We’ve Got A File On You: Dave Stewart

Kristin Burns

We’ve Got A File On You: Dave Stewart

Kristin Burns

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

If you’re a songwriter, then Dave Stewart needs no introduction. The average listener is more likely to know him as one half of British synth-pop innovators Eurythmics, which he and musical partner Annie Lennox performed as for nearly a decade, from 1980 to 1990, with sporadic reunions after that.

After the global success of early ’80s radio gems like “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” and “Here Comes The Rain Again,” Stewart became a highly sought-after producer and songwriter, collaborating with everyone from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers to No Doubt, Bono, Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi, Joss Stone, Daryl Hall, Sinéad O’Connor, Katy Perry, and Ringo Starr — just to name a few.

More than that, even, Stewart has something of a Forrest Gump-like ability to be in the room when major historical events take place. He famously ideated the Traveling Wilburys (Bob Dylan complained to Stewart that he wanted to be in a band like that time he was in the Band), and he wrote what would later become Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” for Stevie Nicks (a moment he recounted with some grace and humor in his 2016 memoir).

More recently, Stewart created and executive produced the 2019 NBC reality series Songland. He released a new solo album Ebony McQueen in May of this year. In June, Stewart and Lennox were inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and in November, they’ll be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame along with Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, Duran Duran, Eminem, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, and Carly Simon.

Ahead of his and Lennox’s Rock Hall induction, Stewart walked us through parts of his robust career, which includes hanging in the studio with Aretha Franklin, working with Nelson Mandela, opening for a very early-career Elton John, and much more.

Induction Into The Songwriters Hall Of Fame & The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (2022)

You’ve worked with such a range of well-known musicians over such a long time. Do you have a philosophy around staying up to date on pop-music trends, or is that not a concern?

DAVE STEWART: I never look at it like, “Oh, I’m a producer trying to sort of be in competition or keep up with anything that’s happening on iHeartRadio or pop news or anything.” I just have no interest in that at all. And it’s a different kind of rat race now. I wouldn’t really want anything to do with it.

I never thought about that even when I was writing with Gwen [Stefani] for No Doubt [on 2001’s Rock Steady]. I never thought about anything apart from trying to make something with her that meant something to her when she was singing it. Obviously the lyrics and the music fell into the world of No Doubt, and that happened to be quite Jamaican-sounding at the time. And I got to have a house for years and go in Jamaica with a friend.

So that was very natural for me. And then I met [Jamaican singer and Rock Steady featured artist] Lady Saw in Jamaica before anybody knew who she was. She was the great sort of little bit in the middle. But I never really, even though that was a big hit for them, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is a hit.”

[Then] when Katy Perry came to my farm and I met her a couple of times, I think with Glen Ballard. She was in a stage where it was that thing that all young artists go through — trying to sort of get a point across of who she was, but also being passed around a bit. I call it “pick it up, suck it up, and drop it.” That can make them get quite lost.

But anyway, we were just writing songs with Katy that were just her expressing how she was feeling. And then so it was. I never met with anybody [where] I thought, “Well, I’m going to really try and write a pop hit or something.”

It sounds like you’re really plugged into the person, not so much trends.

STEWART: Yeah. It’s usually art as well. I’m not a person that is contacted by record labels or me contacting record labels, trying to be in. I never saw myself as a record producer or a songwriting collaborator, really [it’s] the way things sort of turned out. I stumbled across things that happened to be of interest to me, or things sort of fell into my world. I think it’s a bit this designating a documentary called The Art Of Chaos.

I feel quite still in the center of the vortex. It’s when you are a person who’s feeling relaxed in the middle of chaotic situations, that’s often quite attractive, I think, to other artists that want to join in on whatever the hell the thing is.

