Singer Bernard Fowler insists on operating outside of his comfort zone. Having worked with a long and diverse list of artists ranging from AC/DC to Duran Duran, Motörhead, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Lee Lewis and the late Michael Hutchence, Fowler has written or performed songs spanning rock, pop, blues, R&B, jazz and hip-hop.
Now, on his new solo album Inside Out, Fowler takes material from his most notable gig — his 30-year tenure as background singer for The Rolling Stones — and challenges himself once again. Choosing from more than a half century of Stones compositions, Fowler selected nine songs, provided them with sparse and nuanced arrangements, and delivered them through spoken word in his commanding and charismatic voice.
In this conversation, Fowler discusses Inside Out, the Ghostbusting guitarist who contributed greatly to the album’s sound, why it seems like the Stones have been following him around his entire life, if singing a great background vocal feels as good as it sounds, and more.
Q: You’re known for having a wide array of musical ideas at any given moment, but even this one was a bit of a surprise. How did you arrive on doing this type of take on the Stones?
A: Even before I finished my last record, The Bura, I started thinking about what I was going to do next. I had a few ideas, but over time this was the one that kept on popping up. I’m always on the road doing one thing or another, but while I was out there working, this thing just kept coming to mind. While I was on the road with the Stones, one night the band heard me messing around with the idea and they seemed to get a kick out of it. I told Mick (Jagger), “When the tour is over, I’m going to (record) this.” And he said, “You should, because I’ve never heard anything like this.” He said he’d heard Stones songs covered a lot of different ways, but never like that.
Q: Because you’re covering a band that you’ve been working with since the 1980s, some people might look at this as relatively easy lifting for you. I would think that your involvement with them would probably make this harder not easier.
A: That’s for damn sure. (laughs)
Q: Is that why all the songs you’ve chosen for this record (including “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Sister Morphine” and “Time Waits for No One”) precede your tenure in the band?
A: Honestly, it was just material that I found that worked. Early on in choosing, I realized that a lot of the popular songs just weren’t going to work. People expect to hear them a certain way. So when looking at other songs, the subject matter was the most important thing. One song I knew that I was definitely going to do was “Undercover of the Night.” The subject matter was superstrong, and I felt connected to it because the evening news bombarded us with news and images of the Contras and the Sandinistas when I was younger. That was the type of material I was looking for, along with wanting whatever I picked to be just as relevant today as it was then. I found all of that in these songs.
Q: Liner notes tend to be fairly boring in this digital climate, but your notes for Inside Out actually have something to say. You wrote: “I already knew how good these songs were — it was the subject matter that surprised me. These lyrics weren’t from the cats I had been sharing the stage with for the last 30 years, but from some chthonic place by someone new. I didn’t know the cats who wrote like this, and I wondered how many of their fans knew these cats that I seemed to have rediscovered. Could it be that the Stones are really some black guys disguised as English gentleman?” Interesting thoughts coming from a black man who works with those English gentleman. What left you with that impression?
A: It was the subject matter being so relatable. When I was growing up in the Queensbridge projects in New York there was a serious drug epidemic. I mean serious. They used to gather young kids like myself out and march around the neighborhood talking about “Dope Kills.” At the time, if you didn’t know better, you would have thought New York City was the only place with a drug epidemic like this. But they have the same shit going on over there (in England), and they wrote about it. And if you take the time to read these lyrics — just straight up read them, as I had to — you see that there is a flow about them. There’s a distinctive flow about the way some of these ideas are written.
Q: A flow that lent them to spoken word.
A: I believed so.
Q: You going this far back for your song choices made me think about what Stones era you would have most liked to have been a part of outside of your own. The Some Girls to Undercover period, 1978 until 1983, is right in your wheelhouse. It’s their New York City Era, and you are New York through and through.
A: Yes, I am, and you’re right, it would probably be that era. But if for some reason it couldn’t be that, I would want to go all the way back to the beginning, because the first album of theirs that I owned was actually given to me by my father. It was 12 x 5. Don’t ask me why he gave me that record. That was the first record of that type with those types of faces on the cover to ever make it into my house. I still have no idea why he brought it home, but I’m glad he did.
