Paul Rodgers has fronted iconic rock bands such as Free, Bad Company, The Firm, and toured as the vocalist for Queen. Now at the age of 64, Rodgers is embracing his roots with the release of The Royal Sessions, a collection of classic soul covers. We caught up with Rodgers to discuss the new album.
The Royal Sessions is your first studio album you’ve recorded in 14 years. Why did you decide now was the time to make a soul album?
It’s been a long time coming I think. It’s been on the backburner for many, many years. These songs and this music was the influence that I started out with when I first was listening to music when I was 13 and 14 and getting into bands. It’s the basis of all my songwriting in the bands that I’ve formed, Free, Bad Company, The Firm; really all sprung out of blues and soul. So I took this opportunity to make this album in a very authentic situation at the Royal Studios where a lot of these iconic tracks were recorded with great musicians, and I went for it and I really enjoyed doing it.
How did you pick the songs that you covered on the album?
Well they’re songs that I’ve listened to. I think when we were researching this, Perry (Margouleff) and I, the theme generally was Stax, so I would look at all the Stax tracks that influenced me and there were really so many. We couldn’t really do them all. We went for doing say about 15, so that we had more tracks than we really needed so that we could kind of wiggle it down to the best of. And I think I had a pool of about 20 odd songs that I was gonna be choosing from and each day I would come into the studio and pick one of them depending on how it felt that particular day. And yeah, the result was this album.
Is there a song on the album that was particularly enjoyable to record?
Well they all were to be honest. When I first walked into the studio they hadn’t been told, the musicians who were chosen for us by Boo Mitchell, who runs the studio, who is Willie Mitchell’s son. And he said when we talked about which musicians we should have he said, “Trust me, I’ll get you the best musicians.” …these guys work together a lot and so they’re almost a band. I mean they just lock tight together. They might change a drummer here or there. We had two drummers on the album actually. We had Steve Potts and we also had James Robertson on the drums in different tracks. And when I first walked in they didn’t know who I was. They weren’t told who I was, just that I was a singer and a songwriter. And so there was a moment of not knowing how this was gonna go. They didn’t really. It was like, can the guy sing? And so I chose a track that I really love, “If I were the sun way up there” [sings]. That one (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”) because I just really love the sentiment of that song… so we kicked off with that one and after like a few notes really, we knew we were speaking the same language and this was gonna be OK [laughs].
Listening to The Royal Sessions, your voice still sounds strong as ever. How do you keep your voice in shape?
Well I tour about 20 or 30 dates a year, I don’t overkill it. I keep my voice in shape really. I find that it’s a good idea to do that and singing is probably the best way to do that, and not overdoing it. I had a wonderful microphone on this, the Neumann U47, there’s a picture of it actually on the artwork [laughs]. And Perry, my producer, collects gear and he collects these mics too, and I think he has about a dozen of them in there. They’re not made anymore, although Neumann do still make mics. And he brought along his best mic for me so I was really well mic’d up. I think there’s about a hundred thousand dollars between my mic and the tape, in terms of gear. And it’s all collective antique kind of gear. It’s the real business, it’s the real deal. And it had such a beautiful sound. And of course, we went to analog, so that was another point in the favor of the sound, you know?
One of the neat things about this album is that all the proceeds of the The Royal Sessions are going to local Memphis music education programs. Discuss the importance of music education programs and what they mean to you?
Well I think it’s important. There’s so much music, there’s so much available to kids now that there’s so much music out there, but it’s nice to steer people in the right direction a little bit I think. And we felt we would drive every day to the studio from our rather nice hotel into this area which is really economically deprived. There’s lots of derelict buildings and empty buildings and stuff like that. So we would say, well this music has given us so much and here we are in a way, what can we give back? And we decided, Perry Margouleff, my producer, my partner in crime here, we were financing the whole thing so we could just say to each other, OK, you know what we’ll do? Any of the proceeds we’ll send it right back into Memphis to give back what we’re taking from. And we looked at the best way of doing that and it turned out that Stax, now where Stax used to be, the studio used to be, there is a museum and they have a school there for educating kids and we went along to visit it, and it was great. It’s nice, they sang for us a capella, and I think power to them and it was just something we want to do.
With a large body of work behind you, where do you find inspiration these days, and do you ever go back to your earlier work to find inspiration?
I’m touring this year, I do 20 or 30 shows a year, and when I tour nowadays I play all the songs that I’ve written with Free, Bad Company, The Firm, and I make a set of music from that, and I’ll add some of this music to it now. My inspirations are still what they were. This music inspired me and it really still does, soul and blues, and I can listen to it at night. I’m getting back into vinyl now having rediscovered analog. I got my record player out and I’m buying a lot of old records. I’m sort of an avid collector nowadays and it’s a lot of fun to find blues and soul. I recently bought the first record that I had ever bought when I was about 14, I really acquired a copy of Red Beans and Rice by Booker T and the MG’s with “Be My Lady” on the B-side, and that was such a joy to get that again cause I lost it over the years and I haven’t heard it in 40 years or something. So I got it in the post and it was so beautiful to hear and also to hear that it was just as good or if not better now then when I first bought it [laughs]. Lots of inspiration there.
You’ve had the chance to share the stage with some amazing artists. Is there anyone out there you haven’t shared the stage with that you’d love to perform with?
So many people. I went to see Dolly Parton the other night and I think she is fantastic! What a great singer and performer she is. And she did “Jolene.” I thought she was great and I love her to bits. Bryan Adams, we went to see Bryan Adams, too. He was freaking awesome. He’s got a two man show now and he plays with himself on the acoustic guitar and a piano player and he encouraged me to do the same thing. He said, “Why don’t you just go out with an acoustic guitar and maybe a piano person?” He does a show where he talks about the songs and it’s really just a cool thing. We went to see Sting the other day, he was great. Maybe I’ll play with all those guys?
It sounds like you’re getting out a lot and seeing a lot of music. That’s good.
Yeah, well the wife encouraged me to get out and see other artists. Otherwise I get very involved in only what I’m doing, you know? Head down, and it’s good to see other artists working and I really enjoyed the shows.
You started your career with Free, which is considered one of the all-time great blues rock bands. Are there are any modern bands or artists doing blues rock today that have caught your attention?
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of people that are really great. I loved Amy Winehouse and I think it was such a shame that we lost her because she was really hitting something, Back to Black is just fantastic. And Adele I think has got it going on. I think she’s a great singer and a beautiful songwriter. And we saw a band called The Sheepdogs, a Canadian band up in Canada, they were very good.
Interview by Pete Francis
Photos by Jim McGuire