Dave Stewart is used to large-scale projects, working by himself or with well-known friends such as the late Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Mick Jagger or members of the Beatles. “We end up writing or recording songs and it turns into an album or movie soundtrack or whatever,” Stewart tells Billboard. He’s not really a one-shot kind of guy, in other words.
But he’s gone that route now with “Be My Rebel,” a track he wrote and recorded with German singer Gabriele Susanne Kerner — aka Nena of “99 Luftballons” fame — that’s out Friday (March 23). Check out “Be My Rebel” below (and grab it here).
Nena calls the collaboration “one of the absolute highlights of my life as a musician so far,” and the song came from entirely casual circumstances. She was touring North America last summer, and mutual business friends recommended to Stewart that he meet with Nena when she was in Los Angeles to perhaps do some songwriting.
“Nena and Dave are both genius artists and songwriters,” says Thomas Scherer, VP, Frontline Publishing, U.S. & International for BMG, who linked the two up. “They create art from an inner source of authenticity and inner space of love and silence. It’s beautiful, a place where they truly are…it was actually a no-brainer to connect them.”
She showed up at his doorstep announcing “the Krauts are here!” — with an entourage in tow.
“She turned up at my gate with, like, all of her family, I think — sons, daughters, husband, about nine people,” Stewart recalls with a laugh. “We were going to sit and chat and possibly, if we go on, mess about with some music. So it was interesting.” Stewart also had only a rudimentary amount of instruments and recording equipment around, as he was in the midst of moving his studio to a new location. “I suggested at one point that maybe the rest of the gang might want to go for coffee at the end of the street or something, ’cause it’s quite hard with everybody being there to do an experiment or talk personally,” Stewart says.
Once the family departed, however, he and Nena found their way into “Be My Rebel” fairly quickly. “Dave had this really cool guitar riff,” she says, “and the words ‘Be My Rebel’ instantly just came to me. Four hours later, the song was as good as done.” Stewart also inserted some flavors from German electronic music he and Annie Lennox were influenced by in the Eurythmics. “I said, ‘Look, I think there’s a great moment here where we can remind people of the electronic, deep sound and remind people about yourself and how you’ve always been a rebel,” Stewart says. “So I came up with that kind of electronic riff and merged that into the song and she started singing, ad-libbing, and I picked up an electric guitar, distorted. Within a few minutes we were like, ‘Oh, this is pretty good…'”
It became a family affair, too, after the rest of Nena’s posse returned from the “nice little cafe around the corner.” “We were like, ‘Oh, great, can you guys go into the bathroom and all chant ‘Be my rebel!'” Stewart says. “So we started all having fun and they were singing in the bathroom, chanting, and it was really cool.”
Nena later refined the lyrics with a cohort in Germany, explaining that, “‘Be My Rebel’ is a ‘call on your own wild,’ so to say, this wildness that’s within us and that we often forget and sometimes like to forget, because it pushes us to go past our own comfort zones and dares us to try new things.” Stewart subsequently flew to Germany to film a video for the track as well as to perform at a Nena tribute concert there.
“Be My Rebel” is currently the only thing Nena and Stewart have done together, but both see it as a first step towards more collaborating. “I totally see us meeting again and making new music together,” Nena says, while Stewart adds, “I think so, yeah. That’d be good fun. When we’re together we can’t stop laughing. We’re very good together.”
They’ll have to fit anything into Stewart’s typically busy schedule, of course. He recently produced an EP for the British band Social Room and is working on a project that features “eight hours’ worth of music to images.” Stewart also has a pair of TV shows in the works — Songland for NBC, which focuses on new songwriters, and One Song with Pulse Films and BMG, which will offer in-depth examinations of classic songs. “I suppose everything I’m doing just has to do with songs, really,” he says.