By BRUCE DENNILL
Leo Sayer is a people person. He arrives in the foyer of the Johannesburg hotel where we meet five minutes early and is greeted by name by the concierge. He returns the compliment, giving the man a long, two-handed handshake and swapping niceties. He’s just as genial on the way into the restaurant where we will conduct the interview, greeting every waiter and runner who crosses his path with a smile and a few cheerful words.
Once we’re seated, a serious-looking chap informs us that, though we’re fine for the moment, we’ll need to be aware that if we talk for too long, we’ll need to make way for a group that has booked the section we’re sitting in for lunch – the Jaguares rugby team from Argentina.
“Don’t ask me any questions about the Falklands,” quips Sayer.
At this stage of Sayer’s career, there must be – as is the case for so many of his peers – a tension between the “heritage artist” tag that will have may audience members expecting him to play almost exclusively old hits and being an artist with a good deal of newer work that may be more interesting to him? Some of those people will only see Sayer as the Seventies chart topper, rather than as a constantly curious sort with a number of interesting perspective.
“I think anything that puts you into certain brackets is dangerous,” he muses. “In the US, it used to be called ‘rack-jobbing’ after the record shops’ practice of making sure everything was in a very defined section on the shelves. It always gave me great pleasure to go and move a gospel album to the blues section or something; see if anyone noticed.
“But culture used to be more diverse. Now we’re subject to this ‘divide and rule’ maxim, where we’re all press-ganged into a corner. I eventually got to a point where I was working with someone who didn’t get what I was doing – Richard Perry, back in the Seventies – but I couldn’t give up the opportunity to work with the incredible musicians he was able to connect me with. I still tried to forge my own sound, and I was able to do it with these top-end resources – I was like an ice-skater finding a frozen pond.”
Is there still space for that sort of exploration now?
“We have subtle ways of bringing the older stuff forward at the shows now – new arrangements and so on,” says Sayer. “My songs are like chapters in a book, and later in my life, they’ve become more about feelings and opinions. I’ve just written one, for instance, from the point of view of a suicide bomber, which I don’t think anyone else has done.
“As I see it, if the set is a book, why should it get old? You can read something you like and find something new in it again and again, can’t you? This set covers all of my life, and all parts of my storytelling. I’m like one of the Brothers Grimm, standing there telling tales. And with some of the songs, we extend them and I talk in the middle – a bit like Van Morrison.”
Talk turns to Morrison’s legendary grumpiness.
Sayer grins. “Guys who write songs like his, in which they rip their hearts out, should be miserable!
“I remember meeting Van; having a chance to interview him. I’d met a guy in Los Angeles and he had a radio station – one of his proteges was Sly Stone. He asked me if I ‘do radio’, and when I’d said that I think I could, he invited me to see his station library, which made Tower Records look like a shack. And I remember there were two guys in there – one with a disability and the other a dwarf – who would run around pulling the records as they were needed. I asked about this system, but all the guy would say was, ‘We’re free-form, man.’
“Anyway, I was offered the 2am to 6am show, and I soon found out the system was amazing. You’d see it was raining outside and you’d yell to one of those two guys, ‘Bring me Rhythm Of The Falling Rain by The Cascades! And it’d be there – they had everything!
“So one day, Van Morrison comes in for an interview, says he wants to be obn the late show. We meet; he’s great: ‘I know you’re my man, Leo – let’s do this; let’s make this great.’ I was so excited. I thought I was going to get the great Van Morrison interview that no-one else had ever been able to get. But once we started, it was like getting blood from a stone; just grunts and one-word answers. At the end, I said, ‘Why, Van?’ He gave me this big hug and said, ‘Great interview; that was the one that I wanted.’ And then left. I never understood that.”
Maybe he was cultivating his mystique as part of his strategy to keep people on their toes? There are loads of strategies for remaining relevant and ensuring longevity – or trying your best to. It’s complicated, though, involving passion, discipline, resilience, a thick skin, a capacity to forgive…
“And humility,” Sayer says, checking if the peppermint teabag he produced from a jacket pocket has drawn properly yet.
