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From "Don't Mean Nothing" to "Dance With My Father": A Conversation With Richard Marx

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2012-01-30-images.jpg

A Conversation with Richard Marx

Mike Ragogna: Richard, last year, you released a Christmas EP, but what else have you been up to recently?

Richard Marx: The Christmas EP obviously came out around Christmas time, so I was working on that for a few months prior. All in all it was pretty painless. It was just an EP, so it was only five songs, but we're going to do a whole album for Christmas 2012, which I'm going to be recording in about 10 days time around April. But this one was pretty painless, it was fun. I got to sing live with me in a booth in one room and the band and strings in their booths - very old school. I had a lot of fun.

MR: Recording everything live, old school.

RM: Right. Or as opposed to all of the vocals being sung by Justin Beiber, I sang these myself.

MR: (laughs) Can you tell us what inspires you as an artist?

RM: Well, my process has been the same for a long time. Unless I'm collaborating with someone and have set a specific time to write a song with someone, I write alone and there is no set time or organization about it. I write something every day, but I don't usually sit down to write a song. Luckily, something forces itself on me every day. It may be a melody that hits me while I'm in my car or a lyric that hits me in the shower. I just make a point to collect these ideas. Some of them just demand to be worked on or finished immediately, some I just tuck away and I may not get to them for months. I don't use an instrument to write when I'm writing by myself. I've found that that's limiting, you know? No matter how good a player you are - and I'm not a good player - you still have to be able to play an instrument. But if that instrument is your imagination, then I'm not limited to anything, and I find that my songwriting is much more interesting. That's one part of my process.

The music almost always comes first and sort of tells me what the lyrics should be. Beyond that, I don't really try to write, I sort of just let it happen. Luckily , for decades now, it just keeps happening. I've found that some of the musicians that I admire so much are so proficient at their instrument or multiple instruments if they're lucky, but they have no freedom. I have had amazing artists tell me that they just know too much about their instrument and the music to use their imagination to its full musical potential. They're limited by their wealth of knowledge if that's possible. There are no limitations in your head to what you can come up with. I wouldn't have come up with a lot of the themes or musical landscapes that accompany my songs if I was sitting with an acoustic guitar or piano. It just wouldn't happen.

MR: That's a great insight. I usually wait with this question until the end of the interview, but let me ask you now. Do you have any advice that you might want to share with new artists?

RM: You know, I think it's a really bad time to start asking people for advice because it's pretty grim out there right now. The music business has gotten smaller since you and I started talking. (laughs) It's shrinking a little bit more every day. I don't have a crystal ball, nor have I ever been good at forecasting things like that. I only know that I'm super-grateful that I came into the business when I did. I feel really bad for young singer-songwriters now because the opportunities that existed for me in the early '80s before I was singed to learn about the business don't exist anymore. And they have been replaced with anything equally great. If I were starting out now, I would feel robbed - and I'm sure there are a lot of young artists out there who feel a little ripped off. The opportunities to really make it a lucrative career have diminished a lot, not that that should ever be anyone's motivation. Before, there was always that hope of writing a hit song and making tons of money. It's a shame because that opportunity and the fantasy of that have been demolished over the last few years, and I don't see that toothpaste going back into the tube. So, in my long-winded answer, I would say if you want to write songs and play in bands and perform because it feeds something in you and you're following your bliss, do it. If you feel like you need it to sustain yourself or to make a living, you're probably going to have to do something else in addition. And that's too bad.

MR: True. Though, I would argue that because of the Internet and social networking and other technologies, I would say that people have more of an opportunity to promote and proliferate their material more freely, more so than I've ever seen in the industry.

RM: Yeah, "getting your music out there" doesn't necessarily mean anything - everyone's music is out there. It doesn't mean it's connecting with anybody. If you've got 17 Facebook friends who all really like your music, that's awesome. And if that's enough to keep you writing songs, that's great. That doesn't mean that your music is "out there." It's great that we no longer have to rely on large record labels - they don't do anybody any good. Most major labels won't even sign someone who hasn't already done most of their social networking promotion ahead of time. It's almost a chicken or the egg situation because they may not sign someone who doesn't have 150,000 Facebook friends. But if they have 150,000 Facebook friends, what do they need a record company for, you know? The one glimmer of hope for the industry is that young people don't need a big corporate machine behind them to get their music heard. But in order to get it started enough to be able to sustain a career? Facebook ain't gonna do it.

It's much more complicated than people think, and I see super-talented people week after week that just aren't going to get by without having that one major hit unless they get by selling records on the DL, playing gigs, and can keep that train going. But if they want to live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, this is not for them. It's way more complicated than even I can understand. We could sit and have a round table discussion about it for hours and we still probably wouldn't come up with any answers. It's a tricky time for the music business. I think the saddest part is that we're at a time in our society where the competition for public attention is greater than ever, music is losing. People are still buying and downloading music, but I don't think the passion for music is what it was even five years ago. People are really taking music for granted now. Do you know why? Because it's tiny, you can't even see it now. It's all measured in megabites. When something gets that physically small, I think there's a brain correlation that says it's also not that important.

