John Oates on Solo Tour: ‘I’m Not Just the Guy in the MTV Videos’
John Oates wants to teach you the origins of American pop music.
The singer-songwriter is hitting the road on March 16 for “An Evening of Songs and Stories," a seven-date run of shows that kicks off in Phoenixville, Penn., and wraps on March 26. in Newport, R.I. Oates will be joined by Guthrie Trapp, a Nashville musician who's worked with Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Dolly Parton. The pair first met at the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival and have collaborated several times since then.
The premise of the shows is simple: Oates wants to educate. Fans can expect to hear some Daryl Hall and John Oates hits like "Maneater," “You Make My Dreams” and “Private Eyes" — plus the stories behind their creations — but Oates is out to prove he's more than just half of the best-selling musical duo of all time. Concertgoers will also hear songs that have influenced Oates' musical journey and a narrative on American pop music.
Oates spoke with UCR to discuss the upcoming tour, his recent viral TikTok and what's next for his career.
How did it feel to get back on the road with Daryl Hall last summer after all those months off?
The summer of '21 was really trying to do some of the shows that we couldn't do in '20. So luckily, we were able to just kind of keep incrementally pushing those 2020 shows back, back, back. And we finally got most of them in. We didn't get them all in. I think the original tour in '20 was going to be 38 cities, ended up being about 22, which was still pretty darn good considering.
Watch Daryl Hall and John Oates Perform 'Rich Girl' in 2021
Why did you decide to do a smaller tour now?
It's a chance for me to go back and to re-explore the music that made me who I am, that's really what it is. It's the music of my childhood, my youth, the songs and styles that really defined my musical upbringing before I met Daryl and before he and I started working together. ... We tell the stories about the songs. I talk about the people who influenced me, people like Mississippi John Hurt and people like Doc Watson, and we play their songs, but then those songs kind of meld into my solo music, and then people can make the connection. They say, "Oh, I get it. He liked this. And he played this kind of song. But here's an original song, and it still kind of follows the same musical roadmap so to speak." And then, of course, we do some Hall and Oates hits, but in an acoustic kind of reimagined way. It's a very personal show. It's done in small venues, listening venues, where people can really listen, and it's all about the engagement with the audience and taking requests – it's very loose. The good thing about playing with Guthrie Trapp is that he's so versatile. He's willing to do almost anything, and he can play anything. He makes me a better player.
What songs do you have in mind? Do you plan to switch up the set list each night?
Let's put it this way: We have a plan. [Laughs] We got a plan and the plan is that it can change at any moment. ... We played a show in Colorado recently, and there was a guy in the front row and I could tell he was in it the whole time. And at one point in the show, he just said, "Can you play 'Possession Obsession'? Because that's my favorite song. I've never heard you play it." And I said, "You know what? I haven't played that song in about 30 years. But you know what? I'll give it a try." And so I fumbled my way through it. I totally was not planning on doing that. But I mean, the show is so intimate and in the small venues, you can actually do things like that. I think it's part of the charm of the show that it's so personal and so real.
Watch Daryl Hall and John Oates' 'Possession Obsession' Video
Are these kinds of shows more enjoyable for you?
You really can't compare the experience, they're totally different experiences. They both have their good qualities and their bad qualities. Playing a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, you can't replicate the energy and the vibe that happens in front of 15,000 people, and the band is rockin' and you've got this energy. That's one thing. But then again, you can't compare that authenticity and that organic nature of bringing music back to its original, most elemental form, which is a guy with his instrument, or a girl for that matter, with his instrument and a guitar and a song. I like to break it down like that. It keeps me balanced. ... And to be honest with you, and I'll just say this, I'm better in that environment, what I do personally, not with Daryl. When I'm with Daryl, sky's the limit. But when I'm on my own, I am a better communicator in this small, intimate way. I think my personality comes across better, and people understand me a little bit more, rather than seeing this little figure up on the stage from a distance, on a video screen.
Is that something you've learned over the years? I would imagine your relationship with touring and playing live is different now than it was when you first started.
Yeah, but I started out as a kind of a solo folk, blues performer. So, in a sense, what I'm doing right now is really going back — it's like going back to go forward. It's going back to touch on these very significant and elemental styles that made me who I am. But of course, I've evolved as a person, as a man, as a father, as a professional musician, as a songwriter. It's not like I want to go back in time and try to replicate the past, but I want to show what the past did to me and what the past gave to me and how I am now. ... I mean, I have seven solo albums. So I have a lot of material to draw from. ... Obviously, none of that material is going to be as well known as the Hall and Oates material, and it never will be, but I think it's substantial, musically, and I think I'm very proud of it, musically. So it's an opportunity here again, for me to show that hey, I'm also doing this. I'm not just the guy in the MTV videos, you know?
