We don’t use the word legend lightly, but Dave Stewart’s influence on popular culture over the last four decades surely makes him a worthy recipient.
He is a multi award-winning creative maverick and technology whizz, who became a household name as one half of the Eurythmics alongside Annie Lennox in the early 1980s, and has not let up since with his relentless innovation.
He has collaborated with the cream of the music world, including Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bryan Ferry, Quincy Jones, Stevie Nicks, George Harrison, Joss Stone and Gwen Stefani to name but a few.
Dave is also behind countless other creative endeavors, covering film producing and directing, private members clubs, supergroups, musical theatre production, and is co-creator of the hit songwriters show ‘Songland’.
It all started in Sunderland, England, where he grew up under gray northern skies, eventually moving to London, then Hollywood, and Nashville. Now the father-of-four, married to his longtime love, photographer/producer Anoushka Fisz, is living and working in the peace of the Caribbean during lockdown.
Here, in our ‘Who The F*** Are You?’ profile, he tells our co-founder John Pearson about a tough adolescence, the importance of his family life, and the influence music has had in guiding his journey, sharing his remarkable story with an honesty and thoughtfulness that truly attempts to answer that fundamental question.
Who the f*** are you?
I think I’m a fan of music. I’m obsessed with anything that has got a creative element. My mum left when I was young, 13 or 14, and my dad got very depressed. I was left in this kind of thinking space. And I was one of these people that I could have gone this way or that. But it went that way. I was saved really by music, so I’m forever grateful for it. It has defined and set the course for my life. It’s not exactly abandonment issues, because I was already a bit older, but it was a sort of quest through music that was a healing thing for me. Then I discovered it was also a healing thing for other people. By the time I’d realized that, and connected with it, and really decided that was my life, then it was never not going to be a part of me. So if you ask me who am I, I am basically me and music joined together. I find it impossible to separate.
Nowadays, people download their music, play it on phones, it’s a digital file coming out of a digital device, and then the bass is missing, it’s all treble. There’s a million ways in which people can listen to music now. But when I was a kid, there was just the radio. Then my dad blew my mind, because in his workshop, where he went as soon as he got back from work and made all the furniture in our house, he decided to make a gramophone player and some speakers, in real solid oak. It was all handmade, and he’d sent away to Germany and got Grundig speakers. I’d never really heard music like that, a loud and perfect sound, and coming from a valve kind of gramophone player. He put the speakers in the corner of all the rooms in our cottage-style house, and when he first put it on for me and my brother and my mom, it was like taking a trip.
He bought all Rodgers and Hammerstein vinyl, and he’d put ‘The King and I’ on, ‘South Pacific’, or ‘Oklahoma’. And it was coming out, this perfect, warm sound, with the needle drop. I was only about five. The only downside is, I’d be marching up the street to school singing ‘I Enjoy Being A Girl.’ I didn’t realize until I was in my 30s, all of those musicals were probably why, in a lot of Eurythmic songs and stuff that I do, I go off on tangents musically, which can be orchestrated. I would go into sections that you think, “Hang on, this is not a pop song. This is going off into this little world.” Then later on, it struck me, ”Oh my God, that’s why I see all the colors.”
I think my mum, before she left, was very sad, and she was obsessed with Ray Charles, and loved him singing songs like ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’, and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, and all these great tracks that were very bluesy. And then I got some blues albums from my cousin in Memphis, and from my brother. I was on my own in the house and I used to pretend to go to school, and then nip around and come back in the house. Maybe I was depressed. I would lie in bed for hours or wander around. But eventually I put a couple of these records on, and sat there, sort of stunned. One of them was Robert Johnson, ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’. And another one that I love to this day, Mississippi John Hurt.
So through music, I managed to sort of see a whole colorful other world and it was like Excalibur or something. A sort of portal that led me, and still is leading me, around the world and discovering many other people and all different kinds of cultures and everything. So it was a magical thing.
How are you feeling right now?
I feel inspired. I just had a double espresso, and I’m sitting in a recording studio in the Caribbean, one of my favorite places in the world. I’m constantly going backwards and forwards to Jamaica.