MR: Right, and the perceived value has dropped considerably because of pirating and such, wouldn't you say?

RM: Right. And frankly, maybe the next thing to be hit in this way will be sports and professional athletes, only because I feel like the general public has seen the rockstar excess and this legion of people that didn't look like they appreciated it. People don't want to support people like that. I feel it'll be the same with pro athletes. If we see them with everything and still bitching and moaning about it, the average man isn't gonna continue to support these people anymore. At the end of the day, for every negative part of the conversation, there's a positive. For instance, The Civil Wars have been carving out a name for themselves the old fashioned way - from the ground up. They're brilliant talents who are just now starting to get recognized for who great they are.

MR: Richard, before we get into talking about your records and many hit singles, can you tell us how your career started?

RM: Sure. I was about 17 and I'd written about five or six songs, but I had an amazing leg up in the fact that I was born into a musical family. My mom was and still is a great singer, and my dad was a jingle composer and producer. By the time I came along, his business was already growing and thriving, so he built an office in Chicago. Years later, when I had these songs that I'd written, I had this amazing place to go and have them demoed. It wasn't like I was home recording on a tape recorder. I could make really decent demos. I had to save up the money to pay the musicians - my dad didn't front the money. He told me that if I wanted to do this, I'd have to pay for all of it. I put together four or five really good sounding demos and sent them out to every record company, and every record company threw them in the trash. But some friends of mine would play demos like they were records and just listen to them all the time. So, a really good friend of mine was away at college playing the demo in his room and his roommate heard it and really liked it and said he knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy who worked with The Commodores. Somehow, my tape with my number on the back wound up in Lionel Richie's hands and he called me up. I was about 3 or 4 months away from graduating from High School. He talked to me for about half an hour on the phone and was so encouraging and gave me some great sage advice. He didn't make me any sort of job offers or anything at the time. But he did tell me that he knew I probably planned on going to college or something but if I decided to come to LA and get my career going, look him up.

That completely rebooted my whole thought process. To have arguably one of the most talented guys in the music business at the time tell me I was talented changed things. So, I bailed on college and went out to LA. One day, I went to his studio to meet him - we'd only talked on the phone before and he put me up in the studio to sing background vocals on his song called "You Are." He was working on his first solo record at the time. For the next couple of years, anytime he was in the studio, he would invite me to be there. Sometimes, I would sing background vocals on things, but the rest of the time, he would just let me be in the room and watch and learn. I can't say enough about what a gracious and generous guy he is, even to this day. I owe a tremendous amount of my career to him.

MR: It seems as though you were in the protégé role, right?

RM: Yeah. I mean, I had that with a couple of different people, but he was the first one who was making records that let me sort of be a fly on the wall. It was actually Lionel who recommended me to Kenny Rogers who was also at the top of the charts at the time. That's how I started getting songs placed because the first couple of songs I had placed were with Kenny Rogers. I met Kenny during those recording sessions, and I wouldn't have gotten onto those sessions if it weren't for Lionel.

MR: Right. Some of the hits you had with Kenny were "Crazy" and "What About Me?"

RM: That's right, and those were both from the same album. There was another song on that album as well, but it wasn't a hit. I had three songs on that album and I was only 19, so it was crazy that I was in that situation. But it was all because of Lionel.

MR: Nice. And "What About Me?" was technically your first #1 hit.

RM: Yeah. And "Crazy" followed as the #1 country song. The first song I ever placed was a #1 AC song, though I think it hit #15 on the pop charts. But I definitely thought to myself that it was never going to happen again, I wasn't the kind of guy that thought it was just that easy. I really thought that it was great that it happened and that it would never happen again, but I was ready to do the work to get back to that again.

MR: You went on from there to work a little with the group Chicago.

RM: Well, I sang background vocals on a song on Chicago's 17 record. Robert Lamm, who I was a huge fan of, wrote all of my favorite songs and he and I just hit it off. He was another person that was a huge mentor to me. He asked me to write a song with him but it didn't make the 17 record because it wasn't really good enough. It ended up being on the We Are The World album by Chicago, so I can technically say that I have a Chicago cut. (laughs) It wasn't a spectacular song. I was still such a kid when I wrote that song. But it was so great to work with Robert and we're still friends to this day.

MR: Very cool. Then came Bruce Lundvall of EMI Manhattan who then gave you your break with your first album. Can you tell us about that?

