Traveling all the musical map, Robert Palmer goes rock, funk, pop with Heavy Nova
The black silk tie sways crookedly from the neck of a creased white shirt, the sandy hair looks damp and mussed. There's a cigarette in one hand, a glass of whiskey (no ice, please, we're British) in the other. Yet Robert Palmer looks more like a stockbroker who's just had a rough day under the big board than a rock singer winding down after a late-afternoon taping of Late Night With David Letterman.
That is, until he opens his mouth. "Whis-key and ba-a-ad co-caine," comes the smooth but slightly husky phrase from an old blues song, as Palmer affectionately caresses his glass. He tolerates interviews good-naturedly, but there's so much... talk. Spend an hour with Palmer and it's obvious that what the man really wants to do is sing.
Mention his current album Heavy Nova, and he'll throw his body English into the emphatic phrases of his hit single, Simply Irresistible. Ask him his real musical passions and he'll sing syllables you might hear ont the top of the pops of Radio Karachi: the song's in Pakistani.
Approach him with a phrase such as "on the other hand..." and Palmer becomes transported as he slowly, spontaneously sings an entire verse of a song by Randy Travis, the country singer whose style couldn't be more different from Palmer's:
There's a golden band
To remind me of someone who would not understand
On the one hand I could stay and be your loving man
But the reason I must go is on the other hand.
"Randy Travis. Did you hear that?" Palmer asks, released from his musical reverie. "He's wonderful. I'm a huge fan of his. I think he's the reincarnation of George Jones. I'd love to hear him do standards - the guy's got so much going for him. He knows what to do."
This man with the well-modulated accent of England's educated class made his name singing with the swagger of a back-street southern soul man.
Palmer's dedication to music has sometimes been overshadowed by his movie star looks and impeccable taste in clothes. While other rock musicians went the blue jeans route or the Spandex-and-glitter extreme, Palmer always preferred suits by the fine English tailors or Italian designers.
In the videos for the 1986 hits that took Palmer from contender to star - Addicted To Love and I Didn't Mean To Turn You On - the singer projected an image of timeless sophistication in contrast to the trendier-than-tomorrow musician models surrounding him, with their funeral-black dresses and blood-red lips.
"He has a great personal style; he's definitely one of the most stylish guys in rock and roll," said Eliot Kaplan, managing editor of GQ, the literate men's fashion magazine that put Palmer, wearing a Giorgio Armani ensemble, on its July cover. "I don't know what he wears to the beach, but the man is impeccable."
At times, Palmer seems ambivalent about his image as rock's best-dressed man. "Since there was no focus on the style of music I did, the whole comment was on my clothes and hairstyle," Palmer said.
"Well, my hair's a mess at the moment. I'm the most conservatively dressed person you've ever seen. And they say I've got style? Forget about it. It's all a lot of nonsense." Asked about the GQ cover, Palmer said: "Look at my face in the picture. That's how I felt about it. It was a silly gig, wasn't it?"
The whole idea of doing what rock stars are supposed to do - hang out in London, L.A. or New York, making the club scene and gossip columns - struck Palmer as a silly gig as well. For years, he lived in a remote part of the Bahamas until too many fellow musicians came to record at a major recording studio that was built nearby, and until the island became a key crossroads for the drug trade. ("The move was accelerated by the local hooligans who forced me out," Palmer said, declining to be more specific.) He and his wife, Sue, and their two children (James, 10, and Jane, 8) live in Switzerland - chosen, Palmer said, for the quality of the schools.
Don't be fooled by appearances, however. Palmer's musical tastes are as daring as his sartorial inclinations are conventional. Palmer made his commercial breakthrough with the 3-million-selling 1986 album Riptide, with material ranging from the hard-rocking Addicted To Love to the title song, a 1940s ballad standard.
His new album, Heavy Nova, is even more diverse, ranging from ragged hard rock tunes containing African chants, Appalachian accordion riffs and west Texas yodels. There's bossa nova, danceable funk, even a rendition of a Michael and Jermaine Jackson song. Among the most far out: It Could Happen To You, a 1944 Jimmy Van Heusen composition that once again reflects Palmer's fondness for pop standards, the intimate phrasing and solitary nocturnal moods of Sinatra, Bennett or Torme.
"The thing is, I've only got one voice," Palmer said. "I can sing falsetto, I can sing baritone, I can sing tenor. But the music I can surround those things with can range from strings to drum machines to rock and roll to rhythm and blues. To me, it's music: I don't draw any lines. I like music."
Friends and associates say that, despite the variety of styles he's recorded, they represent only a portion of Palmer's musical curiosity. Prince wrote a song for him that Palmer didn't record. "It was called Addicted To Lust," Palmer said with a slight smirk. "I didn't care for the title, so I ditched it." In concert, he has performed material by the speed-metal band Husker Du; he thought about recording some tracks for his new album with the heavy-metal Scorpions.
"He's open for anything," said Kathy Kenyon, vice-president of artist relations at Island Records and Palmer's closest associate at the label, where he spent the first 14 years of his career, until Heavy Nova.
That album is his first for EMI as part of a long-term deal estimated to pay Palmer USD1,5 million per album as an advance against royalties.
"He's desirable because the guy is a master of so many musical styles," said Gary Griffith, senior vice-president of artists and repertoire at EMI. "Aside from the billings he brings in, he's an innovator, and the label needs that level of artistry. He always comes from left field with his ideas, but they fit in perfect commercial pockets."
Experienced as a composer, arranger and producer, his voice is Palmer's primary calling card.
"He's really worked on his voice, and he's getting into some interesting kinds of melodies, not strictly western style," Kenyon said. "Singing two melodies at once."
Palmer actively seeks out esoterica from companies like Original Music in nothern Dutchess County, which specializes in world music. "He went through the catalog marking large quantities of things and sent us a check for USD750," said musicologist John Storm Roberts, who runs Original Music. Roberts didn't remember precisely what Palmer ordered, but said, "He brought across the range, which probably included Middle Eastern, European, Asian, as well as black American, Caribbean and African."
Don't look for Amazonian chants or ceremonial music from Borneo on a Palmer album soon. "The whole thing is, if I'm going to make music, I don't want to bang my head against the wall," Palmer said. "I want to communicate. My best bet is to make a record that communicates through the radio to an audience to the extent that I can then go (on-stage) and sing. If I was going to go and record the stuff that really grabs me, people would say "Oh yeah, oh what? Next!"
Wayne Robins (Los Angeles Times Syndicate - Anchorage Daily News - 10 octobre 1988)