If every picture tells a story, so does an album. Time, the new album from Rod Stewart, features his first original material since 1998. He has also released an autobiography, Rod. The singer spoke to The Globe and Mail about songwriting, shyness and street-fighting men.
You said in a recent interview that this new album wasn’t meant to be a breakthrough, and that you were just doing what you do best. What did you mean by that, exactly?
Well, I don’t think there’s really been much in the way of musical breakthroughs for quite a while. The music that I love, rock and roll, does go around in a tight spectrum of more or less the same few chords and the same themes. My best efforts were apparently Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story and a few others, and the use of mandolins, guitars, fiddles and narrative telling. So, the album is a bit of a throwback to the past.
When I think about what you do best, it’s your imaginative cover-song choices, and the inspired versions of tracks like Lennon’s Jealous Guy or the Stones’ Street Fighting Man. We don’t have that on the new album.
Well, I went into a writing phase. I hadn’t written any songs in 20 years. Although, I haven’t been sitting on my bottom. I did The Great American Songbook albums and a couple of others. But the songwriting had laid dormant. So, when we got into our stride, I realized there was more than one song left in the old fiddle.
Even on those great early albums, you often used other people’s songs. In your new book, you talked about Maggie Mae, and how hard it was to write. Songwriting doesn’t come naturally to you?
It’s never been easy. Until this album, it always felt a little like I was back at school, doing my homework. I had so many other things I had to do in the ’70s and the ’80s – getting up to no good, for instance. There were a lot of other things that took over from songwriting. The songs came out eventually, but they didn’t flow. They had to be squeezed out, beaten out of me. But this time, for this album, it was totally the opposite.
In the book, you talk about how self-conscious you were singing your own lyrics in the studio. I wouldn’t think that that sort of insecurity would make for the best performance. Are you a better singer of other people’s material than your own?
I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say. The reason I was insecure was that although I had many, many, many hits, I lacked a bit of confidence. So much so, I used to empty out the studio before a vocal performance. I was shy. I’m a pretty shy guy, believe it or not.
But on those early records there was a fearlessness about you. It seemed to me that you lost some of that, especially on your 2009 album Soulbook, of classic-soul covers. The versions weren’t risky or inspired.
It was a waste of time. We didn’t change the arrangements enough. So, if the arrangements weren’t changed, the vocals have to more or less be carbon copies. They were the same tempo as the originals. Whereas for Street Fighting Man , as you mentioned, we completely turned it upside down, and spun it around. Soulbook did okay. It could have been a bit more adventurous, though.
There have been albums of late, from Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, even Iggy Pop, where themes of mortality are explored. Given your album’s title, Time, I expected some of that from you.
No, we’re not thinking of that at the moment. We are totally full of life. It’s not to say that if I write another album that I wouldn’t tackle that subject. But I’m at a wonderful point of my life. I think it shows on the album. It’s my most personal yet, and it’s wonderfully positive.
This interview has been condensed and edited.