"What took you so long?" Mustache icon John Oates on being the furry face of Movember

The songwriter discusses his "new" single, pop stardom's effect on mental health and whose mustache he covets

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 19, 2022 11:00AM (EST)

John Oates (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
John Oates (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In his decades-long career as one of half of the most successful duo in recorded music history, Hall & Oates, John Oates has racked up 16 Billboard Top 10 hits, eight certified platinum albums, and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Now, the self-appointed "patron saint of facial hair" has a new single, a new message, and even some new facial hair. This year's international spokesman for the men's health initiative we know as Movember joined me recently for "Salon Talks" for a conversation about fame, facial hair and what it was like working with one of Taylor Swift's producers on his new song. Watch or read our episode below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

I want to ask you about Movember. Lots of people know what this movement is about, but there are some who don't. Tell me what Movember is, and the issues that it raises awareness for.

It's a men's health initiative that has been around for quite some time. It's a fantastic organization. It focuses on many things, men's health, of course, mental health and also physical health. Things that a lot of men are concerned with like testicular and prostate cancer. They're trying to shine a light on the fact that a lot of men don't like to address many of these things, that it's OK to talk about and that it's OK to share experiences, and to get men to open up a little bit about things that perhaps traditionally have been considered less than manly to open up and discuss. 

"I ended up going to see a therapist who really gave me strategies that I never would've been able to accomplish on my own."

I was really happy when they asked me to be part of it. I jokingly said, "What took you so long?" with the mustache connection. It's been great. They're great people. They're  clever and they have a lot of energy. I spent some time in London at their main headquarters doing a bunch of  crazy TikTok stuff. It's a month-long initiative, and hopefully we'll see if people can jump on board.

You've been very candid in your memoir and in recent years talking about your own health and mental health. Several years ago you went through therapy, but you resisted it at first. What do you want to say now, to the men out there who are struggling with some mental health issues about what you learned from that experience and what you found on the other side of taking care of your mental health?

It's true [that I resisted therapy at first], and I've spoken to a lot of guys who have said the same thing: "Well, I'm smarter than those shrinks anyway. They can't tell me anything." But it's really about, I think, where your challenges and what's troubling you get to the point where you can't fix them yourself. Just to have an objective person who can hear you, empathize, and perhaps shed some light on strategies that could help you understand a little bit more about yourself. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. Sometimes you're so wrapped up in your issues that you can't see a way out and you can't figure out what it is you need to do to try to change things. And of course, the first step is always wanting to change. I think everyone has to get to that point where they feel that they need to change.

"It's too much now. This is it. I've come to the end of my rope. I've run up against the wall. I can't do any more." Everyone has a different threshold for that. For me, it had to do in the late '80s. It had to do with the end of this big, crazy decade of pop stardom that was unbelievably intense and successful, but also came with a complete disassociation from any semblance of real life. You run around the world as a pop star. It's hard to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it what that can be like when every whim or need, or every situation that you might encounter seems to be serviced in some weird way. I don't like to use that word "serviced," but I guess that's not a bad word.

I was at that point in my life. Simultaneously, the manager that Daryl and I had for many, many years went on to greener pastures. I was in the midst of getting separated and eventually divorced. It all happened at the same time. When that happened, I really did reach the end of the rope for me. I had nowhere to turn, and I ended up going to see a therapist who gave me some interesting strategies and things that I never would've been able to accomplish on my own.

To be honest with you, I haven't been back since. I feel like I've employed a lot of these strategies, and I think I've been on the right path. That path has taken me somewhere where I never could have imagined going. It had to do with visualization, it had to do with dreams, it had to do with accepting who I was at that moment and who I wanted to be or where I wanted my future to take me, and what kind of man I wanted to be going forward. It was a very enlightening period of time, and it did lead to a new approach to my life.

What you're talking about is so important because a lot of the men in my life have also resisted therapy or just going to the doctor because there's this fear that then, "I'm that guy." I'm that guy who needs therapy, or I'm that guy who needs to see a doctor about a pain or an ache as opposed to, "This is something that I need now in the short term. It doesn't have to be my whole identity."

"There's things I can articulate in the process of writing a song that I perhaps just wouldn't say."

Everyone has a different threshold. Everyone has a different ability to cope and only you can decide when you've reached that place where you do not have an alternative. There's nowhere to turn. It's subjective and it's different for everyone. 

I wanted to ask you about the song "Pushin' a Rock." This song has been on a long road. Tell me a little about the evolution of this song and what it means to you right now.

The song is an evolution and a reimagination of a song that was written in 2014. I was doing an album called "Good Road to Follow." The theme of the album was I wanted to collaborate with people that I respected. I collaborated with Vince Gill and Ryan Tedder from One Republic and many, many other people, some young artists, some more Americana, rootsy-type artists. 

