A Conversation with Dave Stewart
Mike Ragogna: Hiya, Dave.
Dave Stewart: Hi.
MR: Dave, let's dive right into the new album, The Blackbird Diaries. You co-produced the record with Mike Bradford.
DS: Yeah, that's right.
MR: And you were locked up in the studio for five days recording it. Before we get into the music, can you go into what that experience was like?
DS: Kind of by default, I ended up in Nashville--I was kind of drawn there through a series of events. I decided to make an album there in John McBride's studio called, Blackbird Studios. I arrived without writing a song, and wrote fifteen songs and recorded them all in five days. So, it was a bit of a mind-bending experience.
MR: This album rides roots-rock, blues-rock, and country. In spots, it rocks more than your past albums. Would you say that is true?
DS: Yes. You see, years ago, I was in my early teens, and I had a cousin that would send blues albums from Memphis. I was just learning the guitar, so I did kind of learn, originally, all these blues styles. My career took off and I played in various groups, but then when the punk movement happened in Britain it made me think, "Okay, for now, guitar rock 'n' roll music is over." It was such an amazing powerful force--The Clash, The Sex Pistols. I wanted to do something that was completely different, that was another statement, and that's when I picked up a cheap keyboard and started to experiment, which was forming the beginning of the Eurythmics music. I very quickly turned Eurythmics into playing an r&b kind of feelings with "Would I Lie To You" and "Missionary Man." All these songs, I was using my Stax, r&b, bluesy, soul influence.
MR: Right, and these songs seem more personal or autobiographical than your previous projects. Was it in the process of recording and creating the album material that allowed you do get more personal?
DS: I think it was. I think it was partly a trick I played on myself, by putting myself in that position of having to write the songs and record them all in that space of time. That's why I call it "diaries," you know, The Blackbird Diaries, because I kind of wrote them like a journal, taking slices of time. "Magic In The Blues" is where I sing about my mama who just left home, and I'm stuck there in an empty house. I'm about fourteen, "...and I lay down on my brothers bed, had on my father's" shoes...picked up my mother's wedding ring, the one she tried to lose when she went looking for some clues to find magic in the blues." I'm literally detailing moments in my life that led to me running away to London, and then meeting Annie, and all that stuff. So, it is really a little diary of my life, and these are just little pages out of it.
MR: Dave, that song in particular, is a very touching. Are there any more songs on the project that came from that same revealing place?
DS: Yeah, there's a song I recorded that I do with Martina McBride. It's a song I wrote called "All Messed Up." It starts with, "Here in the rain again..." and I'm referring to Eurythmics notions and lyrics, but I'm singing about myself and Annie, and just reflecting on those epic times and putting them into some sort of musicality. Martina loved the song, and so we did it as a duet.
MR: It's a beautiful song. In addition to Martina, you feature a couple of great guest artists on The Blackbird Diaries. You also teamed up with Stevie Nicks on a song that appears sequentially after a song you seem to have written about her, "Stevie Baby." You produced her last album, right?
DS: That's right. While I was producing Stevie's album, I was going to Nashville to make my album. This is a funny story. Stevie and I were in the studio one night, and Reese Witherspoon came by one night. I was having a martini and chatting, and I mentioned that I was heading to Nashville to record my album next week. Reese said, "Oh, you should stay in my condo." Stevie said, "Oh, that'll be cheap," and Reese said, "Hey, what's cheaper than free?" I looked at Stevie like, "That's a good song title." In Nashville, Stevie had written some words, and I rang her up and said, "Hey, here's the tune." She quickly wrote the rest of the words, and I sent her back a finished take two hours later and she was amazed. Then, we sang it as a duet. It's hard to explain--this is all happening in real time.
