We are talking about soul music.
Rod Stewart is telling me what a disaster his 2009 covers album Soulbook was. "It was a cock-up," he says, his raspy voice made raspier still by a developing cold, "simply because you can't beat the originals. You'll never beat the originals, because they're still on the airwaves."
He didn't hear Cliff Richard's soul abum from 2011, then?
Stewart looks a little astonished. "He didn't do a soul abum …"
He did. Revue-style live show, too, with Percy Sledge and Freda Payne and James Ingram up on stage with him.
Stewart looks even more astonished. "Really?"
Yup. He looked a bit out of his depth, to be honest.
"Oh, bless him."
At 68, hair still spiky and sandy, skin the colour of antique furniture, Stewart remains a musician, then. If he is better known for countless things that have nothing to do with music – a list of statueseque, blonde partners (including three wives) longer than that of Cyprus's creditors; a selection of myths and legends ranging from him having been an apprentice professional footballer, to his stomach having been pumped clean of semen after he performed fellatio on a bar's worth of sailors in San Diego, to his having invented a way of taking cocaine anally – then it should be remembered that no one would know any of those stories if the music hadn't captured the public imagination in the first place.
The couple of albums he made with the Jeff Beck Group in the late 60s laid down the template that was then developed and coloured by Led Zeppelin. The solo albums he made for Mercury in the early 70s were perfect fusions of his musical loves – soul, folk, rock'n'roll – and the second side of his 1971 album Every Picture Tells a Story is as perfect a 20 minutes as rock has produced. The Faces, the group that ran concurrently with those albums – and with whom he would be delighted to reunite next year after everyone's schedules are clear, developed a reputation, through the booze fumes, as the surest guarantee of a good time that live music had to offer.
The problem for many listeners lies in the 40 or so years since. Which is an awfully long time, even if they have been punctuated with the occasional gem. Never mind that Every Picture and its attendant single Maggie May both topped the US and UK charts simultaneously – Stewart never seemed afraid to lower his standards in search of hits. And so we got the critic Greil Marcus's famous assessment: "Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody – and sells more records than ever." And that was written 33 years ago. Chances are, Marcus hasn't changed his mind since, especially since Stewart's Great American Songbook series of albums became the most commercially successful of his career.
But you know what? He gets a free pass, because most singers don't even manage his few years of near perfection – even if he doesn't seem too fussed about his art. It's perhaps telling that he seems more interested in talking about football, north-London property prices and our respective children than he is about Time, his new album – and the first on which he has contributed songwriting since 1998's When We Were the New Boys, a misfiring effort that also featured him covering Oasis and Primal Scream.
He is known less as a writer, though, than as an interpreter of other people's songs, and at his absolute best he deserves to be treated as rock's Sinatra – a superlative interpreter of superlative songs. He gets lots of Identikit Rod submissions, all swirling bagpipes and roaming in the gloaming, but he ignores them. But when he hears the right song, he looks for the way to make it a Rod Stewart song. "For instance, I'm sure Tom Waits wouldn't mind me saying this – Tom's Downtown Train, I realised there was a melody there in the chorus, and it's beautiful, but he barely gets up and barely gets down to the lower notes, so I took it to the extreme. That was a case where I brought the chorus alive and there have been a couple like that."
He says he's a better singer now than in his youth, despite his voice having lowered half a tone after his throat cancer in 2000. "I've got much better pitch, much better control, much better understanding of a song. I've always been able to get inside a song really easily, and if it's my song I can make it seem honest."
What happened to his writing? Why did he stop? "Ayeayeayeayeaye. A combination of the Great American Songbook albums, being somewhat lazy, and certain remarks made by a high-flying executive at a record company saying that my songs were shit and didn't sound like nothing new. Songwriting's never been a natural art for me; it's always been a bit of a struggle. I just thought it had got up and left me. I'd done the best I could and maybe I'd got nothing to write about any more."
He puts writing lyrics off until the last minute, "when the song's got a hook. The way I do it is hum and hah along while the band are playing. I sing whatever comes into my head and nine times out of 10 that will be the title of the song. Either that or I'd just write down a good title – like Young Turks or Baby Jane – and wait until the right vehicle comes along for it."
But some of the lyrics on those Faces and early solo albums are wonderful – a unique combination of picaresque tales, music hall bawdiness and reminscence. "You really think so? Bless you. I always thought they were … Well, they're just black and white. I tell stories. I can't do that wonderful thing that Tom Waits and Bob Dylan do – to do imagery. I'm not good at that. I just write from the heart."
