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Rod Stewart knows you want to hear the old songs. He's writing new ones anyway

Rod Stewart knows you want to hear the old songs. He's writing new ones anyway
Rod Stewart at his home in Beverly Park. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

When Rod Stewart is in residence in Los Angeles — which is to say, when he’s not on the road or in his native England or in Palm Beach, Fla., where he owns a third home about a mile up the beach from Donald Trump’s place — the 73-year-old rocker lives in a sprawling and lavishly appointed mansion in Beverly Park.

Tucked safely behind a series of gates, the house has a library and a movie theater and a garage big enough that a Mercedes and a Ferrari both looked lonely on a recent afternoon. There’s also a soccer field — a small one, but still.

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Despite all this, Stewart had frugality on his mind as he strolled out onto an expansive back patio holding two bottles of water.

“Got any kids?” he asked, his scratchy voice even scratchier than usual. Stewart’s two school-age children (out of eight total) were with their mother, Penny Lancaster, in London; the singer had flown to L.A. on his own after calling off a handful of tour dates due to laryngitis.

“Two mouthfuls off the top,” he went on, describing with some exasperation the way his offspring use bottles like these. “Then they just leave them all over. So what I do is I pour them all into one big bottle, then I refill them and screw the tops back on. They never know.”

Rod Stewart, pinchpenny?

“Tight as two coats of paint,” he replied. “I’m trying to prove a point! You can’t just waste things.”

Famously dissolute when he was coming up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Stewart is big these days on not squandering his resources.

Look at his career in the last few years. At a point when many in his position are coasting with tribute projects or covers albums — records not unlike Stewart’s “Great American Songbook” series from the early 2000s — he’s recommitted himself to songwriting because he claims he has more to write about now than he did during his 20s and 30s.

Last month he released “Blood Red Roses,” his third album of original material since 2013. It’s got folky, soulful tunes about missing old friends and about the pain of parenthood; the title track imagines life aboard a whaling ship en route from Boston to Cape Horn.

And, yes, he knows this isn’t the stuff people come to his concerts to hear. Whenever he introduces a new song, he’s straight with them.

“I’ll say, ‘I want you to applaud like you’ve just heard “Maggie May” or “Hot Legs” or “Tonight’s the Night” — any of those,’” Stewart said as he sat on a couch overlooking an elaborate fountain. He was wearing shorts and a white shirt unbuttoned nearly to his navel, and his crinkly eyes were hidden behind a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses.

“And they do!” he added. Still, his fans’ indulgence is not to be abused. “You certainly can’t do more than one or two a night,” he said.

“But writing is what keeps you fresh — it’s what keeps the adrenaline going.”

Stewart thinks about freshness in terms of how engaged he is in the task at hand. Others around him, though, have wondered if this happily hard-working veteran might be ripe for discovery by a new audience.

After the rapper ASAP Rocky sampled a vintage Stewart vocal for his 2015 hit “Everyday,” the singer’s manager and record label began assembling an album of remakes of his old classics performed by Stewart alongside various collaborators — precisely the kind of thing, in other words, we’re accustomed to seeing from artists around Stewart’s age. (Elton John, who’s 71, oversaw two such tributes to himself this year.)

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"Young people look at me," Stewart says, "and go, 'Why's he got that haircut?'"
"Young people look at me," Stewart says, "and go, 'Why's he got that haircut?'" (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

We got a taste of one such remake — “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” featuring Joe Jonas’ electro-pop band DNCE — when the two acts teamed up for 2017’s MTV Video Music Awards. Stewart also recorded tracks with James Bay and Bastille.

Eventually the project stalled, at least in part because Stewart’s attention had shifted to the original songs on “Blood Red Roses.” But as we talked it wasn’t hard to gauge his level of interest in the abandoned concept.

“I sort of prefer my versions,” he said, which definitely feels like the right opinion: Why waste a Rod Stewart song on somebody other than Rod Stewart? Especially when he doesn’t seem all that troubled by the idea that he’s moved to the margins of the pop conversation?

“Young people look at me and go, ‘Why’s he got that haircut?’” he said with a laugh.

As proud as he is of “Blood Red Roses,” Stewart’s commercial ambitions for the new album are relatively modest: a top 10 debut in the U.S. and a No. 1 showing at home in the U.K., where he says he’s a much bigger deal than he is here — “part of the fabric of the country,” in his words.

Monte Lipman, who heads up Stewart’s label, Republic, said he’s aiming for a Grammy nomination, and that could be within reach, given the Recording Academy’s habit of recognizing later work by living-legend types.

Which isn’t to say that’s how Stewart carries himself.

“I like to think I’m still a pretty normal guy,” he said. “Obviously, when you’ve got a lot of money, it changes you. But I do a lot of regular things when I’m with my wife in London. I go ’round to the supermarket; I don’t send people to shop for me.”

Stewart with his children Kimberly and Sean in 1983.
Stewart with his children Kimberly and Sean in 1983. (Dave Hogan / Getty Images)

In L.A., he enjoys going out for dinner with his adult children — “It thrills me to pick up my phone and see Stewart, Stewart, Stewart, Stewart, Stewart, Stewart” — and playing what he calls football on his private pitch. (Asked if he cares about American football, he said no — then demonstrated it by casting about for the name of an NFL team: “The Philadelphia Penguins? The Pittsburgh Persons?”)

He moved here in 1975 to escape a punishing British tax rate that he estimated at about 96% of his income. “This was the Harold Wilson government,” he said, the former prime minister’s name still a bitter taste in his mouth. And though he was homesick at first, he quickly grew to love L.A.

Of course, he added, the rise of the celebrity-industrial complex has rolled back the ease with which stars once amused themselves in this town. “The things I used to get away with…,” he said, trailing off. “But now everyone’s got a phone with a camera. You’ve got to watch your step.”

Boo-hoo for Rod Stewart?

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“Look how long I’ve been at it,” he said. “If I’m not used to it by now, I never will be. It’s all part of the game.”

That also includes watching what he says. Stewart declined to offer his thoughts regarding his neighbor in Palm Beach, explaining that he’d gotten himself “into a little trouble” recently by describing Trump as a friend.

“So I refuse to talk anymore,” he said, friendly but firm.

But then he went ahead and complained about the disruption of the president’s visits. “You’ve got no idea what trouble it causes,” he said. “None of us can get along the coastline. We have to go all the way around.”

Stewart chuckled, as though he were suddenly aware of how this one-percenter’s lament might sound to some. Or perhaps he was simply gladdened by the thought of his spread in Florida, where he said he loves to sit and watch the ocean.

Surely he could do that in L.A.

“You see that statue?” he asked in response, pointing maybe 20 feet away. “The ocean is that close there. It’s a gorgeous place.”

In fact, he’d been down that way just a couple of weeks before, he said, as part of the tour that will bring him to Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena on Oct. 28.

As we neared the end of our chat, he went inside and rummaged around until he laid his hands on something he’d evidently lugged home from Florida. It was a painting of himself, clearly made by a fan, overlaid with an image of the Amway Center in Orlando.

He scrawled his signature in one corner of the painting and cheerfully handed it over.

Pinchpenny Rod was regifting it to me.

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