Desmond Child celebrates 30 years as an ASCAP member and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame
Desmond Child in 1978, the year he joined ASCAP
Desmond Child has a great laugh. It is heartfelt, energetic and infectious. The same could be said for his career and his commitment to his craft. As a songwriter and producer, Child has spent more than two decades as one of the music industry's most successful creative forces, racking up over 70 Top 40 singles while generating a mind-boggling 300-million-plus albums sold worldwide. His collaborators have been some of the biggest names in music – KISS, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, Diane Warren, Cher, Ricky Martin and more, and with them Child has created some of the most popular and enduring music of our time. As Child celebrates his 30th anniversary as an ASCAP member, he remains as in-demand and ambitious as ever, working recently with Kelly Clarkson, Meatloaf (Desmond produced Bat Out of Hell III, Hilary Duff, Joss Stone and his old pals Bon Jovi while also pursuing exciting new projects in musical theatre, film and TV. On June 19th, the Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted Child into its prestigious ranks. It was another big night in his extraordinary career, and he celebrated the special occasion by reuniting and performing with his original band, Desmond Child and Rouge. From his Nashville home, Child recently spoke with Playback’s Erik Philbrook by phone about his art, his great collaborations, his passionate commitment to the music community and his current projects.
Your mother was a songwriter. How did her experience as an artist affect your approach to music?
I didn't know that not everyone just gets up in the morning and starts writing a song about how they feel and what they're going through. That’s what I grew up with. I would sit on the floor next to the piano where my mother would be songwriting, and eventually, once I understood words, I started to make suggestions on the lyrics that she was writing (laughs). Then as soon as I could climb up on the piano bench, I started imitating and writing these long concertos that would start one place and end completely somewhere else. The next day I'd go and practice again and I'd play the same melody. So it wasn't just random improvisation. I also grew up in the age of the Beatles. So the concept of a band writing their own songs was just part of my makeup.
Do you remember when you wrote your first song?
I wrote my first song when I was 14 in junior high - my first pop song. I never looked back. I just kept writing and writing and writing.
You must have had a certain insight into good song structure. Especially having a mother that was a songwriter
I think it was instinctual. I just would feel the emotion. A song is an expression of emotion. I liken it to when somebody is telling you about something terrible that happened and then all of a sudden they make it a little more intense, and then all of a sudden they just start boo-hooing (laughs). That’s how it works in pop songwriting. You know, there's the verse that's usually short little phrases, and then comes a little bit more emotional intensity in the transition towards the chorus, and then when the chorus comes in, it’s all hell breaks loose. That matches human communication, emotional communication. That’s why I always tell my students, or the artists that work for me that are training, that if you're not feeling it at every vertical moment, if you're not feeling a feeling, then you're not doing anything, because that vertical moment of a song when there's nothing going on or a feeling carrying through between phrases, and it's completely dead, the audience will turn off and they'll switch stations.
Tell me about your Cuban musical heritage
My uncle married the most famous singer in Cuba, alongside Celia Cruz. Her name is Olga Guillot. She's made 87 albums in her life. There's an Olga Guillot Boulevard as part of Calle Ocho in Miami. She was honored this year by the Latin Grammys with the Lifetime Achievement Award. She was like the Judy Garland of Cuba. She sang with Piaf. She sang with Nat King Cole. Her opening act was Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin when she played the Stork Club when she was 16 years old. She was also the first Hih1ic woman to get her own solo show at Carnegie Hall. My uncle was a singer in a singing group, Los Corsarios, that sang in five-part harmony. They sang at the Tropicana and all the best clubs in Havana. He was still performing when they left Cuba after the revolution. So, I grew up in a show business family.
What happened after you moved to the states?
When we hit Miami, we were very poor and we lived in the projects, but we always had a piano. My mother would spend the little money that we had getting arrangements done of her songs, and then she would go with a demo cassette down to the nightclubs on the weekends. She'd always have her music with her. If she saw an artist, she would run up and give them her new song. She had a lot of cuts but made no money.
