Graham Russell knows a thing or two about planting a seed, nurturing it and watching it grow into a lush source of sustenance. Whether it’s literally growing the food he eats or producing a bumper crop of music for the world’s nourishment, he’s got a green thumb.
Russell is guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for Air Supply, half of the iconic pop/rock duo, along with lead vocalist Russell Hitchcock. The band is headed to Houston for a live show May 1 at Arena Theatre, making Air Supply one of the first big name acts to perform for an actual, live-in-attendance audience here since COVID struck. The Houston date is one of the first on a tour which is slated to keep the group on the road through October.
Air Supply marked its 45th anniversary last year. It’s performed its bevy of familiar, beloved hits in more than 5,000 concerts on scores of tours. But, Russell said, no tour has ever begun the way this one will.
“I’ve never really felt like this in my career before because we’ve never taken such a large hiatus. It’s very unusual. I want to get back into the swing of things but it’s going to take me awhile. I mean, it’ll all come back of course,” he said.
Typically, the band plays more than 100 dates a year and Russell likened Air Supply to a well-oiled machine. But a 15-month layoff means knocking some rust off the gears. He’s excited about the possibilities the return from hiatus will bring.
“It feels a lot like that, like when we first came out,” he said. “We don’t know what to expect and we want it to be as good as we can make it, so it is very similar to when we first came out. It’s such a strange feeling. It’s like we’re young and new and we’ve got to prove ourselves again.”
That feeling, foreign as it may be, is sure to give way once fans – affectionately known as “Air Heads” — chime in to sing along live to Air Supply’s incredible catalog of hits which date back to the 1970s. Russell and Hitchcock famously met on the first day of rehearsals for an Australian production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in May 1975. Russell had moved to Australia from his home in England and the two bonded quickly, forming a lifelong friendship. Within a few years of starting the band, they took pop music by storm, notching seven top five singles which at that time matched a run by The Beatles.
One could look to last year’s events and how Russell spent his quarantine time for a secret to Air Supply’s success. Free of distractions, he wrote songs, played his grand piano and spent time in his studio, all part of “trying to become a better player and become a better songwriter and become a better person.”
“I write all the time. I’m very fortunate because I do that whatever happens, I pretty much write every day, so I just continued to do that pretty seriously,” he said and noted he writes musicals and songs for other artists in addition to those which have filled 17 Air Supply studio albums. “I just write a lot of songs and it was great for me, I really enjoyed it. For instance, if I know I need to write some songs for a new Air Supply album I’ll find the time but over the last year the time found me and I could spend a lot more time doing what I do.”
“Apart from that, I’m a big gardener. I know this has nothing to do with music, but I love gardening and growing things, so I did a lot of that, too. I pretty much grow all my own food, I’m vegan, I don’t eat meat of any kind and I grow everything myself, I have a massive greenhouse that’s huge and it’s underground and I grow everything that I need to eat,” Russell said. “I got into that too, so really I kind of went back to the earth and being the songwriter that I love to be.”
We noted the similarities between these pursuits, how planting something like a seed or an idea and tending to it lovingly might help it blossom into something special.
“Absolutely, it’s the same thing, there are just different aspects of it,” he agreed. “I mean, songs are like children. They’re born, they’re young, they go to kindergarten and they grow up, they get an arrangement and then they go out into the world where people hear them when they’re an adult, if you like.
“And, it’s the same with growing plants and trees and flowers. I like my hands in the dirt, I love that feel and I love when things grow and come through the earth. It’s this beautiful metamorphosis. And it is the same as songs. For me, one fed the other and I love both dearly and I’ve done both since I was 11 years old.
“I come from England, of course, and you know, English people are great gardeners and my family were traditional gardeners, so I have that green thumb,” he continued. “It’s really played a great part in my songwriting ability. You’re so right, one feeds the other, they’re the same thing really, just growing and making something out of nothing.”
You can nearly hear Russell sing “out of nothing at all,” which is a line from one of Air Supply’s biggest hits, “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” It’s actually one of the hits Russell didn’t write, but was penned by Jim Steinman, the power ballad master who passed away last week.
