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Dave Stewart: Five Days In Music City

Dave Stewart's new album is titled The Blackbird Diaries. (Kristin Burns)

Dave Stewart has been a force in music, as a producer and musician, for more than 30 years. But his name will probably always be intertwined with that of Annie Lennox and their pop-rock duo the Eurythmics.

Between that group's singles and his own, Stewart has sold more than 100 million albums, and he has worked with artists from Joss Stone to Jon Bon Jovi to Katy Perry. But this year, he has produced what is, in some ways, his most unexpected kind of music: a solo album. It's his first in 13 years, and it's called The Blackbird Diaries.

Stewart tells Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon that the album's title is a reference to where it was recorded — Blackbird Studio in Nashville — but also to his state of mind while writing the songs.

"I sat down in the morning, in the bath or at [local restaurant] The Pancake Pantry or wherever I was," Stewart says. "And almost like dipping a quill or a pen into ink, I would dip into different parts of my memory and write down just exactly what I was feeling."

Stewart says that, until he recorded The Blackbird Diaries, he hadn't been to Nashville since the Eurythmics toured there in the '80s. However, he became a fan of blues and country music during his youth in the northeast part of England — especially when he realized its connection to the music of Bob Dylan and the rock groups of the British Invasion.

"I realized what Dylan had learned from these players, which was being unpredictable: The chord doesn't change or the melody doesn't change where you think it's going to, yet you've got a hypnotic rhythm going on that keeps you hooked in," he says. "When I grew up in Sunderland, and the radio started to explode with The Beatles and the Stones and The Kinks, I'd already been listening to blues music, and I realized ... they'd also been getting blues records."

The Blackbird Diaries features a few guest stars, including Stevie Nicks, with whom Stewart performs "Cheaper Than Free" as a duet. Stewart says he ended up in a conversation with Nicks and actress Reese Witherspoon just before production began, in which Witherspoon offered to let him stay in her Nashville apartment.

"Stevie Nicks heard her and said, 'Hey, that'll be cheap,' " Stewart says. "And Reese turned around and said, 'What's cheaper than free?' "

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host: Dave Stewart has been a force in music as a producer and musician for more than 30 years. His name will probably always be intertwined with Annie Lennox in the pop rock duo, Eurythmics. They transformed rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET DREAMS")

EURHYTHMICS: (Singing) Sweet dreams are made of these, who am I do disagree...

SIMON: Between his own singles and Eurythmics, Dave Stewart has sold more than a hundred million CDs. He's worked with artists from Jagger to Joss Stone to Jon Bon Jovi and Katy Perry. But now Dave Stewart has produced what is in some ways might be his most unexpected kind of music: "The Blackbird Diaries." It's his first solo album in 13 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGIC IN THE BLUES")

DAVE STEWART: (Singing) Well, I remember the (unintelligible) we made. And I remember how she used to wail...

SIMON: Dave Stewart joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with.

STEWART: It's very nice to be here.

SIMON: Does this recording begin with a volcano?

STEWART: Well, the reason why I ended up making the album in Nashville did start with a volcanic eruption in Iceland that caused all that ash to close down all the airports. And through that, I managed to sort of have a bad five days off work, which is very unusual for me. And I went wandering up the street to a great old guitar vintage shop. And I picked up this guitar. And when I opened up the case, you know, inside, it belonged to this guy called Red River Dave, and it had all these songbooks by him and photos of him playing the guitar. And it was very sort of eccentric Texan country singer. And for some reason, from that moment on, I kept getting messages to go to Nashville. Can you go to Nashville to meet Martina McBride?

SIMON: May I ask, when you say you kept getting messages, are these, like, emails, text messages or...

STEWART: Yeah, phone messages, emails.

SIMON: Not a burning bush or something like that.

STEWART: Well, I think the guitar was kind of like the burning bush. And then I went to Nashville having not been there since the middle of the '80s when Eurythmics played live there. All of the sudden I was in this studio called Blackbird Studios. I recorded the whole album in five days and wrote the songs in five days with all of these great Nashville players and had probably the best experience I've ever had in the studio.

SIMON: Let's hear another cut from this CD, "One Way Ticket to the Moon," you and the Secret Sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE WAY TICKET TO THE MOON")

STEWART: Yeah. (Singing) He wishes he could fly away, from all his yesterdays. If he could, he would gladly pay for a one-way ticket to the moon...

SIMON: Kind of a chilling song.

