Interview: Al Stewart

Al Stewart has written songs about World War I pilots (“Fields of France”), an English sailor (“Lord Grenville”), and the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II (“Roads to Moscow”).

Oh, and then there’s that one about a cat. Well, not really. “Year of the Cat”, which got its name from a book on Vietnamese astrology, is based on the movie Casablanca. This was a huge hit single in America over 40 years ago, and remains in the rotation of many classic rock stations to this day.

Before all this, Stewart was an English folk singer who wrote songs about love lost and found, including the 18-minute epic “Love Chronicles”. (Incidentally, “Love Chronicles” is believed to be the first recording with the word “fucking” in it, but it is used in a descriptive rather than pejorative sense.)

This interview was for a preview article for for Al Stewart’s concert at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai, California on 5/12/18. It was done by phone on 5/2/18.

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming concert?

Al Stewart: I’ve been doing a mix of acoustic shows and electric shows. This one will be a band show, with a band from Chicago called The Empty Pockets. We’ve done 30 or 40 shows with them in the last few months, and for this one we’ll play the entire Year of the Cat album.

JM: Sounds cool! Going back, how would you describe the folk music scene in England and in London when you first started out?

AS: There were probably about ten or twenty people who seemed to be central to it. They fell into different categories. There were the guitar guys – that would be Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, and John Renbourn, all of whom were fabulous fingerstyle guitar players. Bert Jansch was kind of like a god of the English folk scene when I first started. Then you had the mainly lyrical people – that would include Roy Harper and myself, and Ralph McTell who could also play good fingerstyle guitar. Then you have the groups – Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Incredible String Band. So it was a mixture of different styles, but all of it fell under the heading of the English folk scene.

Then you had the guys that had the pop hits like Cat Stevens and Donovan, but they didn’t really play the folk clubs so much because they were more pop stars. And then you had people who had graduated from bands and became solo artists – Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny are good examples of that. And then, of course, there were the traditional artists like Martin Carthy, David Swarbrick, and The Watersons, and people like that. So it was a very diverse scene, and I thought it was very exciting. Looking back on it, all of those people that I mentioned, I think if you put them all together they’ve made hundreds of albums, they’ve written thousands of songs [laughs], sold tens of millions of records, and played pretty much every major concert hall that you can think of. So I thought it was a wonderful thing to be part of.

At the same time, it would’ve been equally wonderful to have been part of the rock scene. Because you had Jimi Hendrix, and you had Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton and people like that. That was great, too, I think. But I found myself in the folk scene by default, because I was a lyric writer. That was where you went if you wanted to write long lyrical songs. You couldn’t really do it in a rock setting, so you ended up playing in folk clubs.

JM: I find it fascinating that you shared a flat with Paul Simon for a short time before either of you were famous. Did you share songwriting tips with each other?

PS: Well, I was very much the kid. I don’t think Paul paid much attention to me at all, except for the fact that when anyone just finishes a song, if you’ve got a new song and you’ve just finished it, your first instinct is to play it to someone to find out if it’s any good. Because I was usually the only other person in the apartment when Paul finished a song [laughs], he had no choice but to play it to me.

I made some serious errors, I think. I remember him finishing “Homeward Bound” and playing it to me. I was sort of moderately happy with it, and I don’t think I was as enthusiastic as I should’ve been. But the next day he wrote “Richard Cory”, and I said, “Oh, that’s absolutely fantastic. ‘Richard Cory’ is the hit. That one you wrote yesterday, throw that one away.” [laughs] I don’t think Paul took too kindly to it.

Yeah, he was there for about three months. It was really amazing because during the course of that time, the little 45 of “Sounds of Silence” arrived in the mail. You know, Tom Wilson the producer had overdubbed electric guitar, bass, and drums onto the track. The original track just had Paul’s acoustic guitar. So we wanted to play it, and I had a wind-up record player, a really primitive record player. But they sent us the jukebox copy – there was no middle to it – and I couldn’t make it go at the right speed [laughs]. So if you envisage the scene, there’s Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and me on our hands and knees in front of this record player, and I’m putting small coins like sixpences in the big hole to try and center it so that it would play properly [laughs]. And this thing goes on to become a Number One single in America. It was amazing, just thinking about us at that period of time, just kneeling on the carpet trying to listen to the damn thing. I mean, there’s a little bit of history there.

JM: Do you remember how Simon and Garfunkel reacted when you finally got it to play at the right speed?

