In his decades-spanning career as one half of the most successful duo in recorded music history, Hall & Oates, John Oates has achieved 16 Billboard Top 10 hits, eight certified platinum albums, and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Now, the self-proclaimed “patron saint of facial hair” has a new song, a new message, and even some new facial hair. This year’s international speaker for the men’s health initiative known as Movember joined me recently at Salon Talks for a conversation about fame, facial hair, and what it’s like working with one of Taylor Swift’s producers on his new song. Watch or read our episode below.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length
I want to ask you about movember. Many people know what this movement is about, but there are some who don’t. Tell me what Movember is, and the issues you’re raising awareness of.
It’s a men’s health initiative that’s been around for quite some time. It’s a great organization. It focuses on many things, men’s health of course, Psychological health So is physical health. Things that many men care about like testicles and prostate cancer. They’re trying to highlight the fact that a lot of guys don’t like to address many of these things, that it’s okay to talk about it and it’s okay to share experiences, and to get guys to open up a bit. A little bit about things that might have traditionally been considered less than open and discussion.
“I ended up going to see a therapist who gave me strategies that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own.”
I was really happy when they asked me to be a part of it. I jokingly said, “What took you so long?” with mustache connection. it was amazing. They are amazing people. They are smart and have a lot of energy. I spent some time in London at their HQ doing a bunch of crazy stuff on TikTok. It’s a month long initiative, and we hope to see if people can jump on board.
You have been very frank in your diary and in recent years you have spoken about your own health and mental health. I passed several years ago Psychiatric treatmentBut you resisted it at first. What do you want to say now to men with some mental health issues about what you learned from that experience and what you found on the other side of taking care of your own mental health?
it’s the truth [that I resisted therapy at first], and I’ve talked to a lot of guys who’ve said the same thing: “Well, I’m smarter than those who shrink anyway. They can’t tell me anything.” But it’s really about, I think, where your challenges and what’s bothering you get to the point where you can’t fix them on your own. Just having an objective person who can hear you, empathize, and maybe shed some light on strategies that can help you understand more about yourself. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees. Sometimes, you’re so caught up in your problems that you don’t see a way out and you can’t figure out what you need to do to try to change things. And, of course, the first step is always the desire for change. I think everyone has to get to that point where they feel they need to change.
“It’s just too much now. That’s it. I’ve come to the end of my rope. I run up against the wall. Nothing else I can do.” Everyone has a different threshold for that. For me, it should have been done in the late 80’s. It was about the end of this crazy big decade of pop stardom that was incredibly powerful and successful, but it also came with a complete disengagement from any semblance of real life. You run around the world like a pop star. It is hard to describe to an unexperienced person what it can be like when every whim or need, or every situation you might encounter seems to be served in a strange way. I don’t like using that word “served,” but I guess that’s not a bad word.
I was at that point in my life. At the same time, the director Daryl And for many years I went to greener pastures. I was in the throes of separation and eventually divorce. All this happened at the same time. When that happened, I really reached the end of the rope for me. I had nowhere to turn, and ended up going to a therapist who gave me some fun strategies and things that I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.
To be honest with you, I haven’t been back since. I feel like I’ve used a lot of these strategies, and I think I’m on the right track. This path has taken me to a place I could never have imagined. It had to do with imagining, it had to do with dreams, it had to do with accepting who I was in that moment and who I wanted to be or where I wanted my future to take me, and what kind of man I wanted to go forward with. It was a very rewarding period of time, and it really led to a new approach in my life.
What you’re talking about is very important because so many men in my life have also resisted treatment or just going to the doctor because there is a fear of “I am that man”. I’m that person who needs treatment, or I’m that person who needs to see a doctor about pain or pain rather than, “This is something I need right now in the short term. It doesn’t have to be my whole identity.”
“There are things that I can express in the process of writing a song that I probably wouldn’t say.”
Everyone has a different threshold. Everyone has a different ability to cope, and only you decide when you get to that place where you have no alternative. There is nowhere for them to turn. It is subjective and different for everyone.
I wanted to ask you about the song “Pushin’ a Rock”. tHis song was on a long way. Tell me a little bit about the evolution of this song and what it means to you now.
The song is an evolution and re-imagining of a song I wrote in 2014. I was doing an album called Good Road to Follow. The theme of the album was that I wanted to collaborate with people I respect. I cooperated with Vince Gill And Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic and many, many others, some young artists, some artists of American descent.
