Rod Stewart: 'I didn't ever admit I secretly wanted a knighthood - but I really did want to have that honour'
Ahead of his two Belfast gigs at the SSE Arena next month, Rod Stewart — or Sir Rod, as he is now — tells Andy Welch that the excitement hasn’t waned more than 50 years into his career
Rod Stewart’s just got back from a few days away with his wife. “Portofino, mate,” he says, sounding very relaxed. “A well-deserved break away from the kids.”
Judging by the tan he’s been sporting for the past couple of decades, you might be forgiven for thinking life is one big holiday for Stewart, but break down his calendar and, even as he begins his eighth decade, he’s still something of a workaholic.
“It’s this job that keeps me going,” says the 71-year-old. “I love it.”
And key to keeping this state of mind is making sure he never gets bored. The older he’s become, the more he’s filled his life with the things he loves, he explains. Aside from his family, beloved Celtic, the odd game of football and his treasured model railway — never call it a train set — the thing he most enjoys is performing.
That’s perhaps why he’s just signed on to continue his hugely successful residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for another two years.
“It’s such a gorgeous place to work,” he says of the casino, among the most famous on the Vegas Strip. “The venue is amazing, the sound is incredible and the audience is about 4,500, so a really great size. The only downside is the dry desert heat, which is very hard on the voice.
“Other than that, I’d play there the rest of my life. And it’s not like the old Vegas shows. You hear those recordings of Elvis and Sinatra and you can hear people chatting and eating steak in the background. It’s a brilliant show.”
Vegas, however, will have to wait until the spring. First up, he’s touring Europe with the career-spanning ‘From Gasoline Alley To Another Country Hits 2016’ tour — which will include two nights in Belfast at the SSE Arena on Monday, November 14 and Tuesday, November 15. And there’s a lot to fit into the pending tour, from his second solo album in 1970 to his 29th, Another Country, released a year ago.
“That should’ve been No 1, but only went to No 2,” he says, the second it’s mentioned. “Bloody Elvis, beating me to the top from the grave.”
He’s hugely proud of the album, and its commercial success. At a time in his life when many peers have all but given up on recording and releasing new material, he’s still writing songs fans want to hear. He’s under no illusions why people still flock to see him, however.
“From (2013 album) Time and Another Country, we’ll do four songs,” he says. “The other 20, they’ll be old ones. The fans want to hear Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, Maggie May, Hot Legs, Have I Told You Lately, I Don’t Want To Talk About It, Tonight’s The Night, and all the rest, and I think I would too.
“If my idol, Otis Redding, was alive, I’d want to see him sing Dock Of The Bay, Satisfaction, and those other songs that made him a hero. In other words, I give the public what they want, and a little bit more.
“But, saying all that, I think the new albums have given me a new lease of life. I’ll do one more album, and then that’s it for me songwriting,” he says.
Despite the career-spanning tour, he says he never goes back to listen to his old records, in any of his various guises. His daughter Ruby, whose band The Sisterhood will be the opening act on the forthcoming tour, listens to lots of Faces, her dad’s old band, and his early solo albums, eager to know how they achieved certain sounds.
Stewart’s answer to this is always the same: “I don’t know, because we were too drunk.”
He’s being facetious, of course, but there is certainly an element of truth. Faces, formed after the breakup of Small Faces when Steve Marriott left to form Humble Pie, were famous for their drinking. They even had an actual pub and barman alongside them on stage, while the antics of Stewart and his mucker Ronnie Wood could fill a pretty salacious book of their own.
Stewart will admit that if nothing was happening in the studio, they’d disappear to the pub, providing it was after 4pm.
He also says when he sings certain songs from his early catalogue, he’s often taken back to the day he recorded them.
During Maggie May, for example, among Stewart’s biggest hits, despite the fact it was originally the B-side to his cover of Tim Hardin’s Reason To Believe, he thinks of drummer Micky Waller.
“He’d always turn up to sessions in his Mini with nothing but a snare drum. I’d say ‘Bloody hell Micky, where’s your kit?’ and we’d have a row, but he’d assure me he knew, say, Black Sabbath were upstairs, so he could borrow some cymbals from them, or that the Bee Gees were in the next studio, so he could get a tom-tom from them.
“It nearly always worked out, but if you listen to Maggie May, you’ll hear there’s hardly any cymbals on there because Micky, God bless him, couldn’t find any cymbals to borrow. We had to add them in after, but we didn’t want to overdo them, because we were worried about it sounding like an afterthought.”
His version of The Temptations’ I Know I’m Losing You, meanwhile, was recorded with fellow Faces’ Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane, Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan as his backing band, and released as a solo Rod Stewart single.
“My abiding memory of recording that is having a blazing row with Ronnie Lane because he thought it should’ve been a Faces recording, not on my album, but my view was that Faces didn’t do covers.”
While Stewart, who earned his reputation around the thriving West-London blues scene in the late-Sixties, rose to fame with Faces, he was always destined to go it alone. He successfully intertwined his solo career with being Faces’ frontman, but when the band finally folded in 1975 after four albums, he was free to become a truly global star.
Musically, much of his early work has a lot in common with the loose, bar room rock of Faces, but it wasn’t until the aptly-named Atlantic Crossing in 1975, and that album’s breakthrough hit Sailing, that Stewart became known for softer material — and subsequently became one of the biggest selling artists in the world, with 1978’s disco-tinged Blondes Have More Fun alone selling more than 14 million copies.
Subsequent shifts have seen him dabble with folk rock, blue-eyed soul and, as he did with five volumes of his Great American Songbook albums, record his own versions of the musical standards.
“I have such great fondness for all those periods of my career, but also what I’m doing today,” he says. “And I’ve just been knighted. That’s truly remarkable. I am so proud.
“I didn’t ever admit that I secretly wanted a knighthood, but I really did,” adds the singer, who received the accolade in the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours this summer. “I did really want the honour. You just can’t go around saying that sort of thing, and I had a CBE, so that was pretty special anyway.
“After it was announced, I got a lovely email from Elton John that said, ‘Darling well done, who would’ve thought a couple of old London tarts like us would become knights?’
“So life is still full of a lot of pleasure,” says Stewart. “I know all this will have to end at some point, but while I’ve still got the voice and the hair, I’ll carry on.”
Rod Stewart’s From Gasoline Alley To Another Country Hits 2016 tour will be in Belfast’s SSE Arena on Monday, November 14 and Wednesday 15 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost from £55. Visit ssearenabelfast.com or tel: 028 9073 9074 or go to rodstewart.com.