Roots Reflecting with Pop Rock Veteran John Waite

Fun fact: We almost titled this article, “Don’t Wait! Go See John Waite!” Yes, it might be a bit predictable and very cheesy, but the sentiment is true.

When talking about legacy bands and lifelong artists, one cannot forget the spirited heart and work of John Waite. From The Babys to Bad English to his solo work, the musician has been a subtle staple on the music scene for decades. While he never truly left, he did have to take a step back from performing during the COVID-19 pandemic – much like the rest of us. However, the proud, but humble UK-born singer-songwriter has made his return and is more hopeful and grateful than ever before.

“I think everybody’s just relieved to be back on the road,” he told us at the very beginning of our extensive phone conversation. “People are just happy to see each other feel well, and it’s a two way street, so I’m thrilled to be there.”

It’s hard not to smile hearing that – knowing that an artist so dedicated to their craft feels an internal warmth and soulful connection with those coming out to see him after all of this time. Our whole conversation is based on that idea of willing, wanting, loving, and leading a life that is grounded in passion. If it doesn’t make you want to go see him perform live at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on 11/5, we don’t know what will.

We here in New Jersey cannot wait to see you back on stage. Honestly, just the idea of live music and being part of something we love is more fulfilling now than ever.

It’s been way too long. I think us people have been through a hard time that was also kind of psychological. I think it’s been harder than people have realized while it’s still happening. People are not meant to stay home and not communicate and not be part of the world, you know? I’m sure it will carry some of the damage with us into the coming year, but I think we’ve almost got a grip on things now and hopefully we’re heading towards the light. Still, in the meantime I’m working pretty solidly right up to Christmas and I’m thrilled to be back out as humans are supposed to be.

That’s wonderful. To have a mutual love of your music and the arts is so nice to be able to return to – especially in the presence of others.

Yeah, completely true It’s just a feeling of wellbeing to be back to what you are doing once again, playing to people, seeing things, writing… everything’s sort of moving. One day we were – bam! – in lockdown. Stopped. Now look at us.

We’re able to no longer take for granted these hour-and-a-half to two hour shows. These are big moments with bigger memories.

Yeah, absolutely. I think there is a sense of that within the audience and it’s almost tangible. You can almost feel the energy while everybody is just smiling. It’s great.

I love that you’re noticing that while putting on these shows.

The energy goes two ways. You see, everybody is full of emotion and the feeling is positive and I know that because it’s being thrown at me.

Oh, that surely warms my heart! To be able to go back to that must be an amazing feeling. You’ve experienced shows and stages of all caliber, yet still there is this excitement, regardless of this tour being a whole new experience with the current state of the world being what it is.

We were going to go to Holland for 10 dates and possibly Germany and Italy, knocking it out in about three weeks. We had to move that again and that hurt because we do pretty great in Europe. Holland is like a second home in Europe to me. We do really well there and have a lot of connections with that golden country – my website is run by somebody in Holland and all that. However, we had to put that aside to be safe and in this world you always have to think about how at any second somebody can just go and put us back in lockdown. I think that isn’t going to happen because people have worked for these lifted restrictions. We needed to just stay at home for 10 months or whatever it was – and we did. People are putting in the work because they want to move on and return to what they’re used to, like for me, touring.

Live music and the ability to attend concerts again and travel to places old and new is surely a motivator to stay safe and look out for others and ourselves.

Again, I hate to get political, but the vaccination thing is totally a personal choice. You have to do what’s right for you. Still, it would be great if we could just get this thing put to bed and put it behind us before it turns into something else. You never know where it’s going, but we seem to be moving forward really fast. […] Let’s just keep our fingers crossed.

I, personally, think that that is the exact outlook to have. Music and art are a catalyst for so much more than people realize. During lockdown musicians like yourself had the time and space to be artistic in new ways, but the discomfort of the world as large must have put a damper on that.

Well, I didn’t do anything for about 10 months. The fact that I didn’t have anyone to sing to or write for or to go and play for? Nothing. I had just come back from Florida, went to New York for a 10 day break – just to be in New York City – then I got on a train and came back to LA. I was having a pretty busy life and then this pandemic kicked in and I just felt like it was Groundhog Day. Every day there was just no inspiration. You have to remember that there was no vaccine at that point, nobody knew what was going on, and everything was really kind of closed down for a while. Then about 10 months into that, I’d had enough. I went in the studio and recorded the third volume of Wooden Heart – the acoustic trilogy that I’ve been working on for years. I managed to really pull something out of the hat for that, which was great because by the time the restrictions were kind of lifted, I had a new album that sold out immediately and had to go into a second pressing. We were almost sold out with that and then we’re on the road. I’m out there with a band now and some nights we do an unplugged show, which is the three of us, but sometimes we do the full rock thing, which is four of us with the drummer. It’s been good. It was very creative in the end. I finally went back to painting, too – that was the one thing that really helped. You have to do what you do to get through things like this.

That’s fairly full circle at least, right? To go from being in the midst of things to jumping right back in it after a forced break?