One of the people I reached out to was a guy named Nathan Paul Chapman, who was part of Taylor Swift's career from her earliest days of making demos as a young teenager. He took her through her first few albums, won multiple Grammys and was a big part of creating Taylor in her early incarnations. But at the moment when I was about to reach out to him, I had read that she had gone on to try some other producers and her music was changing, which is, of course, the right of every artist to explore and try things.

I thought maybe I would just reach out to him, just say, "Hey, how you doing, man?" As casual as that. When I did, we talked about it and he said, "My entire creative identity has been wrapped up with Taylor and her music, and now I don't know exactly what my next step is going to be." I said, "Well, that's a challenging moment in your life, but it's also an exciting moment because who knows where it could take you." That got me thinking about the Greek myth of Sisyphus pushing a rock up hill and overcoming challenges on broad terms. I thought, I bet that's something he might relate to as a jumping-off point for a song idea. So I said, "Let's get together." We got together. I ran the idea by him, he loved it, and we seemed to vibe on that idea. 

"The success part is interesting because it has enabled me to do whatever I want."

We wrote the song, and I recorded it on that album. Every time I'd play it live, I kept changing it because something told me that it just wasn't as good as it could have been. I thought the lyrics were really good and powerful, and I felt like I let my side down when I did the music because it just didn't connect the same way.

Flash forward to COVID, sitting home for periods of time, looking at reviewing old music lyrics, catching up with things that I had put by the wayside. I thought about that song again, and it seemed so timely and it seemed just as important, and even perhaps more during COVID. I revisited it and I said, "Well, you know what? I've never been happy with the music on this. Let me see if I can come up with something better."

I started messing around with the track at home, started reimagining the song and using almost all the lyrics from the original version. Eventually, I came up with something I liked. I called Nathan up and I said, "Man, what do you think of this? I want to do this song over again." I had never done that in my entire career. I had never rerecorded a song. He laughed, and he said, "This is how it should have sounded from the beginning." I said, "Well, I guess it's my fault. But never too late." I went in and recorded it. And that's the song that you're hearing now.

When I think about your career, John, and the musical genres that you have always depended on, like soul, R&B, country, they're such emotional genres. I hear a song like "She's Gone" and that is a man deep in his feelings. Looking at this month and thinking about men's mental health, what has songwriting given to you as a person in the world as a way to explore those darker, harder feelings?

Songwriters in general use their songwriting skills to say what they want to say. For me, there's things I can articulate in the process of writing a song that I perhaps just wouldn't say, but somehow I can impart that message or that feeling or that emotion in a song in a more effective way. It's an outlet, it's a compulsion. It's all those things. I just have to do it. Everyone's different, but I think most songwriters will say something similar to that.

You've been doing this for pretty much your entire life now, and to see you still creating new material and doing new things, what does it mean to you now to be an artist? How do you think of yourself as an artist now that's different from the person you were maybe in the past?

I think I've achieved a certain maturity and a certain life experience and not considerable amount of success. The success part is interesting because it has enabled me to do whatever I want. That's the ultimate freedom that any artist would hope for. If you asked any artist, regardless of whether they're a painter or a songwriter, an actor, whatever, their answer, what would be your ultimate situation? To have complete freedom. Thanks to the success of Hall & Oates, I have that complete creative freedom. I'm completely free to experiment, to collaborate, to try things, and I feel like I paid my dues to get it. 

It's very precious because I don't want to lose it and I want to make the most of it. I don't want to just squander it away by either not trying my best or not working or not utilizing the skills that I've gained over the past – I hate to say it – 50, 60 years. It's an amazing thing that not many people get to experience and I have and I'm a very lucky, blessed person, so I take full advantage of it.

The mustache was iconic for so long. Then you shaved it off. Now it's back. What does the mustache mean to you now, John? 

When I shaved it off in, I think it was 1989, it was part of that transition that I spoke about earlier, getting divorced, losing a manager, being at the end of the eighties, looking for what was going to be the next step. It was more of a symbolic shedding of the skin, or shedding of the hair as the case may be. I wanted to be a different person. I felt like the mustache was symbolic of who I was and who I didn't want to be going forward. That was a ritualistic thing to shave it off. Now I am a different person. I've evolved in so many ways, and so now to grow the mustache back, now it's just hair on my face. I'm having fun with it, and, obviously, it's part of the Movember vibe and I'm just as the song says, rolling with it.

If you could switch mustaches with any person in the world, is there anybody you'd change with?

David Niven, except I'm way too short and way not too skinny and definitely not British, so I could never pull it off. It would look ridiculous on me. But that's a very finely crafted, pencil-thin mustache.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hall And Oates John Oates Movember Music Mustache Salon Talks