At the age of 68, Rod Stewart has returned to songwriting and created the most personal album of his career. He talks to Neil McCormick.
Rod Stewart is trying to think of a word to describe the moment when the idea for a new song first comes to him, when he is humming over chords and suddenly everything comes together. “What is that eureka moment?” he asks. “It begins with a P?” “Epiphany?” I suggest.
“That’s it!” he declares. “I had a piphany!”
It’s a perfect, Spinal Tap-like moment, except Stewart is chuckling in a way that suggests he is in on the joke.
The 68-year-old rock star is everything you might expect, dapper and charming, with a keen sense of his own ridiculousness, and just a hint of something deeper. His hair, dyed blonde and sculpted into windswept spikes, looks like it must have required a tube of gel and hours spent hanging upside down to achieve, which, Stewart admits, “sounds about right”.
The hair warrants a whole chapter in his recent bestselling autobiography. Written with journalist Giles Smith, it is a highly entertaining tale of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, although not in that order of priority. “I was shagging my way round the world, like most blokes probably would if they had my opportunities,” says Stewart of his hedonistic image. “But taking drugs was just a social thing for me.”
He has maintained a fairly rigorous physical fitness regime throughout his life, and still plays football every week in a veterans’ league near his home in Los Angeles, a habit he says “always made me aware of what I put into my body. I’m proud to say I’ve never bought any drugs, but I’d have a little go.”
This rather conforms to another stereotype of Stewart, as one of rock’s stingiest stars, but he laughs that off. “Because of my pride in my Scottish heritage, I used to say things like 'I don’t mind buying a round of drinks but I don’t buy two’. It was something I joked about which has come back to bite me on the ----. I’m shrewd about money, I invest well, and look after it. But it’s in my nature to be generous. I look after people.” Stewart tenderly touches his throat, as if in reverence to the vocal chords that have made him rich. “There’s a lot of money to be earned out of these two little muscles that bang together.”
Music is not really the focus of Stewart’s autobiography, yet it is the key to all the good fortune that this son of a north London plumber feels he has enjoyed in life. The book’s phenomenal success has had a dramatic and unexpected consequence for its author, opening up another chapter in his long career. Next month, Stewart will release a new album, Time, the first containing his own original songs in 15 years, and, indeed, the first ever composed almost entirely of Stewart originals (with one, gorgeous, Tom Waits cover).
“My assumption was that I was finished as a songwriter,” he admits. “I was trapped down all sorts of unhelpful mental alleys.” But working on the book unlocked something. “I was getting up in the middle of the night to write things down, which has never happened to me. I used to hate [songwriting]. It was like being at school, 'Come on, Stewart, you’ve got to finish the lyrics!’ – and you’d get kicked into a room with a bottle of wine. But this was just a pleasure and a joy. I loved every minute of it.”
The result is a collection of songs which he acknowledges may be “more autobiographical than the autobiography” because there is an emotional substance to them that really feels like he is opening his heart. Brighton Beach is a tender, beautifully observed ballad about “the first time I ever fell in love”. His teenage affair resulted in his first daughter, who was put up for adoption immediately after her birth but has subsequently become a part of Stewart’s extended family. Stewart’s delicate, raspy voice is filled with longing as he recalls his early passion and wonders where his first love is now. The reality proves to be rather disappointing. “She don’t want to know,” he says now. “She’s said it publicly. She wants nothing to do with me or our daughter!”
Can’t Stop Me Now is a Celtic rock romp through his early career, dedicated to his late father. “Every time I got rejected, he would always be there for me. Although my big brother told me it wasn’t quite as easy as that, behind my back he was saying 'I’m a bit worried about wee Roddie, is he gonna be all right?’ The music business in those days was terrifying and precarious. Who knew it was going to last 40 years?”
There’s also a big, soulful ballad, It’s Over, which plays like a plea for compassion in the aftermath of recriminatory divorce, “a subject I know a little bit about”. Stewart has been twice divorced, from Alana Hamilton in 1984 and Rachel Hunter in 2006, with two children from each marriage. “It’s the heartbreak for the kids that does me in,” he says. “The second one was very painful, because she left me, there was no one else involved. I wrote it for people that are going through that.”
Elsewhere on this deeply personal album, there is a song of advice to a son, Live the Life, and a ballad of parental affection for all his offspring, Pure Love, which Stewart describes as “something they can play when I’m under the grass”.
