Interview: Steve Vai Breaks Down His New Album, 'The Story of Light'
With The Story of Light, Steve Vai burns as brightly as ever.
This is one of the tracks where Vai departed from his familiar JEM/Legacy rig. “It was an Eric Johnson [Fender] Strat directly straight into a [Fender] Bandmaster head,” he says. “Nothing else. Everything else on there is about the volume control and the vibrato bar, which is not the kind of whammy bar I’m used to, so I really had to struggle with it. But those guitars just have a sound that you can’t get anyplace else. And that’s the kind of sound I wanted.”
“The Moon and I”
One of the more impressionistic pieces on The Story of Light, “The Moon and I,” is also one of the few tracks on the album to feature a vocal performance from Vai. But the music itself, he says, “was basically an improvised track from a soundcheck in Athens, Greece, years ago. When I’m on tour, I have this policy that the band gets to the soundcheck and they get their sound together. And then when I come in, there’s a guitar on a stand in the middle of the stage, and everybody’s waiting for me to get there. I walk up and we hit the record button. I don’t know what I’m gonna play. Nobody knows what I’m gonna play. But for about an hour or so, we just jam. I start playing something and everybody follows. I might refine it a little bit. And ‘The Moon and I’ was born when I started to play these chords and realized, Oh, this is a great little track. So I stopped everybody and I just told the band, ‘Play this, then do that, then go here, then go there, then I’ll do a solo and we’ll end it.’ So we performed that song one time. The only time it was ever performed was the one time that it was written. It wasn’t practiced or anything. Then I took it back to the studio and worked on it. I put on some sound effects, I tweaked the guitar stuff and put the vocal on. But the song was there. And the solo is…whatever.”
As for the vocal, he says, “I just love singing that song. I like my voice in applications that I’m comfortable with. And I can’t worry if anybody else likes it or not. It’s my own truth and experience and something I would not normally do if I just listened to criticism.”
“Weeping China Doll”
The sixth track on The Story of Light is a dramatic instrumental that bears strong affinities to an enka, a Japanese sake ballad. Enka is essentially Japanese culture’s equivalent of a “crying in your beer” song of heartbreak and sorrow. And Vai milks the idiom’s emotional potential for all it’s worth, tearing off soaring, quasi-Asian pentatonics to an insistently heavy ballad beat. The music has a rather interesting origin as well.
“What is funny is ‘Weeping China Doll’ is the name of a rose,” Vai says. “We have this fence we put up and my wife planted these roses, these Weeping China Dolls, and they grew along the fence. And when you look at the fence and the roses, it looks like music on a staff. So I took photos and I transcribed it. I said, ‘I wonder what this sounds like.’ And I found the melody to ‘Weeping China Doll’ from the Weeping China Doll roses that grew on the fence.
“I started hearing the melody and it all started coming together. I wanted it to have this intense feel but also have this beautiful silver lining of hope. It has a Japanese sound to it, but I didn’t want to call it ‘Weeping Japanese Doll.’ And by the way, I do know that it sounds Japanese. I do know the difference between what Japanese and Chinese music sounds like.”
“No More Amsterdam”
The seventh song on Steve Vai albums are always ones that hold a special place in the tune stack and in his heart. It’s usually a ballad, and Vai serves up a nice one on The Story of Light in the form of “No More Amsterdam.” As usual with Vai, it’s not just another pretty tune but also plays a role in the album’s concept and story line.
“This guy looks into the reflecting pond and he confronts his guardian angel,” Vai explains. “He sees his life and he realizes how this guardian angel had been with him through all of it, advising him, giving him inclinations and feelings that he would sometimes listen to and sometimes he wouldn’t. Which is the story of all of us. We deny our better judgment sometimes. And that’s basically what it’s about. But when you come face to face with somebody or an entity that is a form of that better judgment, and you have a conversation with them…that’s what I wanted the song to be.”
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