For most artists the pre-show backstage waiting can be a tortuous affair full of pacing and anxious anticipation. Not John Waite. Already in his well-tailored stage suit, the English singer sits calmly, speaking in hushed tones about his storied 40 years in rock and roll.
It started in the 1970s as lead singer of The Babys, arguably one of the most underrated rock bands of that decade. A stellar solo career of hits followed that included “Change,” “If Anybody Had a Heart” and the megahit “Missing You.”
In the mid-‘90s Mr. Waite reteamed with former Babys cohorts Jonathan Cain (also of Journey) and Ricky Phillips (now in Foreigner) to form Bad English. That group released two albums and the No. 1 single “When I See You Smile.”
Today he transforms from soft-spoken Brit into a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll icon with voice still in prime form. Before his tour stops at Tin Pan in Richmond, Virginia, Wednesday and AMP by Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, Thursday, he spoke about purity in song, the joys of touring and why the imperfect is perfect.
Question: What keeps you motivated to keep making music for 40 years?
Answer: Well, it’s what I do. I started off wanting to be a painter but it wasn’t fast enough. I couldn’t get the thoughts out as quickly as I wanted on the canvas. Singing worked faster. It was a lot more spontaneous and there was a lot more honesty in it. I wasn’t going to change the world with anything I was painting or drawing.
When you’re young you have this wild ambition to leave your mark, to make something that counts. I did with music.
Q: Who inspired you?
A: I found that listening to people like Neil Young, who isn’t really what you would call a “singer’s singer.” He was faulted. Neil Young had a big effect on my decision to go into music and be a singer.
Q: What was it about his music that drew you in?
A: Partly because it was acoustic. But the voice [was flawed] and there was an edge to it. It was a new thing. In a lot of ways punk rock had its sort of genesis in Neil Young. And I knew it. It appealed to the artist in me.
Q: Are the imperfections where you find the beauty?
A: I think so. When I first came to work in a studio with producers, they would tear the music apart, cut the instruments separately. You would wind up trying to sing over a track. I had no idea what they were trying to get at. Other than take all the soul out of everything. A slight imperfection in a groove is where the humanity is. Imperfections are key. If something is esthetically perfect it stops having meaning.
Q: Is performing live fuel to keep you going?
A: It’s a wonderful thing. There is a kind of exchange that happens when you really are in the moment: The entire audience becomes sort of one thing. You become the audience and the audience becomes you.
Q: What will the D.C. area shows be like?
A: A couple of years ago I put out an EP called “Wooden Heart.” I specifically wanted to put out something that was acoustic-based. The shows are “Wooden Heart” shows, which are two acoustic guitars and me playing, [plus] electric bass and a very small drum kit. Stripped down.
We’re playing these acoustic versions of the hits plus some obscure B-sides. It’s a real trip around my world.
When you’re playing live with a rock band, it’s confrontational in some ways. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is. With the acoustic stuff on the “Wooden Heart” tour, the door is more open. It’s a two-way street. It’s hugely intimate. And as a singer, it’s whole different animal. It’s pure. It’s naked and the bar is set higher.
Q: What do you discover about the songs when you strip them down?
A: Some songs can be sort of trite when plugged in. “When I See You Smile” is this sort of whale. It’s a gigantic song. (Laughs) But when you strip it down to just guitar and a vocalist, it’s an elegant, simple song.
On the new record, “Wooden Heart: Volume 2,” we did a version of “Isn’t It Time,” the old Babys song, and [with] just a guitar and voice, it’s entirely different. It becomes something so pure.
Right now everything is so dressed up and commercialized that the humanity in music is receding. The product part is moving forward. I’d rather be with the pure part than the product part.
Q: How do you feel about some of your former bandmates now touring as The Babys?
A: I’m very flattered that they think the songs are worth doing. If songs are worth going back out and playing after 30 years, or however long it has been since we last played together, then it shows how great the band was.
It’s great to see those songs being important to people.
Q: How did life change after “Missing You” became a No. 1?
A: Before that I had been living in New York City on 72nd [St.] in a small crash pad. I knew all the local people. I had this life where I could be a New Yorker and have some sort of anonymity. Suddenly I couldn’t go out. Couldn’t buy cat food. Couldn’t go to the laundromat or into a bar.
I’m quite a private person when I’m not on stage, and that was gone. I was identified wherever I went. After that I needed to pull back. I’ve done that my whole life: Come in and made records I really cared about, then toured pretty solidly. And then I sort of disappear.
I’m not really interested in the rest of it.
John Waite plays Tin Pan in Richmond, Virginia, Wednesday and at AMP by Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland, Thursday. For more information visit JohnWaiteWorldwide.com.