"The Freedom Rider", Performing Songwriter, Sept/Oct 1997
"The Freedom Rider"
Performing Songwriter, Sept/Oct 1997
By Bill DeMain
Think of Steve Winwood and various images come to mind: a pale, skinny 16-year-old lad with the soul of an old bluesman, fronting the Spencer Davis Group and shouting "Gimme Some Lovin'!"; Traffic's hirsute leader, hunched over his Hammond B3 organ, coaxing out the swirling gritty chords on "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys"; the elegantly dressed superstar sashaying and singing "Higher Love" on MTV.
Each of these images represents not only a decade in which Winwood has excelled as a singer, instrumentalist, songwriter and producer, but also his incredible versatility in tackling every style under the sun: R & B, blues, psychedelic, jazz, folk, progressive rock, pop and dance. "I've always wanted the flexibility to do different things," Winwood says.
Stephen Lawrence Winwood was born May 12, 1948 in Birmingham, England into a musical family. His dad was an enthusiastic multi-instrumentalist who played with wedding and dance bands on weekends. He encouraged his son, and by age 9, Steve was picking out tunes on both the piano and guitar. Using a tape recorder built from scratch by an eccentric uncle, Steve and his older brother Muff would record nightly broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg and Voice of America. Through hearing artists such as Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and Ray Charles ("He changed my life," Winwood says)m Steve was smitten with R & B and rock 'n' roll.
It was Steve's brother who got him his first real gig, with a trad jazz band. "We needed a piano player, so I brought Steve along, " Muff Winwood recalls. "He was only 11, but he played everything perfectly. They stood with their mouths open. Because he was underage, we had to get him long trousers to make him look older, and even then we'd sneak him in through the pub kitchens. He'd play hidden behind the piano so nobody would know."
By the time Steve was 16, he was no longer concealed from the audience, but fronting The Spencer Davis Group on the now classic songs he wrote such as "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man". With a record deal, TV appearances, hit singles on both sides of the ocean, and a tour supporting The Rolling Stones, the teen prodigy was getting his first taste of stardom. But it was the music, not the fame that mattered most to Winwood, and when he felt growing pains ("I got tired of just copying blues records"), he found solace in after-hours jam sessions with his friends Dave mason, Chris Woo, and Jim Capaldi.
These progressive rock explorations soon flowered into Winwood's next band, Traffic. Between 1967-69, Traffic released three albums, Mr Fantasy, Traffic, and Last Exit, which fused rock, jazz, blues and psychedelic into a style that, even today, sounds completely original. Living in the English countryside, the group avoided the trends and fads of the London club scene. "Traffic had a kind of rural lifestyle," Winwood says. "Which, in a strange way, was a driving force behind the music. Chris Wood opened us up to a number of different ideas. He would play us things like Chinese classical music and obscure British folk music. He also has a strong interest in geology, topography, and birdwatching, and when we were all living together, we started to take an interest in these things. This opened up a new world for us, and we wanted to find a way to include this lifestyle in our music."
Winwood took a detour from the rustic life of Traffic in late 1969 to play in Blind Faith, a supergroup that included Eric Clapton on guitar and Ginger Baker on drums. Their sole release is still considered to be a blues-rock classic. Starting in 1970, Winwood, back with Traffic buddies Capaldi and Wood (Mason had gone solo), made a string of albums including John Barleycorn Must Die, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, and When the Eagle Flies, which earned them the reputation of rock's ultimate freedom riders.
Following Traffic's dissolution, Winwood retired to his home in Gloucestershire, spending the next 2 years writing songs and tinkering in his home studio. "I was learning about performing and recording different kinds of music," Winwood says. "It was a thirst for knowledge and partly a desire to get off of the ten-year merry-go-round I had been on."
