The recording studio is one of Keith Richards’s few remaining addictions, albeit one of the more benevolent among the many he has known in his 50-plus years as guitarist and co-leader of the Rolling Stones.
“Yeah, I’d agree with that,” Richards admits with a laugh grown raspy from an unfathomable number of cigarettes and potent beverages. “The studio is certainly one of my more productive addictions. I just love recording – especially with the guys I work with. The recording studio is basically my second home. I can feel quite good there; wander around and put tracks down until you think you’ve got something.”
Shortly after the completion of his 2010 autobiography, Life, Richards found himself jonesing for a studio fix. “I didn’t believe how long that process ended up taking,” he says of the book project. “So by the time that was finished, I realised I hadn’t been in the studio for four years!”
With the Stones on hiatus, Richards got together with the coterie of musicians he has always used for solo projects, including drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and keyboardist/singer Ivan Neville. The result was his third solo album – and his first in 23 years – Crosseyed Heart. It’s a glorious and heartfelt summation of the musical styles that have influenced his musical life and, through him, several generations of guitarists: country, folk, blues, reggae, early rock’n’roll. Time has mellowed Richards’s voice down to a wizened, whisky-barrel croak – half spoken, half incantatory – which gives Crosseyed Heart an intimate, almost confessional feel.
The album’s release coincided with a Netflix making-of documentary film, Keith Richards: Under The Influence, in which cameras follow the guitarist not only into Manhattan’s Germano Studios as he makes Crosseyed Heart, but also out on the road with the Rolling Stones on the band’s recent Zip Code tour. As the journey winds through New York, Chicago and Nashville, Richards reflects on all the regional American roots-music styles that have made him what he is today.
The weird thing about Keith Richards is that people tend to think they’ve got him figured out. The crudely drawn caricature usually references Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, booze, dope and a series of stunning blondes. But there’s so much more behind that wrinkle-creased, elegantly wasted facade. And the surest way to find that out is to sit down and talk to him.
It’s been twenty-three years since your last solo album, Main Offender, in 1992. Why was it so long before you did another one?
Well, the Stones have always been so busy. I mean, the Stones have always been, obviously, numero uno. If I do anything by myself, I certainly don’t want it to clash with anything the Stones are doing. This particular record has actually been finished for over a year. But just as I finished it, the Stones decided to go back on the road. So I’ve been looking for a space where I could put it out.
And the album was recorded piecemeal around Stones obligations?
Oh, man, this thing was recorded over a couple of years. Steve Jordan and I would do a session for two or three days and then we wouldn’t see each other for a month. The record was put together in bits and pieces. Whenever we were in town and we felt like it, we’d go into the studio. And the pleasure of it was: no deadline. We’ll just do it until we’re sure we’ve got something to deliver. And then it was, okay, you’ve finished it – now you can’t put it out! [Laughs] So that took a couple of years.
A lot of the tracks started with just you and Steve Jordan in the studio – just guitar and drums?
Yeah. Which is a great way to do it. Steve said to me: “I’m really interested in how you wrote Street Fighting Man and Jumpin’ Jack Flash. How did you do that?” And I said: “It was just me in the studio with Charlie Watts.” And Steve goes: “Well I ain’t Charlie Watts, but I am a drummer!” But, you know, it was Charlie Watts who first told me to work with Steve Jordan many, many years ago. This was in the middle eighties. Charlie said: “If you’re ever going to do anything by yourself, Steve Jordan’s your man.
How did you end up playing bass on most of the record this time?
Since it started off with just Steve and me, we’d lay down a good track with just guitar and drums, and then say let’s see what it sounds like if we throw a bass on it. And I am basically a closet bass player. I always have been. Sometimes I wish I’d taken that up, but it wouldn’t have worked. Still, I do love playing bass. And this was the perfect opportunity to do it. And it was cheap as well, cos I don’t pay myself.
Any real Stones fan knows that you played bass on a lot of their tracks, such as Sympathy For The Devil and Happy.
Yeah. And this gave me an opportunity to expand on that.
Was Trouble, the first single from the album, written about any troublesome lady in particular?
It was more a combination of ladies that you wouldn’t wish to know.
You’ve said that, musically, Trouble began more as a Hank Williams kind of acoustic guitar song, rather than the full-on rock’n’roll track that it became.
Absolutely. Right where I’m sitting now, in my sunroom where I wrote it, it seemed like a real Hank Williams kind of song. But I think Waddy Wachtel pointed out to me that Hank Williams songs – that style of music – can easily be rocked up and moved up. Of course, it could be a rock’n’roll song. Turning Hank into rock’n’roll is not particularly accepted or thought about, but in actual fact Hank Williams’s impact on rock’n’roll was enormous. I think from that you get the Everly Brothers stuff, and [songwriters] Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.
So here I’m doing Trouble, and I’m seeing it shifting from like 1949 to like 1958. And yeah, how would the Everlys have handled this? Or Chet Atkins? Or Hank Garland, who is also another guitar player with that kind of style? So we just moved it up with the drums. Also, in the back of my mind I always thought of Trouble in terms of Poor Jenny by the Everly Brothers.
You get the connection [laughs].
There’s a vital link there somewhere, and one that hasn’t been articulated so much. People think of rock’n’roll’s origins more in terms of artists like Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley.
Yeah, but there was a lot of rock’n’roll that was made by white guys too. I’d put it at fifty-fifty.
The album can be seen as a summary of the musical styles that have influenced you. Is that something you deliberately set out to achieve when you were writing it?