I suppose I have lots of adventures. And within those adventures, things happen and songs pop out. And sometimes I’m having an adventure and it’s not really important — for instance, I spent a lot of time with great friends with George Harrison. At one point, George asked me to produce his album with him. Then, George wanted to stay in my house in Los Angeles for a year with his wife and Dhani, his son. I was at the same time filming an 8mm semi camera stuff with [Bob] Dylan. The reason I built the house [was], it was ’round the corner from Tom Petty, whom I had become good friends with. So then, Dylan was saying he never had a band like the Band. I said, “The only band I know would be the Heartbreakers.”

So at one point in time, I realized I had in my back garden, there was Tom [Petty] and Bob [Dylan] and George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, who used to come ’round all the time. And then the Wilburys [came of that]. That’s what I mean by sometimes things are just happening and I’m not actually [personally involved]. Goodness, that it’s quite weird to understand, but I’m sort of almost right there.

Writing Original Songs For Alfie With Mick Jagger (2004), Forming SuperHeavy With Jagger, Damian Marley, Joss Stone, & A. R. Rahman (2011)

You’re like the glue.

STEWART: It’s not like I’m trying to do it on purpose. Like, “Hey, you guys should all be in my garden and form a band called the Traveling Wilburys.”

The only time I did something while I was in Jamaica — I thought there were these competing science systems from different villages making this incredible echoing sound. And I [said], “Oh, okay. This will be interesting.” I called Damian Marley, I called Mick Jagger and A. R. Rahman. That was the only time I said, “I wonder what that experiment would be like?”

And what was your connection to Joss Stone at the time? You knew her from Alfie?

STEWART: I’d known Joss since she was 15. She’d made those series sessions, and then I recorded her on the film soundtrack singing “Alfie.” It’s an amazing song, the chord changes and everything. She came in and she was almost 16 at the time. Obviously she was young and never seen the film or anything. And she just nailed it in one take. And Mick [Jagger] and I were looking at the window, it was in Abbey Road and it was pretty unbelievable. And I suggested Joss for [SuperHeavy].

The Tourists’ “I Only Want To Be With You” (1979)

Why did you opt to cover “I Only Want To Be With You” way back when you and Annie Lennox performed as the Tourists?

STEWART: As a laugh! As the Tourists, none of the other songs were like that. They’re pretty much doom-and-gloom songs. All life’s tragedies and things like that. And in the studio, we just started playing that as a laugh. We hated the fact that, that was a single and a hit because that was nothing what the group was about.

Actually, that wasn’t the start of my career playing live. I was signed to Elton John’s label when I was think 18 and 19 as [Longdancer]. The first thing we did — this little band we were in from Sunderland — we’d only played in a folk club [before]. We were supporting Elton John in a stadium. We were all playing acoustic guitars. It was a coffee shop thing, kind of acoustic guitars and harmonies. So [we were] tossed in the deep end, if what you know what I mean?

That sounds like a lot of pressure. Did you feel that at the time?

STEWART: Oh God, yeah. And of course what we did was, we played the full album and then we sang the backing vocals when [Elton] was on stage. Because he just come out with Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. It was “Rocket Man,” when he goes [sings] “and I think it’s going to be long, long time” and “Daniel is travelin’ tonight on a plane.” It was amazing, actually.

I stood right next to the piano on stage with him and he’s singing these songs one after the other. Now, he’s also is singing them in the record company office on the piano. “What do you think of this one?” Of course I was amazed at just about every one of them. Because he is such a… Well for a start, he’s such an incredible piano player. The combination of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and the way Elton just simply put them to music — literally put the paper in front of him and just sang it without working out anything. That was my first jolt of electricity, eye-opening [experience with] songwriting.

“Don’t Come Around Here No More” & Friendship With Tom Petty (1985)

The way you met Tom Petty via Stevie Nicks is already a fairly famous story. How did your relationship with him evolve after that?

STEWART: Well, you see I decided to buy and build house and a studio about two streets away from him. Because I didn’t know anybody in LA, and I really got on well with him. And then after the band got all the initial shock of me introducing sitars, I got on well with Benmont [Tench] and Mike Campbell. In fact, I got Mike Campbell to play on guitar [on some] Eurythmics records.

