Dave Stewart scrolls back through the messages on his phone and pulls up what he was looking for: a text from Bono. “Happy New Gear!” it reads, followed by queries to connect with Stewart at his Bay Street Recording Studio on Harbor Island in the Bahamas. Stewart goes through his photos app and finds a video of Bono and The Edge at Bay Street, the latter strumming a guitar and saying, “Great studio you’ve built here, Dave.” Another video shows an island local, Rocky, playing fantastic guitar for a song that Stewart wrote with Daryl Hall.
In a lush hotel suite in Beverly Hills, worlds away from Bay Street and miles away from his 909 Studio in Nashville, Stewart grabs his Takamine guitar and starts walking around, playing and singing bits from his latest solo album, Ebony McQueen.
It’s surreal to watch Stewart performing in this casual setting. The highly regarded producer, songwriter and musician, best known for his Grammy-winning work with Eurythmics, has sold upward of 100 million albums. He has collected a Golden Globe, four Ivor Novellos for Best Songwriter and four BRITs for Best Producer, not to mention 50 ASCAP and BMI Awards.
He’s produced and written songs with Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, Damian Marley, Gwen Stefani, Stevie Nicks, Bryan Ferry, A.R. Rahman, Katy Perry, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Joss Stone, just to mention a few. Stewart is an inductee to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Grammy Hall of Fame and will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.
Becoming a Hall of Famer sometimes signals the closing of a career. This is certainly not the case with Stewart, who isn’t slowing down in the least. Music has taken him from his birthplace of Sunderland, in the far north of England, to studios in London, Paris, Los Angeles, Nashville and, now, to the Bahamas, at Bay Street.
RECORDING IS PERSONAL
In a way, Bay Street Recording Studio is the realization of a 50-year dream for Stewart, who first experienced island life when he was a teenager and signed by Chris Blackwell to Island Records. He would record Eurythmics’ music with his partner, singer and songwriter Annie Lennox, at Blackwell’s Compass Point Studio, a residential recording space in the Bahamas.
Stewart’s own remote space is in the hills of St. Anne’s Bay in Jamaica, where he had done some recording over the years. Bay Street Recording is a much more elaborate iteration of the island experience, with an extensive studio, a house where Stewart lives with his wife, and four cottages to house a visiting audio engineer and musicians.
Bay Street’s setup lends itself handily to Stewart’s process as a producer, which has always been one-on-one with the artist for an entire album’s worth of songs. It’s a process diametrically opposite to the piecemeal approach that is prevalent nowadays, particularly in pop music.
Says Stewart: “When streaming came along and the album disappeared—unless you’re buying vinyl—labels and certain hitmaker producers realized, ‘Hang on a minute, it’s much better to have one song streamed a billion times than 10 songs that might get lost.’
“Sometimes there are great things that come out of that,” he continues. “It’s almost like going back to Motown, when they dropped the eight Supreme singles. But it’s not exactly the same as After the Gold Rush by Neil Young or Hunky Dory by David Bowie—albums that started and finished with them going in with a whole vision and one producer.”
Stewart cites a recent experience with what he calls “pick it up, fuck it up, drop it,” or “record label science,” by proxy of his daughter, Kaya Stewart, who just released her album, If Things Go South.
“The label says, ‘You’re really unique and we love what you do, but go in this room with this producer and that one and that one and that one,’” he says. “In the end, the artist has no idea who they are. It takes a very strong personality to turn that around. Miley Cyrus, for example, it doesn’t matter how many producers are involved, she’s still going to make sure that she’s stamped all over her music.
“I’m not a great fan of writing songs or producing records with a group of people,” he continues. “In fact, I just couldn’t. With [Lennox], 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. Even in massive rock bands like The Rolling Stones, it was them locked in. They’re doing this thing together, all the way through. I see that system of working coming back a bit now.
“I’ve talked to quite a lot of different kinds of record producers in my time—George Martin, Brian Eno, and I’ve shared a house with Jimmy Iovine. Everybody has a completely different way of going about producing, but the one thing I saw in common was the role of making it move forward.”