When I was 14 years old, I met Lisa Wexler, who was a snowbird girl who was going to boarding school in Massachusetts. Then she would come down to Miami with her parents. Her dad, Jerry Wexler, was making a lot of records at Criteria Studios. And I would go and hang out, and we'd be in her room, and she actually played me the music of Laura Nyro before it ever came out. From that moment on I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.
Was Jerry able to help you in any way?
I didn't tell him about my ambitions because I was very shy. Lisa would have to pull me away fromthe dinner table every night where Jerry would be with Ahmet Ertegun and Arif Marden and Tom Dowd. Dowd would give me rides back to my house in the projects where I lived, in Liberty City.
Despite being shy, you obviously were driven to go pursue this as your career.
Well, I’ve always felt I had both ambition and integrity in me. I never wanted Lisa to feel, as my friend, that I was using her to get somewhere. So I never went to Atlantic, never went to Jerry and played that card. Now, looking back, I realize how dumb I was, because I could have gone to Jerry and said, “Can I be your assistant?” He would have let me hang out at the studio. I just didn't know to do that. But I made it anyway. Although just imagine all the Aretha Franklin sessions I missed.
Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Desmond Child and Steven Tyler
I’ve heard you say that for the most part your songs develop out of the creation of a title or a single idea, but that earlier in your career you didn't quite write that way. How did you develop your best approach?
Originally I would write songs by just playing chords and singing melodies and kind of mumbling along, hoping that the melody would speak out of some rhythmic sequence that sounded like certain words that I could then string together andmake sense out of it. I notice that a lot of people now writing to tracks do that. That’s the complete opposite of what I was taught by Bob Crewe, who was my mentor for two years. We wrote 38 songs in that period of time.
I already had hits with my group Desmond Child and Rouge. After we broke up, the idea was that Bob and I would write songs together to make a solo record for me. He had an apartment in Manhattan where he lived, but he had a separate apartment on the other side of town, on West 56th Street, that was just for songwriting. We'd meet at a little restaurant called Coq au Vin for its lunch special. That was at noon. And then by 1 o'clock we'd be sitting at the piano, and we would go until 6pm, and that would be the end of it – with very few breaks.
There was only a piano, a piano bench and this stool that had arms on it. There was no couch. There was no armchair. And that's what I did for two years, Monday through Friday, without fail.
Sounds like that was your boot camp.
That was boot camp, because he taught me to come up with a concept for the song first. Come up with a title. Come up with a reason to open your mouth and sing. He also taught me that the music is a slave to the lyric, that the music is the score to the script. First you have the actors act and then you score behind them. That's the reason why in a song like “Livin' La Vida Loca,” you'll hear that there are alot of bells and whistles that are emphasizing what the lyrics are saying.
The perfect example: Going into the second verse, where it says, "Woke up in New York City in a funky cheap hotel" – it opens with a gong. And the gong indicates kind of like waking up in Chinatown somewhere with beaded curtains and incense.
To me the lyric indicates the orchestration. It dictates the style. It dictates everything. Once I started writing that way, I started really having a lot of hits (laughs) – not just a hit here and there. It also helped me to help artists to express themselves. Because after getting to know artists and getting them to tell me the story of their life, then I would pull from that the things that I felt instinctually needed to be said – for their own sake.
I was writing a song just this week, and where the song was going was negative. I told my co-writer – he's a young, upcoming songwriter – we can't have an artist keep saying that. If the song's a hit, then for the rest of the artist’s life he’ll be saying this negative thing that then will be reinforced in his own subconscious, and he’ll fail.
We don't want our artists to fail. We want them to think that they're winners. I learned that from KISS, because, you know, when I'd be writing KISS songs, I wouldn't understand why Paul would say, “I could never sing that,” because the characters in KISS always have to be winners. They can't be losers.
And so that applied then to Bon Jovi and to Aerosmith. The only exceptions are Alice Cooper and Meatloaf, because their characters are such monsters that they have to fail to be punished for their evildoings (laughs).
