Singer Roger Hodgson: No longer a tramp, but still super
Many people dream of becoming a rock star. Roger Hodgson did it … and then walked away.
Hodgson was the co-leader of the British progressive rock group Supertramp. But after writing 1970s hits like “Dreamer” and “The Logical Song,” and taking the band to the top of the charts with the “Breakfast in America” album, he quit to live a quieter, more spiritual life.
Following a 20-year break, though, Hodgson returned to the stage. He plays a solo concert Tuesday in Tulsa at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Show time is 8 p.m. For tickets, go to the Casino Box Office at tulsaworld.com/HardRockCasino or call 918-384-7625.
Below is most of an hour-long interview he gave to the Tulsa World recently. During our chat, Hodgson was enthusiastic and unguarded. Even when describing his own hits as “great songs” or referring to his prowess as a musician and producer, the tone of his voice made him come off as humble and appreciative of those gifts.
The singer also talked about the prospects for a reunion with Rick Davies, his former partner in Supertramp. Davies has created confusion lately by touring as Supertramp and performing some of Hodgson’s songs.
Tulsa World: There are quite a few bands that had hits in the 1970s that you don’t hear on the radio anymore. Yet, it’s almost impossible today to scroll across the radio dial without hearing one of the songs you wrote in Supertramp. Why do you think those songs have had such longevity?
Hodgson: Well, I don’t want this to sound like it’s coming from an ego place, but they are great songs. I love them to death. I have been off the road for three months and just had my first show the other night. I found myself thinking, wow, these are such fun to sing.
The songs also have a timeless quality. They come from a very pure, sincere place. When I was writing them, music is where I went to express my deepest longing, the joy or the pain inside me. It is where I felt most safe. I didn’t write these songs thinking that they’d ever be successful; I just used them to express my deepest feelings. Many of those feelings probably were the same as other people’s, but they didn’t have the musical ability to communicate them.
In the “The Logical Song,” for example, I tried to ask what I think still is an important question today – who am I? We’re taught a lot in school, but not the answers to these deeper questions.
You know, “The Logical Song” came out in the time when disco was big. It was very much out of place on the radio. But it’s lasted while disco has come and gone.
Tulsa World: How old were you when you started writing songs?
Hodgson: I was 12. My parents divorced. My father had a guitar that he’d never let me touch. When he went, he left that – maybe purposefully. I was sent off to boarding school and took the guitar with me. A teacher taught me three chords and that was it – I was off.
I practiced and practiced, and started writing songs almost immediately. A year later, I did my first concert. I performed 12 songs I had written.
Tulsa World: Later, when you became a professional musician, what was the first song you wrote that made you think, “This could be a hit.”
Hodgson: I never really knew. “Give a Little Bit,” for example, was such a simple song – I thought maybe it was too simple. It took me six years before I brought it to the band.
With “The Logical Song,” though, I thought there was a lot of potential. It seemed like I’d succeeded with what I as trying to do both musically and lyrically. And, in 1979, the band seemed poised to become huge. It was the right time for that song.
Tulsa World: Some songwriters will say that certain songs come very quickly – they emerge almost fully formed – while other tunes take years to get right. What is your songwriting process like?
Hodgson: With “Breakfast in America,” for example, the whole thing – music and lyrics – took about an hour. “The Logical Song” was a lot of fun to write – coming up with all those words that ended in –al, logical, criminal, liberal, digital – and putting them in an order that worked. “Dreamer” just exploded out of me – it came all at one time. “Fool’s Overture,” on the other hand, was three pieces of music that I put together to become one song. So, there are no rules, really.
Tulsa World: There’s a line in Breakfast in America” where you sing, “Take a look at my girlfriend/she’s the only one I got/not much of a girlfriend…” Did you have a girlfriend at that time, and, if so, did she say, “Hey, wait a minute…”
Hodgson: I think when that song came out I didn’t have a girlfriend too long afterward!