It's the same as "Worth The Waiting For," which I had started to play with Dylan. There was this jam session in my studio in London, and then I have this recording of us all singing on a cassette in the kitchen. The words weren't finished, though, and a lot of the melody was patchy. So, I finished the words and the melody, and I sent Bob a little scratch version of it, and he said he really liked it. I said, "Okay, I'm cutting it now." So, I cut it with a Nashville band and sent that off. I got a message back saying, "That was really good." It was like somebody in a basement somewhere throwing things over his head, "Here's another one." Some of them I'd just literally start playing and singing, and the band would join in, and then I'd say to the band, "Okay, have a fifteen minute break," and I'd finish the words and I'd say, "Okay, ready," and we'd cut it.
MR: That's a great process. Did you feel rushed by it at all or was it a very comfortable situation?
DS: I felt great because I was surrounded by great players, who if I decided to create a new track, they would love it in like ten minutes--it wasn't like, "Oh my God. Now, I have to start everything from scratch again." Of course, as usual, my control room at the studio was just full of other artists coming in all the time, listening--it was sort of like a mini party going on.
MR: You also included Colbie Caillat and The Secret Sisters on this project.
DS: Yeah, you're right. We're thinking about doing something again, actually. She and I wrote a song called "Bulletproof Vest," and I ended up cutting that with these guys in Nashville. Colbie loved that song, and we sang that as a duet. There are three duets on the album, so they're kind of interspersed. I think it's a nice relief when you hear a duet with my sort of lower register, and the girl's voice that can harmonize in a higher register.
MR: Now, Blackbird Studio has a reputation for having both vintage equipment and cutting edge technology. During the recording process, did you find yourself edging more towards the older equipment or the newer equipment?
DS: The older equipment, really.
MR: It does have a very vintage sound.
DS: Yeah, it's got that very warm sound that you get from old-fashioned microphones and limiters and stuff, and I wanted that sound. Because I'm English--I'm from the North of England--it has that sort of quirky northern boy mixture with country blues from Nashville, so it's kind of timeless in a way.
MR: What was the experience like when you sat back and listened to the record as a whole? What was your first reaction?
DS: When we'd done it all and I came home and put it on, I was pretty amazed that all of that work had been done in five days. I love the album. There is something kind of spontaneous sounding about it, and it's recorded so beautifully.
MR: There is also a video portion of this project that features psychics and hypnotists. Can you go into that a little bit?
DS: Well, I have a very funny life. I'm working with a band, critical artists all the time, and with amazing people. I wanted to show that my songwriting process is not me sitting in a room at a piano with a blank piece of paper staring out the window...it's living life and chaos. Songs come to me in the middle of conversation. So, I had different people like Joss Stone playing parts. Then, I had Diane Birch playing the part of the hypnotist. I have Big Kenny from Big And Rich playing a character--they all sort of helped me make the album.
MR: Speaking of Joss Stone, you produced her latest album, LP1, right?
DS: Yeah. I'm working with other musicians all the time, and most of the time, for no particular reason, just because we enjoy it.
MR: You also recorded a project called SuperHeavy featuring Mick Jagger, Damien Marley, and Joss.
DS: Well, I have a band, SuperHeavy, with Mick Jagger, Damien Marley, Joss Stone and A.R. Rahman, but even before that, Joss and I would hang out, write songs, and just generally get on well and have a lot of fun. So, when I took her to Nashville and made her album in six days, it was like a couple of best friends hanging out and really having fun, but at the same time, getting down to serious songwriting and playing with great musicians. It was a great experience, and Joss had a really great time doing it. With SuperHeavy, we recorded thirty songs, and we whittled it down to eighteen.
MR: Is this what you normally do? Actually, I think most of your records sound like there's way too much fun going on. (laughs) Do you find that to be a universal experience when you're working with acts?
DS: Yeah. I think if you talk with any act I've written with and produced, from Sinead O'Connor and Gwen Stefani to Daryl Hall and Jon Bon Jovi, you'll find they'll say, "Oh, it was the best time." They're surprised by how much work we get done because they thought we were just having a really great time and then they go, "Oh bloody hell, we did all of that and now it's finished."
