Last fall, I spoke with veteran singer-songwriter Al Stewart by phone shortly after the release of his terrific Appleseed Records album A Beach Full of Shells, which presents a treasure trove of songs and stories sure to delight smart people who love music. In the course of our long chat, the Scotland-born Californian and I covered a lot of material: the CD and its songs and how A Beach Full of Shells fits into the outstanding Stewart catalog, which includes classic LPs Year of the Cat, Love Chronicles, Modern Times, and Between the Wars; how songwriting — though serious — can be a game; airports; love and aging rock and rollers. We also laughed a hell of a lot and talked football. Yes, the sensitive folk-troubadour-slash-wine connoisseur is a devoted gridiron fan. Surprised? Keep reading, you’ll be amused and fascinated. Note: There was very little wine involved in the making of this interview.
Natalie Davis: Al?
Al Stewart: Is that Natalie?
ND: Yes, it is.
AS: I haven’t seen you in a long time! How are you? Are you still in Baltimore?
ND: I am, and we’re all well. How are you?
AS: I’m OK… I think. I’m a little shaky today because of a big dinner party last night. (He laughs.) But generally, I’m alright.
ND: Happy birthday. The big day was not too long ago. Did you have a good time?
AS: I was 90. (We laugh — he actually turned 60.) You know, it’s a very strange thing. For whatever reason, my birthday was on Labor Day. And I’m here in L.A. and pretty much everyone that I knew was, like, gone. I mean, it was like a deserted town. So I had a very, very quiet birthday, which I really enjoyed. I took myself out to dinner and a movie.
ND: That’s great!
AS: Sometimes that’s just a really nice thing to do for your 60th birthday. It’s bad enough that you’re 60 and having it rubbed into your face by everyone you know. So, I had a very quiet birthday.
ND: Sometimes that’s for the best.
AS: Yes, it was for the best. It was thoroughly enjoyable, really.
ND: I understand you’re actually going to perform a birthday concert.
AS: Yeah, I’m doing a show in London at the Barbican.
ND: A magnificent place…
AS: Have you been there?
ND: No, but people I know have told me great things about it.
AS: Yes, it’s modern enough. And it’s sold out — 2,000 people. Pretty damn good for a Tuesday night. I’m impressed. (He laughs.)
ND: (Also laughing) I’m impressed, too.
AS: I should play the Barbican every night.
ND: I understand your other UK tour stops [Fall 2005] are selling well.
AS: We seem to be on a roll at the moment. I just did a run in the northeast and in Texas, and they were all good. I guess. We’ve got to get back to Baltimore.
ND: I agree.
AS: Have you heard the new record [A Beach Full of Shells]?
ND: (Giggles.) Oh, you’re going to interview me? All right. I love the new record.
AS: (Impishly) Oh, good!
ND: It’s a wonderful record. There’s just so much depth in what you do, and when you compare it to most of what you hear in the mainstream marketplace… It’s just a refreshing change, something that makes you think and feel.
AS: What are your favorites?
ND: My favorite song on the album is “Katherine of Oregon.”
AS: Oh, that’s great, ’cause I like that one. It’s the simplest one, in a way; it sort of wrote itself, but it has a certain charm to it.
ND: What led you to write that song?
AS: (The sound of Stewart’s trademarked tenor comes through the phone as he sings some of the opening lyric.) “When I get even more old than I am now / I’ll have a house overlooking the water…”
I don’t know if I will ever have a house overlooking the water. Well, it’s the onset of old age, isn’t it? Sixty was looming at me and I thought, well, I just might move down to L.A. (from his previous Marin County residence). Then I thought that we’re running out of time here, and I wondered what could I possibly do that I haven’t done. And I thought it would be nice to sort of sit on a beach somewhere in a comical hat and be, as I say in the song, “an ancient curmudgeon.” (We laugh.) It seems that’s the most obvious future I can think of.
ND: Well, I’m a bit of a grayhair myself, so this song resonated with me on a lot of levels. I kind of see myself becoming the curmudgeonly grandma.
AS: That’s our duty in life, to become curmudgeonly.
ND: I suppose. But perhaps we aren’t too old to shake things up. Who knows? Perhaps we can.
AS: There you go. But yeah, it’s a straightforward song about growing old — or about thinking about growing old.
ND: It’s the latter — neither of us have reached the former yet. (Al cracks up.) I also liked “Mona Lisa Talking.” That ought to be a single. Are you thinking about radio at all?
AS: You know, it should be a single, in the fantasy world. Probably if I was still living in, um, 1974, it would be a single. But in the real world of Eminem…
ND: Well, that’s true only if you’re limiting your thinking to Clearchannel, Infinity Radio and the like – the corporate mass-market terrestrial radio conduit. But the thing about it is, radio is changing.
AS: I just got a new car and it has this new satellite radio in it — XM — and that’s a revelation. They’ve got an entire channel devoted to singer-songwriters. It’s kind of impressive.
