John might become a lot more visible with the release of his solo album Mississippi Mile. While we know about Hall & Oates' love of American soul music, this album reveals Oates' appreciation for American roots rock. He recorded it with some heavyweight Nashville cats, and while the songs are familiar, they are given a uniquely John Oates touch.
Hall & Oates is the best-selling duo of all time, but we don't hear much from John in the media. It turns out this soft-spoken artist has a lot to say – when you give him a chance. Whether he's talking about the music that inspired him, his partner Daryl Hall, or the fun he had in completely transforming an old Hall & Oates song, it's a treat to get to know this talented - and very punctual - artist a little better.
John Oates: Oh yeah, I know. It's one of my bad qualities as a musician: I'm actually punctual.
Songfacts: With the songs you've written with Daryl Hall over the years, are there any that stick out as favorites that you still enjoy performing?
John: Well, Daryl and I still actively tour, and when we do, the songs that we play are the ones we like. And fortunately, for the fans, and for us, we like a lot of our music. We like almost all of them. In fact, we like all of them. We're proud of everything we've done, or else we wouldn't have done it. We were never the kind of band that record companies dictated to or told what to do. We wrote the best songs we could. We were very fortunate that a lot of those became big hits. And these songs have stood the test of time. So we're proud of pretty much everything we've done, and when we play live, we play those songs and we're happy to play them.
Songfacts: Talk me through the songwriting process when you write with Daryl. Is there a typical way you do things, or is it different every time?
John: Honestly, we don't really write anymore. The last time we wrote was 2001. So it's been over 10 years since we've even written a song together. Our songwriting process back in the old days, the rules were: no rules. And I'm not being facetious. There were no rules to the way we worked together and no set pattern. Sometimes we've written songs that have been true collaborations from the beginning to the end, we've written songs where one of us may have just helped the other person; for instance, Daryl might have had a melody and a set of chord changes and I might have been involved with the lyrics. There's songs where I've written the chorus and the hook and Daryl's come in and worked on the verse with me. We've had collaborators who have contributed to some of those songs over the years, like Janna Allen and Sara Allen. So really, there's no one set way of working.
Songfacts: One of the things that's fascinating about you as an artist is that there is really no genre that contains what you've done. I think about your early work, songs like "Sara Smile" and "She's Gone," and those are, for lack of a better term, blue-eyed soul songs. And then in the '80s you did some of the more tech-savvy kinds of songs, like "Maneater." And now you're doing something that's kind of roots rock and blues. Is there any genre that you can't do?
Now, what I'm doing right now with my solo work is I'm exploring the roots of my music and my inspiration prior to Hall & Oates. And that's something that most people don't even think about. They probably assume I was born with a mustache singing "Maneater." But quite to the contrary, I started playing guitar at 5 years old. By the time I met Daryl at 19, I was playing for what, 14 years? So during that 14-year period, a lot of stuff happened. Fourteen years is a whole lifetime for a lot of musicians. I played in bands, I played solo folk and folk blues and coffee houses, I played in blues bands, played in R&B bands, all sorts of things.
So what I'm doing now is I'm going back to the stuff that really turned me on and really was so influential in making me the musician that I became. And it's really all about everything that happened before Hall & Oates. I think when Hall & Oates got together, I brought a traditional American folk-y approach, and it was something Daryl wasn't really even aware of. And Daryl brought a lot more of the urban R&B side. And when we blended those together, we eventually created a sound. So now I'm leaning much more on my individual inspirations and individual roots.
Songfacts: One of the songs you re-do on this album is "You Make My Dreams Come True." As you explain it in the bio, it just sort of happened as you were messing around. But what do you think makes that song so flexible that it can be done in different ways?
John: It's a great song, simple as that. Good songs are good songs. They stand on their own, they can be stripped away of the production. Here's the thing: I make a very big distinction between a record and a song. They are two distinctly different things. Perhaps the average music fan doesn't do that, but I do. A song is what happens when a writer sits down on their individual instrument and creates something out of nothing. And there's magic involved and there's inspiration involved. A record is what happens when you take that and you bring it into the studio and producers, engineers, technology and other musicians all get involved. Then it becomes a record.
Songfacts: How often do these "happy accidents" happen?
John: I think that casual experimentation and being open to the possibilities of almost anything is the key to any kind of creativity. When they sit down to write, some writers have a plan: "Hey, I'm gonna write this song and it's gonna be about this, and it's gonna be this style," and I'm sure there's a lot of songwriters who can use that method. For me, personally, it's whatever strikes me at the moment. And sometimes it happens through luck, sometimes it's divine inspiration, sometimes it can be a casual conversation or it could be almost anything, really. But I think the idea is that as a songwriter you keep your antenna up and you're always aware of what's happening around you verbally, sonically, emotionally, and then you try to tap into that.
Songfacts: Do you ever annoy people around you because you have to stop in the middle of something to write a song?
John: Yeah, more than likely it's the other way around. More than likely, I get annoyed because I want to write something or I have an idea to write something and I have some other responsibility (laughs).
Songfacts: I wanted to ask you about some of the people that play on this new album - Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush and those guys. What was it like to work in the studio with them?
John: Well, I've been going to Nashville since the early '90s. I would go sporadically and I would write songs with various people. And little by little, I realized more and more that it was a place where I really belonged. But it took me a long time to finally get there.