The reason why I said music is intrinsically part of who I am is wherever I move, it can be the most obscure place, like our place in Jamaica which is nowhere near anywhere, and yet Bob Marley’s mum would be sitting on the back porch, people playing music, recording, all different kinds of people.
But then also, in the middle of the countryside in England, it would be 11pm and suddenly Quincy Jones would turn up with his family. Or it’d be Liam [Gallagher] from Oasis staying for the weekend. Just a mixture of musicians and musicality, Joe Strummer or whoever. Somehow they would meet or collaborate. I’d have Jimmy Cliff staying there, and Joe Strummer says, “Oh I love Jimmy Cliff.” So it ends up I recorded a duet between them, you know?
Or when I built a place in Los Angeles, out in Encino, and it ended up with the Traveling Wilburys deciding to form there. And George [Harrison] was living in my house and they recorded in the back garden. So you had Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and everybody. And even before that, Prince would be recording in the back garden. So I could be here right now, and all of a sudden we’re working with various people that are also here on this island, or people flying in, and then they meet somebody else and it suddenly becomes like a mini music fest.
It’s a good job. I like it.
The world goes through so many bloody changes. If you think about it, over the last 1000 years, the things that have happened are mind-blowing. As my stepfather said, between the slabs of gone civilizations, the grass grows. We’re all living in a period right now that is just a global phenomenon.
So if I were to put what we’re going through into context, going all the way back through history, there’s been times when everybody thought, “Oh, this is it.” If this is civilization, it must be the end. But I think mankind has pushed the earth to its limits, and there’s a double-edged sword with everything. Social media has, in a way, helped push it to the limits, in a way that puts a strain on people’s mental awareness. And at the same time it’s done some great things, showing people, “Hey, look what’s happening over here.” But often, people with amazing ideas get shot down immediately. They get attacked vehemently by people who are fearful of change.
But I think a change is coming and it’s going to be a local revolution; meaning, as everybody’s been saying, “Hey, listen why don’t you not use Amazon for all your Christmas gifts, but think locally?” The things around you that have been slightly forgotten. You can take a walk up the road and there’s something really beautiful there. Businessmen flying all the way to Hamburg from Los Angeles for a business meeting? What’s the point? You can just have a Zoom meeting. So things like that have been discovered and they work to a certain extent. Coming out of this situation that everybody’s in at the moment, the pandemic, there’ll be a new normal. And hopefully many people will see it as living and using simpler and easy ways to get what you need. So I think this world we’ve just been thrown into has a lot of people coming around to the [local] idea, and that would be a good thing. Local revolution.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
So where I was born and where I grew up was a town, which is now a city, called Sunderland in the north east of England.
The first thing I actually remember, and I think it’s in the beginning of my memoir, was when my mum would take us down to feed the ducks in a pram. And the first thing I can actually visually remember and hear was this giant quack.
But actually, growing up in the north east as a very young boy was so unbelievably sweet and safe. My street was called Barnard Street. And the streets were called the ABCs, so it was very easy to navigate as a kid, and everybody had a jam sandwich in one hand, a football in the other, and we all just ran around playing games in what you would call the roads. Cars nowadays would be whizzing up and down. But I think there was one car about every week.
The house was a little tiny cottage type. You went in the front door and there was immediately a bedroom. And then the living room, the kitchen and out the back door was a yard. And my dad’s tiny workshop.
And at the end of the street, I remember there was a shop, and when you went inside, it was quite dark, but it had this smell immediately and it was black treacle. This giant spoon of molasses and a few other things. And that was just so exciting, walking to the end of the street.
So being instilled with all these kinds of memories, I think is a wonderful thing. We had a lot of interesting times as a teenager and growing up. Hippiedom came around, and you felt safe doing all sorts of things.
If you bring it up to now, I’ve got a teenage daughter and a daughter who has just turned 21. Their version of growing up is completely different to ours. I always have to take into account that they have anxieties and things like that. Because we didn’t watch TV much, we weren’t really aware of what was going on in the news.
They were both amazing people, my mum and dad. She moved away, but then she became a massive part of my life later on. I totally learned to understand why she had to leave, because her dad had died when she was nine, and her mum had four girls and was running a pub called The Traveler’s Rest, where a lot of miners came to drink. My mum had to leave school really early, by 12 years old, and work, and she didn’t realize she was intelligent. So when my brother was coming home with his friends from school and discussing the history lesson, or they’d start to read books by great authors, they’d sit at the kitchen table, and I remember you could see she was lighting up, fascinated.
