For Grammy-award winning artist and humanitarian Peter Gabriel, imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery. On his new album, "Scratch My Back," Gabriel puts his own spin on hits by David Bowie, Radiohead, Regina Spektor and others -- a concept he admitted he's had for several years.
"You do one of my songs, I do one of your songs," Gabriel said. "It's been very interesting because you can try to get into someone else's head a little bit and do your thing with their material. And then a little while later, you get something back from them where they've done the same thing with a song of yours."
Gabriel recently sat down with "Nightline" at Kellari's Parea Bistro in New York City to discuss his new album, which will be released March 2. He said part of the challenge was playing the role of interpreter instead of writer.
"I began as a songwriter, really," he said. "I think in the Genesis days too, we were a bunch of songwriters rather than a bunch of musicians, which is how most people start out. That's always been a passion for me."
Gabriel was born in England in 1950. His mother gave him an appreciation for music at a young age by teaching him to play the clarinet.
"The first record I bought when I saved up my pocket money was 'With The Beatles,'" said Gabriel. "'Please, Please Me' was coming over the radio. I would sit in the back of my parents' car when we were on these long drives down to the coast. And what people forget, I think, is that at the time, it was really rebellious, rough, mischievous and full of life, and irresistible to any young person. The Beatles were a huge influence as I was growing up, and continued to be as there was all that revolution around their success."
In 1967, Gabriel formed the group Genesis with friends from Charterhouse, where he attending boarding school. That same year, he saw Otis Redding perform.
"I was extremely lucky in 1967, when I was 17 years old, to go and see Otis Redding perform at the Ram Jam Club in Brixton in London," he said. "When he came on, it was like the sun coming out. It was just this amazing voice, totally in command, great band, great grooves and passion that permeated everything."
"I think I would have to choose an Otis track, and 'Change Gonna Come' might be one," he said. "Obviously that's a song associated with other people and Sam Cooke and so on. But it's just the way Otis put the message over. I think he's a supreme interpreter, and what a heart."
One of Gabriel's favorite qualities of good songs is their ability to freeze you in a certain time and place.
"I can remember where I was when I first heard Hendrix's "Hey Joe," which was at school in a particular room upstairs and it was, in fact, in the next-door room. And my ear perked up and I went in and listened to it and just had to find out about who this artist was," said Gabriel.
"I think particularly when you're growing up, songs are like memory stamps. And I think people go through life and they have these intense experiences that are really beautiful or really horrible that just get locked into a certain song."
One of Gabriel's favorite female artists is Joni Mitchell, and chose her song "Blue" for his playlist.
"Joni, I think, I've been in love with not just because of the writing, but also [because] she was an experimenter," he said. "She was pushing the musical boundaries both in the way she wrote harmonies and then exploring arrangements. Great artist."
Gabriel is drawn to great melodies and great songwriting, and cited Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Paul Simon on the top of the list of his favorite songwriters.
"Paul Simon, he's written so many great songs. 'Boy in the Bubble' was one [of them]," he said. "Like many people, I loved the 'Graceland' record. And you get carried away with the infectious grooves and you don't always listen that much to the words. And that's one of the most extraordinary lyrics written on a rock song, I think. It's stunning."
"Randy Newman is another person I think is a master songwriter and does beautiful arrangements," Gabriel said. "And I think some of the things he does for films seem deceptively simple, but they are really the work of a master.
"I think ["I Think It's Gonna Rain Today"] is one of his best songs. It's not necessarily a very positive message, but it's beautifully constructed, elegant songwriting with a lot of heart."
This year, Gabriel and his former bandmates from Genesis will be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.