Al Talks About The New Album
The sun is shining in a clear blue sky as my Metro North commuter train makes one final stop at Harlem's 125th Street en route to Grand Central Station and it is time to put the New York Times down, gather my thoughts and think about the reason I am making this trip today.
Having been able to observe Al at work on the new songs for 3 years now, a period that has seen him move back to Los Angeles after a decade away, it is self evident that a purple patch of Songwriting has coincided very nicely with Al's new found proximity to Laurence and his studio, resulting in a crop of recordings that are right up there with the landmark ABFOS of 2005.
"Which has come as a surprise to me as much as anyone else" as Al had told me a couple of days earlier in his Reading PA dressing room.
This being the case, I had suggested that this weekend would therefore be the perfect time for us to sit down and have a proper conversation about how the album was looking and had suggested meeting up for Sunday lunch, which is why I find myself running across the Grand Hall of the most elegant train station on earth a few minutes later, having realized that I have just enough time for a Starbucks before we meet and that I know absolutely where the nearest one can be found!
Soon after, now refreshed beyond measure and with some frankly quite brilliant additional questions for Al that I had written during my time in Starbucks on pages towards the back of my Notebook ( pages I will later not be able to find however ), I am crossing Lexington Avenue and walking in to Al's hotel, dead on time.
A quick phone call to his room and ten minutes later we are walking the short distance to the restaurant. A very nice looking Mexican Restaurant. And yes, I do realize that part of our recent LA Blog also took place in a very nice looking Mexican Restaurant. At present this is therefore quite clearly an ongoing theme but I promise to do my level best to locate future reports somewhere else. Can't promise though - " Hey Al, how do you feel about a tuna sandwich and a glass of Gewurtstraminer in this nice little diner I've found in Northern Vermont ?".......not really going to work is it but I will try and vary the locations in future for these Blogs, I promise.
So, we order lunch and Al is genuinely exited about having a new album to talk about. Because, having just the past week laid down backing tracks in Hollywood at Capitol Studios, there is no escaping the fact that there actually is a new album to discuss.
This is how things are looking, Track by Track, in Al's own words -
" Most of these songs have been written over the past two years and once again, as many people will know, I am working with Laurence Juber. ABFOS was one of my very favourite albums and so if this one approaches the level of that one, then I will be happy.Laurence works very, very quickly, as I have said before and we seem to have more than enough songs for the album. We had been making demos for several months and recently went in to Capitol , somewhere we have been before, to lay down backing tracks. I now have to re write a few of the lyrics before doing the vocals, which will be done at Laurence's home studio as per usual.
And at the moment, we don't have a Title for the Album."
'Girdled round by the emerald sea......'
" This is one of my favourite songs on the album and also one of the oldest, coming from mid 2006. It's quite a simple song about Lord Robert Salisbury who was four time British Foreign Secretary and three time Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria. It was written , like lots of these songs, on the piano and is very much in the same veign as Old Admirals and as such may very well be the first song on the new record, it certainly deserves to be but we havn't got that far yet. It is your standard Al Stewart composition in many words.”
Hanno The Navigator.
'There’s an open sky and a steady breeze, out beyond the Pillars of Hercules...'
"Well, it's Carthage quite simply!
I was watching a Documentary on either the History or Discovery Channel a few months ago about all of this and the next day went off in search of some background Text in my local Borders but couldn't really find very much and so the song has taken off on a journey of it's own in some ways!
The tune almost carries you along with Hanno as he sets off down the coast of Africa.
This is definately a song that we are going to be playing live, as you saw the other day at McCabes with Laurence and Hope our Cello player."
A Child's view of the Eisenhower Years.
"These were pretty exiting times for most Americans when , it appears, anything seemed possible and so I thought that to present a series of events , major and not so major, as seen through the eyes of a young child would echo this sense of wonder that not only America but the rest of the World felt in the 50's.
