’s good to have everybody together in one place and just watch it. Or even two or three people in one place!
You’re collaborated with Mick often over the years: first on his solo 1987 album Primitive Cool, and years later on the 2004 Alfie soundtrack.
We actually were friends before we worked together. We were friends since 1984, we wrote songs together that I still have that people have never heard. It’s never been like, “Let’s make a record.” When he was doing that second album [Primitive Cool], he invited me to his place in France to record a bit. I wasn’t involved in the whole thing, he was experimenting with different people. On the Alfie thing, that was when we really came together. And it was just the two of us. The song on there, “Blind Leading the Blind,” we really had fun, he was playing harmonica, we were jamming and we got some great songs. And we carried on writing other songs, and that led to SuperHeavy.
That soundtrack is a bit underrated.
It didn’t get much attention from the film company or the record company but it did get a Golden Globe.
How did you end up on working on Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Southern Accents? It was surprising to learn that the guy from the Eurythmics was working on Petty’s tribute to his southern roots.
I arrived from England in this quirky duo, the Eurythmics, and we had nothing at all to do with the atmosphere Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but I immediately understood (what he was doing). I was like an alien landing in Tom’s garage. But we got on great, we had a similar sense of humor. The band were like, “Uh, what’s going on?” But when they saw the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” they were all having fun again.It opened up Tom to the idea of making videos to. Before that, it was always the band playing, and then it was like, “Hang on, these can be little stories.” And then it opened up a lot of things. Tom and I became great friends, so much so that I built a house almost next door to his and for a couple of years we were never far outside of each other’s company.
I’m sure you get this all the time, but can you envision ever working with Annie Lennox in the Eurythmics again?
We’ve never said we would never work together again. We’re both massively busy with our own things, we both have children, Annie just got married again. I’ll never say that will never happen again. Anyone who says “It’s our final tour,” you’ll see them in four years saying, “Just one more!”
It never seemed like a bad breakup, between you and Annie.
There’s always a certain element of the press in Britian who would like to make it seem like that. I did a photo exhibiton in L.A., where I did interviews with some photography magazines. Someone said “Oh, it’s funny, there’s not one photo of Annie,” I didn’t think anything of it. Next thing I knew, a British newspaper is reporting “Annie and Dave don’t speak , he didn’t go to her wedding and there’s no pictures of her in his exhibition.” I was like, “Oh God.” But unfortunately for the people who write that stuff, we are really good friends and we don’t have a problem and we email back and forth and if I am in London we have a meal and chat about everything in life. People think that if you’re in a band, like Tom Petty and (Heartbreakers guitarist) Mike Campbell… they think when they get together, they just talk about the Heartbreakers. They probably never talk about that! They probably talk about their kids.
What did you think of Annie’s “open letter” a while back about overly sexualized imagery in music?
The world has changed so radically, when we were watching TV (years ago) and the Plasmatics came on, and Wendy O. Williams has hardly got anything on, and she’s cutting through a car with a chainsaw… it was a slightly more aggressive female stance. [Combining] sexuality and punk, like Siouxie and the Banshees, it was with a very powerful – like the woman are in charge. I think Miley [Cyrus] is in charge. I think that they actual audience watching that, they don’t know about that kind of stuff, they don’t know if she’s in charge, they just know what’s in front of them. I was thinking about X Ray Spex and [front-woman] Poly Styrene, and their single “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” But if Miley did that, it would be a totally different connotation.