So it’s a long story, but basically, she thought she was going mad until a very wonderful guy helped her to discover that she needed to go to school again, to college, and she did. She matriculated to Durham University, got a degree, went to London, and taught special education. She had to do it. She remarried a chap called Julian who was a Zen Buddhist and became quite a mentor for me. But the amazing thing about my dad was that, when she got married to Julian, years and years later, my dad came down and gave her away at the wedding. Like her father was meant to.
So it was great until I was about 11. Then you take your 11-plus, as it was called in England, which is an exam to see which school you’re going to go to next. And I turned down going to the school in a place called Durham. I wanted to go to the school that my brother was at, which is called Bede Grammar School for Boys. It was a school that was old fashioned, like Harry Potter basically, with mortar boards and cloaks, and the teacher with old chalk dust all over him.
It was building up to my mum leaving. In first year I did really well, and then the second year or the third year, I just went from the top to the bottom. At the same time, I broke my knee playing football and all I ever thought about was football, I wanted to play for Sunderland. It was just football, football, football, and you played under the streetlights with your mates until your parents shouted, “Where are you?” It was kind of idyllic.
But then, a number of events happened. I was 13, I think my mum and dad were already having a tricky time. I had to go to the hospital, have an operation, I couldn’t walk even, I couldn’t play football. They told me I’d be able to walk in about six months, maybe play football in a year. So there was no outside release. I was in the house and my mum was having a nervous breakdown; then she left and my dad was depressed. And suddenly, in my mind, Sunderland drained of all its colors. It was gray. When you’re in a good mood and feel great about everything, everything’s fine. It doesn’t matter if it’s pouring rain.
Sunderland is very cold most of the time. And it has slate gray skies and the rain comes horizontally with the wind. So if you mix that with my mum getting down and playing ‘Take These Chains’, you’ve got a broken knee and the howling, freezing cold outside. Sunderland started to be this place that I thought I’ve got to somehow not be in. Nothing to do with the town itself, it was to do with what was happening in my life.
Now, when you’re a kid, you don’t really understand what that is, depression or anxiety or any of these things. You don’t really know what they are. You’re just feeling really wrong. You can’t explain it to anybody and back then, nobody really talked about it.
So I’m just sitting there with my leg up. Nothing. Silence. Dad at work, mum gone. And that’s when the vinyl album hit on the stereo, just out of curiosity, I thought, “Right, I’ll put this on.” It was literally like having an electric shock of something. It was like the biggest epiphany ever.
My brother had a guitar because he was learning folk music and in a folk group that used to practice in the garden. The funny thing was, I wasn’t interested in it at all. I was like, “Oh God, what are they doing?” I was playing football. Then I picked up the guitar and realized I could work out a melody easily. Even though it was all tuned wrong, it didn’t really matter. And from then on, all the light switches came back on. And outside didn’t look so bad.
Then, when I started to be able to walk again and I had a guitar, things were slightly different because if you can play a guitar, it’s a gift that people enjoy. You don’t have to explain much. It speaks volumes. And then, I did meet some really great people. I started to play more music and a relief teacher at my school who was a lot older, Brian, he played guitar too and he knew how to play some really fancy things. The guitar was like this portal that led me to meet all these different people.
Then I got signed to Island Music along with Brian and two other kids from Sunderland when we were really young, like 18. It was Chris Blackwell at Island Music and he had Bob Marley, John Martin, Traffic and all these bands … eventually U2 and everybody. Next we got signed to Elton John’s label and suddenly I was living in London in a psychedelic bedsit and signed to a record label. And it was all because of this guitar. It was God’s way of throwing me a life raft.
And, of course, I was having encounters that you would never imagine — two worlds coming together. I still have amazing encounters with people that other people looking in would go, “How does that fit?” Music is this great glue.
What excites you?
What excites me generally is obviously hearing new music and hearing new artists and getting my mind blown by them. And what excites me in the moment is talking to people from all different cultures about what excites them, actually.
