One would be hard-pressed to come up with a vocalist that sprung out of the ‘70s or ‘80s that is better than ever in 2017.
John Waite is one of those rare artists possessing a voice of extraordinary power and emotion that, by some miraculous twist of fate and God-given gift, has somehow managed to have gotten stronger over time. That commanding vocal prowess is displayed on his new release, Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology Volume Two; also out at the same time is a newly reconfigured version of his greatest hits album, BEST. We sat down with John, who shared the story behind his acoustic-flavored artistic endeavors, how to circumnavigate changes in the music industry and what legendary artist he wished he could have watched record in the studio.
Rock Cellar: With Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology Volume Two, can you explain the appeal of cutting songs with primarily acoustic instrumentation?
John Waite: I was distracted by the past. My roots are all in acoustic music; everything that moved me came from the acoustic guitar–cowboy music, really. If it stands up unplugged, it’s going be solid when you “plug in.” We play a lot of Wooden Heart shows. They are packed so I think people really get it! The band is mainly about volume and soul so we still feel good about that. Two worlds, one band!
How do these songs come alive and reveal themselves in an acoustic format, as opposed to an electric forum?
John Waite: Well, “Isn’t It Time” seemed like the most impossible thing to pull off because it’s such a big production. The things that moved me the most about the last record with Shane (Fontayne) was “A Heart Needs A Home,” the Richard Thompson song. It was the most stark. On this new album, we actually managed to do a pretty great version of “Isn’t It Time” with just one vocal and one guitar. That really surprised me.
I was singing in a way that I didn’t expect to sing, and I was phrasing in a way which was completely new to me to make it fit and to balance the song. Of all the songs on the record, that the one that I look at and go, “How did I do that?” But all the songs come alive when you take out the backing track.
A song is only as good as it is when it’s sung on an acoustic guitar.
Once you add the drums it becomes something else. I always find when something is stripped down to its barest parts you can tell what you’ve got, especially with the singing.
Going back to your work with The Babys, there’s always been an acoustic thread in what you do with songs like “Head Above The Waves,” “You,” and “Love is a Rose.”
John Waite: Yeah, and “California” too. They were all written on the acoustic. I think that’s why the songs had the kind of melodies they had and the stories inside the songs. I think it was all influenced by very early country and blues. The Babys would swing back with something like “Head First,” which is pure rock. But I was always very keen on writing on the acoustic as it left space; you could imagine the band playing it.
A lot of people may not know this, but you’re a big fan of Fairport Convention and their classic Liege and Lief album. Embracing that traditional acoustic/folky flavor has been a part of your DNA.
John Waite: Oh yeah. When I was listening to Free and Jimi Hendrix and The Who and Led Zeppelin and all those great bands, I was also listening to Fairport Convention. But all those bands were aware of them too. Sandy Denny from Fairport went and sang on Led Zeppelin III. Everybody that was really cool and knew about the blues and had those kind of roots also was heavily tapped into English folk music. That by extension is really country music or maybe Appalachian music. There’s a direct relationship between those forms, Scottish/Irish roots.
It happens a lot with artists as they grow older that they return and re-embrace the things that first ignited their interest in music.
John Waite: I think the more you know, the less you know. As you get older you remember and it comes back to what moved you so deeply about the music you heard as a kid. I’ve seen the whole thing. I was young enough to catch the first wave of what happened and lived through so many changes.
It always came back to the acoustic no matter what. My cousin, Michael, once played me a whole bunch of American songs, from Jimmy Reed to Hank William to Big Bill Broonzy, on this big National guitar he had with a resonator in it. It had this fabulous sound. I remember looking at this guitar and thinking, “What’s this?” And the songs were about this other country.
I think when you’re exposed to that at that age it goes very deep and you keep that for the rest of your life.
Run us through the tracks for the new Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology album.
