Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey Talk New Album and The State of Music Today

  • Earth, Wind and Fire

  • Earth, Wind and Fire

  • Earth, Wind and Fire

  • Earth, Wind and Fire

  • Earth, Wind and Fire

  • Earth, Wind and Fire

With over 40 years of making music under their belt, Earth, Wind & Fire has sold over 90 million albums worldwide and inspired the likes of Prince, Alicia Keys, and Jay Z. Now, the soul-funk-fusion act has come full circle with the release of a new album, Now, Then & Forever (in stores now). We spoke with original EWF member Philip Bailey about collaborating with other EWF original members Verdine White and Ralph Johnson to create their latest project, and got his take on the state of music today, how EWF continues to make music that is adored my millions around the world, and his love for Maroon 5, John Mayer, and Janelle Monae.

VH1: You’re featured on this new album with your other EWF original members, Verdine and Ralph. Which one of you would you characterize as earth, which one would be wind, and which one would be fire?

PHILIP BAILEY: Interestingly enough, I’m an earth sign, and my personality is pretty much in keeping with that, and Verdine is definitely a fire sign. And even though Ralph is a water sign, he would definitely be the wind side of the equation.

After all of these years, over 40 years of making music together, how have the dynamics shifted?

I pretty much take the leadership role, and I think that one of the real testaments to our longevity has been the fact that myself, RJ (that’s Ralph) and Dino (that’s Verdine) have a long history of being together and our personalities actually dance well. So, that’s been a real blessing for us, because doing anything for 41 years is quite a feat, much less people living and breathing and existing together in any kind of business, musical fashion. It’s very rare these days. We did break up for five years in the early ’80s, but in that time period I went on to do several solo projects, one being Chinese Wall with Phil Collins with “Easy Lover,” and then I did some gospel stuff, but I think in that time period we were able to really evaluate our importance in the musical landscape and what our music meant to so many people, and we were able to put it back together. And we weathered plenty storms, not internally, but just in terms of the music business.

Why is it still so important to Earth Wind & Fire to continue to make music after all the success you’ve had?

Well, we’re in the middle of a world tour, we just left Europe and we’re on our way to Asia, and everywhere we go, all over the globe, we get the same reaction, the same response. And it’s growing and it’s building. We’ve broken our million mark on our Earth, Wind & Fire Facebook page and we’ve been existing for 41 years, so when those kinds of things are happening, your impetus is to continue to do what you’re doing, because obviously you’re doing something right. And we’re having a lot of fun, we still enjoy what we do. We’re very blessed to be able to make a living making music.

How has your creative process evolved with this new record and in what ways is it still signature Earth Wind & Fire?

The way it has evolved is we had to go back and rediscover who we were. Next year will mark the 20th year that we’ve been touring and being Earth, Wind & Fire without the band’s founder and leader, Maurice White. And it’s timely that this first record that we were able to produce now some 20 years later sounding signature Earth Wind & Fire  — I think it’s taken that long to actually grow with it and to really feel comfortable about being able to be just who we are. Larry Dunn, Neal Poe, a young writer by the name of J.R., Siedah Garrett, and Philip Duran, my son — they were able to actually help us continue to look to those things that were always signature with Earth Wind & Fire — from the guitar collaborations to the percussion to the way the harmonies are, different things that were just real signature stuff. A lot of times you get away from these things as you attempt to “grow,” but I had to buy into the fact that if I bought an Eagles record and they sounded like Fleetwood Mac I’d be pretty pissed; if I bought a Stevie Wonder record and he sounded like Musiq Soulchild I’d be asking for somebody to call the doctor. Well, our music means that much, the same thing, to a lot of people, and so by just buying into that and becoming comfortable with it helped us to just be who we are and just make a record that sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire.

What are your thoughts on the state of music today?

I think that there are some fantastic musicians out there — very, very talented musicians. Music is still king even though it’s such a different world than which we established ourselves, because music didn’t have as much competition back in the day when we were doing our thing as it does now. Home entertainment and the internet and the phones and everything else has so much to do with the reason why artists are one-hit wonders nowadays, and not necessarily a mainstay in people’s lives. But I love John Mayer, I love Janelle Monae and Maroon 5 — I like a lot of different music. I do listen to more jazz and gospel than anything else, but my ears are still very much open and listening to stuff that comes out. And a lot of times my kids turn me on to stuff.

Anything in the music industry today that causes you to “smh” and think we’d be better off without this?

I think that there’s certain music that instead of saying a lot of different things that are on my psyche, I just say, “I’ve aged out.” Because that is the best way of putting it, because a lot of things I simply don’t understand and will not understand and can’t see any intrinsic value in. Instead of saying something negative about it I just go OK, I’ve aged out.

When you guys are touring the world is there any particular Earth Wind & Fire song that people just can’t leave a show without hearing?

That song would have to be definitely—worldwide, globally—”September.” It’s kind of like the biggest battle cry of our career, of our musical catalog. Everywhere, 100 percent, when you play “September,” it goes up.

Has Maurice White heard the new album?

He has and he really, really likes it a lot, it’s nothing but good things that he’s had to say about it and he actually wrote some liner notes on the new project.

And the name of the new album, Now, Then & Forever, how did that come about and what does it signify for you and the group?

Initially there was going to be a disc of classic Earth, Wind & Fire packaged with the new material. But then as everything continued to evolve, the record company felt that the new disc could stand alone, so they discontinued doing the other(s), but that’s how it kind of came about, the Now, Then & Forever concept, but now it’s just going be the one CD.

[Photo Credits: Legacy/Randee St. Nicolas]