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A Time To Love - Press Release


A Sense of Wonder

After four decades as a musician, Stevie Wonder feels the same ecstatic enjoyment he always did. So why has he been quiet for 10 years? Simon Hattenstone asks him about sex, God ... and that difficult umpteenth album

Simon Hattenstone
Saturday November 26, 2005

When Steveland Judkins was a little boy, he decided to jump from the roof of the shed in his back yard. He wanted to take risks, live a little, like other kids. Yes, he was blind, but what was the worst that could happen? His brother warned him that his mother was coming, and if she saw him jump she'd beat the stuffings out of him. Steveland jumped, and at that moment his mother walked past and miraculously caught him in her arms. Sure, she went on to beat the stuffings out of him, but it had been worth it. And he'd known he'd be OK. He always had faith.

Similarly, he has always been a raging optimist. But he has said that if he could see - specifically, if he could see the horrors we inflict on each other - he might be less willing to believe that love conquers all. "I might have been made militant by what I'd see."

Steveland Judkins grew into Steveland Morris when his mother, who till then had brought her children up single-handedly, remarried. Steveland Morris grew into Little Stevie Wonder after being spotted by Motown boss Berry Gordy at the age of 10 and dubbed the boy wonder. And Little Stevie grew into a six-footer, lost his Little moniker, sold 100m-plus albums, and became one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music.

A couple of weeks ago he was in London, explaining why it had taken him 10 years to make an album of new music, and why his faith is still undimmed. He became emotional when he talked about the pain of the past couple of years: the deaths of his first wife, singer Syreeta Wright (who wrote the lyrics for Signed, Sealed, Delivered), and his brother Larry Hardaway. And he became equally emotional when he talked of the joy of the past few years: his second wife, fashion designer Kai Millard, gave birth to two sons (children numbers six and seven for Wonder) - Kailand, who is now four, and Mandla, who was born this year on May 13, Wonder's own birthday. The wheel of life has kept turning, and he has continued to thank his God.

I first experienced "Stevie Time" at a press conference at the Savoy hotel. He answered question after question, occasionally stopping to knock out a tune on the keyboard in front of him. After an hour, Paul Gambaccini, who chaired the event, announced, "OK, one last question." "No," Wonder said. "Five more questions." And another five. And another. And so it went, till every last question had been answered.

A couple of days later he gave one of the greatest gigs I have seen, at the historic Abbey Road studios. His voice was superb, by turns swooping and soaring, honeyed and roaring, cajoling and bullying. There was a song for everybody - the politicised funk of Living For The City, the soufflé-light ballad You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, the ecstatic spiritual As, the belligerent reggae of Master Blaster, the rocking Moog of Superstition, and of course the unapologetic schmaltz of I Just Called To Say I Love You. Has one man ever appealed to so many audiences?

Wonder's new record is called A Time 2 Love, and it is something of a return to form - it's neither great nor consistent, but there are a handful of blastin', funkin', lovin' grooves to remind us of Wonder's genius. Although his message may not have changed, the context has. It has always been a time to love in Wonder's world, but now even more so with the threat of global terror. He acknowledges the cynical and dangerous, rails against the forces of hate, but ultimately his hope wins out.

There is a sense of rebirth at the gig. He plays the best songs from the new album, and his daughter Aisha Morris joins him on stage for Positivity. Aisha was first heard, crying, on Isn't She Lovely when she was only a few hours old. Now she is closing in on 30, beautiful and embarrassed, and singing Isn't He Lovely back to him. It's a yucky-gorgeous moment.

At Abbey Road I get my second dose of Stevie Time. The gig, being recorded for Radio 2, is due to last an hour. But Wonder just plays on and on. After three hours he calls it a day. He's always been like this - once he gets going, he can't stop. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he doesn't obey the conventions of day and night. He often records through the night, and sleeps through the day.

The day after the gig, his entourage is hanging around a London hotel, waiting for him. He is an hour late, but everyone is relaxed. Sure, he will turn up, but not just yet. His brother Milton, who handles his press, is testing me. "You wanna know something? OK, what was wrong with the title of his first album, The 12-Year-Old Genius? Give in? OK, he was only 11 and a half, but we had to say he was 12 because he was too young to play live."

Milton says Wonder is due in a couple of minutes. "What star sign are you?" he asks.

"Capricorn," I say.

"You'll never be short of money, then," he says.

He leaves the room and a few minutes later reappears with his brother on his arm. Wonder is now 55, heavily framed and paunched. He wears a grey-black outfit, with "By God's Grace" stitched into his shirt alongside the tree of life. His receding hair is corn-rowed from the back of his head down to his shoulders. He looks so different from the cool, skinny Afro-haired Wonder of the 70s.

