John Oates
Photo: David McClister / Courtesy of the artist

Pushin’ a Rock: Catching Up with John Oates of Hall & Oates

John Oates of Hall & Oates talks about “Pushin’ a Rock” and his other new music, men’s health charity work with Movember, and the film Gringa

With six #1 singles to their credit, John Oates and his musical partner Daryl Hall are the bestselling duo in music history, Hall & Oates. To put that in perspective, they’ve sold more records than Simon & Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, the White Stripes, the Carpenters, or Sam & Dave. In 2003, they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2014, they entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2017, St. Martin’s Press published Oates’s compelling memoir, Change of Seasons, which shared a lot about him that many fans might not have already known (he grew up in Manhattan before moving to rural Pennsylvania, was an accomplished racecar driver, and has been part of Nashville’s music scene for many years).

In a recent conversation, Oates talked about his new single (and others that will follow), his work with the charity Movember, and his songs on the soundtrack to the upcoming film Gringa

I loved hearing the new track, “Pushin a Rock“. It made me think a lot about 1960s and 1970s soul, listening to the keyboards and the wah pedal. The lyrics made me think about The Impressions, and of course, also the story of Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. 

Wow, hell, you got it all. You just encapsulated the whole vibe.  

I know you’re a big Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions fan, and I was wondering what you were thinking about when you were writing this.  

For the past few years, especially since I’ve been here in Nashville for quite a while, all my solo work has really been Americana, blues-and-roots oriented. But it really is for me a continuum, and I see it all as part of this American popular music legacy. When I touch back on the early days, what informed me as a really young musician, it’s the folk and the blues and the acoustic stuff, and I’ve been mining that for quite a while. I feel like I made it to the point where I kind of reinvented myself in that genre, and then I started feeling like it was time to mine something else.

There’s a quote from my book that said, “The, skin of a musician is hung on the bones of those who came before him.” It’s true. So basically all the touchstones that you mentioned, the Curtis Mayfield, the 1970s soul, the falsetto, I’m starting to feel that now it’s time for me to reimagine that part of my musical roots history. That’s where this music comes from, and in the subsequent singles, which will be released incrementally over the next few months, you’re going to hear a lot of that, and more and other stuff too. But yes, I’m really glad that you picked up on those influences because yes, they’re totally there and very obvious, and I love that.  

I understand you wrote this with Nathan Paul Chapman, and I was just curious about the process of working with him and how that partnership developed.  

I’ve known him for quite a while. When I first came to Nashville, he was one of the first people I met, and it was actually right before he began to work with Taylor Swift and started doing demos for her, when she was really a young teenager. They worked together for many years and many albums, really putting her on the map. At the time, I was doing an album called A Good Road to Follow, and the whole idea of the album was to collaborate with different people, producers, and writers, and really kind of get into their heads, get into their musical world, and just to kind of enjoy that experience. So I worked with Vince Gill, Ryan Tedder, Hot Chelle Ray, and all these people.

Around that time, I had heard that Nathan was no longer going to be working with Taylor, and she had moved on producer-wise, which is of course every artist’s right, to expand and experiment. So, I just thought I should give him a call and check in on him, basically. When I did, it was interesting, because he said, “I’m kind of at a creative crossroads. I don’t know where music is going to take me.” He was so involved in what he was doing, and then, all of a sudden, it’s an open palette, so to speak. No matter how successful you are, everyone has struggles. Everyone has obstacles. I thought of the myth, the Sisyphus myth, and it really spoke to me as well, in my history, and things that I’ve had to deal with in my career and my personal life. I thought maybe it would be something that he would relate to. Sure enough, when I brought the idea to him, he did, and we wrote a song.

Now that song ended up going on that album (Good Road to Follow), and it was called “Pushing a Rock Uphill”. To be quite honest, and I take full responsibility for this because I produced it, I don’t think I did a very good job with the actual making of the record, and the music in particular. I thought the lyrics were way stronger than the music. I’ve never been one to try to redo the past. I always feel like it’s a snapshot, a moment in time. But during COVID, sitting at home, I had a chance to really go back in my musical archives and start looking at a lot of stuff. Not only was I writing new material, but I was listening to things that I had put on the back burner. I went back to that song, and now the lyrics took on an even more timely message, of the COVID experience.

Now, trying to overcome this pandemic obstacle, which is bigger than all of us, you know? When I revisited it, I thought, I can do this one better. It was something that pushed me creatively. I said, “I’m going to do something with this.” So, I started messing around. I’m an avid GarageBand fan. I do all my home demos on GarageBand, and I’m very good at it if I do say so myself. Even though a lot of people think it’s a simplistic technology platform, I really don’t care because I’m a terrible engineer. That’s my sketch pad. I sketched it out. Then I like to go into the studio and bring in the great, amazing musicians who are all at my disposal here in the city. And that’s what I did.

