“Blues Albums Turned My Life Around”: Dave Stewart on New LP ‘Ebony McQueen,’ Eurythmics’ Legacy and Beyond

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Rock Cellar Magazine

Dave Stewart could easily be considered the Zelig of modern day rock and roll. 

He and his Eurythmics partner Annie Lennox came to the rescue when Tom Petty’s house was burned down by an arsonist intent on killing Petty in 1987. It was his home in Los Angeles where the Traveling Wilburys recorded their first album. He was there when George Harrison was reworking his magnum opus All Things Must Pass in 1999, not long before the legend’s death. He counts Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as “mates.”

And, of course, his home movies of an impromptu stroll he took around London’s Crouch End with Bob Dylan are the stuff of legend.

Of course, Stewart came to prominence in the early days of MTV as the mastermind behind Eurythmics, and, with Lennox, owned the fledgling network’s airwaves for the better part of five years, catapulting the group to rarified superstar status, and selling more than 100 million albums in the process.

In June, the pair was inducted into the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame. And later this year, Eurythmics will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the 2022 class that also includes Eminem and Dolly Parton, among others.

Stewart’s latest project is the remarkable Ebony McQueen. If this were the 1970s, Ebony McQueen would be called a rock opera, and FM radio, music obsessives and stoners alike would be spinning it endlessly, trying to pick out the myriad influences and discern the bigger meanings buried in the story of a boy from Sunderland, England, who encounters the title character — a long-dead blues legend, but “not really a ghost,” insists Stewart — and goes on the adventure of a lifetime, not all that dissimilar to Stewart’s remarkable life story.

Not surprisingly, the album will soon be both a major motion picture and West End (and most likely Broadway) musical.

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Below, Stewart talks to Rock Cellar about the dual honor of being honored by the Rock Hall and Songwriters Hall this year, his inspirations behind Ebony McQueen, and his secret for being the best record producer possible. 

Rock Cellar: Congratulations on your inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I’m really curious, because I was around when Tom Petty was inducted into the Songwriters Hall, because he was in town here in New York City playing some shows with Mudcrutch. I wasn’t around him when he got into the Rock Hall, but Tom, at that point in his life, he’d done it all. There weren’t many mountaintops to climb at that point. And at the Songwriters Hall induction, it was formidable company.

I got the impression that the Songwriters Hall induction meant more to him than the Rock Hall. I think he used the words “beauty contest” about the Rock Hall. I don’t want to put down the Rock Hall — I’m a voter, I love it, and I’m sure you’re honored to be inducted — but as a songwriter, it has to mean a lot to you. 

Dave Stewart: Yeah, it’s funny you said that, because what I love about the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as opposed to many awards shows, is you’re there sitting next to an 80-year-old guy and you can’t even believe the amount of stuff that guy’s written. There’s people that most of the public haven’t paid much attention to, because many of them aren’t performers. See, my wife … one of her dad’s best friends was Sammy Cahn. Think of everything he wrote –“My Kind of Town,” and so many others — he got real respect from the great singer/performers, like Elvis and Frank Sinatra and many great soul singers, and all the great songwriters and great lyricists.

To be in that company is just amazing to me. But the funny thing is, I said on the red carpet, Mariah Carey was also being inducted that night, who I’d first met probably when she’d just got signed, and who’s voice is full-out — she can sort of sing the telephone directory. Amazing voice. But she also wrote tons of songs that people forget that she actually wrote. And one of them, the Christmas one, is always number one during the holiday season.

So, that side of it is really exciting to me, too, because my brain is so eclectic. [Laughter]

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Rock Cellar: I had this conversation with Jimmy Page once. I was interviewing him about Zeppelin, and I was saying, “Look, your band was not my band. They were my brother’s band. I was more a Who, Kinks, Small Faces guy.” And we were talking about bootlegs, and he said, “Oh, well, how many Led Zeppelin bootlegs do you have?” And I had them on a hard drive, so I knew, and I said, “Oh, I have 256.”

And he laughed and asked, “Well, if you’re not a Led Zeppelin fan, why do you have 256 Led Zeppelin bootlegs?” And I said, “Well, because you’re Led Zeppelin. Even though I’m not maybe a rabid fan, I want to try to understand what made you tick; what was great and what wasn’t so one day maybe I can draw from that. Or even just to know it. Because it is Led Zeppelin. It’s an important and significant thing to understand.” And he seemed to really love that, and we’ve always gotten along really well, because that’s a sort of respect that he understood and remembers. I think all songwriters have a part of them that’s always looking for new sounds and new inspiration. It’s like Sammy Cahn. That music is in your DNA somewhere. Or Led Zeppelin, I’m sure. [Laughter]

Dave Stewart: Absolutely. With Sammy Cahn, or some of the other standards I grew up with, where you have things placed on top of each other, so that it’s a sort of cascade of melodies that can tumble over each other, that was something I became very interested in and was used a lot in Eurythmics songs. I was suggesting things that I knew would reappear later somewhere else. And that’s conscious and subconscious, you know? As for Led Zeppelin, you know the guitar solo on “Kashmir,” right?