Desmond Child, Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi in the studio
One of your earliest collaborations with Paul Stanley of KISS was “I Was Made for Loving You.” At the time, that was, stylistically, quite a different song for them. Your influence, I assume.
I have to take credit for that because, you know, the music that I was making at the time with Desmond Child and Rouge was kind of foreshadowing the mixture of dance and pop and rock that happened in the '80s. That was also the advent of machine drums. So the whole concept of a kind of mechanical march that was danceable with rock guitars over it was a fusion that drew me in. There was a lot of resistance. But they listened to me, and it became one of their biggest-selling hits of all time.
Was that a game changer for you in your career?
Well, it was the number one song all over the world. And so for me, yes, all of a sudden it wasn't just me being an artist. I started to get a whole different kind of respect.
That success created a kind of career that many people after me jumped on, because before that time guys in bands did not write with outside writers. They wrote with producers or maybe their girlfriend. Paul Stanley was generous enough to invite me in, and that created a career for me.
So then Jon Bon Jovi, with his band Bon Jovi, were touring in Europe, opening for KISS. Paul recommended that they co-write with me. Jon called and we got together, and on the very first day we wrote “You Give Love a Bad Name.”
Obviously, your collaboration with Jon and Richie Sambora has been so prolific and successful. Why do you think it's been such an enduring relationship?
Well, I think there's chemistry between the three of us, and individually between us as well. When the three of us get together, it's fun, and everybody takes their position. And it really works.
It’s also about loyalty and friendship, because those guys are the most loyal people in the business that I've ever experienced. For the most part, everybody that is with them are the same people that were there from the beginning.
That is an amazing accomplishment, especially in the music industry
That's their strength. We have a relationship based on truth, which is something that was a big topic in our discussions from the very beginning.
When you collaborate with them, do you literally sit in a room and say, “okay, what
ideas do you have, what are you feeling?”
Yeah. Sometimes Richie and I have gotten together ahead of time and done some starts to present to Jon. Sometimes Richie and Jon have done starts that they present to me. And sometimes we start thinking about things, start playing. We can get in a creative zone instantly together, and then we're in the moment, creating. There's a flow between our minds, and our subconscious batteries are hooked into each other.
I have that kind of soulful relationship with other people as well, but the relationship with Jon and Richie is something that we are very proud of, as well as the fact that our songs, particularly “Livin' on a Prayer,” have endured and have become anthems for two generations now. Working on a third.
Bon Jovi's success then led you to Aerosmith.
Yes, because John Kalodner, who was working with Cher and Aerosmith, saw the success of Bon Jovi. He brought me in to work with Cher. And I brought Jon and Richie in. We did a couple of songs that we co-produced for her together and wrote for her – like “We All Sleep Alone.” I had a very good relationship with Kalodner, who really was a visionary. He insisted that Aerosmith meet me. So I went there, and it was initially a chilly reception. They did not want it at all.
You mean they didn't want to work with an outside writer?
No. They didn't. And particularly one that had success with another band (laughs).
But I was just so different because I wasn't like a rock ‘n' roll person. I also think me being gay kind of helped. I wasn't a threat and they could feel good with me being around their wives, talking about decorating and all this kind of stuff. I was able to lend a different kind of advice. Also, because ofmy experience in the gay culture I come from, I was able to help them with “Dude (Looks like a Lady).” Because they were going to call it “Cruisin' for the Ladies.”
That’s an instance where your title alone is a grabber.
Well, the title was the original title of Steven Tyler’s improvisation, because their song initially came about because they had gone to some club and they had seen Vince Neil at the bar. Steven was making fun of him and said, “you know, hey, that dude looks like a lady.”
Then he started going, “dude, dude looks like a lady. Dude looks like a lady.” That's a case where the rhythm engendered the track. On their own they said, “Oh, well, we can't sing, dude looks like a lady. That's crazy. What does that mean?” So then they changed it to "cruisin’ for the ladies." And then I came in and changed it back.
