A singer's singer, Paul Rodgers continues to resonate with generations 54 years on from his debut album with Free; the remarkable young bluesmen with old souls and timeless songs. He's written, recorded and toured with guitar greats and his voice today still commands respect, but he also remains a humble Middlesborough man at heart. Nearly 25 years on from his last solo album he's back with another powerful statement on Midnight Rose. What we didn't know is just how remarkable it is that Paul Rodgers was able to return to music at all.
We talked to Paul before the news surfaced of the significant health challenges he's overcome in recent years. In 2016 the 73-year-old Bad Company frontman suffered a major stroke, and another in 2019, in addition to 11 minor strokes. At one point he was unable to speak and had to undergo major endarterectomy surgery – removing plaque clogging a carotid artery. It makes his rehabilitation to return to play guitar and sing again on the highly personal, uplifting album Midnight Rose nothing short of miraculous.
Produced by Paul's wife Cynthia Rodgers – who we also talked to – alongside Bob Rock and released on legendary label Sun Records, Midnight Rose sees Paul back to where he thrives; as a singer, songwriter and storyteller.
Sun Records must be something you have a lot of memories connected with growing up, with artists that inspired you and now you're on the label yourself.
"It's certainly an iconic label. And I'm very, very proud to be on it. I was in conversation with Primary Wave, who has actually bought Sun Records, and when they asked what I was doing, I replied that I was in the studio working on some new tracks, which I was with Todd [Ronning, bass] and Ray [Roper, guitar]. And they said, 'Well, Sun Records would be really interested in those tracks.' And that gave us a boost."
Had you been writing and recording the songs with a solo album in mind?
"No, actually. The idea was, I was sitting around at home, under lockdown. You know, I suppose I've got to thank the virus for this album in some way. Because it brought everything to a screeching halt, we had to cancel everything; all the shows and everything and sit at home with an acoustic guitar.
"I thought, 'Well I've got lots of songs here, I should probably go in the studio and see what I can do'. So I called a couple of guys up and we got together, and the idea was, let's just noodle around and see what we come up with. And very quickly, it caught fire, it was great."
So it was creating music for the sake of creating, without a deadline or anything like that.
"Exactly. I wanted to take the time to do this – to do new songs. I've always wanted to for some 20 years, but just hadn't got around to it because I was doing too many live shows. And that was my focus – playing live solo, with Bad Company, with various things that I was doing. And I just didn't have the time to get focused on it. Then I suddenly had the time. I thought, Right now, let's go – let's do it. Let's see what we come up with.
"And actually Todd Ronning, my bass player, sent me a track and he said, 'Do you have any ideas for this – can you write some lyrics on this?' It turned into Living It Up [the album's first single]. With Living It Up I thought, 'Well, what's this song about? What is it to me?' And I thought that it is probably about my story and the influence that American music has had on my life, and and the whole world really. Then it occurred to me that, you know what? Blues, soul, rock'n'roll, jazz and country – all from America. I mean, they've drawn from all parts of the world, but it's come from America. And I wanted to say thank you in many ways as well. That's my story and I'm sticking to it! From Middlesborough to America."
The song Take Love dates back to your time playing it with Queen live and it's great to finally hear it on a record – did you always know you would record and release it one day?
"Yes, I did, and I kept it back for such an album if ever I got the chance to do it. And so yes we played it with Queen and it was very good. We did a version, but it was still in the process of formulating in many ways."
Cynthia Rodgers: "Paul played it with Bad Company as well in soundcheck – it was all percolating. One thing about that song Take Love is we had a rescue cat. We do rescues; cats, dogs, you know, elephants, whatever. Although we don't have one in our backyard – I must say no elephants are back here…
Paul: "Well not many…"
Cynthia: "We had this one cat and she was hell on four paws. The SPCA [Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] did not like her – they wanted her out, gone. So we fostered her. And she had a lot of problems and so I couldn't get near her. And one day I was trying to stroke her and I just got fed up. And I said, 'Sheriday' – she came named – 'Sherry, I can't love you if you keep running away'. And Paul heard that and…
Paul: "I was sitting there with acoustic guitar and I thought that's a great opening line for a song because I can relate that to human beings too. You can't love them if they run away. And so that's where the song came from."