While he did work as a sideman for the likes of George Harrison, Sandy Denny, Stomu Yamashta's Go, and Toots and the Maytals, Steve didn't re-emerge as an artist until 1977, with the release of his first ever solo album, entitled simply Steve Winwood. In the midst of the British punk explosion, the record, which had a few standout songs such as "Hold On" and "Vacant Chair", was ignored. Things would go much differently for the follow-up.
"With Arc of a Diver," Winwood says, "I felt that my chance to bring into play everything I had learned throughout my career had finally come true. I had regrouped, and I knew I had something to say - which probably hadn't been the case with Steve Winwood. At that time, I still felt as if I was being swept along with the tide, but with Arc of a Diver, I felt as if I definitely had created a stamp by which to say who exactly Steve Winwood was and what he would be doing in the 1980's."
What he did in the 80s was dominate the pop-music charts with multi-platinum, Grammy-winning albums and hits such as "While You See a Chance", Valerie", "Talking Back to the Night", "Higher Love", "Freedom Overspill", "Back in the High Life Again", "The Finer Things", "Roll With It", and "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do?" Along with Phil Collins, Madonna and Michael Jackson, Steve Winwood was one of the artists who defined the decade's danceable sound.
As he moved into the 90's, Steve released a solo disc, Refugees of the Heart, then once again, following his musical intuition and sense of adventure, reformed Traffic with Jim Capaldi. In 1993, they released Far From Home. "Traffic is a great vehicle in which to do things I can't do on the solo stuff," Winwood says of his plans to keep his hand in both solo and band projects. His latest, Junction 7, co-produced by R & B guru Narada Michael Walden, finds Steve back in the pop life again, singing an uplifting mix of dance songs and romantic ballads.
You've been writing songs for over thirty years. Has it gotten easier?
No, I don't think it ever gets easier. It certainly doesn't get any less interesting. It's still fascinating and there's still no easy solution with songwriting. It's a vast skill or craft or art or whatever it may be. I never think I know how to do it, so I keep a respect for the process of writing songs.
Is it something you feel like you have to do everyday to keep the spirit flowing?
It probably is, but I don't.
When you write, are you conscious of keeping in what's perceived as your style?
No, I don't generally start with those kind of parameters. I suppose by the fact that I'm doing it, it generally has that stamp. Sometimes on the contrary I'm looking to do something different. I like working within parameters, to be able to know I need this kind of tempo or it has to be a slow love ballad or it needs to be a fast dance song, or this kind of groove or that kind of sentiment. It's usually good for me to have some direction like that to start with, rather than just writing with nothing in mind.
Do you have ways you like to begin?
I just try every way. I never think that I've decided on one method of that I know how to produce a song. Sometimes I'll work with co-writers, so I often sit down with them. Sometimes I'll do my own bit on my own and they'll do theirs. It depends on who I'm collaborating with. There's no real rules. Every song is different and it's the song itself that sets the stage for how it's written. I'm a slave to the song. That's the most important thing. Not how I want to do it, but how the song needs to be done.
On Junction 7, you write lyrics as well as music. Was that something new for you?
Well, I wrote the lyrics to "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "Can't Find My Way Home" - that was 30 years ago, so it's not new. But I hadn't done much lyric writing as of late. And it's not that it comes less easily than music, but I'm more of a musician than a literary person. I'm more studied in music than I am in the written or spoken word. But then I write my songs for myself rather than other people so that is quite different. It's not that much more difficult to write lyrics, it's just that I've happened to work with lyricists more than with musicians.
What inspired "Angel of Mercy"?
Just a statue, a little thing I've got in the house. I think of it as the angel of mercy - that's what started the idea. It was about the second song Narada and I wrote, so the inspiration was more in us writing together than anything else.
That song, "Let Your Love Come Down" and "Fill Me Up" have inspirational messages. In fact, the whole record is pretty uplifting.
It was something I set out to do. I tried to make sure that lyrically this record had a very positive note, a spiritual touchstone.
How was it working with your wife as a co-writer?
