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Rolling Stone DECEMBER 17-31, 2015 - by Andy Greene
BOWIE'S NEWEST SURPRISE
Secret meetings, jazz musicians and lots of Kendrick Lamar: Inside the sessions for Bowie's adventurous new LP, Blackstar.
One Sunday night in the spring of 2014, David Bowie walked into 55 Bar, a ninety-six-year-old jazz joint tucked away on a quiet side street in New York's West Village. A friend, jazz bandleader Maria Schneider, had suggested he check out the night's headliner, a quartet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Bowie grabbed a table near the stage, took in their set, then left without speaking to the band. "A server was like, 'Wait, was that David Bowie?' " McCaslin says. "It started dawning on people."
A few weeks later, McCaslin got an email: Bowie wanted the band to join him in the studio. "I thought, 'This is David Bowie, and he chose me, and he's sending me an e-mail?'" McCaslin says. "I tried not to think about it too much. I just wanted to stay in the moment and just do the work [he wanted]." That work, initially, was only one song: the trippy, jazz-infused Sue (Or In A Season of Crime), which Bowie cut with McCaslin's band and released on his 2014 compilation album, Nothing Has Changed.
Then, last January, Bowie called the group to the downtown studio Magic Shop to begin work on his twenty-fifth album, Blackstar, which is due out on January 8, Bowie's sixty-ninth birthday. "It did surprise me," says drummer Mark Guiliana of being asked to play on the album. "But I feel like he's built a career and artistic identity on surprises. It falls in line with who he is as an artist."
The seeds of Blackstar date to mid- 2014, when Bowie met with longtime producer Tony Visconti and drummer Zack Alford to cut some demos at Magic Shop. Then Bowie disappeared for five months to work on the new material at his home. "He's got a little setup at his house," says Visconti. "And there was no clear communication from him until December. That's when he told me he was ready to make the album."
Two years ago, Bowie released his first album in nearly a decade, the relatively traditional (by Bowie standards) rock album The Next Day. For Blackstar, he was determined to do something very different. "We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar," says Visconti. "We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact that Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn't do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that's exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll."
McCaslin and his bandmates were able to handle whatever Bowie threw at them, from krautrock to hip-hop to pop. Blackstar begins with the ten-minute title track, a surreal, haunting song that began as two completely separate tunes before Bowie and Visconti sewed them together. The original version was actually more than eleven minutes long, but they cut it to 9:57 after learning iTunes won't post singles that cross the ten-minute mark. "It's total bullshit," says Visconti with a laugh. "But David was adamant it be the single and he didn't want both an album version and a single version, since that gets confusing."
Bowie hasn't sung a note publicly since performing Changes with Alicia Keys at a charity event in 2006, and he hasn't given an interview in more than a decade. That has led to rumours that Bowie, who underwent emergency surgery for a blocked artery in 2004, is in failing health, but everyone involved with Blackstar insists that's not the case. "He's in fine health," says Visconti. "He's just made a very rigorous album."
Sessions for Blackstar often lasted seven hours, and Bowie sang at full force throughout the entire day. "He'd just go from zero to sixty once we walked out of the control room and into the studio," says Guiliana. "And his vocal performances were always just stunning, amazing." In his downtime, Bowie was working on the off-Broadway musical Lazarus (see sidebar), in which he was intimately involved in every aspect of production, down to casting.
The album's sense of adventure extends to the lyrics. 'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, which is powered by a hiphop beat and free-form sax, gets its title from a seventeenth-century play written by English playwright John Ford, and the lyrics to Girl Loves Me come from Polari, a form of British slang used by gay men in mid-twentieth-century London. "He also took some words from A Clockwork Orange," says Visconti. "The lyrics are wacky, but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word." The title track repeatedly refers to a "solitary candle." "He told me it was about ISIS," says McCaslin. "It's just an unbelievable tune." (McCaslin's ISIS assertion is news to Guiliana and Visconti, who say they have no idea what the song is about.)
Bowie wrote one song in the studio, the lush ballad Dollar Days. "One day, David just picked up a guitar," says McCaslin. "He had this little idea, and we just learned it right there in the studio. I didn't even remember it until months later, when someone told me it was on the album."
LCD Soundsystem founder James Murphy plays percussion on two tracks, though his role on the album was originally going to be much more significant. "At one point we were talking about three producers for the album: David, James and myself," says Visconti. "[Murphy] was there for a brief time, but he had his own projects to go off to." Adds Guiliana, "His role was never really defined. He brought in some synths and some percussion and had a ton of ideas."
When the band finished tracking in March, Bowie and Visconti recut most of the vocals, giving them a ghostly effect throughout the forty-two-minute record. "That's the hallmark of the way we work," says Visconti. "He sounds really good when we do this effect called ADT, automatic double-tracking. Then we fooled around with some rippling, repeat echoes. They're all custom-made effects."
To promote the Blackstar single, Bowie shot a surreal short movie where he portrays a blind prophet in space who comes across a group of scarecrow figures getting crucified. "I think I started crying when he called me," said director Johan Renck at a Brooklyn premiere event. But that video might be the last sustained glimpse Bowie fans get for now. "I don't think he's ever going to play live again," says Visconti. "If he does, it will be a total surprise."
Bowie is clearly determined to let the album speak for him. "When he put out albums like "Heroes" and Low, no one was doing anything like that," says Visconti. "And then he gave birth to the New Romantic scene. He's a genre-breaker, and I can't wait for the Blackstar imitation albums to start coming out."
Why Lazarus is unlike any Broadway show you've ever seen
The Man Who Fell To Earth, David Bowie's art-house film from 1976, ends with the main character - an ageless alien played by Bowie - stranded on Earth and heartbroken after losing the love of his life. Bowie's new off-Broadway musical, Lazarus - which opens on December 7 at the tiny New York Theater Workshop - picks up the story forty years later, with Dexter star Michael C. Hall taking over the role. Bowie was intimately involved in the production, writing four new songs (at least one of which appears on his new LP, Blackstar) for it.
Bowie picked Belgian director Ivo van Hove to helm Lazarus. "I didn't want it to become a jukebox musical," van Hove says. "I wanted it to be one story all together, music and theatre." There are a handful of Bowie classics, but most songs are either lesser-known tunes like 1980's It's No Game (No.1) or selections from his past two albums.
Bowie, who starred in a production of The Elephant Man in 1980, has long wanted to bring his music to the stage. "He said it was his dream," van Hove says. "His idea was to do a story where [the character] is stuck on Earth forty years later. And he wanted a girl in a central role."
Hall's co-star is Sophia Anne Caruso, fourteen, who appeared in NBC's live version of The Sound Of Music in 2013. She steals the show every time she's onstage, especially when she sings Life on Mars. "David and I were at her audition," says van Hove. "We looked at each other and said, 'Yes.' We didn't have to see any girls after her."
The show's run is sold out, and there are currently no plans to bring Lazarus to Broadway. "For now," says van Hove, "I just want to make the best show on Earth."