The wonderful world of Stevie Wonder

He's survived disability and family tragedy, and is an ardent civil rights campaigner - so a few bad reviews of his new album are unlikely to dampen Stevie Wonder's enthusiasm.

Back in London to promote A Time to Love, his first new album in 10 years, Wonder's cup positively ran over yesterday. "We have to live until we die. I would prefer in my life to die living as opposed to live dying," he said. He also fuelled the optimism of his fans, confirming that, after a long absence from British venues, he hopes to stage a major tour next year.

Yet, despite his positive mantra, this has been one of the toughest decades of what cannot have been an easy life for the singer-songwriter who has been blind since his birth 55 years ago. Although he laughed and joked at an extended press conference at the Savoy, arriving 45 minutes late but staying to entertain for twice that long, he did not entirely disguise the pain that has dogged him in recent years.

For all his upbeat talk of the triumph of helping secure a national holiday in America in memory of Martin Luther King and the joys of extended family life - he now has seven children - Wonder also spoke movingly of discovering at the turn of the millennium that both his brother, Larry, and his first wife, the singer Syreeta Wright, were terminally ill.

The subsequent death of both was clearly a bitter blow despite his faith and contributed to the longeur since his last original album, Conversation Peace, in 1995. "That was a very low time in my life, knowing that my brother and Syreeta were not going to be here too much longer," he said yesterday. "When this happened, I just wanted a place of comfort."

Yet it was not only these deaths that delayed the new album. He has never stopped working with other musicians, whether on Herbie Hancock's Grammy award-winning album of 1998, Gershwin's World, or performing with the Brit boy band, Blue. And he has continued expanding his family, producing another boy, Kailand, four years ago, in addition to Mandla this May. His eldest child, Aisha, Syreeta's daughter who was feted at birth in his song Isn't She Lovely nearly 30 years ago, appears on a couple of tracks on the album.

"Aisha is a blessing. All my children are and all of my family," he said. Kai, the mother of his new son, Mandla, born on his own birthday, 13 May, this year, was a "wonderful person", he added. "Family is very important."

It had all eaten into the time he might otherwise have spent on music, he said. "Obviously I wasn't doing A Time to Love for 10 years. I was doing life, experiencing life."

Besides, he wanted to get the album right. "I wasn't satisfied with it," he said to explain the delay. Despite securing contributions from other musicians including his "Ebony and Ivory" collaborator, Paul McCartney, he wanted, for example, something special for the title track. He found it when he brought in drummers from around the world. He liked the idea that if people of different nations could play together, they could also work together and make a reality of peace. "It may sound like fantasy," he said, "[but] it's a question of how committed we are."

He thanked everyone for their patience in waiting for the album that was originally expected in April, but finally arrived in download in September and full release last month.

But the star, who has now spent 40 years in the music industry, also made it clear that the delay since his last album was in no sense a sign that he was easing up. "I'm planning to do a gospel album next, then a jazz album, then a children's album. I want to do a musical and I'd love to act in a 50 Cent movie," he joked. "As to performing, I would hope to come back in the early part of next year to do some smaller venues and in other parts of the world and then I would like to go on a major tour."

He said he wanted it to be the kind of major tour he had never done before, with a strong visual element to the entertainment and that he was looking for someone to realise that vision.

And he probably needs to get it right. The critical reaction to A Time to Love has not been overwhelmingly positive and he graciously thanked those who offered "constructive criticism".

The Sunday Times, for example, observed: "Gloopy balladry and formulaic funk, both serving lyrics of banal sentimentality or vapid sloganeering, have threatened his pioneering reputation. Back from a 10-year break, Wonder sticks like a particularly stubborn limpet to this particularly unlovely template."

Yet watching him in action it seems evident that sentimentality is second nature to Stevie Wonder. One suspects he could not even imagine how cynics might retch at his proclamation: "I think love is the most consistent thing next to life if you allow it to be." He clearly means it when he claims music really can change the world.

Yet any suspicion that he is trotting out the liberal platitudes of a Miss World contestant is undermined by a political stance that is anything but woolly. His views are often strongly at odds with the prevailing mood in his native America on everything from stem cell research - he is clearly in favour - to politics - he is adamantly anti-Republican.

On Africa, he talks of how God has provided natural resources but concludes that the developed nations have taken them and given nothing in return. That continent owes nothing to the West, he said. "The reality is the debt has already been paid."

On war, he states: "I've not agreed with war ever in my life. To my knowledge, there's no place in the Bible that talks about bombing nations or in the Koran that talks about terrorising innocent people."

Or in the words of the new album: "There's been a time for war, a time for strife, a time set aside for everything under the sun, we must now set aside a time for love."

When asked by a journalist from a black newspaper about apathy over voting, he insisted onthe importance of civic engagement. Remembering the civil rights marches in the America of his youth and the struggles against apartheid in South Africa, he said that anyone who believed in justice, in equality, in truth, "in doing right by everyone", should vote. "You count," he said.

It is hard not to conclude that, having overcome the disability of blindness, Stevie Wonder has, perhaps, a stronger sense of social justice than some stars. He certainly appears to be at peace with himself in a way that eludes many other big names.

He has remained loyal to Motown, the label on which he has recorded all his life. He is generous towards fellow musicians, praising Beyoncé and the late Aaliyah. And he insists there is a place for fun and "crazy stuff" in music alongside more serious material. "You can't expect every song to be a song of social consciousness," he said.

And on the subject of his blindness, he is practical about the limited hope offered by a new treatment that his wife discovered on the internet.

Yes, he admitted, he had visited a pioneering consultant in Baltimore who was involved in a project that involved implanting a chip that might enable some to see. It was possible he could be a candidate for the procedure but would give way to others if they were more eligible. So at present all his staff were still in a job, he joked. "There's nothing that's happening with my eyes as far as me being able to see. Someone is going to have to drive me for a while."

Though there are some people who might struggle all their lives against such a disability, Stevie Wonder is not one of them. "I'm pretty thankful," he said when asked whether he had any regrets. "I'm OK, I'm all right."

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