He shakes my hand and sits down. He seems uneasy. There is muttering about the absence of a keyboard. I'd been told that he likes to have a keyboard with him, that it is almost an extension of his body. Instead, he taps away at a Braille machine.

I ask him where he has been all these years. He smiles. Even he appears bemused by how he could have created so much so quickly in the early days and so little recently. "Ten years is a long time, but I think when you're in it and you're doing life, you don't really see how long that is." He is totting up the years as he talks. "If I really did the math, well, between 1963 and 1973, a lot of things happened, like Blowin' In The Wind, Uptight, If You Really Love Me, I Was Made To Love Her, Once In My Life ..."

As he mentions every title, I hear the giddy choruses in my head and want to sing along. "Then you think 1995-2005 and obviously there was not much that I did musically." He sounds apologetic. "But a lot of personal family stuff happened. A lot of changes happened - good, bad and wonderful."

People forget that artists have lives to get on with, I say. He grins. "That's why I don't regret the time. Perhaps if I'd done 10 years [doing nothing but music] between 95 and 2005, what I had to say by 2005 might be boring."

His career now spans five decades and breaks down into distinct periods: three amazingly productive, one less so, the drought, and now, hopefully, a late burst of creativity. At 12, as Little Stevie Wonder, he topped the US charts with his third single, the harmonica stomper Fingertips Part 2. He briefly disappeared, returning with a broken voice and a surge of hits in the late 1960s. Even as Little Stevie he crossed the black-white divide. He also wrote and produced songs for other Motown artists, notably Tears Of A Clown for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever for the Four Tops.

His songs were full of light and air - the best of gospel mixed with the best of soul. His singing and playing, his finger-clicking and foot-tapping, his smile and laughter all suggested the transcendent, the ecstatic.

It wasn't just his music that made him unique: he was a phenomenal businessman. In 1971, he came of age, hired a good lawyer and renegotiated his contract with Gordy. He insisted on autonomy as producer, writer and performer - unheard of at Motown. In 1975, he renegotiated again, for an astonishing $13m. To a great extent, he was a one-man band, playing all the instruments on many tracks. Wonder was a control freak, demanding yet always loved.

From 1972 to 1976 he produced a series of albums (Talking Book, Innervisons, Fulfillingness' First Finale, Songs In The Key Of Life) that rank with any in pop history. He was as influential as the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. He didn't invent a genre but he extended its boundaries every which way. His music nodded to blues and R&B, reggae and jazz, funk and prog rock. But at the heart of everything there was soul. He continued to write for other people, but he was so attached to his music that often he couldn't bear to give it way. Superstition was meant for Jeff Beck, but he kept it for himself. At the age of 26, he peaked with the magnificent double album Songs In The Key Of Life.

During this period, everybody wanted a slice of Wonder - he toured with the Stones, played with John Lennon, hooked up with a number of leftist-liberal political activists. As Wonder matured musically, so he did politically. This synthesis was perhaps most perfectly expressed in Living For The City, a song about poverty, racial tension and hopes dashed. It is as much a soundtrack to the 1970s as Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Songs such as He's Misstra Know-It-All and You Haven't Done Nothin' attacked the corrupt Nixon administration. Wonder's music defined an era, as did his Afro, his bright sweaters and his peaked caps.

Songs In The Key of Life was followed by the ambitious concept album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants in 1979. It was critically mauled and a commercial failure. Despite one more massive-selling album, Hotter Than July, he seemed to lose confidence and began to withdraw. The gap between records grew longer and longer. He occasionally re-entered our lives - more often than not with sentimental schlock such as Ebony And Ivory ( recorded with Paul McCartney) and the ubiquitous I Just Called To Say I Love You. He seemed almost wilfully determined to erase his achievements from public consciousness. But it was impossible. No amount of naffness could detract from his greatness.

Then, after 1995's ghastly punning Conversation Peace, there was nothing.

Did the barren period reflect the fact that so much was happening in his private life? "No," he says. "I think that had very little to do with it at all. I just think that unless you have something you really want to say, you can't be all over the place." Yes, there has been another marriage and new children and tragic deaths, but he still spent most days playing and working out in his recording studio, even if the material didn't come up to scratch.

With few exceptions, popular music artists have found it harder to create as they age. Not least because "pop" has so often been fired by youth, idealism and rebellion. Wonder talks of the need to start with a new canvas every time he goes into the studio, to start all over again. No wonder there has been such a huge gap between records.

Did he fear that he might never again record new music; that he had nothing left to say? "I never felt that. It's when you stop living that you don't have anything to say."

