bernard fowler talks about the making of inside out
Whether he finds himself in California, his native New York or about to go around the world in eighty dates as a member of The Rolling Stones touring band, Bernard Fowler goes where the songs take him. In 2019, he brought audiences along for the ride, exploring some lesser-known gems in the expansive Stones catalogue through an exciting, albeit unexpected lens. Inside Out – his third LP away from a renowned career as a session musician and vocalist – unfolds as a compelling contradiction, blending spoken word from one of the most sought after voices in music with covers of an iconic band known as one of the most explosive groups in history.
So what happens when you take a wild fire and reshape, condense and confine it to a single striking flame? What are the Rolling Stones without the boastful, mischievous swagger and gritty groove that belongs to no one but them? As Fowler found out, the visceral lyrical wordplay throughout their songbook shines so brightly it redefined everything he thought he knew about the band he has shared stages and studio spaces with since 1988. “I was like everybody else,” he says now. “I knew what I knew and I got caught up in shaking my butt, bopping my head to the rock and roll and kind of missed what was actually being said.” Illuminating a collection of written verses that are as gripping as any beloved guitar solo or drum fill, Inside Out aims to unlock what was hiding in plain sight, all the while leading Fowler towards his most experimental work yet.
After the 2015 release of The Bura – his second solo album following 2006’s Friends With Privileges – the musician was spent. “I was absolutely exhausted, I felt beat up,” he remembers, alluding to the total sacrifice and commitment that is tied all too tightly to the creative process. “It was amazing that I still had a little left in me to go to this next project that was going to be so different from any and everything I did.” Although after pouring so much of your heart and soul into something, running 100 miles in the opposite direction for whatever comes next isn’t just what can feel necessary – it’s part of the fun. In this case, the idea for the record came before The Bura was even finished, and when an impromptu jam during a Stones sound check was witnessed by Mick Jagger, the crux of what Fowler was hearing in his head was laid bare. “It would have been a surprise to them,” he says of Inside Out. “But you know at the rehearsal I just let it out and he heard it, understood it and he really dug it.”
From the beginning, it was clear that the songs themselves would be the most crucial ingredient to an album of adaptations. Although for a band that has over 20 full-length records – Fowler says they run through anywhere from 120 to 150 songs in tour rehearsals alone – there would obviously be a lot of material to consider. But as the first track selected, “Undercover of The Night” was always destined to lead the way and set the bar. “Any and everything that I would do had to be strong – as strong as that,” he explains. Before long, he was poring over every word of the Stones discography with new eyes, riveted by a complexity that was camouflaged by the crossfire hurricane that’s been reverberating through their time signatures since their earliest days storming London clubs.
“It was more instinctual,” he calls the process of choosing songs. Deliberately staying away from their biggest radio hits, Fowler dug deep into the canyons of their catalogue, focusing entirely on emotion and storytelling. The result is a radical reimagining that stands on its own, completely independent of its source material even as it celebrates it. “‘I’ve never heard them like this,’” Jagger had told him at that sound check, and it’s easy to hear why – the songs are kindred spirits, not Xerox copies. Although Inside Out may be most remarkable for the very different ways it expresses the astonishing connections between Fowler’s renditions and the originals, unfolding as part performance, part raw realism, and as in-your-face as an Exile era rhythm section.
As a musician, his influences are infinite. When I ask, he names Joe Text, The Temptations, Eddie Taylor, Mahalia Jackson, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Three Dog Night, MC5, Mandrill, and Blood, Sweat & Tears among them, but soon, his voice trails off, burdened by the weight of an undoubtedly impossible task. “It’s so many,” he admits. “It’s so vast and all types of genres.” For this record, he says inspiration came mostly in the form of The Last Poets, Felipe Luciano and Nikki Giovanni, although it was important to him to connect to how their work leaves him feeling rather than the work itself. “My memory of the influences is what I had channeled,” he explains. “I didn’t go back and listen to any old record, it was all from memory. All from memory and I realized I had channeled the feel of the old memories, so I knew I was in the right place.”
Yet the most valuable aspect of the creative process may have been recognizing when he needed to take a step back – a lesson he says he took with him from previous projects. “Before The Bura, whenever I was in the studio, I would work, then I’d make copies of it, take it home, play it in my car. I was always with it, surrounded by it,” he remembers. “But during The Bura, I stopped doing that. I’d work, I’d work and I’d leave. I’d leave without any copy. Internally, in my head, I’d think about it, but I would not listen to it. And as a result of that, every time I came back to the studio, it felt fresh.”
He initially envisioned a collection built solely around percussion and vocals, but a chance call from a friend – acclaimed musician and producer Steve Jordan – broadened the scope. “I just happened to be in the studio working and he asked me, ‘What are you up to man, what are you working on these days?’ and I’m like, ‘Well I’ll send you a taste of it,’” he says. Completely floored by what he heard, Jordan immediately reached back out, determined to play on the album. “I said, ‘Well you know what, when you’re in town, you know hopefully I’ll still be doing it,’ Fowler recalls. “Some time had passed, he came to California, I think to produce some stuff for John Mayer, and he called me and said, ‘Yo man, I’m in town.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’m in the studio.’ He said, ‘I’m sending over a drum kit.’ Sent over a drum kit and he walked in the studio and he had Clayton Cameron with him.” Known as ‘the Brush Master’ for his innovative use of the drumming technique, Cameron joined what became an all night session spent tackling multiple songs. In the end, Fowler would welcome a rotating, all star backing band of longtime friends including Walfredo Reyes Jr., Lenny Castro, Keyon Harrold, Mike Garson, Ray Parker Jr., Darryl Jones, George Evans, Michael Bearden, Vince Wilburn Jr. and Jimmy Rip – all behind the scenes giants in the field of popular music.
In time, Fowler will travel to Uruguay to begin recording the next tracks for an Inside Out follow up. But whether he’s at home or on the road, you can bet that music will continue to lead the way.
“I go along. I don’t have any particular place I like to hang out or like to go, I just do it as I’m moving,” he says. “If somebody’s at a certain place that I want to see, I go. I don’t have any particular spot or any particular place. Most of the time it depends on where my friends are, where my friends are playing - that’s where I go. I go to support my friends.”
Inside Out is available now
By Caitlin Phillips