Credit: C Flanigan/WireImage

How much material did Keith Richards have ready before he started to record his new album, Crosseyed Heart (out Sept. 18)? “How about zero!” cackles the Rolling Stones guitarist, down the phone. “But that’s the fun of recording, especially if you’re recording the way that we made this, with just Steve Jordan on drums and me on guitar, to start with. So, you can just fly anything around the room and, if it didn’t work, it didn’t work, and every now and again we’d hit on something and say, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re looking for. It was a barrel of fun actually. It is a bit of a mixture. I realized when I finished it that I was really tipping my hat [to] everybody I’d learned everything from. There’s Robert Johnson, and Gregory Isaacs, Lead Belly, and Otis Redding. That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to make an album that—well, actually it didn’t start out as an album. I just went in to cut a few tracks. But it just kept growing!“

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The album starts with a solo acoustic track called “Crosseyed Lover.” But the song is not actually finished—as you say at the end, “That’s all I’ve got.” What’s the story?

KEITH RICHARDS: Well, we could have either faded the track out or just left it to the very end where I say, “Well, that’s all I got.” We thought that was a good catch to get into the next track. The blues is all I got, really. [Laughs]

Norah Jones sings on the track, “Illusion.” What was it like working with her?

Great. What a beautiful lady. We had the track with just me and I liked the song but this is one of those songs occasionally I write where I need the female side of the story. We called up Norah, and she loved the song, and wrote her part, and just beautifully slotted in. It’s not often that you say, “Oh, it’s a duet.” But “Gimme Shelter”? We had Merry Clayton there. It was obvious it needed a woman. There are certain songs where you feel that, without the female side of the story, you’re only getting half the story. [Laughs]

The sadly late Bobby Keys plays saxophone on the album. What do you remember about recording those tracks with him?

Oh, man. Bob just comes and he’s ready to rock. The man was larger than Texas and that’s saying something. Of course, we had no idea that this would be his last recordings. God, I miss that man. He was a damn good friend and a brilliant sax player. He’d been with me most of my working life. I’m still pretending he’s alive. But I know he ain’t. I miss him sorely, yeah.

How did you come to sing “Goodnight Irene” on the album? It’s not a song I would necessarily think would be something you would perform.

No, I know. It was not necessary that I thought that either. [Laughs] It came about in such a fashion that I could not deny it. Tom Waits had sent me a book on Lead Belly. It had just arrived, and it was sitting on the table, and that same day my guitar man, Pierre, he came by with a 12-string guitar. And so I’m looking at the cover of this Lead Belly [book] and I’ve got this 12-string in my hand. I sort of went, Tom, I can take a hint. It suddenly seemed to me that I had to do “Goodnight Irene.” And also, I’d always wanted to do one of those classic Ameican folk songs, that everybody knows. Usually, “…Irene” is bastardized and smoothed over and stuff. I found the original Lead Belly lyrics, which are a bit raunchier than most, and I thought, I gotta get on this, man. It was as if I was told to do it.

It’s been 23 years since you released your last solo album, Main Offender. What took you so long?

Man, I only do it when the Stones go into hibernation. Unfortunately, as I was recording this and had just finished it, the Stones came out of hibernation. [Laughs] I had it sort of sitting back there for a couple of years, waiting for the right time. Why should I clash with myself, you know? It was looking for the right spot and the right time. Because, when the Stones work, you know, hey, that’s my numero uno! [Laughs]

You’re also the subject of a new Netflix documentary called Keith Richards: Under the Influence (released Sept. 18). What was making that like?

It’s quite interesting. Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) who directed it, is quite incredible. He actually shot it all around me without me being aware that it was happening. I was like, “Cool.” Because I’m working on the road with the Stones. But he had a great way of not interfering. To me, it was as big a surprise as to anybody. But it’s pretty damned good. He’s done a great job. Buddy Guy, and some [other] cats, and a few things are explained. And I’m great!

A lot of documentaries have been made about the Stones over the years. Do you have a favorite?

Charlie is My Darling (1966). This was shot on the cuff but I’ve always found that very amusing. Also, C–ksucker Blues (1972) wasn’t bad. [Laughs]

Well, it was bad in some ways, if you take my meaning.

Yeah. It was as bad as it could get, actually!

There was recently some talk about a new Stones album. What’s the situation with that?

I’m trying to get the Stones into the studio. But I don’t quite honestly see it happen this year. After we do South America in February and March, I’d love to get in the studio in April. But I know what those guys are like. When they finish a tour, they don’t want to do nothing! [Laughs]

Get exclusive details about fall’s buzziest albums in Entertainment Weekly Issue #1379, on stands Aug. 27.