Stevie Wonder was on hand Saturday night at opening night of the new Hollywood Bowl season to induct his friend John Legend into the venue’s Hall of Fame. It was a lively night: the Aerosmith songwriting team of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, as well as Patti Austin, were also inducted. Wonder performed “Ordinary People” with Legend, but his main duties were as presenter.
However, Wonder says he would be open to coming back to the venue next year as a headliner to support When the World Began, a new album that has him teaming with producer David Foster and a symphony orchestra. The album, he says, will feature both new songs and remakes of some of his classics, such as “Isn’t She Lovely.”
Between sharing the stage with Legend and taking in Tyler and Perry’s performance from backstage, Wonder spoke with Rolling Stone about the three new projects he’s working on (including paying tribute to his mother with a gospel album), why he came out to support Legend and his continued advocacy for gun control, which he addressed with us in December.
What brought you out tonight?
Well, I heard that [John Legend] was going to be inducted, and I wanted to be there to be the one to announce it and induct him in. I think that’s something they wanted me to do, too, and we’re friends, for real. I like him a lot, and I’m excited about his career and his voice.
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We talked in December at House Full of Toys, and you had a few projects going. How is your new material coming?
I am doing two different projects at this time. Really, I’ve been working on three. One that I talked about with you before is Ten Billion Hearts, and David Foster has been talking to me a couple of years about doing some songs that I had done using a symphony orchestra. So we got together New Year’s Eve, and we worked out some things. I played some things in a different way and he did some arrangements, and there’s some new stuff that I wrote that never was released. One song that I wrote when I was 13 – Tony Bennett did it a long, long time ago, called “This Town,” but I’m gonna do it on this album. And there’s a song I wrote recently – I actually wrote the music 15 years ago or longer – called “When the World Began.” And I wrote the words, like, last week.
Is the symphony album then a mix of both old and new songs?
It is a lot of things that I have done, old material, but doing it a different way. I’m going to do about three or four new songs as well. We did “Isn’t She Lovely” with the orchestra and I wrote another verse to it. And we did “I Just Called to Say I Love You” – myself and Take 6 with the orchestra.
How do these songs change for you doing them a different way?
The way that I did it, the original way, I enjoyed that. This is just another interpretation, and we did the arrangement a little differently and it turned out really, really good. I’m really excited about it.
Doing it with an orchestra, perhaps maybe in 2014 we‘ll see you back here at the Bowl?
That’d be wonderful to do that. I kind of want you to hear one of the songs – “When the World Began,” I think, is going to be the single, and I’m really excited about the song. That’s the name of the album [too]. We’re producing it both here and in London with a symphony orchestra and various places as well.
And what‘s the third project?
Gospel Inspired By Lula, a gospel album I’m doing in tribute to my mother. I promised her I would do it. She always wanted me to do it before she passed away, the untimely passing away. We’ve been working on some songs and some ideas. So we’re going to complete that as well.
It must be very personal, recording that.
We’re going to do some traditional gospel stuff, but I’m thinking about doing a gospel song in Arabic. I’m going to twist it all up in different ways, because I think everyone needs to hear the word of the gospel. The word of gospel really is love and it really is about people following the word, whether they read the Quran, the Torah or the Bible, whatever they read. At the end of the day, whatever you read, you know the god you believe in talking about people loving one another. It’s talking about we don’t need millions of handguns to make an understanding clear. It’s not about the religion – it’s about the relationship that you have with the one you serve and you worship.
And when will people hear that one?
All of these are coming out relatively soon, but I never put a time on things, because the most important thing is that it’s good. Hopefully we get it the way it feels good to me, and in the case of the one I’m working on with David, both he and myself feel good about it.
Let‘s talk about music education. I know how important it is to you.
All of the artists tonight are talking about it, and not just because we’re here with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony and because it’s a benefit. The reality is this: when you take arts out of schools, you give negativity a workshop to work in perfectly. And this is what we have sacrificed. We have taken prayer out of schools because it alienates certain people, and I don’t like that they did that, only because I think if a person doesn’t want to believe in praying, then you go and you take a time out. But to stop the essence of giving praise to life in hoping for a better life, to me, is unacceptable. When you take the very essence of communication out, which is music, that means that you clearly don’t understand the value of what was the first way of communication – sounds, the birds singing, the drum, Africa.
It hurts so bad in my heart that it makes me have a headache, because it shouldn’t be that we are more focused on things that basically are a deterioration of a nation when in fact we should perpetuate the very essence that we know is the reason why we are where we are, meaning in the positive place. So I challenge politicians to grow up and wake up and get it together. I challenge parents to be more involved with their children, with schools, with education. And I challenge everyone to doing something we’ve got to do – we’ve got to control a gun and save a life. Control the guns and save lives, that’s what we have to do, because it’s out of control. Guns don’t see any ethnicity, they don’t see any gender. They just kill. And we have to really take a position.
The great thing about being blind is I don’t see all this, but I see it even deeper than everybody, so it hurts even deeper, because it’s even deeper than I can imagine. It’s gotten out of control . . . I would like for you and all the people that are communicators, as myself, we have to understand that we are dealing with a spiritual war, and we have to do something about guns. And if people just have to have guns, we’ve got to find a way of making every single one with [a gun] more accountable, completely accountable. If we can fly to the furthest planet that they know of, then we’ve got to find a way of making every single person with a gun accountable.