THE PRODUCER AND THE ARTIST
When Stewart came together with Stevie Nicks to make her album In Your Dreams, it had been a long time since Nicks had recorded anything. “She was very doubtful,” Stewart remembers. “She’d lost a lot of confidence in studios and her experience at studios. I said, ‘Let’s just do it at your house.’ She agreed, and all of a sudden, her living room had a little desk, and her backing singers and friends would come around. It was fine. Whatever was making her feel really good, let’s have that. I like to create an atmosphere where everybody can do whatever and be not scared to make mistakes.
“A band is complicated,” he continues. “All these characters can get a bit stuck because a lot of times, they keep going down the same tracks of arguments they had years ago. It’s trying to divert those old habits of going down the same ski ruts. A little bit like being a therapist—I’m not a therapist, but it’s as important, if not more important, than all the recording techniques.”
Stewart likens making an album to creating a painting. “It’s infinite possibilities of instruments, notes, words—where do you start?” he says. “I have a goal in mind, and I always describe it. Every artform is putting content into context. I like just starting. When you do that, it’s like chipping a little hole, a crack in the wall, and light comes through it. Artists that I’ve worked with, whether they’re really young and never made a record before, or it’s Bryan Ferry and he’s made loads of records, that’s something they appreciate. ‘Oh, thank God, someone’s chipped a hole in this wall.’”
Over the years, the increased portability of recording has had a positive correlation with Stewart’s creativity. The advent of four-track and eight-track tape recorders, he says, loosened the shackles of big commercial studios in the early ’80s. Eurythmics’ most ubiquitous hit, “Sweet Dreams” was made on an eight-track.
“I was overwhelmed with artists asking me, ‘How’d you do that?’” Stewart recalls. “I had to explain, you only need this equipment with some kind of reverb, some kind of delay in it, a little mixer, and a four-track or an eight-track. If you need to do more, you bounce those onto one track like the Beatles did making Sergeant Pepper’s. Later, loads of people from the hip hop world said, ‘When we heard [your music], we went and got [that equipment].”
Stewart started to learn guitar at the age of 13 and was introduced to Jimi Hendrix and Electric Ladyland a few years later, in 1968. He remembers the “amazing and wild-sounding” sound in the opening of “…And the Gods Made Love,” with tricky guitar playing and the noise of the pedals. He traces that forward to Beck’s “Loser” in 1993, when, “You could make fucked- up sounds and still have them be really popular,” he explains. “Two 24-tracks joined together. Now we’re going to have Pro Tools. We can record everything. Let’s record 12 guitar takes and five drum tracks. We’ll keep them all and sort them out later.”
Except, Stewart doesn’t like “sorting anything out later.” Instead, he says, “I like deciding right then on gut instinct. Even on my new album, everything’s the first take. There’s an orchestra on some of the songs, and maybe we did the song twice, but it’s normally once. One artist can make an album in a week and another might take two years. If the end result is brilliant, it doesn’t matter how they did it.”
Stewart credits his production and studio know-how in part to prolific German producer and engineer Konrad “Conny” Plank. A key figure in the experimental German music scene, Plank was generous in teaching Stewart and Lennox what he knew and pushing the boundaries with sound sources and creation. Plank made Stewart realize that he was allowed to do absolutely anything in order to get the sound or effect he wanted.
“On ‘Sweet Dreams,’ people think it’s a synthesizer, but it’s [Lennox] and I playing milk bottles with sticks,” Stewart reveals. “When I was recording ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,’ I didn’t want a maraca. It had to be larger-sounding, but not a cabasa, which is difficult and also has a sound. I wanted a sound not like anything, but that gave the feeling that it was the biggest shaker in the world. I got this giant tin in the studio filled with pencils and bits of metal and sharpeners, and I was shaking it all the way through. At that point, it wasn’t a perfect percussion play in time. We had to make it exactly in time with the drums.