RM: Bruce and I were introduced by a mutual friend, and he basically just heard the exact same songs that everyone else had rejected. Songs like "Endless Summer Nights," "Don't Mean Nothing" and "Should Have Known Better," and he loved them. I couldn't believe it. Not only did he give me a record deal finally, but he told me I should produce my own record, which was just unheard of. That guy just changed my life and is, again, someone I keep in touch with to this very day. I owe my career as an artist to Bruce Lundvall because he singed me when no one else wanted to and gave me tremendous artistic freedom from the get-go. He didn't micromanage. He's the kind of guy that has such an illustrious career, and his philosophy is that if he likes what you do, there is no reason for him to get in the way of it. He's just such a great cheerleader and a really sweet man. Again, for me to be able to make my first record under him was just a huge blessing because that guy is a prince.

MR: Then the Grammy nominations started rolling in, like for Best Rock Vocal Performance for "Don't Mean Nothing."

RM: Yeah. But I was only up against a bunch of no names like Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen. (laughs) There was no prayer I was going to win, but I was just really honored to be nominated.

MR: Which brings us to your second huge album, Repeat Offender. Can you tell us a little story behind at least one of the songs from that time period?

RM: Well, every song has a story but, "Children Of The Night" was unlike any song I had written up to that point because it wasn't personal. It wasn't about me and it wasn't a relationship song. I just happened upon a 60 Minutes profile of a woman by the name of Lois Lee who founded the charity by the same name. It's an organization in Los Angeles that houses runaway youths. Most kids who run away from home and stay away end up in jail or prosecuted for drugs or something else. It's horrendous. So, I reached out to them and talked to some of the kids in the program so that I could really understand their story. I wrote the song and decided to put it on the Repeat Offender album and donated all the royalties to them for that song. It ultimately built a new home for them in the Los Angeles area so they could house more kids. As nice as that is for them, what I got out of it was being able to meet some of the most extraordinary and courageous young people I've ever met. That's a really special song. I actually got a message on Facebook from one of the kids in the video and she's now married with kids and thriving. When I met her, and during the video shoot, she had just broken free of being a teenaged prostitute. There's a success story for you. I just love that song, and it features an amazing horn arrangement done by my late father, Dick Marx.

MR: Beautiful. Let's jump forward to your album Rush Street because it featured some pretty popular artists including Luther Vandross and Billy Joel. It also features my favorite recording you've done, "Hazard." Tell us about that song.

RM: Well, that song was musically inspired by Danny Lanois who is a brilliant arranger, producer, and musician himself. I was on tour and traveling all over at the time. He's made some of the most beautiful solo albums I've heard - they're very haunting and ethereal. I was sort of in this headspace from listening to a lot of Danny's music, so "Hazard" came out of that. It didn't particularly sound like any of his music, but it sounds like it could have been right at home on one of his records. It was just a piece of music and I didn't want to write lyrics like any other that I'd ever written. I had always wanted to write a story song, but it scared me. It's hard to tell a story in four minutes, you know? But I got an idea and I went after it. I thought it was the dumbest song that I ever tried to write, and my wife heard me playing around with it and kind of flipped out over it. She convinced me to record it and it became one of my biggest hits to this very day. Talk about a shock. I mean, I've never written a song that I thought was a hit but I was sure that nobody would care about that song. I still get people yelling it out at concerts all the time and I don't ever play a concert without doing it.

MR: Part of that, I'm sure, had to do with the spooky video that went with that song.

RM: That was a really great video. It was directed by a guy named Michael Hausman, who is a really great filmmaker. That was the closest thing to a movie that we've ever done for a video. It was a great cast as well - Jennifer O'Neill and Robert Conrad who plays the Sheriff. It's just a really great video and I can say that because I didn't do anything but appear in it.

MR: You've also worked with the late Luther Vandross.

RM: Luther and I started working together when he did background vocals on a song of mine called, "Keeping Coming Back." That experience just cemented our friendship. About a year or two later, he asked me to write a song with him for his Christmas album and we wrote a couple of other songs together after that. In fact, the last song he ever wrote called, "Dance With My Father," was a song that we wrote together, but that was much later.

MR: But that wasn't the first success you had outside your own recordings.

RM: I think the first thing I ever did after I'd had any success as an artist was working with an all-female heavy metal group called Vixen. I was on tour with them and they had finished their album, but everyone felt that they still needed their first hit single. So, I got together with a buddy of mine and we wrote a song called, "Edge Of A Broken Heart." I ended up producing that on the record for them and it was a big hit. I think that that was the first outside project that I ever took once I started touring and performing.

MR: So let's go back to "Dance With My Father," which was a huge hit and also won a Grammy, didn't it?

