The Hard Way
No Breaks Records
by Todd K Smith
Im grateful to still be kicking hard, ya know? My teeth are sharp, my mind is sharp, my voice is the best its been. Im suddenly in this great confident place. Im just happy and I want to get that on record. ~John Waite
Last we heard from John Waite, he had just released Figure In A Landscape (2001) and was opening for long-time friends Journey and Peter Frampton. What made this an exceptional lineup was Johns return to form. Attacking the stage with a fiercely well-rehearsed band, Waite ruled the day bringing life to career highlights spanning the Babys, Bad English and his own solo hits.
His confidence became infectious night after night and convinced all that the hit-slinging London-native was back in the game. Yet, by years end Waite was relegated to a handful of Casino shows and the one-off State fair. Word had it hed left his long-standing home (18-years) in New York City and had relocated to Nashville to fine-tune his urban-country motif first explored on the lyrically-dark Temple Bar (1995).
Then suddenly from nowhere Waite began cropping up at Borders Books across the country. His homespun The Hard Way started selling briskly and within weeks Waite was becoming a Borders phenomenon. We finally caught up with him in Annapolis, MD for a sold-out acoustic show at the Rams Head Pub right off scenic Spa Creek bay. His show was immediately charming as he used the intimate setting to showcase not only his keen sense of humor but renditions of Key To Your Heart, New York City Girl, Missing You, Midnight Rendezvous and the ultra rare Babys classic Sweet 17. After the show our conversation drifted from the afterhours club a phone call just prior to his Portland, OR show at the famed Aladdin Theatre.
The Cutting Edge: So are you permanently affixed to the Nashville scene? Your current show is reflecting a lot of Hank Williams, Graham Parsons and Bob Dylan.
John Waite: Ha, well Im living in Santa Monica, California at the moment. I quit New York about three years ago to just do something else. Its a 24-7 city and it was taking so much of my time living there. I wanted to get a breather. I came out (to California) and bought a place on the sea and Ive just been touring since then. I put this record out called The Hard Way. Ive been in a different conscience and the record reflects that. But I plan to get back there (New York) in the next 18-months.
TCE: The Hard Way is not quite an EP and not quite and LP kind of somewhere in the middle with eight tracks most having appeared on your other records.
JW: Yeah, I was listening back to some 24-bit masters and I kept adding songs to what I thought would be a perfect record. It was like solving a Chinese puzzle. I kept writing songs that would complement the other songs. In the end the record had a life of its own. After I cut the Dylan song (Girl From The North Country) I thought thats it, Ill put this thing out now and just go out on the road. It would give me an excuse to tour. It sort of got more momentum than I thought it was going to get. I havent been this busy in 15 years. Im working all the time now. Ant you know, Im happy about that. The record is actually selling.
TCE: By the reaction of the crowd they are way into it.
JW: Its a two way street. The people seem to like having me out there and I love to be playing in front of them again. I hope theyre having as good a time as I am. As long as it works well keep doing it. It so unplanned; we dont even rehearse the set, we just look down at the list of songs and are like, Do you know this one? Yeah, lets do it. So its very open.
TCE: How was it living in Nashville? Did it change the way your approach songwriting?
JW: Ive been working down in Nashville on and off for about ten years. I wrote Imaginary Girl and Bluebird Café and a bunch of other songs. I was down there working with Jeffrey Steele. We decided to write a song together so last Christmas I pulled up in Nashville with some bits and pieces. I had a guitar lick, a title and a bit of a melody for The Hard Way. I threw it on the table and jumped all over it. It was finished in about an hour and a half. It showed us what it wanted to be. It happened that quickly.
A couple months after that I went back to Nashville to record and mix the record. At that time I did the acoustic songs too. It just finished itself right in front of my eyes. I hardly had to do anything. New York City Girl Godhead, Keys To Your Heart, Always Be Your Man and Masterpiece of Loneliness all came from Figure In A Landscape. Those songs are so close to my heart that they seem to have come and gone so quickly. I just wanted to put them out again to make sure people could get them - could hear them again and maybe this time get into them.
