Interview with Kevin O’Hare

After four highly successful volumes of his “Great American Songbook” albums, which sold a combined 15 million copies worldwide since the first release in 2002, the British singer is moving from standards to vintage rock cover songs on his new album “Still the Same … Great Rock Classics of Our Time.”

The disc, due out Tuesday on J Records, features Stewart’s raspy and soulful interpretations of past hits by the likes of Bob Seger, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

At 61, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer remains one of music’s most colourful and captivating characters. From his early days with the Faces, through huge solo hits like “Maggie May,” “The First Cut Is the Deepest” and “Tonight’s the Night,” Stewart has carried on an impressive career for more than 40 years, and remains a huge draw on the concert circuit.

He’ll be previewing the new album with a show from the Nokia Theatre Times Square in New York City on Monday, which will also be presented that same night at 117 movie theatres nationwide.

A legendary ladies’ man, Stewart is the father of six children, the youngest being Alastair, his child with his fiancée, Penny Lancaster. Alastair will celebrate his first birthday in November.

The singer talked about his music, his heavy drinking days with the Faces, his recovery from cancer and the current state of rock radio during a recent phone interview from Beverly Hills, Calif.

Q: After recording the four tremendously successful “Great American Songbook” albums, why did you decide to return to rock?

A: Well, I think we took the “American Songbook” as far as we possibly could. That’s not saying there won’t be five, six or seven somewhere down the line, but I went to meet (producer) Clive (Davis) when we decided to do another album. I wanted to do a blue-eyed soul album. And Clive said, “No, I think it’s about time you did a rock album.” So I said, “OK, Clive, what do you think we should do?” He said, “The first song you should do is `Me and Bobby McGee.”‘ It didn’t finish up on the album, but most of the songs were written around the ’70s. But it was really Clive Davis’ idea.

Q: What songs from the new album mean the most to you?

A: I think if there was one song which really meant a lot, probably it would be “Father and Son,” for obvious reasons. And then the other one would be “It’s a Heartache,” because I remember when that one came out (on a single by Bonnie Tyler), everyone was phoning me up saying, “Why didn’t you do that song? She’s trying to sound like you.” So I had to wait all this time to get my teeth into it.

Q: The single is a great version of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” Were you a John Fogerty/Creedence Clearwater Revival fan during their heyday, or were you too busy playing your own music to actually have a chance to listen much to what was playing on the radio?

A: No, no, no, when we were with the Faces and the Jeff Beck Group, I was very aware of John’s voice. In my style of singing you’re always looking for someone else who sings in the same way — there’s a brotherhood there — Bob Seger and the like. So I remember that era very well.

Q: In an interview with Billboard in 2005 you stated that the American Songbooks were your greatest musical achievement. That’s quite a statement given the tremendous success of some of your classics like “Maggie May,” “Gasoline Alley,” etc., etc. Why do you feel so passionately about the American Songbooks?

A: Simply because it was an absolute life-threatening risk. Even the night before the (first) album came out, I remember phoning up my manager and saying: “My God, I feel like a rock ‘n’ roll, y’know, I just feel like I’ve left the flag down somewhat.” And he said, “No, these will stand up on their own. Clive believes in it, we all believe in it. You enjoyed it, and if you enjoyed singing these songs hopefully it will come across that you enjoyed singing them.”

I felt like a rock ‘n’ roll traitor, that was the word I was looking for. But they were such wonderful songs to sing. Not only that, I wouldn’t use the word “difficult,” but you had to give them 100 percent attention, y’know, because there are so many nuances in those “Great American Songbook” songs that you could overlook and miss certain little points that were sung by other singers that are very important.

I was just pleased it was a success and pleased that after 20-odd years I wanted to sing these songs, having been brought up with my parents and me brothers and sisters on them. After the first one, I figured I’ve actually got one in the can and that would have been it for me. I’ve done something. I got it off my chest. But to do two, three and four was a dream come true.

Q: In that same interview you were very generous concerning the fact that mainstream radio rarely plays new material from veteran artists. Yet you also said, “But if I should make a bloody rock ‘n’ roll record, they better play it.” Well, now you have. Still feel the same?