When I did the demo at home, I got ahold of Nathan, and I explained the same thing to him. I said, “I feel like this deserves another shot.” And he laughed. He said, “I love it. This is how it should have sounded from the beginning.” I take full responsibility for screwing up the first time. I went in and cut it with musicians, and we used some of my original samples and some of my original Garage Band material. It came to life.  

You mentioned the pandemic. The last night my wife and I went out before the lockdown was to see you and Daryl at Madison Square Garden on 28 February 2020.  

Oh, I remember it very well, because that was supposed to be the real kickoff for our tour. Obviously, the rug got pulled out from all of us. K.T. Tunstall, who I love, had the worst experience that night. Her guitar pedals broke. There she was playing Madison Square Garden for the first time, and she was so excited, and it just fell apart for her. I felt so bad for her. We ended up having a great show, and it was sold out, and then we had this amazing reception with about 200 people, all hugging and kissing, and no one got sick. I think in retrospect, “How did that happen?” After that, of course, everything stopped. So yes, I do remember that very well.  

I know you were an early user of the Synclavier and other cutting-edge technologies, so it’s cool to hear that you’re using the latest iteration of whatever is available out there. 

I’ve always looked at the technology of recording as really just another instrument, another instrument that is to be utilized the way you use any instrument. You don’t hammer a nail in with a screwdriver, you use a hammer. I don’t like to be slavish to technology, where I feel like the technology is all of a sudden what you notice. It should be used in an artful way so that the technology just functions as it should to help you get what you need. There’s a lot of technology going on in “Pushin’ a Rock” but I feel like it still has that organic 1970s soul feel.   

I wanted to ask also about the connection to Movember, which is really interesting. Of course, you and Daryl have a history of doing great things for charity with Live Aid, “We Are the World”, and so many other projects. So why Movember and why now? And I was thinking about what you wrote in your book about your mustache, so I’d love to hear more about growing it back for Movember.  

Well, as you can see, it’s coming in pretty strong now. I started in July when this whole thing started happening. Movember reached out to me, and when they did, my first reaction was, “What took you so long?” I’ve had kind of a crafted, goatee-stash kind of thing for quite a while. But you know what, it’s such an important movement, an important organization, and it’s an important message to get out. As you probably know, men tend not to want to share a lot of very sensitive things. They don’t like to go to the doctor. The women’s movement seems very aggressive in getting its message out when it comes to breast cancer and things like that.

The Movember movement has done really, really great things over the years, so when they asked me, I thought, “This is really great.” Then it just so happened I was just finishing up the mixing on “Pushin’ a Rock”. I thought, wait a minute. There’s something serendipitous about this. It wasn’t premeditated. They came to me; I had a song. I went, “Wait, this song is exactly what we’re talking about here.” So, when I presented them with the idea that, not only can we get the message out, but I’ve got this song that seems to be speaking on this subject in a way, they loved it and said, let’s partner up and kind of co-promote, so to speak, the movement, the message, and the music.  

You mentioned being in Nashville, and I’ve heard you say in various contexts how welcome you’ve felt in the music community there. I’d be curious just to hear a little bit about what that’s been like for you. Probably most people who know your work casually wouldn’t necessarily connect you with the Nashville sound.  

Well, the first thing I would address is, what is the Nashville sound? To me, it’s not just contemporary country music. Of course, Nashville’s made its bones on country music, and it’s still a major, major part, but there’s so much music going on here. People don’t realize, Meghan Trainor did all “All About That Bass” in Nashville. Elle King just finished her album in the same studio where I did all my stuff, and the list goes on and on and on. There are all sorts of people recording here and there are all sorts of music being made here, and it has evolved.

When I first came to Nashville in the 1990s, it was pretty country-oriented. But here again, for me, it was a chance for me to rediscover my earliest musical DNA and the roots of who I was prior to Hall & Oates. I got involved very early on with the Americana and roots music community. Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, and people like that. It was really all of a sudden, the things that I had buried in my musical soul, I was able to bring them back out. When I brought it back out, I didn’t bring it back to reproduce it or try to recapture it. I brought it back out to inform the original DNA with my years and years of experience of making records, touring, and other influences.

So it was, it was a kind of a stepping stone to say this is who I could be. Because honestly, when I first started making solo records in the early 2000s, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just said I’ll try a few things and see what happens. Little by little, that began to coalesce with my version of Americana, my version of roots music. So that was the beauty of being here and having this amazing music community not only embrace me but support me in the studio and on tour.

I’ve gotten a chance to play and record with some of the greats, some of the most amazing people, play the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, MerleFest, and places that I never would’ve been. The beauty of it all was, it’s all just music, you know? Being accepted into that world was really rewarding.  

