Dave Stewart admits that he he didn't originally plan on cutting his new album, The Blackbird Diaries, in Nashville. But the bizarre combination of volcanic ash and a certain Gretsch guitar drew him to Music City.
"It happened when there were all of those volcanic eruptions in Iceland in 2010," says the 58-year-old Stewart. "Air travel was pretty much at a standstill throughout Europe for a while. So, not being able to go anywhere, I decided to visit my favorite guitar street, Denmark Street, in London. I was in this shop, and I my eyes went right to this Gretsch Rancher, an acoustic with a very funny shape. The guy at the shop told me he'd bought the guitar at an auction some 20 years before in Texas."
Stewart opened the guitar case and discovered songbooks and photos that had belonged to the original owner, many of them dating back to 1950s Nashville. "Looking through it all, it was as if I were becoming part of a story. The tug of Nashville was quite strong."
Once it was safe to travel, the Grammy Award-winning artist/writer/producer, and former half of Eurythmics, made his way to Nashville, where he hooked up with John and Martina McBride at their Blackbird Studio. From there, things fell together quickly. The McBrides introduced Stewart to a stellar cast of studio musicians - guitarist Tom Bukovac, drummer Chad Cromwell, bassist Michael Rhodes, steel guitarist Dan Dugmore and Mike Rojas on piano - who backed up the veteran British hitmaker on The Blackbird Diaries.
The 12-song set, due out 28 June (although in the US, Canada and Australia it will be issued 24 August), also features appearances by Stevie Nicks, Colbie Caillat, the Secret Sisters and Martina McBride. But Stewart hasn't been concentrating solely on his own record: he recently produced Nicks' new album, In Your Dreams, Joss Stone's upcoming disc, LP1, and has penned a musical adaptation of the movie Ghost with writer/producer Glen Ballard that is set to open on London's West End soon.
And if that weren't enough, in September Stewart will unveil an intriguing 'supergroup' Super Heavy, in which he's teamed with Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Damien Marley and AR Rahman. "Some might say it's an odd mix," says Stewart. "But that's kind of what I do: I take disparate talents, put them all together and see if I can come up with something new and different. With Super Heavy, I'd say that's been realized."
So many projects and so little time to discuss them all, but that's just what MusicRadar did when we sat down with Stewart the other day. In addition to his numerous releases, Stewart happily held forth on a subject near and dear to his heart: guitars.
When you met John and Martina McBride in Nashville, you didn't really have an album written, is that right?
"That's right. They invited me to come by and see the studio, and I fell in love with both of them and the studio. I had started to write some lyrics on the plane, and by the time I got to my hotel I had quite a few things written down.
"I felt pretty good about some of the songs I had written, and once I started playing with the band, things fell together very quickly. John McBride was very instrumental in putting the band together. I would mention certain songs and albums and references, and he would name a player. Every time I'd say something, John would come up somebody who was absolutely perfect. The band had never played together per se, but they were a magic combination of talents."
Everybody plays beautifully, but I especially wanted to mention Dan Dugmore, whose pedal steel and lap steel work is remarkable.
"He's incredible. He didn't really say a whole lot, but he knew just what to do. His amp settings and delay settings, the guy has such a feel. He knew just what to do to complement every song and every guitar that was being played. He's a real storyteller on the lap and pedal steel."
You have a song called Country Wine, which you call your one and only country tune on the album. It's about Nashville. Tell me, what about the city did you find so inspiring?
"I just got caught up in a whirlwind in the town, really. I'd be playing with the band, and various people would come in and check out what we were doing. It was fantastic – all of the country artists and people like the Secret Sisters, a lot of whom wound up on the album.
"And then, in the nighttime, people like Tom Bukovac would say, 'Hey, let's go out to this place,' and he'd suggest going out to some hole in the wall five miles out of town, where I'd find myself playing with all of these wonderful musicians. Nashville and its surrounding areas have so many fantastic players. It's quite unlike any other place I've ever visited.
"Anyway, yeah, I wrote Country Wine about my days and nights in Nashville. For a musician, I can't think of a more inspiring place. You meet so many talented people every day and night. Creativity is around every corner."
From the videos you've posted, like the song Beast Called Fame, you appear pretty comfortable fronting a band. Does it come easily to you?
