Throughout his three-decade recording career, elegant crooner Bryan Ferry has continually broken rules in search of his own musical nirvana. The debonair, sophisticated singer has tackled so many different styles that he transcends easy classification. What infuses all of his work, however, is a passion for singing, for music and for romance.
The evidence is in the nine albums he made with Roxy Music between 1972 and 1982 and the 11 solo records he has released since 1973. His influences are abundant: blues, jazz, soul, lounge, girl groups, classic rock, funk and more. And though his image as a balladeer is well-established, he has actually been something of a vocal chameleon: Compare his performance as a suave Satan on his inspired rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” to his quirky vocalizations on Roxy’s rollicking “Virginia Plain” or the silky smoothness on the amorous “More Than This.”
On his 1999 album As Time Goes By, Ferry explored the pop standards of the ’30s — a natural for this gentleman who always looks like he’s just stepped out of the drawing room of some old English estate. (That album was even in mono!) But his latest disc, Frantic, finds him in a more rocking mood as he ranges over possibly his most diverse collection of songs ever: Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”; a stirring version of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”; shimmering pop/rock songs such as “Hiroshima” and “San Simeon,” which hearken back to Avalon-era Roxy Music; and a collaboration with Brian Eno called “I Thought” that has a distinct lounge lizard vibe. There’s even a brief Renaissance interlude in the middle of the album!
“I’ve been trying to stretch out in various directions,” acknowledges Ferry, his speaking voice as gentle and distinguished as his singing voice. “It’s been interesting the last couple of years, because I’ve been on tour so much. And I think that’s had a big effect on everything.”
Touring with a big band in 1999 in support of As Time Goes By and with Roxy Music on their well-received reunion tour last year inspired Ferry to want “to do something that was a bit more direct, because you do tend to do more direct things when you’re playing live to an audience. I enjoyed the process of making [As Time Goes By] very much, because it was getting back to that organic way of working again. Working with real musicians in a studio, as opposed to laboring over computers and drum programs and so on. That had quite an effect on this new album, as well.”
Some of the team that made As Time Goes By was back in place for Frantic, including Ferry’s fellow co-producers Rhett Davies and Colin Good, who also arranged the strings and played piano on both CDs. Ferry readily acknowledges that he is barely involved in the technical aspects of recording: “I’m more into arrangements and directing the music, although I take a fleeting interest in what they’re fiddling around with.”
Frantic has been a long time coming. “There were a couple of tracks that are older recordings [from before the sessions],” says Good, “but the bulk of it was actually recorded with a rhythm section live at least. When we did As Time Goes By, particularly with the straight jazz tracks, there was no other way of recording those; you can’t piece that together. You have to get seven or eight players in the studio and press Record. There was very little overdubbing on that project.”
Good observes that Ferry revisited that more organic-recording process for Frantic. “Some of that stuff was a bit rehearsed, and some of it was very spontaneous,” he says. “I think the two Dylan tracks are first takes — not just the backing tracks, but also Bryan’s vocal, as well.”
Some songs went through a longer evolution. The album itself was recorded over three distinct periods: at the end of the As Time Goes By tour in the summer of 2000; just prior to the Roxy Music reunion tour in the spring of 2001; and then following that tour in late 2001. “There was a period where we were cutting live tracks, and there was a period where we were doing overdubs and putting [together] some old tracks,” recalls Good. “I think Bryan recorded ‘Goodnight Irene’ 10 years ago, but we did a lot of work on it, adding various things. Then there was the last period, where we worked on things like ‘Goddess of Love,’ ‘One Way Love’ and ‘Hiroshima,’ which Bryan had recorded about five or six years ago but hadn’t quite finished.”
Good and Davies generally recorded songs from the rhythm section on up. “We didn’t use a click,” Good says, “so you’ll hear that quite a lot of the tracks will speed up and slow down, as appropriate, which was another old-fashioned element that we really wanted to incorporate. So if you take a track like ‘Cruel,’ it gradually speeds up, which I think is a very good and effective thing.” He says that such subtle variations in tempo made editing more problematic, “but then that’s the price you pay for getting that organic feel.”
The album was cut using up to 48 tracks on the RADAR hard disk recording system, which Ferry describes as “a very convenient way of working. It’s digital, but we do use a very old desk. In fact, both studios we used had really ancient desks, which I think was a nice way to work.” The bulk of the recording was done at RAK Studios in London, with pre-production and overdubs at Ferry’s Studio One.
“The beauty of RADAR is that it feels as though you’re recording onto tape, because what you’re presented with onscreen, and the way in which it works, is very, very similar to what you would be doing with a piece of analog tape,” Good says. The CD was later mixed on an SSL console (mostly by Bob Clearmountain) and then mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering.
Ferry says that he’s happy to leave the technicalities to the various engineers on the project — including Nick Addison, Neil Brockbank, Richard Norris and Ash Howes — and to Davies, with whom he has a long history. “The first time I worked with him, he was just a tape operator on Another Time, Another Place, which was way back in ’74,” the singer recalls. “He went on and did quite a lot of things with Brian Eno and did something with Talking Heads at that time. He came back to work with me as an engineer on Roxy’s Manifesto album, then [co-produced] Flesh & Blood, Avalon and Boys & Girls. Then he kind of retired for 10 years. I think I wore him out. It was a real treat for me to work with him again on As Time Goes By; I lured him out of retirement, and then he came on the road with me on the last two tours — the solo tour and the Roxy tour — mixing the sound.” (He also was on Ferry’s most recent American tour last fall.)