Watch John Oates Perform Acoustic Version of 'Maneater' With Guthrie Trapp
Did you do much songwriting during the pandemic?
I actually did. I had an amazingly creative period of time. Once I realized that the Hall and Oates tour wasn't going to happen, after Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28, , it was a real adjustment, to think, "Wow, I'm not going to be traveling for the next who knows?" I didn't know if it was going to be a week, a month, a year, two years. As it turned out, it was a year and a half. So at first, I was like, Whoa, what do I do with myself? I had a lot of free time, which is very rare for me. And I was at home, which is also rare for me. So I began to listen to a lot of music, new music, old music. I tried to do things that I'd never done before. And then things started happening. I'd be contacted by someone on Instagram: "Hey, you want to collaborate, do a collab?" And I didn't even know what a collab was. In fact, I didn't know how to use Zoom or anything. So I learned all this stuff. And then I thought, "I can't really write a song on Zoom with someone." But then I did. And I said, "Wait a minute, we can do this." And so it was a learning experience.
My favorite TikTok is one of you eating a bowl of oats, pondering why no oat-manufacturing companies have ever reached out to you for the perfect marketing collaboration. Did any oat companies contact you after you posted that?
You have no idea. We have a basement full of boxes. We have so much oats that I cannot tell you. It's completely crazy. We have oats from every oat manufacturer you can think of. We got the greatest stuff, and we're trying all this stuff and some of it is really amazing. So now they're reaching out, they want me to do collabs with them. And so it's become a thing.
There's another TikTok you posted where you mention that although there's been a handful of Hall and Oates documentaries, there hasn't been an in-depth, all-in film. Is that something you'd like to pursue?
I'd have to get Daryl on board first, because if he's not involved, then we wouldn't have much of a documentary. At some point, I think the Hall and Oates story should be told in the right way. I don't think the time is right now, and perhaps it never will be, but you never know. And I'd want it told in an artistic and accurate way. So who knows when that time, if that time, will ever come? I mean, we did a Behind the Music with MTV, and I think that was pretty good. It really brought out a lot of the main points. But in terms of digging in deep, I don't think we've ever dug that deep.
Do you think that your social media platforms and presence have been a benefit in terms of engaging with fans? Some artists aren't comfortable with it, but you seem to embrace it.
Well, I've definitely embraced it over time. I wasn't comfortable in the beginning. But I have a great team of really creative people that kind of lead me in the right direction, and I've learned to trust them because everything they do seems to connect. I think it's really good, because I think, here again, just like the solo show I'm doing with Guthrie, it's a way that people can really find out who I am.
What are you most looking forward to about these upcoming shows?
I'm looking forward to getting people to have a really entertaining evening, where they discover something not only about me but about the history of American popular music, because in a sense, what I'm doing is trying to kind of connect the dots between the earliest days of American pop — a lot of people, especially the younger generations think that pop music started with rock 'n' roll — but pop music started when radio was invented and a record player was invented. And that's the late teens and early 1920s. And in doing the show like this, I've done a lot of research, and become a bit of a musicologist and realized there were million-selling records going on in the early 1920s. And a lot of people aren't aware of that. ... And it's constantly evolving. And it's a living and breathing thing. I want to shine a light on something that I think a lot of people aren't maybe so aware of.
There's a tendency to brush it off as nostalgia, but what you're emphasizing is that this is the foundation of the music industry as we know it.
Yeah ... I'm a history buff, and so I became fascinated with this. And once I started to do some research on it – like for instance, I do a song by Jimmie Rodgers, who's the yodeling brakeman, one of the godfathers of country music. Now, interestingly enough, one of my childhood heroes, Mississippi John Hurt, when I started reading his bio and getting into his early life, Jimmie Rodgers was one of his favorite artists. And I actually looked at the jukebox playlist that was being played in the little town in Mississippi where Mississippi John Hurt lived, and there were songs by cowboy artists, there were not any of the songs that you would think would be on a Mississippi jukebox. So because everything was new, everyone was open-minded. And then, later on, you have a guy like Robert Johnson, who was, undoubtedly, the king of the Delta blues. His favorite artist was Jimmie Rodgers. So I didn't know that. And when I realized that, I began to connect those dots. So I do a Jimmie Rodgers song, and then I do a Mississippi John Hurt song. And I tell that story in the course of the show. I try not to make it too academic.
Would you consider doing more of these shows?
Oh, absolutely. I plan on doing a lot more of it. I want it to be fun, I want it to be enjoyable. I'm not gonna kill myself over this thing. But I want to keep music in perspective. I want to do it enough so that it's vibrant and real, but I don't want to have it rule my life. I have a family and I have a life. Things are much more in perspective now in my life.