Steveland Judkins was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in May 1950. He was a month premature and overexposure to oxygen in the incubator (common at the time) caused his blindness. His mother Lula took him and his five siblings to Detroit when he was three.

Does he remember the first time he heard music? "I remember when I was three or four listening to the radio and being curious about how the whole thing worked." Then when his mother bought a TV he was even more awed. "I was like, 'Man, you can see people on this thing?' I held my ears to the speaker and imagined what was being shown on the screen."

Lifelong blindness is inconceivable to a sighted person. Does he think the imagination becomes a form of sight in itself? He nods. "I think it is because you create a sense of very vivid places you can go to, and see what's going on in your mind." He often talks about "seeing" things - casually and without irony. As far as Wonder is concerned, he does see, he just has a different way of doing so. A few years ago, he visited a specialist who offered him an operation to make him see. Wonder never bothered. He has said that on balance he was happy as he was.

When he was a little boy, his mother didn't like Steveland to leave the house in case he hurt himself. So he stayed at home and listened to the radio: Junior Parker, Little Willy John, Bobby Bland, Bobby Darin, Neil Sedaka and his hero, Ray Charles. If Ray Charles, black, blind and poor, could make it, anybody could. Wonder once said: "The two advantages I had at birth were to be born wise and into poverty."

Steveland banged out tunes on pots and pans with spoons. Lula, who worked as a seamstress and cleaner, doted on him. She shelled out for musical instruments, and by the time he was four he could play piano, organ, drums, bongo and harmonica. His first public performance was unplanned. He was at a club with his mother and stepfather, the live music was blasting out, and he was beating the table in time. "They just said, 'Come up and play the drums', so I went up, beating the drums and being crazy." By nine he was a seasoned performer at church. In fact, he had already been expelled for playing rock'n'roll at the piano. But he didn't yet feel confident in public arenas because he couldn't grasp the parameters of a stage. When he joined Motown, the label paid for him to attend a school for the blind.

Did he ever curse his blindness? "No. I've never felt, 'Oh my God - why did you do this to me, God?' " Once his mother's fears for him eased, he grew up much as any boy would - he went into people's back yards, climbed their trees, nicked the apples and pears, got into scraps. Was he tough? "I was very small, but I got into trouble. I got into fights over silly things. You know, 'She's my girlfriend ...' I was a little kid - seven, eight, nine ... 'She likes me!' 'No, she likes me!" And he impersonates his hard-assed petulant little self perfectly. Were people less likely to hit him because he was blind? "No. When we would fight, it was on. It was not about being blind."

Was he always a ladies' man? He throws his head back and grins ecstatically. "Well, life is good and lurrve is wonderful." He repeats himself, rolling his tongue round "love" even more lasciviously. "You know life is good and lurrrrrve is wonderful."

When did he first discover that? "Not so soon that I shouldn't have known, but not too late to be unaware." That's very diplomatic of you, I say. "Yaknowhadamsayin? I can say by the time I got married I was definitely not a virgin." In the past, he has described his love life as complex. Details are sketchy about his private life, and he seems to like it that way. Of his five oldest children, most appear to have been with Yolanda Simmons, whom he never married but has always remained close to.

What do women see in him? He thinks it through carefully. "I think I have a nice personality. I'm intelligent, and I think I'm not hung up on myself. If you're hung up on yourself, you are hung up." He thinks too many celebrities are self-obsessed.

In the 1980s, he recorded less, and became involved in more causes. He got himself arrested at an anti-apartheid protest outside the South African embassy, befriended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and fought for the recognition of Martin Luther King - a campaign that culminated in his song Happy Birthday and the granting of a national holiday, Martin Luther King Day.

Today, he seems ambivalent about politics. He doesn't even particularly like the word, preferring to talk about social justice. Maybe there has always been a tension between his faith and his desire for political change. One second, he seems to say we must leave everything in God's hands, the next that we have to fight for our rights. "I just basically say what I feel about a position or thing," he says. The bottom line is that "when we do the right thing by each other, then God will do the right thing by us. I truly feel that way."

Isn't it to your credit that you haven't left it all to God, that you have agitated for change? "Well, some say yes, some say no. I've had people say to me, if you hadn't done the King holiday stuff and all that, you would have been more accepted. Whatever! Some people say, you need to just do music, and forget about all that. But that's not me, you know."

Others have said his politics are too saccharine. He tells me he has met George Bush, and I ask if he gave him a mouthful. "Well, he knows my politics and I know his. There was no need to get into some kind of thing. My mother used to say this: 'When you feel you've got to tell it all, just go in the closet, close the door and talk to God and be done with it.' "

Wonder often plays at the Church of God in Christ near his home in Los Angeles, and plans to make a gospel album next as a celebration of faith. Has his faith ever been challenged? He shakes his head. Not by racism, not by blindness, not by terrorism, not by the car crash that nearly killed him in 1973.

