Al Stewart has been one of my favorite musicians for many, many years. He has just released his 18th album Sparks Of Ancient Light. He is currently touring in Europe and I managed to catch up with him between gigs in Frankfurt Germany. No, I didn’t get to go there, the Blogger News travel budget does not cover trips to Europe, I had to make do with the phone. It is always a pleasure to talk with Al Stewart, he is an iconic feature of the musical landscape. Maybe the most interesting aspect is his self criticism, he makes no bones about what he likes, and what he doesn’t!

Last year the vast majority of his albums were re-released, and I had the opportunity to listen to them all once again. For me it afforded a rare chance to listen and reflect of a forty year career. I spent a couple of days listening to something like 15 albums, all of which I greatly enjoyed.

My recent move from Alberta, Canada, to the depths of Mississippi necessitated parking the vast majority of my eclectic music library with my daughter for future shipping, but there were maybe 100 items that I could not live without, and Al Stewart was at the forefront. He traveled with me!

Sparks Of Ancient Light marks Al’s 18th adventure into the recording studio, and I could not wait to listen to it, the poor UPS delivery guy must have thought I was a lunatic when he delivered it. We have an interesting relationship, he knows my address better than his own!  He is even catching onto the lingo, we have Clint Boxes, and we have Onion stuff (it’s like a secret code). He was speechless when I said “OH its Al, I gotta run”.

Like a dog with a bone, I just had to talk to Al about his latest musical adventure. It turned out that currently he is touring in Germany. Undeterred, I did my first 5am interview!

As I understand it you are currently in Germany, I guess touring, and having fun?

Yes we are touring right now, our itinerary consisted of 27 shows in Europe, and we have 22 under our belt. I think we have about 10 more days and then we will be heading home. As for fun, hardly. Life becomes a blur when you are on the road. We have driven 1500k [1000 miles] in the past four days. Pretty much our days are, drive for hours, spend a couple of hours setting up, play the concert, fall asleep in the hotel, and the next day do the same thing! Today is not so bad, we only have a trip of about 125k [80 miles] to go. Touring is grueling.

Sparks Of Ancient Light marks album number 18. Whats your view of it? I know the last time we spoke you were fairly critical of some of your other works. As I recall you only liked about half of the albums you have released. Does Sparks get your mark of approval?

It tentatively goes in the win column. And you are right, I really don’t like some of my albums, the way I see it my stats are 9-8-1. But, it usually takes me 5 years to really decide if I like an album. Actually, maybe I should quit now, I am ahead. My stats are better than the Seattle Seahawks! I liked Beach Full Of Shells, and to me Sparks is a continuation of that musical idea.

It has been about a year since we last talked, other than Sparks, what have you been doing?

Oh, Sparks is about it. There is a lot of work that needs to be done when putting an album together. We recorded it in LA, and having Laurence Juber on board made life so much better. I not only had a great guitar player, but also a great producer. I have worked with people that want 20 takes of every track, and don’t like any of them! Laurence has a different approach, you do it once, and you do it right. In fact he doesn’t understand the concept of doing it over. We did a lot of work getting the songs where we wanted them, and once the tapes were rolling, it was a done deal.

What kind of reaction is Sparks receiving?

Well, the short answer is that I have no idea. When you are on the road you are cut off. I haven’t been near a computer for 6 weeks. Though before I left LA I did check some reviews that had been left on Amazon, and they all seemed pretty positive. So my answer is Sparks is sparking interest.

I have to admit that when I first listened to Sparks, and trust me, when UPS delivered it, it took me less than 30 seconds to unwrap it and get it on the player. Every other project went on hold! I wasn’t sure about it. There was no one song that leapt out and grabbed me. Beach Full Of Shells, has The Immelman Turn and Rain Barrel, both are instant attention getters. Sparks doesn’t have that one song, to me it is an  album that grows on you though.

Sparks is an album that is dense lyrically. It is also full of risky musical moves. I have always enjoyed playing with strange chord progressions. C Sharp to C minor, it sounds odd, but it works in the song. Outside of the context of the song, people said ‘huh’ when I played it. It is not a natural chord change.

I view Sparks as a continuation of Beach Full Of Shells, the songs are very much in the same style. The album is a series of musical essays, it is not about just one single song.

Shortly after I talked to you last I had the opportunity to chat with Dave Cousins of The Strawbs, and he lamented about his huge hit Part Of The Union being a mill stone around his neck, wherever he goes there is an obligation to play the song. Is that the same for you with Year Of The Cat?

I guess I would have to say yes and no. I know Dave, and you are right, he hates Part Of The Union, but if you think Dave has it bad, what about poor Ralph [McTell] and Streets [of London]? The highway of popular music is littered with these one hit wonders. Some times the public gets it right, but sometimes the public gets it terribly wrong. Just take a look at Chuck Berry, he had so many great songs, but what is the song that everyone associates with him ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. It’s not a very good song, and certainly not representative of his repertoire. On the other hand, without these songs, where would any of us be? Without Year Of The Cat I likely would still be playing in some small pub in Islington or Luton! You have to be philosophical and realize that these songs are what the audience wants, and without them, you would be lost.

Is Sparks new material, or did you have the songs banked? I know the last time we talked you mentioned that you had some material ready if another album opportunity turned up.

I have to say thats another yes and no answer. I always have music ideas, it my just be a chord change, or a phrase. I keep them in the back of my mind. I like to fiddle around on the guitar or piano, just looking for that new twist. Sometimes I have whole songs, but I don’t play them, I hate solidifying a song. Once you play it, the words are cast in concrete. Every time you play it, you have to use the same lyrics, it is what people expect.

A good example is The Loneliest Place On The Map, my original plan for Sparks was to include a trilogy of songs about ancient Greece, only Hanno The Navigator survived. Loneliest Place was originally going to be about Queen Dido, but I kept reworking it, and the emphasis changed. Songs are fluid, songs should not be constrained, and songs should grow and change over time. Once you record it though, it is cast in stone. There are several songs that I play regularly, and when I play them I want to put my other words in. In fact when I am on stage I sometimes have to catch myself mid song, and force my other lyrics from my mind.

Al, as always, it has been a pleasure to talk with you, and we here at BNN wish you every success with Sparks Of Ancient Light. 

Simon Barrett

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