ND: Between XM and Sirius Satellite — and people’s iPods and iTunes — people are finding and programming their own radio. Whole new market.
AS: Well, “Mona Lisa Talking” is indeed the most instantly catchy song on the record. My label, Appleseed Records, is I think geared more toward promoting albums. If we’re talking Warner Brothers or something like that, then the radio single route is the way to do it. That takes a lot of money, and Appleseed is a small label.
ND: But it’s a wonderful little label; they have some talented artists on their roster.
AS: Yeah, yeah, I’m pleased with it. They’re young, they have a lot of folk-related artists. I guess they specialize in ancient curmudgeons. (We laugh.)
ND: Another song I really enjoyed was “The Immelman Turn,” yet another entry into your fine catalog of flying-related songs. There’s “Flying Sorcery,” which has the story of ace Amy Johnson; the tragic tale of a flier who crashes into the “Fields of France” before he can reach his waiting true love; and now, this. Which leads me to something I’ve never asked you, strangely enough: Do you have some particular connection with flying or daredevil pilots?
AS: No, not really. My connection to flight is that 90 percent of my job is spent sitting either in airports or on airplanes. I, what, spend 75 minutes on stage and I usually clock up about 12 hours flying and traveling and waiting in order to get to those 75 minutes on stage. The other day it took me 19 hours to get from L.A. to Albany. Left at 7:00 in the morning and got there at 2:00 the following morning. It drives me nuts, because the gig is not what I’m paid for — what I’m paid for is pushing around baggage and sitting in airports. So I write about airplanes because that’s where I spend so much of my time.
Having said that, I just liked the name…Max Immelman was, I think, a World War I German pilot, and there was just something about the Immelman Turn as a phrase that I liked. A long time ago, I was trying to get the Immelman Turn – just that phrase – and the word “aileron” into “Flying Sorcery,” when I wrote that. I managed to complete “Flying Sorcery” without including either. I had in the back of my mind that I still needed to use “aileron,” the word, in a song. In fact, I think at one point when I was writing “Flying Sorcery,” I wanted to call it “The Immelman Turn”…
AS: …but it became “Flying Sorcery,” because it was actually a better title. But it left me with a title and with a word that hadn’t been used, and so I had to construct another song in order to put them to use. (He chuckles.)
ND: Can’t let it all go to waste.
AS: Of course, it took 30 years to do it. (More laughter.) Musically, it’s an homage to Fairport Convention [the classic British progressive-folk-rock group; members Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, and Martin Lamble -- being under contract to another record company -- performed under pseudonyms on Stewart's 1969 LP Love Chronicles].
ND: Yes! You can definitely hear the Fairport influence in all that intricate fretwork… soooo pretty. I really love that one.
AS: I experienced the craziest coincidence, I think it was last week, or two weeks ago, when I came back from Texas after playing the Cactus Café in Austin. When I got off the plane, I’m coming out of LAX and I need a cab. So I go to stand in a long line for taxis, and I notice that the person in front of me has a guitar case. So I just stand there not paying attention to it for about a minute when it occurs to me that the back of his head looks familiar. So I walk around the side of him and, lo and behold, it’s Richard Thompson.
ND: Oh my! (Al is cackling.)
AS: Whom I haven’t seen in 20 years! So I go, “Richard?” He looks at me and it takes him about a second to realize who it is. So, that was great: We had a long conversation while we waited for a taxi. And then he came round and had tea, so it was fun. It was just extraordinary. If I had been, maybe, three people behind him, I would never have known he was there, but he was literally right in front of me. So, I thought, having done this mock Fairport thing, how amazing that God has seen fit to place Richard Thompson right in front of me in the airport taxi line.
ND: Did you mention the song to him? Do you know if he has heard it?
AS: Oh, no. We were just talking at random; I think we were talking about gardening or something.
ND: Makes sense. I’ve talked with Richard before and it turns out he is a fan of gardening. Well, I guess his Mock Tudor hints at that. And, of course, he is English.
AS: (Laughs.) Quite true. We also got to talk about his son Teddy [Thompson, an up-and-coming singer and guitarist] — you remember, he toured with me a few years ago. Anyway, I thought the whole thing was interesting. Highly unlikely, but interesting, when you think about it. Richard does the same thing I do, and all these other musicians — of course you’re going to bump into them in airports, where they all are.
ND: Yeah, airports or rest stops. I remember running into John Wesley Harding in a rest stop along I-95 one time, oh, this was a couple years ago or so. It was just like, “Oh, hello.” I was working with Julian [Dawson, British singer and songwriter; opened for Stewart at the Bottom Line in New York in 1998] at the time and he had just done a double bill with Wes in upstate New York. He split for his next gig; we split for Julian’s. Two days later, we’re going in different directions along the east coast but bump into each other at the Joyce Kilmer in New Jersey. Too much.
AS: You know, Wes has become an author now. He had a book published.