I’m usually the you in this. I’m usually asking them. I love engaging with people, but I really am one of these people that likes to get rid of all of the pretenses. I just want to get on with it, just chat about the real things. Nowadays, actually, it’s very difficult for people to wade through it and find out what is really happening.
What scares you?
Well, like most parents, what scares me is making sure that my children have the tools to navigate through the complexities of life and the world, and have I given them enough tools or advice, or am I still able to do that? Because it keeps changing, and of course at a certain point you realize you can’t keep up with all of the changes and they’re their own person and they’re going to go through all of the things like we did, and experiment with things and end up in situations, and pull themselves out of it and everything.
And so the thing that would scare me would be something happening to one of them and I’m not there. They’re in another country or wherever. There’s not a lot of things that really scare me, that’s the main thing I think. You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child. That’s always in the back of your mind.
You can totally get absorbed and lost in your thing, but it always goes back to, “Oh, I hope they’re all right.”
What’s your proudest achievement?
I don’t think I’ve had it yet. I think again, back to the children, you just want and hope that they get to a situation — and some of them have, and some of them will, and some of them will go up and down like we all did — that they are safe and happy, in a way that they are contented and not in a stressful situation. And of course that’s the one thing we have no control over because we don’t know what’s next… we didn’t know the pandemic was coming around the corner. So at the end of the day, it’s coming to terms with all things must pass. It’s just doing your best.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
When Annie and I played on a New Year’s Eve, and it was a drive through the snow and back to a place that… it might’ve been Hull, I’m not sure. We had written ‘Sweet Dreams’ and we’d made an album in a way that was just the two of us, plus this guy Adam Williams helping, who had to put equipment together and was an engineer and bass player. But it was all in a very do-it-yourself way. I think there were about three people at this gig, and afterwards the car started to break down in the snow on a motorway, and we were running out of petrol, and about a hundred miles away from home, and Annie was crying, “This is the end. What’s the point?” Remember, we already had the ‘Sweet Dreams’ album — it was recorded, it wasn’t released though.
For quite a while after that it was very difficult because, even though Annie and I were separated as a couple, we were bound together in wanting to define ourselves with this music, and we kind of thought we had with this record. So it was very, very difficult to be the positive one going, “No, it’s going to be all right because we’ve done something really special, and even though we’re trying to play in different way, I’m convinced that this is the right thing to do.” But that chunk of time was difficult. You’ve got to understand, and a lot of people really don’t, when you come flying into the public awareness, they have an assumption how it is or how it’s been. But Annie and I lived in a squat for quite a few years on £8-a-week between us. We used to have to wait outside the vegetable shop when they closed and we’d get the bruised vegetables, and then a lovely guy from a health food shop would give us a bag of rice. People were really sweet, this was in Crouch End. Then trying to make this music that some people couldn’t understand, and all of that period trying to be positive and be up, when actually if you looked down, it was like a cliff drop, you know what I mean?
During that period as well, or just before, I’d had a major operation on my lung. My sons not long ago pulled out my wardrobe from that time, and neither of them could get on my trousers, 24 or 26 inch waist, I was really skinny. Trying to have that hope and you think you’re falling down a well but clinging on because you saw a tiny bit of a ladder that said ‘hope’ on it, and then a bit more, and then climbing back out of the well again.
Here’s the thing that I think actually is quite good to have in your article. Annie and I just yesterday were exchanging thoughts about everything that’s going on, and all the way through periods in her life and in my life, all the way through the 90s, even after Eurythmics had stopped for a while, and all the way through the 2000s. There have been moments actually where Annie has helped save my life. When I met her, and other times when I’d been in the hospital and, out of the blue, she was there holding my feet while I was going in and out of consciousness. So there’s that stuff and the talking to each other, and the writing to each other, this is a constant thing.
It’s funny because people compound assumptions on top of each other. There’s this article that came out once that said, ‘The toxic love affair that ruined six marriages because Dave wasn’t invited to Annie’s wedding’, or something, which, as you know, is complete bollocks. Of course, my wife Anoushka and I were [invited], and Annie adores Anoushka. It’s funny when you’re in the public eye, which I’m not much now, but Annie and I both have been and were, but the one thing that I think would be nice for people to hear, is that Annie and I are the best of friends, and its been 40 years. A bit more. We talk, like just the other day, and we laugh and joke about things as well. We talk about things that happened in retrospect… things that were like a nightmare, but we can laugh about them.
