Steve Winwood Chats To 50connectPosted on: 19 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
The one-time Spencer Davis Group and Traffic member talks about turning 60, his 45 year career and his new album.
It's an eventful month for Steve Winwood, who celebrated his 60th birthday on 12th May, has released a new album, and is playing a special one off gig at The Scala in London on 19th May.
The musician who began his career 45 years ago with the Spencer Davis Group is happy to be 60.
"I like it. I'm very lucky that I'm still doing something that I love, making music, and there's still one or two people coming to see me. I haven't been on the bus yet with the free pass, but hopefully now I'm 60 one or two people might listen to me - or maybe they'll start ignoring me even more!"
Steve is performing just one show, backed by his band, to showcase his new album, Nine Lives, his first studio LP since 2003's acclaimed About Time. Fans will have to wait another six months before he plays another UK date.
"I am overdue to play some shows in Britain and Europe, although I did some small shows around England last year, but this summer I'm going out to the USA for a tour with Tom Petty for three months, so unfortunately I will miss a lot of the festivals over here this summer. But I'm going to start doing some shows later in the year and early next year."
The audience Steve plays to these days is very different to the 1960s pop scene, when he sang on hits including Keep On Running and Gimme Some Lovin'.
"They started off screaming girls, now it's bald old men! In America over the last couple of years we've been getting a few younger people. A lot of young people like the music of the sixties and some of them have been attracted to my shows. I also have an audience who heard my music for the first time in the '80s and so they're younger. Then I have an audience that's kind of my age which first heard me in the '60s and has been following from then. So I'd like to think that my audience has expanded."
Strangely, the mix of several generations is not always harmonious.
"It has turned a bit nasty a couple of times, probably due to the fact that the audience is slightly fluctuating. The younger ones don't always get on with the older people if they want a quiet night out and the young ones stand and dance in front of them - they get miffed with each other. We used to get fights when I played 40 years ago in places like Lincolnshire and Glasgow and working men's clubs and that kind of thing up and down the country, but I don't think my music is particularly conducive to fights, so it is odd that there have been a couple of scuffles over the last few years."
Steve's new album certainly doesn't seem to contain the sort of music to cause discord. The nine tracks continue the exploration of soul, rock, blues and world music that Steve Winwood is renowned for. This mix began to take shape right at the beginning of Steve's career, when he started in the Spencer Davis Group.
"The early '60s were times of massive change, social change, and I was pretty much copying what I'd heard blues musicians play. I and some of my contemporaries were discovering blues and thought what a great kind of music this was that we'd never heard before, so I was just copying what I was hearing in order to try and bring this music to a wider audience so that people could hear how great it was and share with me the delights of blues."
1968 marked a turning point for Steve, when he left the Spencer Davis Group and joined Traffic.
"I made a specific decision to try and meld all these different elements of music together. Even in those days I was trying to combine folk, rock and jazz with ethnic world music which is pretty much what I'm trying to do now. There are a lot of influences on Nine Lives but I would like to think that I've had those influences right from very early Traffic days. It was very deliberate, we used to talk about and discuss it. Chris Wood who played the sax in Traffic was a very integral part. He used to bring us all kinds of obscure music, from jazz to Japanese folk music to folk groups from Yorkshire and African stuff, all kinds of mixtures of music, to try and inspire us to use elements of this music in what we were doing."
Even Steve's 1980s hits share these same roots.
"People say that the music of the eighties sounded a lot different, which is odd because I think that I was actually doing the same thing with the music then, still trying to combine folk, jazz, rock and world music, but of course the way production was done in the '80s gives it that '80s sound, rather than the bare bones of the music."
Steve has added even more to the mix for his latest album.
"I've added a few slightly different ethnic elements. One is an element of Brazilian music, because quite a few of these songs I wrote with Jose Neto and he plays on the record and he's a great braxilan musican. He's interesting because he's a Brazilian who grew up playing Brazilian music but was also a big fan of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, so he combines it from his end and I'm kind of combining it from my end, coming from Birmingham and trying to play Brazilian music, so we kind of meet in the middle. I suppose that's a new element of it but I think on the whole I'm doing pretty much what I've always done."
There is always more work to do on his style, however.
"Juggling with all these different elements, after a while I sometimes think, hang on, there's not enough folk in this, or there's not enough jazz, then there's not enough rock, so I can always be adjusting it to keep the balance. I find there are always other elements to put in. For instance there's one song on the album called Fly which is kind of based on a Brazilian chord sequence, with a kind of Caribbean rhythm, and then Paul Booth plays Irish whistle on it, so it's got a mixture of Celtic, Caribbean and Brazilian, which is an odd mixture really! I think in many ways combining is what music is all about, I suppose it's musical multi-culturalism."
It's not all about far-flung contributers, however. One addition to Steve's latest work came from long-time friend and Blind Faith band-mate, Eric Clapton, who makes a guest appearance playing guitar on the track Dirty City. Steve and Eric played three sold out nights at Madison Square Gardens, New York in February.
"We'd rehearsed for these Madison Square Garden shows, getting together and discussing material at the same time I was working on this album. While I was listening and trying to figure out what I wanted to do in this one particular track it suddenly came to me that Eric would be the perfect person to play on this song Dirty City and it would suit him down to the ground. He came up one afternoon and just played and went and it was absolutely spectacular."
Steve's own contribution to his efforts to create a new sound includes his unique voice.
"My voice is probably again something to do with trying to mix all these elements. My first influence was singing in the church choir before my voice broke, in the Anglican church. I still like much of the music, there's some lovely music in the Anglican church. Then in the early days when I tried to sing I was really greatly influenced by Ray Charles. I had a good go at it but I could never do it so I had to incorporate my own style into that. It's very much home grown in as much as I've never had singing lessons."
Despite being known for his singing style, Steve doesn't put too much emphasis onto deciphering lyrics.
"Part of the reason for making music is that the music makes up for things that you can't put into words."
By Cherry Butler
You can purchase Nine Lives from all good record store, or online at Amazon for £8.98.
Steve Winwood official website: www.stevewinwood.com
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