Maybe it’s not a straight line, but you can trace the vast and varied creative journey of Dave Stewart – the musician, music producer, author, entrepreneur, filmmaker and philanthropist – back to his childhood in Sunderland, England…and to Tennessee.
“When I was a kid, my cousin ran away to Memphis, and he’d send back boxes filled with all these old blues albums,” remembers Stewart. “We hadn’t heard anything like Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf in north east England. It’s why I learned to start playing the guitar. And there are elements of those records – and what I felt when I listened to those records - that still underlie everything I do.”
Granted, the man does a lot. Stewart’s music career alone spans three decades and more than 100 million album sales, highlighted by his collaboration with Annie Lennox in the groundbreaking pop-rock group the Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams [Are Made of This]”, “Would I Lie to You?” and dozens more). Behind the scenes, he’s produced albums and co-written songs for Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Bono, Sinead O’Connor, Mick Jagger, Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi and a host of others, racking up numerous Producer, Songwriter and Grammy Awards along the way.
Stewart’s work outside of the music world is just as impressive. He’s released a highly-regarded business tome now in eight languages (The Business Playground: Where Creativity and Commerce Collide), directed a number of short films and movies (including 2000’s Honest, which debuted at Cannes), produced an award-winning documentary that reflected his early musical passions (1991’s Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage to the Crossroads), created a multimedia creative hub with Paul Allen called The Hospital, developed his own media company (Weapons of Mass Entertainment), and participated in a number of philanthropic and non-profit projects, from Greenpeace to Stand Up to Cancer, Stewart also worked personally with Nelson Mandela and helped launch his 46664 campaign using his innovative thinking. He even wrote two comic books (one of which, Zombie Broadway, you might see along the Great White Way sometime in the near future).
And we haven’t even started talking about 2011 yet. “I’ve been kind of busy,” says Stewart, laughing. “I co-produced and co-wrote the new Joss Stone album and I co-produced and co-wrote the new Stevie Nicks record In Your Dreams album. I’m going to go on tour with her soon. I just finished recording with Super Heavy, a new band I created along with Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Damian Marley and A.R. Rahman. I shot full length documentary feature films for Stevie and Joss and my own project and The Musical “Ghost” based on the Movie is opening in London this month I wrote the songs for “Ghost” with Glen Ballard.
The list goes on (and on…and on…). But most recently, a chance encounter pushed Stewart to take center stage on a project for the first time in over a decade, as well as reconnect with those early music memories. Traveling and stuck in London following a volcanic eruption in Iceland, Stewart wandered into a vintage guitar shop. Drawn to a particular model on the wall, the singer was treated to the shopkeeper’s story about the guitar’s original owner, an eccentric country singer named Red River Dave. Stewart felt a spark. As he puts it, “I walked out of that guitar shop and I not only knew I was going to Nashville, but what something amazing was going to happen there.”
That “something amazing” ended up as The Blackbird Diaries (Razor & Tie/Surfdog Records/Weapons of Mass Entertainment), a whirlwind five-day recording session with some of Nashville’s top session players, recorded at John and Martina McBride’s Blackbird Studio. The album, written by Stewart with co-write assist by Bob Dylan and guest appearances by Stevie Nicks, Martina McBride, Colbie Caillat and The Secret Sisters, is a reflective and story-driven journey, with nods to his blues inspirations (“Magic in the Blues,” “So Long Ago”), the price of success (“Beast Called Fame”) and relationships both lost and found (“Worth the Waiting For,” “All Messed Up”).
Stewart describes the album as thus: “It’s a little Dylan-esque meets Leonard Cohen meets Tom Petty meets Lou Reed meets Johnny Cash sounding kinda thing my low vocals and some quirky Beatles type chords and melodies thrown in.” The country/blues/Americana vibe of the record may come as a surprise to those who are more familiar with Stewart’s work with the more electronic sounds of the Eurythmics, but the musician doesn’t see it as a huge musical leap. (“Even back then, there was a blues element at work – you can hear it in songs like ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Missionary Man,’” he says).
After knocking out the album in astounding five days, Stewart gives credit to new bandmates (Chad Cromwell, Michael Rhodes, Dan Dugmore, Tom Bukovac and Mike Rojas) for his creative flow. “It felt like how bands in the ‘60s, like the Beatles or the Kinks, would record,” he says. “The guys that are in the band all have roots in country and blues and rock. And they would just slam these songs home the first time out.”
Stewart also filmed a companion movie for the album (also entitled The Blackbird Diaries), featuring performances of the songs and an unusual behind-the-scenes look at the making of the record, involving both a fortuneteller and a hypnotist. For Stewart, it was simply another creative outlet. “I used to document everything, even back in the Eurythmics days,” he says. “I think filming and writing and music are all part of the same process.”
Impressed with how Blackbird turned out, Stewart already debuted the album live at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre and plans to tour with his new back-up group (as well as continue recording at the same breakneck pace), while continuing his myriad of projects. But it’s obvious what project he’s currently favoring.
“I used to like just being in the back, being sort of an experimental mad scientist behind the scenes,” says Stewart. “But I’ve done enough of that. I’ve lived to tell a lot of stories, and now I’m comfortable in my own skin. This is the journey I’m going to take from now on.”
A potent and distinctive musical gumbo with rock, blues, country, rhythm & blues and psychedelia, The Ringmaster General (2012) was recorded and mixed by John McBride at the famed studio he owns with Martina McBride, Blackbird Studio. It features thirteen songs including striking duets with Alison Krauss, Diane Birch and Joss Stone as well as one sung with and co-written by Jessie Baylin. The blistering guitar skills of Orianthi are featured as well. As with The Blackbird Diaries, Stewart is backed by some of the finest musicians in Nashville, including guitarist Tom Bukovac, drummer Chad Cromwell, bassist Michael Rhodes, steel guitarist Dan Dugmore and Mike Rojas on piano.
Stewart is honest when he shares, “Well, to me, Nashville has that electric music energy feeling that you get when you arrive in certain cities or towns like Kingston, Jamaica and Havana in Cuba, except Nashville also has the feeling of being in the heart of a huge country (which it is) and it feels kinda like coming home.”
“But it’s mainly about the people I work and play with there. I’ve been so fortunate as to have landed in the arms of the McBrides and becoming part of an extended family. John McBride and I share the same crazy passion for sound and all the guys in the band I record with (and the girls) are up for that wild adventure I like to bring in the studio. All the musicians know I’m going to do lots of different experiments in songwriting and performance and they also know that I don t know what it’s gonna be yet so it makes for an interesting time, a white knuckle ride, and a wild party of sound.”