x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rod Stewart: a life like this

Ahead of Friday's concert in Dubai, which kicks off his latest tour, the singer speaks about his career, his family and model railroading.

With a career spanning more than 40 years, Rod Stewart is accustomed to raising eyebrows. Today though, it's likely to be his passion for model railways as opposed to models that gathers the column inches. When he arrives in Dubai for his Friday concert at the Sevens Stadium, the 65-year-old singer will have a sizeable piece of the model with him. He says working on it during down time keeps him grounded.

"What I do is take various projects and pack them up in great big trunks - the paints and the tools and things I've got to build - and take it out on the road with me. Otherwise I'd go mad in hotel rooms," he says. It is no ordinary little track with a model Hornby chugging around it. The 1:87-scale version of Grand Central Station has 100 feet of track laid out in a 1,500-square-foot room in Stewart's Beverly Hills home. He works on it almost every day that he's at home, building a warehouse here or a railway bridge there. It features miniature 1940s locomotives, period posters on ad hoardings and tiny commuters dressed in 1940s style clothing. The editor of Model Railroader described the craftsmanship involved as "absolutely staggering".

"There's a team of four other people working on it with me," Stewart says. "Basically I do about 80 per cent of it, but I'm not good with computers and electronics. I have a guy who does that. Another guy helps me with the scenery. It's like a little club, Beverly Hills Model Railroad Club. It costs you a quarter of a million dollars a year to be a member," he jokes. "I've always said every man should have a hobby.

"It keeps you grounded. I go up there and close the door and no one can disturb me. I'm in another world. It's very healthy and I love it and I'm proud of it as well." "Grand Central Station was all built by myself and it's pretty impressive," says Stewart, who plans to spend a couple of hours working on the model as soon as he puts the phone down. He has already been to the gym for a "bit of a workout" followed by a massage. "I played football yesterday in an over-50s team," he says. "I do enjoy it even though on Monday mornings we're all stiff and we can't walk and we all have to start downing the Advil (a brand of ibuprofen) to get the feeling back in your legs."

He once seriously considered becoming a professional footballer after captaining his school team and playing centre half for Middlesex Schoolboys. He joined Brentford FC as an apprentice in 1961, but his slight build was against him and he hated the early morning commutes from the family home in Essex to west London. "When I was young it was either music or football and I didn't have the enthusiasm for football. In those days they made you clean out the dressing rooms and polish boots and there was very little football.

"I wanted to be a pro footballer to keep my dad happy. His dream was always to have one of us play football and I think I did it for him. But I secretly wanted to get into music from an early age. When I was young my dad gave me a guitar. I actually wanted a model train set but there you go," he laughs. Stewart still keeps himself fit (although regular massage is his one concession to getting older) and says he feels better than ever after his brush with cancer in 1999. He was given the all-clear some years ago, although he admits that he didn't realise at the time how close it came to wrecking his singing career.

"I had thyroid cancer but thank the good lord it's all clear and I'm singing better than I've ever sung. You would be worried, wouldn't you, with the Big C? They failed to tell me when I went into the hospital how dangerous and delicate this operation is, although if you're going to have a cancer this is by far the most easily cured. But they didn't say that when they go in to get to the thyroid, the nerves that control your vocal cords are literally a millimetre away. Any slip of the hand and that's it. You won't ever sing again.

"But here we are still singing and I feel great." He's currently at home in Los Angeles preparing for the new tour, which kicks off in Dubai. It will feature numbers from his last album, Soulbook, plus many of the old favourites that he says he never gets tired of singing. "I never get sick of the audience reaction, which is by far the most important thing. It's a wonderful job if I may say so. In Dubai we're going to do everything that goes back to the early 1970s, basically all the songs that people want to hear. There will be four or five songs from Soulbook and then all the favourites. Soulbook means a lot to me. These were the people, like Sam Cooke, who I grew up listening to as a teenager and who influenced my early career. I owe them a great deal. In those days I went everywhere with a transistor radio glued to my ear. One day, I heard Sam Cooke singing Chain Gang, and I was hooked.

"To get a chance to sing these songs was a great honour and a great privilege. I certainly haven't done them better, I just do them my way. It was my way of taking my hat off and nodding and thanking the people who have influenced my career," he says. "It will be the first show of the tour so we'll be a bit nervous. Unfortunately we can't bring all our staging with us because it's so far away and it would wipe out all our profits, but the music will be good and we've got Spandau Ballet with us. I am looking forward to seeing them. I've always admired their stuff."

Like his "old mate" Tom Jones, who was in Abu Dhabi recently, Stewart never tires of performing live in arenas around the world even though he's wealthy enough to put his feet up and never work again. "I don't hear the word retirement. I still need to go on. It's nothing to do with money. I thoroughly enjoy what I do and expect to get paid for it and I enjoy making records. I don't enjoy going out and promoting them but that's my job and doing live concerts is still the best thing in the world."