She hadn't really written songs before, or I should say hadn't had any published. She's not a musician in that she doesn't play an instrument. Because of that, she gained a certain insight into what a song is. She told me she wanted to write some songs, not really for the album. She just had some ideas, so I tried to help her with some of the music and with the demos. But I liked them so much that I then decided to put them on the album. I think it's important when you work with your wife that there's specific times when you do devote to work time and other times when you don't.
If it's all right, I'd like to mention some of your songs from the past to get your reaction to them. How about "Paper Sun"?
When I started writing with Jim Capaldi, because we came into songwriting as players and musicians, our reason for writing songs was so that we had something to play. So I think you'll agree that that's coming from a different direction than a lot of partnerships. I think it was only later that we began to develop our skills. In those early years, particularly with the Traffic songs, the song wasn't just a song, it was a performance whereas there are some songs that have a strength regardless of the performance. Later on, we thought about making songs stand on their own.
When you and Jim would write a song like "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys", how complete would it be when you brought it to the band?
I'll tell you exactly how we used to write back then. What would happen is that Jim would jot some words down on a piece of paper - some lines, maybe, and not too many, and certainly not arranged in a verse - chorus kind of way. He would just jot a few phrases or ideas down, and then we would go and jam. I would stand the piece of paper on top of the piano or organ, then during the jam when I felt it was right and appropriate, I'd sing what he'd written down and it always came out of a jam. All those early songs - "Paper Sun", "Dear Mr Fantasy", "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" - they were jams. We were just playing together. It was born out of the fact that we were players rather than writers.
Is it still the way you and Jim write?
We can and do write like that, but I think that recently, with the Far From Home Traffic album from 1993, and the couple of songs we wrote with Narada on Junction 7, we've learned to work differently. Jim has now learned to thread his lyrics into a melody rather than just starting out jotting down a few thoughts. He's learned the skills of writing, and obviously he's had successful songs with The Eagles and a few others. He's honed his skills.
Your next steady co-writer was Will Jennings. What do you recall about writing "While You See a Chance"?
The way I wrote songs with Will is that I always wrote the whole of the backing track and the melody, and he would just thread his lyric into that melody. It was the first song we ever did. He came to visit me in England and we worked on it. A lot of the songs we did were done like that - "Talking Back to the Night" and "Back in the High Life" were lyrics that he'd written beforehand. Interestingly enough, Rodney Crowell, who lives near me in Nashville and is a good friend, also works with Will Jennings. And we were talking one day about Will, and I happened to mention that when we work together he doesn't really cross the border at all of music, and stays within the realm of the lyric. He doesn't try to influence the music or the melody at all. Rodney kind of looked at me sideways for a bit, then said that when he works with Will, Will only does the music and he does all the lyrics. So Will is one of these people who can work with lots of different co-writers in different ways.
On a song like "Valerie", would the melody be suggesting a lyric to you before you gave it to Will?
It might, but I wouldn't necessarily tell him. I learned more about co-writing as I got older. When you're young, you tend to be more impetuous and more idealistic, and you tend to think you know exactly what the song should be about - every element, how it should be recorded, mixed, performed or whatever. But I find that with the benefit of experience, I've learned to wait before I gave my thoughts on what someone else should be doing, to see exactly what they came up with. It can sometimes be completely different than what I had in mind, but in the same way it can have something of its own. Interestingly enough, I learned that from Jim Capaldi, because he always did that. When he jotted down lyrics in the Traffic days, he'd have some idea what the melody or the groove or the rhythm was and I would come up with something completely different, and it would work. If it did work, he would be very pleased but he'd never say it didn't fit with what he'd had in mind. I think it's important to be open when you're working with co-writers. Because of that I sometimes try to keep quiet about my ideas regarding what they're doing. Only if it's going wrong will I speak up, but things don't go wrong that often with guys like Will Jennings.
What do you recall about working with Chaka Khan on "Higher Love"?