Rock Cellar: Of course.

Dave Stewart: I remember I was in the studio with Stevie Nicks, and I had written this song and there was something missing. And then she was going, “Why don’t you play a guitar solo like ‘Kashmir?’” And it was good that I had that reference point in my head, and if you listen for it, you’ll hear it. It’s a pretty powerful “rock” moment. I did it on a stage with her, as well, and I realized she was exactly right. It was exactly what that thing needed.

And her suggestion came from the same place, because when you talk to Stevie, she loves all pop music, like Elton. Everything. You could sit and talk about anybody’s song, whether it’s Janis Joplin or some eighties, like Talk Talk, and she’d go, “Yeah,” and then sing you a bit. 

Rock Cellar: So, then, maybe the Songwriters Hall of Fame is about craft, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is — well, it’s certainly about achievement — but it’s almost luck, that a band makes it in. Did it mean more to you, because of that? 

Dave Stewart: Being acknowledged for the songs that Annie and I had written, and that we were being inducted together for, was very meaningful because we came from the MTV era, with people getting sort of shocked at the way Annie looked and all that sort of stuff. So, to be there because we wrote those songs that were actually solid — strong lyrics, melodies, arrangements — that was a great thing for us.

But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well, we are pleased. Because when people think of Eurythmics, there’s a lot of “Oh, they’re not a band,” this and that. But if they ever went to see us live, they would get shocked and realize, “Oh, my God. Hang on. They’re, like, a full-on assault.” And so, if people go, “Well, why are they in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” Well, they can come see us live; they’ll see why.

Rock Cellar: “Would I Lie to You” is all the evidence they need, but okay. 

Dave Stewart: Yeah, or “Missionary Man” or any of these songs. But live, any of those sadder songs like “The Miracle of Luck,” there’s a sort of drama and dynamics. So, yeah, we are equally excited about both, but the Songwriters Hall of Fame did have a special thing to it because of everything I mentioned and the disparate kind of songwriters beforehand alongside … us, you know?

You just have to be respectful, because for anyone who knows what it’s like writing a song, you just drive yourself mad trying to do it.

Rock Cellar: So, let’s talk about Ebony McQueen. Here’s the thing — and I mean this in the best possible way — people do not make records like this anymore. It’s incredibly ambitious. It’s stylistically all over the place, but incredibly cohesive, which takes, of course, time and attention to detail to get right. But it’s also one of those records that the more time you spend with it, it kind of unfolds.

And, of course, if beyond the record there’s going to be a film and a theatrical production, you want it to be both immediate and unfold in that way.

Dave Stewart: Exactly, yeah.

Rock Cellar: I’ve got to ask you: Did this come about because you were, during the pandemic, stuck at home doing demos? Like, you had five and then, all of a sudden, you had 50? 

Dave Stewart: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll just get this little, tiny 12-string. [Picks up guitar] I was chatting to a couple of local people here, and this one woman was saying that she didn’t like her married name, she preferred her unmarried name. Her maiden name. I said, “What’s that? She said, “McQueen. And my first name’s Ebony.”

I got on my bike, and for some reason I had this [vocalizing] “Ebony McQueen, I think I met her once inside a time machine. She was working on an island made of green. And she already knew everything about my story. Ebony…” I had no idea why I sang it. I was just singing it on the bike and then I started whistling it. And I thought, “what the hell is this about?”

In the house, I only play vinyl. All very old blues records and very old, old school gospel, and old reggae and ska. And I pulled out my old Robert Johnson album, I put it on and went, “oh yeah. Fucking hell.” That was it. That was the beginning.

Rock Cellar: That’s quite an origin story. 

Dave Stewart: Indeed. I started writing it down and I started thinking, “This record actually was the portal to everything that was right when everything had gone really crashing down in a wrong way in my life. My mom had left my dad when I was, like, 13. My brother had gone to university. My dad was depressed. And I wanted to play soccer for Sunderland. I wasn’t interested in music at all.

But this guy — not his fault — he slid in the mud and he sort of broke my knee backwards. I had this major operation. I went from top of the class to bottom of the class in one year. Everything was wrong.

I started to look at that, and I realized that was blues albums — Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt — turned my life around. My dad had received those albums from Memphis, but he hadn’t opened them, you know, because he was a bit depressed. And I noticed the stamp from America, which was very exotic, as a kid living in Sunderland! “What the hell is this?”

I had a cast on my leg, I had nothing to do, so I opened them and that was it. And then, by me talking to that woman — well, you know, you write songs, you can’t say why — but just by talking to her it opened up this labyrinth of stuff. And then I started, like, ferociously going, “hang on a minute, yes, that happened, and then this happened,” and I started to piece together how I climbed out of the well of sorrow I was in. 

Rock Cellar: And just timing-wise, this is what, mid-sixties?

Dave Stewart: Oh yeah, you see, I was 14 in 1966. But in the film, you’re very restricted using 13- to 14-year-olds, so I moved it to 18, because that still was the hangover of the Beatles, in 1971, and Bowie came out with Hunky Dory and then Lou Reed had Transformer and Neil Young came out with Harvest. But I really hover in the influences that were going on in my brain in 1966. The Kinks, the Beatles.

