A conversation with Stevie Wonder -- The pop/soul icon reveals why his new album took 10 years to make

By Chris Willman
October 14, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

A conversation with Stevie Wonder

The prevailing theme of Stevie Wonder’s A Time to Love is clear: We live in troubled times, and now is the moment to start caring and increase the positivity. But when did Wonder imagine that it’d finally be time for Time? He hasn’t released a new album in a decade (and you’d have to go back another 15 years for his last widely acclaimed one). Yet the veneration for the pop/soul icon has only grown over the years, with still younger generations discovering his string of ’70s masterpieces. Meanwhile, release dates for Love passed with alarming regularity; he even appeared on Oprah’s show in June 2004 to promote the supposedly imminent disc.

Now, finally, A Time to Love has a real release date: Oct. 18…for the physical CD, anyway. The album was already released — quietly — to legal download services on Sept. 27, barely meeting the eligibility cutoff for the next Grammys. This superior piece of styling is likely to get better reviews than some other recent returning boomer favorites did. Sure, there’s some ”I Just Called to Say I Love You” schmaltz here, but it’s cleverly constructed, acoustic-jazz- flavored schmaltz. And if you’ve been holding out for the return of that trademark vintage harmonica/clavinet/vocoder/Moog sound, you’ll get some of that, too. Go ahead — call it a comeback. We caught up with Stevie at his Wonderland Studios in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood and started our interview with the most obvious question.

Why a decade?

It isn’t that I was working on this since ’95, because I wasn’t. But I’m always writing. When I firmly had a sense of what I wanted to write about — the theme ”a time to love” — I put the older things together with the new stuff. And I tried to keep it with me playing all the instruments [on the up-tempo tracks] or other musicians playing instruments [on the ballads], as opposed to creating sequences. I wanted it to be natural-sounding, yet having [contemporary] rhythm as well. You’ve got to use the technology, not let it use you.

You’ve dedicated ”Shelter in the Rain” to hurricane victims and are donating proceeds. Was that a last-minute addition or already written?

I wrote it a while back, because I was dealing with something myself. My brother was terminally ill, and shortly after that, I found out my first wife, Syreeta, was as well. When they were going through their last days, I was inspired to write a song. It was the only medicine for the wounds and pain that I felt in my heart. I never imagined I would be singing something like that to Syreeta. I wanted to take that song and — because of what it did for me, when God gave it to me — give it to those people that survived Hurricane Katrina that needed to be encouraged. Because there are things that are a lot bigger than life, even, and it’s hard for us to really even conceive how big that is.

There’s a lot of antiwar commentary on this album. Does the climate feel similar to the ’70s, when you were writing what were perceived as anti-Nixon songs?

Yes and no. It’s similar, but deeper. People are doing crazier things. We are involved in everybody’s business in every place in the world, and I guess the idea is to secure democracy, but you’re supposed to take care of home first, I think, and there are situations that need to be dealt with that haven’t been. More than ever, we’ve got to make this world a better place by example.

Probably almost every fan will say this is your best album since [1980’s] Hotter Than July. Are you comfortable hearing that, or does it make you want to argue that your ’80s and ’90s albums were underrated?

I’m very thankful that people are excited about it — and I hope they ultimately like it even more than Hotter Than July, too.

Can you guarantee right now it won’t be a decade till the next one?

[Unrepentant] I always say, you’ll get it when you get it. Leave me alone!

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