Paul Rodgers- Going Soul/R&B on The Royal Sessions (Interview)

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Paul Rodgers’ voice may be more familiar than his name because, by and large, his success has come within the confines of collaborations with notable names of their own. Consider the groups under which Rodgers has built his career: Free, whose “All Right Now” help define rock radio the Seventies; Bad Company gave the lie to their name with Mick Ralphs, guitarist from Mott the Hoople, along with drummer Simon Kirke, achieving multi-platinum status working with Rodgers. Then there was The Firm, the first major post-Zeppelin project of British guitar hero Jimmy Page and in the next decade, an alliance with former Faces drummer Kenney Jones after the latter had played with The Who during the eighties. And, as if to demonstrate his courage as much as his self-confidence, Paul Rodgers also assumed the mantle of front-man for the surviving members of Queen following the death of lead singer Freddie Mercury. Recently however those same surviving members have decided to tour in 2014 with Adam Lambert as lead singer.

Along the way Paul Rodgers has embarked on projects under his own name, such as A Tribute to Muddy Waters, and The Royal Sessions is a similarly rootsy but even greater a labor of love than the homage to the blues Buddha. Calling on the inspiration tendered him through the R&B and soul music that first inspired him to write and perform, Rodgers, with creative partner Perry A. Margouleff, traveled to the site of Al Green’s Hi Records in Memphis to bond and record a selection of songs with some of the very same players who contributed to those seminal recordings.

A self-avowed rediscovery of the power and passion within the art of music, Paul Rodger’s latest work will doubtlessly move those who hear it to explore the sources of this sound and  (re) discover an artist whose legacy is becoming truly profound with the passage of time. It’s little wonder Paul Rodgers was so enthusiastic to talk at length about his latest project with Doug Collette: it was a mutually exciting subject.

paulrodgersroyalI’ve been listening to The Royal Sessions and found one of the first thing that leaped out at me was how the album reminded me of the first time I heard your voice with Free.

Well that’s great to hear because we went back to analog for this album. We had a beautiful microphone: Perry Margouleff, my producer, collects mics and gear and he had a Neumann that was the best of his collection and you could really tell. It was a beautiful mic to sing on.

Your voice sounded great, but everything about the band and the production sounded great too. It really says a lot for analog recording that you can make a record where the band and the singer sound like they’re right in the room with you when you listen to it.

I think so too. Everyone involved in the sessions was very much in their element. Bill Wittman, who co-produced with Perry, and all the sessions guys and the singers and the brass section and the studio itself was all geared to that 50’s -60’s way of doing things. Everything was done live in the studio and some of the takes were just one take: we’d be actually trying it to see how it went and we’d go “well that’s it we don’t need to do take two on that—We got it right there!”

That says a lot for everyone being in sync with each other in a great workspace.

It does, the musicians themselves, like the Rev Charles Hodges on keyboards, create such subtleties when they play, it took me a few listens to hear and I’m still hearing things that I didn’t at the time of recording.

That’s what always makes a great record and The Royal Sessions is like that. You’re always able to hear something new in it:  a guitar lick in the background, the way you hold on to a note as you sing, the way the track stops or fades out—it’s one thing after another to bring a smile.

It was a joy to play with these guys because they’re such masters of the genre. When I first went in there, they hadn’t been told who I was. So they were wondering “Who is this guy”…Can he sing?” And it didn’t take long because I wanted to prove my credentials right way, so we kicked off with “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” and after the first few bars we knew this was going to be okay. There was such a great vide between the musicians themselves: they already had this incredible glue as a band for playing so many other sessions. In some of the arrangements we’d be really really building it and I’d be thinking “Well, we’re going to end soon..” and all of a sudden it world go right down to a whisper, and Charles would look at me across the room and go “Testify!”

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How great that must’ve been for you as the man at the microphone not to have to worry about the band, knowing their stuff, knowing the material and just being able to bond behind you and move with you. You could just concentrate on opening up your heart through your voice.

Well, that’s right because they gave me a greet base upon which to fly from. And they were there: they were the safety net—they were very solid, there was no wavering. It was a great experience to play with them because they have so much experience and they’ve done so many sessions. They know what I’m doing from second to second and they’re right there with me.

Did you find it a relief of sorts that they didn’t know of you and got to know you through the interactions on this project, rather than hearing the name and having preconceptions? It must’ve been a breath of fresh air to walk in and stake out your own turf.

