Half a broken heel, pools of spilt cocktails and discarded pocket squares – all the expected evidence of a Spring Carnival afterparty is scattered across the rooftop terrace of South Yarra's The Emerson hotel. Less anticipated, however, is the scheduled entertainment – a collaboration between former Eurythmics guitarist Dave Stewart and Jon Stevens, best known for fronting Noiseworks and the Dead Daisies.
"It's not the kind of normal gig we'd do," remarks Stewart a few days later, sitting on the balcony of his hotel room overlooking Sydney's Dawes Point. "Nine new songs in a row, to an unsuspecting audience."
The charismatic Brit is decked out in his usual dark shades and low-brim hat, sipping on his lunch soup between meandering tales of Stevie Nicks and near plane disasters. To his left, Stevens plays sidekick, speaking almost exclusively in short, direct sentences as he prods his salad beets and lettuce. While the encore at the Emerson gave the inebriated attendees what they wanted – a rousing, rocked-up rendition of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" – Stevens remains far more positive in his post-mortem assessment: "I could see people singing the choruses like they already knew the songs."
Those new songs feature on Stevens' forthcoming, Stewart-produced album, Starlight (due March 31st), which he describes as "a lot heavier and a lot angrier" than 2015's "cathartic" Woman.
"I've always worn my heart on my sleeve as a songwriter. But I always try to write things that people can relate to. We all go through the same things. We all have this emotional roller coaster called life."
It serves as an apt description for Stevens' own public life in recent years. In 2015 he filled his fair share of tabloid column inches with car accidents, restaurant brawls and, most notably, a domestic dispute with then-fiancée Jodhi Meares (the charges from which have since been dropped). By contrast, 2016 began far more positively. Following an introduction from fellow singer-songwriter Vanessa Amorosi, Stewart invited Stevens to Los Angeles to collaborate, drawn to the "unlimited possibilities" of his vocals.
"In my usual style, there was no meeting," Stewart says with a wry smile. "[Jon] just arrived from the plane to the studio. He walked in, started strumming the guitar. We wrote a song immediately. We recorded it and then wrote another one."
This process continued for the next four months in L.A. and Nashville, with Stewart's "subconscious, stream of consciousness" production approach. The results cover a surprisingly wide spectrum of sounds, from the swampy blues of crime-noir tale "Guilty" – which recalls the vengeful plot of a cheated lover – to the anthemic title track that the pair agree lyrically serves as "sort of a homage" to David Bowie, and the soulful choirs that lift "Oh Lord", a Memphis voodoo-inspired caution.
"I think about death all the time. I always have," Stevens says bluntly, before singing the song's hook ("Oh Lord I see you coming/ You got me running"). "You get into that certain time of your life where it's around the corner. I gotta cram as much as I can in what's left of my life."
First up, though, is the lead single "Hold On", released earlier this week, and a tour that Stewart has already plotted, with himself as "ringmaster" and Stevens and Amorosi billed as "two of Australia's greatest voices".
But Stevens is already thinking further ahead, momentarily glancing up from his salad for one final unprompted proclamation: "I don't think I'm gonna be good for at least another 10 or 15 years."
From issue #783 (February 2017), available now.