Arts

Rod Stewart on Irish shows, 'beating' cancer and plans to record 'rebel songs'

In advance of his return to Ireland next week, Sir Rod Stewart sat down with Richard Purden to discuss his love for 'the Hoops', Van Morrison and his plan to record 'rebel songs' on a forthcoming new album

Rod Stewart returns to Ireland next week for shows in Belfast and Dublin
Richard Purden

A CONVERSATION with Rod Stewart begins with what else but his passion for Celtic Football Club. It's the morning after 'Sir Rod' has watched Celtic claim their second victory over Rome’s SS Lazio in a fortnight, describing it as "a wonderful night made more special because my car followed behind the team going into the ground.

"I spoke to Neil Lennon [Celtic manager] before the game and said 'a good point for us tonight', he said: 'we’re going to win'. I spent time with a lot of fans singing in the streets and taking selfies; it was magical."

Joining the Anglo-Scottish singer at Monday night's Belfast show will be Johnny Mac & The Faithful fronted by Glasgow songwriter John McLaughlin who has written songs with the likes of Shane MacGowan and for Westlife. After writing charity songs for Celtic Football Club he was asked to go on tour as Stewart’s support act and is tipped to produce his next album.

"It’ll be 20 of the best folk and country songs ever written by people like Hank Williams, Carter Family and Johnny Cash," the singer explains.

"There will be some Scottish folk and Irish rebel songs in there as well."

Stewart was surprised with the 'banning' of his version of Grace written by Frank and Seán O'Meara in 1985. He first heard Celtic supporters sing the romantic ballad and was entranced.

"I read a lot of books about the Easter Rising. I did my homework and travelled over to Kilmainham Gaol and the grave [of Grace Gifford-Plunkett]. It really is the most gorgeous song; I’ve been singing it for over a year now."

As its title suggests, the singer's current album You’re In My Heart: Rod Stewart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra features a compilation of some of his best known recordings augmented by new orchestral instrumentation.

Stewart is naturally cautious when it comes to decisions about celebrating his 50-year-old back catalogue. He initially balked at the idea of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra adding new arrangements to classic solo cuts and his work with the Faces.

"When I heard they were going to put an orchestra behind Stay With Me I said: 'Oh no they’re not!'. But Trevor Horn, the producer, asked me to just give it a try, so I let them do it and I was astounded: it's beautiful.

"I was surprised especially by the beginning of Maggie May. There’s a different feel to the songs, they are not too syrupy and the strings represent the tracks well."

The Philharmonic collection is also a reminder of Stewart's abilities as a solo writer. He suggests The Killing of Georgie "was a song about a homosexual, a friend of mine and back then it really was taboo, but the words just came out.

"I wish I could explain it, you just open up the brain and sing whatever you want — it’s just hit and miss. I had a descending chord sequence and put the lyrics over it.

"I usually think of a title first like with Young Turks, but Maggie May was different – I just sang and it came down an aerial. It does seem magical to me…you write something that wasn't there the day before."

The 74-year-old cites Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison among his favourite song-writers, recording Have I Told You Lately and Crazy Love by the latter.

"He’s a Knight as well now; Sir Van. What a great lyricist, I love his stuff, when Astral Weeks came out with the string bass, acoustic guitars and mandolins it was a big influence on [Stewart's 1971 LP] Every Picture Tells A Story.

"We go back, the last time I saw him I was with my ex-wife [Rachel Hunter] at The Langholm Hotel in London – we got so drunk I don’t remember much about it."

It’s been a reflective year for the singer, whose reunion with the Faces for the first time on stage since 2015 coincided with an announcement that he had secretly been battling prostate cancer for three years.

"We did it for a prostate cancer charity", Stewart explains of the musical reunion.

"I made an announcement that I’ve beaten it – although I don’t know if you ever beat cancer – but I was on the mend, let’s put it that way. It was a lovely night, Kenney Jones [Faces/Small Faces] was on the drums and we had Jim Cregan [Stewart’s musical director and co-writer at various points since 1976] on guitar.

"Both of them have recovered from prostate cancer and of course, Ronnie Wood [Faces/The Rolling Stones] on guitar has had lung cancer, we’re all still battling away up there. To play with them again was a real joy."

After turning 75 in January, Stewart will tour the US with Blondie in the summer. By autumn, he’ll be on the road in Australia. Of the recent illness, he adds: "I never felt any different. I had treatment for two years and was working all through that time.

"I went to Harley Street five times a week for a month and no one ever found out which was a miracle really but I wanted people to know because it’s a horrible cancer to have because it gives you no warning whatsoever.

"You go to your doctor and get a finger up the bum and no harm done. That’s why I came out with it; to help other people. I couldn't be fitter than I am right now. I work out three days, I’ve got a lovely football pitch, an indoor pool and a gym – and I use it."

As a vital interpreter of song, Stewart's voice continues to be lauded, with Bruce Springsteen tipping his hat to the singer of late.

"It’s a lovely compliment, I do look after my voice more now than ever by warming up and drinking tons of water. The older you get it does become tougher but I’ve still got the stamina even though I have to get a knee operation in the New Year.

"The voice is my Crown Jewels and I really have to look after it."

Sharing a Scottish diaspora connection with the 45th US President Donald Trump, he admits the pair’s friendship has dissolved.

"I have a house in Palm Beach just up the road from Trump. I used to go to his Christmas party down the road, he used to have two or three different balls but my wife [Penny Lancaster] said 'no'.

"There was stuff he was coming out with, what he was saying about women he had known in the past and she said 'you’re not going; he’s a disgrace', which I suppose he is, really.

:: Rod Stewart, Monday December 2, SSE Arena, Belfast / December 4, 3Arena, Dublin. Tickets via Ticketmaster.co.uk and Ticketmaster.ie. You’re In My Heart: Rod Stewart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is out now

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