Record producer, songwriter, musician, and singer, Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart is a man of many talents and skills. Beyond co-producing all of the Eurythmics’ catalog with Annie Lennox, he’s produced music for Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Joss Stone, Mick Jagger, Daryl Hall, Jon Bon Jovi, and Ringo Starr. His new album, Ebony McQueen, is an expansive tale of a UK teen discovering music, as well as an intriguing, psychedelic listen that will eventually be finding its way to the stage and screen. Dave also owns Bay Street Studios in the Caribbean, along with Bay Street Records, and stays continually busy producing artists and helping release their music. Our chat begins via a Zoom call with a rough connection:
Can you hear me?
Okay, yeah. I’m miles out at sea. We’re heading east. I’m in on the [RMS] Queen Mary 2, going to England on a huge ship. We’re a bit upside down. We only arrived on this boat last night, and we haven’t quite worked it out yet. I was walking down the corridor trying to find somewhere with a good wi-fi signal, and I went, “Oh, this is good,” but it was the Captain’s Boardroom! They said, “Excuse me!” So, I’m back in my cabin.
Don’t upset the captain.
Oh, no; I didn’t want my wi-fi changing direction on the boat! [laughter]
Right? You and I have met briefly before. We’d both sat in on one of Mark Rubel’s [Tape Op #47] Blackbird Academy classes.
For the new record, Ebony McQueen, quite a lot of it was done there at Blackbird Studio with John McBride, right?
Yeah. It’s a pretty unusual recording, done in very unusual circumstances, because it was the pandemic. Some of it was done at Blackbird Studio with [recording and mix engineer] John McBride [Tape Op #97] and our usual “Wrecking Crew” gang; the great players like Tom Bukovac [guitars], Chad Cromwell [drums], and Mike Rojas [keyboards]. I then had the Budapest Scoring Orchestra, and various other players and backing singers.
You and John McBride are both big fans of some of the same music.
We hit it off as soon as we met, because we went straight into The Beatles. He was showing me all the vintage gear that he had. I hit it off with Martina [McBride] and John years ago. I said, “Oh, I’m coming back here to make an album.” He thought I meant sometime, and the next day I sent him the cover. I called it The Blackbird Diaries since that’s where it was recorded, Blackbird Studio. He was pretty amazed. What he didn’t know at the time is that I’d turned up with no songs and made the album in four days, writing the songs in the bathroom or the cupboard, and it turned out great. He loved it, and we got on great with the band. He helped me pick these great players. From then on, I’ve made maybe 12 albums with John.
He’s built such a wonderful complex there, and then the Blackbird Academy, too.
Oh, yeah. He’s crazy, but he’s good crazy. But it was madness, basically, to make all those tracks during lockdown.
Right. Trying to make sure people can work masked, and not in the same room singing.
Oh, god. It was pretty difficult. I made about four other peoples’ albums at the same time. Joss Stone’s album [Never Forget My Love], Iris Gold’s album [Woman], and writing a musical. It was a very busy time!
Ebony McQueen has 26 tracks. That’s a lot to take on in the studio.
I was writing a story about a slice of my teenage life and everything that influenced me. If you can imagine being 14 in 1964, hearing a blues record for the first time, and realizing, “Oh, there’s music!” Then suddenly putting on the radio to The Beatles, The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Small Faces, and all this music coming out of [BBC] Radio One. It was pretty mind-blowing.
The story of this album is the story of a lot of people at that time, where this music’s coming from another world from your own, right?
Yes! It seemed like that at the time, and it does now. I didn’t make it as a record produced how a lot of records are made now. A lot of records are made for radio, or in a way that is trying to keep up with contemporary music. I was not tied to do that at all. I was not only making music that hearkened back to the ‘60s, but I was making old fingerpicking, blues-type sounds that go into a ukulele with a hint of Burt Bacharach. It’s all those songs that I was hearing, including the orchestrations that my father played [off LPs] when I was five years old, blasting Rodgers and Hammerstein at home.