RM: It did - Best Song of the Year. It came about just like any other song - Luther called me up one day and said that he had an idea for a song called, "Dance With My Father." I told him that I loved the title, and we talked about the lyrics and the ideas he had for the song. The back story for that song is that my dad died in 1997, and it was very sudden and very painful because my dad and I were very, very close. The loss was so profound and it kind of sent me reeling for quite some time. One of the only people during that time who knew how to provide any sort of comfort was Luther. He would call me every couple of weeks and we would end up talking for hours. I can't even begin to tell you how much he helped me through that horrible period. Luther also came from a similar but very different situation because his father died when he was only 12. He didn't really get to know his father that well. The most vivid memory that he had of his father was seeing him come home and dance around the kitchen with Luther's mom and all the kids. It's such a sweet visual image. Luther said that he wanted to write a piece of music to remember his father, and asked if I would work on the music and we'd go from there.

I wrote a piece of music that night or the next day, and he took it and changed some stuff around and made it what he wanted, then added these amazing lyrics to it. The thing that's most beautiful about that song is everything that Luther brought to it because it was his story. I remember him saying that he thought that that song was the most important song of his career - he said that that was his "Piano Man." I was just excited that he was so excited about it. Ten days later, he had a massive stroke. He had just finished and recorded the song and then the stroke happened. It was about another year or so before he passed away, but the legacy of that song and what it means to me is so huge. I tried singing the song and I can't, I tried to sing it because I get asked to sing it a lot. It really has meant a lot to a lot of different people. People have adopted it into their lives like they have with several other songs that I've written, which I think is just incredible. But I can't sing that song because it just makes me too sad. Musical relationship notwithstanding, Luther and I were really close friends. I cherish my memories of him. But when I sing that song, it just bums me out too much, but I can and will say that I am extraordinarily proud to have been his collaborator on that song.

MR: You performed that song with Celine Dion on the night of the Grammys the year it won.

RM: Yeah, and Celine's father had passed away not too long before that. It was really hard for her to get through that. Luther was still alive at that point, though he was pretty incapacitated in the hospital. Celine is flawless though, so I went to Vegas to run through the song with her before the show. That particular year at the Grammys, there were a lot of big production numbers featuring Outkast, Earth, Wind & Fire, and 40 different people on stage at the same time. (laughs) Then we came out, very simply, I played the piano and Celine sang. It was really powerful. She really felt the song in her own way because, as I said, her dad had just passed. Simply the fact that I got to play the piano for Celine Dion is a big high point for me.

MR: You've also sung background vocals for Madonna.

RM: Yeah. That was actually one of the many sessions I did before I had a record deal.

MR: And you worked with Richard Carpenter as well, right?

RM: Yeah, I wrote a song with Richard. That was a great experience.

MR: What are some of your favorite Richard Marx hits from over the years.

RM: That's a nearly impossible question for any artist to answer. I've never heard any artist answer that question properly because there's no way to answer that question without denigrating some of the other songs. There's also no song that I've written that I've seen as a part of one of my live set lists and thought, "Oh, God, I can't wait until this song is over," you know? I'm sure that there are songs of mine that random people hate, but I don't have any. There are none that I'm embarrassed by or that represent a low point or anything. Believe me, I've written a ton of really crappy songs but you've never heard them. I'm not going to let anyone listen to anything that I don't think is the best I can do at any given time.

MR: Well, is there a song that you've written that has a particularly special place in your heart or story behind it?

RM: Again, for every song I've written, there are tracks on albums that are just as important or were just as powerful writing processes to me. When I came back from China, a crowd sang every word of "Right Here Waiting" with me; that was really special. Everywhere I go around the world, people know that song. It was very special and personal to me when it was written. Every song has its own story and life, and there isn't one song of mine that I would consider just a song. They all have a point and an origin, you know? They all have their own lives and entities and it's nearly impossible to just pick one out of the bunch.

MR: Do you have anything lined up for the near future besides beginning to work on that full length Christmas album?

RM: Well, I started touring and playing solo and acoustic last year after decades of playing with a band. I did it mainly because it frightened the hell out of me, but I have since found that it's some of the most exciting and rewarding performing that I've ever done. I'm so in love with it. It's almost like finding a new hobby or activity that you really love. Like all those guys who take up golf and then become obsessed with golf, I'm obsessed with my acoustic show. I'm just really enjoying putting all of my energy into all of those shows. I'm doing a bunch more of those shows this year all around the world. In addition to doing the new Christmas album, I'm also doing a new studio album over the summer, and I'm always writing with different people. I just worked with Keith Urban a few months ago, and I'm hoping to work with him again in the future. Beyond that, I don't make huge plans. I just sort of wait and see what happens. I'm actually working on a project later this year with my friend Fee Waybill who is one of the greatest rock performers ever and a brilliant songwriter on some new solo rock songs for him to be able to put out a record. I can't wait to finish that.

MR: Fee Waybill from The Tubes. You'll have to come back and talk with us about that. Well, Richard thanks so much for taking time out of your schedule to chat with us.

RM: Thanks so much for having me, Mike.

Transcribed by Evan Martin