“I think everything you mention applies, but for me, it’s most important to apply the ’20-minute rule’. I live 20 minutes ago and 20 minutes to come. There’s no point in looking at next week, when Trump bombs North Korea and they bomb Germany… I try ti force myself into the now. I’m the curator of all things me – Leo Sayer – mostly because I’m the only one who’s interested in having that reputation clinging to my leg, needing to be dragged around.”
He smiles again, the glint in his eye confirming just how content he is to bear such an onorous burden.
“Nostalgia doesn’t work. I try to pull all of my wisdom forward. The wisdom of age always topples the wisdom of youth, but the vitality and curiosity of youth is so important, so I try to mix plenty of that in, too.
“I can’t write silly love songs now. I can sing them, but I can’t write them. Many of my contemporaries seem to love living in the past, but I don’t think they’re reaching their potential anymore. It’s an amazing mix when you get it right. I remember going to a Garland Jeffreys concert, when he was only 24 years old. I was talking to someone after the show, and they said, ‘That guy just sang my life.’
“I hope that my songs are like wine – not in the clichéd, ‘better with age’ sense, but because when you walk in with a bottle of ’47 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you’re the coolest guy in the room for knowing that vintage.”
You’ve also highlighted the importance and appeal of natural talent versus some of the contemporary platforms – Idols, The Voice and the rest – that place new artists in the public eye.
“I think it comes down to craftsmen versus artists,” Sayer comments. “To perfect something and be able to do it well consistently is incredible. Craft and art can go together, but we don’t see it often, and when we do, it’s about achieving the birth of a language. Dylan, for instance, takes the urban and the natural and makes them united, equal to the forces that oppress us.
“What will matter in the future are the voc pops we carry with us. You still have rappers quoting Shakespeare – if your lyrics can creep into the consciousness like that, it’s a special thing. I feel like I’m hardly there yet. Maybe I’ll get there in ten albums’ time.”
Sayer breaks off to quote the lyrics from the suicide bomber song, which are, perhaps counter to expectations given the subject matter, sensitive and poetic. Notably, given the singer’s ‘vox pop’ comment, the line ‘History will be my judge’ is repeated.
“It’s about communication, isn’t it? Passing things on is so important. I’m not a dad – I don’t have the instinct – so I can’t pass anything on that way, but I love that I can travel the world as a troubadour.”
You didn’t complete any training as a musician, and have tied that into your preference to do what you do with natural aptitude. How does that idea play out at this point in your career?
“I have a studio at my home in Sydney, where I’m recording between tours,” says Sayer. “It’s a new album – I’m actually calling it Selfie – and the way the studio’s been set up allows me to work completely on my own, with everything running through the keyboard, which I play. As you say, I’m not trained, but I trust my pitch and my harmonic judgement, and I’m really happy with what’s happening there.
“I like to look at someone like Picasso. He didn’t get someone in to do the blues and the greens on his paintings. He re-painted Guernica again and again, on his own, until he was happy, and I get good results with that system, locking myself up and not putting a song down until I’ve disseminated all the bits. I think you see your pure talent when the door is locked and the room is dark.”
Sayer takes a bite of his breakfast, then pauses to examine the restaurant table.
“Yes!” he yells, slamming a fist into the table. “It’s like this – the veneer is the problem; the danger of style over substance.”
Substance, though, is a complex thing. Sayer has the advantage of being a citizen of the world, born (and successful) in England, a chart-topper in the US and a resident of Australia.
“Sure,” he concedes, “but I would still apply that 20-minute rule to discover what’s important, so I’m not sure how much all that experience counts. There are other things: I love reading the dictionary, for instance. Everyone should! It’s an amazing way to discover and define what other people are on about. Or, on the other hand, read something like Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, in which he tells you to love your enemy so you can understand his weaknesses and strengths, and so be able to defeat him.”
As we leave the restaurant, it seems unlikely that the sprightly singer, 69 in May, is the sort who makes enemies. Again, he wishes every waiter, porter and doorman in sight a wonderful day, enquiring after their health and grinning broadly beneath his famous halo of curls. Then he’s off, en route to another interview.
“I love doing these!” he says. “Every one is different!”