Restless : Leo Sayer
interview by Inga Walton
The road to global pop music stardom rarely runs smooth, as evidenced by the countless scandals, addictions, melt-downs and bizarre behaviour, court appearances and career train-wrecks gleefully chronicled by the media, often as vicarious public spectacles of collective schadenfreude.
So it comes as no surprise that Gerard Hugh ‘Leo’ Sayer has weathered his own fair share of set-backs in a dynamic and enduring career spanning four decades, twenty albums, and some fifty million in worldwide sales. Unlike numerous of his peers who succumbed to the twin demons of drug and alcohol abuse, Sayer’s demons turned out to be the two managers who swindled him.
“It’s just made me stronger, a little bit more careful, and more focussed on what I really do best. Also I’m definitely more determined. And … anyhow, everybody in this business – particularly the big guys – has been ripped off somewhere along the line, so I’m in pretty good company!” Sayer says mischievously.
“For sure, there were some very low points, but because my big rip-offs happened later on in my career, I still always had lots of work to do. I was established, so my work went on. I guess I just worked, and worked a lot harder.”
Reflecting on his career resurgence, Sayer admits, “I had to do some pretty awful shows to pay the bills, but that kept me sane and centred. And I gradually dragged myself back up the ladder. It’s something I’m quite proud of … Now, whenever people call me ‘a legend’, I think it’s my survival against the odds that makes me worthy of the title.”
Though Sayer seems to have made peace with the peaks and troughs of his life, the process represented a profound challenge to his outlook. “Yes, and isn’t that a good thing to have to do? I took stock. I went right back to the songs I’d written, songs of an earlier struggle, a desire for attention, a striving to mark myself out, to find a place in this new world that I knew nothing about at the time,” he confides. “I had to be faithful to those words, those stories, those songs. They were my mantra, so I went back to the places in my mind that forced out those words, and lived and visited them once again. Now I absolutely AM those songs. They are my philosophy. They probably always were, but now we are conjoined through a second experience, one that echoes the first in its journey, and another even greater struggle.”
These days it’s difficult to upset Sayer’s sanguine perspective, “I like to think I’ve been severely tested, but it’s all for the good. I’m stronger and even more convinced of the eventual inevitability, reality and ownership of my struggle.”
The native of Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, began honing his distinctive voice as a child in the church choir. Sayer’s enviable vocal range and ringing falsetto is still in top condition, “I’m very proudly self-trained. If you can’t do it for yourself, don’t do it, I’d say. This is for rock and pop of course. In theatre, opera or classical it has to be different. I just think my business should only be populated by those who have some kind of natural talent, that’s all. We’d still have a highly subscribed music business …” he believes.
Sayer’s ill-fated appearance in the controversial fifth series of the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 has no doubt informed his opinion about the exploitative nature of most so-called ‘reality’ shows. “I have no time for ‘Fame’ schools or ‘Idol’. They create mediocrity as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s manipulative, heartbreakingly pathetic rubbish,” he contends. “I mean all that fuss with Susan Boyle [on Britain’s Got Talent] just to disprove that good looking Beyoncé-type people aren’t the only people who can sing. We already knew that!”
It’s remarkable to consider that Sayer’s own creative path was heading in a different direction altogether, “Oh, I wanted to be an artist, a painter. Music wasn’t important. I just drew and painted all day long in those days. It was all I did. I was a dyslexic kid, middle child, who took refuge in art. The art class in my secondary school became my haven of peace, one place where I wasn’t bullied by my classmates. I painted over the walls, my desk, paper, board, anything,” Sayer remembers. “I left school and went to art school. My very ‘straight’ parents, terrified that I would become a ‘Bohemian’, insisted I went into a graphic design class.”
Inevitably, Sayer’s restless spirit would not be repressed, “I was a bit of a rebel, spending most of my college time with the ‘Fine Artists’, and got ejected after completing only two years of a three year course. There was great revenge, however, when I got a job at a design studio within two weeks.”
If Sayer still sounds a little nostalgic about devoting his time to a different type of pen-and-paper, he still draws. “Most of my creative brain is tuned to think musically these days. I’m not patient enough with the graphic arts anymore, which is silly because I still have a keen visual eye. Amazing to think that up to the age of twenty-two, to draw and paint was all I could do”.
Sayer won the Grammy Award for the ‘Best Rhythm & Blues Song’ (1977) for ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’, also his first US #1 single. “I was up for two awards, also Record of the Year. My plane from the UK got me in late, so I missed the first award, which was for the Grammy [we won]. Co-writer Vini Poncia picked that up. I was so jet-lagged, but it was a lovely day.” As is so often the case in Sayer’s industry, the aftermath was somewhat less photo-worthy. “It [the award] is broken, and they [the Recording Academy] want to charge me US$750 to get it fixed!”
In 2005, Sayer moved to Sydney, and became a citizen on Australia Day 2009. “I’ve always been inspired when in Australia. As a matter of fact, some of my best songs were written while here. A lot of it is the ‘living in exile’ thing, but funnily enough I’m not yearning to be anywhere else these days. I’ve finally come home”.
Sayer’s work has traversed pop, rock, dance, remixing and performances with an orchestra, “It’s how you evolve as a person, how you ‘meld’ with the times, and how ‘relevant’ you are to the person you’ve now become. If you are a switched-on, curious person, you’ll always be going forward”, he reflects. “I think songwriters take their songs with them, so you’ll always be open to re-inventing your own work, and often that of your contemporaries”.
It is the craft of song-writing that Sayer still finds the most rewarding, “Whenever I’ve created a good song, I feel good. Those are the greatest moments. I’m not one for focussing on the adulation, it’s just unimportant for me. I love the raw construction of the work, creating something from nothing, that’s what drives me”.
With national tour dates scheduled to promote his new album, what motivates Sayer to continue being a ‘one man band’? “Just keeping the music honest, and seeing my intuition (which is all I can trust) occasionally coming good. That makes drawing a few blanks to get there all worth it for me!” he explains. “It must help that I love my life and my job, and in that I know I’m very fortunate, as so many people out there are unhappy with their destiny … I never make plans, and don’t have any goals. I’m sixty-five, for Crissake!” Sayer laughs.
LEO SAYER’s latest album, Restless Years, was released in January 2015, produced by Leo Sayer with ARIA Award winning Engineer, Mitch Cairns (Russell Morris’ Sharkmouth). The album was recorded at Little Red Jet Studios in Melbourne and mixed by the legendary John Hudson of London’s Mayfield studios who, like Leo, now calls Australia home. The album was written by Sayer along with Albert Hammond on four songs and Frank Farrell on one. Playing on the album are Johnny Salerno (drums), Mitch Cairns (bass), Bill Risby (keyboards), Danny Spencer (guitars), Mark Kennedy (percussion), Ross Irwin (trumpet and flugelhorn), Paul Williamson (saxophones), Keiran Conrau (trombone), and Natasha Stuart, Vika Bull and Linda Bull on backing vocals – leosayer.com
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.
This article originally appeared as Leo Sayer: One Man Band, in Trouble October 2009