Dave Stewart was a day away form hopping a plane to Nashville, Tennessee to record an album at Blackbird Studios, when he realized he hadn’t written down any songs.
Stewart, a writer and producer, as well as fifty percent of ’80s pop group the Eurythmics, had met with John and his wife, country singer Martina McBride, owners of Blackbird Studio a few months before on a trip to Nashville, and decided he had to return to the studio to record.
Having just about everything settled and in place, including the musicians, Stewart had a cross Atlantic flight to start sorting out the rest, which became The Blackbird Diaries, his first solo in album in 13 years, featuring collaborations with Bob Dylan, Colbie Caillat, Stevie Nicks and the Secret Sisters, due May 2011.
“I wrote the songs on that morning and in the studio, in the Pancake Pantry and in the bath,” Stewart said.
While writing an album in five days may seem like a crunch, Stewart said he “tend[s] to write everything on the spot.” He also wasn’t starting entirely from scratch.
“I’ve spent years and years writing and producing for other people, but now I’m really enjoying just making stuff for myself too, but the thing is I have a labyrinth of stuff,” Stewart explained. Case in point: “Worth the Waiting For,” a song he co-wrote with Bob Dylan.
Stewart and Dylan got to know each other in the ’80s, at one point spending time at Stewart’s house.
“We were always doing stuff but not really trying to play together or be a band. We recorded lots of stuff, sometimes in my church, sometimes in my kitchen, and put it down on cassettes. One of the bits I really liked,” Stewart said. He took that bit, worked on it and sent it off to Dylan.
For Stewart, writing songs means leaning mostly on autobiographical elements. In “Magic In the Blues” he draws on experiences as a child relating to his parents splitting up, or later in life moving to London and learning to play guitar. He said it was about searching for something.
“Basically, songwriting for me is a little bit like John Lennon said, ‘Say what you mean and put a back beat to it.’” Stewart said. “It’s about letting everything just come forth very quickly and it’s not so much siting down with a white piece of paper in a quiet room for days writing poetry.”
Much in that spirit is “Cheaper than Free,” a duet with Stevie Nicks. “Reese Witherspoon was sitting next to me on a couch in the studio. I was saying I was going to Nashville and she said, ‘You can stay at my condo.’ I’d never been to Nashville at that time, and Stevie said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be cheap.’ And Reese said, “what’s cheaper than free?” He and Nicks turned it into a song.
Apart from the album itself, Stewart is looking to release a film at around the same time. Using footage from the production of The Blackbird Diaries with some fictionalization, like Joss Stone as a fortune teller and singer-songwriter Diane Birch as a hypnotist, Stewart put together a story where the entire process of coming to Nashville and making the album was something of a dream.
Along the lines of “Magic In the Blues,” there’s also a search involved. “It’s sort of this strange search,” Stewart said, “instead of the Holy Grail, it’s some kind of musical grail.”
(Photos: Kristin Burns)