As any of the guys I work with will tell you, I’m very bad at planning anything. But I’m pretty good at seeing the way the drift is going. For example, after we had four or five tracks down, somebody sent me a huge book on Lead Belly. At the same time, my guitar man, Pierre de Beauport, arrived at the studio with this 12-string guitar. I was sort of getting a message – Lead Belly, the king of the twelve-string… I gotta do Goodnight Irene, one of the classic American folk songs of all time. It’s been bastardised and screwed up by many people since. But I went back to Lead Belly’s original lyrics. I felt, yeah, I gotta do this.
So much of what I do is based on American music; and that, after all, is where it comes from for me.
You’ve got some pretty deep roots in reggae as well. And of all the great Gregory Isaacs songs there are, how did Love Overdue get selected for inclusion on your album?
It’s one of the many great songs he wrote that I’ve always wanted to do, so I indulged myself. And Steve Jordan can really play reggae, with insight from listening to great reggae drummers like Sly Dunbar and Horsemouth [Leroy Wallace]. It’s just a natural thing with him. Love Overdue is a song I’ve had a soft spot for forever. I miss Gregory dearly.
It’s always pretty spot-on whenever you do a reggae track. I remember your guest shot on Careless Ethiopians on Toots And The Maytals’ True Love album a while back. It seems like you really step up to the plate with the vocals.
Well, I lived in Jamaica for many years [laughs]. It’s in the bones.
What’s interesting about the vocals on the new album is this kind of narrative style of delivery you’ve developed – half talking, half singing. What led you in that direction?
It’s just what you do with your voice as you get older. I was feeling more comfortable about singing, and no, I’m not going to go to the top register all the time. The way my voice is now, it’s better down low. I know what I can do with it. I’m a great singer with a lousy voice. But I know there’s a certain timbre that my voice can touch. As long as I can do that, then
There are a lot of really beautiful ballads on this album, songs like Robbed Blind and Suspicious. And those tend to be the songs that you’ve written on your own, rather than co-writing with Steve or someone else. Are you at a particularly introspective place in your life right now?
Not especially. I’ve always liked ballads. I mean, I wrote [60s/70s Rolling Stones classics] Angie and Ruby Tuesday. And I didn’t want to deny that side of me on this record. Also, I sort of work by popular vote when it comes to including songs on an album. If the guys who are working around me say: “Hey, that’s a good song,” I’ll go for it.
How did your vocal duet with Norah Jones on Illusions come about?
We had the track down, and I had my vocal part on it, but Steve Jordan said: “You know this is really written for a duet. Without female input, this song will cry in the wilderness.” We were thinking about who was around in town, and suddenly Steve got hold of Norah. So she wrote the female part, came into the studio and did it. It was a real joy. I wasn’t expecting ladies to feature on this record. But it’s Norah Jones – who’s gonna say no, right? Bless her.
What would you say were the highlights, for you, of the most recent Rolling Stones tour?
Overall the high point was hitting the heartlands – the Midwest, the South and the West. We didn’t hit one major city; no New York, no Chicago, no San Francisco, no LA. It was just fun to get out there where, in historical terms, all the music came from. And I must say it was an amazing tour. We had an incredible welcome everywhere. Enormous crowds and great appreciation. I’m really still reeling from it a little bit because I’ve never known a tour to go so sweet and beyond expectations. And the band is playing probably the best that it ever has, surprisingly enough, after all these years. As I said to Charlie, I think we’re getting the hang of it.
Did you capture any of it live? Might there be some recordings?
I know they said they’d be recording a few shows, but it’s too early yet for me to say and know which ones. Indianapolis was a nutty show. Fantastic. But so was everywhere else. Nashville was an incredible show. I have pretty high standards that I expect from the band, but they exceeded them.
How did the material from Sticky Fingers go down? After the deluxe reissue of the album came out, and at the outset of the tour, I remember there was a lot of talk about whether the band should play the whole album live.
Yeah, I know. That was never up for the whole tour. But we did do it in LA at the Fonda Theatre. We played the whole album through and it was actually great. There are two or three songs on there which we hadn’t touched live in I don’t know how long – if we ever did. And it sounded very interesting, especially I Got The Blues, which is not something that we usually play. We realised that this song is so slow that it’s a real test of ‘can you keep the tempo that slow?’ It’s a tough song to perform, but it came out great. And I loved playing the whole album through, it took me back a while.
I Got The Blues is in there with those great, slow R&B ballads in the Stones catalogue, along with Love in Vain and Cry To Me.
Yeah, and That’s How Strong My Love Is.
Absolutely. There’s an art to doing those.
There is – a real control you have to put on yourself to stop the thing from moving up in tempo.
You said recently that there might be another Stones album as well. Have you got any material or ideas for that?
The material is always there. Mick is always writing, and so am I. My own task, as I see it, is to get them in the studio [laughs]. It’s time for the Stones to record again!
Are the songs flowing as easily and readily for you as they always have?
I’ve not thought about that, really. I’ve got a backlog of songs, so I can kick back and just sit on those and hold them in readiness. And then there are other moments when you wake up in the morning and there’s a song at your fingertips. It just happens like that. It’s such a weird process, songwriting. I wouldn’t recommend it to the weak of heart.
Is there anything you’d still like to accomplish in rock’n’roll?
Really, for me, I mean… no. Is there anything more you could wish for if you were Keith Richards? I’ve done it all. Once you’ve reached that point, you just think: “Yes, I would like to do it better.” And as long as the songs keep coming… I mean, that’s all I’m good for and that’s why I’m here.
Does the guitar still possess some mystery for you? Are you still discovering stuff?
Are you kidding me? The more you explore that little thing, the more you realise you don’t know. All the possibilities… it’s quite incredible. A few strings and whatever works. And also, it doesn’t leave you alone. It’s always sitting in the corner, looking at you, saying: “Come on, play me, play me.”