He only started writing again because his friend Jim Cregan forced him into it on a visit to Stewart's Essex mansion (he splits his time between there and LA). "He comes round for Sunday dinner when I'm in the country and always brings his guitar. I watch him come up the drive and … 'Oh, fucking hell, he's brought his guitar again.' He's always pushing me to write a song. So he says: 'Come on, siddown, let's have a go.' I said: 'No, I wanna have a little lie down. Just had Sunday dinner.' So he said: 'Come on, have a little go.' So I started singing, and he took it home, worked on the track a little bit, added a couple more guitars, and that was Brighton Beach."
That's one of the semi-autobiographical songs on the album, reflecting on his weekend beatnik days, hanging out under the pier with his girlfriend and his acoustic guitar in the early 60s; it's complemented by songs about his kids, his dad, his divorce. It's all very pleasant, though those who love Every Picture are unlikely to be putting it on constant rotation, despite the acoustic guitars and mandolins and fiddles being a presence again.
The critics, the sneerers, perhaps despair of Stewart because he has never been remotely apologetic about his success and its trappings: he's always happy to show off his latest car, blonde, house. "I've always put myself out there for ridicule," he says. "And the rewards are just wonderful, so I'll take any stick the press can throw at me."
Among the rewards were the string of women Stewart couldn't keep his hands off. Large chunks of his autobiography, published last year, are devoted to his efforts to keep his various girlfriends separate from one another, or from the press, before he chose fidelity in 1990 with his second wife, Rachel Hunter (they parted in 1999, divorcing in 2006). "There was a lot of smoke and mirrors in those days," he agrees. "It was like a Brian Rix comedy. One door slams, someone runs out in their brassiere, another door slams and someone comes out with their trousers round their ankles. It was very much like that."
Did he never think: Is this really worth the effort? "Nah," he says, sounding rather wistful, despite his evidently devoted marriage to wife No 3, Penny Lancaster-Stewart. "It was lovely. The only time it was getting sad was probably late 80s, when we had this 'Long Hot Summer' – me and one of my best mates were down in the south of France [he was making a video with Tina Turner]. And the girls were just coming in and out, from all over Europe. It was wonderfully easy, but there was a sadness about it, a shallow emptiness. Once you'd got your leg over, that was it."
Ah, the Long Hot Summer. In the book, he describes sleeping with a roll call of women.
"Let me say it was a minimum of three. It wasn't like one every night, coming in and going. It wasn't that bad! Jesus Christ! Three would be the number. Probably a maximum of four.
"I dunno how I got away with it. I was never ever a good-looking guy, but I knew I had a certain amount of charm, and most importantly I was the singer in a rock group. And I had a couple of bob. That's what turned the key in the door for me."
Did it make it harder to find The Right Woman when the choices open to him were so wide? Because he – in his prime, at least – could probably pull more women even than me. Probably.
He looks shocked.
There's silence for a couple of beats, then a rattle of outrageous laughter. "I thought you were serious. I'm a ROCK SINGER! It's dead easy. That was always my downfall. There's always someone prettier or better looking. Maybe I believed something magical was going to happen. And it did eventually."
The women aren't a myth. Some of the other things are. Stewart was never a grave-digger ("I just measured up the graves") nor an apprentice footballer ("I didn't even get close. I was good but I wasn't good enough"). He made those stories up to make himself more interesting in interviews. And he claims a publicist made up the one about the sailors and the stomach pump. "He had an evil streak in him. But you won't find, so far as I know, any written material on that anywhere. It was purely done through the grapevine. And I think the same thing happened to Richard Gere with a small rodent."
But the anal ingestion of cocaine is true. After his Faces bandmate Ronnie Wood discovered a hole in his septum, the pair decided to eschew the nasal route – which also helped Stewart protect his voice ("It dries all the membranes out. What it does to your nose, it does to your throat as well, cos it'll all go down the back of your throat as well") – and pack their coke into emptied aspirin capsules to take in suppository form. There was a problem, though: "It didn't have the same thrill as putting it up your nose, you know?"
And presumably it removes some of the social element from the ritual of taking drugs.
"No, you can't go in the toilet with the lads and lay one out." He hoots with laughter.
We part, and I mention I'd been playing my kids his old albums in the car.
"Did they like them?"
Sorry, no. But you know the maxim: Spare the Rod, spoil the child.
"Spare the Rod, spoil the child," he laughs delightedly. "Exactly!"
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Kristian D