Rod Stewart on Being a Born-Again Songwriter, Future Faces Reunion (Q&A)

Rod Stewart publicity 2013 L
Penny Lancaster

"It's exciting and it's scary," says the 68-year-old singer of releasing new album "Time," his first for Capitol/Universal.

It was starting to seem like Rod Stewart would never make time again in his career for anything but covers albums… but then he made Time, his first collection of non-standards in 12 years. It’s been a full decade and a half since the 68-year-old put out even one self-penned tune, so, as a born-again songwriter, the former rock bad boy had a lot of domestication to catch us up on in the album’s more autobiographical tracks.

In Time, as in his memoir, Rod (which came out in paperback the same day as the new album), Stewart has a lot of romanticism to express toward his third wife, Penny Lancaster, as well as children and parents. If you want to hear about his apparently discarded life of sin, you may want to stick with the book, since the only vaguely debaucherous track he recorded for Time is “Legless,” a mere bonus track.

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Stewart talked about doing his first album of new material after a string of eight successive recordings of old classics, leaving Clive Davis’ label behind for Capitol/Universal, and why, if you sit in the uppermost balcony at his Caesars Palace shows, you should give up on your dream of catching one of his soccer balls.

The Hollywood Reporter: The release of an album like Time is something I wasn’t sure I was going to live to see again.

Rod Stewart: You’re not the only one, mate!

THR: The Great American Songbook series was such a successful franchise for you. Does this feel risky after that reliable course?

Stewart: When you put out an album, there’s always an element of risk. Especially since it’s been nearly 20 years between songwriting. It hasn’t been 20 years between original material. But risk is good. Risk is going forward. And it seems to be getting fairly nice reviews. It’s exciting and it’s scary, because we have to get the great public to like it.

THR: You’re learning a few new tricks to promote it, like going on Twitter, where you recently posted some pictures of yourself with Ron Wood.

Stewart: I love a little twitter now and then. [Laughs] Me and Ronnie were out plotting the Faces’ future.

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THR: So a Faces reunion is not just a rhetorical possibility but a real one?

Stewart: Well, it all depends when Mick [Jagger] and his band decide to knock it on the head. I can’t imagine they’re gonna do anything after they’ve done this tour. So this is what we keep waiting for. It’s either the Stones are doing a tour or I’m doing a tour, and no one can make a commitment, although we do want to do it.

THR: You’ll certainly get a lot of attention if that happens, but you’re already getting a lot for this, because a new Rod Stewart album that isn’t standards seems like a strange and unusual novelty.

Stewart: It’s like an eclipse of the sun!

THR: You’ve said that the standards albums happened in part because starting about 18 years ago, you felt you had the wind knocked out of your sails by record company executives who weren’t into what you were doing at the time.

Stewart: Only one, only one.

THR: Could you be coaxed into naming him?

Stewart: Well, my manager will name him, but I must keep my dignity.

THR: In Clive Davis’ memoir, he recounts signing you in the late ‘90s and writes: “With all due respect… I would not have been interested in discussing an album of original material with him at this stage of his career.” Davis takes a great deal of pride in reestablishing your career with the standards albums. But he mentions that some time between when you did the fourth one and the fifth and final one, the two of you “disagreed on the next step.” Was that a disagreement over you wanting to do an album of new rock material again?

Stewart: No, we never talked about original albums. The thought was -- and I think the thought may still be -- that most of us of our age group don’t have a great deal to say, and can’t get radio play, so therefore it’s a waste of time to make an original album. That may have been Clive’s opinion in those days. He liked to do what he called conceptual or event albums. It couldn’t just be a studio album. But when I [left Sony, where Davis was and] signed with Universal, they wanted a Christmas album, they wanted a country album… and then I said, “How about if I wrote an album?” And I think their opinion was, “Well, you can give it a good try, mate!” But they would have the final opinion whether they put it out or not. And they absolutely fell in love with it. I mean, this is some record label. I’m so pleased I’m with them. They’re so encouraging.

THR: Will you still do the country album or did you get covers projects out of your system?

Stewart: I’m sure I’m gonna do it one day. It’s something I do pretty well. There’s a fine line between rock & roll and country now anyway. If you look at “You’re in My Heart,” one of my songs, it’s very country.

THR: The new album almost seems like a Rod Stewart sampler, touching on different styles from over the course of your career. “Sexual Religion” is a dance track. Then at the other end of things you’ve got the old violin/mandolin sound…

Stewart: Yeah, there’s mandolins and violins over everything like there was on the early albums in the early ‘70s. My favorite instruments are mandolins and acoustic guitars and accordions and dulcimers and all those folkie-type instruments. I’m a folkie at heart.

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THR: You also have a couple of straight-ahead rock songs in “Finest Woman” and the title track, “Time.”