There were lots of times when it looked like the end in a way. The end of this idea of doing something as a duo. The end of my life because now I’m having an operation that doesn’t look very good, and then all sorts of terrible things happened to Annie. Fall down seven times, stand up eight. But you know me, I’ve been like that in so many situations, where it’s like people saying, “Well, I don’t think that’s going to work really.” And I’m just like, “OK, well that’s fine. I’ll carry on with it and make it work.”
When you asked earlier, “Who are you?” … I felt desolate, I was 14, mum’s gone, I had a broken leg, my dad was depressed, it was gray skies and raining and all that stuff. See, I remember that time really well, it’s always there. When that’s how your brain works, when something else happens that’s similar, the great trick is to see that your mind is thinking that, but not to go into that loop, and just step to the other side of it. Just look at it like it’s a movie, but decide you’re not going to be a part of that script, you’ve written yourself a new one. My old lawyer, James Wiley, used to laugh because he’d seen me in all sorts of situations, and then suddenly I came out of them and it all worked out fine. He always used to say, “And with one bound, our hero was free.” He got it from a book that we had to read when we were infants in school, a series by Enid Blyton, ‘The Famous Five.’
It was always a bit annoying to me that at the end, whatever the story was, the guys on the ramparts and there’s a sheer drop and there’s a whole army coming towards him, and then it would end. You’d turn the page like, oh my god, what’s going to happen? And it would say, “And with one bound, our hero was free. The End.” And you would go, “What?!”
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
Because my life’s been so full, I’ve got a few. My dad, because he was always cool under fire. He worked with his hands and he seemed to make the impossible come alive. The workshop seemed to be this magic place where stuff came out of. I would like to see the wood shavings, and then he’d go, “And here you are. It’s a treasure chest.”
And then a teacher who was I think a relief teacher at my school, Dick Bradshaw. The first song I ever recorded was written by him. He had old cigarette stains on his fingers. He played sort of jazz piano chords, a bit like Ray Charles jazz piano chords. I went round his house, and it was the weirdest experience because, in Sunderland, really, there was nobody like him.
And then, my stepfather Julian. He wouldn’t allow anything to be bought for him, like food or anything like that. He set off every day, and he knew where they would throw out the broken croissants, he knew where the businessman always plunked The Times before they got in the taxi. He could find everything he wanted, and in fact I’m making a little cartoon, animated series, that’s loosely based on him. He taught me that, when you have the necessities, you don’t need the luxuries. And he also taught me about the simplicity in words. Like, you don’t have to write something so complicated to say something huge.
And my mum did come up with some classics. You know when you sometimes get involved with people, and they’re just draining you, she’d say, “David, there’s two kinds of people in this world. Drains and radiators.” She would just say very simple things.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
One of my real life heroes was Nelson Mandela. And obviously, I was heavily involved, working with him. He told me something that was incredible. Incredibly sad. He wasn’t talking about the hardship of being in solitary confinement for 30 years. The one thing that bothered him the most about it was that they made him go every morning in the bright sunshine to a white chalk wall, and they made him chip at it. Well, the dust from the chalk wall blocked his tear ducts, so he could never cry. And that’s what really bothered him. He told me some amazing things.
Another real person is Bob Dylan, who has always been somebody really inspiring to me, and I feel very grateful that I got know him, as a person. And really understand him, that was an amazing thing.
The fictional person, is Top Cat. The indisputable Top Cat. And I like Benny the Ball, as well, in Top Cat, and Officer Dibble. Top Cat was a fantastic cartoon, like a little snapshot of life. And, being a kid growing up and seeing the very early Robin Hood in black and white as this character who, probably incorrectly, but thinking, ”Oh man! He steals from the rich and gives to the poor!”
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
Actually, I have a number of sliders. I hate wearing anything on my feet, so I always am wearing them. And depending on my outfit, I’ll have the right sliders. They’re either made by Adidas, or Birkenstock.
