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Stewart goes back to move forward
6:00am Saturday 19th October 2013 in Music
Known as the quiet half of Eurythmics, Dave Stewart has always had a lot going on in the background. With a new solo album out, he tells Andy Welch about being inspired by his roots, working in Nashville and recording in mid-ocean.
Dave Stewart made a name for himself in the shadows. As one half of the Eurythmics, he stayed firmly in the background as a wild-haired maverick while Annie Lennox took centre stage.
Together they clocked up sales of more than 75 million records after their formation in 1980, which makes them one of the Britain's biggest-ever groups.
Following their break-up in 1990 (they've reunited since), Stewart wrote songs for and produced other artists including Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry and Jon Bon Jovi, while also tasting success, however fleetingly, with Alisha's Attic and Shakespears Sister, the group featuring his ex-wife Siobhan Fahey.
More recently, however, he's stepped up to the microphone himself with a series of low-key country blues albums.
For 61-year-old Stewart, who was born in Sunderland, the change in scale and sound has been about returning to his spiritual roots in the North East although, as is often the case, it wasn't until he was thousands of miles from his home town that the process came about.
"It was Nashville that brought me back around to remembering what I used to do," he says, sitting in the corner of the bar of a London member's club he owns.
"When I was a teenager, I used to write songs on an acoustic guitar, and then go to play them in a folk club to try them out. When I'm in Nashville, it's a similar thing. I'll go to what's called a guitar pull, where everyone sits there and a guitar goes around and everyone plays a song."
Lucky Numbers is Stewart's latest album, his third in as many years, and while written and recorded separately to the others, it does share a common sound and theme, particularly with last year's The Ringmaster General.
Like the previous pair, it was also recorded in Nashville with the same band: local players, all seasoned session musicians with serious connections. John McBride, for example, is Stewart's co-producer and engineer, and husband of Martina McBride, known as 'the Celine Dion Of Country Music'.
She features on the album, as does Karen Elson, the supermodel and ex-wife of Jack White.
"When I was there in Nashville, there wasn't this resurgence happening that's going on now," Stewart points out, referring to a trend among artists to decamp to Nashville when they want to be taken seriously.
"It was just the serious musicians that were there then. Again, that was like being back in Sunderland when all these great folk singers would pass through and they'd play upstairs at the George and Dragon: Finbar and Eddie Furey, Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch, John Fahey, and I'd just be amazed and try to take it all in.
"The last three or four years, of course, Nashville's gone through the roof." Feeling the town had changed, and keeping true to his ideal that recording an album should always be an exciting experience, Stewart decided to shake things up.
He and McBride packed up some vintage equipment, rounded up the players and headed for the ocean. The gang set sail in the Pacific - on a boat that just happened to be kitted out with a recording studio.
Stewart won't be drawn on the ownership of the vessel they used, although billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is a close friend and owns a 414ft superyacht called Octopus. A video of Stewart and the band enjoying Martinis next to their floating recording studio clearly shows it was no hobbyists' dinghy.
"The track Nashville Snow is a duet with Karen Elson, and that's the one where you can really hear we are in the middle of the South Pacific, drunk," admits Stewart. "It's a dreamy song. I've always loved the sound of her voice and I knew it would fit perfect on that."
The surroundings were certainly at odds with the song's mournful tone and theme.
"It's funny, you can write the most depressing of songs in the sunniest of places. And you can write the most ecstatic of songs in the bleakest of circumstances. Things come to the surface.
"I always think songs are there," says Stewart, pointing above his head. "Or in here," he adds, tapping his heart. "Just out there in the ether, and at certain points, circumstance and mood marries together and out it comes.
"Being older and wiser, I've learned how to make that happen more easily, and one of those ways is definitely not being in a grey windowless room somewhere. I've thought that from the days of Annie and I recording Sweet Dreams, and I've done it ever since."
He's also working on an 80-minute film to accompany the album in Los Angeles, where he lives with his Dutch photographer wife Anoushka Fisz and their two young daughters. It's largely autobiographical, about a man who has all the riches he ever dreamed of, only to throw it all away on one wild gamble after getting drunk one night.
"He wakes up in the morning and realises what he's done. He's bought a circus, which is a bit like my life, really," says Stewart.
There is a vague plan to bring his band over from Nashville to tour the UK, a prospect he finds very romantic. But at the moment it's too expensive and he needs to raise the profile of his solo work before he can commit.
Stewart and his band would have played live to British audiences last year but for a tragic event in the States.
"I arrived in Nashville with my wife and kids, ready to meet the band to load the bus and go on tour," says Stewart.
"But on the day were setting off we woke to the news that our dear friend, the director Tony Scott, had jumped off a bridge and died. We'd just been on holiday with him and his wife, so my wife went back to LA to be with her, and I took our daughters on tour."
Eventually a decision was made and the UK dates had to be cancelled. "I wasn't in the right frame of mind, and obviously there was the funeral too, plus I didn't want to explain to everyone what had happened either, so that was that," he explains, adding: "It will happen I'm sure."
Meanwhile, Stewart carries on recording other artists in his LA studio, tucked away on Hollywood Boulevard.
"It's always busy there, people are always dropping in," he says. "I've never been one to control everything, and you eventually enjoy the chaos of things changing on a daily basis. You just have to relinquish all control and get used to it."
Extra time - Dave Stewart
:: Dave Stewart was born in Sunderland on September 9, 1952.
:: He and then-girlfriend Annie Lennox formed The Tourists with three others in 1977, but split in 1980, the same year their relationship ended.
:: Lennox and Stewart stayed together musically to form Eurythmics, releasing their debut album In The Garden in 1981.
:: It was a commercial failure and the band were largely ignored until Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) was released in 1983, propelling them to worldwide fame.
:: Eurythmics took a break in 1990, reuniting in 1999 when they received the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award at the Brits. They were inducted into the UK Music Hall Of Fame in 2005.
:: Dave Stewart's new album Lucky Numbers is out now
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