AS: I don’t remember Art saying anything, but I do remember Paul didn’t like it at all. He was very upset. In fact, he called up the record company and he wanted them to redo it. There’s a thing that you can do if you just play acoustic guitar. In order to emphasize the last verse, he ever so slightly slows down, [sings] “And the people bowed and prayed, [ching ching ching, ching ching ching], To the neon god they made”. Which is fine, except of course the bass player and the drummer and the guitar player had no idea it was going to slow down at that point. So if you listen to it there’s a little bit of a trainwreck going on.

Of course it didn’t stop it being Number One, but he did, I think, phone up the record company and ask them to redo it. And they said very politely, “Mr. Simon, your record is now Number One all over New England, and it’s breaking out all over the country. We think you and Mr. Garfunkel should get on the plane and come here immediately.” [laughs] And that was the end of that. It went to Number One.

JM: You’ve crossed paths with a number of notable musicians. One that stood out to me was that you took guitar lessons from Robert Fripp, who happens to be one of my favorite guitarists. Do you have any Fripp stories that you’re willing to share?

AS: I’ve got tons of Fripp stories. He lived just up the street from me, and he was the only kid in the village apart from me who was playing the guitar. We used to catch the bus together. He was probably about 15, I think, and at some point he decided he was going to teach me jazz chords because I didn’t know anything about them. I think I took ten lessons from him, and I hurt my fingers so much trying to play these ridiculous chords [laughs], that I eventually said, “Fripp, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to do this anyway. I don’t want to be a jazz club player. If anything, I want to be Bob Dylan.” [laughs] He said, “Oh, OK, fine.”

Years later, probably about forty years later, I heard that someone had interviewed him, and asked him if any of the people that he had taught had ever made it. And apparently he mentioned my name, and he paused for a moment, and he said, “And he did it by ignoring everything I ever taught him.” [laughs]

JM: Your album Past, Present and Future was a bit of a shift for you as far as subject matter, to more historical themes. What prompted the move to that sort of songwriting?

AS: I had a terrible, disastrous end to a love affair. I was very depressed, actually for a very long time. So I’d made four albums of love songs, pretty much, and I just couldn’t write any more. I’d done it. I’d been there, I’d done that. I’ve always read history, my whole life. So I said, “What else do I know anything about whatsoever?” And I thought, “I’ve got to stop writing about this girl. So I will write an album of historical songs.” It was Plan B. It was the only option I could think of.

When I did it, I thought it had no commercial prospects whatsoever. But when it was released it outsold the first four albums put together. So I thought, “My God, there’s a market for one historical folk-rock singer in the world [laughs]”, and I said, “Thank you very much, I’ll have that.” I’ve actually been doing it ever since.

I’m somewhat amazed that half a century later nobody wants this job. If you were a history professor or you taught in a school, or something, if you bought a guitar and learned half a dozen chords you could do this job. It’s not rocket science. But nobody seems to want it apart from me.

What it has done, it has made these songs completely different. I mean, nobody is writing about 16th century English mariners like “Lord Grenville” or whatever. People just don’t write those kind of songs. But that’s what I like to listen to, and because no one is doing it for me I have to do it myself.

JM: Well, I guess Gordon Lightfoot did something like that.

AS: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. But that’s one song. I have hundreds of them [laughs].

JM: Was your Past, Present and Future album around the first time when you toured America?

AS: I think that was the first time that I had played in America, with that album. We didn’t do a big tour. It was the next album, Modern Times – when that came out I got the job being the opening act on a Linda Ronstadt tour. That went all over America.

JM: Any memories that you’re willing to share from that tour?

AS: By and large, Linda was singing sort of semi-country things. It kind of worked in the northern part of America, but when we went down in the South she was attracting a lot of country fans, and I was singing “Roads to Moscow” and they didn’t like that at all [laughs]. “What the hell are you singing about Russians for? No, we don’t want that – take it away.” It kind of semi-worked, and it kind of semi- didn’t work.

It was interesting. At the time there were only two cities that were playing my records. One was Philadelphia, and one was Seattle. So I’d play all these dates where nobody would listen to me, and then you would go to Philadelphia or Seattle and all of a sudden there were thousands of people and they were all applauding. When I first went to Seattle it was a total shock – there were three thousand people in the audience. It turned out later that KZOK, which was a big FM station there, had played “Roads to Moscow” to death. I mean, that was probably the only radio station in America that had played it. They conducted a poll around about the time when I first went to Seattle of the most requested songs on KZOK, I think in its entire history. Number One and Number Two were “Layla” and “Stairway to Heaven”, and I can’t remember which order they were in. I think “Stairway to Heaven” was Number One and “Layla” was Number Two. And “Roads to Moscow” was Number Three [laughs]. It hadn’t been played anywhere else in America. So you from playing to 30 people to playing for 3000, who are all cheering. It was just radio airplay, and that’s the only thing that did it.