MR: One of my favorite albums that you participated in is Ringo's Liverpool 8. Lots of fun.
DS: Ringo was making some album, and then he asked me if I could help him out on it a bit. I just jumped in and wrote a couple of songs with him. Again, Ringo and I have spent a lot of time hanging out, with him on drums and me on guitar. I was a great friend of George Harrison for years and years. In fact, the whole Wilburys formed in my house, in the back garden, and we covered all the Wilbury albums in my back garden and studio. I tend to be very much among artists as a kind of conduit and somebody who likes to play guitar, write songs, and not just get stuck on the boring sides of the music business. I like to do it, you know?
MR: Yeah, it shows. With your many years of experience, what advice would you give to new artists?
DS: Well, in this day and age, even more than before, you just have to really hone your live performance and get out there and do it. Some people think, "Oh, well, on the internet, we can just put up some music on there," but so do seventy-million other people. If you go out, even in your local town, and you play an amazing show with great songs, you'll find that the next time you play, there will be more people around. Then, you'll start moving from town to town and start building a following.
MR: Dave, I really appreciate your time. All the best with your new album, The Blackbird Diaries. I hope to speak with you again someday.
DS: Okay, thank you very much.
1. So Long Ago
2. Beast Called Fame
3. Magic In The Blues
4. All Messed Up - with Martina McBride
5. Stevie Baby
6. Cheaper Than Free - with Stevie Nicks
7. The Gypsy Girl And Me
8. One Way Ticket To The Moon - with The Secret Sisters
9. Bulletproof Vest - with Colbie Caillat
10. Worth The Waiting For
11. The Well
12. Country Wine
13. Can't Get You Out Of My Head
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
A Conversation with Nightmare and the Cat's Sam & Django Stewart
Mike Ragogna: Sam and Django, let's start with what it was like growing up as part of the Dave Stewart dynasty?
Django Stewart: Growing up, I was half at my mum's in Camden and half at my dad's in the countryside, it didn't bother me. I enjoyed it very much. London and my friends and my brother were always very important in my life, now I would say I have other friends and LA which are important to me too.
Sam Stewart: It was normal for us because we didn't know any different. Django and my Dad moved to L.A. when I was around 16. So, I spent my latter teens without seeing them all that much, but that's when Django and I really became close because each time we did see each other, it was like forming a new friendship with a different person with many shared life experiences.
MR: Were you creatively influenced by your father over the years in your songwriting styles, vocals or musicianship?
DS: My influences stem from my musical heroes which are T-Rex, Bowie, Arcade fire, and Iggy Pop, Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, Jimi Hendrix...the list goes on forever. My father has told me you must be fearless in your creativity and never be afraid to fail, and my mother has shown me you must indulge in literature to be a great poet. As for as influences of our sound, the list would go on forever and my dad wouldn't be on it.
SS: I wouldn't say that my Dad has influenced our music really, more just encouraged us to feel confident in our own skills as musicians.
MR: How long have you been working on the material for this EP?
SS: We wrote most of the EP within the first week of writing, right after Django arrived on a plane from London following a phone call, which resulted in the forming of Nightmare and the Cat.
DS: It all came about like a bottled-up sound waiting to get out. We wrote our first EP rather fast, maybe within a week or so. This next EP, we have taken our time on writing as we want an entire catalog of garage band demos to pick and choose our favorites from.
MR: How did you hook up with Dan Burns and Glen Ballard and what was the dynamic like in the studio working together?
SS: Dan is a good friend of ours who we met through our friend and compatriot, Carina Round. She is an amazing talent and Dan produced her EP, which we were very impressed by. Glen's studio was right next door to our old demo/practice space and he would hear Django and I jamming our first songs out. He asked if we would like to work with him on a couple of songs and we were like, "Hell yes!" Both experiences were completely lovely and very laid back.
