All I wanted was to play for Sunderland until I found the music,” says Dave Stewart.

TOGETHER with Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart went through the eighties as a pop colossus.

As Eurythmics, they were one of the defining bands of the decade with hits like Sweet Dreams and There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart).

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With Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart went through the eighties like a pop colossus.Credit: Unknown, clearly with photo table.
As Eurythmics, they were one of the defining bands of the decade with hits like Sweet Dreams and There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart).

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As Eurythmics, they were one of the defining bands of the decade with hits like Sweet Dreams and There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart).1 credit

Stewart was now leading one of the most ambitious projects of his storied career.

Ebony McQueen is a semi-autobiographical song cycle available as a beautifully crafted 25-track vinyl box set that he plans to make into a film and stage musical.

With a host of guest artists including Ringo Starr and the Budapest Scoring Orchestra, it’s an exciting journey through the styles – rock, pop, blues, classical, gospel – that have made Stewart the virtuoso musician he is.

Here, exclusively for SFTW, he talks about the project, his hopes for the Eurythmics reunion tour, and his favorite club, Sunderland AFC.

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To what extent is the story of Ebony McQueen connected to your early life in Sunderland?

It’s based on a slice of my teenage life. I wasn’t interested in music, I just wanted to play football for Sunderland. Like any other child, I played football on the playground, in the alleys, and for the school team.

I didn’t think about music at all until I opened the package from Memphis with the blues album. And because I had a broken knee, I played it and it blew my mind. Boom! I discovered music.

At what point did you realize that life in music is for you?

I didn’t really think about a life in music until I started learning the guitar. And I was obsessed. I played guitar for ten hours a day. And then, when I played my first small performance, I realized at that moment that this was for me.

Which artist did you love in the 50s and 60s? And who inspired you to work in the past and now, specifically for this new project?

By 1960 I was still very young, only eight years old. So my dad influenced me playing his favorite Frank Sinatra records or Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, you know, all the famous ones like South Pacific and Oklahoma, but I realized that they only had an impact later on.

Today, I’m still influenced by the bands I heard in the sixties, be it The Beatles or The Kinks, but also by American artists like Neil Young and especially Bob Dylan.

Tell us about the character Ebony. . .

Well, Ebony McQueen is based on a mixture of blues performers, but in the form of a voodoo queen. And that’s because I was so obsessed with blues music that I once made a documentary called Deep Blues. I traveled all the way to the Mississippi and tracked down these blues musicians from the Delta and found that they had magical powers.

In this project, Ebony becomes my spiritual mentor. She is always by my side. In other words, I always have this blues in me that can show up in any music that I make. Even in Sweet Dreams. It is the basis of most pop music.

Can you mention some of the key tracks and their role in telling the story?

The first song on the album is Ebony McQueen (title track). This happens at the end of the story, when the whole city is celebrating it. When you’re feeling down, talks about how music isn’t blind to how you feel. It’s always real, so many colors to uncover. Another important track is “Walking On Thin Air”, in which my young character realizes that the girl next door also loves music, and he falls in love with her.

I wasn’t interested in music, I just wanted to play football for Sunderland.

What’s The F***ing Point talks about the feeling that young teenagers experience when everything seems impossible and you are full of anxiety.

“Mr. Jolly” is about a music teacher who is actually a very frustrated musician himself. He is quite an evil character. Dream On is an epic and important part of the story.

What are the broader topics covered?

The young man is looking for meaning. He hails from a working-class city going through hard times of unemployment; soon the shipyards will close and the coal mines will close. There is a very gray sky, rainy and windy. It’s about teenage fear and how to deal with it and how to turn it into something positive. The basic idea is that there is always hope.

Can you share your thoughts on the recording process in Nashville and your studio in the Caribbean?

When I’m in Nashville, I record with the same guys that I’ve been doing for years. Our registration process is very fast. We even played Sunderland Empire together. When I’m in the Caribbean, I write songs and record drafts. There I tend to be more thoughtful and the songs more reflective.

What about the contribution of the Budapest Music Orchestra to Ebony McQueen?

I met a wonderful guy from Nashville named Maestro Lightford. He helped me write down my ideas and thoughts for orchestrations and arrangements. Due to the pandemic, we had to record the orchestra remotely.

We could see them on video screens and talk to the conductor. It all goes back to my father’s influence when I was between five and nine years old, when he constantly put on the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I realized that all these wonderful orchestrations were kind of hammered into my head.

In this project, Ebony becomes my spiritual mentor. She is always by my side.

What other interesting projects do you plan to implement on the new label Bay Street Records?

I just signed a 19 year old girl from Sunderland named Faye Fantharrow and a young boy from Wales named Otto. I just finished work on his album.

How do you feel about the two awards this year for your work at Eurythmics with Annie Lennox?

Annie and I are going to New York next week for the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

It’s a great honor because the list of songwriters through the ages is incredible.

Being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is exciting because you’re playing live in front of a large audience.

The other inductees are performing, so it’s one big party. Having two awards in one year is truly amazing.

You performed with Annie at several one-off events. Would you like to do more?

Yes, I would. Maybe this is the last tour, but the tour we play for our fans who have followed us all this time. We were part of the fabric of their lives.

It would be special to give it back to them live and play songs from the whole period of our career. It’s very emotional music for us and I think very emotional for a lot of fans.

You have worked with wonderful people in your career. . .

Yes, being close to Bob Dylan, talking about different things and filming him with an 8mm movie camera is great.

Tom Petty had an incredible relationship because we had the same sense of humor and enjoyed working together.

It’s the same with Mick Jagger, we get along so well and we have a similar outlook on things.

I just wrote with Joss Stone and produced her new album. We get along very well. I must have missed a lot of people. I also enjoy working with new artists.

Finally, you must be thrilled that your beloved Sunderland won the playoffs and returned to the Championship.

I! The day before I was very nervous because I knew how much it would mean for the morale of the city and the club.

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And it was great to see a 2-0 win and all the maybe 40,000 or more Sunderland fans going crazy.

And, as always, at the fountain in Trafalgar Square.

Ebony McQueen is a semi-autobiographical song cycle, one of the most ambitious projects of Stewart's legendary career.

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Ebony McQueen is a semi-autobiographical song cycle, one of the most ambitious projects of Stewart’s legendary career.Credit: Handout

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