Interview: Steve Vai Breaks Down His New Album, 'The Story of Light'
With The Story of Light, Steve Vai burns as brightly as ever.
“No More Amsterdam” is Vai’s other vocal performance on The Story of Light, only this time he’s joined on vocals by singer/songwriter Aimee Mann. The two of them go back a long way together.
“Aimee lived a couple of doors down from me when we were both going to Berklee,” Vai recounts. “And my girlfriend at the time, Pia, who’s now my wife, was very good friends with Aimee. They actually had a little band together. So they kept in touch over the years, and as a result Pia was listening to Aimee’s music a lot. I was listening to it a lot too. And there was something about Aimee that really resonated with me. Something about her voice. There’s a sincerity there and almost a vulnerability, but there’s also a sense of equilibrium. I like that a lot. I like her lyrics a lot. She’s like a poet. The more I read into the lyrics the more I think, Wow, there’s something here that’s really beautiful and interesting.
“So I was having trouble writing the lyrics for ‘No More Amsterdam,’ because I’d recorded the whole song before I came up with anything else. I knew how I wanted the melody to go, but I was stuck for words. And Pia said, ‘Why don’t you call Aimee?’ And I thought, Oh, she wouldn’t want to do it. I had this preconceived idea that she just thought I was this wanky shredding guitar player that had nothing to do with what was cool—just some longhaired fusion muso from Berklee. That was my own projection. And it was a very wrong one. But it was just an insecurity I had. She was so cool in school, and she’s so brilliant; I didn’t think she’d be interested in working with me. But I sent her the track, and when I spoke with her she said, ‘I really like this. I’d love to work with you.’ We got together, and I realized, She doesn’t really think that about me at all.”
Like any artist, Vai has had his share of wrestling matches with insecurity. And it’s often the artists who are regarded as paragons of technique and accomplishment who are hardest on themselves.
“As a guitarist, you’re always sizing yourself up,” he says. “You wanna see how you stack up. ‘Am I good enough? Do I make the grade?’ A lot of guitarists will tell you, ‘Oh, I don’t feel that way.’ Maybe they don’t. I did. And I still do, to a degree, but it’s not how I think the majority of the time now. That perspective has changed. When you let go of that kind of thinking it alleviates all this weight and tension. That’s a great thing, because it makes you more free to express yourself, and it makes you more appreciative of what others do. For me now, there’s no difference between watching a tribe in Africa do a ceremonial dance and watching a glam band on the Sunset Strip. They’re both manifestations to this primal instinct to be expressive. One of the greatest things we do as humans, and one of the reasons why I think we’re here, is to be creative. And everybody is creative in a different way.”
Vai’s self-critical nature, his technical and sonic perfectionism and his tendency to think very deeply about every aspect of an album project all go a long way toward explaining why seven years separate his new release from his last studio solo album. Work on The Story of Light began at his Hollywood recording studio, the Mothership, while construction was completed at his newer facility, the Harmony Hut, nearby in Encino. Once that state-of-the-art room and its custom Inward Connections/Tree Audio console was complete, the project was finished there.
“I’m really happy with the album,” he says. “But it’s probably the last record that I will make like this, because it really wears me down. I do everything myself—produce it, engineer it, mix it. I get in there and tweak everything. And as a result of doing it that way, all my records have a particular sound. But in my mind, I’m hitting a wall creatively. It’s like, ‘I did it, I did it, I did it, and then I did it again.’ I’m ready to move on.”
Does that mean there won’t be a third installment of the Real Illusions trilogy?
“No,” says Vai, “I will do a third one. But I may not record it the same way that I recorded this one. I have great ideas for what I’d like to do in the future. I’d like to get together with various engineers who know how to do the legwork really well. But as far as a producer, I’d like to work with somebody who is not a musician but is very creative. I’d be interested to see how things would turn out if I go to someone like [film directors] Jim Jarmusch or James Cameron on a track. Or [spiritual teacher] Eckhart Tolle or [video producer] Chris Cunningham or [film director] Harmony Korine. I’ve got a whole list at home.”
For the moment, though, Vai’s focus is on touring for The Story of Light. He’s bringing the aforementioned Beverly McClellan with him to do an opening set and perhaps join his band for “John the Revelator” and “Book of the Seven Seals.” Vai’s touring group will also include harp player Deborah Hensen-Conant, who performed on another Story of Light track, the Irish lullaby “Mullach a’ tSi.”
“She’s the hip harpist,” Vai says of Hensen-Conant. “I discovered her on the internet. My wife plays the harp and knew about her. She has this energy and expression that’s just so revitalizing and fulfilling. And she plays the harp unlike anybody else. I’ve discovered that there’s a lot of arpeggiated stuff in my music that really works great on harp. What we’re doing with the instrument you’re not going to believe. She’s got distortion on it: she’s got a slide. We’re doing the ‘Crossroads’ duel. Me, her and Dave Winger worked out with the three of us, and it’s really entertaining. And I’ve given the first round of ‘For the Love of God’ entirely to her. It’s just gorgeous. It’s that melody the way it should be played. I had it on the violin before and it was real pretty, but there is something about the harp that just lifts you way up.”
Vai is always full of surprises and never at a loss for creative ideas. But his guitar virtuosity remains consistently at the heart of all his endeavors.
“People might say, ‘What does he need a harp for?’ ” Vai shrugs. “Well, you know what? It’s just another musical dimension, and it’s fun. But if you go to the concert, you’re still gonna get your head ripped off by my guitar.”
Steve Vai's latest album, The Story of Light, is out now. Pick it up on iTunes here.
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