“When I came off the As Time Goes By tour two years ago, I was very fired up by the reception we received,” Ferry continues. “People really liked those songs from the ’30s, and they liked the Roxy Music material I did, as well. I just felt very inspired to do a record that was very different from the ’30s thing — to get back to more guitars and drums; a kind of rock record, really.
“As the record developed, it became wider and wider in its scope. I did want to make a mixture of covers and self-written stuff, because I had quite a number of songs written that I had done with Dave Stewart and some on my own, and even one with Brian Eno. So I had quite a lot of things to choose from.”
As with all of Ferry’s albums, Frantic features a strong cast of supporting musicians: Robin Trower and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood bring their axework to “Hiroshima”; Brian Eno lends keyboards and backing vocals to “Goddess of Love” (an ode to Marilyn Monroe) and “I Thought”; and past Ferry associate Chris Spedding plays electric sitar on the airy “San Simeon.” Ferry also sings the praises of lesser-known guitarists Mick Green and Martin Wheatley.
Ferry’s songwriting collaborator for four original tunes on Frantic was guitarist and keyboardist Dave Stewart, best known for being half of the pop duo Eurythmics. “Dave is a very underrated guitarist,” declares Ferry. “He’s a very inspirational player, actually.” The two musicians have a history that dates back to the late ’70s, when Stewart and Annie Lennox were in a group called The Tourists, who opened up for Roxy Music on a tour of England. “He’s a lively spirit who has a lot of positive energy,” Ferry says of Stewart. “So has Brian Eno. He’s a great character, Brian. It was nice to work with him again.”
While Eno only played on the first two Roxy Music albums, he and Ferry have remained friends and collaborated as recently as Ferry’s 1994 solo album, Mamouna, a record defined by its ambient funkiness. Eno chose not to be part of the Roxy Music reunion tour, although bassist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay obliged.
Asked whether there will ever be another Roxy Music album, Ferry says, “I’m not sure. I don’t think there will be another Roxy album. Funny, but Andy Mackay just rang me on the cell phone two minutes ago while I was talking to you. We enjoyed working together on last year’s Roxy tour. It was great. It was very successful and a real pleasure to do.”
Back in the mid-’70s, Ferry told a British magazine that, even though he fronted the arty glam-rock band Roxy Music, he still felt that he was a blues singer at heart. Given the wide range of music he has tackled since, does he still feel that way? “Well, yeah,” he replies. “The blues was the first kind of music I heard. Leadbelly, in fact, was the first person I remember hearing when I was 10 years old, who really made me interested in music.” Beguiled by the yearning and longing expressed in Leadbelly’s voice, Ferry soon became enchanted by the blues and, later, jazz.
“It’s interesting how all of the different strands of American music — or, at least, most of them — can be traced back to a guy in the South with a guitar in a field,” muses Ferry. “It’s amazing how many great pieces of music have developed from that very simple stuff.” Three years ago, Ferry mentioned in an interview that he would like to record an entire album of early American folk songs. Inspired by an anthology of American folk music assembled by Harry Smith, Ferry chose some of those songs to perform at a live show in London.
Of course, Ferry also acknowledges “another branch of American music; the Broadway stuff, the Cole Porter stuff, all of these songs that I did on the ’30s album. That’s the other side of American music, which is more kind of Tin Pin Alley and comes from that European tradition.”
As Time Goes By certainly confirmed the notion that the singer would have been at home in another era, but he has also modernized many classic numbers from that time and shown that his slick, literate sensibilities can play well today. His music has a sense of romanticism missing from millennial pop music.
“I like to create pictures in music,” Ferry remarks. “I think I have quite a pictorial imagination. I like to paint pictures; that’s why, in the past, I generally have used lots of different textures and different musical colors and so on. But on this album [Frantic], it was quite nice to be restrained some of the time, like the Dylan track, where it’s just voice and piano. That’s quite a change for me, and I quite enjoyed that. I think doing the ’30s album and tour gave me the confidence to do that simple thing.”
Asked about his penchant for covering songs, Ferry says, “It’s quite interesting that of all the biggest singers of the 20th century, none of them were writers. Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Elvis — they all just did songs by other people. Even Billie Holiday, my favorite singer of all time, only did one or two original songs, if that; I think she did the lyrics on ‘Strange Fruit.’”
With Roxy Music or solo, he has covered songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. In fact, Roxy Music’s lone Number One UK hit was a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” Some of his solo albums have been comprised entirely of covers, while others, like Frantic, have been half-and-half.
“I just enjoy doing some of those songs, you know,” says Ferry. “I like interpreting things by other people. Perhaps some people feel it’s a bit of a cheat to do Dylan songs while he’s still alive. But I have the greatest respect for his work. I just like to do songs that I love.”