And then it became a little gang [with] Stan Lynch, the [Heartbreakers’] original drummer. We would all hang out. I think what happened was, Tom had come to a crossroads in his relationship at home. And a crossroads, musically. And I was this English [guy] — I wasn’t really understanding Americana or American music or anything. And I think he found it really refreshing. So we would hang around a lot together and go places together and I’d play music.

And then things like I was into filming things and then sort of turned him onto the idea of [music] videos. I made this mad series called Beyond The Groove for Channel 4, which was six episodes of an hour each or something. And everybody in it is doing live things, there’s Tom Petty and Little Richard and [this] quite great girl country singer who came out, she was one of the first girl singers at the time that was straightforwardly gay from the word go. [Editor’s note: Stewart is most likely referring to k.d. lang.]

Anyway, everybody in it was amazing in this series. And Tom was up [in the] Hollywood Hills pretending he was camping out there as a kind of hobo. And then I filmed him [when he wrote] “Free Fallin'” — I said, “Oh, let’s shoot some stuff in the back of this car.”

We had a great time just making crazy bits to movies and also just hanging out. Just going for breakfast or going to an Indian restaurant. I mean, we hung out all the time.

I was at [his] memorial with old friends and all that stuff. I’m very good friends with his daughter, Adria. She asked me if I wanted do a song not long after that. And I did “It’s Good To Be King” [to commemorate what would have been Petty’s 70th birthday], which is probably on YouTube. I did it with these great Nashville players. In fact, Adria just asked me if I wanted to do a song from the Everly Brothers album that she was getting all the brothers to release, and she was working with the Everly Brothers’ estate to help them. I wound up Amy Lee from Evanescence and said, “Hey, do you want to sing ‘Love Hurts’ with me?” And we just did it. That’s probably on YouTube as well.

“Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” With Aretha Franklin (1985)

You seem almost impervious to becoming pigeonholed in any particular genre or era.

STEWART: I’m just trying to have fun, if you know what I mean. I really am pleased that I didn’t get stuck in a genre in a band having to play the same style over and over again. Now, even in Eurhythmics, people think about “Sweet Dreams” [being] electronic, but we actually grew quickly. I introduced a full orchestra on “Here Comes The Rain Again.”

We went through all kinds of genre and specs: R&B on “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.” And then just when people thought, “Oh, we’ve got it,” we’re doing this kind rock-type thing with “Missionary Man” and all that. We went back to a totally weird electronic album called Savage. So we would never get put into a box.

Do you find any irony in the fact that a song like “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” was hailed as a modern feminist anthem almost 40 years ago, and today women’s rights are being openly demolished in the US?

STEWART: Yeah. I mean, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” is relevant in the way that it was really an ironic statement about, “Hey, is this the world that we really think is? I had dream that it’s all very fucked up and the same?” [With] “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” — Annie, from the beginning, even when we lived together as a couple, and then when we decided to be Eurhythmics and not live together, it was the both of us going, “Hey, what about if we wear exact suits together?” So that isn’t like, “Oh, this is a girl singer, this is a boy.” It’s like, “Hey, this is a complete equal, everybody’s on the same [page].”

[When] she was singing in the Tourists… From a female perspective, you get a lot of strange things you have to deal with — the way men [act] towards women is just so insane. It’s neanderthal. So it was from the beginning, we’re going to make statements in the songs, and Annie could adapt from that into personas.

When came to “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” we’d finished this record, and Annie came in all excited — you know the little rooms you have off the studio where they call it the lounge, but it’s usually about the size of a shoebox? I was in there, and she came in and said, “I’ve just written this poem.” It’s called ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.'” And I thought, look, it’s great. It doesn’t have to be a poem. and I started going [sings the melody], and I sang the words from her page. So it’s a talking-singing verse, but then it builds up into the big chorus. Within 15 minutes, we realized, “This is a song.”

And then somebody suggested Aretha [Franklin], it was probably Clive [Davis]. Clive wasn’t part of our label at the time. That song was on an album that was before Clive got involved… [I thought], “Well, that’s going to be impossible. But all the sudden, it was possible.

