“Instead of record-store owners and record companies doing deals on albums, we’re now dealing with these huge corporations doing deals on data.”
Dave Stewart sure knows talent the instant he hears it. Stewart (who happens to be celebrating his birthday today) is best known for being Annie Lennox’s collaborator in the synth duo Eurythmics, and he’s produced everyone from Mick Jagger to Tom Petty to Stevie Nicks.
So when the young Louisiana native Thomas Lindsey sent Stewart a vocal sample via Twitter, he wasn’t quite sure if the superproducer/ace guitarist/synth whiz would even respond — but Stewart immediately jumped at the chance.
“You know, I’ve been doing this awhile, and I’ve worked with lots of amazing singers,” Stewart told Digital Trends. “There are so many singers and so many songs over the Internet, and it’s become a whole lot of noise. But every now and then, there’s a blip. As soon as I heard Thomas, I went, ‘OK, he goes among the greatest singers.’
“Just because somebody’s not known at the moment is not to say they’re not going to be seen later on as one of those voices. And with Thomas, within the very first 10 seconds, I could tell he would be.”
And with that, the Stewart Lindsey partnership was born, resulting in Spitballin’, out now in various formats via Stewart Entertainment/Membran. From the grimy blues of Leave This Town to the slide-driven lament of Friend Zone to the gritty zeal of Confidence, this duo creates some serious Audiophile-approved sparks.
Don’t just take our word for it, though — listen and see for yourself. In the exclusive video Q&A embedded above, you can marvel at Lindsey singing the beginnings of Another Lie and a surprise Eurythmics cover in a New York hotel room, accompanied only by Stewart’s ever-tasty guitar licks. After picking my jaw back off the floor, Stewart and Lindsey discussed the process of collaborating digitally across the country, finding their way to the crossroads, and how they track streaming data to maximize their audiences.
Digital Trends: Thomas, I’d say your voice is a cross between Cher and Antony, of Antony and The Johnsons. Would you guys agree with that assessment?
Dave Stewart: Yeah — I’d say Cher, Antony, Nina Simone, Al Green…
Thomas Lindsey: That whole bunch, yeah. I heard all their voices, and I loved them. You try to imitate them when you’re young and you try to sound like those people, and then as you get older, they all kind of mash together and it becomes your own thing. (chuckles)
The uniqueness of your collaboration comes through in tracks like Another Lie and Confidence. It really feels like an equal partnership.
In good collaborations like this one, you usually agree 100 percent.
Stewart: It’s hard to hone in on a collaboration like the one between Annie [Lennox, of the Eurythmics] and myself, or Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards], or whatever, because it gets quite jumbled up in the process. Thomas might send me a track of him singing alone with no music, and then I might put music to it. Or I might send him some music, and he puts his words and melodies on top and then sends it back, and then I chop it around where the chorus becomes the verse.
Somewhere in the middle, it becomes this sort of collage, I suppose. Then you both have to sign off and go, “Yeah, I do like that collage.” In good collaborations like this one, you usually agree 100 percent.
And you’re sending all these music files back and forth as MP3s, right? How do you bring them up to a higher-resolution standard once you got to the final production phase of Spitballin’?
Stewart: We sent Thomas away to record himself with a good microphone, and a little setup with a limiter. At first, he was recording with limited tech.
Lindsey: Yeah, after we had done about half the songs, he emailed me and said, “Would you be offended if I asked you to re-sing them?” I said, “No — I thought these were all demos, anyway!” (all laugh)
Stewart: Even though he was singing in his kitchen or his bedroom, we ended up with really great-sounding vocal takes that he’d send us as WAV files. But then, sometimes, we’d fuck up his voice with a synthesizer on purpose to put some kind of distortion or grit on it, then send it back out through an amplifier. We did a lot of different things.
Your voice is so pure, you have to do something like that just to mess it up. (Lindsey nods)
Stewart: There were never any mistakes. Sometimes, if there was a wall of guitars I’d put on there, I’d have a track of his voice, and then I’d print the track again over that. And then I put it through my tiny little practice amp, distorted it, and mixed it under it like it was growling a little bit, to where you don’t even know it’s there.
The dirty blues effect, to make it sound like you’re literally down at the crossroads.
Stewart: Exactly! Just like the dirty blues. You know that sound of the harmonica through the bullet mike, and through a distorted amp — that howling sound? Sometimes you want that — the Howlin’ Wolf.
Lindsey: Confidence has an almost CB radio effect on it. [Looks at Stewart] As I was singing it, though, you felt something didn’t fit, but when you added that, it really meshed. It gave it that extra bit that you had to have.
