BEVERLY HILLS: Rod Stewart has never shied from the spotlight, but on this day the famously cheeky rocker wants a softer glow.
He’s waiting to be interviewed on camera about his first album of original music in almost 20 years and the lighting inside the fitness centre of his Beverly Hills compound isn’t quite right.
He calls for his No. 1 expert to check it out. “My wife’s on her way over,” he says.
When Penny Lancaster arrives, legs all the way up to her tousled blonde ponytail, she looks through the camera and insists on softer lights. As they dim, the 42-year-old model/photographer dusts Stewart’s face with powder, then leans in toward his trademark spiky ‘do.
“Not the hair, not the hair, not the hair,” he protests uselessly.
She tugs at two strands, the result imperceptible.
“You only thought you had it perfect,” says Lancaster with a cover-girl smile.
There’s a lot of love in Stewart’s life now, and it’s on full display on Time his new album out on Tuesday. There are other signs too, like how his youngest sons’ weights are scrawled on a scale inside this apartment-sized gym, just above “mummy” and “daddy”” and how he pauses during an interview to shout, “See ya, Shawny,” to his eldest son, Sean, as he grabs some water after playing basketball on the court outside.
After releasing eight cover albums - his five Great American Songbook volumes, a Christmas album, Soulbook and his classic rock collection - Stewart re-discovered his songwriting voice while reviewing his life for his 2012 autobiography, Rod. That self-reflection, combined with the personal contentment he clearly feels, resulted in a deeply personal collection of songs: stories about his father, his early life, his eight children, his two divorces.
“It was probably the longest writer’s block in history, you know, 20-odd years. But it wasn’t self-imposed. It was maybe a lack of confidence,” Stewart said. “I’d sort of given up, let’s put it that way. But because of the autobiography, it inspired me. And I had a lot to write about... Probably I was in the right state of my life to start writing these very personal songs.”
Not only did he find a wellspring of material, he found a delight in songwriting that had always been elusive.
“It always used to be like work for me. It was never a pleasure. It was never a joy. It was like being at school,” he said. “But now, I finally enjoy it. My wife will tell you, I was getting up in the middle of the night and writing down lyrics, just inspired. I can’t wait to start writing again. It’s tremendous.”
Even his longtime manager, Arnold Stiefel, was shocked at how prolific Stewart was without prodding.
“You’d have to lock him in a room to get him to write songs,” he said. “Now, he’s approaching it with a real joy. I was blown away.”
The autobiography and the album are companions, Stewart said, though in some ways the album is more revealing. Where the book chronicles his evolution into a world-famous rock star (and the attendant pleasures of that lifestyle) along with the happiness of his present circumstances, only the latter comes through on Time.
“I’ve got a feeling that this album is a watershed album for me because it is so personal,” he said.
That means embracing an image far from the Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? swagger of his heyday. Here, the 68-year-old is a loving dad, grateful son and faithful partner.
“It’s OK,” he said. “I believe that’s one way you can write songs - be as personal as you can. I’ve always said my life’s been an open book, I’ve got nothing to hide... I think it’s even somewhat brave to be that personal and put it down on record for the rest of your life that people are going to hear.”
That’s not to say that he isn’t still cheeky. Asked what he likes to do when he’s not working, Stewart included “have sex with my wife as much as I can” as part of his response.
He also works out. The interview was held in one of two gyms on his Celtic House property, reached by a sloping driveway lined with bushes of blooming white roses and a small yellow sign that reads: “Slow: Children at play.” Stewart keeps up his energy for his regular 90-minute sets at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and his upcoming tour with regular workouts, including weekly soccer matches with a team whose members are all over 50. He even has a soccer field on his property.
His musical influences have remained the same over his 45-year career - “Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Muddy Waters” - and he still listens to the same music today. He also has an affinity for Adele and Tom Waits, whose Picture in a Frame is the only song on Time that Stewart didn’t write. He’s covered Waits twice before: Downtown Train and Tom Traubert’s Blues.
“I spoke to Tom the other day for the first time ever and he thanked me for doing his songs and I said I think he’s the finest rock ‘n’ roll lyricist of all time,” Stewart said. “I really do. I think he’s as near to genius as you can get. ... I’ve always been someone who’s more interested in lyrics than melody and he does write some beautiful lyrics.”
Stewart’s new tour starts on June 1 and he says, “It can’t come soon enough.”
Like his friends and contemporaries, Elton John and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Stewart just keeps on performing, contributing to a new template for the older rock star.
“It’s our job. It’s what we do. It’s almost, I would say, it’s our identity and it’s very hard to give up, especially when you love what you do,” he said. “And I love what I do. I’m sure Elton does and the Stones and everybody else of our generation. We love what we do.
“I don’t go quite as mad as I used to when I was in my 30s. I just enjoy what I do and hopefully will go on forever but obviously it can’t. I do hope I’ve got the dignity and the awareness to bow out at the right time, which is when I’m 93. We’ve been lucky, all of us.”
Said Stiefel: “We’ve been together literally 30 years and I’ve never known him so comfortable, so happy, having such a good time.”
No wonder Stewart needs the lights turned down. He’s generating enough of his own.