Cynthia: "You'll hear Leslie Page's beautiful voice singing 'Miss Sheriday' [in the song]. Now you'll know why. And your readers will know why. In the CD artwork, there's actually a beautiful picture of her. She's gone now. but she was a gorgeous girl."
You mentioned that you were writing a lot of these songs on an acoustic guitar during lockdown, how fully formed were they going into the studio?
Paul: "Pretty much there to be honest. We did kick them around a bit arrangement-wise, but pretty much the structure, the chorus and the verses [were there] so it was just a question of how many chourses, how many verses and middle-eight. Sometimes it didn't have a middle eight – often it's the case that you don't have a middle-eight, and then when in the studio you realise it needs to go somewhere before it goes back."
What was your experience like working with Bob Rock on this album?
"He brought a lot of expertise. But I must say that we did the bed tracks at Ray Roper's place – Ray is the guitar player throughout, but not the only one. And he's the engineer as well on the bed tracks. He has a studio in his house right close to where I live, and I had Todd Ronning on bass and Rick Fedyk on the drums. So us four got together and we put all the bed tracks down. Then Bob Rock came in."
Cynthia: "We were about three-quarters done [with the album]. We were done with Midnight Rose, the track – I love that track. I'm really tied to it. I sent it off for mastering and when it came back I didn't know whether my ears were gone. because we'd been working on it for a year and a half, or whether the magic had been mastered out of it.
"So I sent it to Randy Staub who works with Bob Rock. He's a very good friend of ours and he's an engineer. And I said, 'Can you please listen to these two tracks and adjudicate them for me? Because I think I think I've been listening too much.' He came back and he said, 'No, one of the tracks has more magic to it. I said, 'Ok, we're three-quarters of the way through. I think I need some help'.
So he called Bob Rock – he lives in Maui with his family. And he said, 'Bob, I got a call from Cynthia Rogers. Paul's wife' and Bob cut him off and said, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.' And he said, 'Don't you want to know what he wants you to do first?' And he said, 'No I have been training my entire life to work with Paul Rogers.'
Paul: "Did he say that? What a guy!"
Cynthia:" So we spent about five days with them in Vancouver at Brian Adams' studio, The Warehouse. [Bob] added some little diamonds here and there. He was very open, because at the end of the song Melting I really wanted the last thing that the fans heard was Paul's voice acapella. I said, 'I'd really like to end this song acapella'. And he went, 'I don't know about that'. And everyone in the studio went, 'Yeah, we don't know'. I said, 'Well, can we just try it?' And so we tried it, and they all turned around and said, 'Yeah, you were right, Cynthia, that's beautiful'. The album really is a gift to the fans for all the years. Very personal – it's raw and real."
Paul: "Cynthia has made it personal with the artwork as well – she did the artwork. And she included a lot of things that were close to me, that I've used over the years – bracelets and images."
Cynthia: "Images from his mum, things he's painted – people don't realise Paul paints. The fans have been so personal all these years, and given so much of their lives and shared so much, that we wanted to give back.
"On my 50th birthday, Paul had said to me, 'What would you like for your 50th?' Now this is 13 years ago, so it's quite a while ago now. But I said, 'I would like bird seed, I would like a glass blender and I would like a butterfly bush to attract butterflies', and he said, 'It's your 50th! I can't possibly give you bird seed!' I said, 'Well, ok, then paint for me.' And he said, 'Well, what kind of bird seed?' [laughs] So he had to paint and we shared the painting, Midnight Rose [on the cover]. And the track became Midnight Rose too."
There's also three guitars pictured on the cover – and they were played by three players that loom large in your career; Mick Ralphs, Jimmy Page and Paul Kossoff
Paul: "Great players I have to thank for lifting me up."
