John Waite has undoubtedly one of the most beloved voices throughout the history of melodic rock. His signature sound paved the way for his monstrous career stemming back to his early days with The Babys followed by a successful solo run, time spent with supergroup Bad English and now again, as a solo artist.
With a repertoire of mega-hit songs under his belt from “Change” to “Missing You” to “When I See You Smile” – Waite has sealed his fate as one of the most successful singer/songwriters of our era. While some of these songs seemed to take on a life of their own and at times become larger than life, it was always the next great song that Waite was after.
At a time in his career where he could easily rest on his laurels, Waite surprised us by offering up his latest solo release Rough & Tumble which he calls an all new beginning. One might ask, why would someone like John Waite want to start all over again and only a true artist can understand that motivation. With a collection of songs that encompass new tracks written with Matchbox Twenty guitarist Kyle Cook, reworks on old classics, and a cover or two, Rough & Tumble shows the diversity of Waite’s writing and vocals while still giving us the melodies and voice we’ve come to expect.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to John about the new album and his amazing career.
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette
You’ve called this album a new beginning – can you tell us what you meant by that?
I think making the live album last year was like a door opening for me, I felt like that was where I belonged, making music in the moment. It felt to me like it was more honest that way. The musical conversation that goes on between the players and the singer – that’s the music, everything else is just studio trickery really. I was trying to get the excitement of playing with somebody on tape, even though it’s kind of imaginary tape.
Parts of this album were collaboration between you and Kyle Cook, the lead guitarist from Matchbox Twenty. How did you meet Kyle and more importantly how did you decide to work together?
We have a mutual friend in Indiana and for years he’s been telling me that I should get together with Kyle and write. I wasn’t very aware of Matchbox outside of the singles but our friend played me some of Kyle’s solo work and I thought it was quite good. We both ended up in Nashville at the same time and I thought it was now or never so we gave it a whirl and it just worked right off the bat. I think we both fell into it and I thought he was funny and bright and he had a sense of wit. He kind of knew what was going on, he knew what time it was. He was sharp and I thought it was pretty cool because you meet so many people who want to write with you that are just deadbeats. They’re just trying to write a hit and be in the music business and to use you as a stepping stone and I had kind of sworn off writing with people. I had a couple of bad experiences and thought to myself never again. But this time around I just liked him and within three weeks we had written three really strong songs. It went from there to going into the studio.
Can you tell us about the writing process, there were two phases?
Some of the songs that I wound up finishing the album with, I thought I’d never use. Kyle and I wrote four songs, and I had a fifth (“Peace of Mind”) in my back pocket. We cut five tracks in Nashville and then I went off to Europe to do a club tour for three weeks. When I came back they wanted a full album. I was stuck in LA, working out what I could possibly add to what I had recorded with Kyle. But after waiting until August, I jumped in, pulled a band together and some of these songs that I had had in the file, we rearranged them, brought new lyrics to them, and used them as a springboard. And then a couple of things happened just out of the blue. I was just kind of staring out the window wondering what I was going to do next – I was really stuck and Jamie Houston rang me up about the song “Skyward”. He sent me the song and I remember it being a really great song, so things just fell together, we got very lucky. We threw it all down in about three to four days and it was just this extraordinary mission to get things done.
One thing that struck me while listening to the album is the restraint – it’s not over produced, there aren’t bells and whistles where there do not need to be , it really allows your voice to shine and the real vibe of each song to come through in the true spirit of rock and roll. Was this a focus for you?
Yes, I was trying to turn off the overdubs as much as possible, even when recording with Kyle, even though those songs are more polished, the other stuff is almost completely live. There’s not really much going on as far as overdubs go. The band was very good, we have a great guitar player and we tended to catch things as they were happening. All the records that I loved growing up – country and western records, and Free, Traffic, and Thin Lizzy, there wasn’t that many overdubs. You could hear the conversations going on between the players and that made the music and that’s that magical stance of the music. Once you take that out it’s gone. Now the way they make records, they cut the drums in perfect time, then they add the bass in, then they put the guitar in, double the guitar, put the acoustics in, the synthesizers in and before you know it, it’s just a pile of crap. It’s nothing to do with music, it’s just using music as an excuse to sell a product.
It seems that now more than ever, there are so many tools that producers have at their disposal that some really don’t know where to stop?
Yes, you can take someone who absolutely can’t even sing, autotune them, record it, and the next thing you know you’ve sold a million records. It’s pretty amazing. Then again, you can’t stop progress, but is that really progress? All I really know is if it sounds good on an acoustic guitar than everything is going to be okay. But the last place in the world I want to be is talking about the good ole days. They were very tough and I don’t want to be an old fart talking about 1978. It was rough and what works for me now, knowing what I know, is that the most simple things work. I think it was Allen Ginsberg who said “the first idea you have is the best”.
The album is named after a track on the album (“Rough & Tumble”) – what made you decide to call the album the same name? Do you feel the song encompasses the feel of the album as a whole?
I thought it was just a great name. It was quite a poetic track on one level , it’s quite sexual on another level and it’s quite spiritual on another level – if there’s a difference. Rough & Tumble just seemed to me to encapsulate my life and my music at the time. I thought it was a great title – some song titles just say “use me”, it’s got music in it and besides the syllables work.
