“My life has been rather sexy,” Rod Stewart says with a wry smile. Though Stewart uses the past tense, even at 76, he is still very much thinking in the present. The first two tracks on his superb new album, The Tears Of Hercules, are, as he explains, very much about sex.
Then there is the silly, playful “Kookooaramabama,” in which Stewart sings, “Sex is good for everyone/Come on, people, let’s have some fun.” Yep, at 76, the man who asked, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” still loves to get a rise out of his audience.
But that was always only one part of Stewart’s oeuvre. For every “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” Hot Legs, “Passion,” and “Tonight’s The Night,” there were songs like the brilliant “I Was Only Joking,” “The Killing Of Georgie (Part I and II),” “I Don’t Want To Talk About it” and “Sailing.”
This is a vastly underrated songwriter who can make you horny, make you laugh, make you dance and make you emotional, often on the same album. And he once again does that on The Tears Of Hercules.
While the media savvy Stewart knows lines about sex are going to attract attention and make headlines, he is proudest, as a songwriter, of the title track and the magnificent closer, “Touchline,” on the new album. As Stewart proudly says of the beautiful “Touchline,” it is a song he would not have written years ago.
But this is an older, more confident Stewart. I spoke with Stewart about sex, of course, songwriting, the artists that remain his musical heroes and why it was time to pay tribute to his old friend, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan.
Steve Baltin: How are you doing today?
Rod Stewart: Bloody marvelous.
Baltin: What’s the difference between marvelous and bloody marvelous? What makes one bloody marvelous?
Stewart: It’s just the second step up. Marvelous is okay but when you’re bloody marvelous, you’d feel bloody marvelous.
Baltin: I have to ask an obvious question. Was this album a COVID baby?
Stewart: It was of half and half really, because a lot of songs had already been stared after the last album, Blood Red Roses. So I didn’t decide to start making the album because of COVID, not at all. It was in the pipeline.
Baltin: Did the songs on this record evolve though because you had a deadline that no longer existed?
Stewart: Yeah, I actually got the album finished really early ’cause I thought it was gonna come out in the summer just gone. So my album was finished last March. [But] probably the only song that really relates to the lockdown is “Hold On.” I think that one may have had something to do with the, I wouldn’t say loneliness. I’ve a lovely house here, and plenty of gardens, and a football pitch, an indoor pool, kids around me. But I still had shed a tear or two, I’m sure you did as well.
Baltin: But this record was done as you say in March, right?
Stewart: Yeah, it was all done. And the record company said, “Oh.” They went, “Oh, we’re gonna put it out in the 4th quarter.” I go, “That’s great, I’ll have Adele and everybody else , ABBA.”
Baltin: So have the songs changed for you since you’ve had time to sit with them? ‘Cause normally of course you finish your record and then go right on the road.
Stewart:Yeah, absolutely. No, there was nothing I wanted to change. We actually recorded one more song, which turns out to be the second single, “I Can’t Imagine.” But I’m sort of regiment when it comes to being in a studio because I’m in the dark old days, when you’d spend hours and hours in a dark studio and never see sunshine. So now I got three or four hours, ’cause we don’t use studios very rarely anymore as you know, and my albums are done transatlantic. I was in lockdown in England, I couldn’t leave. So to get this album done, I had the track send over to me by my co-producer, Kevin, and I’d alter them and send them back to him. And then I got rough vocal on, I go backwards and forwards, and backwards and forwards till we get what we want. So it really was a transatlantic album.
Baltin: Were there specific songs from other artists that you tended to gravitate to during COVID or was there music that you listened to a lot during that period?
Stewart: Not really. I listen to what’s on the radio or I listen to what my kids are gonna play. But I find myself going back to the same old heroes I’ve always had. And Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday.
Baltin: I found myself gravitating towards softer stuff. So for example, I love “Touchline” off this record. Were the songs that in the writing really sort of stood out to you when you go back and listen it?
Stewart: Yeah, I think the lyrical content of “Touchline.” When I was writing the lyrics, I said, “You’re not gonna get away with writing about your mother’s funeral,” which is in the song. And it’s all more or less about the way we pass the baton down from generation to generation through children. It’s all about my dad watching me and my three brothers playing football and shouting at us from the touch-line. And then I’m doing it now with my sons, and then my sons would do it with their sons and it goes on and on and on and on. I never knew I could write a song like that, but I’ve done it. I’m so proud of it.
Baltin: Does it surprise you as the writer, how vulnerable it is?
Stewart: Yeah, it does. I don’t think I would have written that song 20 years ago, maybe 25 years ago. I would have been scared of the ridicule, but it works, it just works. I think, and I don’t wanna blow me my own trumpet but I will. Any other singer could have tried that and it would sounded a little… Not right. The good Lord gave me a convincing vocal cord.
Baltin: This record goes through a lot of moods and there aren’t many artists who could get away with putting “Kookooaramabama” and “Touchline” on the same album. How important was it to have that record that really shows both sides of you, the fun and vulnerable?
Stewart: Yeah, that track is meant to be just a throw away bit of fun, that’s all it is. It’s probably the one track that at this moment in time, that I could have improved on and maybe found a better track, but it’s fun. Everybody asks me about it because of the silly title.
Baltin: Have you had a chance to do many of these songs live yet?
