Musician, composer, producer, photographer, writer, and director: Dave Stewart is an all-rounder.
With The Blackbird Diaries, he now looks back upon his life and his childhood.
Ann Kathrin Bronner: Dave, what has been first: The album title – or the recordings?
Dave Stewart: It was really interesting, a lot of weird things happened at the same time. As well as the studio being called Blackbird Studios, I came across a very old book, from 1800, and it was Story of a Blackbird. At the same time, somebody sent me this imagery of a blackbird. And I was going: Hang on! Something’s telling me something. So then I thought: What am I doing here, because I am actually just writing a journal. So I thought: What’s a journal? A journal is a diary. And then I thought: Oh yeah, it’s The Blackbird Diaries.
AKB: Sounds like destiny ... Is it a sort of retrospective album, what would you say?
DS: Hmm. It’s kind of introspective and retrospective and atrospective. It’s really like my life’s story put into lyrics and a musical history. In the songs The Magic In The Blues I’m singing about when I was a young kid at 14 and my mother was splitting up from my father. And I’m saying the blues has not necessarily just to do with my musical journey. My mother had the blues because she didn’t want to be stuck as a housewife in the Northeast of England for the rest of her life. She thought there must be something else. And that same search’s that people go within themselves, the holy grail, or whatever, rests in all people – women, men, teenagers, whatever. And some say: “I’ve got to find what this thing is.” And some people do find it, some people don’t. So, that song The Magic in the Blues is actually talking about me leaving home and thinking there must be something else. But my mother also was leaving home.
AKB: Did you raise in a musical background?
DS: I did not really have a musical family, but my father liked to sing, and he liked music. We lived in a very small house. We didn’t have much money, so he had a little place where he would made carpentry. And he made little speakers in wooden cases, he put them in the corner of the rooms – one in my and my brother’s bedroom, one in the livingroom, one in the kitchen, and one in their bedroom. And then he made an old-fashioned radio. I remember the first day he put it on and played it: It was like a miracle. The whole house was filled with music. And he had these records that he’d bought, musicals like The Sound Of Music, or The King And I. But he also had Frank Sinatra and Glen Miller. And each one you put on, it was magical: Glen Miller and his orchestra was amazing sounding with all the brass. And then he put on Frank Sinatra and he would sing along with it. That was when I was about five or six. When I was 13, my cousin – he was in the air force of the army – came to Memphis, and he sent us these blues albums. You can imagine I put on a blues album of Robert Johnson with the same stereo, and suddenly this really weird guitar playing and winy blues voice came out, and I was like: Wow, what the hell is that! I was excited.
AKB You are not only musician, but also producer. Do you think it is the producers who are creating the sound of the time, or is it the music business or the listeners who are influencing the producers? Who is influencing whom?
DS: Well, a lot of business men are trying to influence the audience, the actual buyers of music, by feeding the same thing over and over again. They think: “Okay, we have four girls in very short pants, dancing around, singing some trivial lyrics.” If it’s a hit, then: “Okay, we need another four girls.” They are trying to repeat the formula, the business people. Whereas real artists don’t think about the formula or something like that. They just try to express themselves. I’m not interested in following trends. The thing is actually to create ideas that other people might follow. I don’t wanna be a follower.
AKB: But by what are you influenced: By fashion? By design?
DS: I’m influenced by arts movements. And I am influenced by the different genres of music. So it could be the whole genre of blues, but then I would mix it with the whole genre of something else. I’m far beyond following something that’s current, but looking into the future and looking right into the past the same time. After Eurythmics, I started getting really interested in photography and became a photographer. And now I’m in the middle of three documentary movies, shooting photographs and making music. And putting it all together – perhaps like a little Andy Warhol factory what I have here in Los Angeles.
AKB: Which has gotten lost over the last 10, 20 years, because business is so much interested in sales.
DS: Well, there was a big art movement in Britain round about 1992, 93, where Damien Hurst, some other painters, the band Blur and all these music and arts and fashion became really strong. And in New York Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground. I think these waves where the different mediums like fashion, music, art come together, it kind of moves from city to city and country to country. It’s interesting to see and look into the social and political reasons why that happened at that particular time. And it’s also a lot of the time influenced by the drugs. If you listen to late 60ies music like Pink Floyd and the bands from California and San Francisco, they were all smoking grass and taking LSD. And then the beginning of the seventies, it was cocaine. And then speed started to come and the music turned into punk movement. Then ecstasy came and it became the wave music. So it’s all mixed together how something becomes a kind of movement or a fashion or a phenomenon. But usually it starts with artists experimenting with art, with other artists and with drugs.
AKB: Do you think the sort of drug also influences the beat? For example with speed, we inflationarily had all this uptempo music.
DS: Absolutely, yes. It influences not just the beat, but also the lyrics. Punk music was really pretty fast and furious. And psychedelic music was kind of trippy pink floatings. The thing is: I took so many drugs when I was from the age of 18 to 27. But I don’t need to take them any more (laughs).
AKB: You can create the images without drugs now? But isn’t it the best?
DS: Absolutely. But it takes people sometimes quite a while to get there. And also, you know, you are very influenced by the people around you when you are younger. Your friends influence you even more than your parents once you get at the age of 12, 13. People go on these journeys. And some people’s journeys end up in a disaster, dying when they are really young. And some people’s journeys leave them like through the rabbit into some kind of “Alice in Wonderland”-life, which in a way is what happened to myself. Becoming successful with Annie and Eurythmics, being able to see the world and interact with the world through songs and art and stuff, and still be living and still be able to write: When you’ve been through all that stuff and you’re still standing, I think then it becomes interesting. The Blackbird Diaries and the way I’m writing everything now is a mixture of all the experiences I‘ve had and then put into storytelling. I’m looking at the whole, I’m almost looking at my life from the outside looking in, through a telescope. And picking out the moments I thought that were incredibly inspiring for me, trying to put all of that into my work.
AKB: What do you prefer: Being soloist in front row, or being in the background? Which fits your personality best?
DS: I always liked being in the background and helping create something, you know, whatever it was. If it was a video, I liked to be directing it, rather than in front of it. Or if it was a stage show, I liked to make the set design and the band sound great. But right at this point of time, it is really funny I’ve changed into I like being the person singing now and the person telling the stories and the person at the front.
AKB: But why did this change? Can you explain yourself?
DS: I don’t know, I think it just got less self-conscious, more confident or comfortable in my skin. So I don’t know why the reason is now (laughs). I would have been a lot wiser to do when I was 18, and have stupid doing it now, so I’d have 20 solo albums out. And I just play, the journey took me. But in the last 3 or 4 years I just feel I am in a position I had so many experience that I could now make 10 albums in a row of storytelling and going play and sing them like a troubadour.
AKB: So today you have enough stories to tell and you want to tell them?
DS: Yeah. Before, I didn’t really have time because they were happening. Happening in real time, you know (laughs). But today, I’m telling the stories of my life.
The Blackbird Diaries
2011 SurfDog Records / Sony
The Dave Stewart Songbook Vol. 1