She came into the studio and knew exactly what she wanted to do, what the harmony parts were and where they should go - she required no direction at all. She was brilliant.
And James Taylor on "Back in the High Life"?
Same thing. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. Obviously he's a different sort of character, but in his quiet way he's got a wonderful strength about what he does. We felt there was no direction necessary with James. There again, it's the same thing with songwriting. You can use the same premise when you're producing. It's good to let people give their ideas first without any direction, because very often it's the best thing.
Listening to your singing on the new album, I was amazed by your voice. You're nearly 50 and you have the same range and power you did when you were 16. Do you do any exercises or keep any regimen to maintain it?
Not really. Plenty of fresh air. (laughs)
What's the most difficult thing about song-writing at this point in your career?
I don't think it's any more difficult or challenging than it's ever been. It's just as mysterious as it ever was. The only benefit that you can have from having written is to be able to remove yourself and see it from the outside.
If you gave a workshop on songwriting, what would you say to your students?
I've spoke to people about doing several educational things and I am keen to help, and probably writing is the best thing for me to talk about because it's so vague and there really aren't any rules. All I can do is answer questions. I don't believe I can tell anybody how to write a song. Yes, there are elements to songs. For instance, I think there's a big difference between poetry and lyrics. Lyrics shouldn't be judged on their own, but rather on how they work in tandem with the music. The other thing I would say is that melody is very important. Melody is a very complex subject, and I've read books on it. There are techniques but I don't really know them (laughs). I think with me it's more of a feel, in that I know how the melody should go and where it should go, but I don't know why it should go there (laughs). So it might be hard to teach melody writing. I don't know if there's anything else to say about songwriting, except to make sure there's a lot of feeling in what you do.
-- Bill DeMain
Sidebar: Steve's Recommended Listening: Have you read a book called High Fidelity? There's one part in the book where they guy's being interviewed by an American journalist and she asks him what his top 5 favorite records are. And from that point on, the whole interview was ruined because he kept trying to think of what those 5 records were, then for weeks afterwards he kept calling her and saying, "Can I change the second one to James Brown?" I'm afraid I'm a bit like that. Music to me means so much and it's just so broad, and to narrow it down to 5 records, I don't think I ever could. It covers everything from Mozart to Little Milton, or from Jimmie Rodgers to Miles Davis. There's 4 people I would recommend, but to pick just 1 more that would cover all that last expanse of music that's between is too difficult. More recently, in the past month, I've been listening to some new music, such as Phish. I played with them, and they're one of the few bands around now who just jam, which I think it a great idea. They have the Traffic approach. There's another band called Primus who play dance rhythms, but instead of being programmed they actually play them. That's a great breakthrough I think. It could lead to having techno beats combined with actual percussion sections, which I think is great. Some of the more retro bands like Kula Shaker, Jamiroquai, Ocean Colour Scene all sound good to me.
Steve's Recommended Listening:
Have you read a book called High Fidelity? There's one part in the book where they guy's being interviewed by an American journalist and she asks him what his top 5 favorite records are. And from that point on, the whole interview was ruined because he kept trying to think of what those 5 records were, then for weeks afterwards he kept calling her and saying, "Can I change the second one to James Brown?" I'm afraid I'm a bit like that.
Music to me means so much and it's just so broad, and to narrow it down to 5 records, I don't think I ever could. It covers everything from Mozart to Little Milton, or from Jimmie Rodgers to Miles Davis. There's 4 people I would recommend, but to pick just 1 more that would cover all that last expanse of music that's between is too difficult. More recently, in the past month, I've been listening to some new music, such as Phish. I played with them, and they're one of the few bands around now who just jam, which I think it a great idea. They have the Traffic approach. There's another band called Primus who play dance rhythms, but instead of being programmed they actually play them. That's a great breakthrough I think. It could lead to having techno beats combined with actual percussion sections, which I think is great. Some of the more retro bands like Kula Shaker, Jamiroquai, Ocean Colour Scene all sound good to me.