A Conversation With John Waite – Part 2
Below is part two of my interview with rock legend John Waite, whose new album Best is now available to buy on iTunes and his official website. And make sure to read part one and part three of my interview with John.
It’s a lot of different things. My marriage was in trouble – I’d spent so much time away, chasing my career all over the place, being in New York and then going back home. My marriage was kind of falling apart. And I lived in New York City, and I’d fallen in love with New York City.
We finished the record and I knew we hadn’t gotten the single, I just knew. And I never leave the studio while anyone is mixing or doing lead guitar or overdubs. I’m there all the way through. And I must have felt very strongly about it because I went away and came up with “Missing You” – my part of it. As soon as I started to sing it, it wrote itself. And when I hit the chorus, I sang, “I ain’t missing you at all, since you gone away.” And that whole first chorus came out in one unbroken stream-of-word association.
So, I don’t know what the inspiration is other than denial. It’s about being in love and being at a crossroads, and being in denial, and being in the sort of half-world of something being over. That terrible calmness, where you’ve stepped outside of that circle and you don’t ever get back in.
Did you have a feeling that “Missing You” was a special song that would endure as long as it has?
As soon as I sang, “Every time I think of you, I always catch my breath and you’re miles away, and I’m wondering why you left, and there’s a storm that’s raging through my frozen heart tonight. I ain’t missing you at all” – I wrote that in one piece. And it knocked the wind out of me. On the demo, I actually choke after the first two lines of the second verse and then I keep going.
But I knew…it was as if it was channeling through me. It was what I had been looking for. I had probably been looking for that song since The Babys. It was just the right song for the right time.
And one of the reasons that song is so special is because it’s endured for years.
It’s blues. It’s not a moon spoon tune. It’s really cold – it’s like Robert Johnson. It’s blues. I tried to describe that once on a morning talk show in New York that it was simply a blues song with more than three chord changes. It really is simply based in blues. When you listen to it, it could be John Lee Hooker. That’s why it’s lasted so long. It isn’t necessarily pop music. It’s rooted in black-American music.
Speaking of “Missing You,” this song served as the inspiration for Harlan Coben’s new #1 bestselling thriller of the same name. How does it feel to know that your signature song is still a prominent part of pop culture?
Well, you know, you say it to me and I say, “Thank you.” Then I put the phone down and go for a walk. I’ve never believed my own image. I am what I am, to the point where I don’t really…I’m not arrogant, and I’m not vain. I don’t talk about myself too much when I’m doing interviews. I think there’s been a lot of work on this planet that’s been done in rock and roll, in literature or in painting that makes me look like I don’t exist. It’s just the way it is. It’s the truth. I’m not being noble; it’s the truth. If I’ve made a difference in people’s lives with that song, then it’s a surprise to all of us.
When I saw Harlan’s book, I had to smile. I had to laugh. And then I read my name in the book, and the quotes from the song and saw that the plot was very loosely aligned with it. Then Harlan was in touch with me to say, “Hello.” I read a couple more of his books (laughs) and he’s kind of great. I mean, I’m just happy for his success. He seems like a very nice guy and I’ve enjoyed his writing enormously since. I went out and bought one of his books yesterday. It’s good for Harlan – I’m buying his books.
It ties in beautifully with the release of the new album, Best – with the new version of “Missing You” on it. The new album goes to iTunes, I believe tomorrow or the day after in the rest of the world, except America. We’ve got a four-page ad in Classic Rock. We’re playing the Frontiers Rock Festival in Milan on the third of May. I come back to America, into New York and it gets released in America and we really hit the press in America at that point.
It’s synchronicity. Like I said before, things are meant to happen. You move in circles and you meet people. It’s all kind of preordained. I don’t know why. It just turned out so well. It’s a very positive thing. It’s great.
I’m surprised because I read a lot – I read classics, I like poetry, I read the newspaper. I’m surprised I didn’t know about Harlan. And once I started to read his books, I realized he has a tremendous descriptive style and a real empathy with people. He understands women very well, which creates a really interesting dynamic when you’re reading it. You really get inside people’s heads. And it’s a very seamless kind of style. When you finish a chapter, it isn’t like it shifts six gears down. You’re sort of idling and then you go back into top gear again. His style is something I didn’t expect. I’m impressed; he’s a very good writer. I’m really enjoying his work.
Yes, he’s good at channeling human emotion and making believable characters.
Exactly! Like Stephen King, when he’s in his proper element. I haven’t read Stephen King for a while but Harlan seems to have that – he can read people. He knows a lot.
Speaking of writing, I’ve always thought that in addition to being a great singer, you’re also an underrated lyricist. One of my favorite songs from your latest studio album, Rough & Tumble, is “Evil.” One of the lines from that song is “moonlight’s kickin’ in the door.” It’s a short yet impactful phrase because with just a few words you conjure up a powerful image. What’s the songwriting process like for you?
Well, it’s an odd thing. Me and Kyle wrote that in his kids’ playroom. He had an amp set up, and a guitar and a drum machine. I rang ahead and said, “Just put a rhythm together” and he did. I already played the bass lines (sings the bass lines from “Evil”). It was like the Stones but over the top. And then I left it and came back the next day and he played like 16 bars of that and I immediately sang, “I’ve been watching you watching me, can’t you tell what I’m going through.” We were each throwing lines in. I can’t take credit for all of it. He is capable of writing a good line himself and we wrote like that a lot.
