Making Earth, Wind & Fire’s first new album in eight years was a two-year, two-pronged process that frontman Philip Bailey says all hinged on one song.
Bailey tells Billboard the group actually started recording “Now, Then & Forever” — which is due out Sept. 10 — “a little over two years ago, then about a year ago we actually thought perhaps we were finished.” That was before the group laid down “Guiding Lights,” one of six songs (including the lead-off track “Sign On” — listen below) co-written by Bailey’s son Philip D. Bailey.
“When we got finished with that song someone mentioned to me that it sounded like a great Earth, Wind & Fire that people had missed all these years,” the singer recalls.” Then I started listening to the music we had done to that point, and the ‘Guiding Lights’ song made me re-think the music we had and I said, ‘We’ve got to go back to the drawing board to make these other songs more classic sounding’ and just changed the whole course of the album.”
The 10-track “Now, Then & Forever” certainly carries a vintage EWF feel, with Bailey, singer-percussionist Ralph Johnson and keyboardist Larry Dunn also contributing songs along with outside writers and producers — including Seidah Garrett, who co-wrote the first single, “My Promise.” Bailey acknowledges that the familiar sound represents something of a changed perspective for him as well.
“For so many years I’ve been all about, ‘You gotta go forward, you gotta go forward,’ ” he explains. “I finally had to buy into the fact that if I got a new Eagles music project and they sounded like Fleetwood Mac, I would be pretty pissed off, or if I bought a Stevie Wonder project and he sounded like Musiq Soulchild, I would be saying, ‘What the heck is going on?’ I had to really resolve in my mind that our music is that important to millions of people, and they really do expect Earth, Wind & Fire to sound like Earth, Wind & Fire — and if you try to hard to go forward and lose who you are then you lose your base and you lose what’s attractive to fans.”
“Now, Then & Forever” does represent the group’s first-ever album without founder Maurice White, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1994 and has left the musical affairs of the band to Bailey, Johnson and his younger brother and bassist Verdine White. But Bailey says White remains a guiding force in whatever EWF does.
“It’s been a 20-year process for myself and Verdine and Ralph headlining the band, but Maurice is always an integral part,” Bailey explains. “He’s the architect. He’s the conceptualizers. The ingredients we use for it to sound like Earth, Wind & Fire means it sounds the way Maurice has always intended for it to sound. So we’ve made a record that he’s not necessarily a part of, physically, but is a part of from a morale standpoint. His intent, philosophically and musically, is something that we tried to make sure was a thread in this new project.”
EWF performs Wednesday at the Super!Sonic festival in Korea and begins a North American run on Aug. 30 in Las Vegas and will also be part of the Soul Train Cruise in October.