Do you think a Vietnam-era anthem like “the times they are a-changing” has new meaning in light of the war in Iraq?
I think you could say it’s appropriate now because there’s another war going on that’s just as unpopular, but that isn’t really why I did it. There are many inspired lines in it: it’s a song that works outside of the period it was written in.
Artists going all the way back to the Byrds have had commercial success with Dylan’s songs because his voice rubbed some people the wrong way. As a singer, was that an issue for you?
I’ve always liked his voice. I like the way he changes songs. I know some people don’t care for it, but I just think the songs are so strong they can be done in many different ways, whether it’s the Byrds or Hendrix.
Are there any other songwriters you’d consider devoting an entire album to?
Nobody that springs to mind. Nobody has such a huge body of work that I admire.
In interviews, you’ve admitted to having writer’s block. Did that have anything to do with your decision to devote an album to Dylan songs?
It’s no secret that I write very slowly and I don’t really write that many songs. I have other things to do. Rather than thinking, “Oh there’s something wrong with me,” I’ve just been enjoying the other things that I do — solo shows and also some Roxy shows. We did Roxy in 2001, a big tour, and have done a few smaller tours since then. Last year, we did European festivals, three weeks in July and August, and after the tour is when I went into the studio to do the Dylan thing. Roxy Music did some recording earlier in the year, and then it was down to me to go and write the lyrics to some of the songs. I thought, “This is going to be a very long-haul project,” and I didn’t want to wait two years before I put anything out. Simple as that. And the Dylan thing was a project that’s been in the back of my mind for a long time.
In the past, you’ve cherry-picked from various artists . . .
Very much so. I was trying different avenues. For me, the great freedom of the solo career is that I have been able to go in different directions and stretch myself — like doing ’30s songs with an orchestra. The Dylan thing, it seems very natural to me. These songs are very poetic, very accessible to me.
Early on, you injected more camp or irony into your Dylan interpretations. These renditions seem more straightforward.
Yeah. I didn’t analyze how I was going to do it other than the fact that I’ve been enjoying playing with most of the same musicians on tour and I didn’t want to overproduce the thing. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’’ is just straightforward rock with the band enjoying the song. Same with “Twist of Fate.” There’s something naturalistic about it I liked.
You’re at a point in your life where it would be perfectly okay for you to say, “I’ve done my bit, I’m going to retire.” Have you thought about that?
Quite the opposite, really. I think it’s just that I like to work and there’s a momentum as well to what I’m doing. Ever since I got divorced — I suppose I lost half my fortune five years ago, can’t remember now, something like that.