John Waite: Okay, we have “Catch the Wind’ by Donovan opening the album and then it’s “In God’s Shadow,” “Missing You,” “Downtown,” “Isn’t It Time” and then the original recording of “Masterpiece of Loneliness.” There’s a new version of “Head First,” “Bluebird, “Valentine,” Girl From the North Country” and the original version of “Hanging Tree.” The song “More” is also in there. The amazing thing is Shane is playing guitar on all the original songs that I put on there plus the new songs. He’s on guitar on everything but “Girl From The North Country,” which is Damon Johnson.
When starting out in music, was getting a career in music an “all or nothing” proposition or did that come later?
John Waite: No, there was no Plan B. I went to art school for four years and I was gonna be a painter and I had an epiphany that I was never gonna be a great painter. (laughs) When you’re young, you’re really ambitious and want to do the best work that’s ever been done. You feel that you have a shot at doing that. You just can’t help it; you’re walking forward blindly. But I knew if I used music as a kind of palette, I stood a chance at doing something that would be more original and would be me.
I never thought of myself as a great singer by any means. I always thought of myself as a songwriter and it’s only been recently that I look at myself as a singer and have that kind of confidence to carry myself onstage, whether it’s with the unplugged “Wooden Heart” thing or the flat out full band. There’s a version I did of “Whole Lotta Love” on my Facebook page. One minute we’re blazing through “Whole Lotta Love” and then I turn round with an acoustic guitar. The fact that I could do that, I think I’ve arrived. That’s what I always wanted to be.
What’s the source of your ambition?
John Waite: Stubbornness, really. There’s always something left to prove.
When there’s nothing left to prove there’s something to prove.
I mean, not in some gigantic egotistical way, but looking at the new day and thinking there’s a new angle on it and where you are in your life. You wake up some days and you see it differently and reach for the guitar or a piece of paper. Who knows where that comes from? It’s just the drive of anybody who wants to try and describe life. It could be somebody who is laying bricks to make a wall; he wants to build this wall with an arch in it to make it beautiful. Who knows why that person wants to do that? A person painting a picture or designing a swimming pool, there’s just this thing where people want to embrace life. It’s copying the real thing; the real thing is better than all of it.
Happiness is a very elusive thing for most people. What is happiness to you?
John Waite: Happiness? Well, I’m a pretty positive person and I do think I’m happy most of the time. I think I’m more prolific when I’m sad or if something disturbs me and that’s why some of the songs seem to take a downturn. But generally I think I’m pretty upbeat; if I wasn’t I wouldn’t hang around. I think life has always got the possibility of turning a new page any second. People can change the world in a heartbeat. So when things get dark, it’s only the other side of the coin of really good times.
For anybody that’s in a depression I’d say, just hang in there.
In terms of your solo career, your ability as a lyricist with an album like Mask of Smiles was elevated with the use of more poetic imagery and a seasoned sophistication. What facilitated your growth as a lyricist during that time?
John Waite: Change. Life. Experience. By the time I hit Mask Of Smiles I was getting a divorce or I was divorced and I was living out of a suitcase in New York City at the Gramercy Park Hotel. I was in Hells Kitchen making a record and there was a lot going on on the back of the success of “Missing You” and the No Brakes album and living in New York and just learning.
I don’t think anybody stops learning. I think the moment before you close your eyes for the last time you go, “Oh yeah.”
I think life is like that. The moment you stop learning you stop living. So I think it must have been a watershed period where I was just stepping forward. I remember writing “Welcome to Paradise” and thinking that was pretty good. “Just Like Lovers” was pretty good too. There’s some good songs from that period. Every period is different to me.
Pick a few records we’d be surprised that are a part of your collection.
John Waite: Well, at the moment I’m listening to A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. It’s a magnificent piece. Coltrane is very spiritual and that particular album is a prayer, really. He’s a fascinating individual and I’ve very rarely heard anyone play with such kind of fluidity. You hear Hendrix and you hear Miles Davis and you hear some of the great singers, but he is really superb. It’s like listening to something from outer space; it’s just unreal. I’m also listening to a lot of blues. I go back to the blues a great deal.
