The acclaimed musician discusses his role in the rock all-star group SuperHeavy and his new solo album, “The Blackbird Diaries.” Stewart also performs two tracks from that CD.
Musician Dave StewartOriginally aired on September 2, 2011
Tavis: It is shaping up to be a very busy year for Dave Stewart. The acclaimed musician, producer and Eurythmics co-founder has just released a much talked about new solo project. It’s called “The Blackbird Diaries” featuring collaborations with Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and more.
Next month, you can pick up a copy of the new disc from his newly-formed Super group. It’s called SuperHeavy. How’s this for an all-star lineup? Dave Stewart, Mick Jagger, Damian Marley, Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman. Before we get to all that, though, here is some of the recording session for “The Blackbird Diaries.”
Tavis: So when you finding time to go to the bathroom even?
Dave Stewart: Yeah, well, I’ve been making a little film that accompanies the album and, in the film, you see me writing lyrics in the bath actually with my hat on [laugh], so you hit the nail on the head, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Why so much activity at this time? Is there something happening in your universe that’s bringing all this creativity out of you right now?
Stewart: I’ve no idea. I started certain projects a few years before. For some reason, they all lined up and started coming out in the same few moments, even though SuperHeavy we started like two years ago and Stevie Nicks’ album I started last January. For some reason, between sort of March and September this year was just a bombardment of everything.
We just found out the musical I’ve been writing that opened in London that I wrote with my partner, Glen Ballard and Bruce Joel Rubin who wrote the original screenplay, “Ghost,” you know, the musical, we just found out it’s opening on Broadway in April next year which is very soon ’cause normally there’s a little break between. So it seems like it’s gonna be nonstop ’til next summer, I think.
Tavis: Yeah. Now you’re going to Broadway too [laugh]. Don’t you hate people like that? Some guys have all the luck, as somebody once said. Since there are so many projects, let me take them one at a time, Dave. I’ll come back to “The Blackbird Diaries” in a second.
So, SuperHeavy, the rundown that I just offered a moment ago is pretty impressive. How did a group like SuperHeavy…how did that happen?
Stewart: Well, like anything that happens in my sort of universe or in my head, it’s triggered by…I was up in the hills in Jamaica where I co-own a house with a friend of mine and his family. In Jamaica, you know, the sound systems are like hugely important and every village has some form of sound system.
There was one moment where all three sort of neighboring villages were playing some music, but different stuff. It started to sync together and somebody who was like toasting on top sounded a little bit like, you know, those guys who sing the prayers in the morning in Arabic countries, then there was the heavy dub basing.
I had a flash of like, hey, that would be interesting to fuse together, you know, sort of bluesy music with Jamaican music with some kind of eastern music and that’s how it started.
I called Mick Jagger about, I don’t know, a few hours later and was talking to him and we both thought this would be a good experiment.
Then the two of us experimented a bit and then we said who should we get to work with? Then it all started to become a reality. I called Joss Stone, I called A.R. Rahman who I’ve known for like 12 years and Joss and I had worked together before.
Then the last sort of part of the puzzle was Damian Marley because we really wanted to have this sort of Jamaican feeling, but we wanted somebody who was a great sort of lyricist and thinking person and that would fit with all of this sort of experimental music.
Damian is really great at experimenting with different sounds like Welcome to Jamrock. He’s got all sorts of different sounds and he’s a brilliant lyricist and he’s got a great sounding voice, so then it was formed.
Tavis: What makes you know or at least believe that all of that thrown into the…you know, you can throw a bunch of stuff in a pot and call it gumbo and it all works together. But when you put all that together, how do you know it’s gonna work in terms of the sound?
Stewart: Well, the roots of a lot of these sounds, really there has to be a common denominator. Often in a lot of music, blues is a common denominator. Funny enough, in Asian and in Indian music, it can sound very similar to blues music. Then the feeling of Jamaican rhythms can work also with a kind of blues feeling on top.
I’d done some experiments in the past where I’d made a kind of rhythmic track and then played blues on top of it, so I knew there was a rough semblance of possibilities that it might work.
I would say, as my old solicitor in England always used to say, when Annie and I first got wealthy, we couldn’t quite believe it, so I used to keep ringing him up and I’d say, “Look, are you sure we can buy a car?” He used to go, “Stewart, you have reason for cautious celebration.” [Laugh]
I always used to hang out really puzzled. How do you cautiously celebrate? So I had reason for cautious celebration in my mind when I imagined the sound.
Tavis: And are you happy with the way the project came together? We’re gonna hear it in just of matter of days when it gets released here, but are you happy with it? I assume you are.
Stewart: Yeah, I love it. In fact, we worked furiously together in like 30 songs and we ended up choosing 16 and mixing them. Then we shot videos and films and there was very amazing artwork by Shepard Fairey who came and listened to the stuff and got very excited. Everything about the project, I’m really happy with.
Tavis: Let me shift gears to “The Blackbird Diaries” now in part because when you mention how you all worked collaboratively on SuperHeavy to write so many songs in a certain number of days. I was blown away, if I am to believe what I read, of how fast you wrote these songs in a number of days. How fast did you do the songwriting?
Stewart: I wrote the songs, apart from one, but I wrote about 12 or 13 songs, wrote them in five days and recorded them in five days. It was in the middle of the chaos of doing SuperHeavy and working on Stevie Nicks’ album, working with various Ghosts and various other things.
But what happened was, it was a crazy story. I was in England and you know when this volcanic ash spewed out and shut a lot of the airports in Europe? Can you pronounce the name of that volcano?
Stewart: Okay, just checking ’cause I can’t. But it’s got every letter in the alphabet, right?
Tavis: Exactly. About 27 letters, yeah.
