Bernard Fowler has sung and played percussion—both on stage and in the studio—with the Rolling Stones since 1988, and he’s also one of rock and pop’s most sought-after vocalists, having contributed to recordings by Yoko Ono, Herbie Hancock, Public Image Ltd., Gil Scott-Heron, and many more. But, after releasing two solo albums of traditional rock ‘n’ soul, the forward-thinking Fowler wanted to do something different for his next release.

The end result is Inside Out (Rhyme & Reason Records), an album comprised primarily of classic Rolling Stones tracks, as well as deep cuts, delivered as spoken word performances with little more than a minimalist percussive aesthetic as an accompaniment. The album is an infectious work of art that harkens back to the days of The Last Poets and other socially-conscious pre-hip-hop collectives of the late sixties and seventies, that bourgeoned up from the gritty and beautiful streets of New York City where Fowler’s autobiographical roots were sown.

Recently, AQ chatted with Fowler about how he constructed—and deconstructed—his latest ambitious project, literally and effectively turning rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest songbook Inside Out.

Congratulations on Inside Out, Bernard. It’s a great record.

Thank you very much!

Absolutely! Let me ask you this: This is a really unique record—and quite different from your previous solo work. How did you come up with the concept?

It was just an idea that I had after I finished up The Bura (2015). I started thinking about what I was going to do next, and I didn’t want to do a record like The Bura or Friends with Privileges (2006). I wanted to do something really different and this is really different.

It most definitely is. I gained a new perspective on Mick’s lyrics through listening to this record and having them presented in this context. Did the same thing happen for you?

No, I knew it. That’s why I did it!

[Laughs] I feel you, I feel you. I read that you really wanted to choose songs that would not only work in this format, but also resonate with you both personally and within the current context of our society. What was the process of selecting songs like?

The process was pretty simple I think. There was one song I knew I would do–

Which was?

It was “Undercover of the Night,” and I knew I would do that. It was just a matter of getting the songs, going through the Rolling Stones Songbook Volume I, and flipping through some pages and seeing which lyrics where the strongest…. You know, there were some lyrics that I read that had a flow. When I was reading it and it had a flow, I chose it.

That’s cool, man. What was it about “Undercover of the Night” that, right off the bat, you knew you wanted to do it?

The lyrics are really strong. It’s about war.

I don’t think people really recognize that when they listen to it.

I don’t think so, either. I think a lot of them – the Rolling Stones lyrics – kind of don’t sock them when they’re listening to them. I think people are so busy in the groove, that they really miss how strong the records are lyrically… which is both a good and a bad thing.

I can see that. You stripped away the groove, but you also stripped the “Mick and Keith” personalities away, and when you did that, it exposed a whole different conceptual layer, in terms of what those songs are talking about.

Yes, and it takes on a totally different vibe. You know, the lyrics never changed, but the background in which the lyrics are featured in changed. This new backdrop allowed people to really hear what was going on.

There are two different versions of “Dancing with Mr. D” featured on the album, and each has a very different vibe. Personally, I love that you selected that track. That’s always been one of my favorite Stones songs. Was there something about that track that inspired the two different interpretations?

Well, not really. You know, the whole record was originally supposed to be just voice and percussion. Then, once I was together with the cats in the rhythm section—just to see what it would feel like—I added the rhythm section to the percussion and some magic happened. So much so that I couldn’t choose between the two of them, so I put them both on.

Between that track and “Sister Morphine,” it’s not hard to think about the opioid epidemic going on in this country. I know you were looking for things that were resonating with you, so was that on your mind, as well?

Absolutely! You know, I was a victim of that, too, so I knew what those songs feel like.

The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron aren’t exactly well-known within the mainstream, but their spirit and influence as spoken word performers is all over this record. I know you had the opportunity to record with Gil at one point—did you take anything away from that experience, especially in regard to his technique, that directly helped inform the vibe of Inside Out at all?

