Ringo Starr has just turned 77. It's a few days after his celebrity-packed “Peace and Love”-themed birthday bash at Capitol Records in L.A., and he’s holding forth inside a Beverly Hills hotel on a warm summer afternoon. Among other things, about how he almost ended up decamping to Nashville last year with his pal and former Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart to make a country album. And about living in Los Angeles, where he first bought a house back in 1976 (“I love America,” he tells Billboard, “but I love L.A.”). He's even talking about those long strings of emojis he tacks on to the ends of his tweets -- which, by the way, he posts himself.
At some point during the conversation, you find yourself wondering whether it’ll always be like this. That one of the most famous drummers in rock music will remain the act you’ve known for all these years and keep this up well into his eighth decade. And why shouldn't he?
Ringo Starr may get old, but as far as he's concerned, being Ringo never does.
“I love joy,” he says. “I love the light. I’m still doing what was my dream at 13, and that’s playing. I think that helps. I promise you this, though -- I’m not this happy-go-lucky every day. But overall, my general demeanor is peace and love and joy.”
About that last part -- no matter what the entry point is during a conversation with Ringo, that’s where he inevitably steers things. To his three-word flower-child mantra, the catchphrase that’s as much a part of his persona as his trademark dark shades, two-finger peace salute and performing “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Take, for example, asking him about his songwriting process, the first tentative fruits of which materialized toward the end of The Beatles’ run, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney had already taken their craft to stratospheric musical heights. On his 19th solo album Give More Love, set for a Sept. 15 release, the drummer doesn't pretend to be anything but the reliably uncomplicated showman he’s been since he first started working with his own material. And how does a drummer write a song, anyway?
“What usually happens is with the writers I write with, one of us will have a line,” he says. “I usually have a whole list of lines, and then we sort of just think what we’re gonna do. The best [new track] to talk about is 'So Wrong for So Long.' Somebody said that to me in 2008, and I just thought, 'that’s a great line,' and finally turned it into a record, into a track.”
Talking about that song reminds him how he and Stewart had planned to head to Nashville last summer to do some recording. Starr says they tried to knock together a few songs before they arrived; “So Wrong for So Long," which features a warm pedal steel guitar and is set to a relaxed country shuffle, is one of those songs.
Then came the opportunity to play a string of dates last year, so Ringo shelved the Nashville idea. “I was making this new record this year, and I decided to use that song. I’d like to say I do this, I do that, and we get a song, but it depends on who’s got the line," Starr says. "What usually happens is -- it doesn't matter what people are doing. I direct it to the place I want it to be. Which is usually peace and love.”
And there it is.
What about his use of Twitter? Since he runs his own account, it’s another opportunity to repeat his mantra. Whether he’s tweeting a photo of crowd, thanking fans for attending a show, anything at all -- random lyrics, distinctive images that caught his attention, Ringo’s tweets are stuffed with emojis and his familiar three-word message.
“Twitter, that’s the one I do myself,” he explains. “But I do it at a reasonable hour [laughs]. Sometime in the afternoon, when I’ve been up for a while. And I love the emojis. It started, like, thanking people for coming to the gig. Like, what a great night we had in Houston or Cincinnati or wherever. Like, wow, great crowd. Some fun went down … So I point that out. You know, just sometimes I’m sitting there and I’ll take a picture of something and just put it on! Or some line -- I read a line, or I think of something to say and just put it on Twitter and send it out.”
Which is how he approaches most things, really. Music, performing, answering the interminable questions about those years of his life everybody wants to know about, whatever it is -- the trick is apparently to not take things too seriously. Which, of course, when you’re an ex-Beatle, is easy to do.
Like when he gets the itch to record a new album? No need to sweat it. Corral a load of friends at his home studio and give everybody a chance to write and play. Those friends this time around included the usual Ringo suspects -- fellow musicians like Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Steve Lukather, Richard Page, Stewart and even fellow Beatle Paul McCartney. Of the 10 new songs on his new album, McCartney shows up on two -- the rocking opener “We’re on the Road Again” and “Show Me the Way,” a ballad for Ringo’s wife Barbara.
He knows his fellow Beatle's presence means certain questions get asked when he talks about the record, but Ringo doesn't mind, or doesn't appear to, anymore. He offers an admission that he thinks about those days and all that music, still, with pride and amazement.
The Beatles is one of those cultural forces that keeps re-asserting itself every generation. This year alone, for example, has seen a remastered version of the band’s landmark Sgt. Pepper album timed to its 50th anniversary as well as the launch of a dedicated Beatles Sirius radio channel.
“The great thing with the Beatles’ music -- we worked very hard, and it’s still relevant today,” he says. “Those songs John and Paul wrote, and the music George and I and John and Paul played -- that’s what makes me proud. We worked very hard to make those tracks, and every sort of couple of years, a new batch of teenagers get into it. You know what I mean? It’s relevant year after year. It just amazes me.”
He’s taking it easy for now, before things pick back up in the fall with his new album. A few weeks after its release, he’ll take his All-Starrs -- the same band lineup he’s played with for five years now -- back out on the road in October, starting with eight dates at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.
It’ll take him across the U.S. again, the place he fell in love with so long ago now. The place that’s still giving Ringo a chance to be Ringo -- to play the songs only a former Beatle can, the songs that are still guaranteed to raise a smile.
“If you’re not American, I don’t know if you’ll ever understand,” he reminisces. “We were English boys, coming to Americaaaaa! It was just so great. I could feel, when we flew over New York, I could feel it calling me. ‘Come on down, Ringo!’ [laughs] And, you know, I’ve loved America ever since.
“I have a lot of fun with audiences, because, you know, two things happen. They know I love them, and I know they love me. And I’m proud of the music we the Beatles made and that I’m still making. I still do my best for Give More Love just like I did for Sgt. Pepper. I just do the best I can. I’m just getting through today, and we’ll see what tomorrow brings."