One of the people I communicated with was a man named Nathan Paul Chapmanwhich was part of Taylor SwiftHer career since her early days doing demos as a young teen. He took her through her first few albums, won multiple Grammys and was a huge part of creating Taylor in her early incarnations. But around the time I was about to reach out to him, I read that she had gone to try out some other producers and her music was changing, which of course is every artist’s right to explore and try things.
I thought maybe I’d reach out to him, just say, “Hey, how are you, man?” casual like that. When she did, we talked about it and he said, “I’ve wrapped up my entire creative identity with Taylor and her music, and now I don’t know exactly what my next step will be.” I said, “Well, this is a tough moment in your life, but it’s also an exciting moment because who knows where it could take you.” It got me thinking about the Greek myth of Sisyphus pushing up a hill and overcoming challenges in general terms. I thought, I bet that’s something he might relate to as a starting point for a song idea. So I said, “Let’s meet.” We met. I pitched the idea by him, he loved it, and we seemed to like the idea.
“The success part is interesting because it enables me to do whatever I want.”
We wrote the song and I recorded it on that album. Every time I played it live I kept changing it because something told me it wasn’t as good as it could have been. I thought the lyrics were really good and powerful, and I felt like I let my side down when I played the music because it didn’t connect in the same way.
Fast forward to COVID, sitting at home for periods of time, looking at revising old music lyrics, catching up on things I had put to the side of the road. I thought about that song again, and it seemed so appropriate and seemed just as important, maybe even more so during COVID. I revisited it and said, “Well, you know what? I’ve never been so happy with the music on this one. Let me see if I can come up with something better.”
I started tinkering with the track at home, and started re-imagining the song and using almost all of the lyrics from the original version. In the end, I came up with something I liked. I called Nathan and said, “Man, what do you think of this? I want to do that song again.” I’ve never done that in my entire career. I’ve never re-recorded a song before. He laughed and said: This is how it should have sounded from the beginning. I said, “Well, I guess it’s my fault. But it’s never too late.” I entered and recorded it. And this is the song you’re hearing now.
When I think about your career, John, and the genres you’ve always relied on, like soul, R&B, and country, they’re such emotional types. I hear a song like “she is gone” And this is a man who is deep in his feelings. Looking back on this month and reflecting on men’s mental health, what has songwriting given you as a person in the world as a way to explore those darker, more difficult feelings?
Songwriters generally use their songwriting skills to say what they want to say. For me, there are things that I can express in the process of writing a song that I probably wouldn’t say, but somehow I can convey that message or that feeling or those feelings in a song in a more effective way. It’s an outlet, it’s a compulsion. It’s all of those things. I’d just like to do that. Everyone is different, but I think most songwriters would say something similar to that.
You’ve been doing this almost your entire life now, and to see that you’re still creating new material and doing new things, what does it mean to you now to be an artist? How do you see yourself as an artist now different from the person you might have been in the past?
I think I have achieved a certain amount of maturity and a certain life experience and not a great deal of success. The success part is interesting because it enables me to do whatever I want. This is the ultimate freedom any artist could hope for. If you asked any artist, regardless of whether they’re a painter or a songwriter, or an actor, or whatever, their answer, what would your final situation be? To get complete freedom. Thanks success Hall & OatesI have this complete creative freedom. I’m completely free to experiment, collaborate, try things, and feel like I paid my dues to get it.
It’s very precious because I don’t want to lose it and I want to get the most out of it. I don’t want to squander it just by not doing my best or not working or not using the skills I’ve picked up over the past – I hate to say it – 50, 60 years. It’s surprising not many people try it and I’m a very lucky and blessed person, so I take full advantage of it.
The mustache has been iconic for a long time. Then shave it. Now he’s back. What does a mustache mean to you now, John?
When I sorted it out, I think it was 1989, it was part of this transition that I talked about earlier, the divorce, the loss of a manager, the end of the ’80s, looking for the next step. It was more than a symbolic shedding of skin, or hair loss as the case may be. I wanted to be a different person. I felt like the mustache was a symbol of who I was and I didn’t want to move on. It was a ritual thing to shave him. Now I am a different person. It has evolved in many ways, and now to regrow the mustache, it is now just a hair on my face. I’m having fun with it, and it’s obviously part of the Movember vibe and I’m just like the song says, rolling with it.
If you could swap mustaches with anyone in the world, is there anyone you could swap with?
David Niven, except I’m too short, not too skinny and definitely not British, so I’ve never been able to pull it off. It’s going to sound silly on me, but this is a very thin mustache, made with extreme precision.
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