Soul legend Bobby Womack has returned to the studio for his first new album in 12 years, helmed by Damon Albarn and XL Recordings boss and Gil Scott-Heron producer Richard Russell. Get our new issue, Q309, which is on UK newsstands now for full details of the album which is out in May, and features a collaboration with Lana Del Rey, but in the meantime here’s an extended, exclusive chat with Womack.
How the devil are you?
“I’m great. I’m going in for a heart operation but from there I’m going on the road. I want to be in perfect shape, the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life, because this is the most important thing in my life.”
You looked well doing the Gorillaz shows…
“That just woke me up. It ain’t over to the thin lady sings. The fact I’m bringing my brothers The Valentinos out of retirement to open up the show for me… I’m raring to go.”
What have you got planned for your shows?
“You can’t plan a show, because I don’t want a show: I want an event! The whole thing I’m stressing is the old school is great, because I still don’t see a new one. All I see is people copying, using people’s tracks and rapping on top, that’s bullshit and they’re getting paid for it. I’m tired of the bullshit, so if people want to stand up and testify, stand up and testify it’s the only way to get rid of it.”
Presumably that was the good thing about the Gorillaz dates they were events like Glastonbury rather than shows?
“That was a big thing for me because I hadn’t played, didn’t want to play and was too nervous to go out. I hadn’t heard of Gorillaz, never. I said the only thing I remember when I quit performing was a group called The Monkees, So I just said from The Monkees to the Gorillaz, take me on! I never expected none of it, but it kept getting better and better and Damon said we’re going to record together man!”
And now that record is nearly finished?
“Yep, The Bravest Man In The Universe… Let me tell you about my co production team, it’s Damo, Richard and the engineer Chris. They’re doing a fantastic job, and you’ve got to understand I’ve been around for a long time, with The Stones, Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Keith Richards, Janis Joplin… it just goes on. They let me sing a cappella, they let me play the guitar on everything. They encouraged me because I hadn’t picked up my guitar in 20 years.”
How was your playing?
“I was the badest guitar player I know. I play my style, Jimi Hendrix plays his style, Eric Clapton his, but when it comes down to it we’re all on the same page. You can’t loose a God’s gift. You can throw it away, but sometimes he can be better to you than you are to yourself. He gives it back to when he thinks you can handle it. I had to go a long way, I had to clean up the drugs, all the negative things in my way. But now I’m clean and free and I’ve been that way for 20 years. I just said to them, Have no fear Womack is here! I know what I’m doing. The only thing, and the most important thing, is that Damon helped me reach out – and I’m not trying to crossover, I’ve been crossed over since the beginning – he made it clear to me you could put me up against any album [out there] and they would have a time.”
What was Damon like to work with?
“Damon was like genius to know a genius. He would lay tracks out that sound like me. It was easy because this was my sound, my kind of music.”
You were the boss in the studio?
“Oh yeah, I’ve got to be the boss. Could you imagine a car full of people with nobody driving? I don’t think so. The most important thing was I was able communicate very easily with all the people. Damon had his team and I had my team and they came together as one. That’s why you can’t beat them.”
How was it having the record label boss, Richard Russell from XL Recordings who are releasing the album, in the studio with you?
“To be honest with you I didn’t know who he was. That was the first time in my history, and I’ve been singing 50 years, that the president of the company be playing percussion! I’m looking at the guy thinking, why did you bring him in here? We played You Never Said Nothing and half way through the song he was talking charge and coming up with ideas and I said, I didn’t know you were the president of the company he said. I’m not, I resign! This is where I want to be! This is where I’ve always been, making music which is the freest thing you can do in life.”
What was the biggest difference to making a record with those guys and the way you worked in the past?
“The difference was there was no getting high. There was no cocaine flying, no whisky bottles, no champaign bottles, no women crawling all over the floor! I did wonder what it had to do with recording, but I was into it. I loved it. Then one day I woke up and I was tired with it. If you get the same thing over and over again you start saying give me scrambled eggs, give me boiled eggs, give me over easy, you know trying to make them taste different.”
So you were like monks in the studio this time?
“Yeah I got into a health kick, what to eat and what no to eat. I was taught if you put something into your body that you shouldn’t, like sugar [Womack is a diabetic], you’re going to have a reaction. A serious reaction. So I knew it was serious and I just thank God that I’m still standing.”
You’ve got some guests on the album…
“Yeah, but Gil Scott Heron blew me out. He’s been gone for a while and he’s a favourite of mine. Me and Richard got talking and he told me Gil wanted to record Harry Hippie but just never got to that point. All of the soul artist either die of overdoses or drugs. Doing too much. They’re very sensitive people.”
How have you managed to survive?
“A man can do two things: grow up or grow out. I’m enjoying life and I thank God and my fans around the world who stood by me. The progression was first of all if you do drugs all the time you become paranoid and you react before a reaction happens. But when you sing from the spirit and experience – I nearly cried in the studio from a couple of songs – that’s the truth, it’s on record. You can’t kill soul, because if you don’t have feelings you have nothing. It’s about communicating without trying to, just saying what you’re feeling and the people can relate because they’ve been to same place.”
And that’s why you’re The Bravest Man In The Universe?
“Yep, and then you’ve got another album coming called The Best Yet To Come with me, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Snoop Dogg…. That is showing what the old school is about. I’ve got to wait until about six months after this album to release it because if I released it at the same time I would have a discombobulation!”
For more head to Bobbywomack.com, plus get Q309 now for the full details of his album with Damon and co.