A: (Laughter) Well, remember these are not songs I’ve written, but this is more of a concept album. But I must say I’m really pleased at Bob Seger’s recent success. Not just because I’ve always admired him as a singer, but his new album has just gone in the Top 10. That’s wonderful. So he’s broken the mould.

Q: A personal question. Can you tell me a bit about your feelings when you first learned that you had cancer (in 2000) and whether you feel the way you bounced back from it can inspire other people?

A: Yeah, I’m always a little reluctant to talk about it because people say, “Well, he battled cancer.” Battling cancer to me is someone who has to go onto chemotherapy and is literally in a hospital for months on end with their life hanging by a thread.

I don’t want to be considered like that ’cause I was so bloody lucky. I went into a hospital for a check-up, had a scan and they said, “Hold on, we’ve found something on your thyroid gland and if you’re gonna have cancer, this is the one to have because it’s the easiest one to get rid of if detected early.”

So, in saying that, it was still, you can’t express to anybody once someone mentions “The Big C” to you, that you’ve actually got it. Especially someone like me who considered himself to be absolutely super fit. This doesn’t happen to Rod, the football-playing, keep-fit guy. When it happened to me, it was just, um, earth-shattering is the only word I can think of.

Q: After the medical treatments, did you have to go through special training to regain your vocal strength?

A: That was a whole different story. I was right in the middle of making “Human.” So some of the vocals on that album, I’d go in one night and sing one line of the song and that was it, my voice would pack up, and I’d have to go in and sing another line the next night. It would take me a week just to get through one vocal. But it came back slowly, slowly, slowly. Thank the Lord its come back better than it ever was for some reason.

Q: Is there any type of music that you don’t like? You’ve done so many styles.

A: There’s nothing I don’t like. Most of it I like, though some I don’t bother to listen to. I’m not a great lover of rap music, I don’t quite get it and I don’t think most of the people in my generation do. But I can understand why the kids like it. It’s different, and its one form of music that hasn’t been handed down from the parents, y’know, and it’s brand new.

Q: Just like rock and roll in the early days.

A: Exactly.

Q: I know you’re headed out on the road again. Is the Times Square show kicking off a new round of touring? And why do you think fans keep coming back to see you again and again?

A: Oh, I must have a nice bottom (laughter). I think it’s probably because people want to go see a show where they know more than two or three songs in two hours.

With my songs, especially with this new collection of stuff, even if I open up with “It’s a Heartache” and follow it with “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” and “If Not for You,” people know these songs already. So I’m already off to a winning start.

But I think the longevity is definitely due to the fact that I’ve always prided myself on giving 110 percent when I walk out on that stage. And the staging that we’ve got for this new tour is amazing. I’m going back in the round. We’re doing it a little like U2, you know they had that special circle. We’re going to have two great big special circles with bar service. We’ll have loads of drunks in the front (laughter).

Q: So is that going to take up a lot of next year?

A: Yes, five months.

Q: What are the chances you’ll ever release any new originals in the future?

A: There’s a good chance, a great chance. I’ve been very inspired. There’s an artist in England called James Morrison who’s just come out with a No. 1 album. And he’s got the best blue-eyed soul voice and rock voice since me. (Laughter) No, I’m kidding. But the way his songs are created, the way he’s put his songs together are very inspirational.

I beg you to listen to this guy; I’d love for him to be a success over here. He’s everything Robbie Williams thinks he is. This guy’s really got it, the voice, he’s brilliant. Mark that name down, James Morrison.

Q: Lastly, when you think back to your days with the Faces, what are your fondest memories?

A: It was something I’ve never had in any band I’ve been in: the camaraderie. The absolute love of each other, and the protection that we put around each other. It was a brotherhood. We had our own humour, our own drinking styles, our own fashion, our own music. All of those things I’ve missed.

It was probably the most favourable music in a mere five years of my life in the music business I ever had. I’ll never forget it. I love the guys dearly. You know Ronnie Lane’s gone now (Lane died in 1997). But it was the biggest learning experience for me, and the biggest drinking experience. It’s a wonder the rest of us are still alive, we should be pickled. What a band, though, what a band.

Oct. 5, 2006

(Kevin O’Hare is music writer for The Republican of Springfield, Mass. He can be contacted at [email protected].)