You’re going to be touring Europe soon, and then back to the US with Guthrie Trapp?  

Well, Guthrie and I have been doing a two-man solo acoustic show all this past year and a half. I guess that’s an oxymoron, two-man solo, but you know what I mean. It’s great. I just love playing with him. He’s a monster guitarist and a great friend. We love playing together. We’re going to be doing more shows together in 2023, but also, I’m taking off for Europe next week. I’ll be a special guest on the Beth Hart Tour. Beth is massive in Europe. She’s really huge. And I’ve never really connected in Europe. I’ve never really invested enough time, and I thought to myself, it would be cool to get in front of her audience because she has a very musical audience, a blues-oriented audience, and I thought maybe they would relate to what I do. We did one show together, kind of almost like a test, in Florida at a theater, and it worked out really well. Her audience loved what I did, so I’ll be heading over to Europe next week, and opening for her basically, getting in front of her crowd, giving it a shot, and seeing if it takes me somewhere else. At this point in my career, it’s all about experiences.  

I’ve heard and read a lot about your experience seeing the Temptations in the 1960s and then, in the 1980s, bringing Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin with you to the Apollo and Live Aid. Of course, now there are lots of younger artists who are looking to you and bringing you out to play with them. What has that been like for you with the younger artists who have looked to you and Daryl for inspiration? 

Well, it’s the continuum. It’s as it should be as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never had a problem with ageism. When I was a kid, I saw some of these great artists like Mississippi John Hurt, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and whoever it might have been that I had a chance to be exposed to and involved with. I was in awe, and I had a lot of reverence for that. To me, that’s how it always should be. As I said earlier, it’s built on the bones of the past and the music of the past should always inform the music of today somehow or another. 

Sure, you can call it an elder statesman. You can look at it any way you want. I don’t feel like that, but at the same time, I know that’s a reality. I’ve experienced a little bit of prejudice. I see how that works, especially with some of the really younger people. And I get that too, but that’s okay. To me, you can’t knock quality. If you can deliver, and you can write, and you can record, and do something that still connects to people regardless of their age or whatever, to me that’s a win. I just want to keep doing it as long as I can.  

I heard you were involved with the film Gringa. How did that happen?  

A very good friend of mine from Colorado, EJ Foerster, is the director. He approached me during COVID. And here again, I was sitting around with a lot of time on my hands. He told me about the project he had, he had pretty much shot it. It was almost completely finished, and it has a lot of Latin and Mexican content. It has to do with a young girl who loses her father, who left the family years before, and then she loses her mother. She’s lost. She has nowhere to go. She goes to Mexico to try to reconnect with her father. I thought it was a great story. I really liked it. And he said, “Hey, would you like to try to write a song?” I said, yeah. So I wrote a song for it, and he loved it.

Then he said, “You want to do another one?” I said, Yeah, let’s do another one. I ended up doing four or five songs for it, and I collaborated with a young hip-hop artist from South Carolina, and I also did a duet in Spanish with a really amazing Mexican artist, Ximena Sarinana. She wrote the Spanish lyrics to an English song that I had, and then we recorded it in Spanish. So that was a great experience. There are lots of really cool songs in it. It’s making the rounds of the film festivals right now and getting a nice buzz, and hopefully, it’ll come out soon, and we’ll release a Gringa EP.   

Is there anything else that you’re working on right now that you’d like folks to know about? 

I’ll be releasing a single a month for the next six months. I’m really looking forward to it because there’s some really cool stuff. I’ll give you a little sneak peek. One of the songs is a cover of the Timmy Thomas classic, “Why Can’t We Live Together”, which was written during the Vietnam conflict. Here again, it’s as pertinent and as timely now with what’s going on in the world. I just thought it was another message that needed to be said, but I did it in a completely different way. The beauty of that song is that it’s just an organ and a vocal, and I love that about it, but I wanted to do something else with it. It’s funny. When I got into the studio with the guys to talk about doing the track, I did a GarageBand version of it first to do the outline, and they all said, “Oh yeah, man, that organ’s so cool.” I said, “No organ in this song! We can’t have an organ.” So, we did it without an organ.

I did a reggae version of “Maneater”. When I came up with the idea for “Maneater”, I thought of it as a reggae song, and of course, Daryl and I changed it as we got into it. But I have a very good friend who’s a producer in Jamaica, and I was talking to him about it, and he said, why don’t we go to Jamaica and cut it for real? I ended up cutting it with some of the legends of reggae. We spent a couple of days down there, and we cut the track, and it’s really cool. So, we’ll be coming out with that, plus a dub version of that. So there are some really cool, interesting songs in the pipeline.