Still On Stage At Age 70, Singer-Songwriter Bryan Ferry Feels Most Complete When Performing
It was October of 2014 and Bryan Ferry — singer, songwriter, solo artist and erstwhile leader of the British art-rock band Roxy Music — was headed to play Boston’s Orpheum Theatre. Word came down day of the show: It was scrapped. Ferry’s voice was shot — laryngitis — and it knocked out not only that date, but an upcoming German tour.
“That was an unfortunate occupational hazard, you could say,” Ferry said on the phone last week. Now, he feels “very good. Since then we’ve done lots of tours, and things are going very well. We started [this tour] in Canada and now we’re in Washington D.C., and we’ll be with you shortly. Looking forward to it very much.”
The ever-dapper Ferry turns 71 in September. When asked his motivation, he said it comes down to satisfying an audience and getting feedback, how it makes him feel about his body of work.
“I’d say that’s a very strong part of it,” explained Ferry from his D.C. hotel, before heading off to peruse the National Gallery of Art. “It makes the songs feel alive when they’re played. When I feel most complete is when I’m performing and the song is going well and the audience is responding to it. … I’ve got so many songs and otherwise they wouldn’t get played. I feel it’s a kind of duty to my songs to go out and perform them.”
Ferry and his 10-piece backing band will play Blue Hills Pavilion on Sunday, July 31, drawing from the 25 or so songs in their repertoire, both Roxy and Ferry solo material.
Roxy’s music — from the early chaotic retro/futuristic glam days to the more sophisticated and soulful later era — stands the test of time. The same goes for Ferry’s solo work, which he started doing when Roxy was still very much a full-on band, beginning with an album of wildly imaginative covers on “These Foolish Things.”
Roxy recorded eight studio albums, the last being the elegant “Avalon” in 1982. Huge in the U.K. from early on, they were more a big cult band in the United States. Notable hits — FM radio staples more than anything — came later and included “Love is the Drug,” “Over You,” “Oh Yeah” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” Ferry made 14 solo vocal albums from 1973 to 2014.
I’ve interviewed Ferry a fair amount of times over the years. We were in the Warner Bros. office in Winchester in 1993 and during a long interview, he was musing about his public image and what people didn’t know or quite get. "Well, it's embarrassing [to say], but warm and more humorous,” he said. “There are too many pictures where I'm tight-lipped and looking rather cross. I never used to enjoy being on that side of the camera. And I used to hate interviews with a passion. Now I think it's great. It's quite inexpensive therapy."
This year’s interview isn’t therapy, exactly. Ferry is on a fairly tight schedule and does few interviews while touring, concerned about conserving his voice. So there was a limit imposed on time. But still we got to pretty nifty places, including the question as to whether Roxy Music — which brilliantly reunited for a 30th anniversary tour in 2001 and toured off and on for a decade — might reunite one more time.
Here's some of our conversation:
Jim Sullivan: It’s a question that must be asked: Will there be another Roxy Music reunion or is that by the boards?
Bryan Ferry: It’s by the boards, but I still have cordial relations with [drummer] Paul Thompson and [saxophonist] Andy Mackay, who I sometimes see. Brian Eno [who was in early Roxy] and I text one another. But as far as any plans to work [together] … My band, I suppose, is quite a young band although I have two veterans from the “Avalon” period and earlier, [guitarist] Neil Hubbard and [backing vocalist] Fonzi Thornton. They’ve got links with the early days, but the rest of them are kind of young thrusters. (Laughs.)
A lot of artists of your stature and age — being the main man in a band, the singer-songwriter — tend to find that younger musicians want to play your music, and are hungry to do so.
That’s very true. There’s a rigorous life on the road and the young guys seem to love it more. And they gradually are learning my ways. It’s quite hard to teach a band the various songs because the repertoire is quite different. One minute you’re doing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the next you’re doing “[In Every] Dream Home [a Heartache]” or something. And it’s all kinds of different musical genres. I drive them crazy. They really try hard and it’s good to see that.
You released the “Avonmore” album two years ago. Is it still something you’re focusing on, an album you’re promoting?
Uh, I don’t see it that way, but obviously we like to mix it up with the older songs. We’ve got three in at the moment, which I think is always a good number, three of your new things and there must be about 20 of the other songs.
I think that’s a good balance. Sometimes if the artist tries to overload new songs, the audience is like, “Come on, play something we know.”
I fully appreciate that.
From your end as the artist, what’s your take?
People think you would get tired of doing the so-called “hits,” but you don’t really because you feel so much warmth and delight from the crowd when you do those things, like “Jealous Guy” or whatever. And it always feels kind of fresh each time you do it. It’s very odd. It's not brain-deadening, like you would imagine. And it’s nice to do the more complex songs from the early records.
It’s a balancing act. You’ve talked to me about there being three editions of Roxy, starting the earlier outré stuff and then onto more layered sophisticated sounds. Do you feel closer to any one period of your history or is it all part of the same fabric to you?
It’s all different facets of the same thing. I do enjoy doing songs from [the second album] “For Your Pleasure” very much and also from “Avalon” because those were the two collections of songs that meant the most to me, when I look back. Although it’s like having children: You don’t really have favorites as such, but certain ones swing in and out of favor.
But those have been central to you in concert for quite a while.
Yeah, especially “For Your Pleasure.” It has “Dream Home” [a long slow ballad that swells with a chaotic coda — a love song, it turns out, to a blowup sex doll], “Do the Strand” and “Editions of You.” They all add something to the show.
Maybe after “For Your Pleasure” and certainly after the third album, “Stranded,” things got a little smoother, less disruptive, more traditional, in a way.
Yes. I think part of it was after the second album of Roxy songs, of my songs, basically, I did the solo record, “These Foolish Things” and just doing those classic songs, I found it inspiring. It was like a challenge to write a conventional song that would last. Also, I gradually started working with musicians who were more sophisticated in playing. I’m not saying they were more interesting, but there were American session players and some English session players who joined for various albums and that made a bit of a difference. “Avalon” was a really interesting record, but it was very different and, as you say, more smooth and more seductive in feel than the earlier ones.
I think in listening to the early records and comparing them to latter ones, your tongue was more in-cheek then and later on much less so.
Yeah, less in-cheek and more heart on my sleeve. I wasn’t trying to be clever so much in the lyrics; I was trying to be a bit more heartfelt and my aspiration as a songwriter became slightly different.
You’ve spoken to me before about writer’s block. How about now? Do you have new material? Are you working on songs?
I certainly hope to write more, but I can’t really write when I’m on the road. I like to have more space around myself to do that. When this tour ends we’ve got a little break before we go to the rest of Europe and I might get in the studio for a bit. Otherwise, I’m slated to go in November-December. I've got bits and pieces.
I’m going to take a wild swing here: I bet a lot of the new songs have to do with conflicted romance.
(Laughs.) That’s always been a topic of interest. It’s inexhaustible, put it that way.
You’ve cultivated a certain public image over the years and I’m curious about that and the way you see yourself: How do those differ?
I don’t know because it would change for every person. But I think the person I am on stage, in the moment, is not like [the person] in a magazine or something. When I’m at home, I lead a quiet life, really. I go less and less to high-profile events although I am in London a lot because that’s where my studio is. My home is an hour and a half away and in the country. When I’m on tour and get the tour blues, missing my dog or something, that’s what I’m thinking of as home, the place I’ve lived for 40 years.
“The country air and all of its joys” as you sang in “Editions of You” back in 1973?
(Laughs.) That’s correct.
So it really wasn’t a throwaway line back then?
No, it was very prescient.
That’s very true.