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- Posted on Oct 28th 2009 5:00PM by Benjy Eisen
So after releasing four volumes of the 'Great American Songbook,' in which he took on some of the giants by composers such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George and Ira Gershwin, Stewart has refocused his sights on the sounds of Motown. It all starts with 'Soulbook,' a collection of his all-time favorites, released on Oct. 17. The album features several surprising guests (Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson) but also several of the heroes to whom the album pays tribute: Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Spinner sat down with Stewart at his bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel (aka the 'Hotel California') to discuss his love for soul music and if, after all these years, he still has a Plan B.
You said recently, and I'm going to quote you, "This is an album I've waited my whole lifetime to record." So why did you wait so long -- and, more important, why now?
I was probably frightened. You know, these are big shoulders I'm walking on here. As I say in the liner notes, these are people I listened to when I was a teenager, when I was 16 or 17. They've been in my life, so I was very hesitant about doing it. I just needed a push. And I needed the right band. [Album producer and drummer] Steve Jordan came up with the right musicians, [producer and vocalist] Steve Tyrell came up with the right vocal sound, and it all came together. But I did need a little push.
Do you remember your very first experience hearing soul music artists like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke?
I remember it like it was yesterday. The first time I heard Sam Cooke -- I used to have a little transistor radio and me and my mate used to work at a silk screen wallpaper company, you know, making wallpaper. This is when I was finished playing football but not quite into music. And it just came on down. 'Chain Gang' -- you know that one? -- and we just went berserk about it and then that was followed quickly by 'Twistin' the Night Away' and 'Cupid' and 'You Send Me' and that whole explosion. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see Sam Cooke live. I saw Otis.
As we established, the 'Songbook' was a series. Do you plan on continuing 'Soulbook' now that you opened the door?
This one? [laughs] Well, I don't want to count my chickens before they hatch, but it would be lovely to do it again. I'm already thinking about songs to do for the new one.
Well before you think about those, let's talk about these. You have some guests on the album. Let's start with Mary J. Blige: Whose idea it was for that collaboration?
Well, it certainly wasn't my idea. I think Mary J. Blige was either Steve Jordan's or Steve Tyrell's. Unfortunately, nowadays we don't record at the same time, in the same place, so I think Mary J. Blige was in Atlanta and the other one was done in New York.
Jennifer Hudson, done in New York. Stevie and Smokey did theirs here [in L.A.], but we were never, ever in the studio at the same time.
It was a classy move to have Stevie Wonder accompany you on harmonica for a song that he wrote. It's his song. Can you just talk about that experience? You weren't in the studio with him ...
Ah! But -- Stevie did leave me a lovely note at the end, after he did his harp. He said, "Rod, I just want to tell you what an honor it is to play with you on my song, that you sang." Just at the end, all on his own. When you phone Stevie up, you know, he has a singing message: [singing] "Hi, this is Stevie. Leave me a message, I'm not home right now." Brilliant. I called him back and said, [singing] "Stevie, I'm so glad you played on my album." I hope he doesn't mind me telling folks that.
You also have another new release, the 'Rod Stewart Sessions.' As a fan, it really is a revealing look at your whole history and it shows the construction of some of your classics. As the artist, did it dig up anything that you had forgotten about?
It's all on there, everything is on there. There were things on there that when I looked at the track list I had totally and utterly forgotten about, but my favorite is 'My Dad's Trousers,' a song that I just sang a cappella and made it up as I went along, about my dad's trousers. God bless his soul, he's on the roof now. It's really, really funny. It's a bit of British musical humor.
You're not just a musician and performer, you're also a noted songwriter. In the 'American Songbook' series, you cover the classics. But you have songs of your own that belong right there with them. Can you talk a little bit about your own songwriting -- have you gotten away from it for a reason?
Yeah, I've been enjoying recording these concept albums, for want of a better word. Songwriting was never something that came naturally to me. I can't imagine that I'll put pen to paper ever again; I'm having too much fun doing these. I mean, I could go on and on and on. I want to do a blues album, a country album. I've got 50 'American Songbook' songs already recorded.
Well, before you go to blues and country, let's go back to soul music for just a second. In your opinion -- and I'll say, "your expert opinion" -- who are the three top soul singers?
As I say in the liner notes, it's got to be, in order: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, maybe David Ruffin -- I mentioned him under the Temptations. Those three influenced me more than anybody.
You mention that you want to do blues and you want to do country. We have the classics, but music is always evolving and new bands are always coming up that are instant classics. As a fan of music, do you have any new favorite artists?
I'm a bit old-fashioned that way. I still find myself listening to Billie Holiday if I put an album on for dinner. But having six children, and especially the elder ones who are very into music, I'm a big fan of Arcade Fire. My daughter Ruby, who is a fine singer and composer, took me to see them at the Hollywood Bowl and they are extraordinary. I haven't been that excited since I saw Free back in the '70s when they went on tour with [the Faces].
Could you ever picture yourself covering a group like the Arcade Fire?
I shouldn't think they'd want me to cover their stuff; they're doing fine as they are. They're brilliant.
You've been written about by just about every music publication, ever. A lot of times, with certain artists, the music press gets it wrong. Do you feel that, looking back over your career, there's been anything that's been misrepresented about you, or do you feel that the media has presented a fairly accurate representation?
I think it's fairly accurate. I do believe now I'm getting a pretty fair shake of the dice. I feel like the press or the critics have been pretty fair in the last eight or nine years. But in the old days, the lifestyle that I led overshadowed the music, and I went along with it. So I only have myself to blame.
You've had tremendous success in your career. You've sold 250 million albums, at last count. Going back to the beginning, I know that you silk-screened for awhile ...
Grave digging ...
Yeah, grave digging. Once you transitioned into music, did you have a Plan B?
Yeah, I did have a Plan B. It wasn't always going in the upwards direction. There was a point where I was struggling. I'd move away from home and rent an apartment and then run out of money and I'd have to go back home. I didn't know what I was going to do. I thought maybe I'd become a history teacher because I was already steeped in English history. I thought about that and other things. But I had commitment to what I do, and I tell all my children that. My son plays hockey. I said, '"If you feel that burning desire, that commitment, and it burns right here, then you'll succeed. If you don't feel that, forget it." And I've always felt that about music.