With his new album, “International Blue,” Stephen Emmer pays tribute to what he considered to be a ‘lost genre’ – the pop crooner. Rather than trying to purely recreate the past, Emmer brings in modern sounds, production, and songwriting to create his own unique interpretation of the crooner style. A group of top-notch vocalists were brought in to sing – Midge Ure (Ultravox), Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17), Liam McKahey (Cousteau) and Neil Crossley (Furlined) – and the album was produced/mixed by the legendary Tony Visconti. In an email interview, Emmer discussed the making of the “International Blue.”
Midge Ure was telling me about how his contribution to the album was done remotely. Did you work with the other vocalists in this way, or were you in the studio with them?
“It all went roughly the same; a virtual collaboration with everyone. We only met first time all together in real life in Abbey Road Studios in London for mixdown and a UK press and fan presentation. And it gave our collaboration an extra boost, as we really liked each other as people too. “
Were the songs written, or shaped, with the particular vocalists in mind? Or did you have them fully developed, and then think about who you wanted to sing on them?
“Half and half. Some i had already written, namely the first couple of songs and then next I really had a certain voice in mind and i wrote specifically for a vocalist. “
Was it the intention from the start to work with different vocalists, or did you consider finding one singer to collaborate with?
“I had this idea of paying homage to this lost genre of pop crooning by inviting vocalists from different time periods. So here we have four vocalists from, respectively, the 70, 80s,90s and 00s, being Midge Ure, Glenn Gregory, Liam McKahey and Neil Crossley.”
What would you say the initial inspiration was for “International Blue”? Are they any particular ways that you feel it changed or evolved from the initial ideas to what we hear on the final album?
“The initial idea was as said earlier to pay tribute to the lost art of pop crooning as a singing style but also to re-value the kind of songwriting where there is less repetition, predictable chord progressions and fadeouts. Inspiration were songs like “Macarthur park,” “God Only Knows,” “Life On Mars” and “Alfie.” Those songs went everywhere and back within their song structures! Very adventurously written I find. We wanted to see if that is still doable. Probably not however for the current charts, which is totally ok.”
I was always a big fan of Billy Mackenzie and the Associates, and have read about the track ‘Untouchable’ being a tribute to Billy. Could you comment on that further?
“Both Glenn and myself have worked with Billy in the past, separately from each other. Billy was a guest singer on my old solo album “Vogue Estate,” which is still available digitally. When Glenn and I realised this [that we had both worked with him] we decided to dedicate a song to him. We both instinctively felt this was a musical piece Billy would probably think to have kinship with his own music, and Glenn wrote a beautiful lyric where in its intro he even refers to an old Billy lyric for their smash hit in the UK called ‘Party Fears Two.’”
What was the timeframe of making the album? Were you working on other things at the time, or focusing on it 100%?
“It started about two years ago. Off and on. In the meantime we all had many other projects each. But it reached our main focus of attention in the last half a year when we were mixing, mastering and promoting it. “
The album was produced / mixed by Tony Visconti, who is known for his work with David Bowie and many other artists. What was it like working with him? What impact do you feel he had on the final album?
“Tony, coming where he is coming from with his killer cv, is a most modest and gentle man, with a lot of talent, great intuitive understanding of where to go in a musical direction and experienced yet still fresh! His impact on the album is that he first and foremost knows how to produce and mix a great vocal, as he also works with one of the worlds greatest singers. Secondly he could tell me ‘how they did it’ in those different decades in the history of pop culture and then we could just cherry pick what would be best for this album. “
I know you did a performance for the album launch. Do you have any further plans to present this music live?
“Yes we do, yet have to decide how and when. Obviously having 4 different vocalists requires very good planning and good coordination. Also we still have to decide in what kind of line-up; orchestral, pop or unplugged…?”
You’ve been involved with quite a few different projects over the years, such as Minny Pops, The Lotus Eaters, and soundtrack work. Are there projects that you’d say had a particular influence or impact on what you were setting out to do with “International Blue”?
“I learned a lot and was inspired most by my British projects or bands i played in. I thought the degree of seriousness and focus over there of not only producing those notes, but also why and with what kind of vision inspired me to do this most. “
Are you working on anything else right now? What’s in the immediate future for you?
“We hope to do gigs with this, and make another album with maybe some american singers joining in. Say with Bobby Goldsboro, Bill Medley, Brandon Flowers or Paul Banks from Interpol!”
For more on Stephen Emmer, visit stephenemmer.com