And Bryan Adams guitarist Keith Scott performs on the album, too?
"Bob Rock brought him in, and Chuck Leavell is on there too from the Stones – just a little band called the Stones! Jimmy Mattingly from Garth Brooks. Leslie Page is singing on there as well – it almost turns into a duet on Take Love, well it is a duet."
How do you tend to direct the guitarists in the studio – do you give them quite a free reign or do you have specific ideas in mind for the parts?
"With Keith Scott, he's such a natural when we played Melting, it's just a beautiful blues groove that opens up and builds. And he was just a natural. I just let him run with that, do his thing."
Cynthia: "It was interesting with [pianist] Chris Gestrin, he has a funk band in Vancouver. He trained at the Berklee School of Music. He's so brilliant – he had not heard any of the tracks. Bob Rock brought him in and Bob sent him into the studio said, 'Get on the Hammond, I want to hear what you what you've got'. And I looked around the room and I said, 'He hasn't heard the tracks. Chris, are you okay with that?' And he goes, 'Yeah, they do this to me all the time'. And you know, he played along and we used it. I couldn't believe this guy."
Paul, I've read that in the past you were a first-take guy when it came to tracking your vocals in the studio in the past, and you would get takes down quickly. Is that true and is that still the case?
"It is sort of true. I like to capture a live moment is what I like to do – I like to capture a vocal live. So what I tend to do is, when you go into the studio, if you do it 1,000 times, with the best will in the world, it gets a bit stale. So I like to capture that first one. But it isn't necessarily the one I use, because you have to warm up too. I've been warming up for a while before I go into the studio, but you have to warm up to the moment.
"What I tend to do, is, when I'm gonna do a take, I get really serious about it. No matter where I am, I go, 'Okay, it's Madison Square Garden. It's a big night. And we're at the end of the set. And here we go'. So I psyche myself up for performance, really. And that's what I try and capture."
Has that always been your headspace, even back in the early days?
"I remember in the early days when I was doing Free tracks. it was very difficult to get the vocals down because I was so nervous. I remember Chris Blackwell [Island Records found], he said, 'Okay, let's just let's just go out and have a drink, but not too much – just a little. He wouldn't let me get drunk or anything. And so I'd have a glass of wine or two, come back and knock off [takes], as it were.
"I think there were quite a few vocals like that. I said, 'Well, thanks, Chris. That's a good way of doing it'. But he said, 'Don't look at it as the way to get a good lyric or a good vocal, because you don't want to go down the drink route', which is one of the things that happens to a lot of people. Because your confidence is challenged, so you take something to pick you up and all that stuff."
How have you maintained your voice so well over the years – is it clean living, warming up and warming down?
"Clean living is what it is now, that's for sure. In the early days I was like every young guy I suppose – fairly abusive to my system. And I've learned that it doesn't really work if you want you know if you want to keep singing, and also I keep doing shows – I keep using the voice. I don't let it go to sleep, which it would if you stop singing. So I try not to overdo it.
"Also what I tend to find is helpful is gargling a little bit of salt water – just body temperature water. Just a half teaspoon of salt, swirl it around and gargle that. It's very good for the throat.
"I should mention as well about warming up, because I hear it a lot in the corridors backstage you know – a lot of singers will warm up by going [screams] 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' and screaming. But you wouldn't want to do that to a car engine, would you? You wouldn't sit there [revving a car hard]. And you don't really do that to a human voice – you just sort of warm up [sings softely], you warm up your voice like that.
"I take it to different levels. Before a tour I will warm up for weeks before. I'll play a bit of acoustic and then we get into a soundcheck I'll step it up a little bit, but not too much because you really want to save it for the show. But I step it up a little bit and then the first night I kind of do hit it and then the next night you'll feel that, 'Oh god I sang [hard]' so you've got to take you've got to manage it as you go along."
You're obviously viewed as a great vocalist but guitar has always been part of your career. Do you have go-to writing guitars and is it always writing with acoustic? Do you ever write with electric guitar?
