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Mix Blog: The Personal Touch

Exploring the career of Dave Stewart—from Eurythmics to recording on Paul Allen's superyacht, he's kept it real every step of the way.

Stewart recording vocals in Jamaica for Ebony McQueen.
Stewart recording vocals in Jamaica for ‘Ebony McQueen.’

I’ve always thought that Dave Stewart seemed like a pretty cool cat. First, it was the music. I was in college in the early 1980s when Eurhythmics appeared, and my soon-to-be wife was a big fan. I had no idea what Mix was back then, or that I would have a future that talked about such things, but I do remember thinking that “Sweet Dreams” just sounded different. Unique and alluring. The songs sucked me in, and the sound left me entranced.

Later, through my association with Mix, I would learn about all his songwriting and production work, going back to co-writing Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” on through Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Ringo Starr, Stevie Nicks, Joss Stone, No Doubt and so many others. In my mind, he occupied that rare air in the music industry, that behind-the-scenes club where I could imagine him hanging out with artists-musicians- producers-creators like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, sharing that sense of musical mystique.

Through the years, I would hear more stories, starting with a small role he played in the early 1990s connecting Willy Henshall with the right people (i.e., Paul Allen) in order to form Rocket Network, a way-ahead-of-its-time file exchange medium that would later morph into DigiDelivery. A couple of decades later, Lucky Numbers, his 2013 solo release, was recorded over a two-week period on Allen’s yacht in the South Pacific, which was, as many know, well-equipped for professional recording.

A few years before that, in 2010, I got a call from John McBride, owner of Blackbird Studios in Nashville, saying that Dave Stewart was in recording a new album. The story, as John told it then, was that Stewart had just taken off from Los Angeles on a flight to London when the months-long eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland began putting up huge ash clouds and disrupting traffic across the North Atlantic. Stewart, I was told, decided to land in Nashville to wait it out and record a few songs in the meantime.

Apparently, he fell in love with the place and, over the next couple of months, recorded and mixed his first solo project in more than a decade, bringing in talent like Martina McBride, Stevie Nicks, Colbie Caillat and The Secret Sisters as collaborators. He called it The Blackbird Diaries. He even made a film about the making of the record. He’s been back to Nashville many times since, establishing a satellite home and his own small studio that he stops into regularly as he travels the London-L.A. corridor, with side trips to his island home and Bay Point Studios in the Bahamas.

That’s where Lily Moayeri’s excellent October cover story on Dave Stewart begins—in the islands—following the release of his highly personal solo album Ebony McQueen and just prior to his induction this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In reading it, I began to understand just why I’ve always thought he was so talented, so cool. It’s the personal touch he brings to each and every project.

Speaking of his early days with Annie Lennox, he says: “The two of us never had anybody else in the room when we were writing songs, and often when we were recording, it’d be just me and her. It’s a personal thing. The more you’re working on the project together, the more you get intertwined in it. That comes out in the music and the songs.”

He remembers flying to the Bahamas with Chris Blackwell as a young man, just signed to Island Records, and experiencing his first taste of recording. He goes on to describe that while most people think it is a synthesizer running throughout “Sweet Dreams,” it’s actually him and Annie playing milk bottles with sticks. The hit single was recorded to 8-track tape, and he became enamored of bouncing tracks, testing the creative limits.

When it became clear in 2010 that Stevie Nicks was becoming studio-shy while working on In Your Dreams, Stewart the Producer suggested that they record in her home. They ended up using every space, lining a hallway with hanging bottles and recording harmonies at the bottom of a stairwell. It felt right, and it was right. He credits German producer and engineer Konrad “Conny” Plank with teaching himself and Lennox about “pushing the boundaries with sound sources and creation.” He learned that there were no rules when it came to getting the sound or effect he wanted.

While Stewart is a fan of technology, often on the leading edge, he realizes that Pro Tools is just another tool. For him, as you might expect, it starts with a band in a room, and a producer and artist sharing a vision. On Ebony McQueen, you can feel his Sunderland, England roots, just as you can feel the island breeze and dance to the percussion floating in on the waves.

We are all the sum of our experiences, artists and musicians perhaps more so than others. It’s the personal touches that tell our stories and make them have meaning, In an age of homogenization in arts and culture, Dave Stewart knows that it’s the personal touches that make each and every artist unique. That’s what carries the day.

And that, I learned, is at the root of what makes him a pretty cool cat.