TCE: You also revisited your 1983 hit Missing You.
JW: Adding Missing You was an afterthought. I wasnt going to put that on the record. The guitar player played it as we were warming up for some of the acoustic shows. We decided to cut it anyway. So we rolled the tape and thought wed add it on as a bonus track for Europe. But when it came to picking songs for the record there were only eight songs. They were all the songs that I really loved and thought worked well together. So I had to put Missing You on as an actual track. There was no real device to that. It was very natural, almost like an accident. But it seems an appropriate way to end the album, dont you think? Weve been doing so many unplugged dates that its worked out really well and it sells records. I was at Borders in Maryland or some place and we sold some thing like 80 CDs after the gig. It was amazing.
TCE: A lot of your fans still hold on to The Babys years. Its good to hear you throw a couple into your live show.
JW: Yeah, we put the Babys stuff in and try to have fun with it. Chrysalis releases anything they want when they want. They dont ever pay the band. Its a bit of a bitter thing. They treat us a certain way and every time I play it Im selling more stuff for them and I dont get paid for it. Nobody gets paid - in fact they claim I owe them money. How could that be?
TCE: Around Temple Bar you signed with Imago and seemed to change your writing style. It was more introspective - less about sex, drugs and rock n roll and more about life. You seemed to all but abandon your hard rock past. Why the change?
JW: Temple Bar was a desperate record. The one track that really sticks out is Downtown. We play it live every night. The lyric goes Johnny Thunders on the radio/Ah but you cant put your arms around a memory. The thing about that line is his only semi-hit was You Cant put your arms around a memory. It has a double/triple meaning. I wanted to tip-the-nod to Johnny because he was so dark. It was so dark after he died. It was like two weeks after Marriott died. It didnt stop. I was in Bad English and the band was a fucking mess. Everything was upside down.
TCE: I remember talking with you back then. It was definitely a time of change.
JW: That was a painful time for me. But it was also the start of the country thing for me. I had this idea of lacing a country-like storyline into an urban setting. It something I still like to play with.
TCE: Will that be reflected in the next record?
JW: Well, the next record will have more electric guitars in it and be slightly less acoustic. I want to cut it live - somewhere between Humble Pies Smokin and Temple Bar. I feel my chops are really focused at the moment. I can sing my ass off. I can sing anything right now and I want to get that on record. We had a gig in Detroit the other night with the full band and we tore the roof off the place. It was my best night ever. The band was really cookin, the crowd was into it and we rocked full on.
TCE: A bit different than The Borders in-stores?
JW: Thats been amazing. If you do them at night its absolutely packed and if you do them in the daytime its absolutely packed. I was thinking of doing a breakfast one and seeing whod show up. Really, weve enjoyed it. The audience is made up of hardcore fans and some coming in off the street. I had one of my old girlfriends show up in Boston. That was a little weird. It does demand that you have your chops up. The lights are on and theres no hiding. You have to be spot on.
TCE: And in the studio?
JW: Rather than carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, Ive chosen a different path these days. All the guys that played on the record and on the road are great guys. For me its like - If I dont love em they cant come into the room. I really have to be with people Im in sync with. I dont try to make things work with musicians. They have to be in tune with whats going on in the room. I only allow the really great player to be there. Shane Fontayne, Reese Wynans, Chuck Kentis, all these guys are great players, Its like being in a private club man, these people get it. They have the same intension. And it becomes something bigger than all of us.
TCE: Its good to see you so happy. Maybe the happiest I ever seen you.
JW: This is the first time Ive been like this. Im suddenly very comfortable. Im very grateful for a lot of things. Im grateful to still be kicking hard, ya know? My teeth are sharp, my mind is sharp, my voice is the best its been. Im suddenly in this great confident place. Im just happy and I want to get that on record.