"Oh yes, I write on whatever I happen to be playing, but really I'm not like a great guitarist, or a great piano player, bass player or a great drummer. But I do all of those things because I want to know what it's like from the point of view of the drummer, or the point of view of the bass player, etc.
"But then again, the structure of the song is very often written on acoustic guitar, although having said that, I have written songs like Silver, Blue & Gold on the piano, Some instruments are specific to their task. When you play a piano, for instance, I do find that there's a percussive element to left and right, left and right – that sort of thing. And the structure, you can feel a piano-written song by the structure very much, I feel."
"I wrote Wishing Well on bass, funnily enough. The main thing about a song is its structure, and however you get that structure, that's what you've got to do. And so that's what I did. Having said all of the above, I still like working on acoustic guitar for the structure of a song. Midnight Rose, for instance, I found that when I showed the guitar to a chord, like an E major, if you hold the bar just lightly on the 12th fret, you'll get a harmonic, which is a really cool sound. And you'll get one of the seventh fret, on the B chord [of the song]. So I had those two chords to work with if I wanted to keep the harmonics in the song . So with Midnight Rose that's what I used. It's the same tuning as the bottleneck [slide] tuning. You use an open chord basically."
You've seen music technology change over the years, are there any things that you miss about the old days in the ways you used to make records and tour?
There are lots of things, to be honest – it's all changed. It's really changed. For instance, I was talking to someone the other day, and I mentioned the fact that I met Mick Ralphs when I was touring with Mott The Hoople and I had called Peace. Mick and I used to meet in what we called then, the tuning room. Which was a room separate to the band rooms backstage. You've got a tuning room and you've got amps in there, you'd take your guitar and tune it before the show. I would often meet Mick in there. And we'd be tuning together and he'd played me a song and I'd play him a song and that's how we kind of made a connection.
"We don't do that anymore. We've all we've got tuners. Now you can tune it without going to a specific room you know anything and I remember when we first got tuners, Clive Coulson, our tour manager with Bad Company, brought these tuners in – big boxy things at the time. And we said, 'Oh we don't need those - we've got good ears, we can tune ourselves'. But then after a while, you get that needle right in the centre and you're smack in tune and it's so great that you actually become dependent on them.
"So everything now is digital, very convenient, and it's okay – I suppose it's good. But I like the old way because I like analogue. I love analogue – you use a valve. I find that digital is a kind of assimilation of what you really want to sound like. It's not the actual thing. But that's maybe because I'm so old [laughs]."
Do you remember what mics you used back in the early days?
"It's funny because the first mic I really got kicked off singing with was a Shure 57. We'd just bought one when we were The Road Runners. I was 13, I think. And everybody was trying this mic. The manager of the time was Joe Bradley – Colin Bradley's [The Road Runners' original singer while Paul played bass] older brother. He said, 'You you try it out'. And I sang, 'Good golly Miss Molly'. Then he said, 'Okay, you're the singer'. That's how I became a singer – I was the bass player before then. Now I'm the singer. And we used to do a song called Everybody Needs Somebody To Love [sings] 'And I need you, you, you, you'. I loved the audience reaction to that, and I liked singing from then on."
You were a student of the blues from a young age, but one of the things that helped set you apart was the soul influence. When did you discover artists like Otis Redding?
"The same time as I was talking about the Shure mic, to be honest. Because we used to go to a nightclub in Middlesborough called The Purple Onion. And they had great bands there. There was a blues boom in England at that time that was growing very strong. And we used to get records, people would bring records by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Albert King… the great, great players. I still love listening to those records even today. And I'm still learning a lot from blues. So it was it was both blues and soul. There's a lot of crossover between types of music. And I suppose I am really still a student of blues and soul. And so I think I definitely still learning."
You're a great collaborator – you've worked with so many iconic guitar players and musicians over the years, and it seems to me that is almost a skill in itself, that you can work with very different personalities musically.
