The poignant ballad, told from the perspective of a parent dealing with his daughter’s drug addiction, is one of 10 originals co-written by Stewart on the wide-ranging album, many with his longtime collaborator and co-producer Kevin Savigar. The album also includes three covers, including the heartbreaking “Grace,” the true story of childhood sweethearts who were ripped apart when the man was sentenced to death during Ireland’s uprising against the English in 1916.
Calling from London, an ebullient Stewart talked to Billboard about the new album, playfully threw out a challenge to buddy Elton John, and expressed his incredulity that 42 years after its original release, “The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II,” the first pop hit to address the murder of a gay man, is still too controversial for the BBC.
Ever since you wrote your 2012 autobiography, your creative floodgates opened again. This is your third album of original material in five years after a long stretch of recording other songwriters’ material. That has to be gratifying.
Yeah, it’s that and, also, confidence. [2013’s] Time album was so well-received, and it just gave you a boost, and I thought, “People do want to listen to my songs,” and I just think we’re getting better and better and better. I have to tell you, we’ve already started on the next album. It will be totally different from the last three
Top secret. I’ll play you some tracks this time next year. I’ve done rock and roll for so long. I love it, but it’s time to break away. It’s not a jazz album, it’s not a country album, it’s not a blues album. [Laughs]
Is it polka?
It’s cha-cha-cha! [Laughs]
You’ve also changed how you record albums, which seems to have liberated you as well.
Absolutely. I was so tired of spending month after month in a dark studio and never seeing the sun. The way we do it now is all on laptops. For instance, “Didn’t I,” [Kevin] sent the track over and I just [sings first verse], and that was it, the song was born. It’s just lovely. I see the daylight while I’m working.
It was all recorded while we were in hotel rooms from Argentina to New Orleans, and it’s mostly the band. If we’ve got a track like “Vegas Shuffle” that I feel like we needed real drums on it, we put real drums on it. It’s all samples until, “Right, we’re going to finish this song off.” No studio time at all.
It’s wonderful. You have no idea the months, years of my life spent in studios, three hours trying to get a bass-drum sound. It’s idiotic, but it was the only way you could do it in those days.
Not only lyrically, but musically this is one of the most diverse albums you’e ever made. There is pop, soul, blues, stately ballads here. How intentional was that?
We didn’t set out to make an album that was different variations of the music we love; that’s just the way it came down. I didn’t say “Let’s do a reggae track.” Kevin sent over a reggae thing and I thought, “Why not?”
It really proved there’s no style you can’t do.
That’s true, and you don’t have to be a youngster to write songs either.
“Didn’t I” is your first original non-holiday song to reach the top 10 of Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart since 1999. What is it like for you when you hear a new song of yours on the radio for the first time?
It’s my child. It’s flown away and joined the great public in the great world and no longer belongs to me. I think most songwriters feel like that. Once they’ve slaved over carving a song and making it their own and fine-tuning the lyrics and then you let it out to the public, across the airwaves, and it’s gone and it doesn’t come back. You can’t alter it once it’s out there. I’m very proud of it.
You’ve done songs about topical issues throughout your career, most famously “The Killing of Georgie.” Even so, most people were probably not expecting a song about the opioid crisis as your first single.
Not at all. I didn’t even think of it as a single. It’s funny you should say that [about topical songs], because I’m doing a live acoustic set on BBC Radio on Friday morning, the biggest show across the land. And I asked if I could do “The Killing of Georgie,” which, as you know, is about a homosexual friend of mine. Well, he was a friend of the Faces, who was murdered in the '70s. I thought it would be OK now because they banned it when it first came out ( Editor's Note: The BBC did eventually play it). And I asked if I could sing it and they said no, it was too controversial. This was 1976 and now we’re in 2018… Unbelievable.
Also, they won’t let me sing “Grace” because of its Irish, anti-English overtones in the song. Forget about it, it’s one of the greatest love songs ever written. The guy goes to his death 15 minutes the next morning after he’s been married and I can’t sing that one either.
What did you think the first time you heard “Grace”?
Celtic is the football team I support, and Celtic was formed by an Irishman in Glasgow in 1888 to raise money for the Irish to come over after the Potato Famine, so I heard the Celtic supporters singing it about three years ago.
Did you have it in the back of your mind that it would be on this album?
Oh yeah. I went over to Dublin and did my homework. I visited the jail and went into the chapel where it all happened. So it means a lot to me, that one, it really does. There was no furniture in the jail apart from the bed of jail, no table, no bed, no chair, nothing. Just sat on the floor, and the glass that was there when I visited wasn’t there in those days, so the wind and the snow came straight into the cell. Man’s inhumanity to man never stops to astonish me.
What is your litmus test for what songs make it onto an album?
We put the tracks forward to our label and they have a say in it, [but] they’re really good, they leave it up to me. The litmus test would be friends and family. “What do you think of this?" It’s very difficult because no one’s going to tell you it’s a load of rubbish, but Kevin and I have been at it so long now we know -- not necessarily when we have a hit single, but we know when we’ve got a song that’s going to reach different depths lyrically and musically. We shouldn’t have been at it this long if we didn’t know what we’re doing. That’s why I don’t understand why someone like Elton doesn’t produce his own albums. It’s just so much fun. You can follow all the way through from when the song is born to when it’s out on the radio and the label never get in the way. I don’t know why Elton doesn’t do it. I’ve got eight kids; he’s only got two. [Laughs]
Speaking of Elton, he’s on his final tour. Paul Simon just completed his. Bob Seger will start his soon. You are still going strong, including your Las Vegas residency. Do you think, "What’s the matter with them? I’m not stopping!"
I don’t know what their reasons are. Maybe Paul Simon doesn’t enjoy it as much as I do. We have a concert in Budapest next week, and it can’t come around quick enough. I’m anxious. I love it. Elton, he’s doing 300 shows and he’ll still do the odd show here and there. All good things must end. Not for me, not yet. I’m not even thinking about it.
Several songs here, including “Farewell,” about the loss of a longtime friend, and “Julia,” about your first love, are intensely personal. Have you evolved in what you will reveal in a song?
Yeah. I think obviously as time goes by, you don’t have much to lose by being honest. It’s an admirable stance when it comes to writing songs, and I’ve tried to be as honest as I can. These are songs that have affected me. “Farewell" is more or less a true story. “Farewell” is a love song to another guy that I dearly loved, he was a real buddy of mine. “Julia,” I was 10, she was 14.
What part of your creative process still gives you goose bumps?
When we get the first mix and it’s right and we love it and you go, “Yes! One down, 10 or 12 to go.” You hear that mix and we know we’ve got the right instruments in the right pocket and the band’s playing their bit and I’ve sung it as best I could and the lyrics work and it’s magic. That’s it for me in the recording process. Other than that, watching my kids play football. [Laughs]