Stew & the Negro Problem to release their first new album since play-turned-film ‘Passing Strange’
NEW YORK, N.Y. — “It’s a love and pain thing, a no one can explain thing, it’s simply complicated folks,” goes a line from “Curse,” one of the central pieces on Making It, not only the new album by the Negro Problem, but the first collection of new songs by the collaborative partnership that is Stew and Heidi Rodewald since Passing Strange, their Tony-winning play turned Spike Lee Joint.
The January 24, 2012 release Making It weeps, moans and sings, as its makers — once coupled, now apart — deliver in equal measure, a male and female, yin and yang, black and white story of love and art, in all its colors and parts. Of course that’s what singer-composer Rodewald and the singularly named singer-songwriter-playwright Stew have always done, en route from rock ’n’ roll trouble to theatrical triumph, since forming their band the Negro Problem in Los Angeles in the early ’90s (Heidi joined in ’97).
“For some people, ‘making it’ means having enough money where you don’t have to make art anymore,” says Stew. “But I’ve always told people I became successful when I was 17 and realized that this was what I was going to do with my life — not when we got to the Public Theater or went to Broadway or when Spike shot the movie — but when I made that decision: To be in a band.”
Over the course of nine albums, while Stew’s concerned himself with making art, making love and making peace with all of it, Heidi’s co-composed and vocalized the push-pull, down-bound yet supersonic melodies that largely characterized the Negro Problem. But her notations to the songs on Making It are perhaps that much sweeter because of the resistance she initially brought to the project.
“I didn’t want to do this record,” she admits. But when she heard a bit of her own truth in the climactic “Leave Believe,” she says, “We decided that I should be involved — that I’d tell Stew what lyrics he should write for me.” The new twist on the creative process was especially gratifying for Heidi, while Stew gave and took what he needed from it too. “Stew said Making It was like his ‘therapy’ and I told him that therapy only works if you tell the truth.” The resulting song, “Therapy Only Works If You Tell The Truth,” is as bare-naked as it is straight/no chaser rock ’n ’roll.
“Heidi’s voice is just a part of our thing; it’s definitely moved into the foreground on this record,” says Stew. Inspired by the moods of early Leonard Cohen, and the way he works with female voices, “I always loved that vibe a lot, where the female voice becomes a character from the song, not just a backing vocalist. To me it was very theatrical,” though he says his influences are more often more abstract than that. “More like what I imagined something sounded like, than what it actually sounded like.”
Opening with an exuberant instrumental theme, comedown and chaos quickly combine while the first voice you’ll hear is Heidi’s. Trading echoing lines of dialogue in “Pretend,” the play’s the thing, as Stew foreshadows what’s about to unfold: “When times get tough the song does too.” Love and war, overseas and at home, are no joke in the downbeat duo, “Pastry Shop” and “Suzy Wong.” And in Aspen, where “Black Men Ski” you could say the path is designated “most difficult.” Meanwhile, Heidi and Stew roll with the emotional changes and go down swinging, lost and found in a swirl of rock ’n’ roll feedback, futuristic jams, flute, and funeral jazz, with a shot of showbiz flair.
During a week of sold-out Making It shows at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, theater-goers who expected Passing Strange part two had their minds revamped, and yet, this was Heidi and Stew doing what they’ve always done, working out their songs as the Negro Problem, a band in (im)perfect harmony. Call it an uneasy listening experience that’s easy on the ears, or like eavesdropping on the human condition, ultimately Making It is a rock album concerning heartache — and who can’t get with that?
“The albums we put out always show where we are at the time,” says Heidi. “This collection of songs is filled with inaccuracies and that is absolutely accurate in describing our lives during that rough period. The inaccuracies are what make it that much more accurate.” Stew counters with the facts (as he sees them). “It’s a fact that we broke up during Passing Strange and we had to be in a play for two years together which was pretty intense and largely Making It is about that — not every song, but most of it . . .”
No matter that he sees it his way and she hers, the creative partnership that remains Stew and Heidi is still clicking. Following a series of shows and the release of Making It, their next collaboration debuts in February 2012 at New York’s Public Lab: Stew’s play The Total Bent, with music by him and Heidi, concerns a gospel singer going rock in a time of epic social and political change. Again, it’s a tussle, this time between the sacred and the profane, at the intersection between life and art.
“It doesn’t take much to figure out, this is sort of a reoccurring theme with me,” says Stew. The ideas and the songs keep coming, he simply shows up to write them. “We didn’t expect to make a play . . .or to break up . . .all these things just happened.”
“Stew can write anything, put it in a song and people think it’s the truth,” says Heidi.
But it’s where the two get together that things start to get interesting . . . Call it love or call it art, fact or fiction, whatever it is or isn’t, Making It is an affirmation of Stew and Heidi’s trip as they shift gears, passing — quite naturally — into the next phase.