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Interview: John Oates

31 October 2023

Photo by David McLister

As one half of the duo responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the ‘80s (“Rich Girl,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” “Private Eyes,” “Maneater”), John Oates has been on the go for over five decades, incorporating influences ranging from Philly soul to Mississippi blues in both his work in Hall and Oates as well as his solo catalog. Though Hall and Oates performed as recently as October 2022, Oates admits that, while he’ll never say never, the partnership with Daryl Hall, which began in the late ‘60s has run its course. While some may consider that a bad thing, it’s apparent that Oates couldn’t be happier with where he finds himself this deep into his illustrious career.

Having already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the American Songwriters Hall of Fame, in addition to winning numerous awards and Grammy nominations, Oates is now making the type of music that he wants, unconstrained by expectations or demands from record labels. In 2023, Oates released a series of singles, all digitally, a sign that he’s advancing with technology rather than resisting it. The songs are meant to be standalone singles, not part of a full album masterplan. There’s the expected pop/soul sounds on “Pushin’ A Rock” and “Disconnected,” the bluesy “Too Late To Break Your Fall” and the trio of covers, Oates-style, “Maneater (Reggae Version)”, “What a Wonderful World” (Louis Armstrong) and “Why Can’t We Live Together” (Timmy Thomas).

And, he’s got a very active Instagram account highlighting everything from recording new music to hanging out with famous friends to daily adventures. It’s truly heartwarming – and humorous – to watch Oates’s interaction with his father on his father’s 100th birthday.

As the year winds down, Oates is hitting the road for a handful of sold-out, intimate dates across the U.S. In this conversation, Oates sets expectations for those shows, talks about his current relationship with Daryl Hall, shares how he ended up living in Nashville, and gives an insight into what is to come in the near future.

What does a John Oates solo show in 2023 look like?

JOHN: First of all, I am waving the flag for real musicality and no artifice. There’s no bells and whistles. There’s no Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. What you see is what you get. I’m playing acoustic guitar and singing. I have a percussionist who plays with me, and he is a fellow who’s been a friend of mine since the ’90s. Great guy, also a great singer as well. And then I’m also bringing a genius cello player, a younger guy who I know from Nashville, who’s played on my last few records, and he’s just a monster. I love playing with him because he’s so intuitive. It’s very organic, it’s a trio – cello, acoustic guitar and percussion.

The gist of the show is that it’s a musical time trip. I start with one of the first songs I ever sang when I was a kid that my mom taught me in the kitchen. I think the unique thing about the show, and what I try to put across, is that I’m old enough to remember music before rock and roll. I don’t think that pop music started with rock and roll. It started way, way before that. And I talk a little bit about that. I tell a lot of stories. I tell the back stories to some of the songs. I play songs that were influential to me by other artists when I was growing up, the music that made me who I am. And I play a lot of my new original songs.

And then I move up in time and, of course, I play some Hall and Oates hits. By no means is it a Hall and Oates show without Daryl by any stretch of the imagination. I want to make that very clear to people. I think what people find is they get really surprised and the reaction I’ve always gotten for this show is that people come say, “I didn’t know what to expect, but I like what you do more than if felt like you had to play a hit here and there.”

I feel like I have a professional responsibility to play some songs that are familiar to people, but at the same time, an interesting thing that I’ve discovered about this show is that when I first started it, I would play all these other songs without setting up the context and the backstory. And people would listen politely. But as the show has evolved, I found that by setting up the song with a backstory and putting the song into some sort of context, people hear the song as though they know it. It’s really an amazing thing. They hear a brand new song and even though they’ve never heard it before, because of the way I set it up, it appears familiar. It’s very satisfying for me, of course, because every songwriter wants to play their new songs. But you know, the old cliche: What’s the last thing you want to hear at a classic rock concert? “Here’s a song from our new album.” I don’t fall into that trap. If it was a Hall and Oates show, that would be a whole different paradigm.

I was very conscious during the Hall and Oates concert touring days that I knew what people were coming for and I felt a professional responsibility to play those songs that they wanted to hear. And, fortunately for me and Daryl, we had a lot of them. So that always works pretty well but this is completely different. This is a chance for me to express myself musically in a different way. I think after 50 years, I’ve kind of earned that right.

You mentioned people hearing songs they don’t know, and you explain them. What I find cool is that a lot of the early singles you released, before Hall and Oates, are available to listen to on YouTube. I didn’t know about those songs until I started reading your autobiography and, before the internet, I would have had to imagine what those songs sounded like. Now I can listen to everything you ever wrote and recorded, pretty much from day one, which is a fascinating way to read your book and have a soundtrack to go along with it. It has to be pretty special that those songs are available for people to hear.

