Guest of Honor

Bryan Ferry Reveals the Source of His Songs and Style

The groundbreaking musician -- and dapper gentleman -- weighs in on The Smiths and our co-host's haircut.

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Kevin Winter / Getty
Kevin Winter / Getty

In 1971, the English rock scene was teeming with blues-rockers. America was full of garage and folk rockers. And then, seemingly from outer space, appeared Roxy Music – a glammed-up bunch of art kids with their eyes on the future. Bryan Ferry was the group’s founder and lead songwriter. He was handsome and polished; his voice an eerie vibrato. The band’s sound was hugely influential on glam, punk, and later new wave music. Mr Ferry also cultivated an equally-popular solo career that continues today, and this week, at age 69, he released a new album, “Avonmore.”

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Brendan Francis Newnam: So the songs on this album, like much of your music, they’re multi-layered, there’s a lot of texture, there’s so much going on. And I just have the basic question: How do they begin? In a notebook? On a piano?

Bryan Ferry: Yeah, they usually start on a piano. Probably late at night, normally. And then they go through lots of different stages, as you can imagine. I take them to the studio at some point and I start working them up from the piano onwards, you know. And add various musicians here and there and over a period of time…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is it a melody or a lyric?

Bryan Ferry: …Oh, it’s usually the melody that begins, and the lyrics come much later. I kind of paint myself into a corner, and then I have to write the lyrics.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Then you’re forced. Maybe this didn’t apply to this current album, but I saw a short doc made about your creation of “Olympia.” Some of your songs have a long evolution time. Like, like you work on them for years.

Bryan Ferry: Yeah! Sometimes, yeah. In the same way that a painter will have various pictures on the go, you know. And you sometimes leave them for awhile and go back to them later. And you have different inspirations for different moods for different times, you know. Yeah. And I have lots of different musicians, as you do, come to my studio and work with me. And then I’ll say, “Hell, here’s another song I’d like you to play on,” and so on and so forth.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you work with a lot of collaborators. On this album you have Nile Rodgers, who’s been on this show. What a wonderful, energetic human being.

Bryan Ferry: He is amazing, isn’t he?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah!

Bryan Ferry: I first met Nile over here in New York, 83′ I think it was. When I was dong the “Boys and Girls” album. He played on that. Then he’s played on several of my albums since then.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, so you worked with Nile, also Mark Knopfler plays a little bit on this album.

Bryan Ferry: Yeah. And Johnny Marr as well, who I first met when actually a friend of mine was producing The Smiths. A guy called John Porter — he used to play bass in Roxy at one point. And that’s when I met Johnny, when he was really just starting out with The Smiths.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Were you a fan of the Smiths?

Bryan Ferry: I like them. I like them very much. I never actually saw them live.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Would you ever cover a Smiths song?

Bryan Ferry: Yeah, I would love to, one day, yeah. I’ll see what he has, if he has anything in mind, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Because I wonder… you’ve met with great success with your covers. It’s been an important part of your solo career. I mean the beginning of your solo career.

Bryan Ferry: Yeah, that’s right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is there a criteria for those songs? I mean you’ve done everything from Bob Dylan to Cole Porter.

Bryan Ferry: It has to be a song that I have an affection for, obviously, that I love, you know? Sometimes you just have a feeling for a song and you don’t really have words to describe it. You just think “Oh, well this is me,” or, “I think I can imagine doing this,” or bringing something of myself to it.

I still, you know, like doing my own songs. Which was my career in Roxy, but when I started doing covers — the first solo album — it was like a holiday away from my own writing, kind of thing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well to use the art term, I think at one point you described it as your covers as “Readymades.”

Bryan Ferry: Yeah. Duchamp. Absolutely, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The Duchampian concept of finding an object and presenting it in a different context.

Bryan Ferry: Trying to put your own stamp on it. Personalize it, yeah. So it sometimes feels a bit like that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So speaking of Readymades: You went to art school. You taught art for a little while. Your mentor at one point was the British pop artist Richard Hamilton. And you’ve talked about what you brought to Roxy Music was your love of Black soul music and your kind of art school background. I wonder, how does Art, like with a capital A, play in to your songwriting process now?

Bryan Ferry: I try and write songs and make records that I hope will last a couple of years, and not be totally throwaway or disposable, which is, I guess, part of the kind of pop music aesthetic. That just “here today, gone tomorrow,” kind of…

Brendan Francis Newnam: You crank it out as part of a zeitgeist.

Bryan Ferry: …Yeah. But I kind of, I suppose I have the feeling that I want to be able to sing this in ten year’s time. So that it’ll have some longevity.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Why do you work in the pop idiom?

Bryan Ferry: I’m not good enough to be a jazz pianist, for a start. But I can… I think I’m a singer I guess essentially. And, I don’t know, I like guitars. I like working with some of the kind of… the cruder elements of rock and roll, I suppose.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. That’s interesting because the word “crude” is not something one thinks of normally when thinking of Bryan Ferry. “Elegant.” “Dapper.”  These are kinda the words that come to mind. I’m sitting across from you now and I can attest that you are a well dressed person —

Bryan Ferry: I made an effort when I heard I was coming to see you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: — Well, I’m glad my reputation precedes me! I read a quote that said, “Bryan Ferry is the type of musician who is more likely to redesign a hotel room than destroy it.”

Bryan Ferry: It’s a good quote — I like that. It seems to have stuck around. I suppose so. When you travel a lot you see a lot of hotel rooms… but I don’t carry a swatch of fabrics around with me!

Brendan Francis Newnam: No, no I’m not saying you’re an interior designer! But I guess what I’m saying is, your aesthetic comes form an admiration of Cary Grant and this kind of old world —

Bryan Ferry: Oh, I love him, yeah. And old world charm — it goes a long way, yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But that was a rebellious act in 1972. When everyone had long hair and jeans…

Bryan Ferry: People were throwing TVs out of windows, yeah. Yeah, I know, that’s right.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So where did that come from?

Bryan Ferry: I suppose I grew up seeing a lot of great movies, you know?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. I mean, so did Ray Davies, and he doesn’t dress as well as you.

Bryan Ferry: Well he’s OK! But yeah. The musicians that I loved as a kid were kind of the great jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and so on, you know? Miles Davis. Always sort of cool dressers, you know?

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s true, yeah. That’s interesting.

Bryan Ferry: And they look very… they’re kind of hip guys, you know? And so, that was always a kind of a role model for me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. Well, my last question appeals to your knowledge of fashion: I just got my hair cut yesterday. What do we think? Is it all right?

Bryan Ferry: I think very, very good.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Cuz it was longer. It was down to here.

Bryan Ferry: Oh, really? Oh, wow.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And I got it tidied up. I knew you were coming in and I had it tidied up.

Bryan Ferry: Well, I’m glad to have been a part of this process.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I mean, you can’t just have Bryan Ferry come to your studio and not prepare for it.

Bryan Ferry: Cool.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Thank you so much for coming by and chatting with us.

Bryan Ferry: Pleasure, thank you.