Something Else! Interview: Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues

Justin Hayward, songwriter and lead singer with the Moody Blues, takes a rare turn away from the band with the release later this month of Spirits of the Western Sky, his first solo effort since 1996’s The View From The Hill.

Some 10 years in the making, Spirits (due February 26, 2013 on Eagle Rock) is appropriately cinematic, touching on the Moody Blues’ signature classic rock-meets-classical sound — something Hayward himself had no small part in constructing — even while it takes in fresh new elements from bluegrass to dance music.

Hayward joined us to talk about his long journey toward completing Spirits of the Western Sky, in this exclusive new SER Sitdown …

NICK DERISO: Let’s start with the new remix of 1988’s “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.” What was your initial reaction to hearing one of your more popular songs reassembled in that way?
JUSTIN HAYWARD: It came completely out of the blue. There were a couple of Swedish boys, and their manager sent this stuff through. They were loved the song, and they wanted to do a dance version of the song, but they found that they couldn’t extract what they wanted from the Moody Blues record. Really, they just wanted my voice, a bit of my old DX7 (an 1980s-era Yamaha synthesizer), and some percussion things. So, I listened to it, and I really enjoyed the stuff that they had started to put together. That dance stuff is kind of organic; you can come back the next day, and it would sound a little bit different. They asked me if I could do these pieces, and they sent me some tracks where they wanted things put, and I agreed. I enjoyed it immensely.

NICK DERISO: How did it end up on Spirits of the Western Sky?
JUSTIN HAYWARD: I never thought much more about it, except that I assumed it would be in clubs. But then when we were doing my album, Alberto, my engineer, and I would find that at the end of the night, we would put one of the guys’ new versions of “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” on — and dance around the studio, and be happy. (Laughs.) It helped release a lot of the tension that we’d built up. We just got to enjoy it. And when we were compiling the album, we both decided that we really wanted to include it. It had become such a part of the album, such a part of our lives when we were making the album, that we wanted to include it.

NICK DERISO: Much of the new album recalls previous triumphs with the Moody Blues but you also, I think very interestingly, explore some bluegrass traditions. Did all of this spring from the recent Moody Bluegrass tribute projects?
JUSTIN HAYWARD: I was fortunate enough, really before Moody Bluegrass, to be accepted in Nashville as a songwriter. I’d been there in the 1980s and ’90s to do some showcase kind of things, so I was familiar with the musicians. A lot of the musicians in Nashville are simply waiting for a songwriter to come along so they can play. So, it was a natural thing for me. Then, I got to know some of those bluegrass musicians through Moody Bluegrass, and I began to realize some thing about the music. There’s no drums, no electric bass or electric guitar, so you’ve got to be able to play in your front room and in your parlor. I loved that, where you could just turn up with a couple of songs and the guys would play it. So, that’s what I did.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Justin Hayward goes in depth with us on individual tracks from 2013's 'Spirits of the Western Sky,' as well as a few key moments with the Moody Blues.]

NICK DERISO: That must have been quite an experience after the way that the Moody Blues recorded, in particular in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when you were involved in these giant productions where everything had to be pieced together.
JUSTIN HAYWARD: The total opposite. Funny enough, it’s more like the Moodies when I joined in 1966. We would rehearse things up, and then put them down. Bluegrass is very much like that. It’s not sitting around overdubbing, and fiddling around with stuff to see what works and what doesn’t work. It’s a question of playing it right, and doing a good take.

NICK DERISO: The Moodies are set for a UK tour later this year. Are you planning to schedule your own dates as a solo act?
JUSTIN HAYWARD: I would like to. There are certainly a lot of promoters that are interested in having me there. How I would do that, I don’t know — because so much of this record is done with acoustic guitars and that kind of feeling. So, I think I will have to choose which way I want to do it, because I’ve found out over the years, once you introduce a drumkit onto the stage, it gets incrementally louder. I would like to do some dates, maybe. Some acoustic shows would be quite nice.

NICK DERISO: I wonder how a complex song like “Nights in White Satin” would be presented on a solo tour. Is there a different emotional resonance when it’s just you up there, or would you miss those thundering strings?
JUSTIN HAYWARD: “Nights” is one of those songs that you can do stripped down, or you can do it all the way. I’m very lucky that people still enjoy it, whichever way we do it. I think they each have their appeal, each kind of style. I love the minimal style, because you can think about your voice and the acoustic guitar and keyboard a little bit more. There is a big difference, but in the end the effect is the same. It’s just the size of the production. With the Moodies, with songs like that, the size of the production adds a great deal to the experience of the evening. Fans want to hear it in all of its powerfulness.

NICK DERISO: This album was constructed over a period of more than 10 years. Was part of the delay in simply sorting through ideas?
JUSTIN HAYWARD: I was working so much in the studio. I mixed the sound of three different Moody Blues DVDs and the Isle of Wight film, and then did a couple of Moodies albums. Then, I was quite lucky that Universal asked me to remaster some of Moody Blues’ early things — so that kept me in the studio, as well. We also did the 5.1 surround sound for these albums. Over this time, I knew that I had a lot of demos, and I knew that I was putting a lot of songs together. But it wasn’t until about two of three years ago that I decided that I really had to do this, and take this seriously. These songs were sort of like lonely children, hanging around (laughs) with no purpose. I decided that all of these people needed to go out into the world and find out what it was all about. So, I started collecting them about three years ago.

NICK DERISO: There is an emotional thread running through the project, a sense of reminiscence. Do you get this sense that this is your most personal album?
JUSTIN HAYWARD: I certainly do. It is the most personal, and when I was compiling it over the last couple of years, I had a few other songs that had more social comment and things like that, and I didn’t finish them. Maybe I will one day, but I was drawn more to the things that were about relationships with people that I know. I know when people listen to this album, some people that I know will recognize themselves in it. That’s OK, too. It is very personal to me. It’s really straight from the heart, about a lot of things that have happened to me in my life. As I get older, the relationships that I have with people become more precious. I find myself falling in love with people here, there and everywhere. I don’t mean in a promiscuous way (chuckles), just in relationships and associations. I am drawn to people, and appreciate them more. When it came time to compile the album, those are the songs that really resonated with the way I felt.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Blanche

    Thanks, Nick — Excellent write-up that reflects nicely on your publishing cred and props. As album release looms, each interview peels the grape to provide an anecdotal prelude. Dancing spontaneously to a club mix at the end of a studio session is a great reveal. Look forward to tomorrow’s sequel.

  • Dave Bushman

    For MB fans, they have their own cruise, from March 20-25, 2013 on the MSC Poesia out of Fort Lauderdale. It’s going to be awesome.

  • RIchard

    Yes, great morning reading. I happen to be one of the lucky ones going on the “Voyage” cruise next month with the MBs, enjoying time with others who have been touched by Justin’s words for all those years.

    • barry bosley

      Their lyrics are the best.

  • David Gaul

    “On the Road to Love” off of Spirits of the Western Sky is one of the best songs Justin Hayward has ever recorded. Co-written and performed with Kenny Loggins, this song deserves to be a major hit!

  • Gerry White

    I too am going on the cruise and can’t wait. It is going to be a blast! Justin’s voice is still “hauntingly beautiful” and unique to only him and the Moody Blues. This album is nice but I wish he just re-released “Broken Dream” in its original version as a single. Should have been a “hit” all around the world. Best song for me on the new album is the “The Western Sky”.