John Waite: A Life in Music
By Frank Valish, Guest Writer for SteelStacks.org
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, John Waite was a staple of FM radio, first with his band The Babys, followed by a hit-laden solo career and as part of the arena rock band Bad English. Songs like The Babys’ “Isn’t It Time,” Bad English’s “When I See You Smile,” and his monster solo smash “Missing You” turned Waite into household name, but Waite has quietly spent the last 20 odd years crafting more nuanced pop compositions, led by tracks like the folk-y “Bluebird Café” and the affecting “Downtown,” both which he reprised on 2017’s Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology Volume 2. And while his last album of new music, Rough & Tumble, was released eight years ago, Waite has recently started up the old writing machine again for a new album that he plans to start recording before Christmas.
Waite sat down with ArtsQuest prior to his October 10 performance at the Musikfest Café presented by Yuengling to talk about his history in the music business and the songs that changed his life.
ArtsQuest: The music industry changed so much since the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, and you’ve been there throughout it. How have you experienced the industry change, and what’s the biggest takeaway you see from promoting your music in those days and doing so now?
John Waite: Well, these days you don’t have to talk to somebody across a desk, which I think is good for the music. The Internet has made it so you can release something, and it’s worldwide immediately. And if you decide to make an acoustic record, like I have done for the last two releases, there’s nobody telling you it’s not a good idea. You can do basically anything you want now. A record company is still there to distribute the record, but you can get a distributor, which I did for my last couple of records, and get it in the shops. After a certain amount of time, you know how it all works. And there’s not a whole lot of mystery to it. You put your shoulder to the wheel and then off you go. The fact that the Internet has blasted everything out into the open, it’s a level playing field. So I’ve been able to do the work I’m wanting to do. I’ve been very lucky to have hit singles throughout my career, from The Babys and Bad English and of course the ’80s. I think if I didn’t have that behind me, it would be really rough. But it’s great to have that in this environment. It’s an open highway. It’s anything I want it to be.
ArtsQuest: When you think back to The Babys, what are your fondest memories?
John Waite: Touring. Coming to America. Seeing New York City and seeing Chicago, the home of the blues. Just seeing the landmarks and being young. Everything was so fresh. It was exciting. It was great to be young in the ’70s. Everything was on fire. But it’s been one incredible experience. It never gets old. We tour a lot, and I’m about to go back in the studio again. You get offered soundtracks. It’s still interesting. It sure beats a regular job, you know.
ArtsQuest: You’ve obviously had an extensive solo career post-Babys, your biggest hit being “Missing You” of course. What kind of relationship do you have with that song these days, and has that relationship changed with time?
John Waite: It’s a great song. It took 20 minutes to write the whole thing. It really did. It just came out of nowhere. It was all word association. I’d been away from home, England. I was married at the time, and I just wanted to get home. The last album had gone on and on. I’d come over to sign the contract and then I was going to back home and work out what I was going to do next, but I was so into recording, and me and the band just started writing songs, so I stayed. I’d been away from home for like 4 months. When that song was written, it was pretty melancholic. But it’s a great song, because it’s just off the cuff. There was no pre-thought going into it. It was just emotion. They’re the best songs. They last the longest.
ArtsQuest: Do you feel like your songwriting became more personal or perhaps more autobiographical in the period that followed Bad English? It seemed like in that period there were some songs that were just crushingly affecting, things like “Masterpiece of Loneliness,” “Downtown,” “In God’s Shadow.”
John Waite: Yeah, I wanted to real up. I thought that Bad English was glossy. And I came out of that looking to rebuild myself as a writer. I wanted to get right to the heart of everything. And if I was going to put a record out I wanted it to be extremely real. I didn’t want it to be just product. And I think I have something to prove. “Downtown,” in particular, was a really wrenching song to write. But it was my life in New York City and the Lower East Side and the life that I lived. It was a very intense, real life. It wasn’t some pop star going out to the nearest restaurant and being fabulous. I’ve always lived a very down to earth, street life.
ArtsQuest: Was there ever a push and pull between wanting to do something a little different and the fact that people knew you from these giant pop songs?
John Waite: Well, I just don’t care. I don’t write for people, really. That was what was wrong with Bad English. I don’t write for an audience. I write and that’s what you’re going to get. There’s a huge difference in the intention. If you look around you and you see other artists’ work and you know how good it is, it just keeps raising the bar. But if you’re trying to just sell records and be popular, you’re going to end up making junk. You have to go look in the mirror and come up with something that’s going to throw people. You have to take a chance. It’s all about chance. Everything. You have to go out there and risk everything, or else it’s just not worth doing.