JOHN: The first single (“I Need Your Love” by The Masters) was released locally in Philadelphia and never went beyond Philadelphia. It did get played on Philadelphia radio and, in fact, that’s how I met Daryl Hall. He was doing the exact same thing I was doing with his own group. He had made a record that was being played on Philadelphia radio as well so we were aware of each other. We eventually did meet, and when we met it was just an unusual circumstance in that the group I was playing with kind of fell apart and the group he was playing with fell apart. He and I gravitated toward each other.

I follow you on Instagram and it looks like you’re leading your best life. Every morning do you wake up and say, “Damn, it’s good to be John Oates”?

JOHN: Not really, but I know what you mean. The thing is, I spent 50 years, literally 50 years, more than 50 years, believe it or not, working with Daryl Hall. The early days of our career right through to the end of our career, really, has been nonstop. We would write and tour, write, record and tour, write, record and tour. I did that all the way up until the late 80s when I finally took a break.

I had no life outside of what I did with Daryl and I was totally 100% focused on my professional music career. And then things changed. There were a lot of circumstances; a divorce, a manager went away, things were kind of in chaos, all upset. I moved to Colorado and I started my life over again. I met my current wife and got married. We’ve been together ever since, it’ll be 30 years next year. It really changed everything for me. Music became much more in perspective for me. It became part of my life and not the all-consuming thing that it was from the very beginning.

Daryl and I are pretty much finished touring. I don’t foresee, and I never say never, but right now I don’t see any tours. And I think we both have grown apart professionally and personally. I think we both want to do something else. I don’t want to sound like doom and gloom, but there’s a reality to being old, to being our age. I think Daryl and I feel the exact same way. As our life is winding down, we want to make up for lost time and do the things that we didn’t get a chance to do while we were working together.

So this is a whole new chapter. What makes me really, really happy is that people have accepted me as an independent musician. It’s very rare that someone who’s part of a group that was as big as Daryl and I can actually break away and have people accept them. This is a whole new chapter for me and people seem to love it. Every show on the tour is sold out. Granted, I’m playing very small venues but, regardless of that, it’s not the size of the venue, it’s about the quality of the music that I’m making and the fact that it’s reaching people.

I’ll be seeing you at the Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

JOHN: One of my guitars is on display there. The theme for this particular exhibit is American Roots and Legendary Roots Music Instruments. I happened to own the guitar that Mississippi John Hurt played in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, which was rediscovered and brought back into the public after not having recorded since the 1930s. And I own that guitar because it was given to my guitar teacher. When he passed away, I managed to find it and buy it back. And, believe it or not, I have a history with it. It’s the actual guitar that I played on the first two Hall and Oates albums at Atlantic Records. I was playing Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar. So it was kind of bringing my rootsy history along to those recordings. And so they asked me if they could put that guitar on display for a year and I lent it to them.

When you were playing the guitar on the first two Hall and Oates records, did it have significance at the time? Did it feel like it was an important guitar or was it just something you picked up to play?

JOHN: I didn’t even know I was going to play it. I wanted my guitar teacher to come up to New York and play with me on a couple songs on that album. When I asked him to come, he said, “Do you want me to bring the John Hurt guitar?” I said, “Absolutely” and so he did. And that was the guitar I ended up playing with. Never saw it again until five years ago. It was in a collection in Colorado of a guy who passed away and his daughter decided she wanted to sell the guitars. Through the grapevine, I found out that it was available and I purchased it back.

Having never played an instrument, I’m wondering, when you pick up a guitar, do you know that the guitar either has – or doesn’t have – any magic in it?

JOHN: Absolutely. Every guitar has a personality, and it could be the same guitar, same model guitar by the same manufacturer side by side and you can pick one up and then you pick up the other one and go, “Oh, this is the one.” It’s just a thing. It comes from years and years of playing. In fact, I don’t even have to go any further than picking it up. I don’t even have to play it. I can literally grab it by the neck and feel it in my hand and I know that there’s potential here and I might play it. But there’s certain guitars, I’ll just pick up and put right back down because I know that’s not even close.

I’m assuming you’ve amassed a lot of guitars over the years. Are there any guitars that you’ve given away or sold or have lost track of that you wish you still had in your collection?

JOHN: No, my wife won’t let me sell anything. There’s always a couple that got away, but, no, I have the ones that I played like the ’58 Fender Stratocaster that, if you see a picture of me playing with Daryl from 1974 until most recently, you’ll see me playing a natural blonde Stratocaster with Gibson Humbucker pickups. That’s the guitar I’ve been playing since 1974. I still have it. It’s right here in the closet. I bought two guitars recently, an electric and acoustic, that appealed to me. I’ve got ones that are 20 and 30 years old, and I’ve got ones that are two weeks old.