“I realized if I opened up the noise gate with the hi-hat when the drummer’s playing, instead of stopping the sound that let the sound through, we could trigger the noise gate from the hi-hat, and send the shaker to that channel the hi-hat was opening through the noise gate. It sounds like it was the best percussion player in the world.”
Stewart admits that he does enjoy the ease of manipulating sound in the box, but he also appreciates the physicality of manipulating sounds with tricks. For example, making loops with tape wrapped around pencils positioned at strategic points around the studio and figuring out where to cut the tape so it comes around at exactly the right time.
When working with Nicks at her home-turned-studio, for instance, Stewart hung bottles through her hallway and found the best place to record harmonies, which turned out to be at the bottom of her spiral staircase where there was natural reverb for Nicks and her backing vocalists, who crammed into the space with her.
“The Eurythmics song ‘I Love You Like a Ball and Chain’ has a very strange rhythm,” says Stewart. “To strain it out a bit, there was a youth club in Paris where we moved our eight-track tape recorder. I got a microphone going all the way upstairs to the roof, where there was gravel. I had my mother go up there with headphones and march on the gravel in time with what she was hearing. She was bound to get some of it right. We stopped recording but forgot to tell her to stop. It sounds great on record. To this day, I still love doing things like that.”
For the album Savage, Stewart took Eurythmics’ portability to a 28-room chateau in the north of France, which he rented for three months for far less than a professional studio would cost. He set up the eight-track recorder in the tiny fumoir, the smoking room. The rest of the chateau functioned as a giant recording studio.
Stewart credits the sound of that album to a sampling keyboard he bought from composer Jack Nitzsche. “We spent ages trying to get the bloody thing to work; it was like starting up an old car,” says Stewart, who likes the creativity of a struggle. “You can be in Pro Tools and put Dutch church halls sound through a plug-in. I’ve done that, but it’s not as much fun as hanging a microphone out of the window.”
The Church Studios in London, currently the headquarters of producer Paul Epworth, was in Stewart’s possession for many years. He used the architecture and the acoustics of the space to capture sounds that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere, including large groups of singers in the cavernous, high-ceilinged hall. “It became this factory type of music world,” remembers Stewart.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
For the semi-autobiographical Ebony McQueen, Stewart has gone full circle back to Sunderland and his childhood experiences. He taps into the excitement of discovery of music and of first love, braiding the two into the fictitious titular character, a voodoo blues queen. The album goes beyond the conventional digital release. The deluxe version features a multi-format box set that includes the
album on three vinyl records, two vinyl EPs, two cassettes, a photo book with lyrics, and the script to the accompanying film-to-be.
Ebony McQueen was recorded partially in Nashville at Blackbird Studios and partially in the Bahamas while Bay Street was being built. Stewart set himself up with a minimal amount of gear in a cottage, much like he had when recording early Eurythmics albums.
While on the island, he recorded a marching band, which was not quite in tune. He also had a 60-piece orchestra from Budapest whom he communicated with remotely through the conductor, Melvin “Maestro” Lightford. The maestro also wrote the arrangements with Stewart, who wasn’t able to get a real-time experience of the orchestra recording due to latency.
“I have all of this input of music through my life,” Stewart says. “From when I was five years old, when my dad played Rodgers and Hammerstein on a record player he made with a wooden speaker, all the way through to me hearing blues music and Mississippi John Hurt and the Beatles coming out of the radio. I was not going to try and contain myself. I was going to put down all this stuff that I heard growing up and I love into song forms.
“I don’t ever hit a brick wall where I think, ‘Nothing’s working,’” he adds. “There’s always a way in which creativity can be unleashed, particularly by not concentrating on one thing. Taking away all the panic of it and making it from experience. Even if we’re going to write and record a song that’s devastatingly sad, to set up the sound and record that particular song, you don’t have to walk around devastatingly sad. Everyone’s got a sad memory. Hopefully, people who write songs don’t lose their memories.”