Desmond Child: Hit Songwriter

Interviewed by Michael Laskow:
Live, onstage at the TAXI Road Rally

hit songwriter desmond child
Mega hit songwriter Desmond Child proudly displays the Lifetime Achievement Award presented to him at the 2005 Road Rally. Desmond has written songs for, and/or produced records for such diverse artists as Ricky Martin, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Hanson, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Cher, KISS, Michael Bolton, Alice Cooper, Joan Jett, Robbie Williams, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Tyler, Ronnie Spector, Christina Aguilera, BajaMen, Hilary Duff, LeAnn Rimes, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, and Jesse McCartney, and that's just to name a few.
Congratulations! What an incredible body of work—mind-blowing. What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you want to be a fireman?

No. I just thought that I would be an artist because my mother is a songwriter, and there was always a song being written in our house. I didn't know that people weren't all writing songs or painting or drawing or writing a poem, writing a book—doing something like that. I grew up in an artistic family. I'm half Cuban and half Hungarian. My uncles all danced at the Tropicana in Havana; my aunts were beauty queens; and my mom was the bohemian poet. So I didn't know any different, that people didn't automatically express themselves. So I had that advantage, because I really never ever thought there was any sort of roadblock between me and anything I wanted to express.

What was your life like when you were a kid?

Growing up, my mom and dad weren't together so we grew up in a housing project in Miami. It was difficult circumstances. My mom couldn't really keep a job for long. Her longest job was working at Burger King, and she'd come home at 10:30 at night with some soggy Whoppers and fish sandwiches, and that's what we'd eat—soggy Whoppers. She also spent all her weekends out plugging her songs. She would have demos made; she'd always have a cassette in her pocket, and try to get somebody famous to sing her songs.

How old were you when you began to think about becoming a professional songwriter rather than just a kid who knew he was going to grow up and create?

As chance would have it, one of the things that I did was that I kind of bussed myself over to Miami Beach, where the public schools were like private schools. They had art programs, and all that kind of stuff.

During that period of time I met a girl who was a snowbird, so she'd be down on weekends or during family vacations. Her name is Lisa Wexler and she's Jerry Wexler's daughter. Jerry Wexler was one of the founders of Atlantic Records. He produced all the Aretha Franklin records. He's legendary. I would get invited to have dinner at their home, and I'd be sitting there listening to these conversations about racial issues, politics, the war in Vietnam, the music business and how they envisioned it. So, for many years I was kind of a member of the family. So that's kind of when the bug bit me.

Did you realize how important Jerry Wexler was?

No, I didn't. I just knew him as Lisa's dad. I was lucky because then as time went on, I realized how important he was, but I never once asked him for a favor, never brought my tape to him, or a song. I was too embarrassed because I didn't want them to ever think that I was friendly with them just for the connection.

Who were some of your earliest influences, bands that you listened to, artists that you sang along with as a kid?

Lisa had records before anybody else, and she had the test pressings of records before anyone else heard them. One of the records she played me was Laura Nyro's album The First Songs, which was on Verve/Folkways. And when I heard Laura Nyro's music, it was like everything changed in me. I felt a kindred spirit. I felt like somebody was singing what I felt. I'd of course grown up listening to the Beatles' albums and the Rolling Stones and Traffic and Spooky Tooth. But Laura Nyro's music really touched me. And then of course, I discovered Joni Mitchell. So Laura Nyro was sort of the East Coast, dark Madonna, and Joni Mitchell became the blond California intellectual one. So I've lived creatively between those two writers. They were talking about things that they were going through. It was different than the doo-wop music that was being created by the Brill Building writers. So that really shaped me. I really feel that I made a career out of co-writing with artists, so I try to empathize with them and put myself in their place, and try to draw something out of their spirit and their soul, so I'm helping them to sound like they wrote the songs themselves. Then in that truthfulness—in that collaboration, there's a truthfulness that people find credible. That's what credibility's about.

I remember when you and I had lunch a couple of weeks ago you told me that you were 14 when you wrote your first real song. How often did you write and how much did you pitch before you got your first significant cut?

It took a long time before I got my first cut, but I made my first real demo when I was 17.

How did you make the transition from writing for your own band and for yourself, to writing for other artists?

Well, there was always somebody that I was trying to help, because I was always really good at seeing somebody else all perfect. I also formed my band, Desmond Child & Rouge, and through a series of events, I met Paul Stanley from KISS. We co-wrote a song called "I Was Made for Loving You."

