By: Dennis Cook
In the rush of breathing there is always passing time
There is always somebody leaving, someone's always left behind
But something endures in the morning's blue light, I have you and you have me
And it'll be alright when the skies all clear, 'cause we're all born to be free
"I try to lift people's spirits a little bit with what I write," says Steve Winwood, the classy, maddeningly talented veteran of more than 40 years in the music industry. "Particularly in rock today, there's a lot of dark and negative stuff in modern/contemporary lyrics and music. There's so much music that makes people feel worse rather than better. Instead of dampening people's spirits, it's better to raise them, don't you think?"
Artists choose what energies they put out into the world, either consciously or unconsciously, and few have injected more light, thoughtfulness or beauty into the scheme of things than this co-founder of Traffic and Blind Faith who got his professional start at the tender age of 15, shouting, "Gimme some lovin'." For a man who's played with giants like Eric Clapton and Tito Puente, Winwood is surprisingly humble, very gracious and perhaps even a little awestruck that he's still at it, chopping musical wood every day because it's just what his hands and heart were meant to do. His voice is soft and he considers his words with care. He saves his fire for his songs, raising the heat on his coolness when it serves a purpose, like say the immortal chorus of "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" or the tough slap down of "Freedom Overspill."
There's a joyous quality to Winwood's work that begins with his youth in the Spencer Davis Group and continues right up to his latest offering, Nine Lives (released April 29 on Sony), which seeks hope (and finds it) despite all the rough flotsam and jetsam life throws at us.
"If that comes across then there's a certain degree of personal success," says Winwood. "Music is a never ending learning process for me. Music is such a vast subject, and there's so much to learn and I'm mainly self-taught. This has been made quite obvious recently as I've been doing a few educational things and it's become evident to me how self-taught I am. That was mainly because there weren't educational opportunities in place when I was learning music. But really, I just keep learning about music all the time. I'm very lucky and blessed that I get to play music and do something I like for a living. It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to music."
Being self-taught has meant that Winwood hasn't ever conformed to standard approaches to his craft. Traffic willfully stuffed jazz, world music, blues and folk into rock's amplified body, and his explorations over the years have involved him with electronic music, Brazilian forms and much more, all a far cry from the usual model of a so-called pop musician.
"I've been talking to some music teachers – really teachers of all subjects – and they say, particularly in music, what they want the students to do is rubbish the teachers, go off in some other direction from what they've been taught," offers Winwood. "But, unless they're taught, educated, they won't really know exactly what that direction was."
If Winwood lacks some formal training, he's more than made up for it with a street education that's included Clapton, Ginger Baker, George Harrison, James Taylor and Christina Aguilera, amongst a donkey choking list of other luminaries.
"I've always tried to learn from the people I've played with, and I've been lucky enough to play and write with some truly incredible musicians," says Winwood. "In the '70s, I spent nearly all of that decade working on other people's projects. A lot of that time was spent learning about recording, songwriting, the construction of songs and albums and how other people work. It was very enlightening."
A spirit of collaboration infuses a good deal of Winwood's catalog. While he's a fine solo artist and bandleader in his own right, he seems to thrive mightily in the company of equally talented, strong willed creators.
"It is possible to make good music on your own but I think the real joy of music comes out when the experience is shared playing with others. Music is about interaction with other people," Winwood says.
While he acknowledges that he's had a "somewhat fragmented career" where audiences know one part, say his '80s "Back In The High Life Again" period or Blind Faith, but there's large gaps due to his creative wandering. However, real musicians rarely hear things in neat categories or stay a single course throughout a lifetime. Within Winwood is the Mod charge of "Keep On Running," the unfiltered warmth of "Higher Love" and the despondency of "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired."
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