The new album has a lot of roots in psychedelic rock from that era, like The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Zombies.
Being 14 in 1966. Between 1966 and 1968, you can imagine the radio was bonkers.
Experimenting. That’s something that you have always been well-immersed in as a writer and producer, experimenting with sound. That was a classic era.
And how exciting it was, because you didn’t know what sound was going to come out next. Nowadays, a lot of the time we can expect a certain sound, apart from the few specific kinds of bands or artists who experiment a lot. A lot of it is very homogenized, a bit like a lot of food is.
The way that pop music’s being created now probably has more to do with the early Eurythmics’ process than it does with how you made this new record.
Exactly. It’s experimentation and no fear of going off into the void. Where I jump off the cliff and don’t worry about where I’m going to land.
You worked with producer/engineer Conny Plank many years ago on the first Eurythmics record [In the Garden]. What drew you to working with him?
We were brought there, by chance, by a guy called Creepy John Thomas; an Australian guy who asked if we’d play on his record. We had no idea how to even record a record properly. I was watching Conny and the way he worked, and it was a very tall learning experience. Then Annie [Lennox] and I went back there to record the early Eurythmics. We’d decided to make our first album, In The Garden, with Conny, and that’s when I learned how interesting his experimentation could be. Dangling mics over the edge of a well, recording the drums 15 feet from the drum kit, and moving microphones around instead of using various reverbs. “Let’s put the mic as far as we can up in the air in the barn.” This was a great, great learning curve for me as a record producer.
Did that experience help you feel more comfortable to go in and purchase your own recording gear?
Well, yeah. That was it, really. I talked to Conny a few times, and he said, “You have to do it yourself.” He was basically saying that explaining thirdhand to somebody is not as efficient or as accurate as actually getting hold of the damn desk, the EQ, and the delays and the reverb yourself. At that point, I’d bought a tiny little setup with a [TEAC 144] Portastudio, a drum machine [Roland TR?]606, a synth, and a [Roland] Space Echo machine. I’d sold two guitars from The Tourists [his pre-Eurythmics group] to do that. I decided I was going to learn this as opposed to going back and making a guitar record. The punk movement had happened and had annihilated anything to do with guitar records. If you were in England, it was a joke if you just made a normal guitar record. That’s how a lot of “new romantic” groups were born, or New Order, or bands like that. It was like, “Hang on. How do we say something without actually being as bland,” I suppose.
That era was all about looking for a new way to express rock music, pop music, or whatever it was going to be.
It was a funny time in England, because I loved punk music, and I loved reggae music and dub music, and the two of them were merging together at festivals like Rock Against Racism. But I was wondering, “Where do we fit in?” We had to design a place to fit in, not being too studious about it, like, “We have to find a niche.” As we sang in a song [“In This Town”], we weren’t “looking for a scene,” we were the scene.
You took over the space that became The Church Studios around then, which is still going.
Yeah. That was a very random thing. A guy came out of a church, and he whispered, “Hey, hey. Are you looking for somewhere?” I thought, “Oh, this guy’s a nut.” He had very weird white hair and a beard, and he was whispering. I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about, but I stepped inside, and he said, “We’ve got this big space. Do you want to have a room in it?” We took what’s called the vestry, which in the church is where they’d hang their stuff. It was the size of a tiny little office. We finished the rest of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) in there. We started it in a picture framing factory. The noise of the plunking while Annie was trying to sing was difficult. Also, we couldn’t pay our rent anymore, which was nothing, and the guy said, “You have to move out.” We really felt desperate.
You were able to start using that space and eventually built that out?
Into a fully-fledged studio.
You have your own studio now, Bay Street Studios in the Bahamas, where you did some of this work on the new record. You’re also producing artists you’re working with there?
