An Interview with Leo Sayer

DSC08654Leo Sayer has a career that has spanned over four decades. He’s written for artists such as Roger Daltrey, Dolly Parton and Tina Turner, and had numerous classic hits such as the Grammy Award winning You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, When I Need You and More Than I Can Say. With the new tour and album Restless Years, I spoke to Leo about touring the country, competing with DJs and the importance of powerful songwriting.

Hi Leo. How’s touring going?

It’s all going really well. I’m on the Restless Years tour and this is Day 17 we’re here in Dubbo. I’m doing the New South Wales lot now then into Queensland and then finally Hobart.

This is your first solo tour in over four years; how does it feel to be back on the road?

It’s nice to do the continuity. Technically it’s really nice as well because we’ve got the same truck traveling all the way through with all of our gear everywhere we go – everywhere we go, we’ve got the same speakers, microphones, harmonicas, guitars and keyboards – so that makes it easier to perform and you can really sort of guarantee the quality of the show. It’s great and that’s very comfortable. But the trucks been everywhere! I mean, right across The Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor Plain and then back again to do Western Australia.

Why did you decide now was the time to start touring again?

It’s all around the album. I knew I was making the album last year and so the conversation started off, “Do you fancy doing a tour?” And I said, “Yeah, Let’s make it regional.” So I said all these things and then someone took me seriously for a change. [laughs] And here we are. So it’s good just not doing just the cities or main towns but really playing everywhere so that’s really made the difference.

Is the tour made up of songs mostly from your new album?

No, no, no, we’re doing all of the greatest hits as well. We just did four tracks from the new album. And the rest of it is all the songs that everybody knows all the way from The Show Must Go On right the way through to Orchard Road to Have You Ever Been In Love? even songs from the last album I had out Voice In My Head and song Dreamin’ that I wrote for Cliff Richard so it’s all the hits as well.

The new album has a variety of different musical styles. Why do you decide to make such a diverse album?

All my stuff is like that – I’m a Gemini so I never do the same thing twice. I think people like that as well. I think it’s something that really works for the audience, they like the fact that there’s different tastes and different feels, and, for me, the subject matter paints different pictures behind the ideas and concepts of songs.

I write everything, so I’m always thinking what would be the right kind of sound for this, what would be the right treatment for this, and what would be grooves that would suit this idea? In I’m Competing with a DJ for instance, on there is a very kind of almost like the old Temptations or The Four Tops – really just a classic-song vibe. And then Restless Years, the title track, is very much almost like a country song, so it’s really just different moods suiting different things.

You play the harmonica – is there much on the new album?

There sure is! Quite a lot actually on this new record and also in the live shows we do. There’s a lot of harmonica in the tunes. It’s really good fun because it’s really just an instrument you pull out of your pocket and, if you can get some good sounds on it, it’s a really wonderful thing to have.

There also seems to be a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour on the album – like you mentioned Competing with a DJ for example.

Exactly, that’s just my sense of humour and that comes out in the shows as well. Some people think I’m very funny [laughs] but a sense of humour is what keeps you alive, especially at my age. And if you can’t look at the humour in life then I think you’re a pretty sad person. So for me, I think a lot of life is very funny or you’re just stuck in a grey world, really. You’ve got to laugh at the Abbott government for instance.

I think everyone is laughing at the Abbott government.

Exactly! So you know so we need a bit of humour to carry us through and I think it’s something that I just do very naturally. I never planned on being a pretty funny guy but it’s just something that seems to happen these days. It just naturally seems to turn up; I just seem to find the funny side of everything.

Well on the flip side, you have the serious One Green World on the album.

It’s true. I wrote that in the 1990s, funnily enough, and at that time we were very worried about what was happening to the planet and what people were doing. And what politicians, and all their clever ideas, often they were saying they were doing something to save the environment but what they were doing was actually destroying something so it’s kind of taking those kinds of characters and presenting them to the world and saying, “look it’d be so much easier if you just did this”.

