When Shelly Washington, my editor at The Virginian-Pilot (though she’s been my friend for far, far longer than we’ve worked together), dropped me a line and asked if I’d be up for writing a preview piece for Al Stewart’s upcoming appearance at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, she thought I was kidding when I excitedly replied, “Totally. I freaking LOVE Al Stewart.”
I was not.
Honestly, I don’t even remember when I became such a huge Al Stewart fan, but like most of the world, I think it’s fair to say that “Year of the Cat” had something to do with starting me down the path, along with “On the Border” and “Time Passages.” After picking up the Year of the Cat album, I grabbed a couple of Stewart’s other releases in somewhat of a haphazard fashion, first picking up his two most recent albums, 2005’s A Beach Full of Shells and 2008’s Sparks of Ancient Light, then jumping back and snaring 1973’s Past, Present & Future and 1975’s Modern Times. Weirdly, though, I didn’t actually own a best-collection collection by the man until I found out about this interview. Go figure.
Anyway, Al and I had a nice chat, though not necessarily one in which I went into as much depth as I usually do, as I figured there wasn’t a great deal of point, given the amount of space I was going to have for the piece. Still, here’s the “director’s cut” of the conversation, so you can check out the proceedings in their entirety…
Will Harris: To look at the tour schedule on your website, it doesn’t appear that you’re making any effort to slow down.
Al Stewart: Yeah, I mean, I have to admit, it’s been pretty much the same for the past 45 years. [Laughs.] It’s one of those weird things. It used to be…well, I started when I was 19 or something, and I guess sometime around when I reached 40, I was looking at this and saying, “You know, this can’t go on forever.” I thought, “Maybe the gigs will start slowing down, and maybe I should think what I want to do.” But it never did. It’s one of those odd things. It just kept going. So I kept going. Basically, if the phone rings and somebody wants me to go play somewhere, I probably should go do it, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] People don’t voluntarily retire from this business, you know. They get retired when the phone stops ringing, really. So if people want me to go and play, my philosophy is, if I can, I should.
WH: I approve of that. So are you still touring with Dave Nachminoff?
AS: Yeah, I am.
WH: Do you remember at what point you decided to start going the acoustic route with your tours?
AS: Yes, I do. Very clearly. Because I began in England and…I played a couple of years in rock bands. Everybody did when the Beatles first started. Every kid in England was doing it. And then Bob Dylan came along, and I thought, “I want to have a go at that,” because I was mostly a lyric writer, anyway. So I was around the English folk scene for about…oh, close to ten years, I think. Basically, that’s what I did. I mean, my roots…well, my furthest roots, I guess, were in rock ‘n’ roll, ‘cause when I was growing up, I listened to all the rock ‘n’ roll records and loved them. But I also had pretty deep roots in the then-contemporary English folk scene. And then I met Alan Parsons and we made some records that did quite well, and I had a manager that said, “Well, now you can go and have a band.” I didn’t really want to have a band, because it’s a whole kerfuffle traveling around with all these people. I’d done that, y’know what I mean? And I thought, “I’m not sure I want this,” but it seemed to be what everybody did in the ‘70s: if you had a hit, you were supposed to reproduce it on stage the way it sounded on the record. So the next thing I find, I’m traveling with eight people, and we’re making all this noise. And, you know, we kind of did reproduce the way it sounded on the record. [Laughs.] To some extent, anyway. The problem is that sound systems are not all created equal, and half the way, even though “Year of the Cat” might’ve sounded good, the historical ballads that I was doing, which is what I was more interested in, a lot of the words were getting lost. And it was a tradeoff for awhile, because when the records were in the charts, you had to do that. But increasingly I became aware of the fact that I was writing songs where basically 95% of the whole songs were the lyrics, and if you couldn’t hear the lyrics because the saxophone player was playing in your ear… [Laughs.] …and the drums are pounding over your shoulder, then the whole song is getting lost, you know? So after a while of staggering around with this band, when we stopped having hits, it was a bit of a relief, ‘cause I could get rid of the band and go back to doing what I was doing in the first place, which was being an acoustic singer-songwriter. So, basically, if you look at 45 years of me doing this, I mean, for 42 of them, I’ve been an acoustic singer-songwriter, and it was just a little time in the middle when I was some sort of weird pop star. [Laughs.]
WH: Have you found that there are any songs in your back catalogue that don’t readily conform to an acoustic setting?