JM: For Modern Times and a few albums after that you had Alan Parsons as a producer. How would you describe him as a producer?

AS: He was very attentive to detail. The producers I’d had before that, you’d play the song maybe half a dozen times until you got a good version of it, and you’d do a few overdubs and do a few vocals on it and that was that. But with Alan, there’s no such thing as one acoustic guitar track with him. It’s usually eight [laughs]. “Lord Grenville” is a perfect example of that. Peter White and I were sitting around a microphone just doing constant overdubs. I mean, every time you think you’re hearing one guitar, you’re probably hearing six or eight or ten or something. So the sound was big and fat, and the records sound a lot better if you do them that way. But of course it takes a really long time. I was used to doing an album in a week, and I think “Year of the Cat” probably took more like a year [laughs].

I just actually had dinner with Alan Parsons. I was on a cruise – The Moody Blues have this cruise ship that goes out every year. In January, I was on it and Alan was on it, too.

JM: Year of the Cat was the album that really took off for you. When you look back on that a little over 40 years later, what are your reflections on that particular album?

AS: Well, as I said, it look a long time to do. When I was done, I remember I finished it at something like 9:00 in the morning or something. Alan needed to go somewhere, so we needed to mix the whole thing and it took all night. The sun had come up. I had this apartment in West Hollywood. I remember taking the tape – it was like a reel to reel tape at that time – and playing it. Because in the studio it’s one thing. In the studio it sounds enormous, because you have these giant speakers. But I wanted to see what it sounded like on my home system. So I played it back, and I remember thinking, “That’s probably about as good as I can do. I don’t think I can do anything better than that” [laughs]. It was 10:00 in the morning, and I just went to bed with a smile on my face. I thought, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to it, but if that’s not a hit, I can’t make one.” Then, fortunately it was [laughs].

JM: Do you remember when the song “Year of the Cat” reached the Top Ten?

AS: Yeah, I can tell you the exact moment when I knew that song was going to be a hit. It was Christmas time, and the record had been out for three months already. Not the single, the album. It had been going up the charts very slowly. I think it was it the Twenties or something. The single had come out, and it got stuck somewhere around Number Fifty [laughs]. The problem was that there was a chain of AM radio stations that just weren’t going for it. They just weren’t going to get it. They weren’t going to play it. And they were huge. WRKO, I think, in Boston. KHJ maybe in Los Angeles. It was Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles,… There were eight of these stations and they all belonged to the same chain. It was called the RKO Chain, and we couldn’t get any of them. In those days the charts were based on airplay, so without getting at least one of the RKO stations there was no way it was going to get even into the Top Thirty, I don’t think.

So I’m just about to go onstage, it’s the last show of the year, it’s in Los Angeles, I think, and I’m standing with the guitar and the lights are about to go down. I’m standing next to a ramp – I have to walk up a ramp and go onstage – and as I’m looking at the lights beginning to dim I see the radio promotion guy from the little label that I was on, and he’s running full tilt along the corridor towards me. By the time he reaches me, at this point I’m hearing myself being introduced, he’s out of breath and he’s sputtering. I can’t make out what he’s saying to me, but I hear “RKO”. He’s going, “RKO, RKO!” I think, “Oh my God, WRKO in Boston added the record. That’s going to be a boost.” And I asked him, “Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” He says, “No” [laughs]. “The RKO Chain. All of them! All eight of them have added your record!” And that, of course, meant it was going to be a hit. I walked onstage for that final show of the year in 1976 knowing that I was about to have the first hit record of my life. The audience didn’t know, but I knew [laughs].

JM: Is that around the time that you moved to California?

AS: The way it worked, I came over, I think, to do the vocals, and it took a long time. The record company wanted me to stay around, so I got an apartment, and every week that the record went up in the charts they gave me a piece of furniture [laughs]. I think I began with just a bed or something, and then I got a table, then I got some chairs, then I got a record player and some albums. It went on for a very, very, very long time, because that record, it was something like six months or seven months that I was on the road. I started the tour in September, and I didn’t finish it until the following April, I think.

By the time I was done, they said, “Well, you can go back to England now.” And I said, “I don’t really want to.” I mean, England was on strike at the time. We had a Prime Minister called James Callaghan, and he managed to get the whole country [laughs] to go on strike. The rubbish was piled up in the streets in London, and I said, “I don’t really fancy that. I like the sunshine. I want to stay in California.” So I did go back briefly to sell my house that I had over there. I came back again and I’ve been in California ever since.

JM: A lot of Brits end up here, Alan Parsons being another example.

