Meeting with Dave Stewart at his Hollywood dream factory is a dizzying experience, not unlike what one imagines visiting Warhol’s factory was like in the day, minus the zombies and cocaine. There’s a whole lot of people in a unified space doing a whole lot of art all the time. To Dave, it’s more Wonka than Warhol, “except instead of candy we make ideas.”
A lot of ideas. The Dave engine, which sprawls over two stories above Hollywood & Vine, goes 24-7, sparking always in many directions at once: besides his myriad musical projects as artist, songwriter and/or producer (including his glorious recent solo album The Blackbird Diaries and his most recent supergroup Superheavy, which includes bandmates Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, A.R. Rahman and Damian Marley), there’s films (he films everything always), books, TV shows, photographs and always more. Dave’s staff is forever editing and mixing and working away to his instructions, though remarkably agile when it comes to showing a visitor a film of Dave and Shakira dancing in a barn, or soloing Stevie Wonder’s miraculous harmonica solo on The Eurythmics’ “There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart).”
He’s the great collaborator. Most famous of course for the Eurythmics, his collaboration with Annie Lennox, his genius is for humbly standing behind the singer – whether it’s Annie or Mick or Tom Petty (they concocted “Don’t Come Around Here No More”) or any of the other stars with whom he’s written songs (such as Bono, Dylan, Bryan Ferry, Stevie Nicks and Sinead O’Connor), and making them shine. “There’s only two kinds of people,” his mother told him. “There are drains and radiators. People who drag you down and people who spark you up.” Without a doubt, Dave Stewart is a radiator. He brings out what is essential and best about an artist, whether it’s Dylan, Petty or Jagger.
He believes that rock and roll should never be over-calculated, and to avoid this, he makes albums fast. “People are so used to taking forever on every project,” he says in signature fedora and shades. “I like to make an album in a week. Just did Joss Stone’s album in six days, did mine in five days. Written and recorded. Annie and I [in Eurythmics] used to take ten days or two weeks top. I was amazed when I found out people would take a whole year. I do it like they did it at Motown – two or three records in a day.”
Of course, just like at Motown, the trick is starting with a great song, and Dave has a remarkable capacity for coming up with a constant stream of them, quickly and unquestioningly. Many of the songs on Blackbird were born on the plane to Nashville. By throwing himself fully into each project and following each spark, his music is as infectious as it is passionate. “I like every aspect of it, even the tiniest noodle on a guitar,” he says, “to writing a song with Dylan. I love it all.”
Also like Motown is the wisdom to be surrounded by great musicians who know how to make a song kick and breathe. Stewart found these players most recently in Nashville, where he recorded The Blackbird Diaries in all of four days at Blackbird Studios. It worked so well he stayed around to record its still-unreleased sequel, The Ringmaster General.
On working with Jagger: “People say, ‘Dave, you’ve written a few songs with Mick.’ I say we’ve written about fifty! Mick only makes a solo album once every ten years or so. But as writers we never stop writing.” To illustrate this point, he asks his assistant Ned to play “Time Drags On,” which is essential Jagger – soulful, visceral and with a greatly tuneful chorus bolstered by a female choir. It sounds like the finished master of Mick’s next hit, yet here it’s just yet another secret treasure waiting for release.
“It used to be you might write 47 songs,” he says, “but only have room for twelve on an album. Then you tour for three years before you do another one. So what do you do with all those songs? Now it’s becoming a world where I can do it all. I can create a cloud and put every song on it, every film, every track. I told Mick he should do ‘Hey You, Get Into My Cloud.’” [Laughs]
When asked about his haunting duet with Colbie Callait, “Bulletproof Vest,” he says, “I like melancholia, especially in a girl’s voice. I like raw blues soul power or melancholy. And usually the best singers can do both. Like Etta James – “And Annie Lennox,” I interject. “Well, yeah,” he agrees. “That was like our whole thing, this melancholy thing that suddenly went very powerful.”
“I think there is great strength and power in things people think are sad. Acceptance of death gives you great strength to live the day. I love a garden when it’s all sort of overgrown and the roses are blood-red, not the bright tight spring buds. I love the tangled disarray where it seems like it’s falling apart. And I’m trying to put that into music and words.”
Ultimately it’s about discovery, about being receptive to the magic soul of a song. “It’s like following Tinkerbell,” he says. “I’m always looking to discover what is the magic thing. The magic thing in it might come from something you weren’t expecting. It might be a mistake or a word that just pops into your head. And what I’ve got the ability to do is just scrap the rest and go for that magic.”