Stewart: Yeah. My favorite is “Can’t Stop Me Now,” which is about my dad and the support he gave me and the rejection I got from just about every label when I first started out when I was about 17, because they couldn’t deal with -- as I say in the song -- my nose, my hair, and my teeth. Not teeth -- clothes, I mean! Sorry. When I was putting the book together, I had lots of meetings with my brothers and my sister and friends. And my older brother Don said to me, “Your dad was very, very worried about you in the early days. He didn’t want to tell you, because he didn’t want to steer you wrong. He wanted you to concentrate on trying to be a singer. But he was very concerned, because it was taking a long time for any shillings to come our way,” as he put it. Because I was being supported by my mom and dad. So that’s what that song’s all about. That’s my favorite track on the album, “You Can’t Stop Me Now,” which we’re about to do on The Voice. [He ended up doing “Finest Woman” instead.]

THR: The album has a lot of songs with autobiographical elements. “Can’t Stop Me Now” name-checks “Maggie Mae.” In “Finest Woman,” you mention a woman’s height, 6’1”, which obviously refers to Penny…

Stewart: That’s me wife, yeah. And there’s “A Pure Love,” which is a love song really for my children. When the old dad’s dead and gone, they can play that and remember me! [Laughs]

THR: It has the essence of a being-away-on-tour song, but I hadn’t thought of the ultimate being away.

Stewart: There’s a lot of ways you could look at that. I actually wrote it because friends of mine, their children have all flown the nest, and their wives are very sad about it, so that was an inspiration for it. You’re always by your children’s side, even if you’re not there.

THR: You’ve got more family stuff on here, with “Live the Life.”

Stewart: Yeah, that’s a veiled song about one of my sons, who’s a hockey player. I was getting concerned. He was only 18 and he was taking his eye off the ball because he’d met a lovely girl and he was thinking about packing it in because he wanted to be with her. But I’m happy to say that he’s back in love with hockey, as he should be. There’s no reason why you can’t do both. That’s what I was trying to tell him. That’s what the theme of the song is all about: Do both, live the life, don’t take your eye off the ball, work hard.

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THR: Your image is tranquil enough now that they’re doing a Mother’s Day promotion, where someone can get a CD or vinyl copy of your album delivered with a bouquet of flowers.

Stewart: That’s news to me, actually. I don’t know anything about that one, mate. Can’t help you there.

THR: But it’s a requisite that albums require a lot of different kinds of promotion now, so…

Stewart: We did the Troubadour the other [week]. That was quite an experience, because I’d never played there, which was unbelievable. When I was with the Jeff Beck Group, we went straight to the Anaheim Convention Center and supported Three Dog Night and Ten Years After. And when we came with the Faces, we went straight to the Forum and the Swing Auditorium up in San Bernardino. So we never played any of the small places here. I saw my daughter play the Troubadour about a year ago, and it was the first time I’d ever gone in there.

THR: So your daughter is doing her own thing musically?

Stewart: She is. She’s taking her time. She won’t be told. She wants to do it her way, and that’s admirable, I suppose. [Ruby Stewart sings with the band Revoltaire, and threw the tabloids into a tizzy when she was spotted having dinner with her dad and One Direction’s Harry Styles after the senior Stewart’s Troubadour show.]

THR: As far as size of venue goes, the theater you’re playing at Caesars in Vegas counts as intimate for you, odd as that seems to those of us who go in and think it’s still pretty sizable.

Stewart: I wish I could play there forever. Great seats, great acoustics, and they treat me like I’m Elvis.

THR: You kick soccer balls -- or footballs -- into the audience every night in Vegas, which is actually a highlight of the show for people.

Stewart: It really is, worldwide. There’s three things I have to do: “Maggie Mae,” “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” and kick the balls out. People feel cheated if they don’t have those things.

THR: Have you ever just slammed one into somebody’s face in the front row by accident?

Stewart: No. A couple of near-misses. But I’ve got a pretty deadly right foot, so I’m pretty accurate with it. What I do is, as you probably remember, try and lob them up in the air so people can see them coming. You know, I was getting them up onto the third balcony at Caesars Palace, and the audience absolutely loved it. But the people at Caesars said, “You’ve got to stop it, because the balcony is so dangerous. People are reaching out and someone’s going to go straight over the [rail] into the audience.” And the evening would grind to a very painful halt.

THR: You said in your book that moisturizer is the key, as far as keeping up the good looks. People who come see you in Vegas are astonished that you can recreate the range of singing they remember, so, vocally, is there an equivalent for moisturizer?

Stewart: Tons and tons of water. You can never get enough water, especially when it’s dry like here in California. And then I look after my voice like it’s the crown jewels. After a concert I don’t do very much talking. I try to get to bed as soon as I can. I don’t go out to nightclubs or anything like I used to in the old days. Because I have to get up there and I’ve got to sing for two hours now. It’s not like it was 30 years ago when you did three-quarters of an hour. I also have to warm up an hour before I sing, because you wouldn’t go out and run without stretching your leg muscles, and the voice is the same. You’ve got to get the blood up into your vocal cords. I think I’m singing better now than I’ve ever done. I’m actually quite surprised at some of the vocals on the album. I sound like I’m about 25.

Twitter: @chriswillman