AS: “Year of the Cat” was really not a big hit in the U.K. It was a big hit in crazy countries like El Salvador and Peru [laughs], you know countries where I would never have thought it possible. But because my reputation was so cemented as a folk singer, Radio One didn’t really think of me as somebody that they would want to play on the radio. The net result was that, actually to this very day, I’ve managed to remain a folk singer in England. That’s something I don’t know that I am anywhere else. When I go back to the U.K. now, I do all acoustic concerts, whereas over here I’m playing with a band. It’s almost like having two completely separate careers, in a way. Which I like. I’m actually happy about it [laughs]. But I never crossed over the threshold of being a pop radio star in the U.K. I was a folk singer.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician or an aspiring songwriter?

AS: I’m not in a position to give anyone any advice, because I’m 50 years out of touch with everything. I could have told you how to do it in the ’60’s, perhaps. What sells now? Rap, for example? I don’t know anything about it. My information is useless.

But the best advice, going back in time to when I started, was just simply to stick at it. Because a lot of people don’t. What will happen, if 100 people start out trying to make it in the music business, at some point at least 80 of them will quit because they’re fed up with sleeping on their parents’ couches and making no money [laughs]. They’ll drop out. They just do. So if you start out being the 57th best out of 100 people, you’re pretty much the middle of the pack. That’s how I kind of think of myself. You wait until all the other ones get out of your way, then by default you’ll probably have some success.

I can give you tons of examples of that, of people who stayed in. For example, Andy Summers from The Police, who also comes from my hometown of Bournemouth. Andy used to play around – in fact, I bought a guitar off of him – when I was very young. Between the ages of 17 and 37, I think it was, Andy played in every different kind of band you can think of. He had a jazz quintet for a while – I think he wanted to be Wes Montgomery. Then he played with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, playing R&B for a while. Then he was in a psychedelic band called Dantalion’s Chariot. none of these bands went anywhere. And so, if you’re Andy and you’re 37, and you’ve never had any sort of major pop success in your life, a lot of people at that point would be tempted to say, “Oh, the hell with this. I’m going to go and sell cars” or whatever, “and I want some money.” But he didn’t. He stuck at it. And one day the phone rings and it’s Sting, and he says, “How would you like to join The Police?” And all of a sudden Andy goes into being in the most famous rock band in the world. So, my advice, basically, is stick at it.

JM: What’s in the works? Are you still writing songs? I don’t know if albums make sense anymore.

AS: I don’t think they do. It’s what’s known in the business as a “vanity project”, you know, because people don’t buy them. To me, making an album in 2018 would be rather like investing in candle wax after the invention of electricity [laughs]. You know, we’re not going to be needing so many candles all of a sudden because now we have electric lights. That seems to be what’s happened with CD sales. Within specific genres I’m sure you can sell rap, and you can probably sell heavy metal because it has a really big support base. But historical folk rock, I’m not sure that there are enough people in the world who are buying CDs. My audience is getting a little older, and older people just don’t buy CDs. Unless there’s some sort of a miraculous turnaround and Justin Timberlake decides that historical folk rock is the next big thing and starts mentioning my name, in which case I would make another CD. But lacking in that, I don’t think that I would.

JM: Are you still writing songs?

AS: Oh yeah. Of course, because you do that for your own amusement. That’s why I started writing songs, because it was just something that came automatically to me. I started writing songs when I was 13, and I never really stopped. In fact, I’ve got a demo – 5 new tunes – that I take out and play every now and then. But I really can’t imagine making another record. Never say never. I mean, I certainly believe in that. But I’m well aware of what my peers do, and periodically they put out records that nobody buys, and I don’t want to be that person. I’ve never made a record that sold less than 10,000 copies, and I don’t want to start now. Probably less that 5% of all the albums that were released actually managed to sell 10,000 copies. A lot of them sell 394 or whatever. It takes a year to do one of these things, and it doesn’t make any sense to me.

JM: Well, we’re happy that you’re still out doing the shows.

AS: The crazy thing is that I’m actually busier. I think this month and next month I have a 18 shows, which is a lot of shows. I’m actually busier than I’d been anytime probably in the last 20 years. I don’t know why, at my advanced age, people are coming out to see me, but they are, and I’m grateful. So that’s what I do. It’ll probably all stop at some point, but it hasn’t in the last 55 years [laughs], which goes along with my theory of just sticking at it.


2 comments for “Interview: Al Stewart”

  1. Fabulous interview. Thanks for posting it.

    Posted by Rosemarie | May 9, 2018, 5:25 pm
  2. I very much enjoyed this interview. Al sounds like a down to earth guy who is appreciative of his talent and where it has taken him. I’m glad he is still working too! Good advice, stick to it, no matter what line of work you are in.

    Posted by Cyndi Pipes | June 7, 2018, 10:36 am

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