Killer song. Let’s talk about another: “Livin' La Vida Loca.” You lived in Miami and you were surrounded by h1ish-American mixes of music and language. But for the greater populace, that song really spearheaded a whole h1ish crossover in music
Well, it was two songs. The first song was “The Cup of Life,” which Ricky Martin sang at the Grammys. We had written that as the World Cup theme. It was Number One in 22 countries but really hadn’t taken off here. Then his performance at the Grammys was really the bomb that launched the Latin music explosion. If you think about it, there would not be a Latin Grammys today had there not been that performance.
It's fun that I have been a part of three major movements. One is the KISS song, which brought dance music to rock. Then the next one was when I helped Bon Jovi bring singer-songwriter storytelling to heavy metal music. Thanks to my training with Bob Crewe, I made sure that all the inner rhyming was tight in the songs, which helped the songs endure. Then, bringing all the experience I had with KISS, Bon Jovi and also Desmond Child and Rouge, which had Latin beats and horns and all of that back in the '70s...to Ricky Martin.
Ricky Martin and Desmond Child
What was the origin of "Livin' La Vida Loca?"
That was a request from Angelo Medina, Ricky's manager at the time, who asked me
to write a h1glish song, something that had h1ish words and English words. And it really was difficult because I speak h1ish fluently, but to have it be something that an ordinary English-speaking-only American citizen would understand, I pretty much had the Taco Bell menu to choose from (laughs). You know, in terms of words, “pollo loco,” which is kind of where I got the word “loco.” And so then I started thinking about pollo loco, pollo loco. Livin' la vida loca. And that's where I got it.
It’s funny. At the time, the head of the record company asked, after he heard the song, “oh, sounds great, but can you do it in English now?” And it's, like, it is in English. And so, if you saw the first Billboard ad of “Livin' La Vida Loca,” he insisted on putting underneath, "(Livin' the Crazy Life)."
I do remember seeing that
We knew that there were a lot of crossover Latin projects in the works, like Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony. We also sort of got right in there with Santana, which wasn't really what we were doing, because Santana was bluesy and more rock-oriented. This was really bringing the tropical sound back.
Nothing had happened like this since Gloria Estefan, and that was 15 years before. So all those years had gone on and nothing had crossed over until Ricky Martin. And then that gave people the idea to sign Enrique Iglesias, and on and on. It continues to this day. Look at Shakira. Had there not been a Ricky Martin, there would not have been a Shakira.
Now, you've also written material for some of the American Idol breakout performers. What's your feeling about the show in general?
You know what? I love it, and I was on board from the very beginning. I produced one of Kelly Clarkson's first singles, “Before Your Love.” And then later on I worked with Clay Aiken, I worked with Fantasia, I worked with Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice. And this year I produced Ace Young, and we're getting ready to release his record in July.
I love it. You know why? Because in an age when music programs have been stripped from our public schools and private schools, and only the rich who can affordmusic lessons and instruments for their children after school, at home or in academies, are the only ones that are getting music education, I think Idol is doing a hell of a job informing people on the great American songbook.
The whole thing is like a global village. There's the audience. There's the stage. There are the lights. It’s like it brings us into a primordial place where the town talent gets up and belts one out. I love that. I think that in the absence of a culture of collecting music, of collecting albums, and in an absence of music education, we're getting to hear the songs of Broadway. We're getting to hear the songs of the Beatles. They're telling the young people who the Beatles are.
I love that answer
You know when Prince performed on American Idol, that was it. The gauntlet was down and every - anybody cool, from Gwen Stefani to Maroon 5, could be on the show.
In addition to being a songwriter, you're also a producer and a publisher. Why did you take on these other roles?
Being a producer helps to guarantee my songs on records – that's from the business side – and it also helps to get them, from the creative stance, to turn out better, or at least they turn out like they please me better when I'm producing them. It's frustrating when you hear something and you go, well, that's so lackluster. And I think sometimes producers that are producing songs that they did not write maybe aren't giving it the spit and polish that they would if they had written the song.
What are you working on now?
