Music: CaryCitizen Interview With Huey Lewis

Cary, NC – This weekend the heart of rock ‘n’ roll will be beating in Cary. On Sunday, July 24, Huey Lewis & The News will take the stage at the Booth Amphitheatre.

Huey Lewis spoke with Cris Cohen about the new album, the fun of recording live, and the evolution of his voice.

Huey Lewis Interview

During their 30+ years together, Huey Lewis & The News have created songs that were Top 10 hits (“I Want A New Drug”, “If This Is It”, “Hip To Be Square”), albums that reached #1 on the Billboard Charts (“Sports” and “Fore”), and tunes nominated for Academy Awards (“The Power of Love”).

Now, the band has gone from “Heart And Soul” (off of their album “Sports”) to “Soulsville”, their new album that pays homage to their favorite Southern soul and Memphis soul recordings from the ’60s and ’70s.

Cris Cohen: First off, to jump into this new album, to jump into “Soulsville”, what was the goal in creating this album?

Huey Lewis: The last thing you want to do is a pale imitation. So first of all, the selection (of songs) was important. We wanted to make sure that rather than do the chestnuts and render them some contemporary treatment, we thought we would go deeper in the catalog and play some recognizable things, but also some things that maybe people hadn’t heard. And try to capture them faithfully. And although we did change them kind of from the inside out a little bit, we only did things that we thought they would have done if they had had more time. (Laughs)

And we cut it in Memphis at Ardent (Ardent Studios is where many of these songs were originally recorded). So the goal was to really capture the stuff faithfully. And I figured we’d know whether we had or not by the reaction of the people around the studio.

CC: And what was it like recording in Ardent, recording in the center of where all of this magic originally took place?

HL: It was wonderful. I mean, I fly in on a Sunday and who checked me in to the hotel, but Nicole Hayes, Isaac Hayes’ daughter.

The stars really aligned for us as it were. We cut five songs a day in two studios. We cut them live. Basically we did everything live. We cut 20 songs in about four or five days.

Recording live is more fun. It’s more musical.

I want people to own (this album) and use it. If you’ve got a little barbecue in the summer time happening. You just throw this thing on. It works. Believe me. (Laughs)

CC: But was there an intimidation factor in recording this music that you listened to and a feeling of “Oh my God. I’m taking this on.”?

HL: Definitely. And when we worked the songs up right from the get go … we worked them all up in California in our little garage studio. We picked batches of five and had two-day rehearsals for the first batch and two-day rehearsals for the next. Band one day. Horns the next day. And then we recorded it.

We sounded very natural on this stuff. It was surprising that way. And you know, it is not too risky to record the stuff. It is only risky when you release it.

One problem was picking an Otis Redding song. You gotta pick an Otis Redding song. And so what Otis Redding song? A few of them are untouchable I think. So we picked “Just One More Day” and I was worried. I thought, “This is gonna be tough.” And the first day at Ardent Studio, John Fry comes in. He was the engineer on all of these songs and he now runs the studio. And I thought, “We’ll know how things are going if John Fry starts coming in the studio and we’re in trouble.”

We put the horns in one studio and a four or five piece rhythm section in the other studio, with me in the booth. And we just cut live. There were no overdubs at all. “Just One More Day” has no overdubs at all. It is a complete performance. And I think it sounded pretty good. I hadn’t sung that song that much, but I just kind of channeled it. And I took it as a sign from the Soul gods.

CC: And is there a whole different feel, is there a whole different energy when you are recording live like that?

HL: Oh yeah. It’s awesome. Plus these songs were arranged back in a day when they couldn’t do overdubs.

CC: Has this experience affected how you perform your own songs at all?

HL: Well, maybe incrementally. Not really. What’s interesting about it, though, is … we tried to stay faithful to the original recordings. We labored to keep it just right. And then oddly enough – and a few critics have said this – on playback a couple of these (songs) sound like Huey Lewis and the News (songs). And I suddenly realized how much I in fact was influenced by Johnnie Taylor and Otis Redding without even realizing it. I mean, I don’t think of myself as that way, but I know I love that stuff. I don’t think of myself as being an Otis Redding kind of singer, but there are parts when I am listening to the Otis Redding song, some of those parts sound like Huey Lewis songs to me.

CC: Well, I am guessing it was always some sort of subliminal, subconscious influence going around in your life.

HL: It is as simple as “the music you like to listen to”. That’s always the stuff I like to listen to. Even when I was in bands. We played all different kinds of stuff, but that’s the kind of stuff I like to listen to.

