How Bon Jovi star Richie Sambora gave love a good name
Ahead of his solo Belfast gig, guitarist Richie Sambora tells Andrew Johnston why he took time out of the band to spend with his daughter
For in spite of the adulation of the iconic rock band's army of fans and earning the respect of his musical peers (he was recently inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame), the star decided to take a sabbatical from the New Jersey rockers in 2011 to devote his time to his other job – as doting dad to his teenage daughter Ava.
"It wasn't the most popular decision in the world," the 54-year-old laughs. "But as a man, sometimes you have to have the courage to do things that are unpopular, and that was one of them."
While the band has enjoyed phenomenal success since forming over 30 years ago, for Sambora the pay-off was the impact on the home front, in particular not being able to see as much as he would have liked of his daughter from his 11-year marriage to soap star Heather Locklear.
"I missed a lot of my family life," he says. "That was one of the reasons I left the band on this particular tour. My kid needed me, and I needed her. She's 16 years old, and once they start driving, you lose them a little bit. They become very independent.
"I missed a lot of stuff, be it the parent-teacher conference, or the school play – those kind of things. Children need their father around to model for them – that masculine energy. But it's been over a year now, and I've had the chance to be the dad I want to be."
He's also making sure his latest tour, which touches down in Belfast on July 1, leaves plenty of room in the schedule for quality time too.
"I'm coming to Europe to do three weeks, and then in August, I do two weeks in Japan and Australia, but then I get to spend most of the summer with my daughter. With Bon Jovi, summer is gig time."
The Bon Jovi juggernaut has motored on with session man Phil X taking Richie's place, but Sambora is hoping to be back for the next album and tour – if there is a next album and tour, that is.
"I don't think I'm out of the band, but right now, there's no plans," he shrugs. "The last two tours were the biggest tours in history. I'm the guy that writes the songs and co-produces the records, and that takes about nine months, and then you go on the road for over a year. In the last 31 years, I think I've done that 14 times or something.
"I also managed to fit in three solo albums and three solo tours, and write and produce for other artists. No one could ever say I was shy of work, that's for damn sure!"
Still, Sambora doesn't begrudge his bandmates hitting the road without him. "Those guys wanted to go out and work and continue that insane touring pace, and now, doing it as a solo artist, I get to do it at my own pace," he says.
Sambora – who co-penned many of Bon Jovi's biggest hits, including You Give Love a Bad Name, Livin' on a Prayer and Bad Medicine – reckons the time off has helped his songwriting, too. "You taste life a little bit more," he says. "I found that my life experience – just living – has brought me to a whole new songwriting level.
"When you're out there on the road, you're in a cocoon, man. You go to the hotel, you go to the gym, you get some food; next thing you're at the gig; next thing you're on a plane. That's what you've got. You miss a lot of life doing that. But 30 years is a pretty good run."
The break from the band has also given Sambora the opportunity to reflect on the problems he's had with alcohol, for which he has undergone rehab treatment both in 2007 and again in 2011; the latter occasion came shortly after he had completed probation for drink-drive related charges dating from 2008.
It's clear though that music has been one of the saving graces in helping to cope with his problems.
"What music has shown me is that I'm not alone," he says. "If I have my heart broken, or if I'm in pain, or if I'm in joy, there's other people in the world that are going through it with you."
His latest solo album, 2012's Aftermath of the Lowdown, sees the six-stringer – who has sung lead on occasional Bon Jovi tracks live – stepping up to the mic once again. "I missed being a lead singer and getting out there and talking about what's important," he says.
"In the past, I was a little bit reluctant to speak about my emotions and feelings and things I've gone through in my life, because I thought it wasn't humble or something. But on this record, it turned.
"Everybody has their ups and downs in life, and I decided to bring it out. There's a great optimism that happens, because when you're able to get over personal heartbreak or tragedy, there's a lot of joy there – and a lot of risk, and a lot of courage."
Aftermath of the Lowdown is the long-awaited follow-up to 1991's Stranger in This Town and 1998's Undiscovered Soul, and Sambora will play Belfast as one of his first solo Irish dates in support of it. "Nobody's seen me as a solo artist in Ireland, and I hope everyone comes out," he says. "I'm bringing a great band and I'm going to play all great songs."
Indeed, the show will mark his first visit to Northern Ireland since Bon Jovi stormed the King's Hall in January 1990, towards the end of the group's mammoth New Jersey Syndicate Tour. And although he's 'rocked a million faces' since then, Sambora remembers Belfast well.
"It was pretty heavy, man," he recalls. "There were a lot of guys with machine guns! We were very well protected. You guys were having some problems back then, politically and economically. But you know what? Music is the antidote to that.
"The people in Belfast were out of their minds. It was crazy. Everybody was just rocking and dancing and jumping. It was a joyous gig. The energy was insane. I remember it very, very vividly."
Although the tour is billed as a solo show, Sambora will be joined on stage by Australian guitar goddess – and current girlfriend – Orianthi Paraganis, an alumnus of Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson's backing bands. "It's a magic time," says Richie about the 29-year-old guitar prodigy.
"Sometimes you run into musicians you can communicate with musically. The greatest thing has now come back, that I lost with Bon Jovi because it just stopped happening – the improvisational part of the music. I think that's what people are waiting for – to hear good musicians communicate through the language of music, not only the language of the lyric."
The setlist for the tour includes solo songs, covers and some very recognisable crowd favourites. Richie says the idea is to be as relaxed as possible.
"I'm taking requests," he chuckles. "There's a lot of people that are active on social media and requesting some obscure stuff. I just like to interact with the audience – staying in touch. That's very important for an artist."
It's often said young, up-and-coming bands have to learn how to connect with a stadium crowd, but did Richie – who has been headlining massive venues for a quarter of a century – have to 'unlearn' a lot of the tricks of playing to huge crowds for these comparatively intimate shows? "Not at all," he retorts. "It's always in you, man. If you're that kind of musician, you never lose it. I like to call it 'singing through my fingers'. When you get to be a proficient enough musician, it just comes through. That's the greatest part of being a musician. I walk out onto the empty stage, and I wouldn't care if it was a thousand people or 70,000 people. I get out there, I close my eyes, I start spiralling the music through my guitar, and when I open my eyes, I've captured 70,000 people."
As for the future, Richie hasn't ruled out making an album with his current touring partner.
"Ori and I have been writing, and it's been so good," he reveals. "The best way I can put it is it's like a modern-day Fleetwood Mac on steroids. It goes from everything from acoustic to blues to very heavy."
And despite selling more than 100m albums and having played in sold-out venues across the globe, it remains his songwriting that Richie is most proud of, culminating in that 2009 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. "Any songwriter will tell you it's special because it's your peers," Richie beams. "I got voted in by Jimmy Webb, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Hal David – the classic songwriters. You become part of the 'boys club'. An amazing feeling."
Richie Sambora plays the Ulster Hall, Belfast on Tuesday, July 1. For details, visit www.waterfront.co.uk