Q: How old were you?
A: Maybe 7 or 8.
Q: It’s incredible that your life turned out this way.
A: That kind of stuff with the Stones has been happening to me throughout my entire life. For instance, I got that record and became a fan. Years later I was working for a company that made bottles for a perfume company. We had finished this bottle and I had to take it to Rockefeller Center to see Charles of the Ritz or Avon for them to approve the bottle. I stopped in a deli to grab a bite to eat, and there was a limousine outside. I walked in the deli, bought a sandwich and as I looked to my right? There was Keith Richards. And guess what I was listening to on my Walkman?
Q: The Stones.
A: The Stones. Guess what album.
Q: It would be too perfect to say 12 x 5, so because of the era, I would guess Tattoo You.
A: You hit it on the head, man! Good call! I was listening to Tattoo You. I loved the fucking Stones. Loved them. I grew up in a black and Puerto Rican neighborhood and there wasn’t a whole lot of Rolling Stones being played, but I loved rock ‘n’ roll as well as the stuff that I grew up on out there. And now here was Keith Richards. I didn’t say anything to him at first, but as I left the deli I thought I should go back and say something to him. I walked back and sat next to his limousine, waiting for him to come out, and when he did I just said, “Hey Keith, you’re a bad man!” He looked at me and smiled and said, “Thanks, little brother,” and got in his limousine and took off. (both laugh)
Q: Before the decade was over, you’d be singing those songs with him on stage.
A: Yeah, dig that! Only a few years before that, but after meeting Keith, I was in my first band, the New York Citi Peech Boys (who had a dance hit with 1982’s “Don’t Make Me Wait”). So, I go down to see my friend, DJ Larry Levan, in Paradise Garage (the legendary New York disco), right? And I walk in and who do I run into? Mick Jagger. These things kept happening. During the Peech Boys, I started working a lot with Bill Laswell (producer and musician) on a Herbie Hancock album and I ended up touring with Herbie. On my 10-day break, Bill calls me and tells me to come to London. He doesn’t say who I’m going to be working for. I don’t know why I’m going. He just says, “Come to London.” I get there, and Bill takes me into this house … we walk inside a room and some dude is sitting on the floor. Bill says to him, “Hey man, this is Bernard Fowler. This is the guy that I’ve been telling you about.” The guy on the floor turns around, and it’s Mick Jagger.
Q: You ended up singing on his solo album, and then touring that album, and the rest is history.
A: That’s right. And then the Stones got back together after that to do their first album of new material in many years, and they called on me to sing on it. I’ve been rolling with them ever since.
Q: I know you credit your friend Carmine Rojas, longtime Rod Stewart and David Bowie bassist, with saving what became your biggest career break. In 1988, you were irritated that Mick chose to audition singers for his tour since you had already sung the vocals on the album, but Carmine convinced you to keep your head and audition regardless, and Mick ended up choosing you anyway. Carmine appears on your new album in an interesting way.
A: That’s right, he does (laughs). I wrote a dialogue that appears in the beginning of “Undercover of the Night,” and I needed a Spanish-speaking girl to do the part. But not just any Spanish speaker, because every Spanish-speaking territory speaks the language their own way. Carmine is my Puerto Rican brother from New York so I called him and said, “Carmine, I need a girl to read some dialogue I wrote in Spanish, but she has to be from Nicaragua. Can you help me?” He called me back and said, “No problem, she’s on her way” (laughs) She came into the studio and I gave her the dialogue and not only was she from Nicaragua but she grew up there during the war! She knew the subject matter. So, at the beginning of the record, when you hear the jungle sounds and you hear this woman under duress, she’s basically saying “I’m afraid! I don’t want to get caught by the military! If they catch me they’re going to take me to one of the camps where they took my mother and my father.” Then you hear a soldier come in and say a bunch of stuff that amounts to “Let’s get her!” Well, that’s Carmine!