AS: Well, if there are, we don’t do them. [Laughs.] I’ve probably written 400 songs, I would think, and I think I’ve only recorded about half of them, so this gives us…I have it marked up somewhere, but there are about 30 that I’ve never played in America and for the reasons that you say: that they probably just wouldn’t translate. But we can do pretty much everything. Sometimes we’ll rearrange them a bit. But, I mean, the songs were written on either acoustic guitar or piano, so they were written without a band. Sometimes you wrap accompaniments around them for the records, but they obviously at one point worked on an acoustic guitar, so in theory… [Trails off.] Very few of them were actually written with a band in mind.
WH: Is it worth holding my breath to hear an acoustic version of “Red Toupee”?
AS: Oh, I can do that. [Laughs.] I don’t do it very often, but I could.
WH: It’s funny, I’d never really discovered the song until I got that Definitive Pop Collection of yours that came out a few years ago, the 2- disc set, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I mean, the first time I spun Disc 2 and heard it, it instantly became my new favorite song of the moment.
AS: Well, you know, it was…when I wrote that song, Henry Cisneros was, I think, the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and he was tipped as a possible vice-presidential running mate for either Mondale or Dukakis. I forget which now. But then, of course, he got embroiled in some sort of a scandal, and he never became vice-president. But in my song, there’s a fishing boat called Henry Cisneros because I assumed he was going to be famous on the national stage. So I probably got that one wrong. [Laughs.] But I like the fact that he’s in it. I don’t think he’s in any other songs!
WH: On a related note, pop culture has a way of revising history in such a way as to leave listeners believing that the songs that have ever existed for an artist are their hits, thereby making their album tracks seem increasingly obscure. Do you find that audience members come by after your shows and say, “My God, I’d never heard that song before”?
AS: Well, I do a lot of obscure stuff. I mean, we don’t do the same set every night, for a start. There are one or two songs that I pretty much play every night, but the rest of it is sort of up for grabs, and we’ll go off on wild tangents. Someone will ask for something that I haven’t even thought of in 35 years, and we’ll have a crack at it, and sometimes it gets into the set. A perfect example…we have this live album, Dave Nachmanoff and I, and “The News from Spain,” which is actually one of my favorite tracks on the album, that came about because in Seattle about five years ago, someone was adamantly yelling out, “Play ‘The News from Spain’!” And I hadn’t sung that song since, what, 1970 or something…? [Laughs.] I couldn’t remember a word of it! Plus, on the record, it has this big piano solo by Rick Wakeman, and I was, like, “Well, you know, we can’t possibly reproduce that.” Well, there were two sets that night. We played the first set, went upstairs, and Dave said, “Well, you know, I can probably do something on the guitar,” and I said, “Yes, but I can’t remember the words!” [Laughs.] So he prompted me, and I got to the stage where I remembered most of it. A couple of lines I couldn’t remember, but I thought, “Well, I’ll make something up. It’s not that hard.” So we went out and we played “The News from Spain,” and Dave played this great big solo at the end of it, and I thought, “You know what? It kind of works!” So then we stuck it in the set, and it ended up on the live record. That’s since happened with a whole bunch of things, things I didn’t think we could do. I didn’t think we could do “Life in Dark Water,” but that ended up on the record, too, just because Dave went out and learned the solo. I thought it could only be done on electric guitar, but I think it sounds fine on acoustic.
WH: Another song that’s on that album that I was pleasantly surprised to find rescued from obscurity is “Warren Harding.”
AS: Yes! [Laughs.] And that’s an interesting one, too, ‘cause Past Present & Future is one of my favorite records that I’ve ever made, and I had played every single track on that record live except for “Warren Harding.” It was the only one I’d never played. And that was how that came about. It was literally the last thing on that album that I’d never played, so I thought, “Well, I’ve played everyone else, so let’s give that one a go.” And, of course, that one ended up on Uncorked as well. Things just get rotated all the time. I’ll have a fetish for a song for awhile. Like “Where Are They Now,” for example. I love that song. And “Optical Illusion.” I love that song, too. “The Dark and Rolling Sea.” So I would play them incessantly at every gig for, like, a year and a half, and then I would just completely wear them out. So I haven’t played “Where Are they Now” or “Optical Illusion” in the last ten years, I don’t think. [Laughs.] But before that, I was playing them every night. So things rotate. Like, I’ll discover a song that I haven’t played for a long time, and it’ll be in the set for six months, and then it’ll drop out and I won’t play it again. A good example of that is “Red Toupee.” I played “Red Toupee” a lot in the early ‘90s, but I don’t think I’ve done it in…oooooooh, maybe ten years? So that would be fun to do again. What happens is that you get far enough away from them that they almost become new again. And in some cases, I’ve forgotten that I’ve wrote them! I’ll dig something out, and I’ll start reading the lyric, and I’ll have no memory of having written it! I’ll go, “Wow, I like this line. Did I write that? That’s good!” [Laughs.]