Did you move to Nashville for the music or just because you liked it there?

JOHN: I moved to Nashville for a lot of reasons – music being one of them, of course. I’ve been going to Nashville since the late ’90s when Daryl and I were hardly touring at all. I started writing songs, started making friends and kept going back. After a while, I realized quite quickly that it was the kind of place where you really had to be part of the community.

When our son went off to college, my wife and I were empty nesters in the early 2000s and we started going there even more often. We got a condo. We kind of breezed in and out of town. One day, after about four years, I remember waking up, looking at my wife, and I said, “You know, we live here now, right?”

We still kept our house in Colorado, but we kept spending more and more time in Nashville and then we bought a house here. Our son went to college back east. My father, who just turned 100, is up in Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. Aimee’s parents live in Illinois, which is not far from Nashville. So it made a little more sense to orient ourselves here.

I’m assuming that you don’t really feel pressure to put out music, that you kind of put out music that you want to put out these days.

JOHN: I just put out a series of singles. I started last November. I did one almost every month for about seven months. And that was interesting, because it was the first time I’d ever done a purely digital release. There was no physical component, no CDs, no nothing, no vinyl. And I wanted to see how it worked. It worked okay. And it was a learning experience for me to learn how to do that and navigate kind of a modern way of releasing music.

Tomorrow, I’m actually going into the studio to record four songs and I’m putting out an album after the first of the year called Folkesque. And what that means is it’s kind of folky, but not really folk music.

The songs you’ve released appear to be standalone singles, not necessarily meant to fit together in the whole album sense.

JOHN: Yeah, exactly, that’s exactly right. I just did songs I like. I did a version of “What a Wonderful World,” which is such a classic. But the interesting thing for me, and one of the reasons I did it, was because during COVID, I wanted to write a really positive song, but I couldn’t do it. I wrote some really good songs. I wrote, “Pushin a Rock,” and I also wrote “Disconnected,” which is the ultimate COVID song.

But then I said, “God, I wish I could do a positive song.” I thought that if I can’t write one, I’ll find one. And then I thought, “What’s more positive than a ‘What a Wonderful World’?” But then I said to myself, “Isn’t it odd that such a positive message is always done in this slow, ballad-like way? I mean, shouldn’t a positive message like this be done in a more uplifting way, musically?” I said, “I’ll just do it like a Philly R&B song. I’ll make it really up tempo and kind of more aggressive.” It’s been fun. I play it all the time in my show.

You released an album a few years ago called Arkansas. That was a bit more folksy and bluesy than a song like “Pushin’ a Rock” which, I think, has the classic sound most people associate you with.

JOHN: There was a theme to that album. That album did not start out as an album. I have a recording studio right near my house that I love to go to and with great, great players and amazing people to work with. I love being creative and being with great musicians.

I know all these great Mississippi John Hurt songs. I kind of know every song he’s ever played and I know them authentically. So I said, “I’ve got the Mississippi John Hurt guitar. I’ll just go in and do an EP or something.” I recorded a couple of them and then I sat back and I said, “Why am I doing this? I’m never gonna do it better than him. What’s the point?”

I had this weird thought, maybe it came to me in a dream, but I thought to myself, “I’ve never heard these songs done with a band. They’ve always been done as a solo guitar and voice.” It’s the classic blues thing, Mississippi blues. And I said, “I wonder what would happen if I put together a band and we played these exact same songs and I played exactly what I was always playing, but we surround it with the instrumentation of a band?”

I put together a really weird band – mandolin, cello, pedal steel, guitar, bass drums – and I said, “Let’s see what this sounds like.” The very first song we did was a Mississippi John Hurt song called “Stack O Lee,” one of his classics. After we cut it, I went into the control room, sat down next to the engineer and he said, “I don’t know what this is but it’s amazing and you should just keep doing it.”

So we recorded a bunch of John Hurt songs and then I went, “This is so good, it shouldn’t be limited to just his music.” I thought to myself, “I wonder what he was listening to on the jukebox back in the 1930s?”

I found lists of songs that were played on jukeboxes in Mississippi in the 1930s. And I was blown away because there was everything from Gene Autry to Jimmie Rodgers, the Yodeling Brakeman. There was Ragtime and Mississippi Sheiks. There was Blind Blake. I thought, “Wow, what an eclectic group of music. Let me record some of these songs with the band.”

I did a Jimmie Rodgers song. I did a Blind Blake song. The album was almost like a snapshot of the early days of American popular music as seen through Mississippi John Hurt’s eyes, which I didn’t intend to do. It totally just happened. I’d love to sit back and say I had a vision, but I didn’t. So that’s what that album is about.