“Clive Davis from Arista Records brought that to us in 1983, I think. You know, we’d already had a lot of big hits and we weren’t recording anybody else’s songs at that point,” Russell recalled. “But, I’ve always thought Russell is the lead singer and he shouldn’t just sing my songs, he’s one of the world’s greatest singers and he should sing a lot of different things.
“Plus, Jim is a legendary songwriter and I’ve always considered him that,” he said. “We met Jim and we talked about the song and it was quite long. It was like seven minutes and Jim said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to cut it down, it’s one of those epic things,’ but all his songs are epic. But Clive really wanted us to do it and we said, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’
“And it became a classic moment for us. I remember being in the studio and Russell sang it first take and Jim turned around to me and he said, “Wow that was pretty cool,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, it was.’ And he said, ‘I think that’s it,’ and I said, ‘I think it is too!’”
“But you know, Jim was such a gentleman. It was eccentric, a little strange and odd, but his genius came out. Before we even met him I was a big, big fan of Meat Loaf and all that music, so it was a real thrill for us to meet him and to work with him. It was a real treasure.”
Speaking of treasures, Air Supply last year was short-listed as one of the top five “Greatest Aussie Bands” by the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun.
“We’ve always been very proud to be an Australian group. The early years for us were difficult because Australia then, and certainly now, it was a rough and tumble marketplace for any live group. It was AC/DC and Midnight Oil. And we came along and we weren’t cut from that cloth. We just had our sound and it was very melodic, very romantic. So, we just had a tough time coming through the ranks, but we came through, we were very tenacious, and it’s nice, after all these years, to be recognized for that.
“I think we were number four or three (on the list) and I thought, wow, that’s really cool – but the funny thing is we knew everybody that was in that top five. We knew The Seekers. We’ve met the Bee Gees and INXS and AC/DC. We knew them all because we came through the ranks with them playing little clubs with nobody there. So, it was nice to see those friends recognized as well and to be in such great company.
“I think after all these years it gives you a great sense that you’ve done something right and our music will be around for awhile, I hope and I think," he said. “Through all the years, we’ve always stuck to our guns and people have said, ‘Oh, why don’t you change the sound?’ But, the thing is we don’t have a choice to change it. This is who we are and what we do and at least we’re doing something that is inherent inside us. We’re not creating something or trying to make something that doesn’t fit us. This is who we are and we have no choice but to do it.”
Air Supply's faithful are grateful for that because those songs helped grow something else for the world, special relationships and moments fueled by the love Air Supply so frequently addresses.
“You know, before COVID, we’d do a meet and greet before the show and we’d do a big one after every show, so we get to talk to the fans and they can confide in us. And they say every single time, ‘Oh, this song means so much to me – I got married to it, I got engaged, I discovered my partner in this song.’ We expect to hear it now. But, it means more than just words to us, it means, once again, that what we’ve done is having an impact on people and that’s a great legacy to have.”
It’s a legacy Houstonians share in and Russell said he’s eager to get back to the city and especially the Arena Theatre, which Air Supply knows well. He said the familiar venue and its intimate layout will prove helpful in getting the band back in pre-pandemic performance shape.
“We’ve played it twice before and I remember. You know, funnily enough, after all these years, I have a great memory, thank goodness. I can even remember my dressing room in there. My dressing room, when you go in the backstage door, it’s the first on the left and I can remember everything about it,” he said. “So, I’m looking forward to getting back there.
“Plus, I really like playing in the round. In the ‘80s there used to be a lot of those venues but there’s only half a dozen left in the country now and you have to work a little differently because you’ve got to play to everybody behind you. So, it takes a little more effort and a little more of your skill to figure that out. You’ve got to play to the whole room. And, it’s a wonderful experience and I look forward to it. I’m looking forward to coming back there, for sure.”
Air Supply returns to Houston Saturday, May 1, 2021. Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. Doors at 7 p.m., $49-$70. Check the venue’s website for guidelines regarding COVID-19 safety protocols.