Rock Cellar: The Small Faces? I hear the inspiration of the Small Faces, too.

Dave Stewart: The Small Faces. Yes! All of that kind of “Itchycoo Park” world. It’s not psychedelic, really. It’s tight phrasing and singing straightforward lyrics, a bit like Kinks or something. So, I’m paying homage to the Beatles and the Kinks and those influences.

I’d heard this blues album, and then I put the radio on, and all of a sudden, it was almost like colors coming out of the radio, and that’s why I go — music is not blind to the way you feel, it’s always real, so many colors to reveal. So, I was blessed that I was born at the perfect time to realize, switch on the radio in 1966, at 14 years old.

When you’re 14, you’re like a sponge still. And because I wasn’t interested in music, because I was only obsessed with soccer, I was kind of behind a lot of people, right? It was new to me. I probably sat in the kitchen for eight hours straight until my dad came home, just going, “Oh, my god. What is this?”

“Anyone Who Had a Heart” by Dusty Springfield. Like, blimey. Listening to arrangements and then I realized, “This is the important thing about this record.” At the same time, my dad was obsessed with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, and he made a stereo in his workshop, with the wood, and sent away to Grundig in Germany, and he put these speakers in the corner of the room like people do now, in the ceiling.

And he’d play South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Loud! [Laughter.] And it was pure, perfect vinyl coming out of Grundig speakers. And we just stood in the middle of the room in awe, like, “fucking hell,” you know? You could hear everything, all the orchestration. He carried on doing this for about five years: The King and I, the Flower Drum Song, Oklahoma!, you name it, he got it straightaway. And so, it was drummed in my head. 

Rock Cellar: You absorbed it into your DNA.

Dave Stewart: Yeah, but I didn’t realize that until I was about 31 making the Eurythmics record, and I would come up with these mad arrangements, like the bridge of “There Must be an Angel.” I came up with this thing and a harp and we had this string arrangement and all this stuff. On Ebony McQueen, I had a 60-piece orchestra, and I added all these little things, little sort of piccolos and little flutes, and they’re all coming from this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical kind of orchestration.

So, in the actual musical version, on the stage — by the way, the film version we’re sort of making will be slightly different, more Harold and Maude-ish kind of world — but in the musical version, I’m going to use all those tricks in the orchestration. 

Rock Cellar: And did you have that vision right away, or were you just making a record?

Dave Stewart: Actually, I thought, “OK, it’s going to be a film and it’s going to be a musical and I’m going to put in it the things that were blowing my mind from putting on that blues record, the radio, and the start of I want to play myself and be a band.”

And that all happens in the film. But, right away, I thought, rather than using an original blues artist, which would be very complicated, I’ll invent one. And I thought, hang on, I’ll make Ebony McQueen this fictitious blues artist, and I’ll make it a female blues artist. That person appears onscreen, you know, not like a ghost, but in reality, in Sunderland. And I liked the fact that it was so madly out of place.

I’m trying to tell her, like, “Fucking shut up.” Because I’m so nervous that my dad will think — people will think — I’m mad! 

Rock Cellar: And I have to say, too, from a storytelling standpoint, making it a woman opens up so many doors. And the dynamic changes completely. 

Dave Stewart: Exactly. And, also, the girl next door and I fall in love. And she’s in the movie, this Indian girl, and so now we’re going to the roots of blues music coming from Africa, which then merges with Indian music, and her world is so colorful, and she’s the one that understands that I see this voodoo. Because it’s normal to her.

She has, in India, Ganesh and all these characters. And so, at that point we can go anywhere. But it all begins in ‘66, when I discovered pop radio, while I was stuck at home, and was like, “Jesus, hang on a minute, there’s something here that might save me.” And there was. And it was music. So, that’s what the whole bloody thing’s about.

Rock Cellar: I’ve also got to imagine that you were able to draw from the really enviable list of people you’ve collaborated with, and the experiences you’ve had working with and knowing them. George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Ringo, Petty, David Bowie, and so many others. 

Dave Stewart: Well, the thing is … I’ve never tried to be a record producer or anything like that. I was just very interested in people and sort of having an inspirational good time. Mick Jagger, in the foreword of my memoir, had a funny opening.

He said that, with me, often it suddenly goes into this sort of rabbit hole of things, and you go along with it, because it’s like, “Oh, okay. This could be fun.” And then, out of that, it’s suddenly like a magician and flowers appear. “Oh, there’s a song. All right.” Or maybe it’s a little eight-millimeter funny cinefilm of me and Bob Dylan in Crouch End.

Rock Cellar: I know it all too well, yes.

Dave Stewart: It’s just … “Let’s do this.” “Why not?” “Yeah, what’s stopping us?” A lot of people, I think, they stop at the last minute and go, “Oh, hang on, that might be too chaotic.” Or dangerous. Or, “I don’t know, I’m not sure about that.”

Whereas I will just fucking dive off the diving board and see what happens!

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