WH: The last studio album you released was 2008’s Sparks of Ancient Light. Do you have another one in the works yet?
AS: Well, it’s interesting, because the last two studio albums are among my favorite. Actually, I like A Beach Full of Shells a little bit more than Sparks of Ancient Light, but I like both of those albums more than probably anything I did in the ‘90s. [Laughs.] It’s a tough one, because what’s happened, of course, is that there are no record stores anymore, basically. That’s all gone away. So, you know, you can’t release a record into a vacuum. Actually, with Sparks of Ancient Light and especially, A Beach Full of Shells, I thought I’d finally gotten ‘round to a point in my life where I was making records that I wanted to listen to. I’m very glad that I did those two. But unfortunately, unless they find a new way of delivering music so that it will actually pay for itself, there’s no financial way that I can make new records, ‘cause they cost…well, whatever they cost. They don’t cost as much as they used to, but even so, someone’s got to pay for them, and if there are no record companies and nobody has a way of hearing about them and buying them, then you basically can’t make them.
WH: Have you continued to write songs, though?
AS: Oh, yeah, absolutely! [Laughs.] I just wrote a song about…oh, what was I writing about? Well, I haven’t finished it yet, but “Love in the Rainy Season,” it’s called, and it’s kind of cool. I like it. It sounds like a movie theme. And I wrote a song about a guy who sells sporting equipment! Which begins, “He was a traveling salesman of javelins / Archery goods and supplies / And she was his April surprise.” [Laughs.] It’s a love song. “He went to markets with arrows and targets / And she went along for the ride.” It’s a sporting-goods salesman. I thought, “No one writes about these things!” I probably have two philosophies in life, and they’re not very helpful because they’re not very commercial, but they really amuse the hell out of me, and they’ve become central to what I do. One is, try if humanly possible to write about subjects that no one else has written about…which means everything from Henry Cisneros to the Russian front in World War II to guys who sell sporting equipment. I don’t really care, just write about things that other people aren’t writing about. There’ve been nine songs in the charts called “Hold On.” I don’t want to do that. [Laughs.] And the other thing is, try and use language that other people don’t use, which is why cormorants and pomegranates and antidisestablishmentarianism and other things turn up in my songs when they wouldn’t necessarily turn up in other people’s songs. One song off of A Beach Full of Shells begins, “I sent my majordomo to your amanuenses.” [Laughs.] I mean, who’s going to put “amanuenses” in their song? It tickles me to do this, because there are 87,000 words in the English language, and songwriters tend to use about 200 of them. And I find that incredibly tedious. Why not use all of them? Or as many of them as you can, anyway.
WH: It’s funny, because I was going to say of A Beach Full of Shells that it’s a very educational album. For instance, I was unfamiliar with the Immelman turn, but I’ve since been onto YouTube, where someone has put together a very nice video of a pilot actually performing an Immelman turn, using your song as the soundtrack.
AS: Yes! I mean, that’s another perfect example. Max Immelman, who invented it, is just not in anyone else’s songs. That’s why I put him in that. [Laughs.] There’s another story behind that song, which is that when I wrote “Flying Sorcerer,” off Year of the Cat, which is another one of my favorite songs, I was trying to get an “aileron” in, and I just couldn’t get it in. And it always bugged me. Whenever I listened to “Flying Sorcerer,” I keep thing, “Where’s my ‘aileron’? I want an ‘aileron’ in that song.” But it isn’t there. It should be there, but it isn’t. And eventually it bugged me enough that I actually sat down and wrote another aeronautical piece, “The Immelman Turn,” just to put the word “aileron” into it. [Laughs.] Yeah, I like that I wrote a song about Max Immelman. And mindbogglingly, I played in the Pacific Northwest…oh, it couldn’t be more than a year ago…in a museum, of all things. There’s a little concert hall built into a museum somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and hanging above the stage – I kid you not, and it took my breath away – there was a real live Curtiss Jenny. [Laughs.] So I performed “The Immelman Turn” underneath a Curtiss Jenny. It doesn’t get any better than that.
WH: Because of the fact that your lyrics tend to be decidedly intellectual, or at least challenging to people who are used to songs that are called “Hold On,” do you find that some people find them too intellectually dense?
