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John Oates on Life After Hall & Oates: ‘I’m Trying to Rediscover Who I Am as an Individual’

For the majority of ‘ professional career, solo work was a means to keep busy and creatively fulfilled between the Hall & Oates projects that took up most of his time. But now that the duo has after more than 50 years of partnership, Oates has the time to concentrate all his energies on his own music, beginning with his new LP Reunion, out May 17.

The album is the culmination of years of work and features original compositions he wrote with A.J. Croce, Keith Sykes, Jim Lauderdale, Joe Henry, and Adam Ezra. There are also covers of songs by John Prine and Allan Fraser. It was recorded with many top Nashville session musicians, including bassist Marc Rogers, guitarist David Kalmusky, drummer Josh Day, and dobro player Jerry Douglas.

“It’s a very mature and introspective and thoughtful record,” Oates tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from his home in Nashville. “On the song ‘All I Ask of You,’ I’m projecting into my distant, distant future. I’m asking, ‘What will people think of me down the road? What will my personal legacy be?’ It’s not my musical legacy so much, but my legacy as a human. These are the things that are important to me.”

The title track was inspired by a conversation he had with his father, who is about to turn 101. “He’s not doing well,” Oates says. “But he’s clear enough to see the approaching horizon. When I was visiting him a while back, he told me that he felt like he was going to reunite with my mom. Like a lot of people do at the end of their life, he’s starting to think about the next step.”

He began thinking about how that word “reunion” applies to him, especially now that he’s facing a future as a solo act after over half a century in Hall & Oates. “I’ve been reuniting with myself,” he says. “I’ve been trying to rediscover who I am as an individual, both personally and on the professional and creative side. I realized there was a deeper and more nuanced meaning to ‘reunion.’ I wrote out the lines, ‘The lights at the party burn bright/I’m leaving early tonight/I’m making ready for my reunion.’”

The Reunion track “Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee” is ostensibly an ode to the legendary blues duo who spent decades playing together, but it actually tackles deeper issues. Oates studied their history and learned that McGhee went blind as a teenager, and Terry had difficulty walking later in life. “They literally needed each other to get on stage and perform in the latter part of their career,” he says. “And I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s an amazing story on its own.’ But what’s more compelling for me was the fact that it was really an ode to kindness and lending a helping hand, and that’s what I wanted to impart in those lyrics.”

Oates decided to cover John Prine’s 2005 song “Long Monday” after being invited to perform at a tribute show to the songwriter at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. It brought his mind all the way back to the recording of 1972’s Whole Oats, the first record. It was recorded in New York with Arif Martin at the exact moment he was producing Diamonds in the Rough with Prine.

“We would literally cross paths with John in the studio, coming in and out of that amazing Atlantic studio in New York by Columbus Circle,” says Oates. “That’s where so many of these incredible hits and amazing records by Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles were recorded. We had a lot of shared DNA in that regard. And to make a long story short, I decided to play ‘Long Monday’ at the Ryman. I loved it so much that I just recorded it afterward.”

is also a cover, but it’s far more obscure. It was originally recorded in 1971 by the Canadian folk duo Fraser & DeBolt. Oates stumbled across the album in a record store in Holland shortly after it came out. “It made me cry,” says Oates. “It made me want to go back to America. I thought, ‘My trip’s over, I’ve got to go home.’ Daryl and I hadn’t been working together at that point. We were friends and we hung out, whatever, but something told me it was time to go home. That record has stuck with me forever, since 1971, and I knew that one day I would record it.”

Oates is playing many Reunion songs on his ongoing U.S. tour, which hits intimate theaters with a stripped-down band. “It’s a listening-type show,” he says. “I don’t play any standing-room shows. That’s a hard and fast rule for me. It is really a listening experience.” Near the end of the set, he breaks out a handful of Hall & Oates classics like “Out of Touch,” “She’s Gone,” and “I Can’t Go for That.”

“The rule of thumb for a performer is you save your big ones for the end,” he says. “I’ve always played ‘She’s Gone’ at the end. It’s one of those songs that stands a test of time, and it’s just so important to me in my life and my music. But on the last run, I decided to end with ‘Reunion.’ I didn’t know how it would work, but everyone stood up and applauded. I was like, ‘Wow. I’ve never in my whole life have ended a show with a song that no one’s ever heard.’”

He went even further out of his comfort zone near the end of last year when he agreed to appear on the 10th season of Fox’s The Masked Singer. It required him to don a cumbersome anteater costume every night and sing songs like “Waking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn and “I Want It That Way” by Backstreet Boys. When the request initially came in, he was very unsure about participating.

“I thought, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen if people maybe don’t recognize my voice due to the fact that Daryl’s voice is such a signature of the Hall & Oates big hits?” he says.

The costume was wildly uncomfortable. “It was hot as hell in there,” he says. “I couldn’t see out of the eyes, and I couldn’t turn my head because the nose was on the ground. I had to walk and count my steps, so I didn’t literally fall off the stage. I had count my steps while I was singing the songs and trying to perform.”

He was competing against names like Macy Gray, Billie Jean King, Metta World Peace, and Keyshia Cole, but didn’t know it: Backstage, Oates had to wear a sweatshirt that said “Don’t Talk to Me” along with gloves and a tinted welder’s mask. “You have to put that on in the hotel to walk through the lobby to get into the limo, to go to the TV studio,” he says. “Then you get out of the car and they lead you into your trailer. It’s the only time you can take that stuff off. Even the stagehands don’t know who you are.”

A particularly insane day came when he had to tape the show the day after performing at the Newport Folk Festival. As soon as he got off the stage, he rushed to the Boston airport to catch a red eye flight to Los Angeles. “You talk about an extreme of musical styles,” he says.

He came in sixth place on the show and has no regrets about any of it. “The judges are fantastic,” he says. “The vibe is just so positive. They’re not there to tear anyone down. They’re just really having fun. When I got unmasked, I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m done.’”

His focus now is the upcoming series of solo shows, but he’s also finishing up an EP of modern R&B songs he recorded with Nashville-based singer/songwriter Devon Gilfillian. He’s going to record some songs with the the blues-rock band Robert Jon & the Wreck and producer Dave Cobb too. “There’s a whole bunch of things happening that really, really light my fire,” he says. “And I want to see where it takes me.”