Like with “If You Every Get Lonely” I would sing, “Thanks for calling, it’s so good to hear your voice” and then he said, “But you keep breaking up in all the static and the noise” and I said, “But I’ll keep listening because I never had a choice when it came to you.” It was like playing ping pong. It’s why I like to work with other people because they’ll throw something at you and if they’re worth their salt, they’ll know where you’re going. And then that sets up something you would never think of.
It’s like this conversation. I’m free-forming this conversation and it keeps going. I couldn’t finish it myself. And songwriting is like that and it helps you create fresh, solid work. You don’t sit down to write pop music. It kind of uses you. The music writes itself, really.
That’s a really good point. A lot of good ideas – in life, in general – come out of collaboration and chemistry.
Yeah, and sometimes it’s a struggle. When people insist that they want to write lyrics and they’re chewing a pencil and they’ve got a legal pad in front of them and it’s like, Jesus Christ, I make everything up on the spot. I’ll write it all down on a piece of paper in a sketchbook and then correct it. Write down a second page and then correct that and add to it. By the third or fourth or fifth page, you’ve got the whole thing. But I have to do it in longhand because it just comes to me. But all of the best lines – the ones that just fit – they come out of nowhere.
You can read yourself into the floorboards and borrow, and pretend to be whatever. But if you haven’t got it, you really haven’t got it. And the stuff that happens when you’re not working is the stuff worth keeping. It’s the stuff that surprises even you.
Aside from the lyrics, I’ve noticed that many of your songs become more melodically complex as they progress. For example, I was listening to “Have You Seen Her My Friend?” from When You Were Mine, which is an awesome song, and “Savage Blue” from the Bad English album Backlash, another underappreciated classic. I noticed that the endings to these songs have you singing over top beautiful harmonies and guitar. Do you plan this out ahead of time or do you just start doing it and if it sounds good you keep it?
That’s singing the blues. I just make it up as I go. Building another lyric and scatting across what you’ve already done. It’s a blues thing. It’s a skill in itself but I never think about it; I’ll just riff at the end because that’s what you’re supposed to do when your’e singing the blues. Tina Turner would start doing it – it’s just something that singers do. It’s like modern art at that point. You just fly.
To me, that’s the best part of a song.
Yeah, that’s the part I like best myself. Seeing how far I can take it out. People say to me – I just had someone say to me a couple weeks ago, “Why don’t you sing the same melody twice?” And she was trying to push my buttons, ya know? So I said, “How could you possibly ask me that question?” You come out on stage and the acoustics are different, the band is in a different mood, it’s a different time of day, and then you start playing the song and it comes out differently every single time. I couldn’t sing a song the same way twice if you put a gun to my head. I’d have to riff on it, I’d have to extend it somehow or it’s pointless. I might as well say to the audience, “If you’d like to hear the record, I guess it’s in the CD player in your car. You’d be better off listening to that.” But I’m gonna bring something into it if it kills me. That’s what I do. It’s important, that’s where the art is.
The original is only there as a template. It’s a beginning. I’m not going to turn it into jazz, but you’re gonna approach it in a different way; make it a little more edgy and you’ll bring stuff into it. And, to me, without that, it’s nothing. I wouldn’t want to hear it again or listen to it if it doesn’t do that. To do that is the mark of, I don’t know…art, if I can say that without smiling. It is art. If it doesn’t take off and go somewhere, then the performance is the same every night. It’s like bands that play to tapes. You can’t stretch out because the song is going to finish. And if you don’t stretch out, then what have you just done?
That’s a really good point.
I’m glad I got that point in because it’s really important to me.
I agree, and certain live acts, such as the Eagles, prides themselves on giving live musical performances that are identical to the original recordings.
(laughs) I know. I just don’t get it. When you’d go see Led Zeppelin, every night was different. And look at the Stones; they’d come out and play the daylights out of their songs because they’d never play the same thing twice – Jagger’s always riffing on the melodies along with Keith and their songs can go off into the stratosphere. And without doing that, I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing up there. It’s like, you might as well just watch a video. That’s what separates the men from the boys. That’s the thing. That’s why it’s great to be in a rock and roll band.
Agreed. And one of my favorite live acts – I just saw them inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – is Hall & Oates, and that’s because Daryl Hall and John Oates live are more of an R&B act than pop music.
Maybe that’s where it comes from. You might get it in Irish music. You might get it in Celtic music where everyone is jamming away in a pub, and you’ve got the violin going and the guitars out and they like to start singing and jamming. It’s a Celtic thing as well – it’s a tribal thing. It’s very Scotch-Irish. It is R&B and it’s the melding of those two things. It’s like country music meets black music and then you’ve got rock and roll.
Speaking of live performances, in 2005 you toured with Journey. How was it being on the road again with your old bandmates, Jon, Neal and Deen?
Didn’t really get to see them. We’d come out and do our set, and then Neal would come out and jam with us, that was great. And then Peter Frampton would come out and we’d be back on the bus driving to the next gig. It was good to play with Neal. He would come out and play with us on “Head First,” I think, or something. He’d come out every night and a…Neal’s Neal, ultimately, ya know? (laughs) Ya gotta love the guy, ya just gotta.