Stewart: Anyway, I was stuck in London and usually I have a guitar, but I thought I was only gonna be there a day. So I went to buy a guitar because I didn’t know how long I was gonna be there and I saw this guitar on the wall. It was very unusual looking and I asked to see that one and I bought it.
When I opened the case, inside there was this, you know, all the artifacts of this artist called Red River Dave. I thought that’s really unusual. There was photos of him playing it and some of his manuscripts. So that was interesting.
The next day, I got a phone call saying could I meet Martina McBride in Nashville, Martina McBride who’s like, you know, queen of country singing.
So this is odd. First I’ve got this like country plays guitar and now I’m going to Nashville for the first time in 20-odd years and I’d never done anything apart from playing there with the Eurythmics.
It became like this weird odyssey that this guitar was leading me to this place and I ended up with the Blackbird studios. I just had this feeling, like an overwhelming feeling, that, oh, I think I should just make a record here without thinking, oh, I haven’t written any songs for it [laugh].
So I got John McBride who got all these musicians together. I’m going, great, it’s going to be great. Then just the day before, I panicked and went, hang on a sec, I haven’t written anything and I thought I’ll just go there anyway.
On the plane, I already had like three on the go. The guy next to me was like what the hell is this guy doing? Then I was in the bath writing in the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. I arrived at the studio and pretended to the guys like, you know, it’s all worked out. I’ve got everything.
I’d say to them, “Play a bit” and they’d start playing this great thing and I’d go, “That’s exactly it. Just exactly like that. That’s what I meant.” Then I’d quickly go in the bathroom and write the words like this.
After the first day, we’d laid down four songs and I suggested to them all, I said, “Look, I’m from England and, you know, I’m from the northeast and I don’t really make country music, but one thing I’m good at is making a vodka martini.” So I made them all vodka martinis and every time I go there, they’re always looking at their watch saying, “When is that shaker coming out again?”
So I’ve been about three times since, and we bonded and me and the guys have made three albums since down in Nashville and it just became this flow. From day one to day five, the songs all came out, we played them live in the room together and hardly had to over-dub anything.
Tavis: Somebody told me a long time ago that serendipity tends to reward the prepared. Serendipity tends to reward the prepared. I mean, obviously, you spent your whole life preparing for moments like these.
Stewart: That’s a very, very sort of wise comment and probably a brilliant thing for people to analyze who are watching because, you see, my whole thing, like people say, “How do you do so many things at once and how do you cope with it?” Well, my whole thing is actually based on that truth you just said.
It’s like I am gonna let the universe bring to me whatever and I am gonna be open to receive it. But I’m also gonna be prepared to change direction and go this way for a second and not be all locked down and closed and trying to control every moment of the day.
If you do that, you can end up in the most amazing situations like “The Road Less Traveled” or, what’s that, some Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.
Tavis: The reason why I raise that is because something has to be going on inside of you to be open to receive this combined with your talent. You know, being skilled does help. I mean, how am I supposed to believe that you write 13 songs in five days? You’re in the bathroom writing stuff on the wall and I’m supposed to believe this is good stuff? But it really is good stuff.
Stewart: Well, the thing is, you know, John Lennon was really more and more excited about putting the stuff out immediately he’d recorded and played it. In fact, there’s his great song, “Instant Karma” where he had the idea sort of on a Sunday and, on Sunday night, he was in the studio.
A friend of mine had to drive around trying to get people on a London bus to come in the studio to sing the end, you know. He wanted it out the next day back in those days, right? I think they had it out two days later in a brown bag.
But I think, if you can capture the essence of what you’re really feeling at that moment and you’ve got brilliant people around you…I must say, by the way, the big trick as well in life, as you know, is having brilliant people to work with.
You know, relinquishing control to like geniuses is a very wise move. You know, I’m not gonna tell the drummer what to play or don’t dub more on [inaudible]. I’m saying the song goes like this and then the band starts tinkering around and playing and, by the time we got to the end, it was finished.
It wasn’t like a rehearsal because cleverly the genius engineer had recorded us. He knew, okay, something might happen here, so we didn’t do it again. It was just the way it was.
Tavis: Well, I was here just a little bit ago when Dave and the band were rehearsing for the two songs that they’re about to play for you in just a moment. So I am wise enough to know that the time has come for me to relinquish to the genius, the geniuses. You’re about to see a stage full of them, the geniuses.
I relinquish to them the rest of the time that we have in this show and you can judge how talented, how gifted, he is to have written so many songs in just a matter of days. So, again, Dave Stewart got a couple of projects out.
In just a matter of days, SuperHeavy will be out and that’s he and Mick Jagger and Joss Stone and A.R. Rahman and Damian Marley. You want to check that out. SuperHeavy out in just a matter of days. Now, though, you can rush right out and get the new one. The solo project from Dave Stewart is called “The Blackbird Diaries.”
Up next, a special performance from “The Blackbird Diaries.” Not one, but a rare thing around here, two songs you’re gonna hear in just a matter of minutes, so don’t go anywhere.
Dave, first of all, thank you so much for coming.
Stewart: Thank you very much.
Tavis: And can I just say – can you zoom in on this, Jonathan? Can I just tell you, I love this jacket.
Stewart: Thank you very much.
Tavis: I don’t know if they can see the actual – yeah, there you go. They can actually see the leaves and the stone. That’s very nice. Nice piece. I like that.
Tavis: And you can take that off if you want to.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. You can take that off before you leave if you want to. Up next, Dave Stewart and the band. Stay with us.
From his critically acclaimed new CD, “The Blackbird Diaries,” here is Dave Stewart and his band performing two songs, “Magic in the Blues” and “The Gypsy Girl and Me.”
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
At Toyota, we celebrate differences and the people who make them. Toyota – proud supporter of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.