The old rocker, who the godfather of soul James Brown once described as "the best white soul singer", had what almost amounts to a second incarnation, this time as a crooner, with The Great American Songbook featuring the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. The fifth album in the series will be released in December, although those songs will not be among the set for the forthcoming shows.

"We're just mixing it and finishing it off," Stewart says. "It starts off with Old Black Magic and then Beyond the Sea. I don't do it in French. It's very much the Bobby Darin version. We've added a lot of brass, although it's not what I'd call big band. It's more Glenn Miller and very danceable in an old fashioned way. My wife says it's very Strictly Come Dancing." His wife is of course the statuesque former model Penny Lancaster, who was once a contestant on the popular dance show. His first wife was Alana Hamilton (who was once married to the perma-tanned George Hamilton), his second was the model Rachel Hunter and Lancaster is Stewart's third wife. His various relationships with beautiful women were fodder for the tabloids for years. He had much-publicised romances with the model Dee Harrington and the actress Britt Ekland. He was famously quoted as saying about his divorces: "Instead of getting married again, I'm going to find a woman I don't like and just give her a house."

Altogether, he has seven children, including a 30-year-old daughter, Sarah, by Susannah Boffey. He had two children, Kimberly, 21, and Sean, 20, with Hamilton, and another daughter, Ruby, 13, with the model Kelly Emberg. He and Hunter have a son, Liam, 15, and he has a son, Alastair, aged four, with Lancaster. He may have split with their mothers but he is close to all of his children and they are often photographed together. He says being a father to offspring of such varying ages keeps him on his toes.

"I always say I've got seven children of different ages so I have to be seven different types of dad. With the four year old, I'm a different kind of father to how I am with my 30-year-old daughter. You have to have seven different dad heads on. This weekend I flew to Chicago from Los Angeles to watch my son Liam play in the national hockey championships, representing a team of under-17s from LA. I watched one game and flew back afterwards. He was brilliant and scored two cracking goals. It looks like he's going to be a pro.

"I love them all to death. We're working on another one," he says, adding that he relies on the younger ones to keep him up to date with current bands and singers. "Don't ask me the names of the bands because I couldn't give you one. But my kids are constantly playing their own music, so that's how I keep up. Mostly I'm listening to songs I have to learn, like the last two songs for the album that I'm doing at the moment."

His four-year-old son's schooling is one reason why he is considering moving back to the UK permanently, although he is undecided about it. He still keeps a home in Epping but can only spend 90 days per year there for tax reasons. "The jury's out on that one," he says. "If I do move back it will be for my son's education. That's the only reason I'd be moving back. I love California and I love being in the position of missing Britain. We've been away now for three months and I miss it, but everyone I speak to is fed up with the weather anyway and I'm looking forward to going back there."

He has a full-size football pitch at his UK home and in California he has a smaller AstroTurf pitch where he loves to kick a ball around with Alastair, who is often clad in a mini version of his father's beloved Celtic FC strip. Stewart jokes about trying to turn the boy into a mini version of his football-loving laddish father. "This morning was funny. He had his first tennis lesson and I said: 'You do love football more than tennis' and he said: 'No Daddy. I love tennis more than football.' I said: 'You've broken your father's heart.' Later when he came down for breakfast he said: 'Dad, I've had a chance to think about what you said before and I really like football more than tennis.'

"I take him out on to the AstroTurf. One day he saw that some flowers had fallen onto the pitch. So he said: 'Oh look, flowers for Mummy. I must pick them.' So he spent half an hour picking bougainvillaea for his mum." Stewart acknowledges that he made his way up the ladder of fame "the hard way" but has no regrets and no resentment towards young artists who make their name on television talent shows such as American Idol, on which he was once a guest mentor.

"I certainly approve of shows like that," he says. "I've seen so much superb talent that has been overlooked. This is a way for these kids to get noticed and they can take it from there. The only downside is this instant fame thing, but it's better than being overlooked if you believe you've got a good voice and you don't get the breaks. "For me, my lucky break was being found by Long John Baldry at a railway station playing the harmonica, singing a Muddy Waters song. He came over and said: 'Do you want to sing in my band?' It was simple twist of fate. If we hadn't met that night it might never have happened for me. I'd been over to see him sing with The Hoochie Coochie Men at Eel Pie Island near Twickenham but it was a coincidence that I happened to be on that platform and singing. If I'd just have been playing the harmonica he might never have noticed."

Stewart's career is now in its fifth decade. Over the years he has had 62 hit singles including 31 that reached the top 10. He has sold 130 million records worldwide and is one of the best-selling British singers of all time. Songs such as Maggie May, Sailing, Do Ya Think I'm Sexy and Tonight's the Night have become classics. Today he has all but abandoned the tight trousers and spiky hairdo of his early days with the Faces. "But at least I have all my own hair," he says.

"I've had a fabulous career and it's been more than kind to me. To still be going at my age and enjoying it is more than I can ask. If it all ended tomorrow, you wouldn't find me griping and moaning about it."