Far from the Sounds of Traffic, Steve Winwood Steps Back into the Limelight—Quietly.
There is an agrarian ambience, to be sure, but the Old McWinwood image dissipates the moment one enters the barn to find—not bales of hay—but a fully equipped recording studio. "I'm no farmer," confesses Winwood, 34. "The only thing I farm is records, and it was a good year for records down on the farm." Indeed, Winwood's harvest of hits has been bountiful. His Arc of a Diver LP soared to No. 3 on the charts last year, and his current album, Talking Back to the Night, promises bumper sales too.
Winwood, of course, is no stranger to success. He was a rock star at 16—with the Spencer Davis Group—and went on to greater fame with Traffic and Blind Faith. "Because Arc was successful," notes Winwood, "it gives the impression I've been cruising along nicely since 1967. That's an illusion. I strove through the '70s to get my head above water." In 1977 his first solo album, Steve Winwood, "got buried," he says. "When the time came for the next one," Steve adds, "it was a make-or-break situation. If it hadn't been for Arc of a Diver, I might be a taxi driver."
The son of a foundry worker, Winwood grew up in Birmingham. His father, an accomplished amateur musician, had him playing the piano at age 6. Steve turned pro at 7 when he joined the local Anglican choir. "I used to get a shilling for every wedding," he recalls. "That was when I first realized that one can make money out of singing." He went on to take two years of classical training in music at the Birmingham Midland Institute.
At 15, Winwood (with his older brother, Muff) joined the Spencer Davis Group, for which he co-wrote hits like Gimme Some Lovin' and I'm a Man. He left to form Traffic in 1967, taking a detour in 1969 to join Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech in what many consider the prototypical supergroup, Blind Faith. They made only one album, but it sold more than a million copies. Steve reportedly experimented with hallucinogens and communal living during that era, but he insists he pulled back from the excesses before it was too late. "I've been accused of being a junkie," he complains. "Maybe it's because a lot of people I've known have been. But I've never been one."
Winwood settled into his current abode, about 60 miles northwest of London, in 1970 and made four more studio albums with Traffic before the group disbanded in 1974. Since then, he has been something of a recluse, noodling at his own compositions and playing occasional sessions with the likes of George Harrison and Marianne Faithful.
His revitalized career notwithstanding, Winwood says he has no plans to form a band or to tour. He is, however, considering offers to work on albums by Joe Cocker and fellow electronics wizard Mike Oldfield. Friends marvel at Winwood's equilibrium. "He's focused on the work," says his songwriting collaborator Will Jennings. "He's not off in attitude-land, like a lot of pop musicians." One indulgence, though, is Steve's penchant for fine automobiles. He owns three: a Ferrari Dino 246, a 1935 Cadillac and a 1980 Lancia.
Winwood's stability is reflected in his longtime relationship with American-born singer Nicole Tacot Winwood, 30. They met in 1968, became romantically involved in 1973 and got married in 1978. One of Winwood's next projects is reviving her dormant career. "The idea is for me to send the wife out to work," quips Winwood with a smile, "so that I can stay home and retire." In the meantime, he believes that living on the land will help him stay down to earth. "When I have a problem with my music," he says, "I do something that involves physical effort, like digging a big hole. It puts things in perspective."