Tête-à-Tête Bryan Ferry
Plus, Conya Doss, Robert Plant and more
Every guy who graduates from art school would love to end up as Bryan Ferry. The artist has combined steely intelligence and laid-back wit with suave sex appeal to become a kind of archetypal hero for the sensitive guy. As the frontman for glam-rock pioneer Roxy Music, and then as a successful solo act, Ferry has churned out top-10 singles and number one albums over the course of a few decades—finally earning an overdue Grammy nomination in 2001.
While a contemporary like Bowie might reinvent his image along the way, Ferry is more concerned with the fleeting identity of each song, as keenly evident on his new album, Olympia, which he coproduced. We caught up with him via telephone at his London flat.
Jod Kaftan: You haven’t recorded with Roxy Music since 1973, and now they’re on Olympia. What inspired you to collaborate with your blokes again?
Bryan Ferry: Actually, I was originally going to make this a Roxy album, and then I decided it wasn’t quite the right project for them.
It’s interesting that you had been thinking of making a Roxy Music album after all this time—but why wasn’t it the right fit?
This is very much a song-based album, so what I would like to do is hopefully make a record with them that has a more instrumental bias. It was great to have them in the studio for a short time. They all started at different times. I’ll often work on a track, put it on the side for months or even a year, then come back to it with a bit of fresh perspective.
There’s quite a list of diverse collaborators on Olympia—everyone from Groove Armada and Flea to David Gilmour and the Scissor Sisters. Each track is distinct from the others. Did you specifically approach it that way?
Yes, I would like to think that at the end of the day, hopefully there’s a link between each of the tracks—something that binds them together into an album. But each song, as you say, is its own world. Some are in collaboration with quite different people, and some are just my own thing. And there are a couple that are covers—Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” and Traffic’s “No Face, No Name, No Number.” I like using covers with a familiar kind of haunting quality.
You produced this album with Rhett Davies. Do you enjoy producing something in which you perform?
I see myself as more of a record maker than a singer, though singing is what I do. I like the process of making the songs, and I like working with musicians and directing. I see it as having people in to play themselves and then slightly modifying what they do.
Since you’ve been performing at festivals with Roxy Music in Europe, how does it feel to do older songs like “For Your Pleasure,” which is about teenage fantasies?
It’s like falling off a log, I suppose. I’m very comfortable performing with Roxy. They’re great soloists. Festivals are a very civilized way to play, actually. It’s a good way to see the world.
What’s the story on Olympia’s decidedly fashionista artwork?
It’s Kate Moss. It’s a departure for me to use a really iconic woman on my album cover—a femme fatale yet, which is what Kate is. One of the reasons I called the album Olympia is because of the painting of the same name by Manet, a rather controversial picture of a beautiful courtesan lying on a bed naked with a necklace and shoes.
Perhaps you were just joking around, but you have said that “songwriting is really lonely and terrible,” and I’m wondering if that really is true for you.
It’s just gotten worse! [Laughs.]
Conya Doss / “All in You” / Blu Transition
"You don’t need to dig far beneath the mainstream surface to tap into the indie R&B/soul scene, including teacher turned singer Doss. She teamed with Dwele in the McDonald’s McCafé commercial, and now she’s back with her fifth studio album, featuring this lyrically and melodically rich love song."
Gail Mitchell Billboard senior editor, R&B/hip-hop
Robert Plant / “Angel Dance” / Band of Joy
“A Zeppelin-esque swagger gives Plant’s interpretation of this Los Lobos immigrant song a bite that was tempered on his Raising Sand. Grinding mandolin and guitars dominate with his punishing wail—more ‘Battle of Evermore’ than anything Plant could source from Civil War battlefields.”
Phil Gallo Editor at large, soundspike.com; coauthor, Record Store Days
John Legend & the Roots / “Shine” / Wake Up!
“Why can’t I stop listening to ‘Shine?’ Because it’s an antidote to recession, a country divided and every other bit of bad cable news. Legend’s uplifting delivery and the Roots’ retro-soul appeal make this original number soar. It feels like a classic from another, more hopeful, era.”
Lorraine Ali Contributing editor, Newsweek
Bryan Ferry / “You Can Dance” / Olympia
“Bryan Ferry remains infinitely cool in my mind, and this has all the characteristics of his best material—modern, sexy, confident. Contributions from original Roxy Music member Brian Eno, as well as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Chic’s Nile Rodgers, are signs of good things to come.”
Jason Bentley KCRW music director; host of Morning Becomes Eclectic
How exactly does the music scene differ over there?
The community is smaller. There’s no industry there like there is in L.A. Elbow are massive, but they hang out in the pub, as do a lot of local bands. Manchester is very down to earth. It’s too salty there for anyone to believe the hype.
Since you feature a lot of covers in your solo work—most recently a whole album devoted to Dylan songs—is your approach to them any different than on originals?
Usually I do it with a lot of respect, and sometimes fear, for the original. I guess it comes from my childhood, when I used to listen to a lot of jazz—the first EP I ever bought was the Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis. There’s no singing on that album, but I memorized every note. All of those great jazzers, like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, would put their own stamp on a standard—I always thought that was really interesting.
How did it come about that some of your early-20th-century British art collection was in a benefit exhibition for a cancer charity?
Funny enough, it was held at the Olympia building right nearby. My mother died of cancer, so I’m very keen on the charity. I just felt like I wanted to lend some paintings from my collection. The pieces are all quite different from each other, although together—hopefully like this album—they form a kind of unit.
I’ve also heard you have some beautiful photographs of Marilyn Monroe in your flat. What do you think makes her special?
She really is kind of beautiful to me. There’s a tragic air to her—kind of like Kate Moss—and there’s a haunting quality, even though she was mostly in comedies.
You mention that haunting quality again. Is that something you feel Olympia conveys?
Well, I would hope so, but I don’t know—you tell me. What you try to do on a record is put your feelings on tape, and this represents how I felt.
Do you actually see a Roxy Music album anytime in the near future?
I’d really like to do a score with Roxy. People have always said my music is cinematic, but nobody has ever asked me to do a score. I think that would be quite nice.
Is there a film that you saw and said, “Man, I could have done the score to that!”
Yeah, The Third Man.
—Additional reporting by Cary Georges