CC: So you’re at home, you’re hanging out, you’re driving in your own car – this is the kind of stuff you gravitate towards.

HL: Yeah. All music is fun to play. Some music is more fun to listen to than others. It’s really true. I mean, you think about that fusion stuff. It’s a ball to play that stuff. But it can be hard work listening to that sometimes. (Laughs)

I think this is some of our best work, though. I’m really proud of it. And we are coming to Cary, North Carolina to sell those records one at a time. I will come over to your house and wash your windows if you buy the album. (Laughs)

CC: And I don’t know if this was a plan but, for instance, you listen to some of those screech metal guys who sang really high when they were young and can’t hit those notes anymore. Whereas you are in this zone, your style of music – the personal songs you play as well as the covers you do – it seems like your voice is getting better for the music you play. It’s getting that smokey, gravelly quality and I am wondering what’s it been like as your voice has evolved?

HL: Well, I think that’s very perceptive. And it’s true. But I’ve also become a better singer. I’m a smarter singer. I make better note choices I think. I’m still improving at this ripe old age (Mr. Lewis just turned 61). But I think you’re right. And it is not only just the sound of the voice. We started pre-television, pre TV music. When we started, it was all audio. There wasn’t a thought of (visual) presentation. And the idea was to make the songs non-age specific. Make them timeless. Why be trendy when you can be larger than that? But now it’s served us well interestingly.

CC: So you said you’re a smarter singer. Would you mind explaining what you meant by that?

HL: It’s like with high notes. If you see a high note coming up in a song, rather than go up to that high note, sing through it. 80% goes as far as 100%. It’s the same with a golfer or a pitcher. A pitcher will throw as hard as he can and the ball won’t go as fast as if he relaxes and throws at 85% and accelerates the motion. Go through the note.

But you learn some studio technique. You learn how to sharpen your voice or flatten your voice. You get smarter about controlling your voice.

And that’s just one facet. Another one is where to breathe and how to stay in breath. You need to map your breaths out on a song.

CC: It’s almost like playing a horn.

HL: Exactly like that.

CC: It also seems like you picked a really good time in your life to record this album. When you were younger, you had a great voice, but it wasn’t as smokey. And it’s like your voice has evolved and gotten even weightier as you’ve matured.

HL: Yeah, I think that’s true. And I thank you for saying that. It’s all about tone. It isn’t brain surgery. We’re not singing opera here. It’s not that tough and there’s not that many notes. But it’s all about the sound of those notes. What did you like about these songs originally? It’s the tones. And what do the tones tell you? It’s when the singer sings the song, he ain’t kidding. When a guy sings “I’m goin’ to Kansas City. They got some crazy little women there. And I’m gonna get me one”, you gotta believe he’s been to Kansas City. He knows about the crazy little women.

CC: Yeah. You don’t wanna hear these songs from Tiny Tim, because it’s not going to come through.

HL: Probably not. Although, that would be an interesting rendition. (Laughs)

CC: Well, I think that might fall under the category of: Fun to play, but not that much fun to listen to.

HL: Yeah. Maybe.

But it’s the singer and the song and the marriage of those two. That’s what it’s always been.

CC: Is there anything about the music that no one has asked you about, that you would really like to discuss? That no one seems to pick up on?

HL: That’s a really good question. In years past it was really true. They (interviewers) never used to ask me how we made the records, which is always the interesting part to me. In the old days in the ’80s, when it was about CHR radio, it was really about making a record. Making a hit record. And we did that rather well I thought. All on our own actually. Figured it out for ourselves. We actually assembled those records. Piece by piece. There weren’t any Pro Tools in those days.

And we’ve gotten better at our craft. And I’m proud of that.

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14 replies
  1. Cathy Jarboe
    Cathy Jarboe says:

    Thanks for the article Chris! I just wanted to let folks know that I saw him in ’97 and he was awesome!..Saw him 2 wks ago at Wolftrap, near DC, and he was absolutely terrible… Made the crowd sit through tons and tons and tons of new stuff…which is apparently not very good b/c people were leaving in DROVES after about 45 minutes…I have never been to a concert where so so so many people were leaving throughout….He didn’t seem to notice, or care….In fact he commented that he’s played Wolftrap “24 or 25 times already “in his career, so I guess it was just another night at the office for him. …Of course, we expected to get to hear some new songs – it’s part of the fun of seeing the older band! …..but he was WAY over the top in this respect. After 1 and 1/2 hours he had only played 3 hits..Honestly, you have never seen anything like it at a concert…People just picking up their stuff and walkin’g out all over the place… He DID play a few oldies at the very end..so if you’re going tomorrow night..hang on til then!