The title track deals with anguish over his break-up with Hunter and there are songs about his romantic revival with third wife, Penny Lancaster, with whom he has had two more children. I suggest the one thing missing is an apology for his years of relentless womanising. “The one thing I am desperately ashamed of is the way I would finish relationships,” he admits.
“I can have confrontation with a bloke but never with a woman, I just have to run away from it. It’s sad, its shallow, and I’m embarrassed about it. But it was a long time ago. I was loyal to Rachel for seven years, and I’ve been with Penny for 13. I think I was always looking for that perfect woman, who obviously doesn’t exist. I wanted to be married. I wanted more kids. I’m a family man, at heart.” Rock’s great Lothario catches my eye and laughs. “You don’t look like you believe me!”
There is something fascinating about Stewart. Here is a man capable of writing emotionally acute, beautifully observed songs that have struck a chord with millions, yet in the flesh he is straightforwardly cheery and appears to skate across the surface of life. I always wondered why he didn’t write more songs, since the few that he has put his name to include such classics of melody and narrative as Maggie May, The Killing of Georgie, I Was Only Joking, You Wear it Well and Young Turks. I thought perhaps he was simply a bit lazy, that maybe things came too easy to him, but he denies this is the case. “I’ll sing over some chords, searching, what does [the music] conjure up, where’s the melody taking you? I deliberate over the lyrics, I really do. I’ll come up with one line in a day, and then it might be a couple of days before I come up with the rhyming line. It’s never been easy for me.”
He says he lost confidence in his writing after “a highflying record executive, who shall remain nameless, said he didn’t think anything I was doing was worthy. So my self-esteem took a bash.” When I point out that he doesn’t come across as someone with self-esteem issues, he protests, “Oh, we all have them.” He thinks he has lost his way, musically, a couple of times in his career, first in the early Eighties (“Foolish Behaviour (1980) was a pile of ----, really. Maybe a couple of others were too”) and again in the late Nineties when “I might as well have not made records”.
He rediscovered his mojo and his commercial clout in 2002 with his astonishingly successful American Songbook series, responsible for almost 30 million album sales. “My musical taste has always been wide. I started out as a folky, before I moved on to blues and soul. I took a huge chance with those old standards, though. I remember the night before it came out, I said to my manager, 'ah ----, I’ve committed rock-and-roll suicide.’” His last album was the multimillion selling Merry Christmas Baby, a collection of festive standards. “I’m of an age to do that now. You can’t be sweet 16 forever.”
Does he worry about getting too old to rock? “I’m not trying to fool anyone,” he says. “I’ve never lied about my age. In fact, I’m quite proud of it. But there will come a time, I’m sure, when the bell will ring and you come offstage feeling desperately uncomfortable about what you’re doing, and it will be time to call it quits. Maybe it will happen with this next tour, I don’t know. But then I will do the American Songbook, with a great amount of dignity, a 60-piece orchestra and a Zimmer frame.”
Not just yet, though. Time is his rockiest album in over a decade. And he lets drop that he is talking with Ronnie Wood about a long mooted reunion of the Faces. “I want to sing with my old mates again. In fact, I’d like to see a reunion of the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces. What a bill. That’s a genius idea.”
The Faces retain a special place in Stewart’s heart. “You never knew what was going to happen on stage. We used to like having what we called nasty accidents. I think any entertainer has to have an element of vulnerability about them, so when something goes wrong, I love it. I see pictures of us now in a big heap, the way footballers jump on top of each other after a goal, and it wasn’t the end of the show, this could be half way through. We were all so wonderfully drunk.”
The reunion is unlikely to be quite as debauched. “We’ve all got to realise we’ll be getting together for the sake of nostalgia. We lost Ronnie Lane to multiple sclerosis [in 1997], and Ronnie Wood is now clean, but he’s as funny and sharp-witted as he always was. So all that money he spent on booze and drugs, he didn’t need it. I can’t wait. I love every minute of being up there.”
This, in fact, may be Rod Stewart’s secret. He genuinely loves his job. When I ask what goes through his head when he’s singing, he replies “Sheer joy.” I have heard a lot of singers talk about having to feel every lyric, and channel the emotion of the song like a method actor, but there’s none of that nonsense for Stewart. “I’ve sung The First Cut is the Deepest a thousand, million times,” he says. “I can’t go into a state of heartbreak. I just dig deep with the melody and sing it the best way I can. That’s enough for me.”
As originally seen on Telegraph.co.uk