How Dave Stewart Discovered His Musical Path: Exclusive Interview
Dave Stewart has spent his life seemingly consumed by writing, recording and producing music, which is why it's interesting to learn that there were moments when he had no interest in the art form.
That’s one of the revelations highlighted by Ebony McQueen, the sprawling production that takes inspiration from Stewart’s own youth growing up in Sunderland, England in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The titular character is one that Stewart describes in advance press materials as a “fictional voodoo blues queen, a living embodiment of the blues music that inspired my entire career.” Ultimately, he says, it’s a story of “destiny” and what can happen if you’re open to traveling the path that opens up.
We discussed the expansive project, which will eventually become a film and stage production, via Zoom. The Eurythmics co-founder is clearly excited to talk about what has become his life’s work. So while there was a time, however brief, where music wasn’t part of his story, it’s a good thing that he found that different path and took the journey.
Congrats on Eurythmics' forthcoming induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
Thank you so much. Annie [Lennox] and I, you know, I’m English, Annie’s Scottish. We have a very dry sense of humor, you know, we don’t jump around shouting “Yippie!” We’re very reserved. But actually, talking to ourselves, between each other, we’re very honored and excited about it.
Ebony McQueen is the quintessential Dave Stewart kind of project, but it also seems like one that could have pushed you to your limits.
Oh my God, yeah. Well, you know, it has got like a 60-piece orchestra on it from Budapest. You know, having to do it remote with films and a great guy called Maestro Lightford, who is an arranger and conductor. Obviously, he wasn’t in Budapest, he was with me. We’re sitting next to each other and typing messages to the conductor there. So that was a whole thing. Recording is always easy with my band in Nashville, because I’ve made about 10 albums or more with them. It’s like having the Wrecking Crew.
But then there’s lots of interesting little worlds of music added. You see, when I was 14 and had just discovered the guitar, my cousin sent from Memphis a couple of blues albums. I wasn’t interested in music at all until then. But my knee was broken, so I couldn’t play soccer, or football as we call it in England, for a while. I was just like, “Oh no.” My mom had left my dad. My dad’s depressed and he’s at work. My brother went to college and I’m just on my own in the house. I put on a record that my cousin had sent. I didn’t listen to music [prior to that]. I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll just [check this out]. What’s this?” It was Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers. I went into a trance.
It was so alien, standing in the northeast, looking out the window with the rain and this whining voice [singing], “Hellhound on my trail” and all of this stuff. I was like, “God, what happened to me?” [Laughs] Then, I found my brother’s guitar in the cupboard. I started trying to [learn things]. I would just play these couple of notes for ages, because I didn’t know how to play the guitar. But because I was listening to that, I was getting two strings like this [Stewart plays a simple riff on his guitar]. I was learning that and it was making me feel something. The more I got into it, I’d spend eight or nine hours a day just [playing]. That made me realize, “Oh, hang on, this is music.” I put the radio on and [you can] imagine being 14 in 1964.
Suddenly, [I’m hearing] the Beatles, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones coming out of the radio, which I’d never bothered to listen to. I was like, “Holy shit.” I realized they’re all playing things a bit like the blues, but not really. But it was what the root of it was. They were mixing it up. [Stewart begins playing the guitar, growling a vocal, “I’m a king bee.”]. I’m going, “That’s great.” Then, I realized, “No, hang on, that’s a blues song.” It was a huge influence on my tender years. That’s what the film and musical is about. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Billy Elliot.
That’s about 14 miles away from where I’m born and that’s about the coal miner’s strike. He doesn’t realize he’s a dancer. So it’s a weird parallel, because I didn’t realize I knew anything about music until this period where it was the darkest period, really, in my young life. Then, I discovered music and the guitar and I was like, “Oh, shit! This is a whole different world now!” And it has been ever since.
You understand what a cliff it is to jump off of, the idea of doing a musical. What have you learned from some of your prior experiences that you're able to apply to what you're doing with Ebony McQueen?
Yeah, of course it was a huge learning curve. You know, I’ve often used, as Brian Eno would say, “oblique strategies” as ways in which to understand something. I wrote a book called The Business Playground, it’s not so much about our business, it’s how things were resolved or invented by thinking differently. There was a great piece in the book about a Japanese chap and they were building ships that were so huge that they couldn’t work out where the workers were in the ship. This was becoming a big problem with huge bits of metal.
So he made this diagram, like a fishbone and then he made each sort of bone on the fishbone and gave it a number. They used this all over, like E-17 or whatever. That’s all they had to concentrate on. I did that with the musical. You see, in the musical, you have themes and motifs for characters, but also, for the city, like New York or whatever. These themes have to interweave in such a way that the audience, it’s seamless, but slowly they start to recognize before the character comes on, without telegraphing, “Oh, this is going to be a heavy scene,” or whatever, like in the movies.
Then, at the end of the musical, on stage, a lot of these things come on top of each other and make the epic ensemble a piece. The first single, “Ebony McQueen,” is the end of the movie scene and it has sounds like marching band and orchestra and [a] Beatles feeling. You know, a Sgt. Pepper’s-y kind of thing. It’s the very end of the movie where the whole town is singing. Obviously, on my record, it’s me and my players, but in the film, it will be characters and everybody singing this song about this voodoo blues queen that blew my mind when I first put the record on the record player.
Watch the Video for Dave Stewart's 'Ebony McQueen'
It's evident how personal this is for you. How do you make it something that's also going to mean something to other people? Also, when will people get to see the musical and film?
The songs, there’s obviously not going to be 24 songs in the film, it would be a five hour film. Bits of about eight to 12 songs and some full songs will appear in the film. The arc of the story, they will follow the fact that if you allow something in, it’s there for you. That’s basically the vibe you get from the story. But you see all of the torturous parts of getting to that point when there’s a realization or epiphany or whatever. There’s very frustrated songs, like “What’s the Fucking Point” is the title of one of the songs, right?
Which is totally identifiable for anybody.
I think anybody would be relating to that. So I think each song, as it’s written, is me personally talking about, yeah, [these are] exact things that happened. But I’m not that different from millions of other people from towns who’ve got dreams and aspirations and are sitting in a bedroom on a rainy day. Wondering, when you’re 14 years old, what it’s all about? It’s a coming of age kind of film. The film will come first, shot in my hometown of Sunderland. And from the film, will be extracted, a musical. I’ve already cast the girl next door, she’s an England girl. We’re looking at the father right now. I’m going up to Sunderland and we’re doing location scouting. We have producers involved and as you know, it’s a whole palaver. [Laughs] Making a film, you think that’s complicated and then you try making a musical and then that’s like, okay, times ten.