Two or three years ago I made an album called 1000 Miles of Life and that was my first real recording experience in Nashville. And on that album, I just went really on dumb luck and blind faith, and through recommendations of various people, I reached out to a lot of people I didn't know. People like Jerry and Sam and those guys, Béla Fleck. And I didn't know them, but through mutual friends I reached out to them. They were very gracious, very willing to help me and get involved with my project. And since that time we've become friends and we've worked together in a lot of other ways.
I felt like I belonged, but at the same time I realized that the bar was set really high. It was a good thing for me to accept and realize, and I think it made me try harder on every level: my singing, my playing, my writing, on every level I felt like if I was going to be in that arena with those type of players and musicians, that I needed to step up in a lot of ways. So it was a very good thing for me, because it really forced me to reevaluate where I was at as a musician and to take it a little bit more seriously.
Songfacts: A lot of people are surprised when they go to places like Nashville. They have this impression of the South, that people are simple and they're slower. And then they go to Nashville and they work with some of these guys and they realize just how good they are at what they do.
John: Exactly. The whole level of professionalism from top to bottom in Nashville is on a very, very high level. Everything from the infrastructure of the recording industry, from the guys who handle the equipment and the gear to the recording studios to the engineers to the musicians, the studio musicians, the songwriters, everything across the board is really at a high level. And people are very serious about what they do. They have a passion for music. And that kind of feeling really, really inspired me in a lot of ways. And I like making music there, because it's so easy to do. Everything's at your fingertips, people are willing to help - they go out of their way to make things happen, and it's just a great environment, really, for any kind of music.
Songfacts: Did it change the way you write songs?
John: Well, it's just where I'm coming from right now. It's the music that I liked when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I played everything from early rock and roll to folk and folk blues to R&B. And I'm taking all those elements now and I'm really finding my own voice as a solo artist much more by tapping into those early influences more so than anything that I've ever done with Hall & Oates. And these musicians are just great musicians, they can play anything. So it really doesn't matter.
But I'm just feeling that every bit of music that I want to make now is very organic, it's all about playing with people I like, it's all about being face to face with great musicians and interacting and making magic in a very organic way. And that's really all I care about.
Songfacts: One of the things that I thought about as I was listening to the new album was, Boy, why did you wait so long to make solo music?
John: Well, during the '80s, and even the '70s for that matter, I was working really hard with Hall & Oates. We worked so much, constantly, and I'd do a few side projects here and there. But I don't know, I just never really had a collection of songs or a direction that I felt was important enough for me to make that kind of statement. I didn't want to make a solo album just to say I made one. It really wasn't until early 2000 that I started to assemble some songs, and I thought it was a good time. Daryl and I weren't working that much. I had really established a great personal life and was really comfortable in my own skin. And that's when I started doing it. I didn't see any need to do it if there really wasn't a reason for it.
Songfacts: So is this going to lead to other projects? What else do you have planned as far as solo work?
John: I don't know. I would like to see this through. I think it's a great record, I think it's a lot of fun. I've been playing these songs live with a new band and the reaction to the new material is amazing, probably the best reaction I've ever gotten. So people love it, a lot of positive reinforcement. I wanted to see this through, see where it takes me. I'm into playing live, I'm planning a lot of shows. And we'll do that first, and then I'm probably going to get into songwriting. I just feel like after having done an album of predominantly cover music, it's time to maybe do some originals. And whether they're original songs for me or for someone else, I'm not really sure.
Songfacts: What about as far as Hall & Oates, what do you have planned for that act?
John: We're touring. We tour consistently, but not frequently. That's the best way to put it, I think. We don't go out for long periods of time, we do it in short blocks. We both enjoy doing that. It's a great band, great show, great songs, and the fans love it. As long as that's still out there for us, we'll probably still continue to do it. In terms of making records, I don't think so. Daryl's doing a solo album. We're probably not going to make any records, not in the near future.
Songfacts: I think it's amazing that you've stayed together as long as you have. What is the key to being able to get along with another performer like that for so long?
John: That we don't see each other too often. (laughing) We just get together, we play, we enjoy the playing. We're proud of the legacy of music that we've created over the years, and we have a great fan base and loyal fans. And we respect them and want to be out there for them and we enjoy it. But if the day ever came where we didn't like to do it anymore, then I guess we'd stop.
Songfacts: I don't sense that you have any regrets about maybe being overshadowed by Daryl. He seems to get all the attention. Has that ever been an issue for you?
John: Nope. Not at all. He's a very flamboyant out-front personality, and that's his style, and that's really where a lot of his strength lies. I do what I do and I'm satisfied with it. Maybe that's another reason we've been able to stay together is we don't get in the other's way personally.
Songfacts: I wonder if maybe just as you're underrated as a performer, is he underrated, do you think, as a musician? Because he's sort of, like you said, the flamboyant one, but what are his musical instincts that maybe don't get recognized due to his personality?
John: Boy, that's an unusual question. I don't know. All I know is he's all about his music. It's really all he cares about. He's got a few little hobbies and things that he's interested in, but in terms of where he's coming from as a person, music and creativity is really all that matters to him. And that's really where his strong point lies. Because he's so committed to it. But so am I. So I don't know. I don't think there's any weaknesses in what he brings to the table. He's a great songwriter, he's a great singer, he's a great musician.
Songfacts: I've been following Hall & Oates all these years, and this is the most I've ever heard you talk.
John: Well, you should have called me sooner.
We spoke with John on April 7, 2011. Get more at johnoates.com.
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