I think just the way it felt when he was delivering his stuff. I think that is what I got from it. I got the feel of it. It just stayed with me, which made it relatively easy for me to do this record and perform the songs on the record. I knew what it should feel like—and all those people that you named, and more, I have heard them do it, too. So I knew what it was supposed to feel like. The fact that I am a vocalist also helped, because a lot of spoken word that you hear, the music is like a backdrop. The music and the feel and everything is not intertwined. It feels separated. ‘Here’s some music and here’s some poetry that I’m going to read on.’ It does not necessarily have a flow to it.

In that regard, though, you had some very serious musicians play on this record. What was everyone’s reaction when you explained the concept behind Inside Out?

They were like ‘Bernard, only you would think to do something like this.’

[Laughs] But they had to have been jazzed, though, right?

Yeah, they were jazzed for sure. Again, they really sat me down and said that only I could think of doing something like this.

You know, so many people cover Stones songs, and I’m sure there are compilations of Stones covers that are given a little bit of twist… maybe they get a bit of a country twist, sometimes they’re given a bluegrass twist. But this is like nothing that anyone else has ever really tried to do with the Stones material. I heard that Mick had pretty much commented the same thing to you saying, ‘I’ve heard a lot of Stones covers, but nothing ever like this.’

That’s right. That’s exactly what he said. He was right, this is the first time that I had taken the songs to the neighborhood—the old neighborhood.

The old neighborhood, the old New York City.

There you go.

I have to ask, have the rest of the Stones heard the full album yet?

Yeah.

And what do they think?

Well, Keith said he loved it. Keith said that he absolutely loved it. Mick hasn’t really said, but that means he loves it.

Is that the kind of dude he is?

Yeah, well, it’s hard to get a read on him sometimes. So, he hasn’t come to me and said, ‘Oh, Bernard, it’s an incredible thing, doing an album like that.’ But I am sure he did. If he didn’t dig it, he would say, for sure!

You’ve worked with the Stones since 1988, so you’ve seen them up close and in action for a long time. You’re on stage with them for their full performance, so are you ever amazed by their longevity and their ability to still do what they do after six decades of performing?

All the time.

And in what way?

All the time and in every way, man. You know, just to still have the passion is an amazing thing. That alone goes to show just how much they love doing what they are doing. Being with them on stage… they’re not just going through the motions, you know? They’re putting on a show.

And you have to want to get up and go do it.

That’s right. It’s a high level of professionalism. High, high, high level. We all know, they don’t have to do it. The only thing keeping them there is their love of performing.

That’s an awesome thing. You know, I read somewhere that one of the first records you ever owned was 12 x 5, which is the second American Stones release. Can you share with me some of your memories of growing up in New York City, not only listening to rock ‘n’ roll, but a wide variety of genres and sounds?

Well, man…. It’s kind of hard to describe, but New York City when I was growing up was a different place. The neighborhood was a different place. It was, you know, predominantly black and Puerto Rican. Very poor, but we all loved each other—played ball together, got our first kisses together. New York was also a very rough place. It was common in my neighborhood for someone to be found in the hallway overdosed, or somebody getting shot every day. That is the kind of neighborhood I grew up in, but there were some beautiful people, beautiful characters—some of which I am still in touch with! I’m very proud of the place I come from. There is a list of talent that has come out of Queensbridge and I’m just one of them.

Inside Out, in a way, reconciles that beauty and darkness, which paved a way for people like Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poet to thrive within that art form. Now, decades later, you’re putting your own spin on it, so I have to think it’s like coming full circle for you, no?

Yeah, it is kind of. The song “Must Be Held,” on the record, you hear the drums slowly fade in. That was a memory of me going to the park, walking to the park and hearing the drums. Hearing the drums and hearing that specific beat. So, you know, I used that idea as part of the production for “Must Be Held”

It’s awesome how those little things that maybe as kids—or even adults—we sort of take for granted, but then it informs something later on that is creative and inspiring. It turns into something that you are proud of and want to share with people, right?

That’s right, absolutely right.

Right on, man. Bernard, thank you so much for your time today.

Thank you, man. I really appreciate it.

Inside Out is now available from Rhyme & Reason records wherever music is streamed or sold. Be sure to catch Bernard Fowler with The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium on August 1 and August 5!

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