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Interview: Dave Stewart

13 March 2024

For more than four decades, Dave Stewart has been demonstrating that he is one of the world’s most innovative and interesting songwriters. He first became internationally famous in the early 1980s as one half of the eclectic pop duo Eurythmics, whose decade-defining hit singles included “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” “Would I Lie to You?,” “Missionary Man,” and many more. As a member of that band, Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. Now, Stewart is bringing that band’s beloved songs back to stages around the world as part of his “Eurythmics Songbook” show (featuring an all-female band lineup), including joining Bryan Adams for a U.S. tour that is currently underway. Not content to simply rest on his past glories, though, Stewart continues to push musical boundaries with The Time Experience Project, a collective of musicians, actors, filmmakers, and writers that recently released Who to Love, a modern rock opera. Stewart wrote, and stars in, an accompanying movie, alongside Italian actress Greta Scarano, with additional musical contributions by the band Mokadelic. The film has been making the rounds at various international film festivals, and will be released on a larger scale sometime later this year. Taking a break from the road to talk to The Big Takeover, Stewart explains his indefatigable creative approach, and why he continues to seek unique ways to express his musical vision.

Regarding the Time Experience Project, how did you know you should put together something like this now with Mokadelic, Greta Scarano, and others?

DAVE STEWART: I just loved the Gomorrah [television series] score [that Mokadelic composed], so I just sent them a direct message on Instagram, and that led to the collaboration. And then the lead actress, Greta – who’s a brilliant Italian actress – I also direct messaged her. I’d already written the whole piece before I even met them. Then I flew into Rome and met them, and we had all this music we’d collaborate on. I’d throw words and melodies on top of their chopped up bits of their score, and try to coordinate the music with the words. I explained my idea of making this film about disassociation, using the concept of Greta playing the singer in a band who’s being filmed for a TV special, but she keeps thinking she’s back in her apartment. It’s about time being this kind of strange, malleable thing – which all people experienced during COVID. But basically, your memories, dreams, even if you hear a piece of music and you’re driving along, you can be transported. It seems like a long time, but it might be two seconds. So I made a movie about that with a great director, Giorgio Teste, and we shot at Fellini’s studios, so that was great.

How did you know that a rock opera was the right vehicle to express this particular idea?

DAVE STEWART: When I was writing words to these bits of score that they sent me, I started off writing a song called “Time Is a Masterpiece.” And I started singing off the top of my head, “Time above and below…” I was thinking about a lot of people suffering with this anxiety and general sort of disassociation from life itself, the world. And then I started to think about, “How do you make that a new context?” It’s like, how did I come up with the video [concept for the Eurythmics’ single] “Sweet Dreams”? And the record company going, “But why there a cow in here?” But the thing is, I’ve always been really nuts about filmmaking. I just love moving images and music. When I conceptualize anything, it isn’t usually just like, “Oh, well, there’s a song and a singer would be good.” It always is like a story. It’s about storytelling. So I’ve always been very interested in, “How do I get that across in imagery and sound?”

How did you end up joining this tour with Bryan Adams and doing this “Eurythmics Songbook” show?

DAVE STEWART: After I’d just been at the Rome Film Festival, where we premiered that movie, then I went from Rome to London and I put together these eight amazing female musicians. I toured Europe first, doing a two-hour set, just as my own show. And then I was off for Christmas with my family, and all of the sudden, I got [a message], “Hey, do you want to carry on in January, because you’ve already created this whole band, and join on this tour as a special guest?” I thought it was a promising idea, because rather than trying to explain to everybody in America what I was doing, they would just see it. And also, it was coming straight after we’d just played, so we didn’t have to rehearse or anything. And I’ve known Bryan since 1984. The first time I ever met him, I turned ’round and he was onstage with Annie [Lennox, Eurythmics singer] and I, in Canada. I’ve met him on and off quite a lot over the years. So it was somebody that I knew, and I knew we’d be treated well as special guests. Sometimes if you’re a special guest or a support act, the headline act can be pretty tricky, like not letting you use screens. But Bryan’s really relaxed about it; it’s great. He’s letting us use the screen that he’s using. As you probably guessed, I’m sort of obsessive about how things look and sound. So when people go to see this show, even though we are special guests, it seems like a full-on show.

Did putting this band together, and these visuals, help to make your older songs fresh and interesting for you?

DAVE STEWART: Well, it does, but also, I haven’t played these songs with Annie, or really as a tour, since 1999. So it’s not like I was playing them all the time. So actually, I had to go back to all the albums and had to listen to all the songs, and learn them [again]. Change keys for different singers. So it was quite refreshing.

I notice that you always seem to champion women – it’s been unusual for a man and a woman to be a duo, like what you did with Eurythmics, and now with this all-female band. Where did that awareness of women’s value first come from for you?

DAVE STEWART: My mom was very creative. We lived up in the northeast [of England], in Sunderland. And she had to leave school when she was about eleven because her father died when she was nine, and her mother was running a little pub in a mining village. She had three sisters, she was a twin, and they all had to help their mam working in this pub. So she missed out on a lot of education. But when my brother started to go to technical school and was coming home with his friends and talking about books they had, she was really interested. And she would sit with them – she really wanted to educate herself. She was just very creative, and she was a very strong feminist. She ended up actually matriculating into Durham University, getting a degree, and ended up being headmistress at a school for children with mental issues. Her and my dad separated. She met a French guy, he was eccentric but brilliant. When they got married, my dad came down and he gave my mam away at the wedding. He really liked Julian, my mom’s new husband. And so I think it was progressive, for the time, in the way they were behaving, which was very civil and interesting. And I went to London about the age of sixteen, and I was meeting all these interesting women who were doing all sorts of interesting things. So I think it might have started there. I sort of tumbled from one very interesting female world into another.

How did you then develop your own distinctive musical style when you got to London?

DAVE STEWART: Annie and I lived together as a couple, and we played in a band, The Tourists, where the lead singer wrote all the songs. But because we lived together, we talked about music all the time. We loved Stax, Motown, electronic music and punk music. We lived in a squat, [which cost] eight pounds a week. And when the band The Tourists broke up, I said to Annie, “Listen, from now on, it should just be the two of us, and I’ll produce and record.” And that’s how we honed in on the Sweet Dreams album.

What do you think it is about your work that has made it connect so strongly with listeners through the years?

DAVE STEWART: Eurythmics music was purely from the heart. Because we lived together as a couple, then separated and decided to stay together as a [musical] duo, there’s a lot of emotion in the songs. And then musically, because we both could play, we could do anything; it meant that we weren’t stuck in a genre. And because we both loved playing around visually, and because we had the extreme luck of MTV just starting, suddenly we were thrust upon people all around the world with videos. It was a mixture of the type of videos we made, the emotions, the melancholy in Annie’s voice, and the production – and everything seemed to transcend barriers.

And now it’s good that you continue to stay inspired…

DAVE STEWART: Yeah, I’m ancient now! I’m 71. Every day, I aspire to do something. Write a song, whatever it is. I just feel like that. What else am I gonna do? I’m usually knackered by the end of the night, because I don’t see it as work, but I mean, I am working. It’s fascinating expressing yourself and hopefully connecting with like-minded people, or people who can connect with what you’re writing about.