I'm going through a transition because, you know, with children, I have to be home. I also need, at this point in my life, to create works with longer arcs. So I am working on Broadway musicals. I'm working on an animated motion picture. I'm working on television shows about songwriting. I'm starting to get traction here and there. I have a lot of ideas for musical films and I'm developing treatments for those and, and going out and pitching
So the last six months I've spent very little time writing and 90 percent of my time out there pitching, hoping to get traction. The world now belongs to people that can do it all themselves, those who are intriguing artists, that can write songs and, with a small group of people, produce records on the cheap in their home studios and get their music out to people on a grassroots level.
It's happening. And you know what? If you own your own music and you sell 250,000 copies, you've just made a million bucks. That's not so bad – instead of being unrecouped a million bucks (laughs).
Child at the first-ever ASCAP "I Create Music" Expo in 2006
Well, the possibilities are there now and growing
I'm just hoping that the powers that be protect those possibilities. I've gone to Washington to fight for songwriters' rights, for copyright protection. It's unbelievable that there’s even a question, when we live in what is supposed to be the most inventive country in the history of mankind, that if somebody creates something that it doesn't belong to them. I mean, it's so crazy. So, I'm involved in that way to help pave the way for the future.
Further to that, I wanted to mention your participation in ASCAP's “I Create Music” EXPO, because obviously ASCAP is trying to respond to the changing nature of the business by developing more businesssavvy songwriters. And you've been so generous with your time and talent at all three EXPOs. What do you enjoy about participating?
I just love the energy that I get from the young people that are there. And the people thatmade the effort to come to the EXPO are the ones that are the winners, because they made the effort to come. They didn't just read about it. They showed up. They put up whatever they had to put up to be an active participant. They're going to absorb the information. It feels so good to feel an audience responding.
I always try to talk shop and reveal what’s behind the scenes and how it really is, because, from the outside, the business could look a certain way. And so I like telling them what it takes.
It’s astounding that people don't understand that this is a business, like starting a vegetable stand. You know, that guy that starts a vegetable stand, you know what? He's going to have to buy those refrigerators. He's going to have to print a sign.
Some people think that you can just bang a song out on an old acoustic guitar sitting on your back porch, and that is as much expense as you have to put into it. So I tell people, set this up as a business. Find a place to do your music that is a businesslike atmosphere. Get business cards. Get a website. Get a fax machine. Spend time on the phone hooking up with people and keeping your relationships alive. Show up to everything. Connect and mingle and talk to people and be interested in what other people are doing. When other people perform, show up and make sure they know that you came.
I've done a lifetime of that. It never stops. I love the showcase in L.A. at a place called Mark's – called Upright Cabaret. I saw the most astounding singer there – Spencer Day. I just can't believe that he's not signed. It’s just killing me. He writes the most incredible songs, sings better than I've heard anybody sing. I make myself go to these things and then, once I'm there, I'm so happy to see new talent, and I'm re-inspired.
I have a friend who is a publicist, and he's well into his 80s. He was there giving his business card out (laughing). That's the whole thing. It's like those of us in music are so blessed that we're in something like this that has emotion and spiritually and humanistic values attached to it.
This year marks your 30th Anniversary as an ASCAP member. What does ASCAP mean to you?
I love being a member, and my friends at ASCAP are just incredible. Brendan Okrent. Loretta Muñoz. Karen Sherry. John LoFrumento. Marilyn Bergman. These people have stuck with me through thick and thin. They've supported me. They've helped me. They've backed me. I just love all the things that they do. I was also just recently approached to create the Desmond Child Foundation through ASCAP’s Foundation.
What will it do?
We're coming up with a program that's going to help up-and-coming music creators. We have a lot of different ideas about how that should look. I told them, well, hey, can I have it be like specific to Cuban gay songwriters from Miami Beach? (laughs).
You're being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. What does this particular honor mean to you?
This is the highest honor for songwriters. I'm just so excited and proud. And I will use this title and this membership to really help to promote all the good things that we've talked about. People do stand up and listen if you're a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Suddenly, it's different.