"I love the players I've worked with, and they're still friends of mine, of course. And I try to I tried to lift them up and have them lift me up, which they often do – very much so. Brian May, Jimmy Page… I can think back at some of the shows are just amazing, as with Mick Ralphs and, of course, Paul Kossoff – the first guitar player that I really connected with. He was just so great, and he was so very soulful. He used to rip out his heart to play the solos. It was just amazing how much he put into it. I think the thing is to appreciate them and then they will appreciate you – it's a kind of mutually uplifting thing. And the audience hopefully benefits from that."
A lot of musicians are now able to record at home – people can be quite self sufficient with technology now. But it feels like the role of the producer has been really important and shouldn't be overlooked. What's your experience been like working with producers, and how important have they been to elevate your own work?
"Very good question. I did a solo album [1983's Cut Loose], and I played all the instruments, because I was thinking exactly the same thing. I wonder what would happen if one person played it all. What I did find, though, is it's about people. And although you can make an ok album like that, actually you can make a great album like that because some people are so talented, but I find that it's about people and relationships, and movement of emotion. That's part of it.
"I like a producer who understands the whole picture, and can keep you focused on where the muse should be going. Because it's very easy to get a bit spaced out when you're doing an album, and go on for days. And each song needs needs to be three or four minutes of focused intention that will reach another person, or reach out to the people, I guess. So I think the idea with a producer is to keep your focus. And it's basically about people. It really is about people and uplifting each other."
Do you have any kind of recording setup at home for working on demos?
"No, because I did have a studio in my house in Kingston in London, but I found that every time you're not in, you feel guilty. It was sitting there, not doing anything. So I like to close the door and just [imagine] like I'm around a campfire. And that's the kind of feeling I like to build songs from – not just the sterile environment that you have to have in the studio, because you don't want noises all over the place. You want it sterile. So it's got to come from the place you go to when you sit around a campfire looking at the stars in the sky. That's where you want it to be from.
"But I put the tracks down in a studio nearby but it's separate – you can close the door on it and drive away."
What technology has made the creative process in the studio easier now for you?
"Sometimes in the old days, we wish we could put that solo onto that track. And you couldn't do that in those days. Editing is so precise now as well. In the old days, if you wanted to take something out to connect two bits, you'd have to cut it – you'd have to actually remove the tape the tape. You'd line it up the point where that's where the drumbeat is and hope when you put that razor on – I didn't do this by the way, it was done for me – but when they put the razor down and slashed it, it had to be in the right spot.
"So you have to be very careful. If we were going to edit it, we had to mix it in such a way that the part was editable. Now you can just go to drums, bass – everything just clean as a whistle like that. Those kinds of things, technical things, I suppose, are very much easier now with digital."
The new album has more of an old-school approach.
"Well, that's what I definitely went for. That's why I got four guys in the studio, just eyeball-to-eyeball playing together. We went for the take that's got that spark, it's got that little magic. It's got that spontaneity. And that's what I think we've tried to achieve on this album."
It's an organic way of doing things.
"Absolutely. Yes, like the food I eat. Well, I tried to!"
Going back to the blues, it's amazing what a deep well it continues to be for musicians after all these years, especially 12-bar blues.
"Well, when you think about a 12-bar blues, I remember Colin Bradley, the guitarist in school, taught me the twelve-bar blues, and it was so amazing. You can that structure and you can write a million songs on it, which people have done – probably more. And you can still write another million or another billion. How many song structures have that quality but the 12-bar blues? it's amazing, right?
"It's a structure you can hang your soul on, and wherever you're at in that particular time. It's amazing."
To someone who is picking up a guitar, or any instrument, for the first time and wants to write their own songs, do you have a piece of advice to pass on from your wealth of experience?
"I would say keep it simple. Don't try to get too complicated. Just keep the structure simple. That's it. And from the heart. Even Mozart, you know, is reputed to have said, 'From the heart to the heart'. And I thought wow, that applies to all music. You know, it applies to everything. What comes from the heart goes to the heart."
- Midnight Rose is out now on Sun Records. Visit paulrodgers.com for more information.