Q: You called on a long list of accomplished musicians to help you with Inside Out, but one that may stand out above the rest for most people is Ray Parker Jr., who, beyond being the man who wrote and sang the “Ghostbusters” theme, is also a celebrated guitarist.
A: I met Ray through Steve Jordan (drummer for John Mayer, Keith Richards and others) and, let me tell you … Ray Parker is the baddest mother on the planet. I was doing some live show with Steve in New York where he brought Ray in, and we became friendly. Later on, I was doing something in the studio for the Jazz Foundation with Steve and Keith (Richards), and Ray was there again. When I was recording these tracks, I had a great guitar player by the name of George Evans play on some of them, but it was still missing that rhythm, so I called Ray and said, “Ray, I need some rhythm guitars.” He listened to the songs and he thought maybe some wah-wah could be good because we had been talking about (Motown guitar great) Wah-Wah Watson. Ray came to the studio, said very little, plugged in, and before I could blink twice, the shit was done. And it was killer! Ray absolutely killed it. He’s the icing on the cake for any of the songs on this album that have rhythm guitar.
Q: You have a very distinctive way of speaking, and people like myself find it entertaining even when you’re not performing (laughs). So even though this is a challenging musical idea, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to believe that you could command an audience with your non-singing voice. Is it too simplistic to call your vocal on this “spoken word”?
A: Nope. That’s what I’m calling it. Spoken word.
Q: How much spoken word have you done in the past, either live or on record?
A: None. This is my first time around.
Q: Was there any time while recording this that you thought to yourself, “I’m in deep water here. What the hell am I doing?”
A: Honestly, it felt really good right from the start. Because of what it was, if it hadn’t felt right very early, I probably wouldn’t have kept going, and you and I would be talking about a different project right now.
Q: With spoken word, did you find yourself attempting more takes than when you’re singing, or less?
A: A lot of these cuts that made the record are first takes. It’s funny, because in the beginning I was just laying down a guide vocal, and sometimes when we finished recording we would go back and decide just to keep the guide. One of the engineers would get a little pissed off at me because they may have been the best performances to me, but as guides we weren’t using the best microphone on them and they weren’t the best recordings. He kept trying to get me to do them again and I would just tell him, “No!” (laughs) He would say,”Bernard, do you hear that (unnecessary) sound in the track?” And I’d say, “Yeah, but do you hear what it feels like? It feels too good. I’m not doing it again.”
Q: Spoken like a true Stone.
A: (big laugh) From your mouth to God’s ears, Robert.
Q: I recently watched a performance of the Stones performing “Slipping Away” and the background vocals you were laying down with your old friend Lisa Fischer were so beautifully layered and harmonized that in the coda of the song, they just elevated it and took it to another place. When you’re in harmony with another great singer like Lisa, does it feel as good for you as it does for the listener?
A: That’s a great question, man. It absolutely does. When you have a partner like Lisa Fischer it ab-so-lute-ly does. I miss her (Fischer departed the Stones in 2015 to renew her solo career). Onstage or off, we communicate without saying a word. I look at her and I know what she wants me to do, and vice versa. When I was doing one of my other projects, Nickelbag, with (guitarist) Stevie Salas, there was a song on one of those records called “Turning the Other Way.” We recorded some of that stuff in Mexico City, and I asked Lisa to come down to the studio to help me out. I had an idea of what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to express it. All I mentioned was that I wanted an operatic style. That’s all I said to her. When I went to show her the vocal, I would just move my hand and she would watch. As my hand went up she went up, and as my hand went down she went down. She just nailed it. That’s a small example of how in sync we were. And we’ve always been like that. Those gestures during “Slipping Away” and all these other songs? That stuff was never rehearsed — we made that shit up onstage, my brother! We felt that!
Q: Bernard Fowler, choreographer.
A: Yeah, right. Just don’t ask me to dance, though. (laughs)
Follow Fowler on Twitter: @bernardfowler
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Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts who interviews pop culture figures.
This article first appeared on Ferraro’s web site, ofpersonalinterest.com.
Follow Ferraro on Twitter at: @PopCultRob
Follow Ferraro on Facebook at: @ofpersonalinterest
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