I don’t see it as “hiding” the vocal — I thought it kind of flavored it. It’s sometimes fun to do that, especially with backing vocals, to distort them to where you go, “Oh, that’s a weird sound!” It’s fun to play with it.
Spitballin’ was initially released digitally. Are we going to get a physical vinyl representation of it at some point?
Stewart: Yeah, the double vinyl album is coming out later this month. And we’ve been messing around in my studio doing all kinds of remixes — having fun, basically. There’s every version of it — CDs, downloads — and it’s available at all the digital stores too, like iTunes and Amazon.
Obviously, a lot of people are going to listen to Stewart Lindsey in the streaming universe. As an artist, how do you feel about streaming as access to your music?
Stewart: Well, I think the more streaming, the better. (chuckles) If you talk about how people want to access the music nowadays, they have ways to stream them directly through their speakers, or whatever. But if you’re talking about the business, it’s a volume business, so the more people streaming, the more likely Thomas is going to get a check, right?
There’s a lot of talk of, “Oh, I got streamed 100,000 times, and I only got this amount.” But remember — a stream is not a radio play. It’s one person streaming it into their cellphone, or their house. OK, so 100,000 people heard your song once, and maybe they stopped it halfway through. But when it goes into 100 million people streaming it…
It’s a volume business, so the more people streaming, the more likely Thomas is going to get a check.
The whole thing is, streaming companies pay labels who say they own the rights, and a lot of the labels treat it like a royalty — which is bizarre, because a royalty is you sell X of something, and then you get X amount for it. If your royalty is 15 percent, and they’re getting 100 percent of the stream money and keeping 85 percent and only giving you 15 percent — that’s ridiculous.
But, well, it’s never been easy in the music business. If you were getting paid from, say, Spotify, you could be getting $50,000 or $60,000 directly, because there’s no middleman. There’s nothing odd in the foodchain like what exists in contracts with labels.
I know some artists work with Spotify to share data to find out what parts of the world their music does the best in so they can target songs or tours to those specific regions.
Stewart: I’ve see a lot of that Spotify data, and it’s really unbelievable, man. Not just where it is, but who, and the age, and the gender, and everything about those who are into your music. You find out, “Oh shit, I didn’t even realize that in Denmark, the women there between the ages of 27 to 35 are really into Confidence.” (all laugh)
In the old days, you just had a general idea. You’d think, “OK, we’re being blasted to death on the radio in Chicago, so we’ll see a lot of those people at a show.” But you weren’t ever sure. You’d go up to Seattle, and it was just like flipping a coin.
You couldn’t really be sure where your records were selling even when they were distributed to the record stores. More often than not, they would have things like, “OK, if you take this Madonna album, we’ll give you this.”
Record stores were great — you’d go to Tower Records and meet your friends and spend three hours there, browsing through albums and meeting other people. In England, you had coffee shops next door to the record shops. There was a whole mini-culture going on around it. When that all closed down, this whole other world cropped up, and people are still trying to figure out how to fathom how to work with it.
Instead of record store owners and record companies doing deals on albums, we’re now dealing with these huge corporations doing deals on data. So how the hell do you deal with that as an artist? How does Stewart Lindsey music, which is born organically and very much of the world of vinyl, fit into this digital society? How will we survive in it?
What I say to Thomas is, “All we have to do is go on TV and play and sing like we do, and people will go, ‘Holy shit, what the fuck was that?’ And then they will seek it out. It’s a great weapon we have up our sleeve — I can just plug into an amp at a festival or anywhere and play with some distortion and Thomas can just sing like he does; we don’t need to play with anybody else. And we get the audience stamping and clapping and tapping their feet.
Would you guys ever consider doing a cover of a song like [Sonny & Cher’s] The Beat Goes On and trade off the vocals?
Stewart: I never want to trade a vocal with him!
Lindsey: (blushing, with head down) Oh, now…
Stewart: You never know what he’s doing next! (chuckles) Thomas can sing something in many different ways. He’s one of those “free” singers, you know? You get to the end of the song and go, “OK, we’ll break down here and do whatever you want,” and a lot of singers might panic at that point…
Lindsey: …but that’s my favorite part! I just love it when it loses the structure. When you get to that point of freedom, you can pour everything that you have within you out. It’s not, “OK, we have to conform to this,” it’s, “Ahhh! Here it is!” That’s the blues. And that’s why, at the end of a blues song, you’re so tired, because you give it. Everything you felt in the day is on the table. And that’s the fun part. (chuckles)
Thomas, if you were to do a Eurythmics song with Dave, which one would it be?
Lindsey: Ohh — we talked about that last night! You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart [from 1987’s Savage] is my favorite, because it has everything. It’s up and down with the dynamics, and all over.