Does he think Bush has made the world more dangerous? Look, he says, anger against American imperialism goes way deeper. "This whole thing was set in motion long long ago. I mean, people are still arguing and fighting about dropping the [developing world] debt, and it's a joke to me. It's a joke because look at how much has been taken from Africa. God has given every continent on this planet some natural resource we can use to survive, for trading or whatever. But the world powers go and turn over the areas and take whatever they do, work out those ridiculous contracts ..."

And then there is the misappropriation of religion. While Bush talks about having God on his side and Islamicists talk about jihad, Wonder says both take God's name in vain. "People can't say this is a holy war. The people suffered, while their leaders made the money from deals. We're living in a mad world where people do mad crazy things. The God that I believe in doesn't believe in bombing, and the Allah that I respect for Muslims doesn't believe in terrorising innocent people."

He says he was distraught when John Lennon was killed 25 years ago, but not shocked. Imagine, with its plea for a world without religion, always seemed a dangerous song to him. "After he died I couldn't stop crying whenever I heard Imagine, but I wasn't surprised that he'd been shot. The guy said he shot him because he said he didn't believe in Jesus, and I remember when I heard Imagine, I thought, 'Somebody's not going to like that.' " Which of the great dead pop artists does he miss most? "My God!" He doesn't know where to begin. "There's John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Luther Vandross ..." He considers Gaye's despairing What's Going On one of the greatest albums.

I'm sitting in front of Wonder. He's wearing shades with the A Time 2 Love logo printed down the arms. It's a terrible thing to admit, but there's something pleasing about the fact that he can't see me: I feel he can judge me objectively rather than by appearance. There are no distractions. For a moment, I start to envy his blindness. While his head sways like a metronome as he talks, he seems endowed with an inner stillness. He has a gift for intimacy.

I tell him that there are ducks sculpted into the chair arms, and find myself guiding his hands. "Oh yeah, I saw that," he says.

Does he think there would be less prejudice in the world if we were all blind? I rephrase the question: would we find other ways of discriminating? "Human beings always have to have things to complain about. Blind people can be just as prejudiced, but it's not based on what they see; it's based on what they've been told."

He tells a story about travelling home from school one day. "There was a little boy saying, 'Purple niggers, green niggers, orange niggers, blue niggers, white niggers, black niggers ...' He was a white guy, a little kid, blind." His point is that the boy had no real concept of race, but it didn't stop him discriminating.

We talk about Hurricane Katrina, and the fact that so many black people were left stranded in its midst. On television, it looked like 50s America, I say, a separatist society. He wouldn't go that far. "I don't see it being like the 50s. But yes, there is still a divide." Is it more economic than racial these days? "In certain instances it is economics and class, and in other instances it is racial. People have to begin to feel that ..." He stops. "No, let me put this a different way. When every single person can feel when they see a black kid being beaten up by a white kid that this could be one of their own kids, when people start to care like that, we'll be moving forward."

Wonder asks about racism in this country and refers to the Stephen Lawrence and Anthony Walker killings. He seems happiest when asking questions: about this country, about my life.

Look, I say, I've got some important questions. What is your favourite Stevie Wonder album? "It depends on my mood. I might have an Innervisions mood. But if I'm in a romantic mood, I wouldn't put on my stuff at all." Who would he put on? "I'm gonna do Luther, I might do Beyoncé, I might do Usher. I'm not gonna put on my stuff. I can't make love to my own stuff." That's remarkably modest of you, I say. "I tell you, I can't." He thinks there would be something tawdry and narcissistic about it.

Were children six and seven conceived in the presence of Luther or Beyoncé? "Erm, we didn't have any music. We made our own music. I don't need no music to get my groove on." He's now relaxed, joking, chewing the fat.

"Hey, when is your birthday, by the way?" he asks. December 29, I say. "You're Capricorn. Hey ..." Yes, I say, I know I'm never going to be short of money. He nods, impressed that I know.

He talks about his plans to get busy again. There's the gospel album, and a jazz album, and a children's album, and he'd like to act in a film, and do a world tour putting on a fancy show with special effects. He seems so happy to be back. Wasn't he frightened that after 10 years away nobody would be interested in Stevie Wonder?

"It's a chance you take," he says. He pauses, and thinks it through. "No," he says. "You know, I have always had more faith than fear."

· A Time 2 Love is out now. Stevie Wonder's Abbey Road concert will be broadcast on Radio 2 on December 10.