The Writer’s Block: Dave Stewart on His “Surrealist” Nature, Writing with Stevie Nicks, and Musical “Manifestos” with Annie Lennox

“We wouldn’t let anybody else in the room or near us,” Dave Stewart told American Songwriter in 2023 on how he and Eurythmics partner Annie Lennox would often write. “We’d write a song very quickly, sometimes in 20 minutes, then go back into the engineer and say, ‘Alright, we want to record this now,’ and he would go, ‘Right, when did you write that?’”

Starting in the ’70s with his folk-rock band Longdancer, Stewart landed his first record deal with Elton John’s Rocker Record Company when he was still a teen. Throughout the 1970s, Stewart continued writing and collaborating with artists in London before joining The Tourists with then-partner Annie Lennox, before the two broke off as the Eurythmics by 1980.

Along with releasing co-writing and producing the Eurythmics’ nine albums, Stewart’s long line of collaborations spans Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ 1985 hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Shakespears Sister’s “Stay,” and more, along with co-writing with and producing Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks, Bryan Ferry, Jon Bon Jovi, Sinéad O’Connor, Céline Dion, and Katy Perry.

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Dave Stewart (Photo: Kristin Burns)

Stewart’s work stretches across theater and film, producing and expanding his solo catalog, including his 2022 autobiographical album Ebony McQueen, a collection of 26 songs sketching his coming-of-age years growing up in Sunderland in Northern England, his jazz release Cloud Walking from 2023, which was co-produced with pianist Hannah Koppenburg. He also collaborated with Joss Stone on the original music for the musical The Time Traveller’s Wife, based on Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 book and its 2009 film adaptation. 

By 2023, Stewart also launched The Time Experience Project, a collective of writers, composers, actors, and filmmakers, and released the rock opera Who to Love: Time is a Masterpiece with Italian actress Greta Scarano and the Italian band Mokadelic, along with its companion film before closing out The Eurythmics Songbook Tour, without Lennox but with her blessing, in March 2024 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the duo’s breakthrough album.

In 2020, Stewart was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with Lennox for Eurythmics before both reemerged for an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame two years later.

During a recent conversation with American Songwriter, Stewart talked about the more surreal streams of his songwriting, the moment music hit him, and returning to Eurythmics.

[RELATED: 10 Songs You Didn’t Know Dave Stewart Wrote for Other Artists]

American Songwriter: What was the turning point for you with songwriting?

Dave Stewart:
Songs come in naturally. It was only about six months of my teenage life when I discovered music. Before that, I wasn’t interested in music, just soccer. I was about 13 and a half when this kid broke my knee, so that’s when I switched the radio on, around 1966. I was like “F–k.” There were the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. It was a good time to switch the radio on. It was a mind-blowing thing. Most people have grown up with music here. I didn’t even listen to it at all. I didn’t even recognize it.

It was one thing after the other. By the time I’d learned how to play everything it was like 1971, David Bowie brings out Hunky Dory, then Lou Reed with Transformer, and Neil Young had After the Gold Rush.

At first, I didn’t write hardly anything at all. I was really young when I had this sort of epiphany when I nearly died on an operating table. When I woke up, everything had radically changed in my brain. I didn’t doubt myself anymore. You know that thing where you go over words too many times, or go over lyrics, doubting everything about yourself basically? That went out the window. Fortunately, it was just as Annie and I decided to become Eurythmics. So that’s why we made all those albums so fast. I was like, “Okay, on to the next one.”

AS: It sounds like it’s less about “process,” per se, and more stream of consciousness for you.

DS: Now, in my writing—and this happened on Ebony McQueen and Time is a Masterpiece—I don’t even write things down. I sing into the mic and the words come out virtually finished. Then, I just alter them. But I don’t even think about the subject. I don’t think about the rhyming scheme or anything like that. My engineer, he’s always looking at me like “Is this guy nuts?” I’m just seeing a stream of consciousness, and it works a little bit like the Dadaists’ cut-up words [technique]. And then things seem to fall into place.

I’ll look back and see if any of the words rhyme, but it doesn’t seem to matter, because it’s storytelling. I’ll pick up a guitar or ukulele or anything. If I feel something coming on, the only thing I might do is record it on a voicemail. I have a memory like a sieve, so if it’s any good, I’ll be onto something else and I forgot what I did in the first place.

AS: Time is something you seem to keep revisiting, like the earlier period of your musical awakening on Ebony McQueen. How does Time is a Masterpiece fit in all of this?

