As a press conference at Los Angeles’ Club Nokia yesterday, Stevie Wonder explained his decision to perform his seminal Songs in the Key of Life album in full for the first time for his 18th annual House Full of Toys benefit.
After fielding questions from the press and performing three songs – “Sir Duke,” “As” and “I Wish” – Wonder spoke with Rolling Stone about the inspiration for the event. Typically for a man who’s always been socially committed, the conversation veered to topics like health care and gun control, and why Songs in the Key of Life remains relevant 37 years after its release.
How long have you thought of doing this event?
At least eight or nine years, definitely.
How did the idea first enter your mind, and what prompted the delay?
I think different things that we as artists have done, be it great albums or great projects, they’re really pieces of work – they’re works. And my whole thing was wanting it to be presented as that, not just the typical going onstage, and doing this song and that song. Basically having a chance to give all the meaning behind the songs, things that people may have not thought that I was thinking about, and then sharing some things, like the “Dream Machine” [Yamaha GX-1 keyboard] – we’re going to try to bring that out and let people see that. Having the orchestra, we’re just kind of mixing it up, making it a combination of nostalgic as well as contemporary.
How will you present the album?
The only difference to the actual layout of Songs in the Key of Life is, as opposed to ending with the songs “All Day Sucker” and “My Mama’s Call,” I’m going to end it with “Another Star,” because I feel that song is the right one to do. Now, we’re going to put the other two songs that were on the EP in the presentation as well, so they’ll be probably the first two extra songs after the first part of Songs in the Key of Life, which are “Saturn” and “Ebony Eyes.”
How has the album changed for you over time?
The album has just inspired me – when I listen to my music, I listen to really see if I still feel the same way. When I listen to Songs in the Key of Life or Talking Book or Innervisions or any of the things I’ve done in the past, I listen to measure how I feel and how I see the world – how it is now as to how it was then, how much has or hasn’t changed – and it gives me a lot of optimism because, basically, as we’ve gone through many ups and downs, as we do in life, I just believe that ultimately having more people that are optimistic than pessimistic, we’re gonna move forward to a better place.
So many of these songs are still relevant. What are some that are really relevant to you right now?
For example, “Village Ghetto Land,” it still exists, unfortunately. We have far more homeless people than ever before, and I’m still very glad that the federal health care bill was passed, because there are so many people with conditions that are walking the streets, people that have psychological issues and they’re walking the street and they’re homeless. It really allows us as America to say, “Listen, we always talk about how we want to be protected.” There’s a whole group of people who talk about how we need more guns. That’s, to me, the biggest joke in the world, because having more guns is almost like saying every single nation in the world should have weapons of mass destruction. At the end of the day, we’re killing people. You hear about, every single day on the news, somebody being murdered, some family members getting shot by another family member – on and on and on.
So I think that having affordable health care really means that people who may be going through different things – in the last two months we’ve seen two unfortunate incidents that happened, one at the Navy shipyard, then again with a woman who was dealing with some bipolar condition. And I think that we have to really not talk about how happy we are to be in such a great nation. We must continue to do everything that we can to preserve it by how we care about one another. And so to me, those songs like, say, “Pastime Paradise,” we still are living in a time when we’re fighting for people to move forward. [We need to] understand that we have to live in the future paradise and not the “Pastime Paradise.” We can’t do that.