Dave Stewart has spent his life writing, recording and producing music, which is why it’s interesting to learn that there were times when he had no interest in the art form.
This is one of the revelations brought to light by Ebony McQueenthe sprawling production that draws inspiration from Stewart’s youth growing up in Sunderland, England in the 1950s and 60s.
The titular character is who 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 “fate” and what can happen if you’re open to walking the path that opens up.
We discussed the massive project, which will eventually become a film and stage production, via Zoom. Jhe co-founder of Eurythmics is clearly excited to talk about which became his life’s work. So while there was a time, however brief, when music wasn’t part of his story, it’s a good thing he found that different path and embarked on the journey.
Congratulations on Eurythmics’ upcoming induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!
Thank you so much. Anne [Lennox] and I, you know, I’m English, Annie is Scottish. We have a very dry sense of humor, you know, we don’t jump around shouting “Yippie!” We are very reserved. But in fact, talking to each other, we are very honored and excited about it.
Ebony McQueen is the quintessential Dave Stewart kind of project, but it also feels like this one could have pushed you to your limits.
Oh my God, yeah. Well, you know, there’s like a 60-piece orchestra from Budapest. You know, having to do it remotely with movies and a great guy called Maestro Lightford, who’s an arranger and conductor. Of course he wasn’t in Budapest, he was with me. We sit next to each other and type messages to the driver there. So it was a whole. Recording is always easy with my band in Nashville, because I’ve done about 10 or more albums with them. It’s like having the Wrecking Crew.
But then there are a lot of interesting little musical worlds added. You see, when I was 14 and had just discovered the guitar, my cousin sent me some blues albums from Memphis. I was not at all interested in music until then. But my knee was broken, so I couldn’t play football, or football as it’s called in England, for a while. I was just like, “Oh no.” My mother had left my father. My father is depressed and he is at work. My brother went to college and I’m home alone. I put on a record that my cousin had sent me. I didn’t listen to music [prior to that]. I thought, “Fuck, I’m just gonna [check this out]. What’s that?” It was Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers. I went into a trance.
It was so foreign, standing in the northeast, staring out the window with the rain and that whiny voice [singing]”Hellhound on my trail” and all that. I was like, “God, what happened to me?” [Laughs] Then I found my brother’s guitar in the closet. I started trying to [learn things]. I would just play those few notes for ages, because I couldn’t play the guitar. But because I was listening to this I was getting two channels like this [Stewart plays a simple riff on his guitar]. I was learning that and it made me feel something. The more I got into it, the more I spent eight or nine hours a day [playing]. It made me realize, “Oh wait, that’s music.” I turned on the radio and [you can] imagine being 14 in 1964.
Suddenly, [I’m hearing] the Beatles, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones coming off the radio, which I had never bothered to listen to. I was like, “Holy shit.” I realized they were all playing things a bit like the blues, but not really. But that was his root. They were mixing. [Stewart begins playing the guitar, growling a vocal, “I’m a king bee.”]. I go, “That’s great.” Then I realized, “No, wait, that’s a blues song.” This had a huge influence on my tender years. That’s what the film and the musical are about. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Billy Elliot.
It’s about 14 miles from where I was born and it’s about the coal miners strike. He does not realize that he is a dancer. So it’s a strange parallel, because I didn’t realize I knew anything about music until that time when it was the darkest time, really, of my young life. Then I discovered music and the guitar and I said to myself: “Oh, shit! It’s a whole different world now!” And it has been ever since.
You understand what a cliff it is to jump off, the idea of making a musical. What have you learned from some of your past experiences that you are able to apply to what you do with Ebony McQueen?
Yes, of course, it was a huge learning curve. You know, I’ve often used, as Brian Eno would say, “oblique strategies” to figure something out. I wrote a book called The business playground, it’s not so much about our craft, it’s about how things were solved or invented by thinking differently. There was a big piece in the book about a Japanese guy and they were building ships that were so huge they couldn’t work out where the workers were in the ship. This became a big problem with huge pieces of metal.
So he made this diagram, like a fishbone, and then he made each kind of bone on the fishbone and gave it a number. They used it everywhere, like E-17 or whatever. That’s all they needed to focus on. I did it with the musical. You see, in the musical, you have themes and motifs for the characters, but also for the city, like New York or whatever. These themes need to intertwine in a way that the audience, it’s seamless, but slowly they start to recognize before the character appears, without telegraphing, “Oh, this is going to be a heavy scene”, or what whatever, like in the movies.
Then, at the end of the musical, onstage, a lot of those things come together and make the whole epic one piece. The first single, “Ebony McQueen”, is the end of the movie scene and it has sounds like a marching band and an orchestra and [a] Beatles feeling. You know, a sergeant. peppers-y kind of thing. It’s the very end of the film where the whole town sings. Obviously on my record it’s me and my players but in the movie it’s going to be the characters and everyone who sings this song about that voodoo blues queen who blew my mind when I put the record on for the first time on the record player.
Watch Dave Stewart’s “Ebony McQueen” Video
It’s obviously personal to you. How do you make it something that will also mean something to others? Also, when will people be able to see the musical and the movie?
The songs, obviously there won’t be 24 songs in the film, it would be a five hour film. Chunks of around eight to 12 songs and a few full songs will appear in the film. The story arc, they’ll follow the fact that if you let something in, it’s there for you. It’s basically the vibe you get from the story. But you see all the torturous parts of getting to that point when there’s a realization or an epiphany or whatever. There are some very frustrated songs, like “What’s the Fucking Point” is the title of one of the songs, right?
Which is totally identifiable to anyone.
I think anyone would relate to this. So I think every song, as it’s written, that’s me speaking personally, yeah, [these are] exact things that happened. But I’m not so different from the millions of other city dwellers who have dreams and aspirations and sit in a room on a rainy day. You wonder, when you are 14, what is it? It’s kind of a coming of age movie. The film will come first, shot in my home town of Sunderland. And from the film, will be extracted, a musical. I’ve already cast the girl next door, she’s English. We are looking at the father right now. I’m going up to Sunderland and we’re scouting. We have producers involved and as you know, it’s quite a palaver. [Laughs] Doing a movie, you think it’s complicated and then you try to do a musical and then it’s like, okay, times ten.
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