Interview: Steve Vai Breaks Down His New Album, 'The Story of Light'
With The Story of Light, Steve Vai burns as brightly as ever.
The track starts with a snippet from Blind Willie Johnson’s original recording and quickly escalates into a balls-out rock interpretation of the song, heavily featuring Vai’s ripping lead guitar. His playing on the track sounds way more uninhibited and vicious than it has in some time. Singer Beverly McClellan throws down more soul than has possibly ever been heard before on a white-boy guitar virtuoso record. The tattooed, shaven-headed singer was a finalist on television’s The Voice. Vai discovered her at a NARAS function. (Vai is a trustee of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a.k.a. the Grammy folks.)
“At first I was gonna sing it myself,” Vai says. “But I didn’t have the range or the intensity. And then I met Beverly, and she’s just the kind of person I like. She’s very open and accepting of everybody. Brilliantly talented. Very simple in her inspiration, but totally delivers without any excuses.”
The second half of this extended meditation on Blind Willie Johnson’s song is a choral reading taken from an arrangement originally written for a high school choir. “I went out of my way to make sure it didn’t sound too classically gospel,” Vai says, “or too Republican, white, middle America. I really wanted to come up with something that borrows from, but doesn’t plagiarize, a genre. And putting those heavy guitars under it just seemed like a really cool idea.”
Indeed, Vai’s guitar leads are the real revelation in his interpretation of “John the Revelator.” Guitar players in his particular genre, or subgenre, tend not to grasp the blues in any kind of significant way, but Vai proves himself to be the exception to that rule on this track.
“When I was growing up, the blues did seem too simple to me,” he admits. “I was just a muso. I wanted to do intense stuff with rich-sounding chords that had all these tensions. And I just got fed up with people hiding behind this false sense of integrity because they play the blues. But it was all my own projection, my own insecurities. When I let go of all that stuff, I really started to appreciate the blues. And guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan really helped with that. But when I dove into all the stuff that was actually before the blues, like Blind Willie Johnson, it was an epiphany for me. That’s what I really respond to. And, anyway, a lot of my playing was always rock derived, which is blues. The blues scale was the first thing I learned. It’s just a pentatonic scale with a flat seventh and a few notes that sound cool when you bend them. And because people have amalgamated the blues into this rock-blues scale, if you’re using it you better sound like a real authentic blues player. Whatever you play, more than anything, it’s a frame of mind more than it is technique. I started to have this deeper appreciation for all sorts of genres.”
Gearwise, Vai seems to moving in a more back-to-basics direction as well. “The older I get, the more I just like plugging directly into my amp,” he says. “I’m tired of trying to impress myself with weird sounds. It’s about the notes more. I love the sound of the Carvin Legacy head, and I really love the feel of my Ibanez JEMs, and I just go right to them. I try other stuff, and I did use some other guitars on the record for a couple of things. But I always find myself just going right back to the JEM and the Legacy. They’re built around my ear and my fingers. So straying away from them takes me out of my comfort zone.
“And it’s not because I endorse these companies. What you gotta understand is I’ve had relationships with these companies for decades. The JEM is 25 years old. I’ve been with Carvin since my days with Frank Zappa. DiMarzio I’ve worshipped since I was a teenager. We’ve just developed a new pickup together called the Gravity Storm, which is named after another new song on the album. The prototype arrived toward the end of my recording, and I used it for the rhythm guitars on the song ‘Racing the World.’ All of these pieces of gear, to me, transcend the idea of an endorsement.”
One of the most lyrical tracks on The Story of Light is the idyllic “Creamsicle Sunset,” rife with sparkling, single-coil tones and Hawaiian-sounding pitch bends. “That song came about out of the necessity for some space on the album,” Vai says, “because of the density of the record. It was like, Okay, Vai, you gotta lighten it up. And that song just came from a riff that I found on my ‘infinity’ shelf, which is just this long shelf with little snippets of ideas. It’s a simple E triad thing that just evolved. But with any song you create a picture of what you want to sound like.”
Vai’s vision for this track was a conflation of three senses: taste, sight and sound. “Ever have a Creamsicle?” he asks. “It’s orange sherbet swirled together with ice cream on a stick. I used to love them as a kid. The way that cream blends with the orange sherbet makes for a really unique flavor. To me it creates this amazing nostalgic feeling. And in Hawaii they have these really unique sunsets that look like a Creamsicle. The sky just really explodes with this orange and cream color and this dark blue backdrop. And I wanted the song to sound like that. In fact, if you could taste the sunset, it should taste like a Creamsicle. So I thought, What would that sunset sound like if it could speak? And that’s the song.”
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