DS: Recording with Glen was so incredible, aside from him being such a sweet guy and having known him for years, having someone of that caliber tell us he was confident in our sound and asking to work with us, I think really encouraged us to keep writing together. Dan Burns is also a really great guy and has been working with Carina Round, one of our good friends of phenomenal talent, and we really loved the soundscapes he managed to accomplish with both our works.
MR: Live, you have the album cover's artist, Gary Baseman, creating artwork on stage while you play, emphasizing a performance art element. How does that work and does he have a mission at the start of the performance to create a particular piece or is it spontaneous inspiration?
DS: Gary Baseman is another local LA character, you can tell upon meeting him he has an alternate, very active reality going on in his head. He told us he gets very inspired by our music and I think we often express ourselves in a similar way, expressing dark or heavy subject matter and coating them in loving and attractive ways. Whether it is beautiful harmonies or a lovable, cuddly friend with some serious problems, Gary works on many mediums and we are bringing more and more into the live show. The aim is to invite the audience into our world.
SS: Gary is a genius and a true visionary who lives completely within his art. I think that our music provides him with a soundtrack to his world. When he gets on stage with us to paint, what comes out is about as predictable as our performance... No one really knows what's going to happen!
MR: How does Claire Acey fit into the mix?
SS: Claire is a fantastic singer and multi-talented individual. She is part of our gang and an invaluable asset to our live performance.
DS: She fits in on the left, or sometimes the right. Either way, we are lucky to have her ethereal presence gracing our stage.
MR: Which brother belongs to "Sarah Beth"?
SS: No one belongs to Sarah Beth. She belongs to us.
DS: Well, the real Sarah Beth is probably soaring into the heart of a hurricane, but she will swoop through the center up to the top like an eagle. We have lost her for now though.
MR: (laughs) What happened during "The Missing Year"?
SS: The missing year was not really a year, just a period of time when Django and I were unable to communicate with each other the way we wanted to.
DS: I have no idea what Sam is talking about, we communicate just fine.
MR: Ah, brothers! (laughs) And what did you do to poor Sonny that you need forgiveness? And Is "bending spoons 'til dawn" a metaphor for something anyone should worry about?
SS: Sonny is an enigmatic little dreamer who means well but does not really accomplish anything despite his big talk. We are asking Sonny for forgiveness for being unable to share his wild vision, because deep down, we wish we could be more like him. No, neither us nor Sonny is on heroin, if that's what you're asking.
MR: No, I'm a sci-fi nerd and was a fan of Kreskin.
DS: Sonny is a wild one, but has a very good head on his shoulders. He chats big and means well but forgets to translate the smaller to larger picture.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SS: Don't play anyone your music until you're totally happy with it because everyone has an opinion and in the end, it only matters what you think.
DS: Do it because you would love it even if you had nothing left to lose and you were just screaming on a street corner. It's your soul that song allows you to vocalize, and if it comes from an honest and good place and is purely of your vision and faith, it will take you where you need to go. Also, work harder in every aspect--lyrics, dancing, playing instruments. You can ALWAYS learn more.
MR: Nice. By the way, where is the tour taking you?
SS: Well, we just came back from a short excursion to New York and London, then Chicago for Lollapalooza, which was so much fun. At the moment, we are preparing to record our next EP later this month and planning our next tour of the States.
DS: The tour allowed us to settle on some business options and of course allowed us to reach fans we don't usually get to play for. This was a great fulfillment for all of us, I think. We made some strong bonds with a couple of bands also like The Belle Brigade who are fantastic.
MR: I love The Belle Brigade, I got to interview them a couple months back, they're great. Sam, do you miss performing with Blondelle?
SS: I do miss my friends, Will, Rory and Mike. But we're still very close, so it's all good. Nightmare and the Cat is too exciting for me to miss being in another band!
DS: I miss watching Blondelle and getting jealous in the crowd!
1. Sarah Beth
2. The Missing Year
3. Forgive Me, Sonny
4. Little Poet
5. Anybody's Bride