Yeah! Actually, all things considered, having that time to reflect maybe makes you stronger. You put aside the things that would not or did not make sense so that the things that were getting on your nerves, you see them differently now. If you have a problem that doesn’t seem solvable, taking a pause can be worthwhile to come up with something to make the solution possible. Maybe there’s a positive side to being in lockdown, now that I think about it. How about that?

We’re slowly getting to that place where we can realize that, I think. I’m glad you brought up the Wooden Heart anthology and you getting back to that recently, because it’s great. “Bluebird Cafe” is one of my favorite songs.

That’s the second volume and that’s really one of my favorites, too. I actually choose to do that on stage the night before last because it is my favorite. Did you know it’s a one-take vocal on that? I did it from the top all the way through singing about one girl. I am proud of it as a song, but as a singer, really, I brought that one home. I’d like to to think that it’s great and I’d also love Willie Nelson to do it.

Speaking of your catalog and songs that you’re a fan of yourself, I’m curious as to when you’re preparing to go on tours, how you create a setlist. You have so many songs to pull from so many different eras of your career to reference. Do you ever think about pulling out songs that maybe you haven’t performed in a while or that people would be surprised to hear?

Well, I have this list of songs and on it there is the holy eight. We have to play those eight. Then the rest of it is just a free-for-all. I couldn’t go out there and not play “Missing You.” We do “Head First,” “Midnight Rendezvous,” “When I See You Smile.” There’s a whole bunch of songs that we just feel compelled to do, but if you put a major hit every two or three songs, you hold people’s attention. If you’re just going to disappear into like a bunch of B-sides, you may lose the audience. Or, if you’re going to do an unplugged night, you need to stick with the story songs, like “In God’s Shadow,” “Bluebird Cafe,” and “Masterpiece of Loneliness.” They all hang together.

We agree backstage on what we fill around those eight songs, so the set list is pretty much different every night. There are a lot of songs to pick from, but when playing live, you pick the most vital songs. I think that’s the best answer. You pick most of the ones that are going to have the biggest impacts when you see them performed, because you have to bring it. People just think you show up, you plug in, and play, but there’s this elusive kind of energy, this thing you have to bring, that doesn’t just go in a flight case. It is what you are and what you bring – that is the biggest part of the puzzle. You bring that onstage so that you deliver that and everything ignites, but you have to pick the songs that you believe in and the ones that are the most challenging to sing to keep it intense throughout an hour-and-a-half. You have to really believe in the whole thing from top to bottom – and I do.

It’s obvious that you do, because you’re making an effort to please everyone with what you do on stage.

Yeah, you know, once you put all the songs together, it’s all me. It isn’t like I went disco at point or left the planet and did something that was jazz. Every song was all written from the same place. If you go back to the first album by The Babys and took just one of those songs and put them in the set I’m currently doing, it would fit. I can only be one thing and that’s me. These were written from the first person and I’ve always had the same style backing those lyrics: blues, folk, and country. It’s a very classic style really and it never went off to become a parenthetical arena rock or whatever it. It was always from the first person, always upbeat me, and that seems to have lasted the longest. I think that’s why it works.

From The Babys to your solo work, that same heart of yours is clear as day.

I seem to have hit the ground running when The Babys got going.I was the only guy that could write songs and the only guy that could sing. I could arrange, too, so I was playing bass and arranging the songs. I never saw myself as a singer in the beginning. I knew I could sing – I wasn’t being coy – I just was more interested in playing bass and writing songs. I couldn’t picture someone else singing the songs I wrote and arranged, though, so even if we had found someone, I knew how it had to be. It was obvious to everyone that I just had to take that chance and do it myself. It took a little time, but it worked.

You’re too gracious, John. You’re very grounded, humble, and clearly personable. I have always heard that you are one of the nicest men in rock and in music, which I am finding to be very true, but I’m wondering how you keep yourself being that way after the success that you’ve had.

Well, I come from the Northwest of England in Lancaster and it’s a beautiful city. It’s got a castle and a river running through it and a canal and a university. I went to school there in the center of town. There was an art school built and acting, composing lessons. My family was working class. I think I always loved Lancaster. I was just thinking about that when I awoke this morning how I used to go back two or three times a year. I think I’m proud of that. I’m proud of where I come from. I see the world a certain way because I carry that with me. You carry that wherever you go in the world – the person that your upbringing makes you.

I have certainly seen some ups and downs in my life, but none of it affected me in a negative way. If something was negative, you just kind of move through it and do the best you can with those lessons.

The people I know in my life are all kind of smart and somewhat gifted, even those back in my hometown. One of my best friends is an electrician and he went to university and got a a degree in philosophy. I just know some really interesting people and I’ve never really treated people differently. If you’re the head of the record company, I’ll talk to you the same way I talk to the guy that delivers the milk. It’s just respect really, but it’s also where I came from, too. I think I’m happy of where I’ve gone. I think it’s been a really strange, colorful adventure. The whole thing from being a little kid and hearing country in Western music and rock and roll to today, sitting in this hotel room in Florida, heading for Texas on tour. What a great life… I couldn’t have written it. Every moment was a life lesson and a wonderful blessing. I can’t believe I actually made it, but I hope that I can keep focus on that and keep going so that I can put out some more stuff soon and take the band on the road for the rest of the next year.