Rod Stewart knows he has come in for his share of ridicule in recent years, and he’s not about to argue.
“I took critical hits,” Stewart acknowledges. “I was extremely flamboyant because I thought all rock stars should do that. They thought I was overlooking my craft when I recorded Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? But we’ve overcome that and lived through that and come out on the other side.”
Besides, he adds, the song in question — Da Ya Think I’m Sexy, released in late 1978, a song sung in third person (“If you want my body and you think I’m sexy...”) about two characters — remains a beloved staple of his live act.
“People love that song, and it sums up a whole era of dance music.”
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Nevertheless, that late-’70s, early ’80s period and albums like Foot Loose & Fancy Free, Blondes Have More Fun and Foolish Behaviour, led some critics, put off that the disco-dabbling Stewart had moved on from the brew-steeped rockers he’d done with Jeff Beck and British rock group The Faces, to opine bitterly. Stewart can still quote one review from the Rolling Stone 1980 Illustrated History of Rock & Roll: “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.”
And this was before the five Great American Songbook albums of the 2000s, the subsequent R&B, classic rock covers albums and the 2012 Christmas collection.
But then something happened. Stewart, who had gone since 1998 without writing more than a song or two for his albums, found his songwriting voice again. The resulting Time album (2013) was a tentative return to form and garnered Stewart his best notices in years.
On Oct. 23, Stewart releases his 29th studio album, Another Country, and it’s one of the most engaging, most honest collection of songs he has put together in his 54-year career.
Chatting on the phone from his new home in London (Stewart also has homes in Beverly Hills and Palm Beach — “My favorite place to be”) — Stewart sounds much like he does on Another Country: clear, charming and content.
“God help me if I’m not content now; I’m 70!” he teases, pleased that fans are buying into this year’s model Rod: the family man who returns often to the theme of home and hearth on new songs like Can We Stay Home Tonight, One Night With You and Batman Superman Spiderman, a ballad inspired by a quiet moment at home with his son Aiden Patrick Stewart, 4, one of two children Stewart had with third wife, former model Penny Lancaster. He has six other children; the eldest, a daughter, is 52.
Batman Superman Spiderman is illustrative of every song Stewart has ever had a hand in writing — from the folk-inspired Maggie May, in 1971, to the sexy pop tale of deflowering five years later in Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright) and the current crop.
“I’ll have a title and a theme, take for instance Batman Superman Spiderman. That song is about putting my son to bed. He came up with that when he asked me to read him a story. I said, ‘What do you want me to read?’ And he said, ‘Batman, Superman and Spider-Man,’ and I said, ‘Wow! That’s a song title.’ That process is exactly the same,” Stewart says.
The difference? Stewart enjoys the process today, starting with Time and continuing through the sessions for Another Country.
“I think I’m enjoying it for the first time in my life,” Stewart says of songwriting, something he always did until the run of post-millennium covers albums but a chore he always approached with apprehension, if not feelings of outright torture.
The gift came back on the heels of his well-received 2012 memoir, Rod: The Autobiography. Something about writing the book stirred his creativity again. Had Time stiffed that would have been the end of that. But Time clocked a brief Top 10 berth in the States and sailed to No. 1 in his native England — his first No. 1 album there since the Tom Dowd-produced A Night on the Town in 1976.
(Of the late Miami-based producer Dowd, who produced several of Stewart’s biggest albums at North Miami’s Criteria and Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in the ’70s, Stewart calls him “a gentleman of the first order. Tommy was like being in the studio with your father. If I was in the pub too long he was the guy who took me to Muscle Shoals.”)
A surprise presentation from a group of fans convinced Stewart to do another album.
I’m having a rebirth and loving every minute. This won’t go on forever — I could say that 20 years ago — but this is a rebirth and I’m enjoying every minute.
Rod Stewart on regaining his popularity with music fans.
“I had this tremendous book all my fans put together with their personal views of how much they enjoyed the Time album, and it brought tears to my eyes that they’d bother to do that. So I said I will knock them over with the next one and I had a few ideas cooking about.”
Recording is easier today, too. Another Country was recorded for a cost of about $130,000 in his Beverly Hills home, while some vocals were cut in his Palm Beach manse.
“In the old days we used to spend days and weeks upon weeks in the studio and it was miserable. You’d go to the pub and suddenly realize you spent $100,000 and been there a week and got nothing done. Now, it’s all done in my house and it’s an absolute luxury.”
The songs on Another Country are heavily informed by the London-born Stewart’s Scottish heritage. They’re heavy on Gaelic instrumentation like violin and mandolin as on the first single, Love Is. Way Back Home, a soldier’s tale, is inspired by Stewart’s British roots. He was born near the end of World War II.
Stewart’s favorite cut on the album, “the song I’ve always wanted to write,” We Can Win, is a soccer number dedicated to Celtic supporters. In that fashion, We Can Win recalls his 1977 hit You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim), which similarly could double as an ode to football, a lover or both.
Stewart also goes back in time for In a Broken Dream, an obscure blues tune he recorded in 1968 with Australian rock band Python Lee Jackson. The song appears as a bonus track on the album’s deluxe version. The unearthed In a Broken Dream recently returned to the American charts thanks to New York rapper A$AP Rocky’s liberal sample from it for Everyday.
“There is The Drinking Song, but that is all in my past,” Stewart says of another new song. “I did some serious drinking, as you probably know, with The Faces and into the ’80s, so that is what that one is all about.”
Fans from Stewart’s flashier late-’70s period will gravitate to the highlight and current single, Please, an urgent rocker and powerful testament to the durability of his raspy, undiminished voice. Yes, Stewart thinks he can pull off the high, throat-shredding notes he unleashes a handful of times throughout Please when he starts his tour next spring in Europe.
“It’s not easy,” he confesses. “I go into a falsetto with it now.”
The pleading “stay with me tonight” lyric of Please brings to mind the sexy, some would say salacious, rockers from his past, but unlike, say, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, Stewart isn’t an old man desperately writing from a case of arrested development. The honesty in his songwriting comes from an age-appropriate perspective — always a hallmark of his work, even the naughty bits of yesteryear.
“It’s not a Hot Legs or Dirty Weekend, but it has the same theme,” he allows. “But it’s a grown man trying to get a grown woman home.”