Tulsa World: Speaking of “Breakfast in America,” there’s an instrumental break in the middle where the tune kind of veers off into what sounds like a Hungarian folk song. That certainly was not something that you heard very often in pop hits. When you were adding that part in the studio, did the band think you’d lost your mind?
Hodgson: I always followed my instincts. After awhile in Supertramp, the rest of the band began to go with me on things like that. That break you mention does have a southern Germany vibe (he sings “baba-ba-ba…”). I kind of visualized people at a festival, dancing arm in arm and swilling beer. You have to go where the song takes you. Part of the challenge of recording is to try to capture magic moments like that.
Tulsa World: You were one of two writers in Supertramp, along with Rick Davies. But you arranged most of the band’s music, didn’t you?
Hodgson: I always had a gift of hearing where a song wants to go. So I arranged and produced all my songs in Supertramp and played a big part in helping arrange Rick’s as well.
Tulsa World: Was there ever any tension between you and Rick that spilled over into the recording studio? I’m thinking of how in the latter days of Fleetwood Mac some of the writers in the band accused each other of not playing their best on songs that were not theirs – trying to sabotage them, essentially.
Hodgson: Oh, no. That sounds really sad. I always was a big fan of Rick’s songs. I pushed him and he pushed me. My arranging made his songs shine, I think, and his quirky ideas gave my tunes some fun elements. If there was any sense of competition, it only brought out the best in both of us.
Tulsa World: Supertramp albums were known for their audiophile sound. In my teens, when I went to listen to speakers in a hi-fi shop, inevitably the salesman would put on Steely Dan, Pink Floyd or Supertramp. Was that pristine sound something you specifically focused on?
Hodgson: Yes. I wouldn’t rest until we had everything just right. What was the point of recording the songs if you could not get them to sound their best? That’s why “Breakfast in America” took eight months to record. In those days, we didn’t have computers and samples and all the other technical wizardry. We had tape. But it was a labor of love.
Tulsa World: That attention to sound extended to Supertramp’s live shows as well, didn’t it?
Hodgson: We were pioneers in getting a great live sound. On the “Breakfast in America” tour, we had to hire a 747 to get our sound system over from Europe.
Tulsa World: Recently, you’ve released a DVD and CD of you singing your hits live. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had an album of new material from you. Is that something we might see soon?
Hodgson: You wouldn’t believe what I sitting on. I have many new songs, but the trouble is everyone wants to hear the ones they grew up with. So, that’s why I recorded “Classics Live.” In fact, I think I am singing those songs much better today than when I was in Supertramp.
As far as recording the new songs, it’s hard to stop what I’m doing now to spend three to five months doing a whole album. And, CDs are becoming a thing of the past. People want to buy one song at a time from iTunes. So, eventually, I might put out a song now and then and let people download it from my website. Right now, I just slip a new one in once in a while at my shows.
Tulsa World: Speaking of your voice, there are quite a few performers from the 1970s who can’t play in the same keys anymore. Elton John, for instance, has lost the whole top of his range. Yet, you sung very high in the old days and still are able to hit all those notes.
Hodgson: It amazes me, too, believe me. I stayed pretty healthy over the years. I didn’t abuse myself to the extent so some of my peers might have. I’m also happier in my heart, I’m more fulfilled and in touch with who I am. That’s reflected in how I sing today.
Tulsa World: When you went in to record “Breakfast in America,” the band had made a few hits. Was there a lot of pressure to try to capitalize on your momentum and create an album that would take you to the next level?
Hodgson: We’d had successful albums and tours. There was an awareness that if we came up with the right collection of songs that could get on the radio, then the band could become really big.
At that time, Rick (Davies) was writing shorter, poppier songs. I tried to pick songs of mine that matched that feel. What became the title song, “Breakfast in America,” I had written 12 years ago. But it just felt like it would work best on that album.
Tulsa World: After “Breakfast in America” indeed became a monster hit, Supertramp recorded one more album, “Famous Last Words,” and then you left the band. Was that decision something you’d been thinking about for a while?