DS: When you get older, time speeds up, but you don’t know until you hit 55-60. Obviously, it isn’t right, because it’s the same amount of minutes and hours in the day, but you keep thinking, “Oh, yeah, that was 10 years ago.” No, it was 20 years ago. That’s why I wrote Time is a Masterpiece because it’s one of the few things that can’t quite figure out, still. Is everything happening in parallel? Am I young and my age all at the same time?

Memories are dreams. It’s like “Hang on, is all of this stuff that’s happening in a second or is it in  50 years?” Taking a lot of LSD helped me sort of comprehend such things. When you take LSD, you’re gonna think five hours have gone by, and it’s been five seconds, so that time thing is very unusual. It’s a very unusual thing to start thinking about, writing about, and diving into.

[RELATED: Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart on Another Album: “We Always Said, ‘Never Say Never’”]

Dave Stewart (Photo: Courtesy of Milestone Publicity)

AS: Do most songs stem more from the surreal for you?

DS: Time is a Masterpiece is not even explainable because it’s so experimental. It’s an experiential, immersive piece of art-meets-music. But that’s what I like doing. When I was drawing up the idea for the “Sweet Dreams” video it was never straightforward. Can you imagine the record label? They’re like, “Why have you got a cow in the video?” They didn’t understand the surrealism, the metaphors in the lyrics, and all of the hidden messages in the video. They just thought we were nuts. A lot of people said when they were young and it [the video] came on, they were scared.

With Tom Petty when I was doing “Don’t Come Around Here [No More],” I was like “What about a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” and people got scared of that as well with Alice getting cut as a cake.

There’s something about a surrealist view of the world. Anybody who thinks that the way the world is now is all right is not sane. I’m always trying to solve something in some way and make something that is not a comment—not holier than thou. It’s more like creating a sort of alternative world for myself. It’s quite a selfish thing. I like to create a world I feel happy in, that I’m able to work in, and it’s usually outside of the norm.

AS: You’ve worked with some incredible men (Petty, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi, etc.) and also some amazing women including Stevie Nicks (“Cheaper Than Free,” “Everybody Love You”), and most recently Joss Stone. How do you work within another artist’s world?

DS: Writing with Stevie Nicks is completely different. Her whole world is a certain way. She’s American and her influence is different. Then writing with Joss Stone, who is from Devon in England, and is just mad about old soul music… Her last album [Never Forget My Love, which Stewart co-wrote and produced], was more of a Burt Bacharach-type of soul, mixed with strings. I’m quite adaptable in those different worlds, but I suppose the most natural one for me to fall back into is Eurythmics because we haven’t just done one project. We’ve done 40 years of it.

AS: Everything seems to move more swiftly with Annie (Lennox) and Eurythmics.

DS: But they [the songs] don’t sound like that. (Laughs) They sound more labored or crafted because they’re quite complicated words, music, and arrangements. We’re both very musical and had different musical backgrounds, but we had a common love of certain things. We used to write a manifesto in the studio. I still do. I’ve got one here. I write on one side, whatever it is. So for “Sweet Dreams” we had “soul,” “electronic” and all these things, and went “How do we do that, put soul on top of electronic?” On the other side, we would say what we didn’t want. And if we ever saw ourselves wandering on the other side, we’d quickly stop.

AS: If you were to write together again, would it be the same?

DS: I remember Annie came around this apartment (around 2019) I had in Koreatown in Los Angeles, and as usual, the living room was a studio. I had a mini grand piano and we made up with two things immediately. It might be partly because we lived together as a couple for four or five years. And then we were not a couple, but we were together. So, there’s a kind of shorthand, and there’s a knowledge of the other person. So it’s like the bare sort of skeletal thing like “Okay, this is going to fit in this world.” The great thing is we don’t like to have tons of interfering things. Necessity is the mother of invention. So if I had a ukulele, and she had a toy piano, it would still end up sounding like “Here Comes the Rain Again.”

AS: You’ll never have trouble finding inspiration and something new.

DS: If somebody said, “I’ve decided I want to be a pastry chef,” or “I want to get all the plastic out of the sea and turn it into something,” or it could be “I just want to read,” I would understand because you become obsessed with it.

The word retire is a funny word. I didn’t think I had a job anyway. So how could I retire? It’s more like I’m so pleased that music chose me. It’s like finding your dharma. When it hit me, it was like, “Boom.” It was like Bob Marley said. It didn’t hurt.

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain. —Bob Marley

Main Photo: Amy Sussman/WireImage

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