Very different of course to Post World War Two Blues. I particuarly like the irony of the line that goes - 'There's a beep in the sky, it's 1957, a metal ball that flies, through Soviet Heavan' which is of course the Sputnik rocket that was put up by the Russians, kicking off the space age."
( A Certain ) Frisson.
'Felt a sudden twinge inside you from her Military hair'......
"This still needs some work and I'm not at all sure about the lyrics at the moment. It has a very tasteful finger style introduction that comes straight out of the Les Cousins years and is also a song we have already been trying out live at various places.I think that both Laurence and Dave have already played it with me.
Watch this space basically. I love the tune though."
Shah of Shah's.
'A hundred thousand pictures...'
"This is taken from the wonderful and eminently readable book of the same title by Ryszard Kapuscinski who also of course wrote Imperium. Both very good books.
It's a series of snapshots of the Shah of Iran's sudden fall from grace in 1979, which happened very quickly indeed, about how he cried in the car on his way to the airport ,a soldier bending down to kiss his feet before he got on the plane,his statues being pulled down almost at once.....a series of events that I have pieced together in to a song.
Everyone seems to like this one and the music gives it an almost Cinematic feel. A keeper I guess......or so you and other people that have heard it a few times have told me."
'You hear the voices of salvation through the static'...
"This is another song that I am going to have to probably going to change around a bit. I've already had a couple of goes at the lyrics.
One of my favourite pieces musically though."
"Maybe the oldest song of the lot. William McKinley was the twenty fifth President of the United States and was it originally written, again, on the piano.
Laurence has done something amazing with this track in so far as he has over dubbed a German Oom-pah band type of section that is just perfect and so who know where this one will go now!
Pass The Ball.
'Fifty yards away, a minute left to go'.......
"Al Stewart writes a song about Football or Soccer as the rest of the World calls it, well there's a surprise for a start. I do not claim to know anything at all really about Soccer. I know who Bobby Charlton is but that is about it. A game that two sides can play for 90 minutes that ends without a goal being scored is not my idea of exitement but I know that we disagree on this and so let's leave it at that!
All I know is that I was sat down at the piano last Summer and wrote down the words ' At the centre of the field, stands the favourite player....' and I had no idea who he was or what he was doing there. The image came from nowhere. Was I thinking about David Beckham ?, you know, I honestly don't think that I was but I could have been, subconsciously I suppose. The song just took on a life of it's own and was written at that one sitting, very quickly. I've been singing it for almost a year now and I still don't know who he is. He could be anyone and in many ways it doesn't really matter.
But the wonderful thing about this song is that for the longest time it had stayed pretty much the same, with me singing it at Topanga and other shows over the past year, in the way that I thought it would end up on the record.
But no ! Once we got to Capitol, Laurence gave it this Staxx like groove and it's been transformed. Absolutely. It has become one of my favourite songs on the album.
Anyway, it's my Football song and that's it!"
There are other songs on the record of course such as 'Dido' which is another work in progress and 'Long Time gone', Al's Film Noiresque take on someone returning to a life that they had left behind, originally written just a few short blocks away from where this interview was taking place, at The Warwick Hotel, last year.
Plus , of course 'Four Leafed Clover', which has a melody to die for.
All of the above are open for revision once Al returns from Canada at the end of March.
Lunch ends on a surreal note as Al tells me about sitting in the back of the Cab that was taking him out to Los Angeles airport a few days earlier.
With time to kill, he had come up with a single set of lyrics that seemed to fit a couple of the new pieces of music. One thing led to another and Al now has a song ( or rather the idea for a song ) that will completely transform one of the new compositions above. The song will be called 'Angry Bird' and that is, quite simply, what it is about......an angry bird!
Why is the bird so angry ?, Al isn't sure yet but you can be sure that as a bird in an Al Stewart song, it will be skilled in the use of metaphor and simile and will quite possibly have recently migrated from Carthage.