    • Cris Cohen
      Cris Cohen says:

      Cathy – I am sorry that you didn’t enjoy the show. When you have a new album that you would like to showcase, crafting a good set list can be a tricky process. And although I have never been in a band, I can’t help but think that you get mixed signals about what people want. For instance, while I believe your disappointment is genuine, I also keep seeing comments on the band’s Facebook page from people who loved their recent shows. One lady even asked if they could release a live DVD of just material from their new album.

      I guess I would just say to be open to giving Huey and the band another shot.

    • Patsy
      Patsy says:

      I totally disagree with Cathy Jarbee’s review of Huey’s concert at Wolftrap! I was at the show, and absolutely LOVED it! I have been a fan of Huey Lewis and the News many years (saw them in a bar in Virginia Beach in the 80s) and they sound GREAT and ENTERTAIN no matter what they are singing! I enjoyed hearing the Soulsville music…grat songs, great beats, and GREAT musicians singing and the horn section was fabulous! Learn to appreciate good, fun music Cathy! Don’t be so stuck in the 80s! I’m a TRUE fan of Huey and the News!!!!

  2. Marguerite
    Marguerite says:

    I absolutely love Huey Lewis and the News!!! I have seen him 3 times and met him in Merriville, Indiana the last time. He is not only an awesome singer, but a very sweet man who genuinely loves and appreciates his fans! I can’t wait for the next CD…. Especially if it is a good as “Soulsville”

  3. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    This was a great interview. It would appear that you were really comfortable with Huey throughout the whole thing. I liked the questions that you asked, which were really in tune with who he is and how his voice has improved with age.

    I recently saw his concert in NJ and I was so excited. I have loved him ever since I was a little girl. This was the first concert I ever went to and was sitting a few feet from the stage. It was a dream come true.

    I think that the most profound part of the interview was where he said, “But it’s the singer and the song and the marriage of those two. That’s what it’s always been.” I think that is what has made him continually incredible for the past 30 years.

  4. Fabian Montes
    Fabian Montes says:

    It’s amazing toread this article and get to know the way a record is produced these days. I am colombia citizen whi had the priviledge of attending a Huey and the news concert in Charlotte five years ago. I have followed this band since the 80’s, unfortunately it is difficult to purchase their latest cd here in Colombia, south america. Thnaks a lot and congratulations for such amazing interview.

  5. Miss Moonbeam
    Miss Moonbeam says:

    Cathy, sounds as if you were only there to hear hits and not enjoy the incredible band HL&the News as the awesome band they have evolved into. What a shame you missed the show. I’ve seen them five times through the years, the most recent time in June. They are better than ever. You should have dusted off your old Sports album and stayed home. Thankfully, you are a minority.

  6. Sue
    Sue says:

    Great interview. We saw Huey Lewis and the News in Costa Mesa last night. Yes, they sang several songs from Soulsville (may be why the show was advertised as “featuring songs from Soulsville”) but they also sang many of their earlier hits, and they spread them out throughout the show. “Never Like This Before”, “Little Sally Walker”, “Respect Yourself” all sounded great. So did “The Power of Love”, “Working for a Living”, “Heart of Rock N Roll”, and “If this is It”. The band’s newest members, Danielle Hill and Sandy Griffith, have powerful voices that beautifully combine with Huey’s. It would have been great to hear even more songs we grew up loving, but that would have taken at least another hour. HLN proved that they are still a creative, vital group of musicians who know how to get an audience up and dancing out of their seats, (As an aside, Cris, I am curious how Huey feels being referred to as “Mr. Lewis”!)

    • Cris Cohen
      Cris Cohen says:

      Sue – Thank you. He is a fun person to talk to. And very nice.

      As for the Mr. Lewis reference, well, I was trying to write in a polite and professional manner with that line. I am guessing he does not introduce himself to people that way. I am betting that friends and fans can call him Huey.

  7. Sue
    Sue says:

    Cris – I only said that because, ever since I turned 40, being referred to as Ms. or Mrs. makes me feel kind of old. Though I have to say, as long as Huey can rock a stadium like he did (and I can dance in response) then age is somewhat irrelevant. Glad to hear he really is nice. Not all people I’ve been a fan of have turned out to be like I imagined.

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