By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Folk singer Al Stewart doesn’t consider himself a “star,” despite scoring hits with “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.”
“There are tens of thousands of people who had a hit record, most of whom you wouldn’t remember,” Stewart says via telephone from his Los Angeles home.
“I’m not saying it was uncomfortable to be successful. I just don’t feel very natural in front of a band. I think I’ve gotten used to it now.”
Stewart will play the Musical Instrument Museum, fronting The Empty Pockets. They will perform his 1976 album, Year of the Cat, in its entirety. He says he prefers to play on his own because he feels more comfortable telling the stories behind his songs.
“We’re storytellers,” he says. “In my normal, everyday folkie life, I would spend a third of the time talking, with humorous monologues. You have to cut out the chat. I like improvising stories, which you can’t do with four or five musicians standing around behind you, wanting to play.”
Stewart explains it never crossed his mind to perform Year of the Cat in its entirety. It was on the recommendation of fans that he decided to do it.
“It’s something I kept getting asked for,” he says. “I didn’t do it for the longest time. A lot of bands are doing entire albums. That seems to be something that’s popular. Finally, I said, ‘OK, alright. I’ll do it.’”
The first time he performed it was at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London, with four of the original musicians.
“It was great. We had about 4,000 people there,” Stewart says. “That’s a lot more than I usually play to. At the moment, we have 20 shows on the books with The Empty Pockets.”
Coming out of the English folk scene, Stewart is reserved; someone who plays with “serious-minded people.”
“There were no pop stars,” he says. “We would sell a few records, but we would never get played on the radio. Year of the Cat just took off. The first six albums were not hits.
“I think people just liked that song. I can’t really explain its success. It wasn’t even my favorite song on the album – maybe not even in the top two.”
Stewart adds that if he performed long enough, he would have a hit.
“If you record 200 or 300 songs, probably one of them would catch on,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
There’s really no secret to Stewart’s success or his longevity. He takes a practical approach to his career. “It’s too late to take up professional basketball at this point in my life,” Stewart says with a laugh. “I’ve been doing it for more than a half-century. It’s so weird. Here’s the thought I had the other day: The economics of the (industry) are so bizarre. When I left school, my parents, teachers and adults told me that rock ‘n’ roll – which was very new then – was a fad and it’s going to be over in six months. It’s going to be gone before I have a crack at it.”
Six months later, a rock single reached No. 19 in the charts – “by a little band called The Beatles. This band changed everything when it released its first single. (The adults) were 180 degrees wrong about everything. When I decided to have children, I thought I would never give them advice. Parents know absolutely nothing.”