"Yeah, it does. Now it does. See, I've always been a bandleader. Like in Eurythmics, I was the one in the background, but I was sort of making all the decisions and coming up with arrangements and what not. That bit was kind of similar.
"As far as standing at the mic and singing, I think these songs made me feel very comfortable in that area. I put a lot of thought into what key the songs were in…[laughs] It's kind of funny. I would consider the area of my voice that the song required, the timbre, and I'd go off in a room and work it out. Then I'd get together with the band and run it all down. Once we got it right, things wouldn't usually require more than a first take."
You worked with some brilliant singers on the record – Stevie Nicks, Colbie Caillat, the Secret Sisters – how did all of these pairings come about?
"The thing is, I'm working with all of these people all the time. So when I'm in the studio doing my own thing, well, I'm a kind of vibe person, so people tend to go, 'Hey, what's Dave up to? Let's go by the studio and check out what he's doing.' I just kind of draw people in. Things are never planned, but before you know it, I have a host of characters involved. I seldom invite people or make out an agenda; I just respond to what's happening.
"It's like when I was cutting Stevie's album, and Reese Witherspoon came by one night. Well, Stevie was wondering where she should go to stay, and Reese just said to her that she could stay at her place. Stevie said, 'Well, that would be cheap,' to which Reese said, 'Well, what's cheaper than free?' And immediately that title turned into a song, Cheaper Than Free, between Stevie and myself. It's on her album and mine, as well."
On Cheaper Than Free with Stevie and Bulletproof Vest with Colbie Caillat, you harmonize so effortlessly with each. Are you more comfortable singing with females?
"I don't know. I guess there's a quality to my voice that makes it perfect for singing duets with women. My voice is quite low, so when you mix that register with a girl's voice, it sounds pretty good. If you've not been the front singer in a band or on records, you can work on figuring out where your voice fits. I guess that's something I've done."
The song Stevie Baby…with phrases like 'Leather and Lace,' it's not too hard to figure out who that's about.
[laughs] "Yes, well, that's true. I was sending Stevie Nicks a little message. We'd met in the early '80s, and I thought it was strange to be finally working with her. So I was sending her a little message from Nashville in my song, yeah. Stevie's a wonderful person."
There's a cool kind of Stones vibe to the track.
"Yeah, I guess so. The whole group kind of tumbled in, really. I didn't say to them, 'Let's go Stones here' or anything. We just started playing and that's what happened. I guess there was a bit of a Tumbling Dice thing. When you play loose rock 'n' roll, that can happen."
Let's talk a bit about Stevie Nicks' album, In Your Dreams. I understand she sent you a collection of poems and you turned up at her door with a guitar intent on making a record with her.
"Well, kind of, but not exactly. Actually, she asked me if I'd be interested in producing a Fleetwood Mac album, and I said, 'I don't know.' Anyway, we started talking and I sent her the chords to a song called Everybody Loves You. I said, 'What do you think about this for you, and not Fleetwood Mac?' And she sent it back to me with her singing on it, and it was great. From there, yeah, she sent me a collection of her poems and lyrics. It was this huge, thick book. At that point, I knew we had something going.
"She's a totally focused person, very devoted to her music and the songs she writes. She's made this her life, and because of that she's eliminated a lot of other elements from her existence, which she acknowledges. At one point, this doctor prescribed her these drugs, and when they didn't work, he kept upping the dose and upping the dose. Basically, Stevie feels as though she lost 10 years of her life. But she's very set on reclaiming that time and making it count. She's an incredible person."
You also produced Joss Stone's upcoming album, LP1. What was it like working with her?
"Mmm. We have a great time. She's such a talent, and I think we play off of each other well. I've worked with her lots of times in the past. We worked together on the soundtrack to the remake of Alfie, and last year we wrote the new James Bond song, which she sang. So it was a pretty natural thing for us to work on her album together."
Aren't you at an age where you should be slowing down a bit? It seems as though you're busier than ever!
[laughs] "I don't know, really. I guess it all depends on how you look at it. At the moment, I'm really enjoying everything I'm doing, so it doesn't feel as though I'm spreading myself too thin. I guess if I wasn't having any fun, it would feel kind of bad."
The guitar that started Dave Stewart's Nashville odyssey: The Gretsch Rancher acoustic.
