It doesn't bother Al Stewart that most people know him for his 1976 song “Year of the Cat.”
“Pretty much everyone I know, people in my kind of bracket, are all known for one song,” the singer-songwriter said Monday in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “I would rather be known for 'Year of the Cat' than 'Disco Duck.'”
Although “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” were his most commercially successful albums, Stewart, who plays the Payomet Performing Arts Center in North Truro next Wednesday, July 18, has toured and recorded for almost 50 years, building a loyal following for his smart, cinematic folk rock songs that are heavily infused with historical and literary references. The Scottish-born singer is best known as the originator and perhaps only practitioner of the historical rock genre.
“I thought there was room for one historical folk rock singer in the world,” he said. With a knack for finding just the right incident, character or era and pairing it with a complementary melody, Stewart's songs explore the French Revolution, the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator, the Cold War, Josephine Baker, aviator Amy Johnson, Warren Harding and Europe between the world wars, just to name a few topics. He's probably the only person every to write a pop song about William McKinley.
Stewart's early albums featured folk-pop songs about love and relationships, but after a “love affair that went wrong,” he felt he couldn't write about love anymore, or “I'd write this particular [love] song the rest of my life,” he said. After a few isolated forays into historical-based songs (“News from Spain” on 1972's “Orange”), he put out “Past, Present and Future” featuring songs about the seer Nostradamus, post-World War II Britain and World War I Admiral Sir John Fisher. He read 50 books and spent four years writing “Road to Moscow,” about the German army's invasion of the Soviet Union and the treatment of captured Russian soldiers.
“I thought it was not commercial, but it outsold my first four albums,” Stewart said of “Past, Present and Future.” The followup, “Modern Times,” was an even bigger hit and was his first record produced by Alan Parsons. “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” followed, both also produced by Parsons and both featuring songs with historical and literary origins.
“If 100 people were doing it, there wouldn't be enough work to go around,” Stewart said of the historical rock niche. “But because no one else is specializing in it, I've kind of got the field to myself. A lot of people like history, so it worked out really well.”
Asked if there was a topic he'd tried to write about but had not been able to pull together, he said he'd tried to write about the Katyn massacre in Poland in 1940, which involved the Soviet secret police slaughtering many of the country's intelligentsia. He said he couldn't find the right angle and tone so it wouldn't be too grisly but would convey the horror of the incident. More successful was a new song about the many notable people who stayed at the Ritz Hotel in Paris during World War II, including Ernest Hemingway. Toward the end of the war, not knowing the Germans had left, Hemingway was said to have led a group of French partisans to liberate the hotel. “It's said they drank 150 bottles of champagne that night,” Stewart said.
Stewart doesn't write about contemporary matters, saying he prefers to have at least 30 years of distance from his subject, because it can take that long for hindsight to reveal the truth. “You run the risk of basically getting everything wrong if you write about it at the time,” he said.
Stewart tours extensively, often playing solo or as a duo with another guitarist or percussionist. He's played some shows with a Chicago band called Empty Pockets, and done several where he plays one of his classic albums in its entirety. “For people who know the record, it's nice to see it come alive,” he said. The Payomet show is being billed as “An Acoustic Evening with Al Stewart.”
With 16 studio albums and three live albums, Stewart has a lot of material to choose from, and tells of playing back-to-back shows in which he didn't repeat a single song. While he still writes new songs, “Sparks of Ancient Light,” released in 2008, may be his last album of new material (the live “Uncorked” came out in 2010).
“People don't buy records anymore,” he said, explaining why he won't be recording anytime soon. He didn't rule out recording new material and releasing individual songs digitally, however. “I'm thinking about that,” he said.
Among his fans, “Year of the Cat” tends to be far down the list of favorite songs, Stewart said, although he almost always includes it in his sets. Will he play it at Payomet? Probably.
“I don't mind playing it,” he said. “People like it. If you write anything that people like, it's a bonus.
At Payomet Performing Arts Center
Highlands Center, North Truro
Wednesday, July 18
Information and tickerts: 508-349-2929, payomet.org