How did you first get hooked up with Al Stewart?
I was a fan of Al Stewart in the late ’60s in England because he had a career over there way before anyone in the states had heard of him with “Year of the Cat.” One time I opened for him when I was 14 in a folk club in North London and I’d always been a fan of his work. In 1994, I got introduced to him and it turned out that he needed a guitarist to replace Peter White. I also took the reins as his producer. We did an album shortly thereafter called Between the Wars and he and I did some touring together in the mid ’90s.
Talk about your role on this record as a producer first and then as a guitarist.
As a producer, my job with Al is to capture the moment. He’ll rarely walk in with a fully formed song, usually just some kind of musical direction and a rough lyric. I’ll pull up Digital Performer, get a click going, and get him to put down a guitar part and a scratch vocal. Then I’ll do a lead guitar part to complement it. The cool thing is, we really do work in that spontaneous, creative moment where the vast majority of the parts are created in the writing process, rather than completing a song and then working out parts later. I’ll take the tracks that we do in my studio and translate that into chord charts and music that I can then hand out to musicians at Capitol Studios. We cut the rhythm tracks to the prerecorded vocal and guitar tracks. During that process I’ll generally have an electric guitar and be sitting out in the room with the band as the musical director.
Do you like to make records that way?
It’s an efficient way to work. With Paul, for example, we would just sit down and start playing and that tends to be a more expensive way of doing things. So for me this is kind of a safe way to work. And I like what happens when Al just sits down and plays. He’s very good at putting down a first-take guitar part and I wouldn’t want to push him into takes four, five, or six. He’s a performing artist rather than a studied studio artist. I try to match the nature of the production process to his artistry.
What tunings did you use on the record?
Mostly standard. There’s a little bit of DADGAD. Al is really quite fond of DADGAD and in fact Al taught Jimmy Page DADGAD. But most of what he does is in standard, usually tuned down a half-step.
On a song where you’re both playing acoustic, how do you as a producer make room for both tones without anyone getting lost or buried?
Al is a strong rhythm player but he plays lightly—he’s not a heavy strummer. What I tend to do is get a very focused guitar sound from him. I’ll roll off bottom end so it sits in a place where if I go in and do a fingerpicking part, there’s room. Some tunes don’t have bass and the low end will be carried by my guitar. I’ll pan the two of us so you get a sense of two guitars and then the leads will usually go in the middle.
On your One Wing record, some of the arrangements have an almost Chet Atkins level of complexity and counterpoint going on. “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a great example, particularly in the solo section. Can you describe your process for making all that work?
When I’m putting together solo guitar pieces, I’m really thinking about the arrangement and the orchestration. The analytical part of me thinks about the chord sequence and the bass—how I can get good voice leading in the bass and how the melody fits against that. How can I keep a bass line going and improvise at the same time? That’s one of the big challenges to all this—to do that spontaneously. It’s one thing to take something that you’ve meticulously worked out and it’s another thing entirely to improvise. I don’t play “Maybe I’m Amazed” the same way every time but fortunately there are places where I can sit on an open A or D bass note and improvise on top of it. The foundation of all that is having the understanding of how it all works together harmonically. Everything flows from that. To be able to play “Maybe I’m Amazed” the way I do, I changed the key. I wanted to play it in DADGAD and I wanted to hit the bluesy parts in A. It just flows nicely doing it that way.
Let’s talk about the different tunings you used on this album. How do you decide which one to use on a given tune?
It’s whatever works. I’ve beaten a tune to death in a particular tuning and then I’ll try it in another tuning and wonder, “Why didn’t I think of this sooner?” Sometimes you get lucky. It depends on the key, the register, and the activity of the bass line. “Arrow Through Me” made sense in standard—the original was in E and it doesn’t have a particularly athletic bass line. I couldn’t do all the bits on “Live and Let Die,” for example, in standard tuning. The original was in G. It goes between G major in the verse and G minor in the instrumental section. When I see those chords, my first line of defense is going to be C, G, D, G, A, D. That’s a tuning that really lends itself to G tonalities because the fifth string is a G, the bottom string is C so you’ve got your IV chord there, and the top strings are the same as DADGAD.
“Band on the Run,” “Another Day,” “Jet,” and “My Love” are all in the original keys. “My Love” is in F and I love DADGAD in F. F in standard isn’t great for solo fingerstyle guitar but F in DADGAD is really cool.
How do you keep a DADGAD song from sounding too DADGAD-y or too much like a big D chord?
When I approach the guitar, it’s from a musical and not a guitaristic point of view. I don’t take a chord shape or a fingering and apply that to the music. I start with the music and derive the fingering from that. That’s the spirit of adventure of doing this stuff. I’m trying to rediscover what the guitar can do. I’ll pick out the melody and along the way I might say I’m not happy with where that melody sits, so I might change the key, the register, or the tuning to accommodate it. DADGAD is more pianistic to me. You’ve got two adjacent scale tones. You can see where all the octaves are because you’ve got three D strings and two A strings.
What are some of the most important things you learned from Paul over the years?
On a musical level, it was my introduction to record production. Prior to that I was a studio musician and I wouldn’t be in on mixes most of the time. I learned a lot about what it means to be an artist. Up until then I hadn’t done that much composing. But I saw how Paul would get up in the morning and write a song. So I thought I would give that a try and I started writing acoustic guitar pieces. That was something I had always wanting to do. I learned about the business end of it—to hold onto your own music publishing. I also learned not to smuggle marijuana into Japan.
Would you ever be onstage, look over at Paul, and think to yourself, “I can’t believe I’m onstage with this guy”?
The studio was the time where I would be amazed that I was doing it. Especially one time when Ringo was in the studio with us. That was incredible. Really cool.
What other moments from your Wings days stand out for you?
We were playing the Concert for the People of Kampuchea and we had the “Rockestra” group up there. There I was, 25 years old, onstage with Pete Townshend, John Bonham, John Paul Jones, and Jimmy Honeyman-Scott from the Pretenders playing “Let It Be” with Paul McCartney. I realized that no one was going to step up and take the solo so I did. I remember looking over at Pete Townshend and he was kind of leering at me [laughs]. It was pretty magical.