Anyway, we’d already put on Benmont and Mike Campbell and me and [bassist] Nathan [East]. It already sounded really good because I put on this huge shaker I made out of putting pencils and bit of things inside of the big tin. So that was sounded a massive shaker — you can hear it if the record’s really loud.

I think Aretha was not quite sure what was happening. There’s this English girl with cropped hair. But she was very friendly and she said, “Oh, I’ve been up cooking chicken.” And it was kind of weird because I was a vegan at the time. But anyway, when they were facing each other at the mic and there was a film at this that nobody’s seen, I was in the mixing desk and the idea was to sing it, facing each other, singing a line at each other, then together.

Aretha was smoking a cigarette and she had a jean jacket on, pulled up at the collar, very relaxed, like, “Well, what’s this going to be like?” And then Annie opened her mouth to sing. It was interesting because Aretha quickly put the cigarette out [as if to say], “Oh, this is going to be a proper duet.”

Lyrically, at the time, it’s very relevant, but some of it was not as harsh as it could be. Because really, as John Lennon had sung, “Woman Is The N***** Of The World”? That’s a pretty harsh statement. But what he’s saying is like, “Everybody’s talking about all these different racist world[s], but women had been treated like shit, basically. And in most of the Western world, we know that and then the workplace and everywhere. And there are some of the other parts of the world where it’s 10 times worse.

I would like to be a woman in America but I wouldn’t like to be a woman in Afghanistan. It’s just mad actually, it’s very hard. Because I’ve always been with very strong women and I’ve always really seen them from that equal [perspective], without even thinking about it. And then I still, when I go into somewhere, in a bar or wherever, I’m just amazed at the way it has not evolved in some people’s brains. For me, it’s completely mind blowing.

Writing “American Prayer” With Bono and Pharrell Williams (2002/2008)

Given how “American Prayer” has gone through a couple of iterations — from being written in 2002 and updated when Obama ran for President in 2008 — have you ever given any thought to how you would update the song for 2022?

STEWART: Say, no, now let me just think about this now…

What was happening was, I was asked by Nelson Mandela to help turn his prison number — 466/64, the most negative number in his life — into something. He wanted it to be a positive number and bring awareness about AIDS and whatever he wanted [for the] Nelson Mandela Foundation.

So I started off by making it a telephone number and I got Richard Branson to help get that working. And then I was writing songs with different people. And then Bono and I, we went down to America together for a week, just the two of us. And we were writing different songs all the way around, and this particular one was getting stuck in our head. We went and we decided, “Hey, let’s do a concert at Green Point Stadium [in Cape Town].”

So we went and met with Beyoncé and all these people, and we kept coming back to singing this song. Then we said, “Oh, let’s try it this way. Let’s try it that way.” I have a lot of it on film. We had so many different versions of this. And then we were in the stadium, I’ve got a film of me, the Edge, and Beyoncé rehearsing about 15 minutes before about to play it.

So then when we started getting involved in trying to get Obama elected. I remember I thought, “Oh, hang on, this is the time to finish what we started.” To cut a long story short, I thought, “I’ll just go out and film different people joining in on the idea of what America could be.”

The trouble is, what I actually think about America right now is that we’re on the edge of civil war. The police have actually turned into more of an army than a police force. It’s been quite scary — being not American, but having lived in America — to see it slowly go this way. But I can see how that song “American Prayer” now… You have to go back into bringing peace to a nation that’s completely [got] so much unrest. It would be an issue of the civil rights movement.

But the thing is, any situation right now, to tell you the truth, I’m writing a song where there’s three of us together. One of them is Boris Grebenshikov, the “Russian Bob Dylan.” And the other one is the Ukrainian artist and myself — an Englishman, a Russian, a Ukrainian. [It’s] about the sadness and tragedy around war, right? [Grebenshikov] already spoke out against the war. He’s had to be to move about, if you know what I mean. So I am sort of writing a new “American Prayer,” but it’s actually not about America at the moment.

