Another phone rings in the background, but Stevie Wonder remains relaxed. Cool. Confident. Full of conviction as a half-hour phone interview winds through various topics that cover his yesterdays, the music world today and Friday’s concert at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino Event Center in Verona.
No rush, Wonder says. Other calls can wait.
“Basically, it’s natural if I do it,” he says of his phone encounters with reporters.
Wonder says he’s on his way back to Los Angeles from a trip that allowed him to visit family and friends around the country.
Asked about an online report of his impromptu appearance at a Virginia church on Oct. 11, Wonder allows that, yes, that’s his style.
“I mean, a friend that I’ve known for years who has prostate cancer, I went to see him,” Wonder says. “I have a church I belong to. So if I am somewhere where I have friends or family and I want to do that, share fellowship, if I’m asked to do something, I do that.”
The word blessed comes up as Wonder talks about a career that started with the Saginaw, Mich., native having his single, “Fingertips Pt. 2,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Chart on July 6, 1963, just seven weeks after he’d turned 13.
He’s had 46 songs make the top 40 of that chart since, including nine more at No. 1.
At 59 years old, Wonder says, he still enjoys the excitement he feels when connecting with people.
There are just a handful of shows around your date here near Syracuse. What makes you decide it’s time to get out on the stage for a concert?
I think no different than a doctor that has to work on patients or a teacher that has to work with students or a baker that has to bake his bread. If that’s what we do, when we have the desire to do it and the ability to do it, it’;s a joy. The great thing about me and music is … not only is it something that’s an occupation, but it’s something that I love doing. I love it still.
You haven’t played in this area in the 18 years I’ve been doing this job. Do you like to choose places to perform that you haven’t been to in a while?
Some of that is the case. Obviously, if you play someplace and not others, there’s a chance to connect with other people you haven’t been in front of in a long time. Here is no exception, in Verona. Or it’s a situation where they are able to see what’s happened since the last time and how you’ve changed. And you, them. I did play the college in Syracuse, I remember that. (Wonder played the Onondaga County War Memorial, just down the hill from Syracuse University, on Sept. 19, 1986.)
What about the pop star life still gives you a jolt?
I think it gives me excitement. I’m thankful that of all the people in the world, I’m blessed enough to have this opportunity to sing, to play, to write, to perform with a great group of musicians in front of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, and to be seen by millions around the world. God chose me to be one of those people. The fact that I’m able to reach people and hopefully encourage and inspire them, that’s a great feeling.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a project called “The Gospel Inspired by Lula.” That’s my mother’s name. I lost my mother in 2006. She always wanted me to do a kind of inspirational project. Even though we;ve done inspirational pieces, this is more gospel. … We’ll do it in Arabic and different languages and rhythms. Put in words of God’s goodness. … We will be doing some more classical stuff. I love that. I like to feel that things that I do and can do (are) limitless. I’m a lover of all kinds of music.
Do you feel like you have another No. 1 pop hit in you?
I’m believing that for as long as we live and are really open to today and to where things are in the world, if we’re hearing and can connect to where we are, there’s always a place for an artist to do something. For example, for years, look at Quincy Jones and Michael (Jackson). Music is an everlasting form for as long as there will be sound and birds and so forth, the rhythm of life will always be produced.
Bringing up Michael, you played in one of the many tribute shows for him. Do you think the upcoming movie is something fans want or something that seeks to make money off his legacy?
I just wish for anything that has Michael’s name on it (to be) successful. Me, as many of his fans, we want to see, want to hear anything and everything that we can. Truth be known, we sure wish that he was still here. It’s such a tragedy. It’s a heartbreak. I remember when Paul McCartney put the song (“Free as a Bird”) out that John Lennon had been working on, he kind of fixed it up a little bit, I was excited to hear something of John Lennon that wasn’t finished but it was John. It was, wow. We want to hear as much as we can, that very last thing. The most important thing is, it’s presented in a way that will represent the greatness of what he had done prior to his demise.
Will there be any Michael songs in your concert tour?
We do some stuff in there. I’m sure something will happen. When I was on tour, a small tour we had done around the time that Michael passed away, we played some of his songs using the iPod, got people to sing along and celebrated his great talent.
Can people going to the show expect your greatest hits?
We do a lot of songs like that, but we also do new stuff. Kind of mix it up. I don’t package it as, here’s my greatest hits. It’s, here’s what I do.
What will people be able to see on stage that’s still the same as the 13-year-old who gave “Fingertips” to the world?
I think that anything that would reference that time would be the energy. My energy. I’m still excited about music and performing. I’m still curious about sounds, and what makes that do that. We just have fun. We have really, really great people on stage.
Do you set aside time each day to write songs, or do you sit down to write when an idea inspires you?
More the latter one. I’m inspired, and then I write. Or I say to God, I want to write new songs, please bless me with a melody.
When is the last time you wrote a song?
Oh, about five days ago. The song, I’m excited about it. It probably will be on “The Gospel Inspired by Lula” project. There is a process by which I write songs. I start with usually the melody, the chord structure, and basically the main idea of what I want to sing about, the theme. Then I will write more or collaborate more on it.
Who these days do you think is writing good songs?
I think John Mayer is writing good stuff. I think Ne-Yo is writing good stuff. The lady who sang with him on that last song (Candace Jones).
Do you listen to the radio?
I listen to radio, definitely. I listen to a lot to Sirus-XM and regular radio.
Any favorite format?
I scan the various formats. Hip-hop to country to jazz. I can’t stay in one place with it. There’s so much to enjoy.
Can you pick out a favorite of your own songs, or is it like children, you love them all but different things about them?
Exactly. The latter. Some days are “You Are the Sunshine” days. Some days are “Superstition” days. … You cherish them all.
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