Add to all of this, you've recently worked with Glen Ballard on a musical version of the movie Ghost.
"Yes, Glen and I have collaborated on the music to Ghost, which will be coming to London in two weeks or so. It was a great experience, working with Matthew Warchus, the director, who's had such a fantastic history between opera and theater. He won a Tony for directing God Of Carnage on Broadway. A very impressive fellow. He was so experienced in musical theater that he turned out to be a great guide for Glen and myself."
I have to ask, did you trade notes with Bono and The Edge on getting involved in musical theater?
"Not too much, but at the beginning, I did chat with Bono and The Edge about it all. They played me some of the songs they were writing for Spider-Man. Still, I think our experiences in musical theater have been quite different."
And if you weren't busy enough, now you have a band called Super Heavy. Joss Stone is in it, as is Mick Jagger, Damien Marley and AR Rahman. How did this come into being, and what can we expect?
"Well, it's been going on for quite a while, actually, pretty much in secret. But in the last year or so, we've been taking our jam sessions and turning them into songs and things, and it's really sounding huge. We've got a lot of material that we've managed to whittle down to 18 songs, so we're in the process of editing those and shooting videos and making artwork. It's a fun thing.
"Musically, I don't know if it's 'super heavy.' That name came up when Damien was doing vocals on a song, and he started going, 'Heavy, heavy…we're super heavy!' And that just kind of stuck, you know? It's more super-heavy in a Jamaican way, not so much a heavy rock way. I think we'll have a single coming out in a few weeks, and then the album will be in the fall."
You have so much gear at your disposal. Going through it all would take months. But what are some of the pedal effects you've been liking?
"Well, there's one called the [Demeter] Tremulator and another one [Diaz] Tremodillo that I like quite a lot. They're pretty much tremolo pedals, but they kind of wander about. You can adjust them, but they're very organic. They're trippy.
"Also, I've been using these two pedals, one's called the [Lovetone] Big Cheese, which is this big fuzz pedal, and the other's the [Lovetone] Brown Sauce, which is like an overdrive. What I like about them is, they give you a crunch, but they don't have anything to do with digital distortion. You can play with them and make the middle of your guitar really nice and dirty."
Stewart's Rockbridge guitar was handmade by Brian Calhoun. "Small bodied but loud," says Stewart.
Let's talk about some of the guitars you've bee using lately. In addition to the Gretsch Rancher, there's a Rockbridge model.
"Yeah. These guitars are handmade by a man named Brian Calhoun, who's from Virginia. He and his partner make these brilliant guitars, which are exquisitely small bodied but loud. They're very easy to play on the fingerboard. Because I tend to play a lot of leads, I really like them. I have about four of them, and I've given a few of them away as presents. They're exceptional guitars."
Then there's the Dusenberg Starplayer, which is a 30th anniversary model from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty And The Heatbreakers.
"Yeah, I think they only made about 15 or 25 of them. It's sort of the Mike Campbell limited-edition anniversary model or something like that. What an incredible guitar. This was a gift from Mike, who's a dear friend. The guitar plays like a dream. Recently, I was approached by Dusenberg to do my own Blackbird edition, so that's going to be happening soon."
You've also been using a Danny Ferrington 12-string acoustic.
"Absolutely. George Harrison was a good friend of mine, and he used to stay at my house for months at a time. He always had some Ferrington guitars with him; he loved them. I always wanted a Ferrington that was a 12-string, but I wanted one that was loud and had a thin neck. I liked the idea of a jumbo body and a thin neck so I could play little lead parts that would stand out. Finally, I got Danny to make one for me, with the headstock that looks like a violin and everything. It's beautiful."
Next, we have the Gretsch Country Club Cadillac Green.
"That's right. I've had that guitar since 1976. I played it in The Tourists, in Eurythmics and on so many records. My son is playing that one right now. He has a band called Nightmare And The Cat. So that guitar's on loan. At least I know where it is. It's in the family."
We also have a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster, but this one's all in silver. I've never seen anything like this.
"No, neither have I. It's quite dazzling. The thing plays ridiculously well. It totally wails and never goes out of tune. Plus, it's very warm. You'd look at it and think that it might be thin and brittle-sounding, but it's such a rich, full-bodied guitar. Truly one of a kind."