I don’t know what you feel, but I think America is on the brink.

Oh, I couldn’t agree more.

STEWART: Yeah. I think a lot of people are not understanding that it’s on the brink. And I remember my dad talked about this — obviously now there’s so many news channels and social media and everything — but at the time, my dad [in] England, they weren’t aware about how they were going to get dragged into the war with Germany back in World War II. It was all almost at their doorstep.

There’s so many ways in which you can understand what’s happening, what’s coming — but it’s worse because it’s all jumbled up and it’s so filtered and designed to keep you [watching] whatever you are looking at. You’re dragged down that wormhole. Some kid in Alabama might be watching YouTube and the next thing you know, you’re spending eight hours watching right-wing propaganda. Because it keeps coming up with the next one.

In fact, a French guy, he invented that algorithm that made it understand artificial intelligence. When he realized what was happening, he went to Google and YouTube [and offered] a way to change it because it kept dragging people down wormholes. Instead, let’s offer them some else to watch, but it’ll be the alternative [point of view]. And they said, “Oh no, we’re not trying change it. We just want them to keep watching.”

Working With Sinead O’Connor (2000)

You mentioned how you’ve worked with a lot of strong female performers in your career. On a similar note, I feel like you’ve worked with a lot of female performers who are going though periods of transition — Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, etc. When you worked with Sinead O’Connor on Faith And Courage, what did you want to help her accomplish at the time?

STEWART: At the time, she was very much feeling up and really enjoying what we were doing. I was asking her a lot about her life and what she’d been through and all this kind of stuff. And then we’d come up with songs [like] “Daddy, I’m Fine.” They’re all personal songs. What had happened to Sinead was, she’d been feeling misunderstood because another time when she ripped up the [picture of] the Pope on the TV in America.

On SNL, yeah.

Stewart: Well, you see, she had suffered a terrible time. Being dragged to the church, confess. She hadn’t done anything. But things had happened to her, just by being very young. And like a lot of people, the Catholic church had completely confused her life and made it torturous for her. Obviously there’s different ways of expressing that, and she expressed it on national television. She’d come out of all of that and was still trying to cope with her life as a human being.

I think we probably met a few times with Bono and the Edge, and we just started to write something, and that led to something else. Then it led to her talking about her life, and then that led into another song, and it all started to become an album. I remember she had to go meet Madonna because Madonna wanted to put the album out, probably around about the time of Alanis Morissette.

I remember at the time I was about to come out, she told the label they weren’t allowed to call her “Sinead,” they had to call her Sister Mary Something. She was having a mental break… What you call when people have out-of-body experiences? Disassociate. She having periods of disassociating.

And, of course the label probably wouldn’t know what to say or do about that…. But I mean, I really respect Sinead because she knows what she feels. When she’s singing and when she’s feeling what she’s feeling and the words are coming out of her mouth, it’s just everything happening at once. It’s watching somebody experiencing, or re-experiencing. She’s in it completely. It’s just this whole being of giving it everything she’s got.

And so I had lots of perspective. It’s hard to see sometimes what she goes through. Everybody’s talked about mental health and mental awareness and all this kind of stuff… [But] people don’t understand it at first. Like, “Well, why did they do that?” Artists tend to be very sensitive people.

Most artists have no idea that they would do in the public eye… They get put into the machine, they have to do all these things and appear and do interviews and go on TV and take massive long journeys in vans and flying about all over the place, like, “Oh, you’ve got to forget about your personal life or your family life.” And by the way, usually they’re completely scammed out of all their money.

And so from the public’s perspective, they’ve been [shown] this celebrity world [where it looks like] all artists are having a great time and are really wealthy, and they’re lucky because they’ve got all this money and they’re having fun. But all the ones I know are having all sorts of [problems]… And very few of them are actually making enough to even exist. It’s an upside down kind of world now.

There used to be a lot of bands that were quite happy [releasing] a certain amount of records and being able to play to a certain amount of people and that’s what they did. They were niche and that’s their life and they liked it. Now that’s just impossible, I think.

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