I am the last in a long London line of interviews and press duties, yet Albert Hammond OBE, songwriting behemoth, bestows an inviting warmth. In his 70s, he is tanned and wiry with shoulder length hair and a well-fitted leather jacket, radiating a health that comes from living in warmer climes.
A sensual husk, a soft gravel in his voice, draws you in, hinting at his possession of a poet’s collection of stories and secrets full of lovers and rockstars, and a life well lived, of which he is the gatekeeper. He smiles at me, dark eyes twinkling.
Hammond has achieved something incredibly rare, coveted even, by all songwriters – longevity. His career spans decades and he boasts global hits in each of them, from the swinging sixties to the tweenies (are we really saying that? Guys?). Hailing from Gibraltar, Hammond sings in both Spanish and English, underpinning his music – already a heady cocktail of diverse musical exposure – with a notably Latin inflection.
After cutting his teeth in the nightclubs of 1960s Madrid, he notched up his first hit A Way Of Life with British act The Family Dogg in 1969. Although Hammond moved to the States thereafter, he enjoyed commercial success in Europe and Latin America. The 1970s were his heyday and the period during which he penned many of his most iconic tunes, both for himself and other artists. These include It Never Rains In Southern California, When I Need You as made famous by Leo Sayer, and – my personal favourite – The Air That I Breathe. A triumph in its masterful blend of emotional simplicity and chordal complexity, it’s a song that taps a mainline to my aorta.
The 1980s brought hits with superstars such as Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson (To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before), Diane Warren and Starship (Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now), Aswad, Bonnie Tyler and, perhaps best known, the anthemic One Moment In Time to which pop nobility Whitney Houston gave her dulcet tones. The 1990s saw his songs released by Diana Ross, Westlife and Ace of Base. He also collaborated on Duffy’s 2010 album Endlessly.
And the list goes on; other artists to have released Hammond’s works include Aretha Franklin, Elton John, The Carpenters and Johnny Cash. Hammond has been nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and a Grammy. He has received an Emmy, an Ivor Novello and an OBE, as well as being inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Continuing his musical legacy, his son Albert Hammond Jr is a member of The Strokes.
Above all, Hammond’s greatest achievement is the transcendence of his melodies, the immediacy of his lyrics, his candour. In the words of E.M. Forster, “Only connect”.
iSing: How do you take care of your voice?
AH: You know, I should do more of that. Once I start touring it gets used to the fact that I’m gonna use it for two to three hours every night. The best thing for the voice is rest. Touring is a sacrifice because you can’t do anything or go anywhere. After the show, you sign autographs, take pictures with the fans and go to the next hotel room. You keep your mouth shut, and that’s how I’m able to do four or five shows in a row.
iSing: You’ve worked with many amazing artists. Have you picked up any tips?
AH: Each voice has a colour. Each has their own style and their own way to express a song. I taught Willie [Nelson] the melody, I made sure he sang the notes on a top line and then I said, “Now, you do the Willie Nelson on it!”. And the same thing with Julio [Iglesias] or Roy Orbison.
iSing: Do you have a songwriting process?
AH: No. How boring! With songwriting, I feel it coming. Sometimes even a couple of weeks before, I feel I’m going to write some songs. The feeling I get is like falling in love again. It’s an incredible feeling. You’re with that love you want to be with for as long as you’re writing the songs, because you don’t just write one song – it’s a period of time that you write. I sometimes spend a month just writing, and then I can spend two months not writing, or a year. But when you fall in love again, it’s so wonderful. I suppose you’re not allowed to fall in love with more than one woman, so at least I’ve got that. With music, I can fall in love many times.
iSing: What’s your advice to aspiring songwriters?
AH: Money and fame is the wrong angle. Do it for love or it won’t last.
iSing: How do you stay musically relevant?
AH: I respect each decade and every change of music without having to say, “Oh, I’ve got to do that kind of music.” I just respect it. In every decade you’ve had good music and bad music. I’ve kept true to myself and to who I am. People say, “Don’t you miss having a number one record?”. Well, yeah. But being true to yourself and true to your music will probably get you another number one at some point.
And don’t give up! The whole thing is like life – it’s a circle. [He draws a slow circle on the dark wood table between us and watches his finger retrace the outline again and again.] You come back around all the time. If you get off, it’s like retirement, it’s death! You gotta keep your dream alive.
iSing: Who are your songwriting heroes?
AH: Johnny Mercer, Bacharach, The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Schubert. I grew up in a place where I heard all kinds of different cultures musically. From Morocco, because I grew up in Gibraltar, Arabic music, to Flamenco, to all the American and English stuff. Blues, pop, rock, rhythm and blues. Music is music to me and there is no “I’m a rocker” or “I’m a this or that”. I’m a man who loves music. Whatever comes, comes, and then I just give it to the world to enjoy.
iSing: Which song do you wish you’d written?
AH: There are many, but there is one I can always mention which is Imagine by John Lennon. Melodically, it’s simple like a nursery rhyme and lyrically it’s really what I would love to see.
iSing: Do you have a favourite song of your own?
AH: My songs are like my children: I love them all the same but some do better than others. Every song has a point in my life. It Never Rains In Southern California was the first hit I had as an artist and it’s still played today like it was… today. Maybe the most iconic song (and different, chord-wise) happened to me instinctively, because of a girl that helped me out in LA with a place to stay and a car to drive from record company to record company while she was at work. She inspired me to write The Air That I Breathe. I still have a dream that I haven’t written my best songs.
The Air That I Breath – The Hollies
iSing: What’s next for you?
AH: I’m writing a musical right now based on the Matterhorn. It’s about an Englishman who went to sketch the mountain, because in those days there were no cameras. He fell in love with this mountain like you fall in love with a woman and he said, “I will conquer you one day” and he did. It will be played in Switzerland in February 2018.
iSing: Which emerging songwriters do you like?
AH: I love Justin Bieber. I think he’s great.
iSing: Do you write with specific artists in mind?
AH: An artist may ask me to write a song, like Garfunkel or Tina Turner. When I wrote One Moment in Time, it was for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, to represent America. I was thinking about who would sing it and the only artist that came to mind was Elvis! I thought, if he was alive, I would want him to sing this. Then I sent it to Clive Davis and when it came back with Whitney Houston and I heard it, I had tears in my eyes. It was incredible. But basically, you write things for yourself.
One Moment In Time – Whitney Houston
iSing: I was raised on The Hollies. Do you have any stories about them?
AH: The only story I have about The Hollies is about my song. A lot of people recorded The Air That I Breathe after I had including The Everly Brothers. They’d written nine songs on their album and mine was the only outside song, of which they did a wonderful job. So, they sent the whole album to The Hollies because they knew they loved them and they said, “Choose one of our songs and do it”, but The Hollies chose the only song they didn’t write! Every time I used to see Phil Everly, he would say, “Albert, you son of a bitch! We had nine songs and you won with just one!”
Albert Hammond’s latest album In Symphony is out on June 16.