STEWART: When I was writing it, you know, as a diary kind of - that's why it's called "The Blackbird Diaries" - I sat down in the morning or in the bath or in the Pancake Pantry in Nashville or wherever I was, and I would just dip into, like, dipping almost a quill or a pen into ink. I would dip into different parts of my memory and write down just exactly what I thought about or what I was feeling about. And this was when I was kind of broke and living in a tiny one-room in London. And the guy next door never came out his room.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE WAY TICKET TO THE MOON")

STEWART: (Singing) I can hear him climbing the wall, he won't see colors and he can't take calls. He wants his privacy, most of all he wants a one way ticket to the moon...

If he did, he was very sort of, like, agitated and didn't say hello. And when he was in his room, there was all these strange noises like he was tuning in, like, radio stations, like, woo. kind of. And I was like what is he doing in there? And any way, that's what that song's about. It was really nerve-wracking living next door.

SIMON: And what ever happened to him? Any idea?

STEWART: I was expecting any day, like, people to turn up in white coats to take him away. But I moved out first, so I don't know. He might still be in there. He might hear this one day.

SIMON: Well, if he does, get in touch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE WAY TICKET TO THE MOON")

STEWART: (Singing) A one way ticket to the moon.

SIMON: We're speaking with Dave Stewart about his new album, "The Blackbird Diaries." We sent out a tweet asking people to come up with questions for you. May I read you a couple?

STEWART: Yeah.

SIMON: Someone who identifies themselves as Pacific Penelope says: Ask Dave to paint a verbal portrait of the '80s scene he was a part of; the parties and the people they hung with - imagine.

STEWART: The '80s scene was kind of probably different in America than it was in Britain. But in Britain, I'll paint it, which was we'd come out of a depression and the whole punk movement and riots. As the '80s developed, it became this huge sort of wash of hedonism, money being spent, drug-fueled, mayhem, parties, ending upside down in Jacuzzis with famous actors and actresses. But fortunately, I had stopped taking drugs in the '70s, otherwise I wouldn't be speaking on the radio now. Because everything was there available and being force-fed to you. So, Annie and I wrote about that a lot.

SIMON: This question will sound perhaps a little odd coming after your very vivid recitation of what the times are like, but were those the good ole days?

STEWART: Well, I mean, I was just describing what was happening. What was happening personally for me and for Annie was we were sort of rocketing to stardom and playing bigger and bigger places. And being on tour constantly, we made 10 albums in nine years. So, we didn't really have a real-life existence. It was sort of running parallel to that and observing it and writing about it. We wrote a song called "The King and Queen of America" at the peak of it where we were just experiencing just complete mayhem and debauchery around us but we weren't actually a part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE KING AND QUEEN OF AMERICA")

EURHYTHMICS: (Singing) We're the all-time winner, and here we go again. King and queen of America...

SIMON: What song from "The Blackbird Diaries" should we play as we bid you goodbye?

STEWART: There's a great little story about this song that I sang as a duet with Stevie Nicks called "Cheaper than Free." And just before I was going to leave to go to Nashville to record and, you know, and I haven't written any songs, I just had this idea, like this fireworks went off in my head, like, when I was in Nashville. And I was sitting on this sofa in a studio and I was drinking a vodka martini; I was sitting next to Reese Witherspoon. And I said, hey, you know I'm going to Nashville and I'm going to make a record? And she's like, oh, you should stay in my apartment, my condo. And then Stevie Nicks heard her and she said, hey, that'll be cheap. And Reese turned around and said, hey, what's cheaper than free? Here's the song that's a duet of me and Stevie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEAPER THAN FREE")

DAVE STEWART AND STEVIE NICKS: (Singing) What's cheaper than free? You and me.

SIMON: Mr. Stewart, thanks so much.

STEWART: Thank you very much. I hope you got what you want. I didn't sound too crazy.

SIMON: No. Didn't sound crazy at all. Dave Stewart at NPR West. His new album, "The Blackbird Diaries."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEAPER THAN FREE")

NICKS: (Singing) What does money not buy? You and I.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT SIMON READING SHOW CREDITS)

SIMON: And I'm glad to welcome a new partner on the weekends. Tomorrow, Audie Cornish begins hosting WEEKEND EDITION Sunday. Audie has covered hurricanes and the U.S. Congress - which are often confused - Boston, Nashville and the South. She's filled in a lot for me and the fabulous Liane Hansen, her predecessor on WEEKEND EDITION Sunday. Audie is classy, funny, friendly and smart. I'll look forward to hearing her - I'm sure you will too. Tune in tomorrow as she faces one of the great challenges of broadcast journalism: the WEEKEND EDITION Sunday Puzzle. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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