Bryan Ferry rose to fame in the early 70s after forming British glam-rock band Roxy Music, which lit up the charts with their quirky pop hooks and lush, textured soundscapes. Ferry's been cranking out his signature sound, both with and without his Roxy cohorts, for the past four decades, with over 20 full-length releases under his belt. Chicago's Bobby Conn, a prolific pop genius in his own right, talks to Ferry about the early Roxy studio sessions, a mutual appreciation of John Lennon, and (believe it or not) Ferry's unabashed admiration of Lady Gaga. Ferry performs at the Civic Opera House on Tue 10/11. —Luca Cimarusti
When I first heard Roxy Music I was really amazed by your voice. I love that tight vibrato, and I can't think of anyone else who does it so well—except for some French guys, maybe. Was it a conscious thing or intuitive? Were you reacting against the more "rock" styles that were popular in the 70s? I was influenced by so many singers, you can't imagine. I suppose the early blues singers like Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, and then jazz singers like Billie Holiday—and then numerous R&B people like Otis Redding. Also, I wasn't averse to Sinatra and Presley.
The arrangements on your records are full of crazy surprises and beautiful textures, especially the first several Roxy Music ones. How were those sessions? Were you constantly adding bits to keep things interesting or were most of the arrangements planned out before going to record? Are you someone who agonizes over every detail? I'm afraid I do agonize over every detail. The early Roxy Music songs were rehearsed pretty much as they turned out on record. We had such a wide range of textures to choose from, with Manzanera, Mackay, and Eno all bringing something interesting to the party.
As Roxy Music went on you seemed to get closer to some kind of "ideal" production style. The songs aren't as busy and the overall atmosphere is cool and otherworldly, culminating in Avalon. Romantic and ominous, I'd say. Did you imagine it as a soundtrack for your starship journey to rescue your lover from a distant star? Or is that just me? I suppose you could say that. Somehow you find yourself with each album trying to say something different, so you can add more dimension to your body of work. Sometimes that can take you to places where your audience doesn't want to follow.
My friend Virginia wanted me to ask about your record of Dylan covers. (Really great, by the way, and I'm not the hugest Dylan fan usually.) Do you approach Dylan—with all the expectations of folk music, 60s rock, or whatever—differently than you'd handle Cole Porter? Because the result seems like you're really able to hear the songs out of context with their history. I approach Dylan with the same caution and reverence that I do to, say, Cole Porter or anyone else. The lyric is of course very important and I have to be able to relate to it in a strong emotional way. I like recording and performing my own songs, but it is sometimes a great relief and pleasure to embrace the work of another writer.
Another great cover was your version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," not long after he was killed. It's very beautiful, with an edge of menace in it—which is in the Lennon version as well, but handled differently. Do you know the Donny Hathaway version? This song always stood out to me as a rather unnoticed Lennon song, and I thought it was really beautiful. Sometime later I heard the Donny Hathaway version, which is absolutely incredible.
I feel like a lot of the style, charisma, romance, aesthetics, humor that drove Roxy Music isn't valued much in rock music anymore. Instead it's people like Kanye West working in hip-hop and R&B that are going for the big artistic vision these days, hiring George Condo to do his album covers and making epic music videos. Is there anyone out there now going big that you like? I must confess I do admire Lady Gaga for her courage and her undoubted talent.
One [of your songs] in particular from Country Life really hits me: "A Really Good Time." It's full of killer lines that strike me as painfully true for myself and many, many people I know and have known. "You never bothered / About anyone else / You're well educated / With no common sense." Thank you for those kind words. I generally believe that the best songs I ever wrote involved shedding a lot of tears. And this was one of them.Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that Bryan Ferry, not Roxy Music, is performing at the Civic Opera House.