I just got an Elmore James album last week and I haven’t heard him for years. I downloaded a record and I was floored by the brilliance of it. It wasn’t just shuffles; the guy could sing the phone book. It’s really exciting, dark, driving music.
Speaking of the blues, there’s been recent talk of a blues album with Neal Schon, what’s the latest?
John Waite: I think Neal is at the top of his game and apparently I feel like I am too. It’s a natural step for us to get together and do something. I love Neal. I’ve always had a great time with him. If we ever had disagreements they lasted for about 30 seconds and then we’d both start laughing.
He’s a great guy. It’s just being able to find the time to do it. We’ve been exchanging emails for the past five months and we’re getting closer to something. It’s definitely on the drawing board and it could be in the future.
But like I said, things change in a moment and you never know what’s gonna happen next. I have this new Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology album coming out and I have a reconfigured version of BEST coming out too and they’re both going into stores on my own label imprint.
What makes the reconfigured version of BEST different from the one that came out a few years back?
John Waite: Well, it’s got the studio version of “Evil,” not the live version. It’s got “In God’s Shadow” on there and the original version of “Downtown.” A lot of the other songs have been taken off. It’s 12 songs and it’s a very direct and musical. I think with the first version of BEST I wanted to explain myself musically by putting on all the acoustic stuff as well but “Bluebird Café” is still on there. It’s the John Waite story now. It’s something you could listen to in an hour and really get it.
When you were on a major label, you’d run into problems from the label brass about putting out a reconfigured version of album release just a few years back.
That said, in the past few years, there’s been a dramatic paradigm shift with artists regaining control and labels losing much of their power and clout. With this paradigm shift, as an artist how does that make things easier and by contrast, what are the obstacles you face in today’s musical climate?
John Waite: Mick Jagger once said “the record companies are just there to put the records in the stores.” That was back in I think 1970 and I thought it was a brilliant thing to say and it probably didn’t make him any friends in the A&R department. (laughs) But fundamentally, they are a distributor. Over the years they’ve made A&R departments and marketing departments and all sorts of departments to control the music. Some bands sign to labels and think it’s gonna be the greatest thing in the world and suddenly they find themselves sitting across a desk from someone who doesn’t even like their music and they’re supposed to make a product.
I didn’t make a lot of friends in the music business because I just couldn’t do that. You had an A&R guy talking to you and saying, “We don’t want you to do that” and you’re like, “Well, what do you mean?” You understand immediately the relationship they expect you to have with them. So I always felt like I was not really in the music business. I think having that control back means you make better work. I think there have been some brilliant A&R men. John Hammond was the original, two guns blazing, brilliant human being. He discovered Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen and he knew exactly what was what. He was a totally brilliant guy but after that, there’s only a couple of people that are really in the same kind of street and they’re not in the same league.
You could be a fly in the wall for one day during the recording of any album in history, what artist and album do you choose and why?
John Waite: Probably Jimi Hendrix because he was such an entertaining guy and he was very bright; The Jimi Hendrix Experience were always my favorite version of the band he played with. I got to meet Noel Redding in New York City and he was quite a character; very simple, straightforward guy with a great bass playing technique. Mitch Mitchell was another version of the great swing drummers and then you have Hendrix who is indefinable.
All those records were made in extremely small studios. The single of “The Wind Cries Mary” is the demo. They couldn’t top it. So I would have liked to have sat in a corner just watching Hendrix get all that sound out of a Marshall amp and a pedal. Any album that he made I think would be enormously interesting to watch him do it.
Finally, where most of your contemporaries have dropped a notch or two in terms of vocal ability, your voice keeps getting better and better. Fess up, did you make a deal with the devil at the crossroads?
John Waite: (laughs) No, I think maybe you find it in your muse again; it isn’t just all physicality. I think there’s a physical wisdom that you get as a singer and you step into the songs with a fearlessness, like, “give me the mic!” That’s all because of all the things that you’ve learned through the years. But then again, I don’t reference anything; I just feel it.
I have no explanation for it; I’m just grateful.