Hodgson: I’ve always tried to trust my instincts and follow my heart. I began yearning for a simpler life. I needed to get away from the music business. Especially after “Breakfast in America,” I needed a break.
I wanted to spend time at home with my family, raising my kids. I wanted to have a private life and live it based on the values I had. So, I moved out of Los Angeles and built a home that was solar powered in a place where I could be closer to nature.
Tulsa World: You actually recorded part of “Famous Last Words” at home, right?
Hodgson: I wanted to see if I could continue to be part of Supertramp and live this other life, but I wasn’t sure I could do both. Rick recorded his parts separately. It was not a happy album to make. That’s why we called it “Famous Last Words.”
Tulsa World: After you left the band, you recorded your first solo album, “In the Eye of the Storm.” You recorded it at home and played all the instruments yourself.
Hodgson: I did that out of necessity. I didn’t exactly have a thick address book of other musicians to call on. But I knew what I wanted.
Tulsa World: That record had, I thought, a great first single in “Had a Dream (Sleeping with the Enemy).” It got played on the radio and the album sold fairly well, but was not the huge hit some of the Supertramp albums had been. Since you were trying to change your life, was that almost a good thing?
Hodgson: That’s a very good question. The album was kind of a cult hit. If it had been huge, there likely would have pressure to capitalize on it. It probably was a blessing in disguise that the album wasn’t bigger.
Tulsa World: In contrast to you, some other lead singers of popular bands went all out to establish their names after going solo. Sting, for instance, really worked hard at creating his own brand after leaving the Police.
Hodgson: Sting had more name recognition than I did while he still was with his band. When I was in Supertramp, I was more comfortable using my talents within that brand name.
Later, it probably didn’t help my solo career that I took 17 years off from touring, or that I made only four albums in 20 years. But those were the choices I made.
Tulsa World: Did you have a lot of anxiety when you finally returned to concert halls? Were you worried that people wouldn’t remember you?
Hodgson: I didn’t know what to expect. I was very happily surprised to be received so well. It took a lot of work by my management and team to make sure people connected the voice and the songs they knew with the name behind them.
The response really has been great, especially in Europe and Canada. But the harder nut to crack was America. That’s why were doing three short tours of the U.S. now and why we’re calling it the “Breakfast in America” tour. That album helps people connect the dots with me.
Tulsa World: Even though your return to performing has been successful, there still are a lot of fans holding out hope for a Supertramp reunion. What are the chances of that happening?
Hodgson: It’s hard to go back in time. Rick and I were together in Supertramp for 14 years. We live in different worlds now. But I realize some people really want to see us together. I offered to do a few select dates with Rick and the other band members, but for whatever reason that offer was rejected.
Honestly, I feel very fulfilled doing what I am doing now, performing live, giving a little bit. I don’t see a Supertramp reunion ever happening.
Tulsa World: Your shows have been receiving great reviews. Critics are praising the level of musicianship, especially.
Hodgson: I love playing music for people. They seem to be getting much more from the shows than just listening to the songs. When we played Europe, we had fans flying over and attending 14 or 15 concerts. People said the experience gave them such enjoyment and inspiration. They were going home with a smile on their face. That feeling of love is infectious to me. I feel like the most blessed man on the planet.
Read an advance story on Roger Hodgson's upcoming Tulsa concert in Tuesday's Scene section. To hear song clips from his new "Classics Live" album, visit www.RogerHodgson.com or go to iTunes.
Here’s a guide on what to buy from Roger Hodgson and Supertramp:
Supertramp: “The Very Best of Supertramp,” (A&M, 1992). All the hits; perfect for the casual fan.
Roger Hodgson: “In the Eye of the Storm” (A&M, 1984). Hodgson plays all the instruments on his first solo outing. Features the underappreciated single “Had a Dream (Sleeping With the Enemy).”
Roger Hodgson: “Classics Live,” (Roger Hodgson Music, 2012). Solo and touring-band versions of the hits, played with infectious enthusiasm and impeccable musicianship.
By JOHN STANCAVAGE World Business Editor
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