Stevie Wonder, one of popular music's most iconic and beloved stars, is also one of its more reclusive. Despite his 25 Grammys and 70 million-plus records sold, Wonder has released only a handful of records in the last 20 years—his last studio album, 2005’s “A Time to Love,” was his first in 10 years. Wonder, 57, has given a few select performances worldwide in the intervening years, including the Live 8 show in 2005, and even an “American Idol” appearance, but hasn’t toured in more than a decade. That’s about to change. This week Wonder announced that he will be returning to the road.
The tour, which kicks off Aug. 23 in San Diego and has been dubbed "A Wonder Summer's Night,” will take Wonder to small and mid-sized venues in 13 cities. In an interview with NEWSWEEK’s Jamie Reno, Wonder discussed the upcoming tour; the death last year of his mother, Lula Mae Hardaway; and some of the pivotal recordings of his career. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: So when and why did you decide that you wanted to go back out on the road after such a long break?
Stevie Wonder: In May of last year I lost my mother, and it was obviously a traumatic experience for all of us in the family. It was so unexpected when it happened. We had had some performance dates already scheduled, one in particular that was real close to the time when she passed away. It was in Hawaii, it was for a wedding. A couple wanted me to be there with them and do a performance, and I just wasn’t sure I could do it. But my family and friends convinced me that I needed to do it as an opportunity to really celebrate my mother’s love. It was almost as if my mother said to me, “You need to go out there and do that.” So I went out to Hawaii and did it, and that inspired me to want do an entire tour to honor her.
Have you missed touring? Do you enjoy being out on the road?
I love performing, but when you get into your life with recording and songwriting and kids and family and all of that, the road gets more difficult. But you know, fear is not a faith. And what better way to show my fans and my friends, who are like family to me, the appreciation I really do have for all their contributions to my life? It was just time; I wanted to come out and share my love through song.
You’ve chosen to perform at a lot of smaller and mid-sized venues on this tour, is that because of your desire for more intimacy in these shows?
Yes. I enjoy both the smaller venues and the large ones for different reasons, but for this particular tour the smaller and mid-sized places I think will work best.
Will you be performing any new songs?
I will be doing some new material from my next record, “The Gospel Inspired by Lula.” The new record is coming out some time before my mother’s birthday next year, which is on the 11th of January.
What was it like for you to appear on “American Idol” in 2006 and for all the contestants to sing one of your songs?
It was lots of fun. I really think that “American Idol” is great because it allows for young people to really use their chops in different ways, not just in one kind of way, not just in one musical genre. I think that’s really wonderful.
Are you a fan of much new music, do you listen to many younger artists?
Oh yeah, I’m always twisting the dial on the radio or pushing the buttons on Sirius or XM [satellite radio] to see what’s going on. I really like John Mayer a lot, I think he’s great. And Beyonce I like a lot. I think “Umbrella” [by Rihanna] is my favorite song right now, I like that one a lot.
How do you decide which songs to play in concert?
You just feel it out. I want to give the fans the hits, but I change the set depending on where we are playing, depending on the feel of a certain part of the country or of a certain venue. Certain songs are pretty safe no matter where we play, like “My Cherie Amour” or “Superstition.” But it does change, the set list changes and evolves.
VH1 Classic has been playing a special lately on the making of “Songs in the Key of Life.” That album reflected so many things about you, your music, your race, it was topical, and so melodic. Is that record for you a high point?
Yes, definitely. The thing with “Songs in the Key of Life” is that I was very methodical and critical on that record and how we did what, until we got it right. Like on the song “Black Man,” for example. I actually recorded that song twice, once I did it in A-flat, and then I decided to move it up a step to B-flat.
Berry Gordy [founder of Motown Records] was very nervous about releasing a double album, wasn’t he?
Yes, Berry was majorly nervous. [Laughs.] We were playing the song “I Wish” in the studio during the recording of the album, and Berry was saying, “It’s a good song, but you just can’t understand what you are saying, can’t you just sing the song right?”
And of course that song became one of the biggest hits on the album and of your career, yes?
You played harmonica on your very first hit, “Fingertips, Part 2.” Do you still break out the harmonica on stage? Will you be playing it much on this tour?
Oh yes, definitely. I love it! I still love playing the harmonica. It’s still my miniature saxophone.
Why don’t you record as often you used to?
My feeling now is that I want to put things out only when it feels right and when I feel comfortable with it. And being that I’m a songwriter, too, I’ve got to have a chance to really, you know, do some living, to experience some things to be able to write about them. That’s what it’s all about.
So is there anything in the music business that you haven’t done that you would like to do?
Well, if I could get hypnotized for anything, I’d like to get hypnotized and learn to play the guitar, I love the guitar. I’ve never really played the guitar. I think that would be fun.