Yeah. I’m working with quite a few new artists. The space in the Bahamas is beautiful, with a Neve desk, the same as I have in my mini home studio in Nashville. In the Bahamas I have a full-on studio. In fact, it wasn’t quite finished in January, when Daryl Hall decided that he wanted to come and write some songs with me. At the same time, Bono texted me saying, “Happy New Gear” instead of Happy New Year. The next thing, Bono and Edge were recording there. It was busy being built around them, but it’s done now. While I was waiting for it to be done, I was recording Iris Gold’s album [Woman] in a cottage, and that’s come out now.
That’s a great album.
I just made a great new album and worked a lot with David Kalmusky. He has a studio called Addiction Sound Studios, down the road from Blackbird, actually.
Oh right, with Jonathan Cain, from Journey.
He’s a really sweet guy. He has quite a lot of interesting gear as well. It’s been a whirlwind. I feel fortunate about the job that I do. When COVID happened, the job didn’t change that much. We were wearing masks in the studio, and often I was working alone in the studio or with one other person. Music was constantly being made. The unfortunate thing is I was the founder of two creative members clubs. One in London, The Hospital Club, and one in California in L.A. They suffered and had to close or change.
That’s sad to hear. Ebony McQueen has a crazy physical release. What was the idea behind that?
Triple vinyl, two EPs, two cassettes, and a box with a book, a story, and the whole thing. The release is that way because it’s going to be a movie and a musical. Normally a musical comes out with a cast recording. I suppose I was impatient. Also, because COVID happened, I didn’t know, like, “Okay, how are we ever going to do this?” I made my own version of the actual album, and the cast album will come later. That’ll be a mixture of songs from the album, obviously not all of them, because you can’t fit 24 whole songs into a movie. There are some songs that are slower, and some that just push the narrative forward. But, on a musical stage, you have all these themes and motifs, and they all become melodies that bind together toward the end. It’s all there; all the orchestrations and all of the melodies. It’s a very useful thing to have the whole lot.
To have the music all ready, as well as the story?
Yes. The whole story, and a script as well.
I know you’re working with Joss Stone on a musical [The Time Traveller’s Wife]. Have you done live theater before?
Yeah, I did. I did Ghost: The Musical, which was on the West End [London], Broadway [New York City], and is still on all over the world in Spain, China, and Japan. Local theaters do it in America and everywhere. These last for a long time. I did a musical before that in Vienna. It was a really weird version of Barbarella in Vienna, in a very strict, conservative theater. They were a bit shocked.
Did you ever consider when you were starting off playing in bands, and then through the years with the Eurythmics, that you’d ever end up doing theater, working on TV shows, and doing so much behind-the-scenes work like this?
Well, no. I think my father, because he played these Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals so loud every morning over breakfast, had a strong effect on me. I have a little company, but I don’t do anything that doesn’t have music connected to it in a strong way.
Your music is heard all over the world, yet you can probably go out in public without any trouble. It’s the right kind of fame.
Yeah. My hat is more famous than me!
If you take off the hat, you can become invisible?
Exactly. It’s true!
Annie Lennox probably can’t get away with being anonymous.
No. I think any frontperson gets it full-on. Freddie Mercury [Queen’s vocalist] would have a lot harder time than Roger Taylor [Queen’s drummer].
You’ve managed to become a frontperson yet remain in the background. A perfect setup.
A perfect foil. In comedy, they have a straight one who always feeds the punch line and makes the person up front allowed to say the punch line.
Right. The set-up.
In music, I’m the set-up. That’s funny, because all I wanted to do was play soccer. But when I did, I was the guy who set up the goal, so I’d play inside right or outside right, as we call it in Britain. I’d get to the edge of the box on the corner, and then I’d swing it over, or chip it over onto the head of a center forward so they can score. Same thing!
The beauty of collaboration.
Thanks so much for talking to me today.
We went from Rodgers and Hammerstein to scoring goals! It was great talking to you.