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Rod Stewart and Jools Holland tell us about their new album ‘Swing Fever’

Two musical greats have teamed up after bonding over a love of swing and big band music.

By Nick Reilly

Rod Stewart and Jools Holland (Picture: Jonas Mohr)

As Sir Rod Stewart and Jools Holland team up for their first ever joint album, the pair have told Rolling Stone UK about the record’s unlikely genesis – and why it sees Rod ditching rock to perform the music he first fell in love with.

Swing Fever, which sees the pair accompanied by Jools’ Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, is out on February 23 and features their own take on classic big band numbers such as ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ and ‘Pennies From Heaven’.

While a chance phone call from Rod ignited their collaboration, it soon transpired that the pair had more than music in common – including a love of model railways.

You can read our whole Q&A with Sir Rod and Jools below.

Congratulations on the album, guys. Rod Stewart and Jools Holland. On paper it’s something of an odd couple…

Rod: Yeah, it looks like an odd marriage. But the first thing that brought us together was our love of model railroads, because we’re both fanatics!

Jools: I suppose the background is that I’m known for my big band and we’re always doing live shows, and Rod, well, he’s just an incredible singer who does these amazing records and he’s an icon of rock and roll music, but he has a great affinity with swing music too! It was just before Christmas three years ago and the phone rings at my home. I didn’t know Rod so well but he just said I’d quite like to do a record with your band. I said, well, I’m gonna have to think about that. And then one second later I said yeah, that’d be really great! When do you want to start? It’s the dream really, if you’ve got a big band, to have a great singer. But to have one of the greatest singers in the world who has a natural feeling for that music? You can’t ask for anything more.

One of the greatest singers in the world. That’s quite the compliment, Rod.

Rod: It totally is mate! He’s no mug that Jools Holland, I’ll tell ya.

Jools: It’s true. It’s true!

There’s some real swing classics you’ve tackled on there. ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘Almost Like Being In Love’ to name but two of them…

Rod: I don’t think we had one single debate about the songs we wanted to do and we could’ve kept recording for another year. We agreed on absolutely everything.

Jools: I didn’t know all of the songs either, which was really great. ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’ ended up being one of favourites because it’s one that Rod and the girls sang so beautifully, but it was also written by Ray Noble – who was an English writer. Al Bowley had a hit with it too. It meant that there’s a very English sound, you know what I mean? Adding to that , we did it in a Ska style and there’s a lovely solo from Michael Bami Rose, who we did a film about on Later… the other week. He was one of the originators of bringing Ska to England in the 1960s so you’ve got all these things mashed up together to make something which just charmed me to bits.

Rod, did you feel like you were stepping out of your comfort zone?

Rod: No, I stepped right into it! You know, I did the great American Songbook which sold extraordinarily well, so this was just the next step. There were no slow songs on this album and it’s unlike the Great American Songbook for that. But no, I was stepping into my comfort zone. I was first introduced into this music by Long John Baldry and he was a big fan of swing music.

You’ve been known in different guises as Rod The Mod and Rod Stewart the rock star throughout the years, but it’s fair to say that this is your true musical love?

Without a doubt, without a doubt. You know, it’s not easy to sing and I find it easy, but you can’t imagine Van Morrison doing it. Oh sorry, Van, I love you mate! I shouldn’t have said that, I take it back, I’m sure Van could sing it. But look, it’s a style that not many people can pull off and it has to be done naturally, this kind of music.

Jool: Rod does it naturally and when we sit at the piano he just sings them and it’s a natural feel. He’s spent his life illuminating the world with his voice, but this music has always been there too, whether it’s a part of the blues and the swing and he understands that fully.

You listen to a lot of early big band records, the ones that have got that little bit of edge and danceability – that’s we’ve tried to go for. I think this album shows the best things we’ve recorded because it’s so natural and has such joy and simpatico. As Rod says, it was so easy too to decide our tracks. It’s got that feeling that lifts people up, whether it’s the people in the pub on the corner from you or your neighbour downstairs.

Rod: It was recorded live too. Jules would rehearse with the band for a day with songs and then the next day I’d show up and everything was live and in three hours we’d have three takes, solos were live, everything was live apart from my vocals, there’s not many records that are made like that nowadays.

Have you seen Jools’ studio too? How big it is? I mentioned we were railroad fanatics and his studio is like a little throwback to the Victorian Railroads. So to get 18 people in there and playing, it’s unbelievable!

Rod, you discussed this album with the BBC earlier this year and said you wanted to leave rock and roll behind to focus on this music. Is this really the end of Rod the rock star?

Rod: Well you know, for as long as I live I’m always gonna be a rock star, which I’m proud of, you know, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. But I just love singing these songs, it’s like heaven for me to sing these songs. It really is heaven. I think as well, I think that the truth of it is, you know, I came out of rock and pop groups and that’s why the swing part of me has only come out now

Jools: And that’s why I think this record has a slightly different sensibility to a lot of the records you hear where people sort of do this music. It’s got a slightly rock and roll edge and that’s what gives it its edge and its danceability.

Rod: We’ve done ‘Good Rocking Tonight’ as well, which Elvis did before.

Did you ever get the chance to meet Elvis, Rod?

Rod: No, but I had the opportunity when I was with The Faces and we played in Vegas for the first time in 1972 or 1973. Ronnie Wood had the opportunity to go and meet him and he did. But I said I wasn’t feeling so well so I’ll go next time. But I never got to. Sort of like Cliff [Richard] did! I saw him get into trouble for fat shaming Elvis.

What did you make of that fat-shaming debacle with Cliff?

Rod: You know, the guy hasn’t got a bad bone in his body. He just slipped up. It will be forgotten by tomorrow.

And finally, any chance of you pair taking this record on the road?

Jools: Well, you might see something on the Hootenanny so there’s a tantalising possibility. But we’re just trying to figure that out at the moment and that would be a good start.

Rod: I’d love to tour with Jools and I do hope he feels the same way!

Jools: Yes! I can’t think of anything better than that, you know. This music sits very comfortably for us and that’s the thing. We’ve had a lifetime of playing live and communicating with people and it’s the best way to get five minutes of peace and quiet, going on tour!