When finally left to his own devices, John Waite returned to what he knows best.
The former lead singer of The Babys and the supergroup Bad English hit a crossroads four years ago when his last solo album, the critically acclaimed “Temple Bar,” fell victim to the demise of Imago Records. He gave up touring and retreated to his New York apartment, where – armed with an acoustic guitar – he resumed writing the type of honest, deeply personal songs that marked his early career.
“When You Were Mine,” Waite’s recently released debut Mercury Records album, is his step backward and a move forward.
“I tried to get back more to where I started out as a kid, writing more about things I know,” Waite said recently. “Before, being in a band, I wasn’t as a creative as I would’ve liked to have been. Now I’m just getting back to my roots, as it were. It’s a lot more creative.”
Instead of being on the road, where an artist feeds off the atmosphere and energy of others, Waite immersed himself in his own creative environment. The English-born rocker, who scored a No. 1 hit in 1984 with “Missing You,” also became more drawn to acoustic music and the country and blues of heartland America.
“The acoustic guitar is more of a reflective instrument, a singer-songwriter instrument,” Waite said. “I really enjoyed getting back to this. It’s probably what I’m best at.
“Of course, I enjoyed The Babys because it was such a strong, simple unit; we were English and we had this connection back to bands like Free and Thin Lizzy. We had all of that in our learning, plus our own little edge.
“Obviously, everything worked itself out. We went Anglo-American for about three years, but we pretty much did what we were going to do after the third album. I went solo after that time, falling back on things I wanted to get to. I started to get autobiographical at that point, and I think I’ve returned to that with this record.”
Standout tracks, such as “Bluebird Cafe” and a faithful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” have a quiet, back porch aura, while the angry “Suicide Life” laments lost souls who have fallen through the cracks in a modern world.
It’s raw, cathartic stuff, but Waite doesn’t want the public to think he’s jumping on the unplugged bandwagon.
“It’s a fashionable thing. Everybody’s stripping down,” he said, “but I really didn’t want to look like I was doing that. It was just a very natural progression for me. I also listened to a lot of Dylan and blues and country. Apart from the stuff I usually listen to, I was trying to get back to something that originated long before the rock ‘n’ roll sound.
“The songs had to be played live and in the studio. I didn’t want anything to sound like it was generated from an outside source, like effects. It all had to come from the instruments themselves, with techniques. It’s a step backward, but as Van Morrison once said, ‘To go forward, you have to step back.’ “
How will he judge the success of “When You Were Mine”?
“I don’t know really,” Waite said. “The last album got A-plus reviews, but it vanished because the record company went under right in the middle of it. But I thought that was a success because it touched the people who had heard it. That’s all you can really hope for, that no matter what it does in the market, if it gets heard and people are touched by it, then it’s a success. I don’t know how else to justify making music, otherwise it’s just a business matter.”
BWF (before we forget): The John Waite album discography – “Ignition” (Chrysalis, 1982); “No Brakes” (EMI America, 1984); “Mask of Smiles” (1985); “Rover’s Return” (1987); “Temple Bar” (Imago, 1993); “The Complete John Waite, Volume One: Falling Backwards” (EMI, 1996); “When You Were Mine” (Mercury, 1997).
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