The song “Arkansas” is one of the originals because I felt I was cutting all these other people’s songs. I wanted to record a song that crystallized that experience. I tell the story when I play the show about where I wrote the song and how I wrote it and why I wrote it.

It looks like you’re keeping your eyes and ears on the music scene. I saw a picture of you with the artist Devon Gilfillian.

JOHN: I heard his music. He’s from Philadelphia. As soon as I heard his music, it was immediately relatable. Then I went to see him here in Nashville. I just showed up at one of his shows and, of course, we hit it off. It was a Philadelphia brotherly love thing. I’m going to hopefully write some songs with him and, you know, another group that I love is The War and Treaty. I’m a big, big fan so we’re going to write some songs together as well. I just wrote a song with AJ Croce, who’s Jim Croce’s son, who’s an immensely talented, amazing guy. I love to spread my wings and try things with different people and it’s my chance to experiment and get into the musical mindset of other people.

I saw Devon live for the first time about six years ago. Even at that time, I thought to myself, “This guy is going to be huge.” He’s not quite there yet but he’s got the talent.

JOHN: He’s doing it the right way. He’s building a live following. He’s playing live all the time and touring. That is the classic way to build a long-term career, not just a TikTok career. He’s doing it the absolute right way. He’s out there playing live and turning people on and putting on great shows and people love it. And the more he does it, the bigger he’s going to get. Eventually it’s going to pop.

Do you just randomly drop into shows a lot?

JOHN: Not unless I like them. I mean, I’m in Nashville. There’s music going on everywhere all the time. I just did a great show at the Ryman Auditorium, a tribute to John Prine for John Prine’s birthday. It was amazing, the amount of people that were there. Devon was there, actually. He sang a song. Lukas Nelson, who’s a buddy of mine, is great. Susan Tedeschi. Rodney Crowell. There were so many great people there.

I also saw you played a show with Paul Sidoti. I grew up in Cleveland and I have friends that went to high school with him. His name was familiar to me in college, but I’m not sure if we ever met. We probably attended a few parties together. And now, for quite a while, he’s been Taylor Swift’s guitar player. He’s made quite a name for himself.

JOHN: I didn’t even know he was going to be there. It was a solo show I did in Nashville and my niece opened the show for us. She’s an up-and-coming songwriter and singer. She’s an amazing singer. I wanted to give her a chance to open so I told her, “It’s just you and a guitar player.” She shows up with Paul. And I said, “You’re coming up in the world. You got Taylor Swift’s guitar player. You’re doing pretty good.” He was an awesome guy. I’d never met him before, but he was awesome.

You’ve got an active Instagram feed and I’m sure it’s well curated. What occupies your time that maybe you’re not posting about?

JOHN: If I wasn’t talking to you, I’d be practicing. I’m actually not kidding. I was playing this afternoon to get ready for this recording session I’m doing tomorrow. I’m doing four songs and I was going over the arrangements. I was thinking about the players who I hired, what they do, how to make the most out of a very limited amount of time with them.

I’m going to be in the studio from 10 o’clock tomorrow morning till about 10 at night and I’m going to cut four songs and, over the weekend, I’m going to probably sing them. And then on Sunday, I’ve got Sierra Hull coming in. She’s one of the greatest mandolin players in the world and she’s going to come in and do some overdubs on the songs. I’ve never played with her, I’ve always admired her. She had a free Sunday afternoon, so I managed to get her to come by. That’s how Nashville is. You get to play with the most amazing players in the world.

You’re closing out the year with some tour dates. You’ve done everything from touring in a car to riding in a tour bus to traveling from gig to gig in a plane. How does this upcoming tour compare to ways you’ve toured before?

JOHN: Oh, this is down and dirty. We mostly fly unless it’s close enough to drive. We do rental cars. We fly, we grab an Uber, we do a rental car, go back to the hotel, sleep, get in a plane, go to the next show. I have no road manager. We have no amplifiers, we have no equipment, we have no roadies, we have no anything. We just show up and play. It’s as basic as it gets.

How often are you recognized in airports?

JOHN: If I’m going to a place where people know I’m going to be, then I get recognized. If not, it’s not too bad. I’m short. I scoot around. People don’t see me.

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John Oates 2023 Tour Dates

Nov. 1 – The Toby – Indianapolis, IN
Nov. 3 – SOPAC (South Orange Performing Arts Center) – South Orange, NJ
Nov. 4 – The Toby – Indianapolis, IN
Nov. 6 – Dakota – Minneapolis, MN
Nov. 9 – Lone Tree Arts Center – Lone Tree, CO
Nov. 10 – Musical Instrument Museum – Phoenix, AZ
Dec. 28 – Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center – Cedaredge, CO