I just love Australia. We’ve just got wonderful landscape – the fauna and flora and everything is just amazing. If we don’t bask in that, that’s the heart of Australia, that’s the heart of great country – so I get a bit testy about it. And the funny thing is when I was putting this album together and listening to songs that I thought I could do this one came up and I just thought, “oh my God I’ve got to cut that!” Because it suddenly felt like what I was saying in 1990 is even more relevant now. Last year with gas mining and deforestation and that all this sort of stuff, it’s a very important thing for songwriters like me to actually have a voice and stir people up into supporting what is very important to Australia and the world.

It must be a very powerful song to sing on stage?

We don’t do that live, only because we can’t fit everything in. But it’s one I would like to do. The intention often is to get people thinking and if that translates to people – and obviously you spotted that that means a lot because we’re all trying to communicate ideas, that’s what we need to do and me being an older bloke, you know, 66 going on 67 it’s terribly important to send that message across. We, in this music business of writing songs, can write about something meaningful rather than just singing endless love songs.

Why do you think a lot of artists have lost that?

There’s probably a lot of commercial reasons for doing what they do and I’m luckily just outside that and that’s what happens when you’ve got a bit of experience, a voice. But, at the same time, look at someone young like Ed Sheeran. He’s able to take on subjects like that and so I think that all artists have that possibility it’s just what they choose to do. Are they doing it to make money or are they doing it because they’ve got this voice? I’m all about the fact that I’ve got that voice and I can do these things because no one is telling me what to do anyway. It’s my choice which is great and I think life should be your choice.

Why did you decide to call the tour/album Restless Years?

Because of the song Restless Years. The song is all about in my early days, trying to work out where I’m going [and] looking at all the challenges. Everybody’s telling you you’re going to be really important, do this and do that, and it feels like a great pressure and how to turn it into something useful.

Sometimes you feel like, in the opening of a song, you’re riding that train that’s heading nowhere because you don’t know where you’re going. Life is just a mystery [yet] still someone is saying to you, “make your mind up”, “what do you want?” and that’s the hardest thing I think for people to answer, isn’t it? I mean, what do you want? Who knows what we want. Most of the time, we’re just reacting to what’s in front of us and that’s what the songs about.

In 2006, you released a remix of Thunder In My Heart which much have introduced you to a whole new generation of people?

It really did. I’d already left to come to Australia when it came out. I think we were just packing all of our stuff to move down here when somebody said, “Hey, I’m doing a remix of your song” and I went “What?” First off, I thought it was going to be terrible! Then they played it to me and I thought that is incredible!

And would you believe that last night, I went over to Mardi Gras in Sydney and the guy who actually mixed it and put together the whole track was playing a performance there? Lee Dagger Bimbo Jones, he’s the guy who actually put it all together so I had to go and see him and we’ve got a few more ideas we’re working on – not just remixes but some new stuff. He’s an amazing DJ! Very rarely does he visit Australia so I caught him last night. We were catching up and right at the end of the night, the last piece in his set, was Thunder in my Heart so it was great. It was lovely to hear it in that context of a club where it’s meant to be. We were all dancing like mad. [My] legs are wary today. [laughs]

So you’re no longer “Competing with a DJ” but now collaborating with a DJ?

Exactly! Well Competing with a DJ is a bit of fun, which he likes as well but that’s the idea that you get your band together and you’re doing all these gigs and some guy who just kind of plays records comes in and steals your girl, steals your work and steals everything.

Lee’s not like that. Lee is the real McCoy. He brings a massive collection of CDs down with him. Most of them he’s already remade himself, remixed and worked on putting different sounds in. And then plots the evening and plays it like a performance. It’s great to be in a part of his performance, as it were. He played a new song we did together last night called 77, all about 1977, and then he played Thunder in my Heart at the end.

What comes next after the tour ends in April?

We’re concentrating on getting the rest of the Restless Years album out to England – that’s going to be the next big slot release. That will be the end of their summer and I’m touring there in September/October, so I’ll be putting all that together. There’s a few more things to do down here, plus I’m rebuilding my studio down here so I want to put together another album soon. I don’t think it’s going to stop. It’s just going to go on like mad! But I’m sitting down now so that’s something. I can chill out tomorrow. [laughs]

For more information on Leo, CD and tour details, go to:

Originally posted at the AU review

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