Bon Jovi was opening for KISS in Europe, and the short version is that Jon got my number, called me, and I came into a writing session with a title in my back pocket called "You Give Love a Bad Name." We wrote that song that day in the basement of Richie Sambora's parents' house. That was the beginning of this whole thing where I became the fifth or sixth member of a band and would write whole albums with people. I started a career doing that.

You're almost unique in that sense. You've gone from an act to another act to another act... almost chameleon-like...

Well, there's another name for it: "the oldest profession." (laughs)

When you write, do you write lyrics first? Do you write melody first? Do you go to Jon Bon Jovi and say, "Show me what you've got"? Does he hand you a title and you work from there?

I usually walk in cold. I really have no ideas. Most of the time they walk in cold too.

Is there a guitar and a piano in the room and you just start noodling until something pops out?

We start talking. We talk about concepts and sometimes something somebody says triggers something. I don't know, when it's time to work, it's time to work. And I poise my mind and my intuition, my psychic abilities, everything I've got to deliver. It becomes a sacred space and I can concentrate and totally be 100% with whomever I'm with at that moment. Nothing else will exist.

I really owe much of my discipline to Bob Crewe, a famous songwriter and a great teacher. He taught me so much. And I still use much of what he taught me, like labeling every cassette, every title, every idea, and then the next one, and the next one. Then they all go inside a plastic folder, and that gets put into the file cabinet with all the writing notes. Then the next time I meet with that same writer, we pull out that same thing and they're right there in the same space.

Usually the mornings are when I take care of my kids and exercise and make business calls and all that. Then I meet whoever my songwriting partner is at noon. At 12:30 we have lunch. Then we go back up to my office and the process starts again, and by 6:00 there's something happening. Luckily, Rosemary, my assistant, is there to type out the lyrics. She keeps bringing them in, I correct them. They go back out to Rosemary, back in again. That's the way it is. One could say, "Well, is that a machine? Is that a factory? Is there something that's kind of inartistic about the process?" But I studied for a long time with an acting coach and she really explained to me how you get into the creative space, how you get into the creative moment. And the moment is really timeless. You can really get in it anytime you decided to.

You're able to conjure it up?

Wherever. It can be in a hotel room on vacation somewhere, wherever. When it's time to work, it's a seriousness, it's a sacred space. So to me I don't find that a commercialization. I find it almost like a ritual or a religion of songwriting.

It's obviously more productive than just waiting for the muse to show up.

It wouldn't show up for me unless I had a writing session. That's why I very rarely write by myself.

So, you're actually causing the muse to show up. It's cool that you do that.

You just have to set up shop and you have to decide that you're gonna be doing this for real. All of this kind of bohemian disorganized stuff... When I hear of people with writer's block, it's just like, "What?" I don't get it. Maybe it's because I grew up so poor. I don't get not being able to be productive... hey, now it's time to work.

When you start a song, do you always finish it? How many do you throw away?

I always finish a song.

How many do you write in a year?

I don't know. Because you see, there's another side to it—being a producer ties up my time, big time. I'm getting ready to produce Bat Out of Hell 3 with Meatloaf, and more than half of those songs will be Jim Steinman's songs. I've been furiously trying to write songs to get on the record myself. So just in this last week I have five songs going in the last 20 days that I'm in the midst of—and also doing the demos of—and hoping that everyone will love them because it's a big committee that's deciding what songs go on this record.

How are you able to go from doing a Cher or Hilary Duff project to a project like Meatloaf's Rock anthems?

First of all, it's making a commitment to be an artist. An artist can swim to many shores, as Picasso once said. So to me, it's being in the moment, dealing with the cards that are on the table and trying to make the most out of the moment. You can't push somebody to be something that they're not. So you have to do something that's clever and hip in context with who they are. To me it's, "Who is this person in front of me? What is their archetype? What is their skill level? What are they able to do?" I stay very focused on being in the moment.

And how do you stay fresh and current?

Because creativity is endless. You can take one song and tear it apart and come up with thousands of other variations that can go in that same spot of a song. Or you can write 50 bridges to the same song. Sometimes you have to keep changing, but what I'm trying to say to you is that, if you're in the moment, then you're always fresh because there's right now only, and you're dealing with the cards you have on the table. [applause]

Let's talk about writing in traditionally accepted song forms. You're a classic Pop constructionist most of the time. Notice that I didn't say 'conformist.' How important is writing in song "form"?