AS: Yeah. Probably 99% of the population. [Laughs.] But I’m not catering to them. I don’t care about them. I mean, they don’t come to my shows, I don’t go to their shows, they don’t bother me, and I don’t bother them. If you want to listen to KC and the Sunshine Band, great. I don’t have anything against that. But these people live in a different universe to me. I’m not writing for a general audience. I’m writing for an educated audience, which is who comes to my shows. The heavy metal kids, they don’t come, so they don’t bother me. [Laughs.]
WH: No one’s ever going to accuse you of dumbing it down for the mainstream.
AS: No. There’s no reason I should. My theory is that there are enough people who are interested in literature and history that you can make…well, you know, there’s at least one person on the planet who can make a living writing historical folk-rock song. I just happen to be it. [Laughs.] And as I continue to make a very decent living out of it, why would I change? Why would I dumb it down?
WH: When it comes to your audiences now, do you find that they’re predominantly longtime fans, or do you still find the occasional new fan who’s discovered your work in recent years?
AS: Oh, I think it varies. People tend to drag long-suffering husbands and girlfriends along to my shows who’ve never seen them before, and sometimes they’ll be, like, “Oh, I didn’t think I was going to like that…but I quite liked it!” [Laughs.] And, of course, now we’ve reached the point where people who bought Year of the Cat in college, they’ve got teenage kids, and they sometimes drag them along. And that’s an adventure, because they don’t know what to expect. But by and large, I think you can take it anywhere. It seems to…it’s not…I mean, the songs can be complicated, yes, but they’re not presented in a presumptuous manner. I try to make everything humorous. So if I’m going to sing “Helen and Cassandra,” quite often I’ll do a ten-minute introduction about the Trojan War, but I try to make it funny. Like, I’ll say that Helen of Troy was kind of the Lady Gaga of her day. [Laughs.] And you can go off on these riffs on Agamemnon and the rest of it, the golden apple and the judgment and Paris. It’s just such wonderful material for winding into a humorous monologue. And don’t get me started on “Red Toupee.” [Laughs.] If you can’t make that funny, then you shouldn’t be in the business! So, yes, the songs have a fairly high density of literature and history, and they’re very wordy, but, of course, if you can present it in a humorous way, I think the audience can accept it.
WH: And we’ve talked about the obscurities, but for those who are inevitably coming to hear the greatest hits, can I presume that they’ll get those as well?
AS: Well, sometimes. [Laughs.] I have done shows where I haven’t played any of the hits. But I think yes, because I don’t play Suffolk very often, I’ll end up playing “Year of the Cat,” because, you know, it’s kind of silly to make someone sit through a whole evening of things that they don’t know if you won’t play the one song that they do know. [Laughs.] Besides, I don’t have anything against that song, so I’ll probably do it. But it’s fun sometimes to not do it. You have to judge the audience. There are…I suppose there are two different kinds of people who come. I mean, there are people who are nostalgic for their college days, and so many people had Year of the Cat or Time Passages when they were in college, and now they’ve gotten married, they have kids, the kids have grown up and gone away, and they’re, like, “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to hear that song from that album that we used to like?” So there’s an element of that. But then there are another group of people who really don’t want to hear “Year of the Cat.” [Laughs.] They want to hear all of the obscure stuff. There are people who know every word I’ve ever written, d’you know what I mean? For these people, it’s sort of the more obscure, the better. I see them sitting there and yawning if I play “Year of the Cat,” but if I play “The Last Day of June 1934,” they get all excited. [Laughs.]
So you’ve got two different kinds of people, really: the people who know everything, and the people who just know the hits, as you say. So you have to kind of judge what kind of audience you’ve got. If I play, say, an arts center in Tennessee or something, it’s an audience where probably 90% of the people…if it’s a subscription place, then they can go to whatever show they want, and you might have as many as 90% of the people in the audience who don’t know me but who have never heard of me! [Laughs.] With an audience like this, you’ve got to stick pretty clearly to the things that are most likely to make them happy. But by the same ball of chalk, I play these little acoustic listening rooms like McCabe’s in Santa Monica or…well, there’s a whole lot of them around the country, where the audiences are really fanatical and they know everything, and for those, they really, really don’t want the hits. They want to hear songs they’ve never heard me do. So I can get very, very esoteric with an audience like that. But you have to look at the audience and say, “Who have we got here? Have we got people who know everything or people who’ve come in because there’s nothing good on television?” [Laughs.] You have to kind of adapt the set, so usually I play a mixture of both.