I read a few reviews that referred to the new album as “rock-country” – and I don’t know that I necessarily hear that. Do you feel that you were influenced by that genre?
Well I’ve listened to country and western since I was a kid, I was wearing a cowboy outfit when I was three. I was a cowboy from the word go and that fit into rock and roll. I was taken to the Ryman in Nashville and it really was brewing moment in my life. I had always wanted to go there but every time I went to Nashville I’d just stand outside and look at it. I knew all about Hank Williams by the time I was six BUT I’m a rock and roll singer. You’re never going to see me wearing a cowboy hat. Country is part of rock and roll and so is blues. Rock and roll is really a hybrid but I came from wearing the cowboy outfit as a young boy to playing guitar in a rock and roll band. There wasn’t much of a difference.
Digging into the songs a little more, you’ve said that this is an album full of singles and I really hear that. I can hear the identities of each song throughout and the different styles, but overall it still feels very cohesive?
That might be that it was cut so quickly and I got out of my own way. Every time I write a record as soon as I write something commercial I try to write something that’s challenging for the next couple of tracks and in this case I didn’t have time to think and the work was already done. All I had to do was find the groove again and there’s the ideas. Me and Luis (Maldonado) wrote “Rough & Tumble” on the first day of rehearsal. We had one day of rehearsal and went right into the studio the next day, but me and Luis wrote the song during rehearsal and I wrote the lyrics about two days later. That’s the only real rewrite or original write that I did, the rest of it was already in existence and I just tweaked it.
So have you completed albums this quickly in the past or was this a whole new experience?
I had already spent a huge amount of money on the Nashville sessions and I was just full of doubt. So I just said oh bullocks, let’s do it. I was listening to a lot of Dylan and Free and The Rolling Stones and again I loved the fact that I could hear the fact that they were in the studio, making it as they went along. I thought well, you say you can do it, and that’s your favorite thing to do, so just do it! I was psyching myself out but thought that in the end I really had no choice so I went in the studio, hoped for the best and it all worked out.
You included a new version of “Mr. Wonderful” a song that first made its appearance on your first solo album – what made you return t this song?
I was stuck for songs, honestly. The German fans love that song so I figured why not? We cut it between takes to buy a little time and we ended up extremely lucky, it’s like the number two song on my iTunes right now. I thought it was a sweet thing to do for the Germans, they love it!
Throughout your career you’ve recorded and toured as both a solo artist as well as part of a full band – what do you feel the advantage is to being a solo artist?
Musical clarity. You don’t have to listen to someone that’s trying to compete with you. A lot of people see that you’re doing something and they want to compete, and it tends to wreck what’s already going on. If people know what their job is then a band can be near perfect but there’s always somebody – usually the keyboard player – who wants to show you how to do something. People are tight in a band, and when you’re playing with people that you have a sense of simpatico with, everything just flies. If you’re in a band and it is a band with a band name and you’re all pulling together it’s generally pretty adolescent. I think the outcome is pretty adolescent too, it’s a gang thing. If you’re trying to be in a gang when you’re 45 then there’s something definitely wrong with you. The solo stuff is more literary, it has more of a focus.
You’ve recorded some songs in your lifetime that have become somewhat larger than life. (Missing You, When I See You Smile) When you have that kind of success with one song is it hard to move on and write the next song? Do you feel any sort of pressure to repeat that kind of success?
After Bad English I went and cut an album called Temple Bar that was completely singer/songwriter based and all about God, drugs, sex, divorce, alienation and New York City. And then I cut a record called When You Were Mine that was dark and even a bit wilder and some of the songs on that album are my favorite songs. There’s a song called “Suicide Life” that’s very dark. Then I sort of picked it back up and became more positive. But I don’t really care. I don’t write music for the audience, they either like it or they don’t.
I know that you lived in NYC for many years but you’re in CA now correct? The cultures seem so very different – why did you make that move?
Yes, I’m in Santa Monica now. In New York City I was just burning the candle at both ends, I had about six months to go before everything blew up so I just got up and walked away. It’s quieter here, when I’m on the road it’s great and then I come home to this. It’s still got some sort of life to it, there are a lot of English people and English bars and great shops. It’s very cool to live here but it’s great to get on the road. It’s hard to go to New York City and decompress, but I truly miss it, I miss it with all my heart. There’s work to be done though and you tend to spend a lot of energy just existing in New York City.
I was watching the trailer for the album and I loved hearing you talk about how your career started and how becoming part of The Babys was really just a chance happening with people being at the right place at the right time. To go back to that time, what do you remember most about it –good or bad?
America. The dream was to get to America at any cost. To come to America and be successful was beyond any sort of Walt Disney thing that I can describe to you. It was an ongoing dream. Out of the band it probably meant the most to me, I was always seeing the next step. People are who they are and I think that I was a writer and a singer who was trying to move forward all of the time but the band was a bit distracted by vodka, palm trees and whatever else was going on. But, it doesn’t mean they weren’t great – they were certainly great. For me I always kept my sense of wonder about what I was doing. I think that was what protected me from some of the harsher things that came along. I still believed in what I was doing when it was all going wrong.
Any parting words?
Buy the record. Buy two they’re small! No, I don’t know – how do you sum up a career in a few words, I don’t know. Thank you for the time and the interest and the entertaining conversation.
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