Al Stewart, singer, songwriter and historical folk-rock musician, will be performing with Dave Nachmanoff at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 25 and 26.
The Argonaut recently interviewed Stewart about his long-ranging success in music and writing, and what motivates him. Stewart and Nachmanoff, who produced and played on Stewart’s latest album, “Uncorked,” have a long history. The first time Nachmanoff saw Stewart perform live, it was at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1985. In 2006, he returned and performed with Stewart.
Stewart was born in Scotland in 1945 and his family later moved to England. He has lived in Southern California for several decades. He came to fame during the British folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, and played at the inaugural Glastonbury Festival in 1970.
Known for his songs, “Year of the Cat” (1976), and “Time Passages” (1978), Stewart noted that they’re basically “tourist songs,” and when asked if he would play them at McCabe’s, he said, “McCabe’s has a very discerning crowd, and they’re listeners. If asked, I might play one of the songs, but not both.”
When did you begin playing the guitar?
When I was 13, I asked my mother for a guitar. She didn’t think that I was really serious about playing, so she bought me a ukulele. I played for an entire year, but there are just some notes that you can’t get with a ukulele. She bought me a guitar when I turned 14.
I understand that you took lessons from Robert Fripp, the well-known English musician, member of Kings of Crimson, and collaborator with other great music acts over the years.
I did, but it didn’t last long, perhaps 10 lessons at most. I had no interest in jazz at all. I heard that years later Fripp did an interview and they asked him if he had given me lessons, and he said something like, ‘yes, but fortunately he was one of my students that ignored what I taught him.’
Do you have a favorite quote?
Play like Eddie Cochran and think like Barbara Tuchman!
What influenced you to write “Night of the 4th of May” from your Orange album?
It was very personal, and the miserable end of a love relationship. After that, I needed to write about something other than love songs. At the time, I was obsessed with Jean Paul Sartre, and would write songs the way they happened. Now I would write in metaphor.
Your songs all reflect strong, historical interests. There are mentions of pirates, presidents, historical events. How did you decide to write your songs around these subjects?
It’s somewhat like the old troubadours, who wrote songs about the epic battles after the fighting was over. I’m fortunate that there aren’t any teachers picking up guitars and strumming a few chords, teaching history lessons – I might be out of a job. There is no historical background to films and documentaries anymore. No one does any fact-checking. In the movie “El Cid” you can see an oil tanker in the background. In the (Quentin) Tarantino movie “Inglorious Basterds” mention is made of Hitler and his top men being in the same room, but one of the individuals was incorrectly identified.
Do you have a message for your many fans about your career?
Doing this job is a privilege. I’ll stagger on until I can’t do it anymore.