ND: Yes, I heard. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. He’s so talented and he has an interesting way with words.
AS: Yeah…he didn’t tell anybody about [the book project]. I see him every now and again and I talk to him on the phone, but he never mentioned it until one day when he said, “I’ve written a book.” (Laughs.) It was out of the blue, you know? Lo and behold, he has. And lo and behold, I hear it’s getting good reviews. Actually, I feel a little guilty because I haven’t read it yet either. The very next time I see him, he’s going to want to know if I’ve read his book. I probably should.
ND: I should too, and I will.
AS: The trouble with knowing people is that when they do things like make records and write books, you feel obliged to try and keep up with them.
ND: I’m in the habit of making lists of things that I will get to when I have some time, but unfortunately, things keep piling high…
AS: I know…
ND: … and the list just grows and grows.
AS: I reached a point where I thought of at least 50 books that I was supposed to have read. Eventually, I gave up and said, this just isn’t gonna happen. What are you going to do?
ND: In terms of playing with words, I have to bring up “Royal Courtship.”
AS: Yes! (Laughs heartily.) That’s exactly what it is — my assault on the English language.
ND: A loving assault…
AS: Oh, yes – a loving assault. I always try to put at least one or two words in my songs which, as far as I know, have never been used in songs before. It’s like you’re walking into a football stadium that’s full of words instead of people. Some of them are popular – they’re Madonna or whatever. “Love,” that’s a really popular word; it appears in about, say, 50,000 songs. And then there’s “plenipotentiary.” (Both AL and ND erupt into laughter.)
AS: My take on it is that Love is sitting in the first row on the 50-yard line, surrounded by admirers. All the team players and the press are gathered around Love: “Oh, you’re the greatest thing!” “Can you be in my song?” “No, can you be in my song?” “I want you in my song!” And Plenipotentiary is sitting in the very back row of the stands, totally ignored by everybody. Poor Plenipotentiary has never been in a song; it never even gets used in casual speech. Plenipotentiary is sitting there wondering, “Why can’t I be like Love? Why can’t I be in a song? Help, help, I’m growing old without ever having been used!” And, of course, I march right past Love…
ND: You’ve spent plenty of time there.
AS: Yes… (both laugh) but today, I march past Love and go right to the back row. “Plenipotentiary, I’ve come to put you in a song.” And Plenipotentiary is so happy about this. Plenipotentiary throws its arms around me and kisses me and says, “Oh, this is fantastic! I’ve waited all my life for this moment.” I planned to do it!
ND: (nearly in tears) You performed a linguistic service!
AS: (still laughing) There you are. That’s what I do.
ND: But, all joking aside, the fact remains “Royal Courtship” is a wonderful song.
AS: When I wrote it, I was sitting there thinking of Austria in the early 19th century, but it doesn’t have to be there, it could be anywhere. I mean, a king… Getting married is such palaver: You can’t just walk up to the nearest girl you meet on the street and say, “Hi, honey, you wanna come to the movies?” It just doesn’t work that way. You have to send your people to meet her people. Well, what happens is that everything gets lost in translation when messages are passed between 34 different people. (laughs)
ND: It’s not quite so romantic.
AS: It doesn’t work. It’s like trying to deal [reasonably] with the cable company or something; it just can’t be done. It’s really [about] the breakdown in communication. When I wrote it, I was probably trying to get something repaired in the house. I was probably dealing with people who turn up seven times, but each time they turn up, they don’t have the right equipment or they didn’t get the message or they don’t know ’cause it’s their first day on the job or whatever… There’s just a total breakdown of communication in modern life, I think. Much of it doesn’t work. So, I had all this is the back of my mind and wondered: Has it always been this way? And then I thought, well, in terms of “Royal Courtship,” it pretty well had to be this way. It’s amazing anyone married anybody.
ND: Well, at least for love.
AS: Yes, at least for love. And, in this case, nobody got any satisfaction whatsoever.
ND: Certainly not the amanuensis.
AS: Oh, I like the amanuensis.
ND: That’s a great word. I’m glad to see that someone took it out to dinner.
AS: Along with “acolyte.”
ND: And “vizier.” (Both dissolve in waves of barely controlled laughter.)
AS: The “vizier” only would have worked in Turkish society, but I couldn’t resist the word.
ND: Oh, but it absolutely worked.
AS: Yeah! I think “Royal Courtship” is just a song that nobody else would write. If I didn’t write it, it wouldn’t get done and Plenipotentiary would still be sitting in the back row of the stadium being ignored by everybody, so I just thought it was a valuable service that I have performed.
ND: Absolutely, and a grateful, word-hungry world thanks you.
Don’t miss part two of our chat, wherein folk-rock legend Al Stewart waxes nostalgic about rock and roll (but not about Doris Day) while reminding us that size matters, talks sense about nonsense poetry, and delightfully bends words to his will.
Blogcritics’ featured artist Al Stewart.