And oh, yeah, hats. My favorite hat company in the world, and all my hats come from exactly the same place, is Lock & Co, something like, since 1676. It’s tucked in around the corner to The Wolseley.
But it’s all about anything that I can easily put on and be comfortable in, but it’s still me.
What music did you love at age 13 — and do you still love it now?
At 13, I still probably wasn’t into music that much. Can I be 14? Because at 13, I just wanted to play football. Well, Mississippi John Hurt, every time I hear the way he fingerpicks a guitar, and the soft sound of his voice, it’s almost like all your worries go away.
What is the most inspiring book you have ever read?
A book that blew my mind was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
Well, the first, The Graduate. The Graduate blew my mind at the cinema.
My grandmother, for some reason did two things that blew my mind. She ran the little corner shop selling newspapers and tobacco, but she would just say, ‘“I want to take David to the cinema.” I’d never been to the cinema before, in my life. We went in this cinema, the lights went down, and it was ‘The Vikings’ with Kirk Douglas. And I was completely like, traumatized, because I was about eight. And she also took me to the theater for the first time when I was six. It was to see ‘Peter Pan’ at the Sunderland Empire. And I can remember seeing this Peter Pan, but I got the shock of my life because, on stage, it was like, “Wow, Peter Pan, incredible.” But as he went past us, I saw it was an older woman! Playing Peter Pan. And I went to bed thinking, “God, I always thought Peter Pan was a young boy?”
What is your favorite word or saying?
Well, one of my favorites, that I got in Jamaica, is, “ New broom sweep clean, but old broom know all the corners.”
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
To nudge each other and say, “God, did you see that film, ‘Deep Blues’?” I made a film, ‘Deep Blues’, in 1992. I went down into the Delta and Mississippi and R.L. Burnside, and filmed all these great blues players. I’m still, to this day, obsessed with playing blues slide guitar, and fingerpicking and all the different sides of blues.
No, actually what I’d like them to say is… I have a very strong English comedic side, right? Obviously, Anoushka knows that, and all my friends know that. So I’m drawn towards wanting people to see, or remember, that side. In the public eye, I played this role of being a sort of mysterious person behind Annie. But sometimes I do things, I’ll write songs, funny songs on purpose. I sometimes have, myself, such a great time with a gang of people collapsing laughing. In fact, most mornings here, with the local people, we have laughing fits.
So really, it’s more of people saying that, “God. He lived … a lot. He lived a lot.”
As for which songs, it all depends how you want people to feel, right? As a musician, I know I could play three chords, and you’d feel sad. And then I could play three chords and you’d feel quite happy.
So I’d go back to a Mississippi John Hurt. Something comforting like that, I think followed by a great Bob Marley song, then Bob Dylan.
I’d actually have to make a playlist. Dave’s playlist for his funeral!
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
My favorite car is one that I had in France, an Alfa Romeo Spyder with a nice wooden steering wheel, in a very pale blue. I also had a 1957 Studebaker that I used to drive around LA at about six miles an hour.
Well, it has to be Sunderland, really. Imagine if I said Newcastle. l’d get killed for that!
You know there’s something romantic about being from a place and seeing all the work and hardship that went into even having a team, or being able to climb over the wall of Roker Park to see them play. That’s why they made ‘Sunderland ’til I Die’, which was a Netflix series, and was not so much about the team but about the whole town and the city. The team was everything. If the team loses or the team wins.
My wife makes an incredible, very simple pasta dish, that is really all about how well you can cook pasta and get it exactly right, and how light the olive oil is. So it can be the simplest thing with pasta with courgette and olive oil, and grated parmesan cheese.
My hair is always cut really short. I have the funniest pictures of how I get my hair cut. It can be by Mita who works here locally, outside, sun going down over the sea and, some clippers and my head. Or the local barber shop here. The cheapest, fastest hair cuts. About a year ago, the barber was talking to somebody and she cut it completely off, because she forgot to put the attachment on! I had to wear a hat for ages.
I like Sunspel, from England. And I love this place in Nashville where I bought my last pair of kind of trousers — they’re not exactly trousers but they’re like pajama type trousers — called Imogene + Willie.
And my glasses, Jacques Marie Mage. I’ve got loads of different colors.