I think it was and that was Perry’s idea. I didn’t know that’s what he was doing. He had called me from the studio actually because he had discovered it. He had visited Stax and been pointed toward Royal Studios, so he called me and said “You’ve got to come down and check it out!” So I initially went down for a three-day session just to see how it was and it was so productive right from the start and I said, “I’ve got to come back and let’s do an album! Let’s take it seriously…”

And yes it was very good to just step in and communicate entirely on a musical level about these songs with no preconceived ideas just “Let’s see what ya got?!”

Was this concept to use this material that inspired you years ago something you’d been wanting to do for a long time or did you get hit with a lightning bolt of inspiration.

It was a bit of both because I was influenced by this music when I was fourteen, fifteen sixteen–my formative years when I had a band together and I hadn’t even started to write songs yet, but I realized how much this music, Otis Redding and all of these Stax releases and rhythm and blues, influenced everything I did: my singing, my songwriting. And that’s where I was coming from: where they had led me in a way.

Perry and I had been working together writing songs with a view to making an entirely different album and it often came up what a powerful influence soul and blues was. And then the stars just aligned: Perry found himself in Memphis, then he called me and I thought that was a great idea. And the other thing that attracted me was Blue Mitchell said “I can get you a wonderful band of musicians who can just nail it to the wall.

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I wanted to ask how the band was pulled together and how quickly things fell into place for you: it sounds like it was your destiny to make this record.

It was. It almost made itself it came together so fast: the band was there, the studio was there, Bill Wittman (engineer & co-producer) was there and Perry so we all went “Uh Huh!” (Laughs) It just seemed right.

You must’ve wanted to do this deep down in your heart, maybe from that point you were fourteen and realized how deeply you were feeling these songs.

I was definitely deeply influenced at the time and it was very much like coming home when I stepped to the mike and I heard the band. Like I said, when I first had a band and we’d go to clubs, this music would be playing in the background. And I’d sit in my room as a teenager and listen to Otis Redding and the Temptations and go “Wow!…Where does this come from?”! And of course it comes from Memphis, Stax Studios, the converted cinema they recorded these great tracks in. The interesting thing is it stayed with me through everything I did: Free, Bad Company, The Firm (with Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page) and the solo work, it’s always been in the background. I can still listen to these original records and get a kick out of them and draw energy from them.

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I was going to ask if you still listened to this style of music and in particular to some of these very same songs–what do you listen to for pleasure?

Well, I do as I rediscovered vinyl. I did get away from listening to music because I realized the digital format doesn’t quite do it for me. Just this morning I was listening to Jr. Wells (sings)”Somebody done hoodooed the Hoodoo Man…” What a fabulous record that is with Buddy Guy on guitar.

That record all the way through has a similar vibe to what we did. They’re all in the studio they’re locked in for a couple weeks and they’re coming in every day to do this and you can feel a continuity in the sound performance and that’s an album for me: you go there with them when you listen.

Great albums and great music create another world and when it connects with us, we can enter and reenter it, as many times as we want and it’s at once everything we knew and something more. A splendid experience to say the least…

That’s very true. I was just thinking about the very first single I ever bought by Booker T & The MG’s and I’d lost it year’s ago and I tried to get a copy and the only copies were live versions, so I went on the internet and I bought two copies: one is pristine and the other one I play. And it’s actually just as good, if not better, than when I listened to it all those years ago.

The stuff I love the most and have continued to love the most over the years affects me the same way. I hear more in it and I don’t just get nostalgic about how I felt when I first heard it and discovered how great it was, it’s like it connects over the span of the years. 

Once a song has resonated with you, it’s amazing to me how it stays with you. Whenever you listen to it—five years later ten years later—it’s still got that affect on you. I thought “Well I’ll probably move on from this…” but no it stays with you.

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Our favorite music and our favorite artists become so because the rhythms and the melodies resonate with us—it only stands to reason it nurtures itself over time.

There is a mutual resonance and that’s what it was like walking into Royal Studios in a way. It’s like the walls had absorbed all those sessions that went on late into the night and as the nights wore on while we worked, the place seemed to come to life. You go in early, it’s like mid-day or so, but gradually you’re in this whole world apart.