Stewart: “One More Time,” which is the first single over here. I’m doing the Royal Variety Command Performance tomorrow, and we’re gonna do it there. But it takes your breath away this one, I tell you. There’s hardly any gap for a breath.
Baltin: When it gets to that point that you can bring in the new stuff, are there songs you’re particularly excited to do?
Stewart: Well, “One More Time” is gonna be wonderful to sing, really wonderful. And also, I don’t know, if maybe I’ll do, “Touchline.” Depends on what the reaction is. The album only came out on Friday, so it’s very early.
Baltin: Songs grow and evolve too. During COVID I listened constantly to the “The Killing Of Georgie (Part I and II).”
Stewart: Yeah, lovely, great song that was too. That was one of those I thought, “Oh, maybe, if I’m gonna tread on people’s toes with this one, but it’s a true story, 98 percent of it anyway, so go with it. See what happens.” And it’s amazing how guys in their 40s, and 45, 50 come up to me and say, “I was a child. I was a teenager, I was a gay man. And it was such a difficult time in the mid-70s.” It was like a black period in their lives, and that song helped them out and that means a lot to me.
Baltin: Are there songs that you want to reincorporate into the show? Because the other thing too is with COVID everyone had an opportunity to step away from the stage, so it gives you time to think about what it is you want to do.
Stewart: Yeah, I change the set list every night. I worked out I could do four different shows and not do the same songs, and all the songs would be pretty well known. Now I like putting in a song called “Grace,” which was on the last album before this one. That’s all about the 1916 uprising in Dublin by the Irish Republic Army. And I’ll put that in now and then, especially if I’m in New York, because there are so many Irish people there.
Baltin: By the way, “Born To Boogie.” Obviously, you’ve been a fan of Marc Bolan for many years. What made this the right time to pay tribute, or was it just something that emerged when the song came out and you realized that’s kind of where it was going?
Stewart: We jam a little bit before we do a show when we’re on stage just to warm up, and this band started playing it, and I thought it sounds like a Marc Bolan song. It’s got his trademark there and he was a good mate of mine. We used to go and have haircuts together, and we’d go shopping together and go into pubs. He was a good pal. I just hope his fan club like it.
Baltin: Do you feel a bit nostalgic and it’s like, “Okay, now I’m comfortable writing about something that maybe 20 years ago I wouldn’t have done?”
Stewart: That’s exactly what it is, mate, exactly what it is. More than 20 years ago, I was a lot more self-conscious, say 30 years ago, 25 years ago, than I am now. It’s almost like I go, “Well, I like this song and if they don’t like it, bollocks to them.” But I also think I’m making records for my fans now, ’cause I know what they like, and it’s the same music as I like, so it’s not like I’m trying to win over a new audience or anything. It is what I is.
Baltin: So what is it that makes you more comfortable? Is it just something that just comes with age?
Stewart: I think so, yeah. I’ve done it all. What have I got to lose now? I’ve got enough money to last me the rest of me life as long as I don’t die before Sunday [laughter].
Baltin: When you hear The Tears Of Hercules all the way through, what do you take from it as a complete work?
Stewart: I’ve always been a storyteller. My songs always have a beginning, a middle and an end, and this is no exception. I’m pleased with the songwriting and I’m pleased with the scope of the songwriting, even though the first two or three songs are all about sex. My life has been rather sexy, so…Especially “One More Time.” Have you ever done that? You’ve broken up with a lover and said, “Can we go back and do it one more time?” Have you?
Baltin: Who hasn’t?
Stewart: Me! I haven’t done it. Never. Isn’t it weird? There’s a song on there about taking a virgin, the second song, and she goes in to find the guy she wants to have her virginity taken away with, I’ve never done that either. Been close but never done it.
Baltin: That’s where I think the mix comes in. You say, “My life has been rather sexy.” But at the same time, you now can mix it with songs about watching the kids play soccer, and about your dad and stuff. You say you’ve always been proud of the songwriting, but obviously there’s a depth now that you’re able to mix together.
Stewart: I always thought my songs had a depth to them, when you look at “The Killing Of Georgie.” I was gonna say I don’t write songs like “Hot Legs” anymore, but I suppose “One More Time” is in that vein. Sex is on my mind quite a lot, you’ve probably noticed that [laughter].
Baltin: But what I’m getting at is, do you feel like when you listen to it now as a writer that there’s a more of a diversity? The sex is not gone, definitely, but also when you were 25, you weren’t writing songs about your kids playing soccer either.
Stewart: No, that’s right. I don’t think I could have written a song like “Hold On” either, which is my little comment on current times. That was probably the one song that was influenced by the lockdown, ’cause I was locked down in England for 18 months. I couldn’t go to America, couldn’t see my kids, didn’t see some of my kids for over a year, ’cause of that. And I think that influenced that particular song.
Baltin: What’s the one song you wish you had written and why?
Stewart: Oh man, I don’t know. There’s just so many that I’m envious of. I wish I had written “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” Cause I know the story behind that song. Steve Cropper sent everyone on the tour bus, and Otis couldn’t play guitar to save his life. And Steve taught him how to play in an open E. When you tune the guitar to an E and you just move your fingers up. So if you tune a guitar to an E, he goes, “Sitting on the dock of the bay.” I think that’s such a lovely story.