The way to think about it is like what I was talking about before. Is there tension and release in the song? You can see it in a film or a play. I'm writing a Broadway musical now. It's called Jazz Age. It's about Paris in 1925, which is my favorite period of all time. People were truly really inventing the world every day and they didn't even know it—in every genre.

Working on this project has reminded me that Broadway has certain conventions, and if certain things aren't happening, that show's gonna be a flop. The main character has to have their "I want" song, and things have to happen by the end of Act One. These are all things that are tried and true, and they go all the way back to Greek theater, because of the way our minds think, and the way our minds can follow a story line across time.

So, in a four-minute song, the person listening to it, has to be satisfied by the time they get to the end. Of course, there are the conventions of tension and release, and of density versus silence or softness. All of that kind of stuff adds up to the satisfaction at the end of a song as to whether it's a good song or not. So when you're in the moment—it's sort of like riding a bike—you feel it going off. You're in the middle of writing a song, you go, "This is getting boring." You write four lines, then you repeat those four lines, but by the end of the sixth line you go, "Alright already." So then you write a transition to the next part, and it might just be one line. You do it because you are starting to feel the tension and the release. Some melodies you can hammer away and hammer away and you don't get sick of it. Other things don't have that kind of shelf life, ideas or melodies. In that moment you have to decide how you're going to keep the interest of, not only yourself, but anyone else who's ever going to buy the song and have it with them forever.

The people in this room today are aspiring writers of various levels, from beginners up to very accomplished. What piece of sage advice can you give to them that has been your touchstone that has made you so damn good?

Well, you know, of course I had the advantage that my mother is a great songwriter. Diane Warren didn't have that. No one in her family is artistic, and she's one of the greatest songwriters of all time. So, it's like this; if music is your passion, you have to commit to it totally. You have to do it for real. You can't just show up with a guitar and think that it's all going to work out for you.

To me an artist is somebody who's looking out at life and bringing in all that they see, that they are really thirsty to see, and see everything. You bring it into yourself and your own self-conscience will turn it into art. So then when you start to write, and you allow the flow to happen, you'll be reflecting what is going on in the world, what is going on with your friends, the state of where we're at in the moment. That's why styles are changing. Styles don't change arbitrarily just because somebody decided to add a disco beat. It's because that beat is reflecting something in the pulse of that time.

If you're an artist, you're committed to being an artist. That's number one. Number two is that you have to go into this as a business and seriously do this as a career. You have to come well armed. What do you need? How are you gonna make your demos? Who's gonna make them for you? Are you gonna make them yourself or are you going to pay somebody to make them? What's your skill level? Of course, that's after you have a great song to demo. But the process of making a song requires that you have to completely commit to that song. So you can't just accept the fact that, "Hey, you know what? I had a really good line here, and the next line's not so great, but that line is so good that maybe..." No! Every vertical moment of a song is important, so don't give up. Keep at it until you come up with something that's really good, not just something that's as good as. Like my idols in 1925 in Paris, every day they woke up and invented something that had never been done before. Shoot for that—without being nutty.

It sounds like you treat this whole thing with a tremendous sense of responsibility for the quality of the overall product. You're not just writing songs to make money. You care more about the song it seems than the money or success that comes from it.

Well, my fear of being poor drives me to be excellent. [laughter and applause]

Do you ever stop to think about the fact that millions of people will still be enjoying music you wrote decades, maybe hundreds of years after you've gone? If so, how does that affect you?

Well, maybe I don't think that my songs are really on that level. I've never been one to win Grammys, because I write kind of street music for the people, and for that moment. I guess maybe "Livin' on a Prayer" or "Livin' La Vida Loca" could be considered part of our vernacular for our time. But I don't know if my songs will stand the test of time. I feel like I'm just beginning to create great work. But time goes by, right? A lot of things change, and tastes change. Maybe people won't need my songs later because the people of that time will have their own songwriters, you know? But I think that if I could be remembered as somebody that stood up for truth, somebody that stood up for artistry, for being an artist, for creating in the moment—that would make me happy. These are skills and words that I don't hear a lot of people talking about today. I would hope that I could impart that kind of thirst for life in the process of creativity. Maybe that would be more useful or more important than the actual couple of songs I wrote.

I was going to ask you what sage advice you'd pass on to your own sons, but I think you just answered the question. So with that, let me say thank you and congratulations once again on being the recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award, and for having such an amazing career. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Desmond Child! [standing ovation from the audience]

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