I know someone who was recently at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Memphis and he was describing the atmosphere much the way you just did: how the history has been absorbed by the place and when someone goes in there who can get on that wavelength, that atmosphere comes alive again. Were you ever just dumbstruck in awe at any point standing there and looking around going “I can’t believe I’m really doing this?”

Yeah, all the time (laughs)

Let me ask you something about the choice of the songs. I’m interested to know why you picked what you did and if you were intimidated in any way by the thought of doing such tunes as “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long?”

Yeah I was slightly intimidated but I couldn’t let that stop me. I saw it as a challenge. There was a pool of about twenty songs that I was going to draw from and each day I would decide which songs to go for: it was sort of like I would let the song come o me, what felt right to do and the guys were very amenable: whatever I called they were ready to go with, just a few little checks on keys or a slight thing with the arrangement, then they were ready to go and we’d launch into it.

I did feel a little bit of intimidation with “Walk On By.” That was actually the only song I took away and did the vocal up in Perry’s studio in New York: he has an analog studio there too—so I wanted to take that one away and think about it because it was a slightly different arrangement: I didn’t want to just jump in and ad-lib in the middle section, I wanted something that was carefully crafted that fit and didn’t affect the flow.

I first heard “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” in a studio version, then I heard Otis Redding do it at the Montreux Jazz Festival where they stop and he goes “One more time!..” you know (laughs)

Thee are a few other I may go back and do, I don’t know yet it depends on how things go, but I got a little confidence from doing these and, I think, pulling them off.

I’d love to see a sequel to The Royal Sessions in a couple or three years if you’ve got a couple of so-called alternate choices you can start up with. You must really trust your instincts pretty deeply to pick a song on a given day.

I do actually and they don’t let me down. Rather than preconceive too much: “we’re going to do this on this day and that on that day…” I think it’s better to feel it.

The spontaneity that permeates this music is one of its greatest virtues.  So often music is overworked and when that happens, it falls flat, but your record is vibrant.

I’m glad you think that because that’s what we were aiming for. I like to think we capture that. It’s not just you’re doing it by rote and here’s the lyrics “ la-dee-da la-dee-da “ (laughs) you’re really going to the world where this song exists.

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When you talk about “Walk On By,” I have to admit I only know it through Dionne Warwick’s version, so I did a little research on it to find Isaac Hayes did it and so did Aretha Franklin—it reminded me one of the great things you’ve done with this record is reintroduce these songs and this music and these artists to people who don’t know them all that well. You’re going to inspire them to get into this stuff, perhaps to the same depth you’ve gotten into it. That’s a great great thing these days when so much music has no history, no roots and no staying power.

I’m happy to reintroduce this music because it’s given me so much down through the years. I’ll be really glad if people can pick up on that and get what I got from it.

I’d like to ask now the arrangements came together for these songs. The horns background singers etc. are so much a part of the songs themselves, you must have been very conscious of not wanting to duplicate those note for note—how did you come up with them? Did you and Perry devise them, and then present them to the band or was a collective conversation held when the song was chosen?

I must say the horns took care of themselves. They speak their own language and so we were like “Whenever you guys are ready!…”

Horns are like that: alternately intimidating and inviting. I’ve watched bands defer to the horn section.

And when they burst into song it’s amazing: the brass on “Down Don’t Bother Me” is so joyful—It’s a blues song but it’s so happy.

You’re right: this song is nothing to do with being down or bothered and you guys got that sensation from it.

Yeah, the brass really got it there, as did the girls who sang on it and ”I’ve Got Dreams to Remember:” that was a beautiful session. Again we would play the song and let it go and that was one where it was climaxing to a big buildup and the band would drop down to a whisper where it was time to tell the story of the song, then building back up. I don’t do too much of that actually, but it was a great compliment when the band gave that moment to me—it was a beautiful thing.

That must’ve really solidified the bond between you and the band, plus the confidence you were getting from them: with that reciprocal you’ve got nothing to worry about. Have you got any plans to play this music on the road so people can hear from a slightly different perspective?

I would love to do a show somewhere in a club and make a set from this music and a bit more to make it an hour or so. I’d love to see how we are live because you’ve got to be confident in each other to go places the way Otis did—it’s so magical–and you’ve really got to work together and be on the same page to pull off without it being a train wreck

Well you’ve certainly laid a good foundation for it.

 

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